Fat biking a challenging, but popular, addition
The new winter sport is rising in rentals and sales
March 17, 2017
Fat-tire biking is a growing craze on the winter trails in Park City and its surrounding areas. If there's good snow and it's a nice day outside, chances are that someone with a fat bike, essentially a mountain bike on steroids with its four-inch wide tires, is out and about.
Despite having a plethora of trails to share in Park City, fat biking has ruffled some feathers of others in the winter sport community.
"It's having an effect on the trails locally, especially winter-use trails," Executive Director of the Mountain Trails Foundation Charlie Sturgis said. "The skier-biker interface is new and proven to be challenging."
Fat biking is still relatively new. It's easy to see the draw for local athletes, especially mountain bikers. Essentially, the new sport allows cyclists to continue their choice of exercise throughout the winter months. The fat tires make it easier to gain traction in the snow and it's grown in popularity in the last three years.
Todd Henneman, who owns Storm Cycles in Kimball Junction, said that while this year didn't see a huge jump in fat bike rentals or sales, the sport still kept them busy. This is the store's third year in existence, so it's seen the effects of the sport firsthand.
"The first winter, we sold a few, but last winter — our second winter — it went up a bunch," Henneman said. "We sold quite a few and we also supported it with rentals. This winter has kind of been in line with the previous winter. Not like a massive jump, but we sold a similar amount of bikes."
Part of this is due to the abundance of snow that graced Park City this season. While decent snowfall makes for excellent fat biking conditions, it also creates opportunities for solid skiing. Since the winter sports draw similar crowds, Henneman believes that most chose to head to the slopes instead of the trails this winter.
The snow, though, allowed Mountain Trails to create a fat-bike-specific trail at Round Valley so that users could head there instead of the ski trails. While some have used it, it hasn't completely kept fat bikers and Nordic skiers apart.
In fact, the Nordic skiing community, though not all of it, has had some issues with fat bikers these last few seasons. According to Chris Magerl, the trails and grooming board member at The Utah Nordic Alliance (TUNA) for the last 15 years, it all depends on the snow.
"The issue is that snow is very dynamic," Magerl said. "It's constantly changing. There are times a fat bike can be out and do virtually no damage to the trail. And there’s other times when fat biking with a four-inch tire can leave a wide, weaving trench right down the middle of the track that makes it unsafe for any Nordic skier."
For Magerl, it's simple: if you're leaving a trench or rut, go somewhere else. Not only can it make it unsafe for cross-country skiers, or even other bikers, it can have long-lasting effects on the trail itself.
And the bikers agree.
"There's an optimal time to ride one and there's times where you probably don't want to go out because it's going to be a struggle and it won't be any good," Henneman said.
So do those at Mountain Trails.
"Our slogan is, 'Ruts Suck,'" Sturgis said. "If you leave a rut, it's detrimental to any number of things, whether that's creating erosion or whether it's dangerous for an intermediate skier. A ski track isn't dangerous for the biker, but the bike track is dangerous for the skier."
Everyone seems to believe that all of the winter sports, including fat biking, can coincide. Mountain Trails has installed signs on some of its trails to guide fat-tire bikers to specific trails, but sometimes, that's not enough. A little extra work is needed from all parties.
It starts with the shops, like Storm Cycles. For each person that either buys or rents a fat bike, a simple solution to the problem would be to provide them with information about proper etiquette before making the sale final. Henneman and company have been doing so with their customers, but there's a group of people interested in the new craze coming up from the Salt Lake Valley that may not get that same orientation.
"We definitely see a lot of bikes coming out of Salt Lake and we feel like people are picking them up and showing up with really no idea what the etiquette is," Sturgis said. "We're going to make an effort next fall to work with some of the Salt Lake dealers."
The fat-tire biking community also needs to step up. Magerl, who is also an avid cyclist, likened the situation to when mountain biking was up-and-coming back in the day. There was a lot of pushback to stay off of the trails, but thanks to the mountain biking advocates, it's now welcome in the community.
It starts with creating fat-bike-specific trails. While there is one at Round Valley, the area needs more.
"I think people will think it's fairly dull to ride on the ski trail when they can ride on single track," Magerl said. "Fat-bike-specific trails really aren't fun and aren’t appropriate for skiers, so skiers won't be on them. But that's going to require the fat biking community helping to fund that, helping to build those, helping maintain those and helping to educate riders that this is the fun place to be."
In addition to all of these things that the community can do, there's another simple answer that all can agree with: time.
"The intended ski areas, though, are not for ski only," Sturgis said. "They're for everybody to use. Like everything, just like educating walkers to stay on side of track and not in classic lanes or reeling your dog in as skiers move towards you, all those things take a little bit of time. We'll improve with various types of educational messaging that we try to put out there and that other groups put out there. It takes time."
That said, Magerl wants to warn those in the fat biking community to heed all of the advice that is already out there. Even though a majority of a group might understand the rules and etiquette, all it takes is one person to ruin the fun for all.
"Unfortunately, there are some people who just don't care about any other user," Magerl said. "They don't care that they’re messing it up or making it unsafe for everyone else. There are a few bad apples."
The end goal? Everyone gets to have fun enjoying the sport that they love.
"It's a good thing to remind people that the management policy, for Round Valley particularly, is non-motorized recreational use," Sturgis said. "That means all these groups are welcome to join in together and they've just got to be cognizant of all the people in the sandbox. Some of us show up with different toys, but we all have a right to have a good time."