My first wintertime experience on a fat bike was underwhelming. So was my second. And my third. I wasn’t sure if biking on snow was truly lame, or if I was just doing it wrong. All I kept thinking about was how I’d rather be skiing. So when the opportunity arose to visit Marquette on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — the alleged snow biking capital of the U.S. — I emphatically seized said opportunity, especially after watching Cold Rolled, a film by Aaron Peterson documenting the genesis of snow biking in the U.P. If there was any place I’d have a good fat bike experience, it seemed Marquette would be that place.
When most people think of a winter vacation destination, the last spot they think of is one of the coldest and most remote cities in the Midwest that’s situated on the frozen shoreline of Lake Superior. It doesn’t take a travel guru to figure out that Marquette struggles in the tourism department when the high temperature is -10 degrees Fahrenheit. But remarkably, Marquette has something quite special to offer visitors, even in the cold, dark dead of winter, especially if you like snow sports.
In addition to 650 vertical feet of alpine skiing and snowboarding at Marquette Mountain and a Nordic center in Forestville with dozens of miles of cross-country ski trails, Marquette also features an extensive network of fat bike-specific trails surrounding the city, and spanning out to the neighboring town of Ishpeming. And when the snow melts, summertime in Marquette is a mountain biking paradise, with ribbons of professionally built singletrack featuring everything from technical rockiness to fast, smooth berms and jumps.
But as the local videographer Aaron Peterson explained to me, it’s a lot harder attracting mountain bikers to Marquette in summertime because of all the other great places to ride closer to cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. That’s why Marquette is focused on getting fat tire riders to visit in winter, as the locals seem to have trail grooming technology more dialed than anywhere else in the country. If mountain bikers have a good time in Marquette in January, they’ll be far more likely to return in the summer the thinking goes.
Whether pulling a 36” wide power groomer or a V-plow behind a snowmobile, riding what looks like a snowbound version of a jet ski, piloting a two-wheel-drive Rokon motorcycle dragging a truck tire, or just going for a hike through the woods with snowshoes, half the sport of fat biking in Marquette is getting outside to prepare the trails for riding.
And why is Marquette leading the fat biking charge? As Peter Zenti, a retired doctor who volunteers daily grooming the Noquemanon Trail Network North Trails put it, “Winters here can be pretty long, and you gotta get outside, so it’s either this or take Prozac.”
Getting a Taste
As soon as I arrived at the hotel in Marquette, a Salsa Mukluk was placed in my left hand a cold coconut brown ale from local brewery, Blackrocks, in my right. I always judge a town by its favorite brewery, and based on just that first sip, I knew it was going to be a good week no matter what.
A foot of snow fell between the time I arrived at the hotel and the following evening, complicating trail grooming matters. But we still managed to get a short ride in at Harlow Lake with a dozen hardy Yoopers, an endearing term used for residents of the U.P. who have a dialect that rolls the letter O much like their neighbors in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Most of the Yoopers on the ride sported thick beards, a natural balaclava of sorts. We had a fun little jaunt around the trails, pushing up some steep hills, ripping back down, and sessioning short uphill pitches that test both the rider’s balance and power delivery as well as a tire’s grip and pressure. And as fat bikers know, tire pressure is everything. Then we pedaled out to the shoreline of the mighty Lake Superior, lined with massive piles of ice being hit by waves that were big enough to surf.
“We surf here all the time,” said a Yooper with a prominent and frozen natural balaclava.
“In the winter?” I asked. A tingle ran down my spine just thinking of the prospect.
“Well sure, that’s when the biggest waves are,” he responded, fighting off the urge to finish with “duh.”
After our ride, we hung out around a giant bonfire as the snow continued to fall. We sipped on some more Blackrocks beer, and I asked one of the Yoopers if we’d be able to ride the next day with all this new snow. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “You never know until you get out there with the groomer and see what happens.”
What happened the next day was not good fat biking. The snow wouldn’t compact enough to keep bikes upright and moving forward for more than 50 feet at a time, and within 10 minutes of what was supposed to be a 12-mile, mostly downhill singletrack ride from the Forestville trailhead back to Marquette, the group decided to cut bait and do something else. That something else involved a snowmobile towing a sled and some telemark skis with a tow rope. It wasn’t fat biking, but we still had a damn good time.
While being towed to the top of a hill in a sled behind a snowmobile, a lightbulb went off in my head: fat bike shuttling. All that was needed was a bike rack on top of the sled we were in, and we could eliminate half the problem that keeps a fair amount of people from riding in the snow – trying to pedal uphill on a 30+ pound bike with 5” wide tires. Half the entertainment of fat bike shuttling is ripping uphill behind a snowmobile. Then you get to rip again, downhill on purpose built snowbound singletrack. Sounds like a damn good time to me. And Marquette has plenty of trails and terrain to pull off such an idea.
The Yoopers have solved the first part of the fat biking equation by developing the right grooming equipment. If the Yoopers can next figure out how to create consistently good snow grooming conditions no matter what the weather, they’ll transform the appeal of wintertime fat biking much like the invention of disc brakes, efficient suspension and tubeless tires transformed the appeal of mountain biking at the start of the new millennium. But in the meantime, I’m still in search of a fat biking experience that makes me seriously consider buying a fat bike.