MONTPELIER — A growing industry in trail recreation will see the debut of a new fat biking trail system in the Capital City on Friday.

The Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association will open a new 4-mile trail system at North Branch Park in a ceremony at the adjacent North Branch Nature Center on Elm Street at 4 p.m. Fat bikers are also be invited to ride the new trails.

The facility offers groomed trails for young and experienced riders using fat bikes, which have extra wide tires that provide extra traction in snowy conditions and minimize erosion on woodland trails. It is also part of a new effort to attract recreational sports hobbyists to the Capital City to help boost the downtown economy. There’s also a statewide initiative supported by Gov. Phil Scott, who established the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative last year to capitalize on the state’s outdoor recreation industry that supports 34,000 direct jobs and $2.5 billion annually in consumer spending.

For nearly 20 years, the Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association (MAMBA) has worked to promote, build, expand and maintain local trails. There are nearly 20 miles of trails in Calais, East Montpelier and Berlin that MAMBA oversees in association with the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, a statewide organization.

Previously, Montpelier only had a mile of trails. Over the next few years, MAMBA members would like to see that distance increased to 5 miles, officials said.

MAMBA member Kip Roberts, who owns Onion River Outdoors in Montpelier, said the North Branch Park trail system will add a winter element to what is traditionally a summer sport.

“A group of the Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association and board members, and interested riders brought a proposal in front of the Montpelier Parks Commission in November,” Roberts said.

Roberts said an initial proposal to open some trails in Hubbard Park to fat-bike riders in winter was rejected by the commission because of the potential conflict with other park trail users, especially in winter when trails are narrower because of the snow.

Instead, MAMBA was asked to come back with another proposal and suggested a trail connector from North Branch Nature Center on Elm Street to a new trail system in North Branch Park, just below Sparrow Farm.

“The Parks Department was already grooming some of the trails that connected to North Branch Nature Center and the North Branch Park that made allowing fat biking possible,” Roberts said.

In December, the Parks Commission approved a pilot project to open trails in North Branch Park for a year, in association with North Branch Nature Center, which will also allow fat biking on its trails.

Roberts said a plan was discussed with Parks Department Director Geoff Beyer and Chip Darmstadt, executive director of the North Branch Nature Center.

Roberts said it was not possible to predict how many people may want to fat bike through the new North Branch park trail system because the sport is relatively new.

“I would say fat biking is still in its infancy,” Roberts said. “Popularity started in 2013. There’s definitely a lot of people interested in it, especially when you have variable snow conditions.”

Roberts said icy conditions for skiing or snowboarding in recent weeks meant that some people had switched to fat biking as an alternative sport.

Roberts said interest in the sport includes young riders on 20- and 24-inch wheels who preferred “gentler grades and mellower climbs” that can be found in the North Branch Park.

Roberts said fat bike tires are preferred for woodland trails because they are less likely to cause erosion on trails that are ecologically sensitive, even in winter.

“There is a minimum tire width pretty much required to ride these trails, so that you’re not cutting trenches in the snow, but these trails are also multi-use and open to skiers,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot of signs out there that tell bikers they will have to yield to walkers, snow-shoers and skiers.

“This is the first, legal fat-bike trail system in the Capital City, so this is a pretty big step,” Roberts continued. “So, to have this trail system will allow us to engage a lot more users for recreational use and offer another recreational use to people looking to get out.

“We see MAMBA as trail stewards that will work collaboratively with the Parks Department and North Branch Nature Center to keep these trails clear and open to a myriad of users. It’s another option for people to get outside and Onion River Outdoors supports that,” he added.

Roberts said a recent study showed that the Blueberry Lake bike trails in Warren generates $1.8 million annually for local businesses in the Mad River Valley — something the Capital City hopes to capitalize on.

Other communities that have fat biking include the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, Cady Hill in Stowe, and Upper Valley Mountain Biking Association.

Guests at Friday’s opening are expected to include officials from the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association and city officials.

There is a $114,000 fund drive to pay for the North Branch Park trail system, with $49,000 left to raise. Checks made out to the Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association can be mailed Montpelier Area Mountain Bike Association, P.O. Box 1091, Montpelier, VT 05601.

For more information, call Kip Roberts at 595-1616 or kip@onionriver.com.

For a map and information about trail conditions at the North Branch Park, visit www.trailhub.org/usa/vermont/central/montpelier/fat-biking/mamba---n-branch---emti/trails/MTIz/0.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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