TOFTE, Minn. -- A truism of winter life in the North has always been this: You can only hibernate for so long. At some point, you have to throw on some long underwear and a good pair of mittens and breathe some fresh, cold air.
That idea holds true even more in these times of pandemic when the desperation of people to end their quarantines and get outside for some safe, socially distanced recreation opportunities led to a boom in fat tire biking in the Arrowhead region during the most recent snowy season.
Fat tire bikes, designed with wider tires for better traction and a softer ride on frozen surfaces, are not new. Jeff Lynch of Sawtooth Outfitters in the North Shore community of Tofte, said the first “fat bike” boom was more than a decade ago when the first models -- usually with steel rims and frames -- became readily available. Over the next few years, the design modifications came quickly, as steel was replaced by aluminum and carbon fiber, making the bikes lighter and more comfortable to transport and ride.
The other great advancement in the Minnesota fat biking scene has been the growth of places for people to ride. The winter of 2020-21 saw cars with both bike racks and ski racks headed north from the Twin Cities by the hundreds.
“This year cross country skiing, mountain biking in general, fat biking and road cycling have all grown exponentially during COVID because people are looking for something to do other than staying home,” said Lynch. “They’re not going to movies, they’re not going out to eat, they’re not traveling and a lot of people are getting out of shape from staying home, so they’re looking for a reason to get outside and exercise. Fat biking became more popular because people want to try something new.”
And with more state parks and trail systems embracing winter biking as an activity that goes hand-in-hand with Nordic skiing and hiking, the region has quickly become a mecca for two-wheelers, both in the winter and for mountain biking in the summer. Similar to those who will hit two of the region’s three major downhill ski areas -- Giants Ridge, Lutsen Mountains and Spirit Mountain -- in a weekend, Lynch sees people who are making a multi-stop biking trip to the region the norm.
“We get people who will ride in Duluth, then come up and ride our trails in Lutsen and Tofte and then go further north to the Pincushion area by Grand Marais,” he said. “There are new trails in Cook County near Split Rock and there are a ton of trails on the Iron Range, so there is kind of a trifecta of areas where people can ride and it’s becoming more of a destination to ride these trail systems..”
In Cook County alone, Lynch estimates there are around 20 miles of groomed trails that are either biking only or dual-use trails for bikers and Nordic skiers. And at Spirit Mountain, they just completed their fourth winter season of offering downhill fat biking on select winter days.
On a sunny Saturday, Jon Regenold, the co-director of resort services at Spirit Mountain, recounted the four Sundays this winter where fat bikers could buy a lift ticket and use a few of the resort’s ski runs to glide down the mountain on two wheels. One Spirit Mountain ski lift is specially designed with bike racks to ferry cycles back up the hill in the winter and in the summer when it is a popular mountain biking spot with a stunning view of the Duluth-Superior harbor and Lake Superior beyond.
“We used two alpine runs, which are adjacent to the mountain bike trails. They stayed pretty groomed because they had skiers and snowboarders on them as well, so they stayed packed and rode well,” Regenold said, recounting the season’s conclusion with the Frozen Fatty, a two-stage downhill race that had nearly 40 participants. “To have the open alpine trails is such a different feeling for downhill fat biking, to be able to go with speed, drift corners and carve a path is really fun.”
This came in a year where the pandemic presented challenges not anticipated previously. At Spirit Mountain, the season started with the chalet essentially closed due to the state restrictions on indoor congregation.
“It changed everything as far as operating, as far as occupancy and how we run the chalet,” Regenold said. “We started this year with no indoor operations at all. You could come inside to buy your ticket, to rent skis and to use the bathroom. There was no warming capacity. That was a strange time.”
By mid-January things were more open, but skiers and bikers tailgating in the ski area parking lots rather than using the chalet was still a common sight. Further up the North Shore in Tofte, where Lynch sees people commonly rent fat bikes for two or three days per week, getting new bikes and bike parts -- many of which are made in Asia, where manufacturing has been decimated by the virus -- has been the bigger problem. Bikes that Lynch ordered one year ago might be delivered by late summer or early fall, he hopes. The fat bikes he has on order aren’t expected to arrive for another year.
“I’m going to miss a whole fat biking season because I won’t have them in stock,” Lynch said. “It’s difficult for a lot of bike shops right now. It’s hard to get inventory, and that goes with bike parts and repair parts and all that. Our main business is outfitting people for the Boundary Waters, but if we were just a bike shop, it would be tough to keep going. I don’t know how we’d bring enough revenue in.”
But for now, the trails remain busy, and they are hopeful enough snow sticks around for a few more weeks of fat biking in winter conditions. Lynch notes that the wider tires on fat bikes make them more trail-friendly, and the season can last a little bit longer until things start to get too slushy and muddy.
“Because of the width of the tire and the displacement of the force on a softer surface, it’s not as much of an impact as a narrow tire,” he said. “I’m not advocating that people go out on soft, muddy trails, because they can still do some damage, but when things get softer, they are the preferred bike if you are going to go out. So for early spring and early summer when things are softer and can be wet, those are the preferred bikes to take out in those conditions.”