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Fat bikes: Setting the record straight

Craig Medred
A racer passes under the Alaska Railroad bridge along the Talkeetna river, during the inagural Trio Fat Bike Race. The 20 mile course was designed to begin hard and finish on the easier terrain of the river. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo
A racer in the snowy woods during Talkeetna's Trio Fat Bike Race. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo
A racer makes their way along the Talkeetna river during the inagural Trio Fat Bike Race. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo
Racers come down Talkeetna's main street to finish the inagural Trio Fat Bike Race. The after party closed out the Sheldon Arts Hangar and spilled over to the Fairview, where Nervis Rex was playing. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo
Fat tire bikes are lined up, ready to go before the Trio Fat Bike Race in Talkeetna. Feb 9, 2013
Courtesy Edward Kessler
Racers depart beautiful downtown Talkeetna for the first annual Trio Fat Bike Race. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo
Racers along the 20 mile course during Talkeetna's Trio Fat Bike Race. The event featured a 20 and 60 mile races. Feb 9, 2013
Edward Kessler photo

Wired -- the magazine of "gear, science, entertainment" and whatnot -- is doping. There can be no other explanation for the wildly lost story about fat-tired bicycles published this week. Deconstruction can start with the opening two sentences to the story, and this is one wolf of a story: "KETCHUM, Idaho -- Snow bikes are good for hucking about on groomed trails. They are not good for outrunning wolves."

No. 1: Hucking is a term for jumping bikes off of things like rails, ramps, bridges, berms, etc. Hucking "snow bikes," or as they are more often called "fat bikes" or "fat-tired bikes", is about as common on most winter bike trails as in the Tour de France. Lance Whateverhisnamewas used to be famous for hucking, didn't he?

No. 2: Wolves do not need to be outrun. Wolves do not pursue groups of bikers like herds of deer or caribou. Wolf attacks are rarer than lightning strikes. If you are a tiny, lone woman on a solo run in the wilds of Alaska, you might be attacked and killed by wolves, as happened in Alaska three years ago for the first time in state history. But a trio of fat guys need not worry. You might think your blubber makes you more attractive to the wolves, but they only see size. They don't measure body-fat ratios.

No. 3: You are not going to outrun a wolf on any bike. Wolves can hit sprinting speeds of 40 to 45 mph. Mark Cavendish, the world's top sprinter on a road bike, has a top speed of 48 mph. There are only a handful of people in Cavendish's class, and they are all on road bikes. The average cyclist on a mountain bike is hard-pressed to hit 30 mph.

Sadly, the hucking and the wolves are just the beginning of the dopiness in the Wired story. Here is the second paragraph: "This (inability to outrun wolves) became obvious as a group of us, dressed in garish red Lycra suits...."

Let's stop right there. Dressed in garish, red Lycra suits? Does this have the word "frostbite'' written all over it or what? Not to mention ... What's the point of Lycra on a fat bike? Cyclist wear suits with Lycra to hug their skin to reduce the wind resistance that comes with loose clothing flapping in the wind. But fat bikes, like most mountain bikes, travel at speeds at which flapping clothes are really not an issue.

They roll so slowly there is time for a writer like DL (No Periods) Byron to contemplate "the point of these bikes, and the questions those building them must answer if snow biking is to catch on ... 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."

"Catch on?" "Struggling to find their place?"

Fat bikes do, indeed, represent a niche market, given that they are designed for riding primarily on snow, which only falls in northern areas, and sand, which is found in the longest expanses along the nation's coasts. But that said, sales have been skyrocketing. Fat bikes are far and away the fastest growing niche in the world of bicycle sales, and in a lot of places, like Anchorage, they are starting to compete or have overtaken Nordic skiers for human-powered winter trail use.

"Fat bikes with oversized tires are hot trend for cold-weather cycling," the Denver Post headlined last week, calling them "the hottest trend in the mountain biking world right now."

Can a Wired reporter, at least one who isn't high, be this out of touch?

Maybe.

"The Iditabike, the famous riff on Alaska’s epic Iditarod dogsled race, begins later this month in Anchorage," writes DL.

