Winter Play: Cruising snow-covered trails on a fat tire bike near Brainerd

A group or riders on a snowy trail
Fatbikers ride a flowing descent on the Sagamore Unit trails near Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14. MPR News reporter Kirsti Marohn tried it for the first time.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime.

Central Minnesota reporter Kirsti Marohn took to the snow on two wheels.

It’s a January weekend with two feet of snow on the ground, but Cykel, a bike shop in downtown Ironton, is bustling with activity.

Ironton, about 20 minutes east of Brainerd, sits on the edge of one of the best mountain biking spots in the Midwest — Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.

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“We were driving around with our kids and asked them what their ideal summer job would be, and they said a bike shop in Cuyuna,” said Luke Lundquist, who opened the shop two and a half years ago. “So here we are.”

Two people stand in a bike shop
Bike shop owner Luke Lundquist (left) and mechanic Matt Postier prepare rental bikes at Cykel in Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Cykel is a good first stop for a daylong winter fat tire biking adventure. It's $40 to rent a fat tire bike for half a day, helmet included.

‘A true fat tire bike’

Bike technician Matt Postier explained what sets a fat tire bike different from a regular mountain bike: It’s all in the name.

“The biggest difference is, when you first look at them, just the width of the tire,” Postier said. 

They're four inches wide — about double the width of mountain bike tires — with metal studs to provide more stability. Postier keeps the tire pressure low, less than 10 PSI, depending on the trail conditions and the weight of the rider.

“Up here, you do have to have a true fat tire bike,” he said. “That's just to give that flotation to let you guys not just completely destroy the trails while you're out there.”

A red bike with large tires
A fat bike, outfitted with studded 45NRTH tires, sits on display at Cykel bike shop in Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A different kind of cycling

For me, cycling is a chance to get out in warm weather, in a T-shirt and shorts, enjoying the sights and sounds of summer. When the weather turns chilly, my bike usually goes into storage.

But I'd heard about how winter cycling on fat-tire bikes is booming in popularity, especially in north-central Minnesota. It looked fun, but a little intimidating, cold and slightly dangerous.

So I recruited two expert guides, Matt Sundquist and Mike Hawkins. They're part of a group called Gravel Grinders based in the Brainerd Lakes Area. They ride fat tire bikes all year round.

A man loads three bikes into a truck
Fat tire biker Matt Sundquist loads bikes into his truck before riding the trails at the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails near Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

I had no idea what to wear for the excursion. With some beginner's luck, I got it about it right.

“The biggest thing is layers, for sure,” Sundquist said. “You'll probably overdress the first time.”

I started with a base layer, added windproof pants and a jacket, a thin hat inside my bike helmet, and of course, warm gloves. 

Wool or synthetic fabrics are best, Hawkins said, and avoid cotton at all costs. Some people add a neck gaiter, and pogies — like oven mitts that cover your wrists.

Cycling in silence

We loaded the bikes onto a truck and headed to the Sagamore Unit, known for gentler trails that are good for beginners.

Riders, obscured by trees, ride a snowy trail
MPR News reporter Kirsti Marohn (lower left) rides a fat tire bike in the Sagamore Unit trail system near Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Riding was a lot easier than I expected. The trail is groomed, with a hard-packed section right down the middle.

We pedaled through thick forests and past frozen quarries. The trail skirted around trees whose branches were bent over with heavy snow. Except for the whizzing of tires — and my panting — it was absolutely quiet, and beautiful.

Once we got going, it was not cold or scary at all. I discovered the bike’s brakes did work, even on the snow. We really didn’t go very fast, and it was a gentle ride, smoother than mountain biking.

Rookie mistakes

I did make a couple of rookie mistakes. Most riders wear warm winter boots. I wore running shoes, so my feet got a little chilly. 

Also, I learned it's really important to stay in the center of the trail, and avoid the soft edge. I was just building some confidence when I decided to pass a slow rider. I got too close to the edge, and wound up in the snowbank.

A rider holds her fatbike on a trail
MPR News reporter Kirsti Marohn picks up her bike after a slow-speed wipeout while riding the trails at Cuyuna near Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

I was embarrassed, but not hurt at all. It was like landing on a soft pillow. I admired the snow angel I left behind.

My fellow riders laughed with me, and waited for me to climb out so we could hit the trail again.

Two fatbikers ride a groomed snow trail
Fat tire bikers ride the Sagamore Unit trails together; the community it brings is a draw for many.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A welcoming community

After six miles, it was time to call it a day. Afterward, our group gathered at Hudson 218, a café in Ironton geared toward outdoor adventurers. 

Everyone grabbed coffee or a beer and sat by the fireplace swapping stories. Sundquist explained what he loves about this sport.

“It's just being outside,” he said. “Then, of course, like today making new friends, and getting more people outside and on the trails.”

Hawkins said for him, the big draw is the community that's developed around cycling.

“Everybody is so welcoming,” he said. “They embrace you. They want to see you do better and see you grow, and that's huge. You've developed a lot of close friendships, and you're healthier in the end.”

I can definitely see the appeal of fat tire biking as a way to get outside, see some beautiful scenery, and find camaraderie during the dark months of winter. 

My guides predict this won’t be my last fat tire bike ride. I promise I’ll be back.

A group or riders on a snowy trail
A group of fatbikers ride the Sagamore Unit trails near Ironton, Minn., on Jan. 14.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

If you want to go:

Where: Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in Ironton has about 40 miles of groomed trails for winter fat tire biking. 

There are plenty of other places around Minnesota to ride, including state forest roads or trails that allow bicycling. Jay Cooke, Split Rock Lighthouse and Fort Snelling state parks also have groomed biking trails. Avoid snowmobile or ski trails.

When: All winter, so long as the trails are in good riding condition. Soft or icy conditions are not ideal.

Length: Ride as long as you’re able. Bike shops typically rent bikes for a half or full day, or 24 hours.

How much: Cykel and Red Raven in Ironton charge $40 to $55 to rent a bike for four hours, $65 to $80 for eight hours.

What to bring: Dress for cold weather, but you’ll be physically active, so don’t overdress. Layers are best, especially wool or synthetic fabrics (no cotton). A hat, boots, warm gloves and a neck gaiter are must-haves. Goggles or sunglasses and wrist pogies are optional.