WINTHROP — First dogs, then kids, now bicycles.
The organization that operates a vast web of cross county ski trails in the Methow Valley has once again expanded use on some of its groomed trails. This time, to bicycles.
Not the mountain bikes that travel these very same routes when there’s no snow in the spring, summer and fall. We’re talking winter riding. Right beside the skiers.
A relatively new form of snow bicycles, called fat bikes, have made their way to the Methow Valley. The nickname comes from their fat tires, which must be at least 3.7 inches wide and pumped to just 10 pounds per square inch of pressure in order to ride on these trails. That’s to make sure they don’t dig into the snow and ruin it for skiers.
So far, by all accounts, the new winter sport has been wildly successful.
“People see these fat tires and they think, ‘That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ They just basically float right over the snow,” said Kristen Smith, marketing director for the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association.
Initially, the idea to open 22 miles of MVSTA trails to fat bikes was met with limited enthusiasm.
“When we first announced it, a lot of our passionate Nordic skiers were worried about what it would do to the trails,” Smith said. “But they leave, for the most part, much less of an imprint than the skis do.”
To appease skier worries, the trails are closed to bikes when conditions are soft, she added.
But with 120 miles of trails — equivalent to the distance from Winthrop to Leavenworth — most skiers have been willing to share about one-sixth of their bounty, Smith said.
Many skiers were swayed after seeing that fat bikes aren’t out racing along the trails. These are people out on big, heavy bikes with very low tire pressure. Most of the skiers are going faster than the bicyclers, she said.
“The best is when someone walks in and says, ‘I was against it, and I tried it,’” she said. “There will be some people we never convert, but for the overwhelming most part, people are excited about this.”
In addition to the MVSTA trails, managers at Pearrygin Lake State Park and nearby Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land are now grooming an additional 12 miles of winter trails for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and yes, fat biking.
The effort includes volunteer groomers, and borrowed grooming equipment.
The idea is to open state lands to winter recreation, said Bryan Alexander, the park’s assistant manager.
He said he’s seen someone fat biking on the trails nearly every day, and has spotted as many as six or seven at once.
“I think this is going to catch on like wildfire,” he said.
First developed in the southwest to ride in sand, fat bikes have actually been around for about a decade, according to Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport in Winthrop.
They’re old news at her store. Her partner, Joe Brown, is already racing in the sport. Last week, he went to Alaska to compete in a 60-mile race.
Their shop had just one fat bike for rent last winter. It now has four that customers can take out for partial or full days.
“This is the year they just hit the national market. It was completely serendipitous,” Muyllaert said of the trail association’s decision to open some of its trails to them.
She said from Christmas through mid-January, the bikes were rented out nearly every day, and sometimes twice. “We were joking last Tuesday, calling it fat bike Tuesday,” she said. “We rented out all four bikes twice, and we could have rented them all out again. They’ve been really popular,” she said.
Rentals have ranged from serious bicyclists to skiers looking to try something new, and even a newlywed couple who took them out for a honeymoon ride.
It’s not just a craze, Muyllaert predicts. She thinks the sport is on the edge of becoming mainstream — like when snowboards jumped into the downhill ski scene.
“What we know is, there are a lot of bikers. Many more than there are Nordic skiers,” she said. “It opens up trails in the Methow Valley to a lot more people.
This isn’t the first time the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association has tried something new.
A few years ago, the ski trail association started allowing dogs on some of its trails, recognizing that many skiers like to bring their canine friends along. Now, they sell passes for dogs.
This winter, they started offering free use of their trails to kids 17 years old or younger, figuring the cost of a pass for an entire family could be prohibitive. They’re expecting that change will pay off in the long run, as a new generation of Nordic skiers grows up on the Methow’s trail system.
Now, they’re hoping these efforts to open trails to fat bikes will lure even more winter recreationists to the Methow Valley in winter.
“We’re the only cross country ski area in the nation doing it, and we’ve seen nothing but a huge interest in it,” Smith said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512