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Fat Tire Biking: The Latest Winter Sport

They’re big. Compared with a typical road or mountain bike, they're ponderous.Those 3-½-inch-wide tires look like doughnuts compared to those on my skinny tire road bike, and even my mountain bike, both of which are hibernating for the winter.

 Crystal Mountain's two-mile fat tire course operates on cross-country trails
Crystal Mountain's two-mile fat tire course operates on cross-country trails
Crystal Mountain

The frames also aren’t the lightest looking in the world. But the fun? Fantastic.

Welcome to the newest Michigan winter sport, fat tire biking. These bikes have been around now for a few winters, mostly out west. Now, they’re here in Michigan, available at a few ski areas like West Michigan’s Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa. There’s even a homegrown fat tire bike maker now, along with an entire race series for gonzo enthusiasts.

Are they easy to use? Yup, just like riding a bike, as the saying goes.

Yes, they are harder to pedal. That’s a given considering the medium you’re rolling over and through. But boy are they fun in the snow, and a great workout, too, as we found on a recent visit to Crystal. The resort has had rental fat tire bikes since the 2012-13 winter, and enthusiasm for them has built.

While these specialized bikes are fairly expensive compared with off-the-shelf road and mountain bikes that most of us are familiar with, they definitely will get you the exercise you need in winter when you’re not skiing or working out.

Crystal added fat tire bike rentals after numerous requests about a year ago. The resort has both multi-speed and single-speed bikes. Those big knobbies are filled only with about six pounds of air so they can ride over the snow surface, much like the spongy tires dune buggies use to float over sand. They provide great traction and an extremely forgiving ride.

After a brief run-through at the base activity center where the bikes are kept, we slowly pedaled along Crystal’s main road. I fully expected a couple of falls on the slick road, but we all made it. We arrived at the trail head, which turned out to be Crystal’s easier cross-country ski routes, turned in and took off, staying on the skate-ski portion of the trail.

All of us soon were aware that this was a far cry from riding in summer.

It takes more effort to keep those wheels rolling, but the effort it took to stay upright was unexpectedly easy.
I watched over the handlebars as my tires dug into, but mostly floated over, the groomed trail with ease.

First impressions: downright weird that I was riding a bicycle on the snow. First, also, some trepidation. But with every push of the pedal I grew more confident that there would be no slipping wheels, no tires sinking into the track, and no sudden spins of the crank with accompanying potential pains in the, um-extremities.
In fact, no problems at all. The secret: I just kept my nine-speed bike in a lower gear, first because of the size of the tires I was pushing, and second because of the resistance the snow put up. I was quickly able to keep my speed up

On my two-mile intro tour, the only time I got off my pedals was midway up a small hill, which would have been a cinch in summer, but the snow, and those tires, sent me into a stall.

Turning the crank was more akin being on an elliptical exercise machine than a bike ride, confirmed Chris Remy, bike specialist at the resort’s Water’s Edge center across from resort registration.

I came back winded and even a bit sweaty, but also seeing why fat tire biking is a welcome addition to the Michigan winter landscape. Bikes at Crystal rent for $10 per hour, and just like skiing, helmets are highly recommended.

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