Snow biking grows in popularity, creates questions about trail use

2011-12-21T17:00:00Z 2011-12-22T13:12:34Z Snow biking grows in popularity, creates questions about trail useBy KELSEY DAYTON Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

GRAND TARGHEE RESORT, ALTA — The clear sky allowed for perfect glimpses of the Grand Teton on the way up to Grand Targhee Resort outside Alta. Little snow had fallen in recent days. Cold nights firmed snow already on the ground.

Conditions were perfect.

At the resort, trails of undulating hills striped with the fresh corduroy markings of a snow groomer beckoned. A group of about 10 hopped on large bikes with bloated tires and made their way up the hill, past skiers at lift lines and into the nearby quiet where they could hear the snow squeak under their tires.

The Nordic trails at Grand Targhee Resort offer a quick escape from the flurry of activities surrounding the downhill operation. And for the first time ever, snow bikes can share the trail, a testament to the growing popularity of the young sport and an example of a trail system successfully catering to multi-use.

As more snow bikers emerge, trail use issues are also arising across the state. Skiers worry trails they helped fund and build over many years aren’t big enough to support another group.

Targhee terrain

Andy Williams, Grand Targhee manager of special events and summer trails, first heard about snowbiking about five years ago from a contingency of Jackson and Teton Valley, Idaho, enthusiasts.

Mountain biking is a passion of Williams’. As a kid he alpine ski raced, but he never took to Nordic skiing.

Snow biking is like mountain biking in that it takes balance, strength and cardiovascular endurance to charge up a hill. But a mountain bike’s tires tear up the snow and are not allowed on groomed trails.

The fat bikes have tires at least 3.7 inches wide, while a regular mountain bike’s tires are about 2 inches thick, he said. Snow bikes use less air in the tires to avoid sinking in the snow. Slower cruising speeds help diminish wind chill.

The bikes offer an alternative to skiing, especially during times when there hasn’t been a lot of snow fall.

“It’s kind of a new way to enjoy winter,” Williams said.

Williams started investigating renting and allowing snow bikes at the resort last year. He photographed tracks left by bikes on the trails and talked with skiers about the bike’s impact. People seemed open about sharing the trail.

“It’s just getting them to understand what snow bikes actually are,” he said.

Since the season began Nov. 25, people have rented the six bikes the resort offers. Shops in nearby Driggs, Idaho, also rent bikes, but many of the trail users are avid snow bikers who ride their own on the

15 kilometers of terrain.

Dave Byers discovered snow biking about six years ago after trying to push his mountain-biking season later into the winter each year. This year, the self-described mediocre skier, bought a season pass to ride his snow bike on Targhee’s Nordic trails. He covers more ground on a bike than on skis and stays in cycling shape year round.

For the first few years, Byers rode his snow bike on snowmobile trails near his Victor, Idaho home. He looked at Grand Targhee’s Nordic trails, off limits at the time, and imagined riding the rolling hills.

While he still rides trails in Idaho, he regularly gets on Targhee’s track. It is easily accessible, always groomed, the scenery is beautiful and the series of hills and connecting trails keep it interesting, he said.

“It’s really hard to beat the conditions at Targhee.”

Limited space

Until about six years ago, a small group of hearty cyclists, especially in Alaska, custom built bikes for snow. Then Surly introduced the Pugsley, a bike that enthusiasts says revolutionized the sport by making it accessible to all.

No one was sure what the response would be.

“There’s no market intel you can do on this,” said Eric Sovern, a sales person with the company. “We kind of had to do it on faith.”

The company designed the bike taking input from winter bike racers. Not only are the tires fatter, the entire frame is bigger to accommodate the large wheels.

“It just expands the limits of what you can do on a bike,” Sovern said. “You can go places that you couldn’t before.”

Interest piqued slowly, until about 2009, when snow biking entered the mainstream. The company will soon sell about 1,000 bikes a year, Sovern said. At times, it’s hard to keep up with demand.

“It’s, for the lack of a better term, been snowballing out of control,” he said.

Not everyone has embraced the sport. Snow biking has never been allowed in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. Parks spokespeople said bikes aren’t allowed on the trails in the summer. In the winter, when roads are groomed, some people worry about sharing the limited groomed trails and roads.

Grand Teton has only had one request to allow snow bikes, said park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

The issue came up in Yellowstone as the park works to revise its winter use plan, said park spokesman Al Nash. The most recent plan allowed snowcoaches, skis and snowmobiles in the park, but banned snow bikes.

Some bike enthusiasts have planned a “Winter Fat Bike Summit” Jan. 20 in West Yellowstone, Mont., to talk about the impact of the bikes and allowing them into the park.

Other areas have no set rules.

Happy Jack ski area near Laramie provides 15 kilometers of groomed snow paths, which attract more than 30,000 skier days each winter. It boasts some of the best trails accessible easily from Laramie and Cheyenne, attracts skiers from hundreds of miles away and is free to use, said Bern Hinckley, president of the Medicine Bow Nordic Association.

