Fat biking craze finds its new mecca in the Northland

Trails in the Cable-Hayward area attract more than a thousand fat tire enthusiasts of various skill and experience levels to the area each year.

 

Fat tire biking, or fat biking, has ballooned out of the fad frenzy of kooky contraptions built for Alaska’s Iditabike race almost 35 years ago. Now a legitimate sport, its passionate participants flock to the renowned Upper Midwest trails – bringing fat business with them. 

The history of riding a bicycle atop snow goes back to the late 1980s, as mountain bikers modified their rides to adapt to snowy conditions and began racing in Alaska on dog sled and snowmobile trails.

Gary Sjoquist, co-founder of the Minnesota Cycling Association, is regarded in many circles as the godfather of mountain biking. His 21-year career with Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the largest distributor of bicycle parts in the United States, uniquely positioned him to observe the sport’s growth. QBP owns bike manufacturer Surly, which eventually built the first mass-marketed fat bike and brought the sport to the forefront. As a 2012 inductee into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, Sjoquist has closely followed the growth of fat biking from its inception. 

The distinction between a mountain bike and a fat bike, Sjoquist said, is all about the tires. Fat bike tires are up to five inches wider, with very low air pressure adjusted to the conditions. “They can float on top of compacted snow or ice. The ride is much slower without things like jumps. It’s more earthbound.”

Events like the Norpine Fat Bike Classic in Lutsen draws around 500 participants; Hayward’s Fat Bike Birkie attracts 1,000 riders. Sjoquist said the sport is an opportunity for smaller communities with wilderness surroundings to attract outdoor recreationalists. “These races equal heads-in-beds. It’s a great economic driver.”

Fat biking gives cross-country skiers another option and draws people to visit areas that have both types of trails. Fat bike snow condition requirements are more forgiving than cross-country skiing, and Sjoquist and his wife often travel with their cross-country skis and fat bikes, alternating between the two depending on the snow conditions. “If the snow is right for skiing, we do that,” he said, “but if (the snow) is a little less desirable, our clothing gear is the same so we just pull out the fat bikes.”

In Northeastern Minnesota, the new Split Rock Wilds trail system opened this fall. Mountain bikers have reported a challenging, rocky ride on the trails developed by Lake County, adjacent to the Split Rock State Park.

Lake County Land Commissioner Nate Eide said that while there are no definite plans in place to groom the trail system for winter riding, “it’s been kicked around as a possibility.”

Grooming the trail for winter riding depends on several unknowns, including the level of demand and amount of snow. On such a rocky grade, Eide said, there has to be a generous amount of snow to pack the trails. As far as demand goes, there has already been more interest than anticipated.

“The Wilds,” developed for a greater technical challenge instead of the more common “flow” trails, is in a class of its own, said Eide, a major fat biking fan. “I’ve not had anything to push me to this level,” he said. “A lot of people even from Duluth are looking for that next level.”

Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club is undergoing rebranding as it expands to include more fat biking experiences. Ely’s Hidden Valley trail system completed a major project this year with seven miles of single-track trails. “This design is like a dream come true, designed to flow naturally like taking a roller coaster ride on your bike. It’s a whole different animal,” said Brett Ross, board chair for the club and a year-round biker. The club has a single-track snow groomer already on order. 

Visitors have been clamoring for more fat bike trails, Ross said. “People pull up all the time with their fat bikes on car racks, and we have had to turn them away. This is absolutely going to help with winter tourism. … Tourist demand is what is driving it.”

Hidden Valley’s Skinny Fat race will have its fourth run this February, combining a “skinny” 10-kilometer ski followed by a “fat” 10-20km fat bike race. As it grows every year, Ross is convinced the race is the perfect blend of what winter tourists are looking for. “This is already a huge destination for Nordic and cross-country skiers, and the biking community who come up from the Twin Cities.”

In Northwestern Wisconsin, smaller communities like Cable, Hayward and Seeley have worked hard to build winter bike tourism.

Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) operations director Bert Jackson said its 70 miles of groomed fat bike winter trails are ever-growing in popularity. The group celebrates Global Fat Bike Day on Dec. 4 at the Seeley trailhead with guided rides, and its annual Big Fat race is scheduled for January 2022.

On her frequent outdoor adventure trips to Montana, Jackson said the buzz around fat biking frequently is about Wisconsin trails. “It’s amazing. When people think of fat biking, they think of Wisconsin as being one of the best places to go,” she said. 

As a Nordic skier and warm-weather cyclist, Jackson said she finds great appeal in fat biking now that she’s over age 50. “It’s a completely different experience with different kinds of challenges. It feels calmer, quieter and more peaceful.”

Chris Young, co-owner of Hayward’s New Moon Ski & Bike Shop, said the sport has matured and is finding its “sweet spot.” 

“When it blew up in the Upper Midwest around 2012, nobody could keep up with it. Now with the rapid evolution of grooming techniques and more winter-friendly trails, it is accessible and user-friendly.”

Young echoed the sentiment that Northeast Minnesota, Northwest Wisconsin and parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are the new mecca of fat biking. 

“We are the lucky ones having regular access to trails with snow.” That access is what takes the sport from amazing to downright remarkable, he said. “The idea of riding your bike on a sidewalk of snow with branches just inches from your handlebars is magical – there’s nothing like it.”

Though home of “The Birkie,” the largest cross-country ski race in North America, the Cable-Hayward area is not resting on its cross-country laurels. According to Kate Barido, marketing and communication director for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation, the Fat Bike Birkie – including the Big Fat, Half Fat and Fun Fat –expect more than 1,000 racers at the ninth annual event in March 2022.

Fat biking in the Cable-Hayward area offers a unique blend of experiences many are looking for in weekend getaway outdoor adventures. Hospitality and lodging businesses in remote locations with good trail access will benefit from these new tourists. Said Barido, “Gen Zers are looking for healthy travel options where there is good food, they can get a good workout in, and (they can) spend quality time with friends or family. They are traveling differently than our parents, and we have to adapt to new trends.”