It all started with a decision to pool their money to get 500 bucks to buy a snowmobile.
But these friends weren’t looking to hit the trails on that machine for fun. They wanted it to groom Fredericton’s mountain bike trails during the winter, so they could ride their bikes all year round.
It’s known as “fat biking” — mountain biking with oversized tires that are designed to grip the snow.
It was a strange idea to many people at the time. But the group of friends would soon turn out to be trend-setters — grooming a path for a community that was ready to try something new.
Daniel Breau is one of the people who helped start the movement five years ago. He’s also one of the main groomers — commonly referred to as “grooming gnomes” — in Fredericton.
“It’s been incredible,” Breau said. “When we first started out, we basically knew all of the fat bikers in Fredericton, and now we come out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and the parking lot is full and you see families out fat biking.”
Breau is one of two volunteers that groom the MVP trail system in Marysville, on Fredericton’s north side, for River Valley Cycling, a non-profit group that maintains mountain bike trails in Fredericton and surrounding areas.
Last winter, the group spent 175 hours working on about 1,750 kilometres in that network of trails.
“Depending on the snowfall we can be out three or four times a week,” Breau said, “Hopefully, if we get a good base, and not too much snow, we’ll be able to groom once in the week and then have a great week of riding.”
River Valley Cycling manages the trails in Fredericton, Oromocto, and Woolastook.
It’s volunteer-driven, but River Valley relies on memberships and fundraising to pay the expenses of maintaining the trails.
And with the growth of the sport, memberships have soared in the last few years. According to Breau, more than 300 people were members of River Valley Cycling, Winter Bike.
“It’s awesome, it’s been a great initiative that we took and people seem to really enjoy it, and it just gives them another winter activity that they can do.”
The money from the memberships has helped the group purchase five snowmobiles, grooming equipment and gas for the machines — a far cry from just five years ago.
Melissa Bordage has been riding a fat bike since 2014, and she was eager to try out the trails when Breau started grooming them.
“It’s a fun way to stay healthy and fit during the cold months and enjoy the snow,” Bordage said.
Bordage said if it wasn’t for the volunteer efforts by people like Breau, the community wouldn’t have grown so much in recent years.
“They’re the ones who are, you know, creating all these trails for us to ride,” Bordage said. “The city trails are nice, but being back on the single track during winter is amazing.”
And with time, Breau and his crew have learned a lot about the science of grooming the trails. There’s more to it than just snowmobiling through fresh snow.
Each snowmobile is dragging different grooming materials, often homemade, that are used to cut through the snow and widen the trails.
“We’ve got a roller that basically we’ll pull that will compact the snow,” Breau said, and added they also use a v-shape wooden structure to widen the trails, and smooth them with weighted tires.
Breau said timing is also important, and looking ahead at the forecast for the best window to groom following a snow fall.
“Once the trails are actually groomed they usually take about 24 hours, depending on the temperature and the consistency of the snow, for the trails to set up.”