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MADISON – The growing popularity winter bicycling and new varieties of bicycle-like vehicles capable of being ridden on snow is generating questions about where they may legally be ridden and raising some concerns about their safe operation with state recreational trail officials.
“We receive daily inquiries this time of year about fat bikes and other vehicles that are showing up on trails,” said Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Fat bikes are bicycles with wide, low-pressure tires that are designed to traverse over snow and sand. The bikes have gained wide popularity in the last few years with some major bicycle manufacturers now producing and selling them.
In addition, Brown said she has recently received reports of ski bikes — a bicycle with a ski in the front and a wheel in the back — operating on DNR trails that are part of the state’s snowmobile route system.
“This has led to concern over potential collisions between snowmobilers — who are traveling at a much higher rate of speed — and these much slower moving vehicles,” Brown said, adding that she is not aware of any such collisions having taken place.
Winter bicycling is allowed on DNR state trails that allow bicycling at other times of the year unless that trail is also currently open to and groomed for cross-country skiing. Walking or biking on a groomed cross-country ski trail is prohibited by DNR rules. Cyclists must still pay the state trail pass fee.
However, most of the state’s vast snowmobile trail system is located on county, federal, or private lands that may prohibit bicycle use.
“Much of the state’s extensive snowmobile trail system exists on private lands through agreements with landowners obtained by local volunteers exclusively for snowmobile use,” Brown said. Fat bikes are prohibited from use on many snowmobile routes or trails, such as on Bayfield County Forest snowmobile trails. As with any trail, winter cyclists should do their homework before venturing out on a new trail to make sure that theirs is a legal use on that trail.
Even when fat or ski bikes are operating legally on multi-use trails also open to snowmobiling, Brown said, there are safety concerns, especially at night.
The speed limit for snowmobiles at night is 55 mph. Although snowmobilers must slow down to 10 miles per hour when near others not on another motorized vehicle, if a non-motorized user is not readily able to be seen, snowmobilers may not know to slow down until very close to the other user. While there is some question whether ski bikes meet the legal definition of bicycles, Brown said recreational safety specialists say anyone using these multi-use trails at night should have lighting.
“We encourage fat bikers and operators of any other non-motorized vehicles to make themselves visible by using at least front lighting and a rear reflector, and all non-motorized users should wear reflective clothing when on trails open to snowmobiles at night,” Brown said.