Rick Buchanan bicycles everywhere, even in winter.
So it was a natural transition for the 53-year-old Hamilton custodian to consider riding in the kingdom of winter wonderlands — Yellowstone National Park. He enlisted his friend and bike shop owner, Chad DeVall, to take part in the adventure.
“I thought it sounded like a ... good idea,” DeVall said. “Being in Montana the first thing you think of is Yellowstone Park.”
Around Hamilton, the hardcore group of winter riders pedal atop snowmobile and cross country ski trails, preferring to ride at night or early in the morning when the snow is hard.
“The colder the weather, the better the riding,” Buchanan said.
To negotiate the routes, the cyclists ride fat-tired bikes — generically called snow bikes.
“I thought it would be cool to go into Yellowstone on our bicycles, so I called the front gate and told them about snow bikes,” DeVall said.
DeVall was referred to a ranger who told him that bikes aren't allowed into the park in winter.
“It's not one of the approved means of winter travel,” said Tim Reid, Yellowstone's chief ranger.
Under Yellowstone's winter management plan, the only ways to enter the park in winter are by approved snowmobiles and snowcoaches, on cross-country skis or snowshoes.
“We were ticked off for a while,” DeVall said.
The fat-tired bikes have been around for more than a decade, but their acceptance as a mainstream way to ride has been slow to emerge.
“We move a couple of them a year,” said Ben Steiner of The Spoke Shop in Billings. “They're usually special-order items. It's hard to get a hold of them because they're always out of stock.”
Surly bicycles is one of the main manufacturers of ski bikes and one of the first to mass-produce the bikes, starting about five years ago.
“When we first got them in here, people couldn't walk by them without squeezing the tires or asking to take one out on a test ride,” DeVall said.
Surly's Pugsley bike features 4-inch-wide tires, about twice the size of normal mountain bike tires. The tires run at a low air pressure, about 5 psi, to increase their flotation. The drive train and gears resemble regular mountain bikes, but disc brakes replace caliper-style brakes.
“When you're speaking about practicality, it goes out the window,” DeVall said. “But we're seeing more and more interest every year.”
Steiner said most of the folks buying the bikes in Billings are commuters. He called the cycles heavy and slow compared with other models. The snow bikes make up for it with stability on snow, though.
“They just float over everything, especially fresh powder,” Steiner said.
The bikes aren't cheap. The last one that The Spoke Shop sold, a 21-speed bike, went for $1,500. With an aluminum frame, the bikes weigh about 40 pounds. Lighter frames, made of metals such as titanium, can sell for almost $1,900 alone — without any tires, gears, etc.
“It's not an entry-level bike by any means,” Steiner said.
Cycling to health
Buchanan credits biking with saving his life, claiming he would have died of a heart attack if not for riding himself into shape. After three months of cycling, he lost 85 pounds.
“The reason I got into snow biking is because it extends my season,” he said.
DeVall said he's ridden down frozen creek beds and lakes, as well as trails. Because of the bikes' ability to ride high on soft surfaces, cyclists are also taking them on beaches and dirt trails. Buchanan rode his down from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Yellowstone National Park isn't the only place that snow bikers have been turned away. DeVall said Nordic skiers also don't like to share their trails.
“We're clean, no pollution, we stay on the same trails as snowmobiles. I don't understand why we can't ride in Yellowstone,” Buchanan said.