One spoke of the local biking community is blazing a trail through the snowy backwoods of Manitoba this winter.
"It's great to get out in the trees this time of the year," said Wayne Bishop, an avid year-round cyclist and fat bike rider. "Fat biking is the fastest-growing discipline in cycling right now."
Bishop is helping to bring the sport of fat bike trail riding and racing to Manitoba.
The fat bike was developed in the early 1990s for riding through sand. It gets its name from broad tires that measure 9.6 centimetres (3.8 inches) to 12.7 cm (five inches) in width.
Fat bike production started to take off in the mid-2000s in Minnesota, Bishop said, adding he's still relatively new to the world of the rotund wheel.
"It's amazing. It's like a roller-coaster mixed with a sled ride," he said. "It's great to get out in the trees this time of the year."
Summer mountain bikers take quickly to fat bike trail riding, he said, as it offers many of the same hills and thrills but with a layer of snow (and winter clothing) for cushioning in the event of a spill.
2 Wheel Revolution
Right now Bishop and members of the fat bike group 2 Wheel Revolution are trying to get the word out and inspire others to hit the frozen trails in Manitoba parks.
The group has been trying to negotiate with select provincial parks over the past year to gain access to groomed cross-country ski trails and summer mountain bike trails, Bishop said.
Thus far, they've been permitted to groom and use about seven kilometres of the Bur Oak mountain bike trail in Birds Hill Provincial Park.
Natalie Lopes has only been fat biking for about a year and loves the new trail at Birds Hill, which includes rocky terrain and steep inclines that aren't accessible to cross-country skiers.
The 33-year-old cycling enthusiast rides all year and is keenly aware of what makes fat biking stand out from mountain or road cycling.
"It's [the] freedom to pretty much ride over just about anything," she said. "It's a lot of fun to just ride and roll over anything and everything."
Riding Mountain National Park is also piloting a fat bike program this winter. Bikes can be rented from the Friends of Riding Mountain Learning Centre for $10 an hour (or $25 for five hours). A few of those trails in the Wasagaming Campground and South Lake areas of the park are being groomed as multi-use trails for snowshoeing, skiing and fat biking.
Bump in the trail
Bishop said the group has encountered some barriers breaking into parks.
"We're still navigating some of the details," Bishop said. "[Manitoba Parks and Protective Spaces] as a whole wants to incorporate fat biking into the parks; it's just about how we do that."
There has also been push back from some in the cross-country skiing community.
"A lot of what we're dealing with right now is the fact that cross-country skiers don't want us to utilize cross-country ski trails," Bishop said. "Parks is kind of echoing their sentiment right now."
That skepticism toward fat bikes on trails resembles the attitudes downhill skiers once had toward snowboarders, Bishop said.
"We're just having to try and convince them that we're not out there like a snowmobile tearing up things," he said. "Actually, the fat bike is less intrusive than people walking on the trails."
Fat bike fears
Claire Paetkau, an employee at the Windsor Park Nordic Center, said she isn't interested in making room for fat bikes on the trails.
"I understand the desire to use the fat bikes on the trails, but it would damage them and it would probably anger a lot more skiers," Paetkau said.
Hundreds of skiers pay $70 a year for season passes, Paetkau said; adding fat bikes could degrade trails that groomers put lots of time and energy into maintaining.
"I don't think we would allow it all," she said.
Lopes is also a cross-country skier and said she can see why skiers might not want bikers on the trail.
"I think there's definitely room for both, but I think education might need to happen on both parts. A fat biker could definitely use a ski trail, but maybe stay off to the side, or just be more mindful of the features of an actual cross-country trail," Lopes said. "If there was some education on that, I can see it working for everybody."
There are about 20 full-time committed members in the 2 Wheel Revolution club at the moment, but Bishop said the more the merrier.
Club members will join 60 to 100 fat bike cyclists on Jan. 15 at Falcon Ridge Resort in Whiteshell Provincial Park to race down a network of about 10 kilometres of groomed trails. Bishop encourages first-timers to come out, watch the race and take one of the several fat bikes on hand out for a rip down the trails to see what it's all about.
Fat bikes are available at local department and specialty stores in Winnipeg. Decent fat bikes run between $800 and $1,200, Bishop said, adding the most important thing is to get on and test out the bike before shelling out the money.
White Pine Bicycle Company at The Forks in Winnipeg rents out fat bikes for $25 for five hours, $45 per day and $80 for the weekend.
"We're trying to grow fat biking as a sport. We're trying to grow it into Manitoba parks so that it's accessible for anybody who wants to get on a fat bike," Bishop said.
He has an ally in Lopes, who may be new to the sport but already foresees it will become a lifelong passion.
"I will never stop with the fat bike — I am going to do that forever," Lopes said.