Friday, October 30, 2015

Fat bikes on the cross-country ski trails

'Tis the season for winter event planning, so the fat bike impresarios have started trying to line up venues. They'll be the first little wave of fat tire enthusiasts who will ask cross-country ski trail operators why riders can't roll where the skiers slide.

These requests inspired a post last February about fat bike ethics. Since then, more inquiries and reports from ski centers that have experimented with the mix bring more information.

First of all, fat bikers need to remember that cross-country ski areas owe them nothing. Fat biking started as a way for self-reliant pedalers to take a slow but capable bike across terrain where a conventional mountain bike could not go. They were conceived as earth-crawlers, expedition bikes for riding in areas without trails or on surfaces that required as much flotation and traction as a rider could push. Of course this got them onto snow. But they went there on surfaces that formed up naturally or were packed by fairly imprecise methods for users whose enjoyment did not depend on a very smooth surface.

No tire has yet been fat enough to distribute human and bike weight as well as a pair of skis will do. Skis and snowshoes are still the more versatile tools for getting around on varied snow conditions. Yes, some skis are adapted to firmer or softer conditions, but in the middle lies a general shape and size that really can handle anything. When it comes to snow, no bike can say the same.

Even within the range of marginally to perfectly usable conditions, bike tires will leave bigger marks, and different marks, than skis. Size matters, but difference matters more.

The second factor after trail damage is user rhythm. Along with this comes user speed and things that happen in a crash. People on skis move with different rhythms than people on bikes. The speed range is different when the two users are on the same terrain feature, and the methods used to move over those features will cause interference. How wide a highway would a ski center need to groom so that several skate skiers and several fat bikers could tackle a steep climb at the same time?

Going down, skiers or bike riders may be faster depending on snow conditions and the headlong craziness of the people involved. But imagine being a skier in a downhill turn when the rider on a 30-pound bike with sharp chainrings and spiky pedals wipes out next to you and takes your legs out from under you.

Even on mild, rolling or flat terrain, skiers and riders move so differently that they eat up a lot of trail width under the best of conditions. Say it's a hard, fast day, so fat tires are not gouging deep ruts. That still means that riders will be passing -- or passed by -- skate skiers in their wide V. Cross country trails needed to be widened drastically in the 1990s as ski centers adapted to the influx of skate skiers. That width would probably have to double to accommodate a large influx of fat bikers. Not only does this beg for a cost-benefit analysis for the ski center operators, it massively changes the aesthetics of the experience. Imagine going for a nice country drive on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Classic skiers complained about the loss of an intimate and woodsy feeling when elbow-width trails were blown out to 12 feet wide so that skate skiers -- and the big groomers they require -- could fit on them. Now double it.

To someone who is not a skier, it all seems so simple. There's a trail. You're grooming it anyway. Why can't we have our fun, too? Maybe it's just a one-day event. Even so, the costs and complications are far greater than you might imagine. And, by inviting fat bikers onto the system even for one day, the trail operator creates an impression that it would be okay.

Fat bikers who still cleave to the ethic of self reliance cut and pack their own trails or use durable venues that are already more of a free-for-all, like logging roads, snow machine trails and frozen lakes. Maybe they find a sympathetic ski center with the time, personnel and budget to accommodate them on a temporary basis. But the skiers and riders themselves will have to work out all their issues on the trails. If riders pay, they will demand their due. If they don't pay, skiers will rightly be resentful. So you see, it isn't simple at all.


Steve A said...

Sounds like a variant on the ski/snowboard or car/bike on road stories.

cafiend said...

With critical differences that make a difference.