Personal and professional life continue to wash liberally over the gunwalls of my bike life, and that has left me only sneaking out here and there for fat bike rides in this record-making cold and snowy winter. Those rides, however, have kept me balanced in a whirlwind time.
Fat biking has been a revelation. Some outings have been long slogs through unsuitably deep or choppy snow (stay off hiking trails, it ain't worth it) and some have been pure fun and terrific winter fitness boosters. I'm thinking especially of a couple of rides with my friend Will, owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange (local fat bike purveyors and source of my Salsa Mukluk 3). We have blasted away on local snowmobile trails he found (bless you, Skilly Willy!). They're right in our neighborhood, but I never knew it until I had reason to use them.
Snowmo trails are the most reliable fat riding in the winter; packed snow is about ideal for these bikes, with lots of float and slide and liberal amounts of plow- and sled-created "features." They wend all over the place, and can even be useful, connecting to places you need to go. They really are the mainstay.
Being a biker, it's easy to assume that our presence on the trails is low-profile and utterly unobjectionable. After all, snowmobiles make crazy noise, and chew up the snow, so who would care if a couple crazy guys bundled up on silent little bicycles uses them?
It's easy to forget (or just not know) that these trails were built painstakingly by folks who worked closely with landowners, often over many years, to create these long, interconnecting paths. But think about it: The same could be said about the pioneering mountain bike trail builders in the '80s and '90s.
Think how much work NEMBA and the like have put into advocacy for our quiet little bikes, and then imagine how hard it must have been for those noisy, smoke-belching snowmobilers. The hard truth is, fat bikers are profiting from their investments of money, time, and outreach. (Except those who ride on state trails and the like -- a different issue.)
They weren't thinking of bikers, trust me; there was no reason to. They love their sleds like we love our bikes.
Fat bikes in the winter are often a surprise to non-bikers on trails they expect to be used by other hikers, skiers, or sledders -- folks just like them. In the short time I've owned it, my Mukluk has aroused anxiety at times. It wouldn't take a lot of proactive work to prevent us new kids on the trails from creating ill will.
And don't forget that snowmo paths run across private lands more than any other kind of trail; landowners didn't sign on for bikers on their crop land, and might not understand how low-impact we are. Four-inch tires are very new, and they've often had mountain bikers tearing up their soil -- their bread and butter. They hate that, and frankly, so would I.
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Should we, like the MTBers of the 80s and 90s, advocate and build relationships with landowners and trail users?
Whenever someone comments on my bike when I'm out on it -- and that's often, these things attract attention -- I come to a full stop and engage them in conversation, explaining the bike, its uses and joys, and sometimes reassuring folks explicitly that I'm careful on "their" trails, and I care about the land.
I also wrote the largest Massachusetts snowmo organization to ask who I should speak to about access issues. I might end up joining a local club and get a sticker to put on my bike. There's a lot of talk in other states about building alliances, and many have stickered bikes as a good compromise. Don't forget: The clubs have the trail maps, which are impossible to find online (trust me, I looked hard) and only members get them. So, there's another perk, if you need one.
In the meantime, here are some links on the subject to provoke thought. Sorry I have no time to actually link them or explain them, but each has something unique to add:
Meantime, get out there: The snow won't last forever. The cardinals are already singing their spring songs.