Posted by: Mark | 27 March, 2015

VMBA, VAST and Fat Bikes

Vermont Mountain Bike Association logo

Some good news from Vermont Mountain Bike Association.  Here’s the press release:

State and Federal Partners Collaborate to Expand Fat Bike Access in Vermont

Montpelier, VT March 23, 2015

The Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) recently met with the Vermont Dept. of Forests Parks and Recreation (FPR), the US Forest Service and, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) to address the management of fat biking throughout Vermont.

As fat bikes are gaining in popularity, riders have been seeking places to enjoy the Vermont winter. This has led them to the groomed trails of the VAST network. 85% of the VAST trail network is located on private lands, with permission granted exclusively for snowmobiles. Fat bikes are not allowed on these trails and there have already been some reports of user conflict.

In the effort to promote the safety of all winter recreationists, VMBA has teamed up with VAST, FPR, and the Forest Service to identify appropriate locations on public lands where fat bikers and snowmobilers could enjoy shared use. A statewide assessment has been initiated that will identify opportunities where fat bikers can further enjoy their state and federal lands. With established parking lots, public access, and a 35 mph speed limit for snowmobiles, public lands provide an ideal location for shared use trails. The goal is to have these areas identified, marked, and a trail ethic developed for the ’15­/’16 winter season.

VMBA is excited to explore fat biking opportunities in Vermont with VAST, the State and Forest Service for the ‘15/’16 riding season. Over the next few months, all stakeholders will be sharing information, identifying appropriate trails, and developing strategies for maintenance and grooming.

For the remainder of this winter, the State has provided opportunities for fat biking on campground roads in Allis, Fort Dummer, Gifford Woods, Molly Stark Discovery and Quechee State Parks.

https://vmba.org/2015-03-23-fat-bikers-vmba-partners-vast

I can’t claim to have any part in this, but this is the kind of cooperation I was thinking of in my article a couple of weeks back.  A big thank you to VMBA and all the parties involved.

Posted by: Mark | 11 March, 2015

A VAST Perspective

[Originally posted on MTBVT.com]

VAST signIt’s no secret that fat biking has really taken off over the past couple of years, especially for riding in the winter months.   Somehow, this weird little niche has become the fastest growing segment of the bicycle market.  I was immediately hooked the first time I was able to borrow one and pedal around on the snow.  The potential for expanding the riding season to include the long Vermont winters was an extremely enticing prospect.  If you like mountain biking, it’s very difficult to understate the level of pure enjoyment these big, heavy, slow bikes bring.  I now look forward to the winter biking season almost as much as I do summer.

With more people getting out on the snow, there comes the inevitable challenge of finding some trails to ride.  Several groups have stepped up to the task, creating bike specific trails in the winter months – everything from organizations like Kingdom Trails and some Nordic ski centers to the odd groups of individuals that are willing to put in the sweat and effort to pack down single-tracks in the snow using snowshoes or other means.  It’s a situation that has been improving every year, but the available opportunities are still found only in various pockets scattered around the state.

That's some serious coverage.

That’s some serious coverage.

Looming in the background behind all this is an almost irresistible temptation stretching out all over Vermont with around 5000 miles of well- maintained winter trails.  The Vermont Association of Snow Travellers (VAST) has been around for well over 40 years developing and maintaining their trail system with the participation of numerous local clubs.  There’s hardly a town in Vermont where you cannot find access to these trails.

While I’d love to be able to jump into a glowing endorsement for riding on these trails, I can’t.  From all technical perspectives, they more than fit the bill for great winter biking terrain.  Unfortunately, the reality is that, with a very few specific exceptions, we don’t rightfully have permission to ride there.  I know that it’s pretty easy to find a fellow mountain biker who has, at least occasionally, ridden on the VAST trails at one time or another, if you haven’t done so yourself.  It’s one of those somewhat unspoken activities that is often viewed as a bit of a grey area.  I’ve even seen articles in regional publications suggesting biking on local snowmobile trails as an option.  I’m not attempting to take the moral high ground here; I’m guilty of occasionally giving in to this temptation myself.

As our numbers grow, our activities are being noticed more often by snowmobilers.  Just this week I had a co-worker mention that there was some discussion about fat bikes on the trails in Vermont on one of the bigger on-line snowmobile forums.  While it wasn’t really negative, on the whole, it’s an issue that will need to be addressed sooner or later by the biking community before it becomes a real problem.  In some states in the mid-west, there has been quite a bit of hostility between the two user groups.  Thankfully we have managed to avoid that fate, so far.

