As skiers and snowboarders reveled in the excitement of heavy snowfall throughout December, another group of snow sport enthusiasts in Central Oregon joined in the celebration.

Fatbike cyclists — who ride specially designed mountain bikes with abnormally wide tires for traction in snow (as well as in sand) — watched with anticipation as the snow piled up at Wanoga Sno-park southwest of Bend.

Thanks to volunteer groomers in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, fatbikers now have groomed singletrack snow trails on which they can ride through the end of February.

Gary Meyer, the winter trails steward for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance, designed and groomed the new singletrack trails specifically for fatbikes at Wanoga. The groomed trails will give fatbike riders a firmer surface to avoid sinking into the snow and provide a true singletrack experience.

The two-month period of groomed fatbike trails is a trial run with the Forest Service to see if the trails can become a yearly opportunity for cyclists in Central Oregon. Meyer groomed trails last season, but lack of snow near Wanoga made it difficult to keep the trails ridable.

This winter, however, is a different story.

“Last year we groomed the trails and we had just barely enough snow to clear the various obstacles on the ground,” Meyer said. “It’s amazing how much snow there is now. It’s really kind of exciting.”

The trails — which include a 3-mile loop and a 6-mile loop — officially opened Friday and will remain open through Feb. 29. Meyer uses a snowmobile with a roller groomer attached behind it to shape the singletrack, and he plans to groom two or three days per week.

Scores of fatbike riders tested the trails over the New Year’s holiday weekend.

“It’s been getting quite a bit of use,” Meyer said. “We hope the trial goes well and we can make it a permanent thing. I would like to expand it with longer, more challenging loops.”

Fatbikes are capable of ripping through about 2 to 3 inches of fresh snow, but anything deeper becomes extremely difficult, Meyer said.

With tires typically 3.7 inches wide, fatbikes can handle nearly all terrain. (Normal mountain bike tires are 2 to 2½ inches wide.) Tire pressure can be as low as 5 or 6 pounds per square inch on fatbikes — mountain bikes are usually between 30 and 50 psi — making travel over sand and snow possible. The greater surface area of the wide tires and the low tire pressure allow for more traction on challenging terrain.

Most fatbikes do not have suspension, which is not really necessary in snow.

Fatbikes have surged in popularity both nationally and here in Central Oregon, according to Marv Lang, a trails specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Bend.

“Given the increase in use and obvious sales, hundreds of percent increases nationally in the last two years, it’s happening,” Lang said of fatbikes. “They just provide a longer season and, frankly, an all-year season in the right conditions. Long term, it doesn’t look like a fad. They’re here to stay and people are buying them. … They’re pretty effective, even in the summer in a lot of our trail conditions when we get sandy soils. It just goes right through that stuff compared to a regular mountain bike.”

Meyer, who has ridden a fatbike for years, said he has seen more and more riders this winter. That might be due simply to the hefty snowpack this winter, but no doubt the sport is increasing in popularity.

Many fatbikers ride the Phil’s Trail network or other areas near Bend when the trails are covered in snow, but the groomed trails give them an area to ride where they know the snow conditions will be more consistent. Fatbikes are also allowed on snowmobile trails and snowshoe trails, but Lang advises riders to stay off nordic ski trails to avoid conflicts. Conversely, snowshoers and skiers are allowed on the snow bike trails.

“It’s exciting — the groups of people I’m seeing out on the trails now,” Meyer said. “It (fatbiking) just exploded this year. Last year, granted, we didn’t have much snow. But I see them all over now. There’s people who I thought would never buy a fatbike, and they’re all getting them now.”

The fatbike trails at Wanoga start at the snowshoe trail loop at the lower parking area near the sledding hill. Once bikers cross snowmobile trail No. 2, the main section of the two loops begins. Bikers can follow the blue “snowbike” signs affixed intermittently to trees.

Both trails are designed to be ridden counterclockwise. Meyer recommended the shorter 3-mile loop for beginners.

“With a fatbike in the snow, rule of thumb is your average speed is half your average speed when riding in the dirt,” Meyer explained. “So it’s harder than riding in the dirt, because you have more rolling resistance. And the trails — the shorter loop — it’s through a rolling area, so you do have some climbs, but we’ve tried to make it so the climbs are relatively easy.”

Meyer and Lang advise fatbikers riding on busy weekends and holidays to park in the upper snowmobile parking lot at Wanoga, then ride down to the lower parking lot to the start of the loops. Meyer is planning to groom a trail from the upper lot to the lower lot.

Meyer and other fatbike enthusiasts are eager to eventually expand the trail system and groom more trails with the backing of the Forest Service.

“People want a singletrack experience in winter, too,” Lang said. “This gets them beyond riding a snowmobile trail or a road. We’ll monitor it and get some feedback from the public and our folks in-house and go from there. Maybe we can provide a stronger system of fatbike trails.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

mmorical@bendbulletin.com

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