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Friday, 26 February 2016 10:08

Tackling the winter trails on fat tire bikes

Written by  Edwin Scherzer
Jerry Wisniewski of Mukwonago heads out on the John Muir Trails on Feb. 18 in the town of La Grange. Wisniewski moved to the area for its access to biking trails. The John Muir Trails in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit are popular with fat tire biking enthusiasts year-round. In winter especially, fat tire bikes like Wisniewski’s provide for better traction because the wider tires make more contact with the ground. Jerry Wisniewski of Mukwonago heads out on the John Muir Trails on Feb. 18 in the town of La Grange. Wisniewski moved to the area for its access to biking trails. The John Muir Trails in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit are popular with fat tire biking enthusiasts year-round. In winter especially, fat tire bikes like Wisniewski’s provide for better traction because the wider tires make more contact with the ground. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY --  If you’ve been looking past the couch lately for your lost New Year's resolution about getting in shape, you’re not alone. According a study from the University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology, only one in 10 resolution-making souls achieve their goals by Feb. 1, if at all. Equally adding to the misery for those in the Midwest is the bone-chilling, snow-laden landscape we face each winter.

One of your best bets for braving the outdoors while getting some exercise may be a bicycle.

As odd as it sounds, cycling never goes out of season.

Dave Saalsaa, owner of Quiet Hut Sports in Whitewater, has seen an increase of “fat” bike riding recently.

“It has taken off in the last few years,” said Saalsaa, who has owned the business for more than 30 years.

Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said biking “out of season” is in.

“We have definitely seen an increase in winter biking in general, and fat biking in particular,” Brown said.

Fat tire bicycles --  or fat bikes, as they’re called -- have much wider tires than average trail bicycles. The tire width usually exceeds 3 ½ inches, which leads to greater contact with the ground and provides excellent traction on slick and loose surfaces. The bikes aren’t built for speed and have wider forks and sturdier frames, which make them heavier. Due to the bikes’ huge tire volume, air pressure is also much lower than most bicycles, sometimes as low as 1 pound per square inch.

The low pressure means a fat bike can conquer just about any surface, Saalsaa said.

“They’re made for sand or snow and give a softer ride because of a lower-pressure tire, and that gives you a bigger footprint in the snow and ice,” he said.

Fat bike enthusiast Larry Reimer said it’s more fun to ride in winter.

“I have ridden the John Muir Trail(s) this past winter when we had about 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground and the trails were a hoot to ride,” said Reimer, of Rockton, Illinois.

Fat bike riders do need to share the trails, though -- even in winter.

“You can ride a fat bike just about anywhere, but please respect cross-country skiers and don’t ride on their tracks,” Reimer advised.

Brown agreed that knowing trail rules is vital to biking at its best.

“The rules are going to depend on the landowner, the DNR or the county, but fat biking is allowed on all groomed trails, unless the trail is a cross-country ski trail, or trail used by snowmobiles,” Brown said.

Around Walworth County, the John Muir Trails in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit and the White River State Trail that stretches from Elkhorn into Racine County often are cited as favorites.

Mike Bettinger, owner of Backyard Bike and Ski in the town of La Grange, is partial to trails that are right up the road from his store, which is a popular biker and hikers’ destination.

“The Kettle Moraine Trails in the Southern (forest) unit are some of the best anywhere,” Bettinger said. “You would have to travel a long way to find anything that equals them.”

A Travel Wisconsin article notes that the 20-some miles of John Muir Trails are considered medium to hard difficulty.

“The rugged terrain, hills and kettle-like depressions make for some tough riding and may not be for everyone,” according to Travel Wisconsin. “But for riders looking for challenging, technical riding -- this is the place.”

Before you hit the trails, be sure to go online to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/activities/bike/html, where you’ll find plenty of details about bike trails around the state. You’ll also want to check if a state trail pass is required.

As far as a fat bike itself, Saalsaa said, “The bikes can be very sophisticated and can be very expensive -- or not -- depending on what you put into it.”

A new top-of-the-line Trek or Surly brand bike can run about $1,000, but a quick Internet search showed other brands for about half that price.

“Just like in other forms of bikes, a lightweight fat bike is better, carbon frames and forks help and cuts down the weight, improving the speed,” Saalsaa said.

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