THUNDER BAY - More and more people in Thunder Bay are hitting the trails this winter, but not with skis or snowshoes, this sport requires two wheels.
Fat bike racing has been growing in popularity in the region and the Thunder Bay Cycling Club is planning to bring competitive racing to the city.
Fred Bauer, director of fat bike racing with the Thunder Bay Cycling Club, said cyclists who still like to get on their bikes in the winter will have something to look forward to this season.
“This is the first year we are really starting to expand to doing fat bike races here,” he said. “We are going to do a total of five races.”
In 2015, the first Sleeping Giant Fat Bike Loppet was held at the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. More than 30 riders took park in the inaugural event.
“For Thunder Bay, that is pretty good,” Bauer said. “It’s really a growing sport. Two years ago there weren’t as many people that had fat bikes even, so that was a pretty good start.”
The Sleeping Giant Fat Bike Loppet will be returning this year in March the day after the cross-country skiing event. There will also be the Fat in Thunder Bay weekend March 25 and 26 with races at Centennial Park, Trowbridge Falls, and the Shuniah Mines.
“There is a demand there,” Bauer said. “People want to have a little bit of competitiveness in what they do.”
Fat bikes are designed for riding in the winter by utilizing modified frames and extra wide tires. The sport started to take off in the last five years and riders in Thunder Bay have already been taking their love of sport to competitions across the border.
Keith Ailey, along with Bauer and seven other riders will be competing in the inaugural Norpine Fat Bike Classic in Lutsen Minn. on Saturday. Ailey, who will be competing with his wife Marilyn, is no stranger to fat bike competition, having earned the top Canadian finisher in fat bike races including the Solstice Chase, the Frostbiter Fatbike Race, and the Fatbike Frozen Forty.
“To have one so close in Lutsen is really nice,” Ailey said. “Some people will drive down the morning of, we will stay there for the event and probably go skiing the next day.”
Ailey races bikes competitively year round, from road racing to mountain biking, and now fat bikes. According to Ailey, fat bike racing is unlike any other form of cycling, which might have to do with the fact that the winter season is not usually associated with cycling at all.
“There’s just something almost surreal about riding a bike and riding a bike fast in the winter when you’re normally skiing and snowboarding or doing those types of sports, we’re still riding our bikes,” he said. “They are really fun to ride on snow because you can play with the drift and they have some great traction for climbing. They’re really fun to bomb downhill.”
Unlike road racing or mountain biking, fat bike racing has so many more variables to consider, from the type of snow on the track to the temperature on race day.
“I can’t think of two rides that I’ve done that have been the same, never mind two races,” Ailey said. “You have to draw on lots of experience. We’re always learning. Every time I ride I’m learning something in terms of tire pressure and basically how to deal with corners because you hit patches of ice, hard packed snow, loose snow, there are all kinds of variables that make it really challenging compared to other styles of bike racing.”
Of course weather is one of the most unpredictable and hardest variables to deal with. This weekend at the Norpine Classic, the more than 200 participants can expect temperatures to be around -28 Celsius with the windchill.
“It’s not like Nordic skiing where your whole body is involved and you’re staying warm,” Ailey said. “With fat biking, basically your legs are pumping and your heart rate is jacked, but your upper body is very quiet. So hands tend to get very cold, and feet, too, because you’re locked on to these metal pedals which attracts the cold. Having the proper gear is super important.”
Bauer said he expects fat biking to continue to grow in Thunder Bay and even though he still gets asked a lot of questions about his bike with fat tires, he said once you try it, you won’t be able to get enough of it.
“You can’t ride a fat bike without smiling,” he said. “It’s a lot different in terms of speed and what you have to do to control the bike when you’re on a fat bike. It’s just fun to do.”