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Once a novelty, fat biking hits its stride

Fat biking provides a new winter recreation opportunity that's being embraced by a growing number of local riders.

THUNDER BAY – It may have started as a curiosity less than a decade ago with a handful of local riders, but fat biking is quickly building momentum in Thunder Bay.

With interest growing and significant trail expansions on the horizon, some local riders see the potential for the city to become a northern hub for the winter activity, which has been embraced in parts of the U.S. including Minnesota and Wisconsin.

With their modified frames and larger, often studded tires with much lower air pressure, fat bikes allow enthusiasts to ride on snow.

It’s an often majestic way to extend the biking season year-round, boosters say – though it doesn’t come without its challenges, particularly for the uninitiated.

Growing interest

Far from spinning its wheels during the pandemic, fat biking has seen an explosion of interest, despite organized events being cancelled for the season and bikes themselves being in short supply.

“There’s massive demand – right now, I’m seeing used fat bikes go for the price of new fat bikes,” says Keith Ailey, a fat biking enthusiast and Thunder Bay Cycling Club board member. “You can’t necessarily get a new bike very easily right now.”

Fat biking was already on the rise before the pandemic, however.

The Blacksheep Mountain Bike Club counted an average of 1,000 riders a week using the Trowbridge Forest trails last summer.

It’s a far cry from the activity’s origins in Thunder Bay about a decade ago, when Ailey was among a handful of early adopters.

“When I think back to that first winter, there were three of us on fat bikes – you’d see another tire mark and you’d know whose it was,” Ailey relates. “Now, I never go for a ride [without seeing] a few other riders.”

The appeal is simple, enthusiasts say.

“You’re riding a bike on snow – it feels almost surreal,” Ailey explains. “It’s almost like when you haven’t ridden a bike in a while and you get back on it, and you feel like a kid again.”

In winter, fat bikes also allow riders to access new areas, like waterways.

It doesn’t hurt that when you fall, it’s usually into a bed of soft snow, Ailey added.

Lakehead University professor Harvey Lemelin, who teaches in the Outdoor Recreation, Parks & Tourism department, warns the activity can frustrate beginners, and may not be for everyone.

He’s a rider himself, however, and calls fat biking a great addition to local winter recreation options.

Through his work, he's also seen growing interest in the tourism sector.

The Outdoor Rec department has incorporated fat biking excursions and studies into its curriculum in recent years to prepare graduates to capitalize on that trend.

“Students always underestimate fat biking,” Lemelin said. “They think it’s similar to mountain biking – it’s not.”

His own first ride wasn’t exactly encouraging.

“It didn’t go as well as I thought it would, and I didn’t understand how the experience was so unpleasant,” he said.

After a second try on a sunny, mild day, though, he was hooked.

His experience is typical of a sport that’s heavily dependent on conditions, much like cross-country skiing.

“It’s the same kind of deal,” says Ailey. “When there’s a fresh snowfall, anything over an inch, all of a sudden fat biking gets pretty tough.”

“If you go out when it hasn’t snowed for two weeks when the trails are packed [though], it’s glorious – it’s so smooth and buttery.”

In some ways it’s easier than mountain biking, with snowfall smoothing over roots and rocks, says Chris Jones, another cycling club board member.

“Definitely, there’s a bit of a learning curve,” he says, “but it doesn’t take long to progress.”

Happy Trails Ahead

As ridership has grown, local opportunities are following suit. A major expansion of the mountain biking hub that stretches across the Shuniah Mines, Centennial Park, and Trowbridge Forest is set to begin in May.

A partnership between the city, the Blacksheep Mountain Bike Club, and Tourism Northern Ontario, the project will allow expansion of the winter trail network used by fat bikers, as well as other users such as snowshoers.

It will also open up new areas for the Blacksheep club’s Snow Dog groomer, which helps pack down single trails that can be as narrow as 18 inches wide.

Purchasing the machine two years ago was a “major breakthrough,” Ailey says.

“It really speeds up how fast we can get back on the trails after a good snowfall.”

From a hub at Trowbridge, the Conveyor Belt trail now brings riders directly into the Shuniah Mines system. The trail helps direct much of the growing bike traffic off of other multi-use trails commonly used by walkers.

The Trowbridge area stacks up well against trails around the world, Ailey says, thanks to its varied topography, offering steep hills and bluffs as well as flatter sections along the river.

“I’ve got a [pretty good] idea of what’s out there, and I’m super impressed at what we’re doing right here, especially the mountain bike trails,” he said.

The largest local fat bike events so far have been held at the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, where the Blacksheep club holds its fat bike loppet.

Last year, the group tied the event in to the popular Sleeping Giant cross-country ski loppet, holding fat bike races the following day, with several dual participants.

Tourism Potential

If not for the pandemic, Lemelin would have spent days at the park fat biking with his students this year.

“We would have stayed out there [and] had hybrid activities of cross-country skiing and fat biking, developing fat biking tourism products and opportunities in the park,” he said.

“[One] of the products we were developing is providing opportunities for beginners to do a family outing to tea harbour, perhaps the lookout, have tea and bannock and then come back.”

He believes the park is the right place to start in developing larger events and ongoing recreation activities.

“I think Sleeping Giant is the perfect case study, because you have professional trail grooming out there for the cross-country skiing.”

Located not too far from emerging fat bike hubs in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Thunder Bay could draw dozens or hundreds of riders from the outside the region for major events, local boosters say.

“People are willing to travel if you have the infrastructure and you have a club that puts on events that are a draw,” says Ailey.

“It’s not going to be 10,000 people, but I’ve seen 200 people go to a town that was 10 per cent the size of Thunder Bay for an event.”

The activity remains nascent in Thunder Bay in many ways, however.

Considering issues like limited bike rental capacity, a still-growing trail network, and the challenges of grooming, Lemelin believes the region may not quite be ready to host a major winter fat bike race, though it’s much closer when it comes to mountain biking, he says.

Local riders also see a growing future for the sport outside of racing, with recent and planned trails catering to beginners and younger riders.

“That’s probably the big area of growth – there’s always been a racing community in town, but now I’d say the number of recreational riders in Shuniah outweigh the number of racers,” says Ailey. “There’s just so many social and recreational riders. That’s been really nice to see.”