EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Mountain bikes? In snow?
But it's true. Mountain bikes are increasingly forging their way through the snow, on both traditional mountain bikes as well as snow bikes - those ultra-fat tires seen on bikes roaming around the high country. Winter mountain biking is being embraced, not only by local commuters seeking a way to save gas and get exercise, but by endurance enthusiasts looking for another option to stay in shape.
If it's informal in the commuting and recreation world, Eagle-Vail's Pedal Power bike shop is formalizing winter mountain biking through the newest addition to the Snowshoe Adventure Series - the series' first-ever mountain bike-only event, a chance for athletes around the region and the Front Range to ply their new passion for winter cycling on Saturday.
"A lot of us up here hang the bikes up for the winter. It's hard to keep the bike fitness unless you spend a lot of time indoors and at spin classes. This is a fun way to keep some semblance of mountain bike fitness in winter," Dillon resident and race frequenter Kevin Minard said.
Race organizer and Pedal Power owner Bruce Kelly has hosted winter triathlons (snowshoe, mountain bike on snow and Nordic ski) as part of his winter race series - two of which Minard attended last year.
However, between seeing the smallness of the market for winter triathlons and the uptick in interest in snow bikes and winter mountain biking, Kelly decided to replace one triathlon event with the mountain bike-only race while keeping the other triathlon, scheduled for Feb. 2.
"We've been monitoring the snowbike popularity and thought, what the hell?" Kelly said. "Winter biking has become a huge part of our business over the last few years as equipment manufacturers have recognized its growing popularity by providing snow-specific designs and features on their bikes and tires to accommodate riders."
He said he's found that mountain bikers tend to be mountain bikers year-round. Not many cross over into other sports - and given the chance, they'll keep biking whenever and wherever they can.
"A lot of the (triathlon) racers are mountain bikers in the summer," Minard said. "The benefit of having a pure mountain bike race will get people out who don't run, who only mountain bike in the summer. It might bring people out who are intimidated by snowshoe running or Nordic skiing."
Racers must choose between riding a snow bike or a mountain bike with 29-inch wheels and fatter tires, Kelly said. Minard added that part of the race strategy is to know how to prepare the gear: He not only uses fatter tires, but he also fills them to an extremely low pressure - and that pressure varies on the front and back tires.
"You run low so you can spread the tire out and get as much traction as possible," Minard said.
Minard has seen more and more riders taking to trails like Keystone Gulch, where the resort's snowcats pack down the snow into something able to be ridden about three miles to The Outback.
Saturday's race begins at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center at 10 a.m. and consists of two race options: A five- to six-mile short course for novice and intermediate racers and a 10-12 mile long course for those seeking a heftier challenge. It all takes place on snow-packed trails - though fresh snow can thicken the plot a bit and make the course much more hairy.
The race series is a way for Kelly to increase awareness on snow bikes and snow-equipped mountain bikes, which could give him an uptick in business in the slow winter months, but the races are also a way to raise money for charity. All proceeds go to a fund that provides assistance to everything from race entry fees for high school students to community members needing help with health insurance gaps.
"It's up to the racers as to how much we can help someone with our charity," Kelly said. "This isn't a high-profile, big production. This isn't the Academy Awards here. We're real low-key. We time this race with watches. Everything's handwritten at the finish line."
The next race on tap following the mountain bike-only event is the Jan. 19 Tennessee Pass Cookhouse State Snowshoe Championships, which is a qualifying race for the United States Snowshoe Association National Championships. The final race of the year is the Feb. 2 Arrowhead Alpine Club North American Winter Triathlon Championships.
Registration costs $20 for Saturday's race, which includes food from the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse as well as roughly 30 raffle prizes and homemade pottery trophies for winners.
Participants can save time by pre-registering directly online at pedalpowerbike.com. Forms are also available from Pedal Power Bicycle Shop in Eagle-Vail or by calling 970-845-0931. Day-of registration costs $25 at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, located at the Ski Cooper Ski Area on Tennessee Pass just north of Leadville and south of Vail on Highway 24.