We’ve all done it. We see some of the same people at a trailhead from time to time, even recognizing their vehicle or their bike or the skis they snap into, but for whatever reason, we fail to introduce ourselves. Opportunity lost I guess. I’m guilty; I’ll sometimes be in a hurry to just start pedaling or poling and want to be away from the parking lot as quickly as possible. An introduction might include that I’m a trail builder here, and at times I want to remain anonymous. Those were mistakes I’d made when I’d see an older gentleman pull up on his bike, take a drink of water from his bottle and load the truck that had long been sitting at the trailhead. Retired, I’d guess (and was correct) with unlimited time to ride. What stopped me though was when I saw him this winter was the Surly Pugsley he rolling in on. A fellow fatbiker…. now I needed to talk to this guy.
His name is Rod Villand. He is a Westby native, and he owns a cabin nearby. I was right in my guess that he is retired. He used to run a painting business. Normally, none of those things might be enough to bring us together, but if anything can precipitate a conversation between strangers, it’s when two people begin unloading a fatbikes and head out for a spin. The tribe of fatbikers, while growing rapidly, is still small enough that we tend to gravitate to each other, and I like that.
Turns out I’d heard another friend had mentioned Rod to me. He had seen him pull up with a small trials motorcycle in the back of his truck, something even more rare than a fatbike. Rod had been a competitive trials rider in the Midwest starting in the mid ‘70s after a stint on dirt bikes prior to that. When Mountain bikes first came along in the ‘80’s, Rod was all in. He can still remember (and so can I) riding those early bullmoose handlebar rigid bikes on the very first trails that I and the other locals began building at Levis Mound. Those trails were rough-we really didn’t know much about sustainable trail building then, but they were good enough to attract Rod from his cabin 4 miles away. Even in those days, he was hardcore enough to slap studded tires on his bike and pedal nearby snowmobile trails, “Snowbiking” before snowbiking was cool.
Owning and running your own business meant a hiatus from cycling for a number of years, but luckily for Rod, his retirement put dirt back under his tires and luckily for me, it meant I had a new old friend on our trails. I asked Rod the old “Why a fatbike?” question. He said he was just “fascinated by the much larger tires,” which connected him to his motorcycling days. When he speaks of bikes, the pedal or motorized variety, he gets a kid-like sparkle in his eyes that remains while we cruising singletrack together. He obviously loves riding – sand, rock, snow…. it doesn’t matter. A shop from La Crosse let him demo a Pugsley at Levis and that was all it took. The thought of riding anywhere, at anytime of year was very appealing. He and the bike were sold.
Like any mountain biker, soon tweaks and modifications start popping up on your ride. Most fatbikers depend on, and are happy with, the suspension afforded by the big tires, but being 67 years old and still banging off rocks and roots required a little more cush on the front end. A Maveric fork was swapped in for the rigid one and Rod reported a much easier recovery on the shoulders after riding. Seeing as our newly formed winter riding group had just gained a few new fast riders, he did have a worry about keeping up. Now I think it was a little unfounded, the guy can ride. Ever the tinkerer, Rod decided the next addition would be a BionX electric assist on his bike. Although seriously worried it would be “wimpy” to use one, the desire to be able to ride longer and more aggressively won out. “There are 4 settings on the assist, and I figure each one is good for every five years of my age.” The BionX only kicks in when torque is applied to the pedals, so one still has to ride hard to make it all work. “On the climbs at Levis my tongue would be in the spokes without it!”
There seems to be a friendliness that flows through the fatbike scene and the big fat tires open doors to conversation. It is a bond that pulled me across the parking lot and gave me the opportunity to meet a new friend. “When you’re retired, you have a lot more time to play, and my fatbike set-up helps me ride consecutive days, with younger friends and hopefully for more years.” I hope so too Rod. Age doesn’t seem to matter, just the love of riding and the desire to get outdoors.