If you’re a singletrack ripper that lives where winter means snow, nothing can be more depressing than seeing your favorite bike trails begin their long hibernation under the first white blanket of the year. All that is changing though with fat bikes and a rising number of areas that are grooming trails. We talked to riders and groomers around the country for their take on the experience, the trail work, and the reward.
"Not much beats the feeling of a ride on groomed singletrack. All that is heard amidst the winter silence is your breath and the rhythmic crunch of snow beneath your tires.” 45NRTH rider April Morgan’s “bike season” never ends; she now has two distinctly different but equally awesome ones. “The sun peeks its way through frost-covered branches and the snow seems to sparkle as you pedal on by. Suddenly, the trail you thought you knew so well is a brand new corduroy slice of paradise. Every ride reminds me of the simple joy that comes with playing in the snow."
For the uninitiated, riding groomed singletrack can take a little bit of time to wrap your head around. The borders of the trails aren’t as obvious as they are the rest of the year, and the other natural cues you’ve become accustomed to when riding, like sound and the feel beneath your tires, reveal themselves differently and guide you in new ways. Ride off the edge of the trail and you might find yourself in 20 inches or more of snow, but the pain you anticipate from crashing never comes. It’s an entirely new riding experience, but most importantly, it’s winter, and you’re still riding singletrack! Winter is now a season riders can look forward to so long as the equipment and knowledge to make a groomed trail is available. So what do you need?
Ingredients for a Cool Playground
A groomed trail is that same trail you love the rest of the year, covered in a perfect blanket of snow that has been lovingly shaped, compacted, and set up to allow you to hit those ribbons of white, sometimes even faster than you can in the summer. Riding snow covered dirt or logging roads, or even plugging through deep powder “expedition style” have their places too, but in the “first thing that comes to mind when you think about mountain biking” department, groomed trails are the closest thing to the real deal in winter.
Kurt Barclay of 45NRTH has been keeping a close eye on the development of a growing number of groomed trails around the country, and he helps keep the website, groomedsingletrack.com up to date with the latest and greatest information.
Barclay says, “There is science, theory, and special equipment to create these trails. The winter ski and snowboard world has been grooming trails for decades, but tight, twisting singletrack trails require narrower equipment with more maneuverability through trees and over rocks and roots.”
Many trails systems in the Midwest are built using a two-wheel drive motorcycle like the Rokon to compact snow and to drag various grooming equipment, while other trails are created on wider tracks using snowmobiles. There are even some that rely on people wearing snowshoes to pull the equipment.
Ben Welnak of mountainbikeradio.com says he enjoys the additional scientific element of riding these trails too. “I'm really glad that fat bikers are getting in on the fun of stalking weather reports and paying attention to every hourly change in temperature, cloud cover, and snow potential to determine the conditions that they'll be experiencing during their ride. It’s the same thing cross country skiers have known and done for years.”
Knowing how to read snow also has its perceived mental benefits. Adds Welnak, “The extra traction of the manicured snow fools me into thinking I'm a mountain biking rockstar.”
Why It Pays to Get Riders in the Snow
Andy Williams from Grand Targhee Ski Resort in Wyoming and Evan Simula of Sportsrack bike shop in Marquette, Michigan, have had great experiences as a result of their efforts to provide groomed trails. Both have a lot of material to work with. On average, Grand Targhee gets 500" of snow every year, while Marquette gets about 120”. Williams says, “We're known for our powder skiing, but we're starting to see people coming just to ride their fat bikes.” Simula points out, “Grooming trails has opened up a whole new sector of winter tourism. It gives avid cyclists a way to continue their passion in the winter months. They’re able to get out and enjoy the same areas they love in the summer, and it drives fat bike and fat bike accessory sales in the shop.”
Simula adds that there are other less obvious benefits for shops too: “With increased sales in what was the off season, we have more hours to give employees.”
Williams usually sees that it only takes one ride at Grand Targhee for people to get hooked, citing that most everyone who has tried fat biking on their singletrack trails has been amazed at how much fun it is. All three of the bike shops in town now sell and have fat bikes to rent. He adds, “But it's not crowded like it is on the ski runs and that’s what makes riding here great.”
Grand Targhee Resort was the first ski area to allow fat bikes on their 15k of Nordic trails during the 2011/2012 winter season. The resort applied the same Nordic trail guidelines to fat biking, a practice that’s since been adopted by IMBA and many other Nordic ski areas across the country.
Williams concludes, “Fat biking on Nordic trails is great but it can be like going on a road ride. Fat biking on singletrack is off the charts. Once you try riding on winter singletrack, you'll want more.”
Your Groomed Singletrack Resource Center
The website groomedsingletrack.com is your go to source for finding places to ride, and everything else groomed trail related. At the end of last season, 89 trails were listed, and the number is expected to rise to 150 this year. A new addition to the site will be a “Groomers” page that highlights various regions where groomed singletrack is becoming more popular, information on groomers that are available off the shelf, and DIY info for those looking to make custom towing rigs, pull behinds, or even hand held options for those trails that don’t allow motorized vehicles. There will also be info on types of snow and how to groom when it’s deep, super cold, super wet, or even on low snow seasons.
Ask anyone who loves mountain biking if they enjoy putting away their bike for months at a time. A betting man would say the response will likely be “no”. Groomed singletrack eliminates the question altogether by not only allowing riders to keep riding, but to ride in a different but just as fun way. And while it’s certainly an investment to get started, the pay off in the long term is priceless. Reclaim those months off the bike, and keep the good times in the woods going all year long!