Nowadays, you can hardly leave the house in Alaska without seeing a fat bike, what most now call fat-tire bikes. They're everywhere — on backcountry trails, city paths and sidewalks, or waiting patiently at year-round bike racks that many businesses now offer, loyal steeds at the hitching post outside bike commuters' favorite businesses. That wasn't always the case.
The earliest fat bikes were, by definition, jury-rigged: Die-hard bikers tinkering in their garages welded two rims side by side to create a single wide rim, then stretched the biggest downhill tires they could find over that rim, cutting the lugs off to make the whole thing roll faster. The resulting tire was wide but low-profile, offering little traction and almost none of the cushioning effect you get from today's truly fat tires.
But the idea showed promise for biking in places where snow held sway a significant portion of the year — so fat-bike technology developed bit by bit in garages around the country.
James Stull, owner of Chain Reaction Cycles in South Anchorage and its 9:Zero:7 fat-bike brand, was inspired to improve on early efforts. Like everyone else, Stull's 9:Zero:7 struggled with the availability of parts early on. "Nothing ever worked real great because there were no parts, so you had to modify everything," said Stull. "There was always an issue with some sort of part compatibility."
How far they've come
Everyone I spoke to was quick to reel off names of some of the earliest and most influential tinkerers, including many Alaskans. Most people have at least heard of the iconic Surly Pugsley of the Minnesota-based Surly Bikes, with its offset front wheel, the model most people credit with first bringing the fat bike to mainstream awareness.
"A lot of it revolved around the history of the Iditabike race," explained Paul Zeigle, brand manager for Minnesota-based Surly Bikes. Founded in 1987 with its start line in Wasilla, the Iditabike winter wilderness endurance race was later rechristened the Iditasport and then the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which continues to this day.
Other ultra-endurance races and a developing year-round cycling culture helped spur the race for the best winter biking technology in places like Minnesota, upstate New York and, of course, Alaska. Surly introduced its first prototype of the Pugsley at the Interbike trade show in 2004.
Now, Zeigle says, you can find fat-bike races in the Midwest almost every weekend from late December to spring. "They'd rather go out and ride on a fat bike than sit on a trainer indoors," he explained. There's no denying that some of the people on fat bikes — especially in warm places like San Francisco — are just riding a trend, but many of the harder-core riders are drawn to fat bikes because of their simple, sturdy builds, which typically have fewer gears and no suspension parts that might give out if not well-maintained.
But was the Surly Pugsley the first fat bike to hit the market circuit?
Not necessarily: The earliest model I could trace was the now-out-of-circulation Vicious Cycles Thunderwing from upstate New York. Rick Shaw, owner of Anchorage-based Ready to Race Cycles, said he consulted with Vicious Cycles on several components of this custom build, which made its debut in 2003 at the Interbike show.
"About six months later, here's the Surly Pugsley with a 100-millimeter-wide bottom bracket shell," he said, referencing a part he'd recommended for Vicious Cycles and that has stayed nearly constant on many fat-bike models because it provides enough space to fit fat tires and rims onto the bike frame.
"From that point on, it was game on. Everybody and their brother started cranking out a fat bike." (Now that the Thunderwing is out of circulation, Shaw usually recommends the Ventana El Gordo fat bike out of California for its refinement and handling on snow.)
And some of the best business competitors have turned out to be locals. Alaska is home to two fat-bike brands that ship their products worldwide: the Fatback brand at Speedway Cycles, which introduced its first production bike in 2007, and 9:Zero:7 out of Chain Reaction Cycles, which debuted its first production model in 2008.
Both local brands were initially manufactured in the U.S., but quality control and scheduling problems prompted them to switch to Taiwan. Parts are then assembled in-house at each of the respective shops.
"The quality wasn't as good (in the US factories) and we always had to tell customers 'two more weeks; OK, two more weeks ...'" explained Will Ross, service manager at Chain Reaction Cycles.
"The (early fat bikes) were a lot more fun than I thought they would be when I saw them," said Greg Matyas, owner of Speedway Cycles and the Fatback brand. Matyas had just opened a shop that needed to support itself during the winter and, having grown up racing bikes, he had some ideas on how to build a better one. With just a few winter endurance riders committed to buying the first Fatback bikes, he and his fledgling shop took the plunge, with no idea how quickly things would snowball.
