Fat Bike Riding The New DTE Energy Foundation Trail

It’s January, 17 degrees, and I’m excited to get outside for a bike ride.

Recently, I was able to get my hands on a “fat bike.” Now lest you think the term is somehow related to just coming off the holidays, let me explain. “Fat bike” refers to tire width, not rider girth. First developed up in Alaska to ride over the snow, the fat-tire bikes made their way down to the lower 48 a few years back and have been taking the off-road biking world by storm ever since.

I spent last winter as all my previous winters as a cyclist – indoors spinning. By the end of February, I’ve predictably had enough of spinning. I yearn to slip the leash and run. I enjoy the gym, but all too often it strikes me, a farm boy, as odd. You work your guts out and have nothing to show at the end. No bales have been stacked, no new buildings, nothing has been castrated or milked. I prefer the satisfaction of accomplishment, something tangible to show for your work more than exercise for the sake of itself.

During those winter months of simulating climbs and sprints, furiously pedaling indoors while my crowd was out in the wild enjoying the snowy trails, I determined this would be my last winter indoors.

I arrive at the DTE Energy Foundation Trail several miles north of Chelsea on M-52. I pull into the lot where riders are loading and unloading bikes. I get out of my Honda Element and return the waves and greetings I receive from the other riders. I know none of these people. It’s a thing with cyclists, especially mountain bikers, especially fat bike riders. It’s a subculture. Fat bike riders are fans of mountain biking like Deadheads are fans of rock and roll – serious about what they love, but with friendly chill.

With the bike unloaded, I attach the GoPro and kick off. The moment the wheels begin rolling, a profound freedom overtakes me, not in a tranquilized disconnected way, but just the contrary – an alertness as crisp as the sharp frigid air. Anything outside of my immediate winter field of vision, such as pressing life issues, just doesn’t register in my concerns. I’m here … now.

Tire size: my road bike, the one with the big-horn shaped handlebars, has a tire width of 23 millimeters, or .9 inches. My fat bike has a tire width of 4.4 inches, the equivalent of 5 road tires. Plus, the fat bike has tread with huge knobs to bite into the snow. I got studded tires for even better traction. I just like the word “studded.”

There is a patina of ice on the packed trail making a satisfying crinkling sound as I roll along. At an amazingly low 4 psi, the tires hold their grip around the berms and I mentally struggle with the counterintuitive juxtaposition of leaning into corners on packed and icy snow. It is amazing.

DTE Energy Foundation Trail system in the Waterloo State Recreation Area began is a developing network of new mountain biking trails. The project is headed by the 250 member Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association who oversees construction and ongoing maintenance of the trails. DTE has designated $250,000 in matching funds for the construction of the trails. Primary funding comes from private donors and fundraisers.

I’m breathing hard from exertion, terrified of being caught from behind by bikers younger, slimmer and faster than me. It’s not the “being caught”, really, that bothers me. It is the message, the inner monologue, that lie I believe above all other lies – that I am less, old and not good enough. Demons. I remind myself not to care, but it doesn’t take hold this time. I press on wondering if I should put that in the article.

Construction for the first trail, the 5-mile Green Lake Loop, began in 2015 and opened in Spring 2016 and is described as a “flow trail.” The absence of technical features and climbs gives this trail a rhythmic sense of flow, or “zone”, or even “Zen.”  In the bike shop, we recommend this trail for those first-time mountain bikers.

I catch two bikers, both younger, and they pull off to the side to let me pass. I continue on slaloming through the pines at a steady pace. Two more bikers let me pass. I climb the series of humps next to the cornfield and feather my brakes downhill to the log bridge over the mostly frozen stream. I chug up the other side out of the ravine. I pass the Big Kame turn off and fly down the home stretch and back to the parking lot.

Big Kame opened in Spring 2017 and is the second of the five planned loops with a connector to the Potawatomi. Big Kame is where I crashed last August and spent a few days in the hospital. I crashed because I did something stupid. I’m back riding and don’t have too much lingering PTS because I won’t do the stupid thing again. The tires will stay on the ground at all times now.

Back in the lot two bikers are loading their “fatties”. We talk, make jokes, immediately connected and comfortable. I have no idea who these guys are. It’s the Brotherhood of the Trail which hikers and bikers so often experience. It’s an immediate camaraderie of those who have been through a significant, even transformative, experience together. We’re not family, but for a few minutes it feels that way.

Headed home on North Territorial, I pass Pinckney Rec Area home of the fabled 17-mile Potawatomi  Trail. I think I’ll ride it tomorrow during the snowfall, probably with some shortcuts.

Here’s a 3 minute clip of the beautiful Green Lake Loop in Winter.

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