Big tires add up to big fun in cycling’s newest niche
I’m on a big fat bike, and it’s giving me a big fat grin. In fact, my bike is so fat, it’s funny. It’s not that my ride is morbidly obese: It looks like a regular mountain bike, but its super-fat tires turn it into a two-wheeled version of a monster truck, complete with a bouncy feel that’s something like a pogo stick. It creates a different sensation that miraculously makes me feel like a kid again–a considerable feat not lost on my twenty-something riding companion showing me how to adjust my riding style, something I thought I’d mastered long ago.
“Oops, you gotta watch those fishtail turns in the slush,” certified mountain bike instructor Lindsey Yokley laughs as I crash into a trailside snowbank in Elk Meadow Park in Evergreen. “Fat bikes allow you to ride on surfaces that’d be impossible with standard mountain bikes, but you really have to keep your gravity centered on turns, especially in slushy snow.”
My dismount, however, is harmless; if you’re going to crash, snow is immensely forgiving. I saddle up, try again and, yep, I’m grinning like a fool.
Conventional bike wisdom says fat is bad. Sinewy two-wheeled steeds in the sub-20 pound range are prized hill climbers and slick racers, while big, bloated bikes are reserved for cruising to liquor stores. But a quiet craze gained steam last year, turning a novelty reserved for cycling radicals into a fat tire phenomenon that has become the new darling of the bike industry.
Fat bikes–sometimes called snow bikes–are the newest brethren of familiar mountain bikes, with cartoonish ballooned tires up to 5 inches wide (more than twice that of standard bike tires). While frames, though stout, still look rather typical, front forks and rear stays are freakishly wide to accommodate the blubbery tires. Rims are a standard 26 inches, but pack on all that rubber and the rolling diameter posts a whopping 29 inches. With so much tire underfoot, handling takes more muscle, and fat bikes compensate with extra wide handlebars to leverage the bigger wheels.
After hovering on the fringes of bike culture for a decade, fat bikes made serious inroads in Colorado just last year. Shops renting and selling fatties have sprouted in resort towns such as Crested Butte, Winter Park, Telluride, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and more, a sure sign that fat bikes have arrived in force. Aspen’s Limelight hotel now offers guests fat bikes to cruise around town.
“Fat bikes became huge here this past year,” says Rachel Zerowin, communications director for the town of Breckenridge. “Just like fat skis that float over powder, fat bikes float over snow where normal tires sink. Lots of skiers and bikers love them for training.”
Hardcore bikers can now train in the depths of winter, sure, but the question arises: Why would skiers ditch the slopes for fat bikes?
“Bad snow, ice, slush–if the slopes suck, fat bikes are the better option to get out and play,” Zerowin says.
Though they’ve gained traction as snow machines, fat bikes were conceived to ride over any soft surface–sand, muck, snow–where normal tires would get bogged down. The first fat bikes were developed simultaneously in Alaska and New Mexico in the 1980s as customized creations for riding on local snow and sand. Bike rims were pinned or welded side-by-side in tandem to accept two tires. A designer in Fairbanks, AK, eventually modified rims into a single unit for a single mammoth tire, and the modern incarnation of fat bikes was born.
In 2000, Colorado endurance bike racer Mike Curiak rode and pushed his fat tire bike more than 1,000 miles in 15 days to win the first Iditasport race in Alaska. That drew plenty of attention to an industry always looking for the next big thing. Mainstream bike makers hopped on board in 2005, when Surly debuted the stout Pugsly fat bike, the first mass-produced model. Early adopters in the snowbound upper Midwest didn’t take much convincing, and thousands of racers and commuters have turned the region into a virtual Fat Bike Central.
The emerging category is now the fast-growing segment in the industry, accounting for approximately $8.8 million in U.S. sales in 2014, up 155 percent from the prior year, according to NPD Group, a tracker of retail trends. To affirm their popularity even more, the nation’s two largest bike makers, Specialized and Trek, began offering the big-tired styles last year. Prices run the gamut from $235 models sold at Walmart to exotic new full-suspension carbon frames hitting $5,000 and up.
In Elk Meadow Park, my fat bike apprenticeship is interrupted by snowy, slushy hills, and I’m reduced to pushing my ride as I suck lungfuls of air. I’m surprised my young, hotshot bike guide does the same.
“They can ride almost anywhere, but they’re heavier than regular bikes and the snow requires a lot more effort,” Yokley explains.
But with our uphill struggle comes redemption, and we coast a 1½-mile descent on crunchy hard-pack that has plenty of turns and bumps to keep things interesting. It’s my favorite part of the ride, and I’m still grinning.
Get Rolling: Don’t be put-off by the name. Culture of Speed bike shop in Evergreen caters to fat bike riders, buyers and curious types interested in demo rides. Call or stop in to reserve a rental ($40/24 hours), then bring shoes, a helmet and basic riding accessories for the pedaling. Since COS is located within riding distance from some great mountain trail rides, such as the diverse Elk Meadow Park, you can leave your car parked at the shop. Rental fees can be applied to the price of any bike purchased. acultureofspeed.com
Heavy Fat Biking Destinations
Breckenridge: Breck Bike Guides is the go-to for guided fat bike rides ($35/hour, plus rental fee) and DIY rentals ($40/$55, half/full-day) taking aim at muddy and snow-bound trails year-round. Check out the not-too-steep Moonstone and Barney Ford trails on the east side of this high altitude town if it’s your first ride on a fatty. cyclebreck.com
Salida: For an epic fat bike undertaking, Absolute Bike Adventures leads five hour guided rides ($135/person includes bike, shuttle ride, snacks, beverages) up Marshall Pass and to the ghost town of St. Elmo where you’ll explore snow-covered single track and dirt roads. absolutebikeadventures.com
Steamboat Springs: No snow, no problem. Orange Peel Bikes maintains a handful of fatties for all-season demos ($35/24 hours). Rides from the shop include the Howelsen Hill trail network and a local’s favorite, the Spring Creek Trail to Buffalo Pass, which begins at the high school. orangepeelbikes.com