The Medicine Bow Nordic Association, through membership fees, pays for regular grooming and helps maintain the trails, which are on Forest Service land, he said.

Last year, only a few snow bikes appeared on the trails, but Hinckley and other skiers believe the sport is about to explode and the number of bikes could increase exponentially.

“This is a type of winter use that’s just beginning,” he said.

Hinckley’s resistance isn’t aimed at the bikes specifically — he realizes they don’t damage the trails — but at an additional winter use in general, he said.

The few snow bikers who use the trails have been respectful of skiers, but Hinckley worries about bikers showing up in large numbers without the same regard for other users or the trails.

“It’s just more and more use of a very limited groomed trail system,” Hinckley said.

The Forest Service is looking at the bikes and could create rules for the area, Hinckley said.

The Nordic association welcomes snowshoers, but has created a signed trail separate from the groomed ski trails, he said. There isn’t room for separate bike trails.

“We can enjoy it to death,” he said. “We don’t want to see the quality of the trails compromised.”

It took 20 years to get the trails to the quality they are now, said Ken Cramer, owner of Cross Country Connection in Laramie. Cramer agrees the few bikes on the trail haven’t posed an issue — yet. But he’s heard of places in Alaska where snow biking started as an obscure sport and now hundreds of riders gather in places for races, he said.

On weekends, there are often up to 80 kids at Happy Jack taking lessons on the trails and Cramer said he didn’t want bikes weaving through the kids.

“I don’t think they are very compatible in terms of having both uses at the same time,” he said.

“I’m not anxious to meet bikes on the trail.”

The unknown

All Jeff Agueda wants to do is bike. He’s not a great skier and when winter descends on Lander he finds himself yearning for warmer months.

Working at Gannett Peak Sports, the town’s bike shop, he heard about snow biking. He got a chance to try it when the shop bought a bike this year to rent. It hooked him immediately.

“Being a mountain biker it’s been my happy place this winter,” he said.

While Agueda celebrated his new winter sport, the town’s one snow bike started to garner attention.

Some wanted to know how much the bike cost to rent. Others wondered if the bike should be allowed at Lander’s premier Nordic ski area Beaver Creek.

Debate about the use of the bike erupted on the Lander Nordic Ski Association’s Facebook page. While no one from the association could be reached for comment, they have reached out to the Forest Service about creating rules for the area, said Scott Birkenfield, south zone recreation staff officers for Lander and Dubois with the Forest Service.

The bikes are legal anywhere a mechanized vehicle is allowed, which includes all Forest Service trails and roads outside wilderness areas, he said.

At Beaver Creek, skiers pay for trail grooming from membership dues, Birkenfield said. The skiers said they are worried about safety issues, such as collisions, in sharing the trails and also the bikes ruining the track. Birkenfield plans to look at policies at other ski areas in the state and country and collect data this year on snow biking’s impact on the trails.

“The bottom line is there are very few of these bikes that actually exist around here,” Birkenfield said.

While snow bikes are allowed at Beaver Creek, the Forest Service and the Nordic Association are asking bikers to explore other areas, including snowmobile trails. A biker can hear a snowmobile easily, Birkenfield said.

“But if a bike is coming down a hill quickly and somebody is skating along with skis wide and poles flying there could be a collision,” he said.

Agueda said he doesn’t want to create a skier versus biker conflict in the community.

People are apprehensive about the sport because it’s new and have misconceptions about the speed and impact of the bike, he said.

While Beaver Creek offers nice biking with beautiful trails that aren’t too steep, for now if someone comes into rent the bike — at this point no one has taken it out other than bike shop staff — the employees recommend riding in other areas such as in Sinks Canyon.

Bike etiquette

On Saturday afternoon at Grand Targhee, Williams, on a bike, met skiers on the trails. He stopped and chatted, with one, answering questions about how the bike worked.

The area is, admittedly, not super popular with Nordic skiers to begin with, because of the hills and because nearby Teton Canyon offers free skiing options, Williams said.

But Grand Targhee mitigates conflicts with skiers by preaching etiquette to bikers and with rules that help both factions exist easily on the same trail.

Snow bikes aren’t allowed on the trail until after 10 a.m. so the fresh groomed snow can firm and the bikes won’t leave ruts. If the snow stays soft all day the resort asks snow bikers to leave, or put on skis instead, Williams said.

The response has been positive. Williams hopes to experiment with adding single tracks for a new challenge and the resort will host its first snow bike race in January. He’d like to have a winter triathlon where people snow bike, snowshoe and Nordic ski.

As he rode back to the shop, hat off and glove free, warmed from riding the hills, he passed skiers on their way to the lifts.

“Oh snow bikes,” one said. “I want to try one of those.”

Contact reporter

Kelsey Dayton at 307-335-8151 or kelsey.dayton@trib.com

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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