Fat tire or “snow” bikes

Working in Lake Tahoe for four winters for a cross-country ski touring center, I’m well aware how difficult it can be for these types of centers to make money.  Downhill skiing is by far the more glamorous sport, both in terms of its top athletes and the amount of money made.  Downhill skiing attracts the likes of Lindsay Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.  Downhill skiing is about fun and adrenaline, powder and trees, and panoramic views.  If you’ve read this blog for long, you know how much I adore downhill skiing, in fact dedicating part of each winter to teaching others to love the sport.

But I also appreciate the quiet beauty of cross-country skiing as well.  As an avid hiker, spending much of my time in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, cross-country skiing allows me to experience the peace and wonder of enjoying nature’s majesty during the wintertime.

Like many, at first I had no interest in cross-country skiing.  Like many, I thought of it as “too much work.”  But twenty years ago, a friend of mine who lived in Yosemite invited me up for the weekend to go cross-country skiing.  He gave me an old pair of leather boots, and beat up skis with 3-pin bindings.  Literally, there are three pin-dot holes underneath the very front of your boots that line up with three small little pegs jutting up from the metal bindings.  You line them up, and snap the metal latch down.  Very old school, and completely obsolete now, but at the time I didn’t care.

I didn’t have any lessons that first weekend and did what most do — shuffle in the tracks,  sort of half trudging, half sliding.  But what I do remember is seeing the granite domes covered in snow, the tracks of deer and rabbit criss-crossing the forest floor, and the hushed feeling of the forest.

Later, I did get some instruction (which I highly recommend) and learned that cross-country skiing, like downhill skiing, was about sliding across the snow.  Specifically, kicking (stomping one foot down to grip the snow) and gliding forward on the other snow.  And that same exhilaration I found from downhill skiing came to me while gliding down a pair of tracks through the forest.

Taking a job at Royal Gorge ski resort in Lake Tahoe, I learned why it’s worth paying to ski at a touring center with groomed track.  The skiing if far more effortless, because you don’t need to break trail through the new snow.  Groomed track also allows for ski skating as well as classic.  Ski skating is like it sounds, your skis are like ice skates where you push and glide across the snow.  It’s incredibly challenging from an aerobic standpoint, but also very fast as you fly across the trails.  Personally I prefer classic skiing because I like the rhythmic slower pace that allows me to take in the scenery.

Because I consider nordic skiing such a deeply personal experience that connects me to nature, I don’t take kindly to people infringing on this experience with other “machines.”  Snowmobiles bring noise and tend to tear up ski tracks.  Fortunately, touring centers don’t allow motorized vehicles, but they are turning to a different type of “vehicle” to attract more guests to their resorts.

As Bryon and I visited Devil’s Thumb Ranch for some cross-country skiing this week, we encountered a scene I’m more accustomed to seeing during the summer months.  In fact, as we walked up to the store to buy our trail passes, there was nary a skier to be seen, but instead, five mountain bikes equipped with what looked like “balloon” tires were set up along the entrance to the ski trails.

Snow biking has become the next big thing in winter sports.  It’s great for mountain bikers who want to continue to bike throughout the winter months, but also appeals to people who might not otherwise take to the trails during wintertime on nordic skis.

I have to confess I have mixed emotions about this latest winter sports craze.  I’m always happy for any sport that encourages people to step away from their iPads and television sets and get outside.  But I’m also annoyed about having to ski on trails that are ripped up with humongous tire tread marks.

But based on the popularity of the fat tire bikes, it looks like I will be the one to have to adjust.  That or find some trails off the beat and path that the bikers haven’t yet discovered.

Happy trails!