Earlier this year, Aaron Peterson shared a few very cool and trippy photos of riding a fat bike on crystal clear ice on Lake Michigan. He just finished putting together a video from the session, and here he tells the story of what it was like. — Ed.
Up here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula you have to find ways to have fun in winter or you’ll go nuts. There’s a lot of chatter back and forth about fat bikes (most locals in the UP still call them snow bikes because that’s when we primarily ride them, but some ride them year round) on the forums, etc., debating if they are a fad or if they look stupid, etc. But to most of us it’s all about the fun. They’re just another bike in the quiver. Road. Mountain. Cross. Fat. Repeat. It’s a progression of the sport, at least regionally. Marquette’s a college town of 20,000 hardy souls that manages to support four core bike shops so when the fat bike came around we didn’t waste any time in embracing it. Our local trails club the Noquemanon Trails Club invented their own bike specific groomer and is grooming 11 miles of dedicated snow single track. Super flowy, smooth as butter, frozen berms, rhythm sections, it’s all there and we’re loving it.
More specifically about the ride: Ryan LaBar made it happen early in January 2013. He’s a local Marquette kid, dedicated bike geek, and former Bike magazine employee (code name Squirrel). He moved back to the Marquette area from sunny San Clemente this summer to get married and was between jobs so he and I were hanging out and riding. This winter he’s doing a fat bike test for the mag so he’s had a number of bikes and accessories at his disposal, one of which was a set of Dillinger studded tires from 45NRTH.
He got wind of the crazy clear ice conditions down on Lake Michigan at the town of Gladstone, about an hour south of Marquette, gave me a shout, and we set up a dawn patrol. Bang, there we were at 7 a.m. on a clear morning with several miles of baby ass smooth ice in front of us. This is super rare to see because the region averages around 200 inches of lake-effect snow. Not a lot of snow by western standards, but it’s constant — nearly every day there’s some snow and it falls everywhere. So our ice is usually buried under feet of snow or clouded by the freeze-thaw cycle and so as cyclists we don’t really think about it as an option. The other thing is that we don’t really get that cold along the coasts of the Great Lakes. We get gobs of snow and it stays relatively mild, like mid-20s, the majority of the winter at least along the windward shorelines, so having that much ice freeze that fast with no snow was perhaps a once in a lifetime event.
The ice conditions were freakishly clear and slick. We got on the lake at a city park/marina that ice fisherman use. Ryan rode a Fatback Ti with the studded tires and was clipped in for the ride. He has neoprene pogies over the handlebars which allow a winter rider to wear light gloves and makes shifting/braking easy.
I walked and slid along because I didn’t trust my bike without studs. I was thinking mostly of shooting stills so all I had was my Nikon DSLR but it became quickly apparent that this was a special day and I needed to shoot some video or the world was going to cry PhotoShop. I fumbled and bumbled and managed to get enough motion footage to put together the edit. No tripod, all handheld but the smooth level ice made a good base to work on. No mic either but luckily it was calm and silent so the Nikon’s crumby little built-in mic did an okay job.
The ice was about seven inches thick, which we could see by the stress cracks in it. Plenty safe for foot/bike travel. Several ice fishing shanties were already out on the bay, about a mile out. Warm and windy weather was forecast for the week so many of the ice fishermen were starting to move their shacks off. The ice was constantly moaning and pinging, which isn’t unusual but still keeps you on your toes. Temperature was probably around 20-25 but it was calm and generally pleasant, especially once the sun came up.
Ryan dumped it once off camera and earned himself a nice bruise. He was an XC racer in college and is still a damn good trials rider so it only happened once. He did a few bunny hops and brake skids and other stuff to get a feel for the tires and we played with the air pressure to get it dialed in, probably around 5-8 psi though we didn’t check it that day. We ride hard surfaces at 8 and air down to as low as 3 for soft trails.
We probably went only about a half mile out, since I was on foot. I rode a few times and was really impressed by the handling, but the sensation of riding that clear of ice was mind blowing. You can see the ripples in the sand bottom, fish swimming under, air bubbles, etc. and it gives you a sense of flying, floating, soaring. When we rode out of the shallows the bottom drops away fast and the sand turns to weeds and darkness and my stomach did a flip-flop vertigo sort of thing with the sensation of climbing.
No other riders out there, just good old ice fishing Yoopers (residents of the Upper Peninsula) chasing walleye and the bottom of their fifths. After the ride we poked around the lighthouse area and found open water and the fresh sinking of a snowmobile. Keys still in it.
By the end of the week rising temperatures, shifting winds, and snow scrambled the ice, and the once in lifetime event was gone.