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Outdoors/Adventure

Despite expense, popularity of fatbikes continues to soar in Alaska

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 6, 2016
  • Published November 4, 2014

Exactly when and where fat-tire bikes went from being a northern fad to a mainstream form of winter recreation is unclear, but the phenomenon is here to stay. Look around the state's largest city these days and it sometimes looks like fatbikes, as these bicycles are commonly called, are everywhere.

"During winters 20 years ago, there would be 10 skiers for every biker on the (Tony Knowles) Coastal Trail,'' observed diehard Anchorage Nordic skier Tim Kelley. "Now there are 10 fatbikers for every skier. The days of Anchorage being a ski town are over. Now Anchorage is a fatbike town."

One local bike dealer estimates the city is now home to up to 10,000 fatbike riders, despite the fact such bikes can cost upward of $7,000. Welcome to Fatbike City.

The shift from cross-country skis to wheels in winter has been a long time coming to Alaska, but it's as undeniable as the disappearance of the Iditaski, an event backed by the late musher Joe Redington in 1983. The father of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, Redington was a tireless promoter of the historic trail from Knik to Nome. Following up the dog race with a ski race to the put even more people on the trail came naturally to him.

Four years after the Iditaski debut, Redington noted an increasing number of Alaska winter cyclists, and the Iditabike was added to the list of Iditarod Trail events. The bikers quickly proved themselves significantly faster than the skiers on the snowmachine-packed path trail. Iditaskiers just couldn't keep up.

Ideal for Iditarod Trail in winter

Ever since, skier numbers have thinned on multi-use trails in town.

Meanwhile, Homer couple Kim McNett and Bjørn Olson rode a pair of fatbikes from Anchorage to the Arctic last year. The more-than-month-long trip took them up the Iditarod Trail, across the Seward Peninsula and over the sea ice to Kotzebue.

Olson said he and McNett just wanted to show people what is possible. Most fatbikers, though, are content to ride trails in Anchorage or elsewhere in Southcentral Alaska.

For people interested in muscle-powered recreation, the fatbike is the best way to see the historic Iditarod Trail, which in places becomes a bog during the summer. Once packed firm by snowmachine and sled-dog traffic, the trail can become a sidewalk. Skiiing on a sidewalk is not so good.

But fatbikes are designed for those conditions. Their wide tires don't "float on snow,'' as some reporters have claimed, but they will stay afloat atop a packed snowmachine trail.

On such trails, the fatbike was refined from a novelty into practical winter transportation that fueled a fat-tire fad that's gone national.

At this year's Interbike, the cycling industry's biggest trade show, Gary Fisher with the Trek Bicycle Company projected massive growth in the fatbike market. Trek is the largest bicycle company in the country. As for Fisher, he was pioneer in the mountain-bike business and remains the name behind Trek's "Gary Fisher Collection.''

20 percent of market?

Mountain bikes started appearing on U.S. trails in the 1970s as a novelty. Over the years, they went from an oddity to a mainstay of the industry. Mountain bikes now represent about 25 percent of all bike sales with "youth" and "comfort" bikes eating up another 25 percent and road bikes following at 20 percent, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

Fisher, however, predicts a fatbike-fueled shakeup in the mountain-bike sector.

"In 10 years, it's going to be at least 20 percent of the mountain-bike market overall. At least,'' he told a reporter for the website fat-bike.com. And not just for winter riding.

"I have noted more of these used in the summer as well,'' said Carlos Lozano, the organizer of the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula and a veteran observer of the Anchorage bike scene, both summer and winter. "For some riders, the snow bike, with its huge footprint, has given some people a new chance to ride again."

Not everyone understands the desire to ride a fatbike with the inherent rolling resistance of 4-inch wide tires on summer trails, but there is no denying that more and more people are going fat in all seasons, both here and Outside. The Arctic Bicycle Club this summer added a fatbike category to its mountain-bike race series, and other race organizations -- including USA Cycling -- are following suit.

Lozano believes competitive cyclists are getting involved because the new fat bikes are "reminders of the fat-tired bikes (they had) when they were kids."

Started in 1990s

Whatever the reason, fatbike riding has gone from a snow-and-cold fad for northern cyclists to a national trend, which in some ways takes the fatbike back to where it began. New Mexico's Ray Molina started building fatbikes under the Remolino brand in the late 1990s for riding the sand dunes and arroyos of the Southwest desert.

Molina gets credit for the first 80-millimeter rims and wide tires. He once produced a 3.5-inch wide tire named the Chevron that would be later copied as a tire called the Endomorph. The latter is now familiar to many Alaska riders.

