Outdoor Enthusiasts Lock Horns Over Emerging Sport Of Snow Biking

Feb 7, 2014

Bikers take off on the first ever snow bike race in southeast Wyoming.
Bikers take off on the first ever snow bike race in southeast Wyoming.
Credit Willow Belden

If you’ve been out snow shoeing or cross country skiing this winter, you may have noticed bicycle tire marks on the trails. That’s because of a new sport called snow biking. It’s gaining popularity fast, and cyclists and bike shops are thrilled. But some skiers feel the bikes present safety risks. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: It’s a Saturday evening; light snow is falling; and several dozen people are milling about at the Snowy Range Ski area. They’re bundled up with thick coats and hats, and they’ve brought their “fat bikes.” These are kind of like mountain bikes, only with really wide tires, designed for snow. Tonight, there’s a race – the first snowbike race that’s been held in Southeast Wyoming.

EVAN O’TOOLE: Three, two, one, go – big lap.

(Cheering, and bike tires crunching through snow)

BELDEN: Evan O’Toole organized the race. He says more and more people are snow biking these days, and with good reason.

EVAN O’TOOLE: Basically, if you live in Laramie, and you like to ride your bike, it increases your riding time by 100 percent. Previously, you could only ride your mountain bike on trails for maybe five or six months out of the year.

BELDEN: Snow biking is a new sport. Fat bikes have only been commercially available for a few years, but Dewey Gallegos, who owns the Pedal House bike shop in Laramie, says they’re already starting to be a big deal. He expects to sell at least eight or 10 fat bikes this year. And with price tags starting at $1,700, he says that helps his shop survive during the long Wyoming winters.

DEWEY GALLEGOS: My first year – almost two years – winters were pretty rough. And it’s not like they’re easy cheesy now, because fat biking’s not that huge of a sport. But it definitely fills some gaps.

Credit Willow Belden

BELDEN: But not everyone is enthusiastic. On a recent morning, Gallegos invited me to give snow biking a try.

GALLEGOS: All right…

BELDEN: It’s slow going, but much smoother than mountain biking.

GALLEGOS: It’s just so peaceful.

BELDEN: But toward the end of the ride, when our trail crosses a Nordic ski trail, a grooming machine approaches.

(Sound of grooming machine)

BELDEN:  It slows, and the groomer gives us a piercing stare. I later found out that he was concerned because our bikes had left ruts on the groomed trails. He’s not alone in that concern. Snow bikers have a hard time ploughing through deep powder, so they tend to ride on trails that have been packed down by snow shoers, or groomed ski trails. Christi Boggs is President of the Medicine Bow Nordic Association and coaches the UW ski team. She says when the snow is firmly packed on the trails, the snow bikes barely leave a trace. But under certain conditions, they can be a problem.

CHRISTI BOGGS: If it’s fresh snow, then the snow bikes make ruts. … You can get caught in one, kind of like a cattle guard, and it can grab you and throw you off.

BELDEN: Boggs says neither she nor her team members have had problems with the bikers. But there have been some incidents.

BOGGS: I know of at least one really solid wreck from somebody who really, really knows how to ski. You know, a nationally ranked master skier.

BELDEN: Ski instructor Judi Hulme has additional concerns.

JUDI HULME: If a bike was going the wrong direction on a trail, it would be difficult for a skier and a biker to avoid each other, and there could be some real safety concerns with that.

BELDEN: She says the stakes are higher if a skier collides with a biker, as opposed to another skier.

HULME: Here you have a person, who is just a person … colliding with a piece of machinery that’s steel. And snow bikes are heavy; they’re maybe around 30 pounds.

BELDEN: Skier Larry Foianini says the solution is simple.

LARRY FOIANINI: I would just not like to see the fat bikes on the groomed trails.

BELDEN: Foianini says he’s not anti-bike. He and many other skiers are avid cyclists in the summertime.

FOIANINI: And I think it’s really cool that people are out there on bikes in the wintertime, but there’s a place for them.

Credit Willow Belden

BELDEN: He and many other skiers think that place should be the snow shoes and back-country trails, not groomed trails. But Christi Boggs with the Nordic Association and many in the biking community say they’d like to see a cooperative agreement, rather than an all-out ban. Evan O’Toole, who organized the fat bike race, says snow bikers just need to be educated about how and when to use the groomed trails.

O’TOOLE: When used responsibly, the bikes don’t have any impact on the trails. Or no more impact than skis do.

BELDEN: O’Toole and the local bike shops are working to spread the word about trail etiquette – urging riders to avoid groomed trails when conditions are soft, and to respect skiers.

But tempers are still flaring. Online fat bike forums are filled with posts about skiers telling bikers to get off the trails. One cyclist even found a derogatory comment scrawled in the frost  on his car window.

The problems are not specific to Laramie. Nordic ski areas across the country are grappling with similar issues. Mike van Abel is President of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

MIKE VAN ABEL: There are some Nordic ski areas that are not willing to open up their trails to fat bikes, which is fine. And then there are others that are very willing to do so. In fact, I personally enjoyed a ride on Grand Targhee’s groomed Nordic trail while people were skiing.

BELDEN: Van Abel says there’s no single solution that works everywhere. But with fat bike sales doubling each year, he says it’s important for users and land managers to sit down now and hammer out agreements for how to share the trails. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.