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Alaska comes into its own as worldwide fat bike trendsetter

Craig Medred
Fat-tire bikes at the Bicycle Shop in Anchorage. Loren Holmes photo

How often does Alaska set a trend the nation follows, instead of vice versa?

Not often, if ever. Usually, Alaskans are treated like the butt of a national style joke. Well, thanks to the likes of Mark Gronewald of Palmer, Jon Evingson and Greg Matyas of Anchorage, and a host of other Alaska bicycling pioneers, fat-tire bikes seem to have become a national craze.

"Fat bikes galore -- Interbike 2013" is how the website Bikeradar.com headlined one of its reports from the country's biggest annual bike show last week.

"Fat bikes are fertile ground for terrible puns: 'a growing trend,' 'fat bikes gaining traction,' 'the inflated fat bike market,'" continued the story. "We could go on, but we won’t. It’s clear that 2013 has been a breakout year for fat bikes."

"You couldn’t go far at Interbike without encountering something fatbike," added MTBR.com. "...Big bike momentum and product offerings continue to grow in both quality and quantity."

"Fat bikes were everywhere at the (Interbike) demo, continuing a trend that’s been on the rise in recent years, with more brands unveiling models, and some, including Anchorage-based 9:Zero:7, showing off carbon models," echoed Bicycling Magazine. And while one website was hyping the new "Whiteout" carbon frame from 9:Zero:7, another was gushing all over the "Corvus Fatback" carbon frame from Speedway Cycles in Midtown Anchorage.

Still, it's tough for Alaskans to compete. Gronewald and Evingson have both quit building bikes, and Matyas is trying to survive by staying on the very leading edge of design and development. 

Alaska-produced carbon fiber?

Maybe it's time for Alaska to think about investing in a natural-gas-powered petrochemical industry to produce carbon fiber, a material that is increasingly a mainstay of global manufacturing. Carbon-fiber has been steadily been taking over from steel, aluminum and titanium in the production of road and mountain bikes, and this year's Interbike made it clear fat bikes are about follow that trend as the fat-tire craze goes international, despite price tags that typically range from $1,500 to $5,000. 

"On-One," a mass-market distributor in the United Kingdom, is now producing a fat bike called simply the "Fatty." Intersport in Norway has a prototype for what it calls the "Big Bob." And high-end, mass-market heavyweights Specialized and Trek -- famous for their über-light Tour de France race bikes -- have both announced plans to go fat.

Specialized calls their offering simply the "Fatboy." Wisconsin-based Trek gets a little more creative with the "Farley," an homage to the late and oversized "Saturday Night Live" star Chris Farley. He was born in Madison, Wisc.

About the only big player in the bike game yet to go fat is Giant, the Taiwan-based giant in the business. And it seems almost certain that company will soon get on the fat wagon, too.

Speedway bike shop owner and fat-tire bike innovator Matyas used to be in competition with local 9:Zero:7 founders Jamey Stull and Bill Fleming, but increasingly it's looking like Alaskans against the world in a newly competitive marketplace as fatbikes bred on snow to ride the Iditarod Trail move back toward terrain where the idea of fat tires first originated -- with Texan Ray Molino on the sands of the American Southwest.

Long the tool of choice for riding on extremely soft surfaces -- snow, desert, Alaska beaches -- the fat bike now seems to be rolling into some terrain traditional mountain bikes once dominated. A small but growing number of bloggers are promoting fat-bikes for all-season riding. They apparently like the feel of getting behind the cycling version of a tank and rolling over things.

And to think there was a West Coast writer who only months ago tried to dismiss the fatbike as just a passing trend because he feared fat tires don't roll fast enough to outrun hungry wolves in the mountains of Idaho.

That is not made up. Honest.

"My encounter with canis lupus highlighted the shortcoming of bikes that are a hell of a lot of fun but struggling to find their place," DL Byron wrote for Wired.com.

Obviously, fat bikes have since found their place, and it appears to be on the display floors of bike shops everywhere.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com