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Alaska's fat-bike builders make an impression as heat wave bakes Nevada

Craig Medred

The snow is deep on the Chugach Range above Anchorage, so where is the attention focused on Alaska's two fat-bike manufacturers?

Why Nevada, of course, where temperatures were expected to push 100 degrees as that state catches the edge of the heat wave cooking California. It was expected to hit 100 in LA on Monday as the West endures record high temperatures.

Nonethless, the Fatback snow bikes of Speedway Cycles in Midtown Anchorage popped up Monday on BikeRumor.com, a website for cycling gearheads. "Found: Fatback's Sweet Fat Bikes from Alaska," the headline said.

Speedway owner and snow-bike design guru Greg Matyas was among the first to push the idea that fat bikes -- bikes with tires four inches wide -- aren't just for snow. They work great on sand or in some kinds of mud, too, as some epic Alaska beach rides -- including the Kenai coast from near Hope to Homer -- have proven.

Thus, Matyas was down in the Nevada desert in late September hawking his Fatbacks at Interbike's Outdoor Demo at Boulder Canyon. So, too, the marketing masters from Chain Reaction Cycles in South Anchorage. While Speedway caught the attention of BikeRumor, Chain Reaction drew the eye of Singletrack.com. Reporter Emily Zinn said she was generally unimpressed with Chain Reaction's "907" fat bike until she took it off the trail "on really loose gravel and deep sand. (Yes, I was off-trail, but I wasn’t rolling over vegetation, so breathe.) Suddenly a whole new world of possibility opened before me. Deliberately pedaling erratically, slowing and jumping and swerving back and forth, the bike didn’t spin out a single time."

Could the "snow bike," which caters to a small clientele living in snowland, be on the verge of transforming itself into a "desert bike'' or "beach bike" catering to the masses in warmer climes? That's certainly what Matyas was thinking when Speedway helped support Russ Worthington's epic ride around the Interior deserts of Australia in '09. Australia is now Speedway's number-two, foreign export market after Canada.

Both Speedway and Chain Reaction say the Alaska demand for fat bikes remains strong, but the big market is clearly global -- not just in the U.S. but Europe, Asia and Africa as well. The only problem for the Alaska bike manufacturers is that others have clearly taken note. Two major U.S. bike brands -- Surly and Salsa -- are now heavily into fat-bike production, and there are persistent rumors that other mass marketers of bikes could enter the fray.

From a cyclist's standpoint, it's all a good thing. There is little doubt that a bunch of the design ideas originally borrowed from Matyas -- 135mm front hubs, 170mm rear hubs, and repositioned rear brake calipers (so one doesn't need to remove the brake to change a tire as on the early Surly Pugsleys) -- have made life better for a lot of riders on a lot of different bikes. And Salsa's entry into the fat-bike market helped provide a little marketing PR for Alaska tourism. The company was the presenting sponsor for a cycling documentary that gave big play to backcountry riding in the 49th state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com