Alaskan Mark Groneweld from Palmer is credited with bringing the first Remolino rims and tires to Alaska to pair with the custom fatbikes he built at Wildfire Designs not long after Molina's bikes hit the market Outside.

Mike Estes from Big Lake and Andy Heading from England were on Wildfire FatBikes when they led what was then called the Iditasport Impossible -- now the Iditarod Invitational -- into Nome after 1,000 miles on the trail from Knik in 2001. Their victory marked the highlight of Gronewald's career in the fatbike business, where the efforts to ride the snowy Iditarod Trail had been pushing tires to wider widths for a decade.

Modified bike frames were needed to accommodate such tires, which led to creation of a new fatbike market. Custom builders like Gronewald, and Anchorage's John Evingson and Greg Matyas, among others, couldn't keep up with the demand or meet the desire for an economically priced alternative.

Mass production became inevitable.

Three years after Estes and Heading rolled into Nome, Minnesota-based Surly Bikes rolled out the first commercially produced fatbike.

That was for the 2004 Interbike show, according to the company website.

At the time, 3-inch Nokian Gazzaloddi tires were the widest, commercially produced bicycle tire in the U.S. That would quickly change. The first Surly Pugsley to hit the market in 2005 was fitted with Surly's own Endomorphs, a 3.7 inch knockoff of the Remolino Chevron fitted to a 65-mm "Large Marge'' rims. The Endomorph and the Large Marge would quickly become winter norms for fatbikers.

The fat fad had started. But the Pugsley was in the beginning something of the pet rock of cycling. Many were purchased for the novelty as much as the utility, even though the Pugs helped grow the market.

"When I first started riding (fatbikes), people were kind of making fun of me,'' Gronewald said a year after the Pugsley arrived on the scene. "It's still sort of on the fringe, but I do think you will see more people getting into it. ... The one that gets me was I was out riding my fatbike, which I've been building for seven years now, and some guy tells me, 'Hey, man, you just copied the Pugsley.''

Model-T of fatbikes

Nobody is drawing comparisons these days between lightweight fatbikes and the heavy Pugsleys of old.

The steel-framed Pugsley with its strangely offset rear wheel now seems like the Model-T of fatbikes, even though Surly has given in to market demands and modified the design over the years. Gone from the standard Pugs is the offset front fork of old, which allowed a rider to swap out the front and back wheels.

The original thinking was that Pugsley was an "adventure bike.'' So it was a good idea to have a front wheel equipped with a gear so it could be traded for the rear wheel if a cassette or derailleur broke, and you had to convert your 24-speed fat bike to a single speed. The only problem was the offset wheel in the offset front fork made the bike pull to one side, as did the offset rear.

The idea behind the offset rear itself was a simple issue of parts availability. The 135mm hub was and is the mountain bike norm, but it wouldn't work with a fatbike because the chain rubbed on the tire. Surly solved the problem by off-setting the frame and building an offset wheel to move the tire away from the chain.

Anchorage's Matyas of Speedway Cycles led an industry movement away from that idea with the creation of his fatbike with a 170mm hub. The result of Matyas' design change was a fatbike that rode and handled a lot like an ordinary mountain bike. Outside Magazine's rated the newly designed fatbike second on its list of the top-11 cycling products of 2012, saying, "This was the year fatbikes took to the mainstream....''

"....We've had plenty of fun on these hogs over the last few seasons,'' the magazine reported. (http://www.outsideonline.com/blog/outdoor-gear/bikes/the-11-best-cycling-products-of-2012.html) "(But) it is the Fatback from Anchorage, Alaska-based Speedway Cycles that has won us over for good. At just 27 pounds, … this bike rides more like an XC mountain bike than a monster truck. With a spare set of lightweight wheels, it easily pulls double duty as an XC racer, making this thus far the most versatile mountain bike around."

If limited to one bike (although what true cyclist would be limited to one bike?), there is a solid argument to be made that today's fatbike with a spare set of 29-inch wheels would be "the'' bike.

With carbon-fiber frames, fatbikes have grown lighter and lighter, and though designed to run on 4-inch-wide, 26-inch tires, they ride equally well on 2-inch wide 29-inch tires in the summer. And 29ers, as they are called, are popular in mountain biking today.

Add one more stick of kindling to the fatbike fire.

Bill Fleming of Anchorage's Chain Reaction Cycles admitted he is a little surprised to see fatbike sales continuing to grow. Fleming is a partner in 9:Zero:7, a competitor of Fatbacks in the booming business.

Fatback and 9:Zero:7 used to own a fair part of the higher end of the fatbike market themselves, but there is a lot of competition now across all price points.

