Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snow bikes come to the Keweenaw

The Michigan Tech Trails now allow purpose-built snow bikes such as this one ridden by Ryan Labar. (Photo © and courtesy Chris Schmidt)

By Kate Alvord*

HOUGHTON -- The new sport of snow biking has come to Houghton, delighting some and concerning others.

This season, on a trial basis, snow bike riders have been added to the list of users allowed on the Michigan Tech Trails. The extra-fat-tired bicycles will be restricted to the system's five kilometers of multi-use trails.

The inspiration to allow snow bikes at the Tech Trails came both from recent local growth in the sport and the addition of snow bike racing to this year's Nordic Ski Festival. On Saturday, Feb. 4, starting at 2:30 p.m., a 15-km snow bike race called the Low Pressure Loppet will take place at the Tech Trails, after the Copper Loppet ski races and on the same course.

Race organizer Chris Schmidt says holding a snow bike race on the heels of a ski race is ideal.

"There's not a whole lot of extra work because it's already set up," Schmidt notes. "And the trails are going to be regroomed anyway after the race."

Schmidt has also helped organize two more snow bike races this season. The Red Jacket Cyclotron takes place in downtown Calumet on March 3, in cooperation with the Copper Dog 150 dogsled race. On March 11 at Calumet's Swedetown ski trails, this year's Great Bear Chase weekend will include a Great Bear Chase Snow Bike Race, the day after the cross-country ski race and on the same course.

Spectators won't see these bikes whip along their race courses like something from the Tour de France. Snow bikes -- also called fat bikes -- travel much more slowly than road or mountain bikes. Schmidt explains that snow biking is harder and slower because it takes more energy to push forward on a soft surface than on a hard one.

"With a fat bike, the tires are so big and so soft you're almost forced to go at a more relaxed pace," he says.

Dressed for U.P. weather, Bob Carpenter enjoys a leisurely snow bike ride. (Photo © and courtesy Chris Schmidt)

Some trail users have expressed concern about possible conflicts if another sport is added to those already using the Tech Trails. Other winter activities on the multi-use trails include traditional cross-country skiing, skate skiing, snowshoeing and dog-walking.

But Jeff Parker, who manages and grooms the trails, believes the bikes will cause few problems.

"I think they'll be good trail citizens," Parker says. "They're going to be a lot less trouble than dogs. They don't bite, they don't chase people, they don't poop on the trail."

Parker adds that while he really likes having the dog people use the trails, allowing dogs has caused more policy headaches than any other issue.

As for the snow bikes, Parker estimates that on flat, soft snow, the bikes travel about three to four miles per hour.

"They're about walking pace," he says. "But it depends a lot on the snow conditions. If the snow is super hard, like it's been icy, they'll go faster."

Snow bikes have tires that can be double the size of regular mountain bike tires. These fat tires operate with very low air pressures to keep from sinking into snow. To accommodate the fat tires, these bicycles also have larger-than-normal frames.

Snow bikes (fat bikes) have very large tires and operate with very low air pressures to keep from sinking into snow. (Photo © and courtesy Chris Schmidt)

Chris Schmidt joined the ranks of snow bikers as of this year.

"It's kind of taking off in the U.P. and the Midwest," he says.

Snow biking started becoming more common in the Marquette area a couple of years ago, and spread from there to the Copper Country.

Adds Parker, "A number of the bikers [from Marquette] actually ski and bike both in the Marquette area and in the Houghton area."

Parker says the future of snow biking on the Tech Trails depends on how things go with them this season.

"A lot of it will depend upon what conflicts arise or don't arise. If usage is really low, I expect no conflicts," he says. "I think that may be the case for some time, as it grows or doesn't grow depending on how the sport goes."

Keweenaw Nordic Festival to offer free-style, classic, snow bike races Feb. 4-5

The Copper Loppet free-style races -- your choice of 15-km or 30-km -- begin at noon at the Tech Trails on Saturday, Feb. 4, preceded by middle school, high school, and junior olympics qualifier races in the morning. The 15-km Low Pressure Loppet snow bike race begins at 2:30 p.m.

All entries include the Luscious Loppet -- a dinner catered by the Library Restaurant -- available for all racers (at Jutila Center -- old hospital --in Hancock). Just the meal is worth the price of admission!

The Copper Island Classic -- 5- and 10-km classic races -- will take place at 1 p.m., on Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Chassell Trails. A Junior Nationals qualifier will be held at 10 a.m. and the 2-km youth race at 12:50 p.m., preceding the classic races.

Visit the Keweenaw Nordic Festival Web site for the full schedule and registration information. Online registration will close on Thursday, Feb. 2.

*Keweenaw Now guest writer Kate Alvord is the author of Divorce Your Car and several articles on Keweenaw Now, including three prize-winning articles on climate change in the Lake Superior Basin. Click here to read about her journalism award and see links to these articles.

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