Why Fat Bikes?

Many “traditional” bikers (or really anyone unfamiliar with the fat biking culture) have a unanimous question regarding the obese tires: Why? Alaskan cyclists have been riding bikes with fat tires for around a decade, but it wasn’t until 2008 that more well-known companies like Surly, Specialized and Kona began manufacturing fat bikes and boosting their presence in the biking community at large. Now, a bona fide community of fat bikers exists throughout the Midwest, primarily in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Traverse City shop Einstein Cycles was at the forefront of Northern Michigan fat tire biking, according to avid fat biker Cody Sovis (get to know Cody!). Quality fat tire bikes were being made right around the time the shop opened. “When it came to winter, Jason Lowetz, founder and owner of Einstein Cycles, didn’t want to rent skis or snowshoes or anything,” Sovis says. “He wanted to rent and sell bikes. Riding a fat bike is more accessible than cross country skiing, and easier to rent for people coming into town for the weekend.”

From when the first snow falls until it melts at the end of winter, Einstein Cycles (in cooperation with Timber Ridge Resort) hosts weekly “Friday Night Lights.” They rent out the bikes and take a friendly spin around the VASA. It’s not just a winter thing, either. In Traverse City, the TART Trail System, as well as the VASA Pathway, are great spots to try out fat bikes in the summer. Also, due to their sturdy, balanced frame and comically oversized tires, fat bikes are capable of cruising on sand unlike any mountain bike (let alone road bike) ever could—this opens up a whole new terrain for cycling.

For Sovis, the answer to “why fat bikes?” is simple. “They’re just so much fun to ride,” he says. “We have seen them become the replacement to people’s mountain bikes or commuter bikes.” He also maintains that the Northern Michigan fat tire biking community is an informal and inclusive one, making it enticing for newbies to give it a shot. “What else is really great about fat biking is the attitude,” he says. “Unlike road riding especially, and like mountain biking, it’s so open. You get some of the fastest people in the state to people who are just trying a bike out, and everyone is having fun. There’s no negativity. It’s the most enjoyable type of riding for people to try out.”

Where to Ride Fat Tire Bikes

Traverse City
  • VASA Pathway: A hilly, dirt two-track that is DNR-owned and maintained and groomed by TART, the VASA is a series of loops (3k, 5k, 10k and 25k) that appeals to any and every rider’s skill level. Trailhead is located at 4450 Bartlett Road.
  • Boardman Lake Trail: 3 miles of flat trail that winds through heavily wooded scenery along the east side of Boardman Lake. Half crushed limestone, half paved. Perfect for beginners!
  • For a more complete guide on TART Trails, visit MyNorth’s Northern Michigan Bike Trails for Kids.
  • Glacial Hills: Fat bikes should use the Vandermark Trailhead (2771-3377 Vandermark Rd., Bellaire) to access three loops of trails (1.7 miles, 1.4 miles and .8 mile).
  • Hanson Hills: The fat tire bike trail is nearly 3 miles basically following the Easy Rider Loop. Seasonal signage is placed when winter grooming starts. There is a $5 trail fee that can be purchased in the lodge (trail map).
Suttons Bay
  • Leelanau Trail: This trail is 17 paved miles connecting Traverse City and Suttons Bay. There are three trailheads to access it, located at Cherry Bend Road, Fouch Road, and 4th Street in Suttons Bay. You can also bring your bike on the bus if you don’t want to ride the whole thing! BATA’s Bike-n-Ride Program is perfect for those who want to more fully explore Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties with ease.
  • Little Traverse Wheelway: A 26-mile trail offering breathtaking views of Lake Michigan from many perspectives, the Little Traverse Wheelway starts in Charlevoix and ends in Harbor Springs, taking you along the Little Traverse Bay and through Petoskey’s Magnus and Bayfront Parks. Trailheads are located at Waller Road and US31 in Charlevoix and at Hoyt Street Community Park in Harbor Springs, but you can easily start and finish your ride in the Petoskey State Park.
  • Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Head to the paved 10-mile section connecting Empire and Glen Arbor along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Flat, well-groomed and clearly marked, it is perfect for testing your bike. You can also hop on a segment on the beach in Empire to rip around: ask the folks at Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak when you procure your rental!
  • For a complete guide to biking in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, check out Sleeping Bear Dunes Biking.
Frankfort & Elberta
  • Crystal Mountain: The trail is nearly 6 miles and may take riders between 30–45 minutes to complete. Bikes rentals are available at the Park at Water’s Edge, which is where the bike trail begins and ends.
  • Betsie Valley Trail: This 22-mile trail extends from Frankfort through Elberta and Beulah to Thompsonville in Benzie County. (trail map)
  • Manistee Non-Motorized Trail Park: The 173-acre non-motorize trail park is just east of M-55. The four-season park is used for mountain biking, walking, running and cross-country skiing. There are two fat bike loops: the West Loop is about 1.6 miles and the Outer Loop is 3.8 miles (trail map).
  • Big M: Ride about 20 miles of trail through the Manistee National Forest. The separate entrance to the fat bike loops is off the parking lot slightly to the east of the signboard. (In the winter, grooming conditions are posted on Shoreline Cycling Club’s website) (trail map).

Where to Rent Fat Tire Bikes

Einstein Cycles: Offers half-day, day and week rentals. Located seconds away from the TART Trail (1990 US 31 North, Traverse City, 231.421.8148).

Brick Wheels: Range of fat bikes available for a day or full week. No charge for helmets, locks, baskets, flat packs and specialty pedals for cycling (736 E. 8th St., Traverse City, 231.947.4274).

City Bike Shop: Downtown Traverse City’s bike shop offers fat bike rentals at half-day, full-day and weeklong rates. (322 S. Union St., Traverse City, 231.947.1312)

McLain Cycle & Fitness: With shop locations on Eighth Street and Garfield Road in Traverse City, McLain exclusively offers winter and summer rentals out of the Eighth Street location. All rentals include a helmet, lock and local map with each rental. (750 E. Eighth St. Traverse City, 231.941.7161).

Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak: Located in the heart of Empire, Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak has rentals for half day, full day or one week—perfect for hopping on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (10228 W. Front St., Empire,  231.326.9283).

Suttons Bay Bikes: With plenty of backroad trails and the Leelanau Trail in close proximity, Suttons Bay is a prime destination for biking. Suttons Bay Bikes rents fat bikes for daily use (multiple-day discounts are available starting at two days), and all rentals come with a helmet, lock, map and repair kit. They also deliver rentals anywhere in Leelanau County (118 N. St. Marys Ave., Building B, Suttons Bay, 231.421.6815).

Latitude 45: Petoskey‘s premiere cycling and fitness shop offers  4-hour rentals for walk-in customers and 1-day, 3-day and week-long reservations (476 W. Mitchell St., Petoskey, 231.348.5342).

More Northern Michigan Biking

Photo(s) by Crystal Mountain