Cyclists ride bikes on ice in winterHansi Johnson would love to be cross-country skiing. But conditions in the Duluth area this winter have conspired to make skiing a tough go. So Johnson and several of his friends have found another alternative.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
ON THOMSON RESERVOIR, NEAR CARLTON — Hansi Johnson would love to be cross-country skiing. But conditions in the Duluth area this winter have conspired to make skiing a tough go. So Johnson and several of his friends have found another alternative.
On Wednesday morning, Johnson and his cycling friend Todd McFadden rode their specially designed winter bikes across the frozen surface of Thomson Reservoir near Johnson’s home.
“If you get your head around the idea that ice is ridable, you can go a lot of places,” said Johnson, 41, who is Midwest regional director for the International Mountain Biking Association.
Granted, winter biking is a specialized pursuit, best done on mountain bikes with exceptionally fat tires that provide excellent flotation on snow or snow-covered ice. The riders wear insulated biking shoes and split mittens called “lobster claws” to keep their hands warm.
But they’re riding. And they’re happy.
They cruise among the rocky islands of the reservoir, which is a dammed portion of the St. Louis River. Except for the Carlton water tower poking out of the pines to the west, the scene looks like something out of the canoe country up north.
“These bikes have really opened up a whole new level of riding,” said McFadden, 47.
Beyond Thomson Reservoir, Johnson and friends have been riding the ice of the upper St. Louis River, where schist, slate and greywacke rise from the ice like shark teeth. Johnson has been doing some riding on the Midway River. Others are taking to the city’s regular mountain biking trails and the beach on Minnesota Point.
It’s been an ideal winter for riding, said another Duluth rider, Matthew Evingson.
“This year has been fantastic,” Evingson said. “And it’s not just the fanatics who are out there. With these conditions, you don’t have to have the fat-tire bikes.”
Mainly, winter biking is another way to embrace winter.
“I’ve ridden 225 miles in a month,” McFadden said.
All about the bike
Winter biking technology is developing rapidly. Johnson rides a Surly Pugsley, and McFadden a state-of-the-art Salsa Mukluk. Fat tires are at the heart of these bikes, and frames are built to accommodate the tires. McFadden’s tires are 4 inches wide, reminiscent of a motorcycle, and Johnson’s are 3.7 inches wide. Maybe you’ve seen similar tracks in Duluth’s city parks, where winter bikers leave almost as many tracks these days as dog walkers.
The tires are inflated to about 8 to 12 pounds of pressure, compared to 40 to 60 pounds for standard mountain bikes and 100 pounds for standard road bikes. That low pressure allows the bikes to get maximum traction on the snow.
The ride is smooth, and the snow softens trails that are rooty and rocky, such as those at Hartley Park, a popular mountain biking area.
“Hartley is easier to ride now than in summer,” McFadden said.
Surly and Salsa are among leaders in winter biking, and demand is growing. McFadden said he knows 15 bikers in Duluth who would buy a bike just like his Salsa.
“But they sold out in December,” he said.
The fat-tire technology originally was developed in Anchorage, Alaska, where Evingson’s brother was among the pioneers. Major biking manufacturers such as Trek and Specialized are likely to enter the market soon, Johnson said. A fat-tire bike can cost $1,500 and up.
“They’re very forgiving,” Evingson said. “It’s more conducive for a beginning rider, who’s not so fanatical. You have every excuse to go slow, stay warm, get out and explore. That’s something that attracts a lot of people.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, Minnesota is driving demand for winter bikes.
“It’s cool to think most of it is coming from Minnesota,” Johnson said. “Minnesota and Alaska are the hotbeds.”
So to speak.
City officials are packing some biking trails in the Twin Cities for winter riding and winter bikers are using the new Cuyuna Mountain Biking Trails near Brainerd, Johnson said.
“The land managers are starting to see the demand for it,” he said.
The beauty of winter biking is simply getting out when conditions make other pursuits tough. Most of the people who ride are addicted in some way to being outdoors, and this is their fix. Conditions can change day to day, Evingson said.
“Sometimes the snow is almost like sandpaper. It’s tacky,” he said. “Other times it’s slippy and slidey.”
Johnson and McFadden rode the smooth surface of Thomson Reservoir for an hour or more on Wednesday, snaking among the islands, riding along below cliffs, venturing out to wide open spaces. Their tires issued a soft whisper on the snow. The riders scanned the landscape and chatted as they rode.
Some of the ice was snowpacked with an inch or less of snow, and traction was easy to get. Some ice surfaces were covered with just a talcum powder of loose snow. There, the riders took it easy and avoided sharp turns. Neither of them slipped or fell during the entire ride.
Everything about being out there was the same as if one were on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The silence was pervasive. The sentinel pines looked good atop the islands. The riders left their waffle tracks alongside those of a coyote that had passed by recently.
Johnson and McFadden gobbled up the distance, riding along in the easy rhythm that always accompanies sustained exercise. They had found one more way to engage a northern winter landscape.