Popularity of fat bikes extends season for cyclists in Steamboat Springs
January 22, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Chris Johns sees a year-round trend developing in the world of mountain biking and he thinks the snowy trail will make cycling a year-round activity in the Yampa Valley.
"It's happening right now," Johns said. "And it's not going anywhere."
This winter Johns, the owner of Wheels Bike Shop in downtown Steamboat Springs, has seen an increased demand for fat bikes, which are designed to ride on snow. He currently has three bikes for rent but is planning to increase that fleet to six to eight bikes during the next few weeks.
"This is the first winter that I've had snow bikes for rent," Johns said. "But it's something we plan to do in the future. Fat bikes make our season so much longer here. We will keep renting the bikes through May and then begin to rent them again next October."
Johns said the bikes are great on snow but also are fun to ride in the summer months.
He also has seen an increased demand to buy the bikes and, for the first time, keeps them in stock at his store.
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He attributes the sport's growing popularity to a number of things, including better bikes, rims and tires. Johns said there are more manufacturers entering the market, and an increased level of access to backcountry trails also has added to the exposure the sport is getting.
For the first time, Howelsen Hill officially is allowing fat bikes — getting their name because of the bike's wider tires and profile — to roam the trail system that surrounds the historic downtown ski area including trails previously limited to cross-country skiers and people on snowshoes. Catamount Ranch & Club also is allowing fat bikes this winter, and Director of Lake Operations Dave McAtee said so far everything is fine.
"We haven't had any issues yet," McAtee said. "Some people are dead set against it, but that's the case with any new sport.”
McAtee said there is an $18 fee to use the trail system, and that he will turn bikes away when conditions are not favorable. The bikes must have fat tires and low air pressure. Regular mountain bikes are not allowed, and Catamount employees go over rules and check out the bikes before they are allowed on the trails. Cyclist also can chose to rent a bike, provided by Orange Peel, at the lake house.
Craig Robinson, Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department and Howelsen Hill facilities superintendent, said introducing fat bikes hasn't been without issues for the city. He is hoping that strong lines of communication and compromise will allow trail users to share the trails this winter and for more winters to come. The topic of winter biking at Howelsen was addressed in a work session Wednesday evening, and Robinson said that fat biking in the winter will continue to be evaluated in the future.
"When we first got snow this winter, there was a lot of activity with bikers on Howelsen," Robinson said. "The snow was still a little punchy and some of the fat bikes broke through the crust and left tracks."
The ruts brought complaints from cross-country skiers who prefer a smooth surface. However, once the snow set up and temperatures dropped, Robinson said the number of complaints also dropped. He still hears rumblings from some users at his office or when he is out using the trails, but he said that the early-season complaints seem to have decreased.
He added he also has received positive feedback from people about allowing winter biking on Howelsen including one from a group of tourist who were excited about the opportunity to ride there this winter.
Local cyclist Brad Bingham, who also enjoys cross-country skiing, has been riding mountain bikes in the winter since the late 1990s, when the sport was introduced by die-hard bikers who ventured out on modified bikes with spiked tires. A few years later, Surly introduced a steel bike that ran on fatter tires. More recently, the sport has been fueled by high-end mountain bike manufacturers who are building specially designed bikes that run on 4-inch and 5-inch tires. On most winter days, with a low PSI, those bikes run on top of well-packed trails without leaving tracks. For riders like Bingham, it's a chance to extend his biking season into the winter months.
Bingham even travels to races in the winter such as one in Leadville that has been around for more than 15 years. On chilly winter days in Steamboat, Bingham enjoys jumping on the back of his bike and riding the singletrack trails at Emerald. He also rides on the groomed trails from time to time but is respectful to other trail users who are out and is aware of what his bike is doing to the trails.
"It's common sense, really,” Bingham said. "If I'm out riding and I see I'm leaving big ruts, I will turn around, stop and go back. Nobody wants to have a negative impact."
Both Wheels and Orange Peel have bikes for rent in their downtown shops. The shops do their best to inform bikers about trail conditions and advise them not to venture out on certain trails when conditions are not ideal.
Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare and Ski Haus both wanted to offer the bikes this winter but were not able to get them in time. Ski & Bike Kare owner Harry Martin said his main supplier, Trek, just didn't have enough bikes this winter. The story was similar at Ski Haus.
"There is definitely a high demand for the bikes, but there are not a lot of companys making them, and the supply is limited right now," Ski Haus bike manager James Koch said. "I think there is definitely room for this sport to grow. The supply of bikes isn't all that great, and there are only two or three tires to choose from. I think it will continue to grow as the supply gets better and there is more of a selection in products."