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Alaska's spring snow no match for fat-bikes, but can kids keep up?

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 10, 2017

Fat-biking can be a sport for the whole family with a bit of research and planning ahead. (Erin Kirkland)

You'd have to be living under a rock to miss the parade of fat-tire bikes around Southcentral Alaska. They're everywhere — on snowy trails, paved bike paths, city streets. These behemoths of cycling look formidable, even overpowering to the uninitiated, and yet, it seems as if more and more people have ridden one.

With another winter behind us and break up eating away at our snow-covered trail systems, fat bikes are continuing where skis left off. At our house, we've begun thinking about moving our fleet of bikes from cold-weather storage in the backyard shed to the garage. My son is already plotting his first ride to school.

But we're not quite there yet, and the skinny tires of traditional mountain bikes are no match for soft, slushy snow that quickly bogs down young riders.

We are itching to ride, but I wasn't sure how successful I'd be tracking down a fat bike to fit a kid.

I needed guidance. Would such a large bike with a 12-year-old in tow require too much skill and deliver too little fun? How about the cost? No child I know owns his or her own fat bike. Heck, the grownups in my circles can barely afford fat bikes, even though the sport's popularity has driven down the cost a bit.

The bikes

Fat biking sprung from the ingenious spirit of Alaskans. Billy Koitzsch, owner of Arctic Cycles in Anchorage, has been one of a few fat tire aficionados since the 1990s, when creating a bicycle that could stand up to Alaska's thick snow was another challenge to overcome. Koitzsch spent his formative years in Nome, then Fairbanks, and was always tinkering on bikes with his buddies in order to create a human-powered machine he could ride long distances in tough winter conditions. The result, he says, was odd but functional.

"We had this crazy-looking bike with three tires in front, and three in back — a six-pack, we called it," he reflected during a phone interview.  Koitzsch also participated in the endurance race Iditasport, a grueling human-powered event that followed the Iditarod Trail from Big Lake to Nome. He even pedaled back to Fairbanks.

Eventually as the seeds of innovation were sown, tires became wider and now, 20 years later, fat bikes are everywhere on winter trails. Not as expensive as some early $5,000 models, Koitzsch says, today's fat bike is cheaper, easier to find, and definitely more kid-friendly.

Was fat-biking for us?

My husband, son, and I traveled to Eklutna Lake to meet another fat-tire bike enthusiast, Dan McDonough. Owner of the company Lifetime Adventures, McDonough has watched interest in fat bikes rise over the years, and he now rents bicycles at his Chugach State Park site beside the lake, about 40 minutes from Anchorage.

With two hours of riding ahead of us under the tutelage of McDonough, I wondered just how far we would be able to travel through the punchy, soft snow covering this wildly popular trail. We'd ridden the Lakeside Trail countless times during the summer and fall, even reaching public use cabins about a dozen miles away. But now? I was exhausted just thinking about the effort it would take to plow through snow.

This was not unusual, both McDonough and Koitzsch said in separate conversations. Miles are not the goal, time is. And measuring minutes or hours spent on the fat bike is much more productive than trying to reach a particular destination, particularly with children.

"We want them to enjoy the experience, or they'll never try it again," Koitzsch said. He's a dad to four kids and has seen the meltdowns, the tears, and the smiles of success when a balance is struck between distance and disposition.

McDonough fitted us with bikes and gave a quick lesson in the physics of fat tires and snow. It's all about floating on top of the snow, he said, not grinding down in it, which makes more work for the rider. Most of the riding this winter has been on firm, packed trails that made floating easy, he continued, but our ride was right after a big dump of heavy spring snow, and we had our work cut out on tires void of much air. My son looked askance at me and said, "Really?"

The ride

Our booted feet connected with pedals and we pushed off into the warm, damp morning, making our way along the trail that follows Eklutna Lake almost 13 miles. Others had the same idea, and we jockeyed around skiers, walkers, and more than a few dogs. Along the way, McDonough gave us tips for navigating a single track with tires as wide as the tread. Keep moving, he advised, the studded tires will get you out of most situations. Find the line you want to ride. Easier said than done for McDonough and my husband, in the front of our bike conga line. Breaking trail with a bike is hard work, with more pressure required for each revolution of the pedals, so the caboose is definitely the place to be.

My athletic son learned about effort quickly, reinforcing what Koitzsch told me — kids, with their lighter bodies and shorter legs, have to work doubly hard to crank the pedals, keeping the bike moving forward. It was a mental and physical workout, and after a mile, he asked for a breather.

We stripped off layers of fleece and sucked at our water bottles to quench a thirst that came on quicker than expected. Eventually, we completed a 5-mile out and back through the forests and shorelines of the still-frozen lake. The entire trip was only two hours, but we felt like we'd been riding much longer, a common reaction among newbies.

"Lots of people think they can go farther than they actually do," McDonough told me as we rode back toward the parking lot. Duly noted. 

If you go

Overall, the fat bike experience was an excellent example of Alaska outdoor recreation with a twist of uniqueness that appealed to my adventure-loving family. The bikes were solid, and we felt invincible while pedaling through and over and around natural obstacles along the way. I'd like to try it again on a non-snow day to feel the difference, something Koitzsch says most families new to the sport should do, anyway.

"Honestly, for new riders, Anchorage trails are the perfect place to start," he said. "Hit the (Tony Knowles) Coastal Trail or the Bird-to-Gird Trail where you can feel out the bike and how it works, especially the gears."

Koitzsch operates Arctic Cycles from a shop in south Anchorage, and will outfit bikes to fit kids and adults, providing a tool kit, mitts for colder days, and plenty of tips for making fat-tire biking with children feasible and enjoyable.

McDonough meets riders age 7 and up at Eklutna Lake and escorts them along the trails, taking families and larger groups out for a few hours of riding. He'll also throw in some outdoor games and hot chocolate along the way.

All riders should bring water bottles, trail snacks, a helmet (let them know if you need one), boots, and warm layers for heads, hands, and feet.

And plan to enjoy the journey without counting the miles. That's a good lesson for all of us.

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go family travel guidebook series, and publisher, a family travel resource.