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Homer festival celebrates fatbikes -- and Alaskans' pioneering role

  • Author: Bjorn Olson
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published February 15, 2014

For more than 100 years people have been doing amazing things with bicycles in Alaska. In 1898 a handful of hardy souls rode over 1,000 miles from Dawson to Nome -- well before cars, trains or even roads.

Not long after the invention of the mountain bike, Alaska adventurers began exploring winter trails. In 1989, four men rode the entire Iditarod Trail. That expedition and the human-powered race called Iditasport inspired the quest to design a better-suited bicycle -- with more "floatation." Backyard tinkerers, hobbyists and a few bike shops began experimenting with bicycle, wheel and tire designs through the 1990s.

Fat is a relative term. When All Weather Sports in Fairbanks came out with the Snowcat, which featured a 44-millimeter-wide rim, they looked, to many, to be clownishly large and suited only to the winter crazies. And yet, the push for more floatation continued. The Achilles heel was the tire. Small businesses or hobbyists could not afford designing or manufacturing suitably wide rubber.

The first commercially available fatbike was called the Wildfire. Mark Gronewald of Palmer, Alaska, teamed up with Ray Molino of Texas, and together they designed a bike around 80mm rims and a 4-inch tire. The Wildfire was the vanguard of what we now identify as a fatbike. Gronewald coined the term, and everyone who rides one owes a debt of gratitude to this Alaska visionary.

Increased interest and a persistent pressure from Alaskans finally convinced Surly Bikes to jump into this fringe market. The Surly Pugsley was the first affordable snow-bike with 4-inch tires. Every year since has seen an almost exponential growth in design and appeal -- similar to what mountain bikes went through in the 80s.

The fatbike is an obvious choice for year-round adventurers and cyclists in Alaska. From beaches to alpine tundra, gravel river bars, snow trails and spring crust, the fatbike works.

In less than a decade, fat-tire bikers have evolved. Some strip their bikes down to the bare bones and take them on long overland bike-packing adventures. Others add suspension and hydraulic disc brakes, using them like cross-country/free ride bikes. Many use them as a logical choice for year-round commuting in communities that experience inclement weather. There is no wrong answer.

The Homer Cycling Club is celebrating bicycles and the people who ride them at the Big Fat Bike Festival Feb. 21-23. Due to the beaches and great winter trails, Homer is an amazing place to own and ride a fatbike. Events will include beach bonfires, a group ride from Anchor Point to Homer, burgers and brew, silent and live auction, an obstacle course and much more.

Whether you are a seasoned rider or first-timer, Big Fat Bike Festival is a good time to come out and experience this increasingly popular pursuit.

This article was originally published by The Homer News and is reprinted here with permission.