"It was basically a race to keep up with demand, right from the start," Matyas explained, even as they hustled to manufacture the parts they needed that didn't exist in the typical catalogs. One advance that helped drive fat bikes' popularity and availability, Matyas said, was when Surly introduced 4-inch-wide tires. Now, winter fat-bike sales in both local shops routinely meet or surpass their summer sales figures. Consequently, winter has gone from the slow season to peak season, with local fat bikes shipping all over the world.
Famine to feast
These days, the fat-bike equipment field has ballooned so much that almost every manufacturer produces a couple of components involved in the "industry within an industry," if you will — and competition among parts manufacturers makes the entire industry easier for everybody to access.
"Initially when you first saw them it was like, 'these are really heavy, why would I want to ride one of those super-heavy bikes?'" explained Stull, owner of Chain Reaction Cycles and the 9:Zero:7 brand. Like Matyas, he was inspired to improve existing brands and, in particular, make them lighter. Even as fat-bike development was driven by smaller brands like 9:Zero:7, Fatback and Surly, big manufacturers began edging into this little industry within an industry, bringing their marketing and production power to bear to drive low-end prices down while still pushing the envelope of high-end development.
Which brings us to today, where the once-stodgy, homemade snow-or-sand runner has evolved into everything from sleek commuter to bridled race horse.
In fact, many would argue that Alaska's winter riding is better than its summer options, says Matyas of Speedway Cycles. You can put in a trail almost anywhere there's snow cover and not worry about hurting anything, using the frozen ground and a mosquito-free season to explore swampland that would be impassable during the summer.
And you'll find fat-bike races all winter in hotbeds like Alaska and the Midwest. Walk into any local bike shop in the winter. Typically, the entryway is wallpapered with race fliers. And those racers are serious: A week ago, Ross pedaled his fat bike to victory in Anchorage's Frosty Bottom race that attracted 210 riders. Ross covered 50 miles in just 2 hours, 42 minutes. Two other racers were less than 2 seconds back. The trio was part of a tightly packed peloton for much of the race
There's more at work there than imitating road racers, explained Dmitri Kostarev, sales associate for Chain Reaction Cycles, which organized the race. All the surface area on a fat bike's tires make for a lot of resistance against the riding surface, so you need every aerodynamic advantage you can get. "If you separate from the group, that's it; you're getting dropped," he explained.
There's no denying that some people buy fat bikes for the trend factor. But when I surveyed local shop owners about the causes of the fat-bike explosion, they agreed there was more to the trend than meets the eye.
Remember, they insisted, that behind the marketing-fueled fad created by big manufacturers are years of purely functional tinkering and development, led by the people who actually spend dozens or hundreds of hours pushing themselves and their bikes to the limit.
So although trendiness and lower prices are certainly helping drive fat-bike popularity — nowadays you can get a decent aluminum fat bike for as little as $1,100 — it's the ride that appeals to many bikers. The inherently forgiving suspension effect of a fat bike's air-filled tires, their simple construction, and the stability of those wide tires and rims make them good for riding on sand or, really, any rugged terrain.
"The beauty of a fat bike is they're very simple in nature," explained Shaw of Ready to Race Cycles. "(Also) they're wild-looking. You know, you see this fat-tire bike just rolling down the trail ... They remind me of just a slobbery-mouthed Saint Bernard just loping down the trail."
Shaw also explained that, despite the simplicity, each manufacturer's bike design is a little different, with small differences like hub spacing or crank size affecting the ultimate feel of the ride.
And yet, marketing seems to have driven the fat-bike industry full circle. "A lot of the fat-tire technology is starting to morph its way into the more conventional bicycle design for summertime," Shaw said. And fat bikes are adopting some features of conventional bikes. Suspension forks creeping into high-end fat bikes is the most obvious sign we saw, although you might take the advent of mass-produced fat bikes in stores like Costco and Wal-Mart as a sign, too. In an industry founded on pushing both equipment and human tolerances to the limit, cheap isn't always best.
"I actually encourage people not to buy any bicycle from a big box store," Shaw said. "They are usually so poorly built that they are going to start failing immediately," and when that happens, the customer won't have a bike shop to go back to for support.
But maybe this is simply capitalism in action. With so many fat bikes available, if all you're interested in is the look, you can have it pretty cheap. But judging by the popularity of brands like Fatback and 9:Zero:7, cyclists who still want a hard-core piece of equipment to see them through demanding winter conditions are willing to pay for that sort of quality. So even if the fat-bike boom goes bust, the fat-bike reality — from hard-core winter commuters to ultra-endurance-racing athletes — is probably here to stay.
Anchorage freelance writer Lisa Maloney is considering trading in her pink Motiv8r mountain bike. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org