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Winter wheels

Snowy weather is no deterrent for Grand Rapids cycling enthusiasts.

December 11, 2015
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winter bikes
The rising popularity of fatbikes gives cycling enthusiasts an opportunity to extend their recreation throughout all seasons. Courtesy DGRI

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Michigan is about to experience what “Game of Thrones” has warned about over and over again: Winter is coming.

But there is at least one group that is undeterred by the change in seasons, and it’s not the mail carriers. Come snow, sleet, black ice, or even the possible return of the unwelcome polar vortex — none of it matters to hardcore cyclists, or to the businesses that sell gear to them.

“No, the roads don’t need to be clear. That used to be the case. You’d see only the die-hard enthusiasts riding on the road. You’d see them make their own equipment, but the last few years, it’s changed a lot,” said Alex Voorman, service manager Grand Rapids Bicycle Co., a local business that sells and repairs bicycles and offers pretty much everything else that comes with the territory.

There once was a day when only inventive cyclists braved the frozen roads of Grand Rapids, Voorman said, but now, thanks to technology upgrades in biking gear, that has changed.

Enter the age of the fatbike, or the “wide-tire bike” for the more label-sensitive cyclists.

“Fatbikes are a special kind of bike with their own frame and tires. … They have 4- to 5-inch wide tires. They’re big, wide, knobby tires that were originally designed for sled dog trails. … That’s where things started off, and now, like with anything, it’s very nebulous, and people are doing it on the deserts in the southwest,” Voorman said.

“(The wide tire) gives it a wider surface area so it doesn’t sink into the terrain. Think back to when you were a kid, and your tire would sink into the sand. These don’t.”

Fatbikes also deal with black ice better than regular bicycles, but riders should still be careful, he said.

Cyclists who don’t have fatbikes can upgrade their regular bikes by adding tires with stainless steel studs — something like putting chains on a truck’s or car’s tires. Fatbike tires also may have steel studs. Voorman bikes to work every day and alternates between his fatbike and his bike with the studs, he said.

“Those you could ride over an ice rink if you wanted to,” he said.

Why do people like to ride their bikes in the middle of winter? It’s the same reason anyone likes to do anything outside in winter, Voorman said: It’s fun.

It’s really not that much different than riding in warmer weather, he said, but he thinks people are intimidated by the cold. But even the cold can be handled, he said, quoting the maxim, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

There’s a lot to enjoy about biking in the winter, he added.

“Generally, all the roads and trails are much emptier. You have more road to yourself. The whole world seems quieter. As a commuter, traffic gives you a wider berth because they think you’re crazier,” he said.

“If you can ride a mountain bike, you can ride in snow.”

Although the downtown bike share program is closed for the winter, there are still many people who bike to work in Grand Rapids, said Bill Kirk, mobility manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. He should know — he’s one of those people, he said, adding the city is trying to ensure it’s providing safer and more visible options to winter cyclists.

“Anecdotally, I’ve been a committed cycler for two years and still do bike in winter. I definitely see more cyclists out there. In years past, you’d see more hardcore bikers with the fatbikes, but even last year I saw more bikers with normal bikes. We’re trending that way,” he said.

“I know in years past — especially the last two brutal winters we’ve had — I think everyone in the Midwest struggled to keep up with the snow. As the city has deployed more bike lanes, they’ve gotten dialed in on not only to keeping them maintained but responding to feedback like, ‘Hey, there’s a pothole,’ or ‘There needs (to be) clearance.’ I think this winter, they’ll be pretty on top of the resources.”

Recreational biking in the wintertime also is becoming more popular in West Michigan, Voorman said. Grand Rapids Bicycle Co. now sells gear from 45NRTH, a Minneapolis-based company that makes winter-cycling equipment.

There are also many West Michigan winter biking events, he said, naming the Winter Rush fatbike series, Brewery Vivant’s Farmhand Fat Bike Race, which returns Jan. 16 at the Cannonsburg Ski Area, and The Frozen Puss, a Grand Rapids alley-cat-style race where competitors go from one checkpoint to another.

“It’s basically a scavenger hunt on bikes. There will be multiple stops and multiple tasks,” the Frozen Puss event information reads.

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. is partnering with the city on a bicycle education project that will have a big push in the spring, Kirk said. One of the things he needs is more data to measure how many are biking and what issues they’re facing.

“Personally and professionally, if you have a desire to commute by bike, just dress warm and have fun,” he said. “Just ride safe, be visible and follow the rules.”

Voorman said although the cycling business in West Michigan does tend to slow down in the winter, there is still a committed pack of customers who come in regularly for supplies.

After all, they’re Michiganders; why would a little thing like winter stop them from their favorite hobby?

“It’s slower in the winter. It’s a seasonal industry, no question about it. Winter is always a slow season. It’s reasonably niche among those who tend to ride all year long,” he said.

“But even just since I started working at this bike shop four years ago, I can tell that the numbers have gone up. From my own observation, we’ve seen a big increase in people who ride all year round. And then improved infrastructure (in the city of Grand Rapids) has definitely helped a lot.”

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