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Outdoors/Adventure

Alaska's fat-bike mania spreads its tire track across world

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published December 27, 2011

The fat-bike fad sweeping sections of the nation shows no signs of letting up, with retailers in Anchorage and the Lower 48 scrambling to meet demand for the balloon-tire bikes that float over snow.

The bikes were born more than a decade ago for winter adventure racing along the snow-packed Iditarod Trail. They still shine in winter, with big hand muffs and multiple layers keeping riders comfortable when temperatures plunge. But fat bikes have evolved in recent years, replacing mountain bikes for fans using them in summer to access a range of backcountry terrain.

Anchorage's police chief uses his for ptarmigan hunting in Chugach State Park. Federal biologists have ridden them across rocky beaches to study walrus. And the bikes help park rangers in Southwest Alaska patrol remote wilderness.

The so-called flotation bikes are the monster trucks of two-wheel riding. With motorcycle-width tires supporting a relatively light bike frame, they cruise over soft ground and snow that stop thinner wheels in their tracks.

Signs of their popularity are everywhere. Snow-bike races are popping up around the country. Anchorage saw about 40 riders this month at its first race, part of the Abominable Snow Series. There's even a website dedicated to snow bikes and related gear and a busy forum for fat-bike aficionados at mountainbikereview.com.

"Fat bikes are definitely the buzz," said David George, a salesman at Speedway Cycles on Spenard Road, home of the Fatback.

The other day, scores of customers were waiting for their Fatback to arrive from manufacturers in the Lower 48. Many call daily, anxious to get theirs. This year's aluminum models, with lighter forks, wider rims and a stronger frame, sell for about $2,300 fully assembled.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "We're getting calls from all around the world. The Czech Republic, Australia. People from Baja want them for riding in the sand."

So many orders are coming from the Lower 48 that Speedway plans to open a small distribution center in Bend, Ore., to reduce shipping costs for orders to the contiguous U.S.

In South Anchorage near Huffman Road, the 9-Zero-7 is flying out the door of Chain Reaction Cycles.

"We can't get ahead," said co-owner Bill Fleming.

His shop is taking orders from around the world as well. Customers in Russia, Finland and the United Kingdom have all asked about the basic aluminum model, which costs $1,900 assembled. Fleming wouldn't disclose how many 9-Zero-7s he sells, but said the numbers are in the hundreds annually. Most are pre-sold, with the buyer purchasing the bikes before the frames reach Anchorage.

"It's nonstop," he said. "People just love the bikes. It's changed the way they look at winter. These die-hard Nordic skiers get on them, and they realize it's an easier sport. You don't have to wax. You can ride out your front door. You're on little single-track trails in the middle of winter and it's beautiful."

The two local companies are up against two national retailers based in Minneapolis that offer cheaper models. Salsa makes the Mukluk, and Surly makes the Pugsley as well as the new Moonlander, a mammoth monster-bike with tires approaching five-inches in width. Sales are booming at Surly and Salsa, too, both owned by the larger Quality Bicycle Products, a Surly sales manager said.

"It's absolutely beyond our wildest dreams," said Greg Patterson, who handles fat-bike sales at Surly. "It's like wildfire." Surly doubled its fat-bike sales from the previous year, selling more than 1,600 this year, he said. As for the Salsa Mukluks, "They're seeing the same success we're seeing and almost to the same degree."

Surly created its fat bikes for local riders in Minneapolis, but their popularity is spreading by word of mouth across the country.

"There's a ripple effect moving outward toward the coasts," Patterson said. "We're finding that people are using these for expedition touring and just to get around to places they never could go on a bicycle before."

Ultra-sport history

Fat bikes have some of their roots in the human-powered Iditarod Trail Invitational, a long-distance race up to 1,000 miles long along the Iditarod Trail.

To gain flotation across the sometimes-packed trail, former Iditarider Steve Baker was one of those who welded together three rims and combined three tires to create a mega-wheel, said fat-bike pioneer Mark Gronewald of Palmer. With triplet wheels front and back, he dubbed his ride the six-pack. The setup carried him along the frozen course ahead of other recreational bikers going village-to-village in the early 1990s, before the invitational race began.

Gronewald often gets credit for launching the fat-bike's commercial effort, but he's quick to name those who inspired him, including Baker and Texan Ray Molino, who created wide rims for desert riding, and sewed multiple tires together to cover the wheels. Gronewald, former owner of Wildfire Designs bike shop of Palmer, coined the term fat bikes and began producing his Wildfire bikes in the late 1990s. There was little interest in fat bikes until they started winning the Knik-to-Nome Invitational across much of Alaska in 2001.

Gronewald improved on Molino's ideas, including the offset rims that place the spokes along one side of the wheel to accommodate for the small hubs that existed then. But he never had enough demand or money to mass produce the bikes.

Surly, on the other hand, could take the risk. The company's Pugsley changed the game, offering similar offset rims and frames for about half of the cost of Gronewald's.

"I just got squeezed out by the economies of mass production," Gronewald said. He laments the widespread use of the fat-bike term as "kind of a rip-off," but feels pleased he broke ground in a sport that's keeping more people healthy and outdoors in winter.

As for Pugsley, their Taiwan-manufactured steel bike sells at REI in Anchorage for $1,650. Salsa had the same size advantage. Its latest aluminum Mukluk is on sale for $1,500 at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage.

In recent years, the Anchorage and national companies have engaged in sometimes heated competition. Alaska's small shops take credit for critical design modifications, such as lowering the top tube and widening the hubs to make the bikes stronger and more comfortable.

Fatback-designer Greg Matyas, owner of Speedway Cycles, pioneered large hubs that allowed spokes to run symmetrically down both sides of the rims, replacing the offset-spoke design and producing stronger wheels. Other manufacturers have picked up on the idea, he said, and he's seeking a patent to protect it.

Devoted following

Fat-bike cyclists swear by their rides.

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew keeps his golden fat bike at police headquarters for lunchtime trips. He used to stay trim running, but the pounding was too hard on his knees, so he took up fat-biking to keep in winter shape. "I love it," he said of his quiet rides through the snow-covered woods.

He uses his fat bike for summer trail riding too, including for ptarmigan hunts in the Southcentral backcountry. "We have shotgun scabbards and we just head into the mountains," he said. "You don't necessarily see birds on the bike, but it's a way to cover five or six miles quick and then ditch the bikes and start hiking."

Tony Fischbach, a walrus biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, has used fat bikes on beaches to study walruses at Icy Cape, about 50 miles north of Point Lay.

"They weigh a lot less than a Honda four-wheeler, and they're cheaper, and you can put them in a plane and fly them to remote beaches," he said. He rented the bikes from Arctic Cycles. The scientists hauled their gear in a trailer behind them, covering several miles of ground easily. "I can't make product endorsements, but they're great," Fishbach said.

Billy Koitzsch, owner of Arctic Cycles, offers only winter rentals of his 20 fat bikes. He used to offer summer rentals, but too many bikes were getting destroyed by saltwater: Riders packed them in boats for long-distance beach trips. But personally, he uses his fat-bike year-round. He ditched his standard, full-suspension mountain bike because the fat bike rides more comfortably over rocks and roots on Resurrection Pass and other trails.

"On normal mountain bikes you're pushing a lot," he said. "These bikes can get you there with a smile on your face."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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