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Fat Bikers & Skinny Skiers: A Trail Conflict

Posted on May 6th, 2014

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The New Lakeshore Trail Map from MichiganTrailMaps.com.

Trail conflicts are nothing new and they are not going away. Jim DuFresne looks into the latest; fat tire bikers and cross-country skiers, in this Trail Talk blog entry.

Don’t forget, our newest map is now out and available from our e-shop.  The 11 by 17-inch, two-sided map covers the Lakeshore Trail in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in full color and the kind of detail you’ve come to expect from MichiganTrailMaps.com. The 42.4-mile path along Lake Superior is part of the North Country Trail and often called the most beautiful trek in Michigan.

By Jim DuFresne

I once covered a public hearing that pitted equestrians against mountain bikers over trail use in state recreation areas. Thirty equestrians, ages 40 and up and dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and Stetson hats, sat in the middle of the room. More than 250 mountain bikers, dressed in spandex riding shorts and brightly color jerseys and munching energy bars, surrounded them. The hall was packed and you could feel the tension in the air. When one of the horseback riders started to lit a cigarette I thought we were going to have a riot on our hands.

Last week I attended a hearing in Traverse City over the use of fat tire bikes on the Vasa ski trails. The hall was equally packed but there was no heckling, nobody was told to “shut up and sit down” and, most amazing, after each person spoke we all clapped. Thank you for your opinion.

The Vasa Pathway hearing at Traverse City.

The Vasa Pathway hearing at Traverse City.

It was the most civilized public hearing I have ever attended. But that doesn’t mean this trail use conflict is any less contentious. There was as much passion in that room as there was when the equestrians wanted to kick the mountain bikers out of state parks with shouts of “we were here first!”

For the uninformed, and that included me last week, fat tire bikes feature wide rims, extra-large tires, and weirdly-dimensioned, heavy frames. The tires can be up to 5 inches wide, more than twice as wide as the average mountain bike tire, which allows you to run air pressures as low as 5 psi. “Fat bikes,” as they are often called, weigh up to 40 pounds and thus turn slowly but speed isn’t the point. It’s the resulting floatation from the massive volume of the tires which enables them to roll over snow, sand, mud, wet roots, rocks, and other terrain that would otherwise be impassable.

“Pedal-powered monster trucks,” one bike critic calls them.

The first ones began appearing around 2005 in Minnesota where cyclists were using them to keep riding off-road during that state’s long winter. The use of them spread to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and two years ago they began appearing in Michigan including the Vasa trail system.

Fat tire bikers following a trail at Crystal Mountain Resort.

Fat tire bikers following a trail at Crystal Mountain Resort.

One common misconception skiers have of fat tire bikes is they can go anywhere in snow. They can’t. Fat bikes need a packed trail in the winter and that usually means either snowmobile trails or the skating lanes of ski trails. You can understand why bikers are not too enthusiastic about sharing a trail with 600-pound machines powered by four-stroke, gasoline engines.

And it’s easy to understand why skiers are so nervous about fat tire bikers. The scenario painted at the meeting was a skier skating along at at three or four miles an hour only to look over his shoulder and see three or four fat tire bikers racing down the hill towards him at three times his speed. Thus a trail conflict.  “There is a big difference in speed between skiers and bikers,” one Nordic skier said. “You have problems when both of them are trying to share one small piece of packed snow.”

The Vasa Pathway dates back to the mid-1980s when local skiers decided that the famed race of the same name needed a permanent home. It was a local, grassroots effort that raised money and obtained various parcels of land needed to build a 25k and 10k trail system. And it was cross-country skiers leading the charge. Fat tire bikers were nowhere around.  In 1989 locals secured a state grant for $100,000, matched it with $33,000 and two years later the Vasa was dedicated at the start of ski season.

“It was a nine-year process and it’s our trail, it belongs to us,” said skier Ron Cassle, who was there from the beginning. “We need to enforce what the trail was built for.”

Fat Tire bikes at the Swedetown Ski Trails in Calumet .

Fat Tire bikes at the Swedetown Ski Trails in Calumet .

That’s the problem. The Vasa is on state land and designated a DNR pathway so legally it’s open to “hiking, cross-country skiing and biking.” Fat tire bikers want to use the trail, feel they have right to use the trail and legally they can. Thus a trail conflict.

Caught in the middle are DNR officials and, even more so, TART Trails Inc., the non-profit that oversees nine multi-use trails in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties including the Vasa.  TART just wants to encourage non-motorized trail usage and at the meeting executive director Julie Clark admitted it’s hard to say no to fat tire bikers especially the ones who have forked out $100 for a Vasa grooming badge this winter.

But Clark is also well aware that it was cross-country skiers who built the Vasa 10 years before her organization was even founded and that the group is an extremely important member of the TART family.  Thus the non-committal stance the TART board passed just two weeks before the public hearing that read in part; “TART is confident that skiers, bikers and other non-motorized winter trail users can collaborate with the DNR … to ensure all are able to enjoy the wonderful year-round community resource that the Vasa has become.”

Can’t we all just get along?

If you think this is a only Traverse City issue, think again. Trail conflicts almost always mushroom beyond local disputes.  At the meeting were representatives from the Cadillac Pathway, nervous about fat bikers invading their ski trail, from Shanty Creek Resort, wondering how to deal with requests from bikers, and fat tire bikers from as far away as Cheboygan and southeast Michigan who were there as a sign of support for their brothers in the north.

In the end, the consensus in the hall was that the two groups cannot share the same trail, their activities just don’t blend well together, and that a new fat tire bike loop needs to be built as part of the Vasa Pathway. DNR officials promised to “fast track” any such project and until its built bikers promised to more courteous to skiers and skiers admitted, grudgingly, that until then they’ll have to put up with bikers.

Then somebody asked what really is the ultimate question ; “I’m wondering what the next big thing will be? Pogo sticks on the Vasa?”

Indeed, who is the next group we will have to share trails with?

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