"Every ... little brand now has a fat bike,'' Fleming said. "We used to have a big piece of a small pie. Now we have a small piece of a big pie.

"We don't know what's going to happen, but I will say that when we went to Interbike in September, I was concerned.''

Fortunately, he said, things turned out well for the Alaska company. It signed up more 9:Zero:7 dealers Outside than ever before. Fleming isn't sure what to think.

"Every year for the last three years,'' he said, "we thought that that was going to be it. We're not going to sell more bikes than last year,'' but sales have held up despite sizable competition.

"It's crazy,'' Fleming said."

Mukluk comes on

Tim Kreuger, former brand manager for the fatbike company Salsa, said his company's sales went from a $3 million to $27 million per year in three years.

Salsa is a subsidiary of Quality Bike Products of Bloomington, Minnesota, as is Surly. Salsa borrowed heavily from what had been learned in Alaska when it introduced its Salsa Mukluk fatbike in 2010. The Mukluk abandoned the steel frame of stablemate Pugsley in favor of lightweight aluminum.

The Mukluk became the first serious competitor for the Fatback and the 9:Zero:7 in a niche above the Pugs. Today, there's lots of competition.

"Now most everyone's getting in the market," Matyas said. "Some of them (are) even good. Most totally flawed and have no idea, (but) I'm sure they will figure it out.''

Retail giant Walmart's first attempt at a low-ball fatbike became a bit of Internet sensation with some fatbike fans seemingly spending as much time online talking about the "WalGoose'' as the bike came to be called, as riding.

Fat-bike.com eventually posted a story headlined "Is The Walmart Fatbike Really That Bad?'' The short answer was "yes,'' but the writer added that if someone wanted to spend hours and hours modifying the bike, and invest tens or hundreds of dollars in upgrading parts, the bike could be made serviceable.

Open the wallet

Fatbikes do not come cheap. Even an entry level Pugsley will set you back about $1,750. Prices only go up from there.

The new, carbon-fiber Fatback Corvus, which again had Outside raving, costs upward of $3,500. The frame and fork alone is $2,300, and most of the specialty parts for fatbikes -- wide wheels, wide tires, extra-wide cranksets -- cost more than the corresponding parts for an average mountain bike.

The 9:Zero:7 Whiteout Carbon AK-10 Fatbike, the company's entry-level carbon-fiber ride, retails for $3,999.99. Whiteouts, with better part specs, go all the way to $6,999.99, which is in keeping with the price of some of the other top-end fatbikes.

It wasn't all that long ago when you could buy a new car for that, but Matyas said the upper end of the fatbike market seems to be holding up, despite the price.

"Growth has been amazing every year,'' he said, though he wouldn't say precisely how amazing.

"I never like to use numbers,'' he added. "Maybe it doesn't matter at this point, but I'm sure my loose-lipped competitors caught the attention of other manufacturers with their bragging in the media."

Success, as they say, is a double-edged sword, and Alaska's two fatbike manufacturers are in a fight for their lives.

"If somebody had told me three years ago that Specialized, Trek, everybody is going to have a fatbike, I wouldn't have believed them,'' Fleming said.

Only a year ago, he remembered talking to a representative of Trek, the country's largest bike company, and getting the clear impression "he was not a fan of fatbikes.''

Now, Trek is in the market with the "Farley,'' a fatbike named for the late, oversized "Saturday Night Live" comic Chris Farley.

Trek doesn't jump on trends on a whim. A lot of market research comes first.

"They need to do like 30,000 bikes to make it worth their while,'' Fleming said.

So expect to see a lot of Farleys joining the Whiteouts, Fatbacks, Pugsleys, Mukluks on the trails soon, not to mention the Fatboys, Bigfoots, Fatties, Crawlers, Blizzards, Caribous, Borealises, Sasquatches, Moonlanders, Ice Cream Trucks, and other aptly, or not so aptly, named fatbikes from manufacturers now too numerous to list.

‘Totally mainstream’

All of this makes it a good time to be a fatbike rider in Anchorage.

"It's now totally mainstream,'' Fleming said. "It used to be, you'd get a big dump of snow and somebody would have to volunteer to walk the trails (to pack them), and it would still be (bad) riding for a couple days. Now, there's so many people riding it seems like the trails are packed in almost instantly after a storm.''

It makes Anchorage a great place to ride a fatbike.

But, of course, when USA Cycling unveils a "an exciting new discipline,'' it won't be in Alaska. Ogden, Utah, will host the first USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championships, the organization has announced.

In fact, the date for nationals is Feb. 14 -- two weeks before the March 1 start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, the Tour de France of fatbiking.

Maybe some Outside riders can use nationals as a tune up for the real thing.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com

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