It’s important to be crystal clear about one thing before going any further with this discussion: these trails are their trail network, not ours.  VAST and its members have invested a lot of time and money to get things where they are today.  Many people do the hard work of clearing trails, putting up signs, creating maps and grooming these trails.  Then there’s the even bigger job of working with government agencies and land owners all over the state to keep them open.  This is done both as a state-wide organization and more directly by each of the individual clubs.  This is much like mountain bikers have done with the various mountain bike clubs and summer trail systems around Vermont.

To put this in perspective, try to see it from their point of view.  Mentally, pick your favorite mountain bike trail system.  Now, how would you feel about another group vying for access to it?  Maybe you helped invest in it’s development by paying membership fees, and possibly even kicked in some sweat and effort on some trail maintenance days.   Would you be okay with hikers trying to get official access to use those trails?  How about horses?  4-wheelers?  To approach the question about whether or not we belong on these trails should be done with some humility and some expectation that we will contribute something that will benefit both groups.

Trail

Personally, I feel that fat bikes could coexist with snow machines without lessening the experience for either group.  With some reasonable guidelines and education many of the potential conflicts between snowmobiles and bikes could be largely eliminated.

I think many winter bikers would gladly pay the regular fees for a VAST pass (TMA) in order to be able to use the trail system, just as we do for summer memberships.  Right now, this is not an option, even for those of us who would like to pay our fair share.  This shouldn’t be viewed as a “pay to play” option as much as it is contributing something back to help with the expenses involved in maintaining these trails.  Even though our low-psi tires and low power output create almost no impact on the trails, groomers still consume a lot of fuel.  Liability insurance isn’t free either.  Enforcement should be handled just like it is for snowmobilers who ride without a TMA.

Some thoughts on what might constitute reasonable guidelines: Bikes should yeild to sleds; Stay to the right side of the trail; Ride single-file.  There are likely others that would need to be considered.  Of course, this would be the bicycle specific guidelines in addition to the code of ethics that VAST expects from its members.  Most of this would be necessary to avoid injury for both the bikers and those riding a snow machine.  There is a big disparity in speed that brings some safety concerns.  Some of the busier trails might not be appropriate for bike use and would need to be unavailable to bikes or limited to off-peak hours.

Ultimately, we are looking for many of the same things in our recreation while enjoying all that the great outdoors in Vermont has to offer.  Contrary to the perception that many get from interacting with bicycles on the roads, most bicyclists have no desire to impede the enjoyment of other trail users.  We’re generally a pretty laid back group and can relate to the enjoyment that other trail users get in their own way.  Nobody wants to create any animosity between fat bikers and snowmobile riders.

As I mentioned earlier, winter fat biking is a rapidly growing activity and could help support the efforts of VAST and local clubs.  We have had our own experiences with gaining trail access and a culture of contributing to see these interests maintained has been developed over the years.  Fat biking could become another significant part of Vermont’s winter tourism opportunities.  Things like organized inn to inn treks could be a real draw and a great experience even for those of us who live here throughout the year.  Vermont has an opportunity to do this right with some careful thought.  I’m aware than VMBA and some other mountain bike organizations have already engaged with the snowmobile groups, at least on some level.  Hopefully, more discussion can occur and we can build some agreement that will avoid the contention over trail use that has become a problem elsewhere.

Posted by: Mark | 3 March, 2015

Winterbike 2015

[Also on MTBVT.com]

Now in the fourth year running, Winterbike has grown into a huge event.  Several times on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about how small the first Winterbike was in comparison.  Back then, only a handful of fat bikes could be seen among the small crowd of bikers; this time, they were universally present.  While things have grown much bigger, the core of what made that first Winterbike fun hasn’t changed at all.

Once again, things were centered behind the Kingdom Trails Nordic center by the Wildflower Inn.  There were over 400 participants attending this year.  Other than a few minor congestion points out on the trail, it never actually felt like it was too crowded.  My wife and daughter helped with the registration Saturday morning and it was quite busy.  Fortunately, many people had completed their registration on Friday night which helped divert a major logistical bottleneck.

Group rides leaving the venue.

Group rides leaving the venue.

