Fat bike use 'growing in a hurry' in Alberta parks

Fat bikes are coming into their own in the mountain trails west of Calgary.

Winter sport is getting space on established recreational trails west of Calgary

Calgary is a great place to live if you want to try fat biking with a mountain view. (File Photo/Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

Fat bikes are coming into their own in the mountain trails west of Calgary.

Trails that used to exclude the fairly new winter-sport are opening up for the bikes and now users have a huge amount of rides to choose from. 

The bikes are designed for snow-covered ground. They have wider tires and rims to help users tackle unstable terrain like sand or snow.

And while there are many trails with set tracks for cross-country skiing and areas where snowshoers are welcome in Kananaskis Country, there was a time when those snow-packed paths didn't have space for these wide-wheeled bikes. 

But that's changing.

Erik Larson is one of the owners of Calgary Cycle — one of the many shops selling the bikes in the city. And he says while sales for gear have hit a bit of a plateau, there's a hefty group of people using the gear, and getting the most out of an abundance of trails within an hour's drive of the city.

One of the first spots that came online for fat bikes was the West Bragg Creek area, thanks to the local trail association. And Larson says the Canmore Nordic Centre is also considered one of the sport's local birthplaces. 

"Some of the trails that were closed to fat bikers in the last year or two or three have now been deemed to be accessible to fat bikers as well as all the other users that were normally using those trails," he said. "I don't know where that will top out but in the last few years, yeah, more and more stuff has come online."

His shop, and others in town, host group rides year-round thanks to the trails that carry through the season: in the summertime mountain bikers use them, and now fat bikes take their hefty (but light) tires down, creating snowy tread marks as they go.

'Perfect spot for it'

He says attendance-wise some of the mountain bikers switch to fat bikes for the rides, and what they lose in one season they pick up in the next from users they might not see in the summer. Their rides can garner more than 25 participants — but on a typical week he says they see more than 10 people participate.

"We do live in a part of the world where we're literally in almost a perfect spot for it," he said. "You could ride the legal sanctioned trails all winter and not really repeat stuff too much, unless you had an absolute ton of spare time to ride."

Duane Fizor is the Kananaskis region wayfinding and trail lead for Alberta Parks. Over the years, he says, the sport has become one of the fastest-growing winter trail activities they've seen.

Trail design with fat bikes in mind

"This sport has really taken off," he said. " I'd say it's still a relatively small share but growing in a hurry."

It's become popular enough for Alberta Parks to consider the sport when designing trails. Fizor said they have started making trails that were just for snowshoeing multi-use. But converting them takes a little bit of consideration — on top of addressing the usual environmental concerns.

"We've had to expand the width of the trails in some cases and we're trying to educate snowshoers kind of to work together basically so that the path width of the trail becomes a little bit wider," he said, adding that helps accommodate for the width of the bikes and pedals, along with the existing snowshoe users.

Creative thinking to groom a path

Then there's the grooming. Fizor says there's not really designated equipment out there to groom the trails. So, they've had to improvise to help pack down snow. It's an experiment.

Alberta Parks staff are also thinking about how to design trails to be more interesting for fat bike users. 

"Bikers want a little more undulating terrain a bit more feature ups and downs and better corners and whatnot," he said. "So when we're designing the trails we're working with that in mind." 

There's lots of information on trails online, and trail reports now include fat bikes — an icon of a person on a bike with snowflakes instead of wheel spokes.

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