‘Snow Biking’ makes tracks in Mammoth


Users argue for change  of 21-year-old rule

A new recreation activity is beginning to emerge in Mammoth, but “snow biking” has some bumpy bureaucratic rules to clear before it can break into the trails system of the Inyo National Forest.

“I ride a bike with big fat tires made specifically to go on snow and sand,” said snow bike enthusiast Alan Jacoby at a meeting of the Mammoth Lakes Recreation Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

“It’s picking up steam around the country, but unfortunately, in Mammoth Lakes I have nowhere to ride legally.

“It’s not motorized. It looks just like a mountain bike but it’s built specifically to have wider wheels and tires, which are made to float over snow.

“There’s actually less impact on a groomed trail than snowshoers, Nordic skiers or snowmobiles, but because of the old rules of ‘no wheeled vehicles’ allowed on groomed trails, I’m not allowed to ride anywhere.”

Jacoby, who is a cinematographer (for example, “The Drop-In Project”) said he also skis and rides snowmobiles, waits for the weather to change, then zooms around the trails on his mountain bike in the summer. An accomplished athlete, Jacoby two years ago completed the grueling Everest Challenge cycling race on a single-speed road bike.

“We’re all recreation people,” he said to the commission, “so I don’t see any reason why our snowmobile trail system shouldn’t be open to bikes like mine.”

It is not open to such bikes because of a 1992 rule prohibiting all wheeled vehicles on the trails. That does not mean the rule is set in stone, however, said Jon Kazmierski, the recreation manager in the Mammoth district of the forest.

“It all begins with a dialog,” Kazmierski said.

Kazmierski said he himself has seen the bikes on the trails and is not inherently against having cyclists use them, but he conceded he had very little information. He also said he would go to work soon on scoping whatever impacts there might be.

Jacoby has a powerful ally in trails advocate John Wentworth, the director of the Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLTPA) Foundation, who said he and his girlfriend had just ordered a snow bike (or “fat bike”) frame for doing the same kind of riding Jacoby advocates.

“Emerging recreations are very big part of the mountain biking opportunity,” Wentworth said to the commission. “It’s a huge growth opportunity for the mountain biking community.”

As it happened, Wentworth was as surprised as anyone by Jacoby’s appearance before the commission. Unversed in the tangle of governmental procedures, Jacoby said he showed up, bike in hand, at the urging of commissioner Betsy Truax. Since Jacoby’s appearance was not on the agenda—he appeared in the “Public Comments” part of the meeting—the commission did not discuss the issue at hand.

Rather, commission chair Bill Sauser, himself an avid snowmobile enthusiast, advised Jacoby to take his ideas to the Mammoth Lakes Trails Coordinating Committee (MLTCC). Jon Kazmierski, the recreation manager of the Mammoth Ranger Station has a seat on that committee.

Already, a number of areas have adopted the new sport.

Grand Targhee Ski Resort in Wyoming, for example, has fully embraced snow biking.

It is the first ski resort in the United States to endorse “fat bikes.” Bikers who purchase a Nordic ticket for $10 per day or a Nordic season pass for $120 have access to the Grand Targhee Resort Nordic Trail System.

In addition, the nearby communities of Victor, Driggs, and Alta also have allowed the new bikes.

“Riding a fat bike on snow provides another recreational opportunity for guests to enjoy nature in the Tetons,” the Grand Targhee marketing department wrote on its resort website.

The fat, snow bike was created to go where standard, all-terrain bikes can’t. Proponents say the floatation and traction afforded by large-volume, low-pressure tires can carry a rider through otherwise unrideable terrain, such as sand, mud, wet rocks, roots, ice, and many kinds of snow.

Jacoby said his own bike has 3 1/2 inch tires, with less than 10 pounds per square inch (psi) tire pressure, and he said riders should only ride “in conditions where your bike would leave less than an inch divot in the snow, and to stay on the right side of the trails.”

“It leaves less of an imprint than a sneaker on snow,” he said.

“It’s made to float over the snow and not dig into the snow, and when the conditions get too hard to ride it [deep snow], you can’t ride. Those would be conditions where it would start making divots anyway, so there would be no point to ride.”

Sauser reminded Jacoby that the Mammoth rules were created to protect the trails from damage, and thus the “no wheeled vehicles” rule.    Snowshoes, snowmobiles and skis float on top of the snow and do not dig into the underlying trail.

Jacoby answered by saying those rules were probably created to prevent motorized wheeled vehicles from tearing up the trails.

“But I don’t have the power to do what a motorized vehicle could do to the trail,” Jacoby said. “A snowmobile will rip up the trail way more than I do.”

At Grand Targhee, published rules of snow bike use are specific. They include stipulations that bike riders should let the track set until 10 a.m. on the mornings in which the trail is groomed, and warn riders what snow conditions are allowed.

“Do not ride in soft conditions,” is one of the Grand Targhee rules.

“Hard packed conditions on trails with two inches of new snow is ok, more than two inches, you can’t climb or descend very well.

“In a snow cycle of 12 inches or more, freshly groomed trails can be too soft. If you leave a rut, it’s too soft.”