Normally, I show up for an event at the last minute and would take this space to write about how I was doing something like putting my bike together while everyone else was hitting the trail.  This time, however, I was actually early.  Unbelievable.  This was mostly due to the fact that I was slated to lead the “epic” ride, the first group ride scheduled for the morning.  We managed to get rolling a little before 9am with a small group of 15 riders.  Several of the people in this group were good friends, so I knew this was going to be fun.

It was cold out there, with the morning starting out around -12F.  Actually, it’s been at least that cold nearly every morning for the past two months, but I’ll save that for another rant.  It was cold enough that I had my tongue get cold from breathing deeply on some of the climbs.  I’ve been in Vermont most of my life, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.   The up-side of these temperatures was that it gave us super firm, grippy snow.  The traction was so good that you could even stand up for more power on steep climbs without spinning out.

Part of the "epic" group regrouping on the trail.

Part of the “epic” group regrouping on the trail. (photo by Hans Buehler)

We started the ride by looping around Bill Magill and then crossing over to the west side.  The trails on the west side of Darling Hill were just recently packed and opened to the public, so I was a little apprehensive about bringing a group down there.  Thankfully, my concerns were not realized.  We descended Fox Run which turned out to be a blast.  When I had ridden earlier in the week, the snow was nowhere near as good as this.   We rode out to the bottom of Old Webs and made a run up the left side and down the right.  Everything on in that area seemed to be in amazing shape.  The trails crew outdid themselves with their work.  I would have stayed over on the west side of Darling Hill for the remainder of the day if it we didn’t care about hitting the aid station that was on the far end of the east side.

Out on the trail (photo by Hans Buehler)

Out on the trail (photo by Hans Buehler)

I lead our group back to the East side, hitting Knob, Sugar Hill, Pines, Riverwood and a few others.  As we worked our way up the east side, we finally started to run into other groups.  We were momentarily delayed by some minor traffic jams, but nothing that dragged down the ride overall.  There were a LOT of people out on bikes by late morning.  While these are the same trails we ride in the summer months, many of the many of them have been re-routed thanks to the deep cover of snow.  The end result is that you get a little more interesting experience and avoid the VAST trail.

The aid station before the crowds hit (photo by Hans Buehler)

The aid station before the crowds hit (photo by Hans Buehler)

We climbed up Beat Bog and then found our way over to the aid station.  There, the KT crew had a good sized fire going with quite a few people already warming up around it.  There was no shortage of food and things to drink.  I thought the hot cider was particularly good.  By this time, the temperature might have climbed out of the single digits, but I wasn’t going to complain about any additional source of warmth.  The cider paired with some bread with Vermont Peanut Butter hit the spot pretty well.

Once the remainder of our group had had their fill, it was time to take in some more trails.  We rode up to the top of Kitchell and had a pretty good ride on the way down.  I think every one of us had at least one good dive into the snow in the process.  A few had numerous unplanned trips off the groomed track.  We then rode back up to the end of Riverwood for another pass, now in the opposite direction.  The snow was starting to show some wear from the warming temperatures and the crazy number of bikes.

Lunch parking

Aid station Parking

From there, we rode back up to the Connector trail and climbed back over the fields to the main venue arriving back in time to get some lunch.  My group had experienced some attrition along the way and was significantly smaller now; but everyone seemed to have a good time, even those that chose to cut the ride short for one reason or another.

Registration for the day included a meal and a couple of cups of Long Trail Ale.   I think we were all more than ready for some warm food.  The lunch was provided by Market Cafe again this year and it didn’t disappoint.  I love their wraps.  There was also the option of sitting down in a warm restaurant at Juniper’s across the street.

Riding Riverwood! (photo by Hans Buehler)

Riding Riverwood!

Later in the afternoon the 6X race was held on the hill behind the Nordic Center.  This was followed by various games, such as a fat bike log pull, sugar on snow, and others activities.  This year Winterbike was more of a weekend  event.  There were casual non-organized group rides on Sunday morning as well as pre-registration and socialization on Friday night at the Publick House.   This makes it even better, especially if you’re driving a long way to get here.  I met some people  who came from as far as Ontario and New Brunswick.  There was also a guy from Florida, but I don’t think he came up just for the biking.  Overall, it was a great day.  We had perfect blue skies, awesome snow conditions, good food and spent it all out riding bikes.  It’s hard to argue against any of that.

Odds and ends:

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