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Impressions from the Midwest Fat Bike Access & Grooming Summit

MAIN PHOTO: Hansi Johnson

If there is one thing I have learned as an advocate, it is that you are seldom way out in front of your constituents.

While most certainly an advocate’s job is to lead, most times it is--in reality--to help communicate trends and best practices on things that are already happening to the community.

In the world of off-road cycling, this is most certainly the case. While IMBA can take credit for several great programs and ideas, it is well know that many of our best ideas have come straight from our network of IMBA chapters and individual members. I think that is what makes IMBA such a strong organization.

I say all this because my experience at the Midwest Fat Bike Summit echoed this theme directly.

The summit was sponsored and organized by Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) and Gary Sjoquist and supported by IMBA Upper Midwest. Many thanks to Gary and John Gaddo of QBP for making this happen. It was a real treat to attend this summit versus being on the sharp end of such issues. It gave my IMBA co-workers and me the space and time to listen to what is happening in fat biking, an explosive trend in mountain biking. Also a big thanks to the advocates who attended the summit and to CAMBA for hosting it!

Here are the top three things I observed:

ONE: Big eyes and full plates

There was a large majority of local IMBA chapters at the summit, meaning that many of them are interested in the idea of winter off-road cycling. However, if an IMBA chapter or other bike club is not interested in fat biking, I am noticing that those groups are often being pressured by others to address it.

That last sentence is important. It was obvious to me that there are capacity issues and limitations for IMBA chapters and other bike clubs to essentially take on yet another season of off-road advocacy. Many of these groups are full-on in the summer and look to winter for some down time.

The good news is that fat biking is bringing out new volunteers and riders who aren't active in the summer months. However, we are seeing that, in some cases, these new folks are trying to start new bike clubs, because no action is being taken by existing organized groups. This threatens to fracture our movement and slow momentum as mountain bikers, and we will have to work hard to make sure that existing IMBA chapters tap into the new energy of the winter riders and give them the space to grow the sport without taxing summer efforts.

I also think this is something IMBA needs to be very mindful of as we establish our own platform and a support network for these users.

TWO: I feel like we've been here before...

We need to acknowledge history and use it to our advantage. We might as well be in 1988 with fat biking right now, and the parallel to our history of mountain bike advocacy is so similar that we ignore it at our own peril.  What did we do back then (in the 80s, the 70s, whenever) with our new bike toys? We went out and rode them on ski trails and hiking trails and just about anywhere else that our wheels rolled. Damn the torpedos!

Well, eventually that caught up to us. We were shut out, told "No" and we have been fighting ever since to be considered a relevant, sustainable and responsible recreational activity. This exact same situation is occurring with fat bikes and winter riding. The gear is way ahead of the facilities on which to use it.

Just got a new fat bike and want to ride it tomorrow after 40 inches of snowfall? Where are you going to go? When there's nothing specifically available to you, you're going to go where you can most quickly get your ride on, meaning ski trails, snowmobile trails, etc. But this scenario could be problematic for our future and sets us up for confrontation.

The hard-core enthusiasts are already driving the bus. As I mentioned in my intro, people create their own solutions to these kinds of challenges. One key piece of the summit was looking at what IMBA chapters and other bike clubs are doing to create fat bike trails. It was rather shocking to see the number and amount of implements that groups are using to groom singletrack.

While many of us were bracing for long conversations at the summit on how to engage and work for access to other user groups' turfs, the reality is that the organized and aggressive chapters and groups are already way down the path of figuring out how to create their own purpose-built experiences, either on existing singletrack or by creating new, snow-based systems that only exist in winter and are groomed mechanically.

These groups are not worried about whether or not they get access to an existing, XC ski trails system, because they are creating a purpose-built riding experience specifically for fat bikes. Again, this should not surprise anybody. It is exactly the conclusion we came to with mountain biking.

THREE: Seeking the right experience

What is the off-road riding enthusiast really looking for in a natural surface experience? They are looking for singletrack in multiple flavors. Some like it narrow and techy; some like it fast and flowy. Overall, mountain bikers are generally NOT looking for extremely-wide road experiences while constantly dodging other, faster-moving users.

The amount of time, money and energy that IMBA chapters and other bike clubs have already put into creating a groomed singletrack experience has proved that the creation of purpose-built snow biking trails is the direction of the movement. Is there still work to be done with the XC ski community and the snowmobile community? Yes--a ton--as those folks are way ahead of the curve creating purpose-built trails. My guess is that, as they have more success, people will seek out a more mountain-bike-oriented experience rather than jumping on XC ski and snowmobile trails. But until then, we have work to do.

End Thoughts

The summit also left me wondering to what extent all of this is regional. It is obvious that the Midwest is way, way ahead of the curve on the fat bike issue. I still hear from a lot of people that fat biking is just a fad. Meanwhile, we are starting to see fat bikes hit the mainstream. Some of the bigger MTB magazines are recognizing that the fat bike is extremely fun and has a place in our sport and on certain trails.

I have not yet heard of a western IMBA chapter or other bike group talking about grooming singletrack specifically for winter fat biking, (although I do work in the Upper Midwest...). So it will be cool to see what folks are thinking at the Global Fat Bike Summit at the end of January in Ogden, UT. In my heart of hearts, I hope to high heaven that they are way ahead of us and are already creating sweet, swoopy singletrack through the snowy meadows and valleys of the high alpine landscapes.

--- Hansi

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Bike Group grooming singletrack specifically for winter fat...

There is a group in Marquette Michigan doing just that. See their purpose built fat bike trail groomer in this artistic video: player.vimeo.com/video/80386440 and see the results here: player.vimeo.com/video/80403904

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