Snow covers patches of the craggy terrain and frost runs deep — or just deep enough — in the far reaches of the North Dakota Badlands.
And the wind? Nonexistent.
Yes, all is right with the world.
But it doesn’t mean this won’t be a gamble. When it comes to fat-biking the unforgiving Maah Daah Hey Trail this time of year, there are no guarantees.
Still, with these fat-tire bikes, attempting potentially unforgettable rides like the Maah Daah Hey in the winter and spring now are at least in the realm of possibility.
With their wide, spongy tires, they go places their predecessor, mountain bikes, never could.
But this time of year, that’s still not usually enough to allow riders to navigate any section of the Maah Daah Hey, a primitive, 100-mile trail that winds through the rugged Badlands in western North Dakota.
So, if you’re a fat-biking enthusiast in this neck of the woods, you wait and you hope.
And, inevitably, you gamble. Because the potential payoff can be worth the risk, even here.
That was Nick Ybarra’s logic when he took a chance and attempted to ride a portion of the trail recently. In fact, with a rare stretch of ideal late-winter conditions, the first-year fat-biker from nearby Watford City, N.D., was able to successfully ride it on consecutive days.
“When there are the right conditions, it (the Maah Daah Hey) is like a different world,” said Ybarra, who rode about an 11-mile loop solo the first day, then the same track with three riders from Bismarck, N.D., the next. “It’s was an unbelievable experience.
“I was lucky that (first) day ever happened,” added Ybarra, who oversees the Maah Daah Hey Trail 100 mountain-bike race in the summer and helped add a fat-bike category to the event. “You try to get out in the morning, when the ground is still frozen. And there was an inch of snow on the ground, and it was the perfect texture, and there was no wind. All the trees were covered in snow.
“It was once-in-a-lifetime.”
Twice, actually. And similar fat-biking opportunities are a possibility all across the Northland. From the Maah Daah Hey to the Black Hills in South Dakota to the world-class Cuyuna trails that wind around the pristine mine-pit lakes in central Minnesota, fat-bike riders here are living large.
The skinny on fat bikes
Not that riders need a Maah Daah Hey or a Cuyuna in their backyard to fat bike. In fact, that’s part of the beauty of fat-biking — and why its popularity has grown so in recent years: You don’t necessarily need a trail to enjoy these bikes. They go through and over much more than their close cousin, the mountain bike, particularly in the winter and even spring in the Northland, the off-season for bike riders until fat bikes came along.
Actually, that’s where these bikes shine — in the snow, or in any extreme conditions, such as mud, and even in sand. The knobby tires are up to 5 inches wide, and in the winter, air pressure can run as low as 3 to 4 pounds, further widening that footprint. And now as light or lighter than some mountain bikes, they are built to handle the backcountry year-round.
Which also adds to their allure.
“I think of fat-biking as exploring riding,” said Shaun Anderson, an avid fat-biker and mountain-biking coach of the Cuyuna Lakes and Crosby-Ironton high school teams, the latter located a short ride from the Cuyuna trails. “What I think is cool about it is now you can go anywhere. You can go places you would never go before.”
And, if you can ride a mountain bike or a road bike, you can ride a fat bike. Some say there is a slight learning curve when going from, say, riding a mountain bike to a fat bike — you maneuver the fat bike a bit more, leaning and finessing more on turns, they say. But most will tell you the difference is subtle at best.
“If you get out and try it, you’ll love it,” said Jenny Smith, owner of Cycle, Path & Paddle in Crosby, which rents and sells fat bikes. “So many people own regular mountain bikes, and they rent a fat bike and say, ‘That’s my bike.’ And people look at (fat bikes) and say they look so heavy. Then they pick them up and say, ‘There’s nothing to it.’
“I refer to them as the all-terrain vehicles of bicycles,” added Smith, who has been carrying “fatties” since the fall of 2013 and just recently started riding fat bikes herself. “You can take them on pavement and gravel and grass and snow. You can take them anywhere. I was real surprised when I took it on pavement. Once you start going, there’s so much roll and it’s so easy to ride on pavement.”
But it’s the off-the-beaten path applications that especially make these bikes go.
“I call it jeeping — taking my bike jeeping,” said Perry Jewett, director of the 28 Below fat-bike race in mid-March in South Dakota’s Black Hills. “They go over logs; they go everywhere. They’re more versatile (than mountain bikes). They’re designed to haul more things in the winter. They work well for bike-packing. Fat-packing.” There are even fat bikes made specifically for hunters and other outdoors types, although most, like the Rambo power fat bike, are more backcountry vehicle than fat bike.
Other outdoors users are taking notice of the applications and inevitable crossover between fat-biking and those other outdoors endeavors.
“If you realized how many of these bikers were hard-core traditional outdoorsmen … Guys who have a sense of pushing the envelope, fishing longer, hunting longer,” said John Schaubach, an avid outdoorsman and fat-biker and a member of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Biking Crew, which maintains that sprawling trail system in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. “It’s not uncommon (in conversations with fellow fat-bikers) to have stories about recent fishing trips come up. And I’m not just talking about guys who are going out to (any lake) and catching sunfish at three in the afternoon.”
No, we’re talking wildly-avid outdoorsmen.
