[Originally posted on MTBVT.com]
It’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.
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.
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.