A winter sport that adapts to climate change

Climate change has made snowfall in some regions less consistent, posing a major problem for winter sports facilities. But now a new winter game is rolling onto the scene, guaranteeing fun for visitors with or without snow on the ground.


Climate change has made snowfall in some regions less consistent, posing a major problem for winter sports facilities.

But now, a new winter game is rolling onto the scene, guaranteeing fun for visitors with or without snow on the ground.


It's winter, perfect time to enjoy the snow.

On a bicycle?

As long as it's got very big tires.

They're called 'fat bikes,' and because of them, a growing number of cyclists are riding outdoors year round.

They're just novel.

I mean, who thinks that you can ride a bike on snow, right?

You get a grown-up on these, and they act like a little kid.

The tires are about twice as wide as are regular mountain bikes.

They provide a stable platform that can travel over almost any surface.

Steve Mitchell started biking in snow in Alaska in the 1980s, long before fat bikes rolled on to the scene.

Eventually, I think people figured out that, you know, the bigger the tire, the better.

Once an obscure novelty, fat bikes are becoming the hot new thing.

In fact, it's the fastest accelerating portion of mountain-biking sales nationwide.

Like human-powered monster trucks, fat bikes bounce over hard crusted snow.

With Mitchell's help, fat bikes have gained traction in the Methow Valley of Central Washington -- a recreation destination made popular by a different winter sport, cross-country skiing.

The region has more than 120 miles of Nordic ski trails -- the largest such trail system in North America.

People come here to experience this beautiful mountain valley, the Old West town of Winthrop, but they also come her to recreate.

And lately, fat-biking has become so popular here that Methow Cycle & Sport had to double its stock of fat bikes to meet rising demand for rentals.

Yeah, you can just...

Julie Mullyaert is co-owner of the shop, and has become a fat-bike enthusiast herself.

Almost everyone knows how to ride a bike.

They can easily get on a bike and go, 'Oh, this is familiar to me.

I know how to do this.'

Recreation on the Methow trails infuses more than $12 million a year into the local economy.

And in the winter, recreationists keep Winthrop from becoming a ghost town.

Instead, places like Mitchell's Rocking Horse Bakery are packed.

[ Laughter ]

Snow is basically the dollar sign behind the local economy in the winter.

And, you know, without it, I don't think you'd have a thriving community.

There's been plenty of snow this year, but snowfall in recent years has been less and less consistent, and that trend is likely to continue as the climate changes.

Northwest winters are expected to see warmer average temperatures, leading to more rain and less snow.

Nationwide studies estimate the impacts of climate change will curtail spending on snow-based recreation by billions of dollars in the coming decades.

That's a big concern for people like James DeSalvo.

He's the Executive Director of the Methow Trails Association.

We think about the way that the environment's gonna change here a tremendous amount, and, specifically, that there won't be any snow some winter.

We want to be prepared for that day so that we've got still something to offer tourists who are coming here and really active locals who just love the trail network.

That's where fat bikes come in.

Because they work with or without snow on the ground, fat bikes could help places like the Methow survive lean-snow years.

And it's gonna be like this all week long.

♪♪ Fat bikes are really fun to ride on dirt, in the mud, on the snow, and as we're transitioning either into winter or out of winter, we can still ride fat bikes.

So James and his team have begun making room on the Nordic trails for fat bikes.

They use snowmobiles with special grooming tools to create single-track-style fat-bike trails.

The key is to create something that people want to ride.

We're one of the first areas in the nation to allow fat bikes on portions of our trail system, and so we know that there's other types of users that would use our trails year round if we are just flexible enough and inventive enough to give it a try.

If fat bikes catch on here, there's a chance that cyclists will find themselves in conflict with other winter-sport enthusiasts.

But so far, that hasn't been a problem in the Methow Valley.

A little slippery out there.

This isn't the only place that's giving fat bikes a try.

We hear it's kind of tricky out today.

It is a little tricky on today's snow.

Alpine ski resorts across the country have begun embracing fat bikes, as well.

At Mount Hood Meadows in Oregon, they're holding periodic demonstrations and offering free test rides.

I was a little anxious about riding the first one, and worth a try.

All right, have fun.

So, very easy to ride, lots of surface area for you to actually have amazing traction, so pretty much anybody can ride it.

Would it increase the days that I come up and am active?

Yeah, absolutely.

Whoo! Oh!

♪♪ Whee!

It isn't always a smooth ride, but falling is part of the fun.


And not just for the newbies.

Even for long-time fat bikers.

Never quite know what the outcome is gonna be.

You're often tumbling and hopefully landing in soft snow.

As the climate changes, the outcome for winter sports is unclear, as well.

But the enthusiasm over fat bikes holds promise for people who want to keep places like Mount Hood and the Methow Valley popular winter destinations, regardless of how much snow falls.