Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nordic got run over by a fat bike (originally posted on Explore Cross-Country)

Think of the tune, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Cross-country skiing is dying, killed by climate change throughout its range. This is happening more rapidly in the lower 48 states of the USA than in Scandinavia, but all over the Nordic racing world events are being held more and more on manufactured snow. And that's only possible if temperature and humidity -- not to mention budgets -- allow for enough snow to be made and distributed over a trail system.

Racers will put up with incredible tedium to develop and maintain their fitness, and then submit to torture on a challenging course. Any skier might prefer more variety and free range, but the addicted competitor will go around and around and around and around and around and around a kilometer or two for the sake of race-ready strength and technique. They are not the majority of cross-country skiers, but they are the ones who will spend the most money on it per capita.

Tourists make up the vast majority of the small portion of the population that still skis cross-country. Tourists have a variety of motivations, fitness among them, and cheapness strongly evident. That's a major reason that the ski industry as a whole dislikes them. Frugality generates little profit compared to addiction.

It takes money to run a trail system. Cross-country ski centers have to maintain trails in the off season and groom them in the ski season. Since the widespread acceptance of skate skiing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that calls for a machine that easily costs more than $100,000.00, requiring fuel, maintenance, repair, and a skilled driver. Larger areas need multiple machines and drivers. Any area also has to maintain the trails themselves in the face of erosion, encroaching vegetation, blowdowns, and abuse by unauthorized or destructive shared uses.

When Surly introduced the Pugsley as a complete bike in 2011, it launched the category as something people could buy "off the shelf." Our own shop and touring center pondered whether the bikes would make a worthy addition to our mix of users as a way to weather the increasingly irregular winter conditions that the changing climate had been bringing us. However, our early experiments discouraged us from trying to blend skiers and bike riders on a single trail system.

When the bike industry tried to make fat bikes the next big thing around 2015 there was an explosion of interest that looked like it might turn into a bit of a boom. But as the browsers browsed, most of them chose not to invest upwards of a thousand bucks in yet another bike. Various media outlets ran weirdo-news features on the nutty people riding goofy bikes on the snow(!), but the curiosity was not matched by significant sales. Meanwhile, in the bike industry's usual fashion, they mutated the bikes rapidly, challenging consumers and shops alike to keep up with the need for newer and ever more expensive tools and parts.

Once the tool of intrepid, self-reliant adventurers, fat bikes seem to have attracted a demographic that might view itself that way, but often presents itself as entitled whiners. Our small touring center has seen a determined assault by a handful of riders who have looked for any possible leverage to force us to allow them onto the trail system. They have also proudly posted pictures on social media of themselves poaching the trails. I believe that it's become an obsession with them that means nothing more than another notch on their bedpost. Their own representative has stated at meetings that most riders aren't looking for a 20-foot-wide trail like an interstate highway through the woods. Minimum width for a skate groomed cross-country ski trail is about 12 feet, but much more would be needed to accommodate bike traffic and ski traffic in busy periods.

Will there be busy periods? Between the decrease in natural snow and the daunting expense of buying a winter bike, both sports remain a small percentage of winter recreational activity, far outstripped by motorized activities and downhill sports using motor-driven chair lifts. So what happens next? People want to find a place that has bought a rental fleet of fat bikes for them, on top of expanding the trail system for this new user group. How many touring centers can afford to put together a fleet of expensive and complex bikes and maintain them in readiness for whoever might want to try them out? This situation is being forced on the cross-country ski business by an alien culture.

This isn't just as simple as the ski versus snowboard debate. It has elements of the skate versus classic debate, in the different ways that the user groups occupy space on the trail and flow through the terrain. Having skied both classical and skate, I can tell you that the two techniques can come into conflict when skiers of each type converge. Now throw in some bike riders. The skate skiers can at least bring their skis parallel and double pole through a pod of slow tourists. Skiers don't have 31-inch-wide handlebars. And riders with 31-inch-wide handlebars can't reduce that dimension for a courteous minute or two, even if they might want to.

Skiers also have their feet on the ground. If a skier has to stop, it's not that hard to step off the trail, or at least move to the very edge of it and stand in a way that leaves plenty of room to pass. It's not as easy when you come off the pedals and either need room and time to dismount or need to waddle along straddling the bike. Also, your 5-inch tire at 8 psi might not make much of a mark, but your big clodhopping feet do.

Life is full of inconveniences. We have to make allowances for each other. Motorists hate having to accommodate bicyclists on the roads, and make many arguments about the differences in speed and maneuverability between the various size motor vehicles and the ones being pedaled. The difference is that all of our taxes pay for the public right of way, and that we all have a right to travel freely. A trail system is not the public street. The idea that cross-country ski trails should be coerced into admitting fat bikes is fairly recent even in the short history of fat biking itself. The pioneering riders used things like snow machine trails, just as their ancestors did, way back in the 1990s, when winter riders on the mountain bikes of their era either bought or made studded tires to go ride on those trails or on frozen lakes, woods roads, and other open venues.

The group of fat bikers that set its sights on the trails in Wolfeboro saw trails already groomed and looked for a way to commandeer them. With absolutely no respect for the decades of time, effort, and non-governmental investment that went into the trails, they seized on a flimsy legal possibility to force their case. Since they opened this can of worms, other user groups have tried to present themselves at the same loophole to be allowed to walk their dogs on the trails. The grooming is not done by town employees using town equipment and town funds. If a dedicated non-profit organization had not devoted itself to maintaining the trail system in town, that system would not exist, and we wouldn't be having this discussion. The fat bikers would be riding on whatever was open, just like the poor kids do in towns that don't happen to have a well-established and once-respected ski association.

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