Fat-tire bicyclists in search of winter thrills are flocking to Macomb County parks

Winter might be a time when most folks put their bikes into storage, but not Steve Vigneau. 

The Shelby Township resident, who works in the IT field, is a passionate year-round biker and a member and former board member of the Clinton River Mountain Biking Association (CRAMBA). One of the places he enjoys biking this time of year is at Stony Creek Metropark, a scenic 4,435-acre park located not far from his home. Vigneau feels the gentle curves and hills of Stony Creek's trail system really lend themselves to fat-tire riding during the winter.

"I like their trails because they're a newer flowy design of trails," he says. "It lacks the abrupt transitions that make it difficult to ride on the softer slipperier surfaces that you have in winter. So it's ended up being a good place to roll around at that slower pace that happens in winter. and be among the trees and a beautiful area." 

Stony Creek is just finishing up an intensive redevelopment project of its Shelden trail system. 

Originally designed for cross-country skiing, Huron-Clinton Metroparks began upgrading the trail network in 2018 with the goal of making it one of the area's premiere  multi-use natural surface trail systems. The renovations have also been focused on encouraging safety and preserving local vegetation and wildlife.

The redesign, which was developed in conversation with CRAMBA and other stakeholder groups, is intended to make different sections welcoming for a variety of different users, including mountain bikers, hikers, runners, and cross-country skiers. The new additions even include two hand-cycle trails totalling four miles in length. ultimately bring the Shelden Trails systems up to 11 miles. The last remaining part of the project is a bridge in the northern section of the trail area, which will help connect Stony Creek with a new Oakland Township park. It's expected to be completed in the next few weeks.

During the winter, the Shelden Trails have been particularly popular with bicyclists on fat-tire-bikes, special bikes that are geared to be used on snow. Gary Hopp, eastern district superintendent for the Metroparks, says a portion of the trails there are now open for fat-tire bikers. But he asks members of that community to stay in the single-track section as cross-country skiers make use of other parts of the network..Once a curiosity, the Metropark supervisor says it's now common to see fat tire bikes at the recreation area.

"I can remember years ago, seeing the very first fat-tire bike out here. and that one biker was by themselves for a couple years," he says. "In the last five-to-seven years. we've just really seen an explosion of fat tire bikes  being rode out here."

Close-up of a fat-tire bikeThe allure of fat tires

Hopp isn't the only one who's witnessed the growing visibility of fat-tire bikes in recent years. 

Jim Bruzzese is a sales and service advisor at Macomb Bike, a full-service family owned bike shop in Warren. While he acknowledges that fat-tire bikes are a niche product, he says his store has had difficulty keeping them in stock. While the shortage is in part connected to pandemic-related scarcity issues, he says they're highly sought after by enthusiasts. 

"Typically when we get them in, we get them in one or two at a time right now--and they go rather quickly," he says. People have the ability to see a dealer's inventory online. "So if we have it, it'll come up as part of their search. they'll call us, they'll buy it, come down, and grab it."

Macomb Bikes sell fat-tire bikes from the Trek and Giant brands, as well as e-bike versions from Aventon and Bintelli. As the name suggests, fat-tire bikes have wider tires, typically between 3.8 and 5 inches. The oversized tires are designed to be used with lower air pressure than conventional bikes, which allows them to ride more effectively on terrain like snow and sand. 

Bruzzese says the two biggest consumers are hard-core bicyclists who want to ride all-year-round and those who like how the low air pressure can smooth out otherwise bumpy rides. While the sales manager concedes, that fat-tire biking is a small though growing hobby, he says that in the winter-time fat-tire cyclists will flock to local areas that are specially groomed to maximize fun rides for their bikes. 

"They were originally conceived for riding on snow, so that's where the enthusiast rides," he says. "These folks go out and ride the groomed trails. [Because] riding in ungroomed snow, that's a lot of work. 

Jeremy Verbeke grooms a trail at River Bends ParkWinter biking hot spots

Some fat-tire enthusiasts will groom their own trails. But the top destination for winter bikers in Macomb, according to Bruzzese, is River Bends Park in Shelby Township. While It's a city-owned public park, the single-track natural surface trail there is maintained by CRAMBA. And during the winter months, the mountain bike group grooms a snow bike route so fat-bike riders can have a good time there. 

Jeremy Verbeke is CRAMBA's trail coordinator at River Bends Park. In his free time away from his work as a firefighter and paramedic with Shelby Township, he collaborates with local agencies and fellow volunteers with the mountain biking group to maintain and improve the park's multi-use trails, which in addition to cyclists are also used by hikers, runners, and cross-country skiers. According to Verbeke, the ground needs to be covered in around four or five inches of snow for it to be properly groomed for fat-tire bikes. 

"We have what we call a snow dog," says Verbeke. "It's pretty much a snowmobile without the skis and then we have a drag sled that the groomers stand on it. And it puts down this nice corduroy trail bed." 

The first trails used by mountain bikers at River Bends Park opened up a dozen years ago. Starting in 2020, CRAMBA began to raise money to expand the traditional trails there, adding roughly 3 miles to the existing trails built between 2010 and 2020. So far the mountain biking organization has raised around $80,000.towards that goal. A mile of the new trail was built last year and another mile or so of completed trail is expected to be finished in the first half of this year. 

Verbeke encourages winter bikers to wear proper gear and layer up properly depending on weather conditions. And for those new to fat-tire biking, he urges them to lower the air pressure in their tires to an appropriate amount to avoid making what are known as pizza cutters in the snow, which can mess up groomed trails. The trail coordinator also cautions cyclists of all types to avoid natural surface trails during what is known as the spring thaw, as riding at that time before the ground has properly dried out can damage the trail beds by creating ruts that fill up with water and cause erosion. 

"When the temperatures at night get below freezing and then during the daytime they get above freezing, that is when we cause the most damage to the trails," he says. "You might go out thinking that you're having a good time riding through a little mud, but you're also creating work for somebody else to maintain the enjoyment for future rides." 

Vigneau, a good friend of Verbeke, takes frequent trips to River Bends Park trails during the winter -- and he isn't the only one. A winter fat bike festival sponsored by CRAMBA earlier this month brought more than 100 people to the park. Vigneau has also seen an increasing presence of fat-tire cyclists at Stony Creek Metropark and Clinton River Trails near Dodge Park in Sterling Heights -- which aren't groomed trails -- in recent years. 

For the bicycling enthusiast, these are good signs that point to a promising future for fat-tire biking as a recreational outlet. 

"There's been a big uptick in the number of people who have fat bikes," he says, "They're realizing there's stuff to do in the winter that's a lot of fun. It's just different."

In addition to fat-tire biking, there's plenty of winter activities to check out in Macomb county. Check out the county's online map of winter activities to learn more about what's going on.

All photos by David Lewinski.

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.

Cyclists take to a ramp at River Bends Park in Shelby Township
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.