The Iditabike died 23 years ago. It would be the Iditarod Trail Invitational that begins later this month -- Sunday at Knik to be exact. The last Iditabike was run in 1990. It then morphed into the Iditasport, which put cyclists, cross-country skiers and runners into head-to-head competition on the Iditarod Trail. The Iditasport lasted until 2001, when founder Dan Bull sort of went off the trail. The Invitational was born the next year and has been going great guns ever since.

The really weird part here is that if you click on the Wired link for Iditabike.com, it takes you to a page that clearly explains "the original Iditabike no longer exists. but the Alaska Ultrasport Iditarod Trail Invitational beginning in 2002 stepped into fill the void." The page also promises "more soon," which might have something to do with the fact efforts are afoot to review the Iditabike as a 100-mile race to Skwentna.

The Inivitational will remain the ultramarathon it has always been, a 350-mile or longer sufferfest up and over the Alaska Range to the Interior city of McGrath, or on all the way to Nome -- 1,000 miles -- if you are man or woman enough. Fat bikes are readily available on which to make an attempt at this ride if you so choose. The sport long ago evolved past what Byron calls the "garage tinkerers in Alaska and other cold climes (who) have been building them forever, welding mountain bike rims together to double up on tires."

Actually, it wasn't "forever." It was fairly recent. The Alaska fat bike traces its origins back to Texan Ray "El Remolino" Molino's fat-tired sand bikes of the 1980s, according to Mark Gronewald, one of a handful of pioneer Alaska manufacturers who started building fat bikes in the 1990s. The bikes dominated the Iditarod Invitational in 2004, and the rest is history. Surly, a Minnesota-based company that oversees the mass production of bikes in Taiwan, hit the market the very next year with a fat bike, and pelotons of them have been popping up everywhere since.

How hard is it for someone working for a tech magazine to Google this stuff up online?

There DL might have learned a little about fat bike rims, including the fact "welding mountain bike rims together" pretty much ended even before the birth of the mass-produced fat bike. Simon Rakower and All Weather Sports in Fairbanks started producing something called the "Snowcat" rim back in Iditasport days. It was the hot ticket for winter biking for a handful of enthusiasts until the sport became a fad, fostering competition between manufacturers, and starting an evolution in rims that has seen them getting ever wider. The latest in fat-tire rims are about twice as wide as the Snowcat to help bikes stay atop snowmachine trails, which -- oddly enough -- aren't even mentioned in the "Wired" story.

Instead, DL (should there be a contest as to what the initials stand for?) writes this, "It’s easy enough to design bikes that roll over groomed snow trails at single-digit speeds, but it isn’t enough to sustain the scene, especially when you consider these machines cost $1,500 to $3,500."

The problem is that the bikes weren't designed to roll over groomed snow trails, even though they have popped up there. The bikes were designed to roam the wild country in the way mountain bikes were designed to take advantage of backcountry trails. The only difference is that the fat bikes were intended to take advantage of backcountry snowmobile trails.

These are trails that in many places in the north -- in Minnesota and Michigan and Alaska -- don't even exist in the summer because they run atop frozen water. You can't pedal a bike on the Yukon River in summer, but you can in winter. You can't get a bike far up the Iditarod Trail from Knik in summer, but in winter you can go all the way to Nome.

And that's not the only place you can go.

If, of course, you think outside the box instead of get stuck in it. Isn't Wired's forte supposed to be thinking outside the box? It appears to be one writer short there.

Tip for DL: Twist shifters.

"Trigger shifters are endlessly frustrating when you’re wearing gloves," he writes.

Duh. Either twist shifters or "thumbies" will fix that problem. Both work really well, even with heavy gloves. But what kind of wuzz would be wearing heavy gloves on a bike with "poggies," as pictured in two of the several photographs "Wired" ran with the story online. Poggies are like mittens attached to the bike that cover both trigger shifters and hands. You can ride barehanded in them at temperatures down to zero, but you might want to wear a thin polypro liner glove or a bike glove in case you have to pull your hand from their warmth to wipe your nose or the sweat on your brow. Those who get their fat bike up above "single-digit speeds," and there are a lot of us, do sometimes have to wipe the brow.

DL, man, you gotta get out more.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com