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There's more to winter sports in northern Michigan than skiing

February 3, 2014

Cody Sovis of Einstein Cycles in Traverse City, Mich., rides a fat bike through the snow.

DETROIT ó Itís cold. Itís snowy. Itís already been a hard winter.

Thank goodness for clever diversions to have big fun in northern Michigan, where snow is just another word for fun. Below are three new ways you can take winter sports to another level.

óThe big air bag

GAYLORD, Mich. ó Christopher Gibson spins upside down on his skis, then plop! He lands in the "Big Air" giant air bag on the side of a ski slope.

"You hit this jump. It has a lot of pop. And after you do your trick you just poof right into it," says Gibson, who is the snow sports specialist at Treetops Resort.

Measuring 30-by-30 feet square and standing a marshmallow-y 8 feet high when inflated, the air bag aids beginners practicing their first straight-air jumps or more advanced skiers trying complex tricks.

At first, it may seem intimidating, especially when you see Gaylord snowboarder Abby Beachnau, 13, who soars and twists high above the bag before gracefully descending. But the bag, in its second year, also is a favorite of ski school students and, increasingly, curious guests who see it in action and want to try the only permanent air bag in the Midwest. What do people practice? Everything.

"Corks (spins) are just getting crazy," says Gibson. "People are doing triples and quads."

Normally, practicing ski or snowboard tricks on a hill combines a surge of adrenaline with a real fear of falling, he says.

But with the air bag, "the thrill is amazing. Itís all adrenaline. No fear. Itís a good time."

If you go: Big Air bag users wear helmets and are given tutorials on how to gain speed and hit the bag properly. Open to skiers and snowboard riders, itís $30 for a 2-hour session. Reserve a spot online at http://treetops.com/ski-and-winter-adventures/winter-activity-schedule/reserve-big-air-bag-session. The bag operates, weather permitting, 10 a.m.-noon and 1:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon Sunday and 3:30-5 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday. Call for current hours.

Treetops Resort (3962 Wilkinson Rd., Gaylord) is open seven days a week this winter due to excellent snow cover, says General Manager Barry Owens. Treetops has 23 slopes and also many $99-a-night lodging/ski deals. Go to www.treetops.com or call 888-TREETOPS (888-873-3867).

óFat-tire cycling

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. ó Coming down the snowy trail, Cody Sovis isnít pushing skis. Heís pushing pedals.

Sovis, 25, who sells, rides and races fat bikes for Einstein Cycles in Traverse City, has seen the new sport take off in the past year.

"If fat bikes would have been invented 200 years ago, skiing would have never been invented. Bikes are so much less work," he says. "When I first heard about them I thought this was the stupidest idea ever. But once you ride one for 5 minutes you get it."

Invented within the past decade by Alaskans making their own fat bikes by welding bike frames together, manufacturers began producing them 4-5 years ago. The sport has only been in the Midwest for 3 years.

"Fat biking is a huge thing in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Itís mostly mountain-biking people who use it for cross-training, because up here you might get 6 months of decent weather," Sovis says.

But anyone can rent a fat bike and try it through the snow.

The fat tires ó up to 4 1/2 inches wide ó are inflated only 2-4 pounds per square inch, like a beach bike. I tried it on a snowy trail and found it was more challenging than riding a bike on dry pavement but less tough than cross-country skiing. There are no extra skills to master, except maybe figuring out how to squeeze the hand brakes while wearing mittens.

How hot are fat bikes? VASA, Traverse Cityís big series of cross country races (this year Feb. 8-9) will for the first time feature a "SkiFatalon" ó a 27-kilometer ski race combined with a 27-kilometer fat bike race, "which is cool," says Sovis, who owns an aluminum Salsa Mukluk 3 fat bike.

For the rest of us, renting a fat-tire bike for a couple hours is probably challenge enough.

If you go: Many bike shops and resorts now rent fat-tire bikes. The smallest bikes are about 14-15 inches high, suitable for teens or adults 5-foot-2 and up. At Einstein Cycles (1990 US-31 N., Traverse City, www.einsteincycles.com, 231-421-8148), a 2-hour rental is $25, all day is $60. No special tools needed, except maybe to carry a special pressure gauge that can accurately measure 2-6 psi, far lower pressure than most bike pumps register.

óMonster Trucks prowl

BELLAIRE, Mich. ó Send winter out with a roar.

Later this season, the Schuss Mountain Snow Challenge (April 5-6) will transform the snowy/muddy spring ski hills at Shanty Creek Resort into an uphill racetrack.

Modified trucks, Jeeps and other giant-wheeled vehicles will race side-by-side uphill while spectators watch the noisy, aggressive action from the sidelines. The event is a fund-raiser for Michiganís Disabled American Veterans.

And you donít have to just watch. If you happen to own a modified or monster truck, there are various classes for different size vehicles and modifications; entries are online in advance only. See all the details at www.griztekusa.com/SnowChallenge.html(POUND)anchor(UNDERSCORE)160).

Thereís just one thing youíve got to know, baby.

Donít be coming down the mountain when those trucks are coming up.

If you go: Shanty Creek Resort (5780 Shanty Creek Road, Bellaire) currently is deep into regular ski season. Mark your calendar, though, for the Schuss Mountain Snow Challenge, April 5-6. Spectator tickets are $10, $5 for seniors, veterans and children ages 16 and younger. Lodging packages and special offers are also available; see www.shantycreek.com or 800-678-4111.

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Associated Press