Snow biking takes off in U.P. with Polar Roll race

The 906 Polar Roll this February will bring the Upper Peninsula to the forefront of a new sport, with a 35-mile and 15-mile fat bike race across Marquette County.
For centuries, people have found ways to endure long, cold winters by using the weather to their advantage. Skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, hockey; all are time-honored pastimes for people living in winter climates, and the Upper Peninsula is no exception.

But even after centuries of living in the snow, people are still finding new, innovative ways to get outside and enjoy the weather.

The newest incarnation of outdoor winter sporting is fat biking, a mutation of mountain biking that allows bikers to stay outside all year long.

Todd Poquette, founder of 906 Adventure Team--a group dedicated to mountain biking, specifically training youth to race--took up mountain biking a few short years ago and quickly became a biking enthusiast. A large portion of the team also rides fat bikes during the winter.

"I ride all summer and then you hit the winter and you've got to either ride a trainer, which is murderous, or get a fat tire bike and get outside," Poquette says.

For Poquette, and others who are part of the 906 Adventure Team, fat biking is all about the experience--riding through the snowy, wooded hills that would otherwise be off-limits to bikers in winter.

With the sport gaining popularity in recent years, U.P. Travel's executive director Tom Nemacheck says it's too soon to provide specific information regarding the number of people traveling to the U.P. to take part in fat biking, but says his office has seen an uptick in interest.

"Certainly, we're seeing inquiries where people call up, or they email us, or go online through our website and they indicate that's what they're interested in," Nemacheck says.

And in a place where winter dominates the year seasonally, he says he's expecting that interest to continue to grow.

"The type of person that buys that type of bike--which is not inexpensive--they buy them to use them and to actually use them as a vacation product as well," Nemacheck says. "So, I think that the U.P. has an excellent chance to capitalize on this sport as it continues to grow."

And some evidence already shows an increased interest. The Iron Line Sled Dog race in Iron River added a fat tire race to its schedule of events this year, and the number of participants in the newly created 906 Polar Roll has more than doubled since last year, when it was run by the Noquemanon Trail Network, which called it the World Championship Snow Bike Race.

This year, the Noque still hosted a snow bike race, but shortened it from 50 kilometers to 20, and it was not included in the Great Lakes Fat Tire Race Series, as it had been in years past.

Rather, the 906 Adventure Team, which recently became a part of the Range Area Mountain Bike Association, took over that job this year, organizing the 906 Polar Roll, which will host the seventh race in the eight-race Great Lakes series with its 35-mile Polar Roll.

The 35-mile race, scheduled for February 21, will begin at the Ishpeming High School and finish at Mattson Lower Harbor Park in Marquette, utilizing the Noquemanon trails as well as the Iron Ore Heritage Trail.

Race day also includes a 15-mile "Half Roll," on the Iron Ore Heritage Trail near Border Grill in Negaunee, ending in the same place, though the shorter race is not part of the Great Lakes series.

An after party and awards ceremony for volunteers and race participants is planned at the Blackrocks Brewery Cannery in Marquette.

Poquette says moving the Great Lakes series race to its own weekend has already significantly increased interest in the race, with more than 210 people registered as of February 10, many of whom are traveling to Marquette from outside the U.P.. Compare that to last year's 65 participants in the Noque's event.

"(Registration) has exceeded everybody's expectations tenfold," Poquette says, adding a heavy emphasis on social media marketing likely contributed to the increase in participation as well.

Two other races in the Great Lakes series took place in lower Michigan this year. The Fat Chance Fatbike Race in Crystal Mountain and the Farmhand Fatbike Race in Grand Rapids both were held in January.

Poquette says the Polar Roll has received plenty of support as his organization worked to create the new race, especially from local snowmobilers, an important group since a portion of the 35-mile race will run over existing snowmobile trails. He says plenty of signage has been made to keep both racers and riders safe, estimating racers will be on the snowmobile trails for roughly three to four hours.

"This race is happening because local snowmobile groups supported us," Poquette says. "They wrote a letter in support of this race happening. They said they'd give us a shot the first year to see how it goes. They've been more than accommodating to assist, so, to me, it's important that those guys are recognized."

And it's not just snowmobilers who have helped ensure the race goes off without a hitch.

"We've hit snags (planning the race) but we haven't hit any roadblocks," Poquette says. "Everybody has been really overly accommodating to get on board and help make this happen, whether it's from the snowmobile aspect on a local level or on a state level with the DNR. It's been embraced and supported."

"Last chance" registration for the 906 Polar Roll is open just until February 20. The Great Lakes Fat Bike Series finishes up with the Fat Bike Birkie, being held March 7 in Cable, Wisconsin.

Jackie Stark is a freelance writer in Marquette, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @LoveTheYoop
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