“I fish the river all the time — I’m a river rat. I fish up and down the Mississippi River,” said Schaubach, 69, who is retired and resides in Deerwood, in the heart of Minnesota fishing country. “I’m a deer hunter. But I had to give up grouse and woodcock (hunting) because I’m fishing in the fall. But in the fall, when I’m fishing, I’m still on the fat bike. I double-down on it. Biking is essential for me to stay in shape to do the other things.”
As in just fat-biking.
“I’m not riding them anymore,” Schaubach said of mountain and road bikes. “I’m only riding a fat bike. It does everything for me. I have no inspiration to ride on the side of the road (with a road bike) or go airborne (with a mountain bike). It (a fat bike) fits with my sense of the outdoors.”
Schaubach was among about 300 riders who participated in the annual Whiteout fat-bike races at Cuyuna recently. Then, the Northland fat-bike race “tour” was in Fond du Lac, Wis., for the Spear the Fatty race, held in conjunction with the opening of Wisconsin’s hugely-popular sturgeon spearing season.
“When you’re on wider tires, I think you take more chances. I think it’s actually easier to use a fat bike than a mountain bike,” said Mark Barrette, who races fat bikes, including Spear the Fatty. “There’s more rubber on the road with a fat bike, and I find that I can tend to take more chances than with a mountain bike.”
And while fat-bike races are becoming hugely popular across the Northland (and well beyond), and fat-biking as a whole does lend itself to the extreme, the sense of confidence and security that these oversized tires seem to elicit remains a big draw, too.
“The fat tires are what give you more confidence,” Anderson said. “My wife likes to fat bike because she feels safer (because of the wider tires).
“And there’s more of an environmental experience. For me, mountain biking is real competitive. I’m not stopping for anything. But with fat bikes, it’s a different approach. You’re more in tune with your surroundings. It’s more of a laid-back ride.”
Blazing a trail
The first fat bikes were developed in the 1980s. But a Minnesota company, Surly, is credited with ushering fat bikes into the modern era with the release of the still highly-popular Pugsley model in 2005.
But, at least across the Northland, the fat-bike phenomenon still is very new — probably just in the last two or three years. So there still are some, both inside and outside biking circles, who aren’t quite sure what to make of these bikes with the radical tires.
In Minnesota, the State Parks and Trails system only recently launched a pilot program for fat bikes, and just a handful of state parks and rec areas are a part of that program and have offerings for fat-bikers in the winter months that can, and often do, stretch into spring.
Across the state, fat bikes aren’t allowed on most snowmobile trails, groomed and tracked cross-country ski trails and any trail that isn’t specifically identified as open for bicycling, including hiking or snowshoeing trails in state parks and rec areas. So, as of now, those options are somewhat limited.
But this year, Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minn., become one of the first ski resorts in the country to allow lift access for downhill fat biking on designated trails, and Giants Ridge near Biwabik, Minn., also has a fat-biking presence.
“You don’t leave a footprint as long as people follow the criteria — tires have to be a certain width and shouldn’t be inflated more than 10 psi (pounds per square inch),” Barrette said of the fat-tire impact. “If it’s 15 to 20 pounds (this time of year), you can dig a groove in the trail. But if there’s a certain criteria and it’s followed, it doesn’t leave much of an imprint, especially on groomed trails. And fat-bikers patrol themselves.”
Still, such restrictions don’t seem to concern the fat-bike world, at least not in the Northland. There still are plenty of options here, whether on the trails or the many lakes and rivers or miles of public-access land.
“Having a fat bike in the spring opens up more possibilities to ride outside,” Ybarra said. “I’m glad they (fat bikes) got invented; I’m glad I have one now.”
Still, a concern might be if opportunity will keep up with the inevitable growth of fat bikes. A growth that may have helped save Smith’s store.
“In 2009, I was looking at closing the store altogether,” Smith said, explaining that, without the trail, the business landscape there was stagnant, very different than it is now with the trail.
“But then I started working with Steve Weber (manager at the rec area), and they were getting more stuff in the rec area. I knew the trails would be built in 2010, so I told myself to hold on until then.
“It’s been amazing,” she said of the growth in the area with the trails. “Every year, it’s been an upward climb. Everything is gaining momentum with the trails. And they’ll be adding more trails this year, which brings in more business opportunities.”
Now, Smith is adding to her stable of fat bike rentals and, with the price of fat bikes dropping in recent years, she’s been selling a few, too.
“The price has really come down, and it (fat-biking) is more affordable,” Smith said of another reason for the ascent of fat-biking in recent years. “Now you can get a decent bike for $900, as opposed to $1,900 (in the past).”
Or about the same price as a good mountain bike, which has those who might have been looking to buy a mountain bike now considering a fat bike.
“They’ve definitely caught on,” said Barrette, a former triathlete who does lectures on endurance fueling for a nutrition company out of Montana. “At a race two years ago, (mountain bike mogul) Gary Fisher walked by and said it won’t be long before fat bikes will have 30 to 40 percent of the market. And I’d say he has a pretty good perspective. It’s only going to get stronger. You get on and never go back.”
Anderson has seen that firsthand at the Cuyuna trails.
“The cabin I’m building is positioned just for fat biking,” Anderson, a home-builder, said of the central location of his dream cabin in relation to the Cuyuna trails — approximately a half-mile from one trailhead, and about a mile from another, he said. “I’ll be riding in the summer and winter with the fat bike. It’s why I chose this (location).
“It’s my playground.”