Life on the Mountain
Fat Bikes: Snowy-Street Style
Winter Finds Its Pedals
In the wake of winter sport madness brought by Sun Valley’s Nordic Festival, there was a noteworthy, pedal-driven moment: a “fat bike” race, held immediately following the cross-country sprint races near the Ketchum Post Office and run mostly on the same course. The crowd was filled with “nordies,” but mixed among the Swix hats and Fischer skis were some strange-looking bicycles with really, really bloated tires. When the sprints wound down, a comparable group of athletes readied themselves for a different kind of sprint—a winter bike criterium.
As if they were cruising Corral Creek in July, eight teams of two cranked their monstrous tires (the minimum requirement was three inches, although most were closer to four) over hills and through turns of groomed snow, terrain that would be more than awkward for their summer counterparts. But “fat bikes” are the fastest growing subcategory of mountain bikes because their wide rims, extra large tires and strangely-dimensioned frames are perfectly capable of not only driving over ice and corduroy with ease and contagious amounts of momentum, but sand, slickrock, mud and coastline just as proficiently. Sun Valley’s first fat bike crit race wasn’t big, but it happened (and during a Nordic Festival no less) for a reason: fat bikes have arrived and people like them.
It’s hard to say when fat bikes, or the concept, first emerged onto the outdoor scene. A Texan named Ray “El Remolino” Molino started tinkering with super-wide tires for sand riding in the 1980s, eventually pushing his prototypes to require custom frames. Further north, in Palmer, Alaska, Mark Gronewald, of Wildfire Designs and Bicycles, borrowed from Molino’s concept with fresh motives: to provide hardcore adventure racers with a better tool for crossing winter trails. Their collective creativity garnered real interest in 2001, when one of Gronewald’s FatBikes tied to win the Iditasport Impossible, a radical 1,100 mile, human-propelled race from Knik to Nome, Alaska. Since then, fat bikes have become a staple on the competitive adventure circuit and the original independent designers have been succeeded, for the most part, by two well-known manufacturers, Surly Bikes and Salsa Cycles.
Although the endless dogsled and snowmobile routes of Alaska may have spawned the fat bike movement, its distribution now spans both coasts. Enthusiasts ride frozen trails in Vermont and Minnesota, beaches in southern California and crust in Idaho’s Blaine County. “My absolute favorite thing to do,” said local convert Keith Anspach of Backwood Mountain Sports, “is in the spring, when we get that freeze-thaw, to go ‘crust cruising.’ It’s like Moab in Idaho.” Anspach, who also enjoys exploring Adam’s Gulch and the occasional snowmobile trail, bought his Surly Pugsley four years ago, enchanted by the fat tire, the promise-improved traction and even flotation when riding through snow.
Yet fat bikes, argues Anspach, are hardly a winter toy. “People think of fat tire bikes as snow bikes and they really ought to think of them more as the Hummers of mountain bikes. They’re a riot year round.” Besides its enormous tire size, which can range from three inches to nearly five inches wide, the fat bike relies on significantly lower tire pressure, 8-15 psi depending on the user, allowing for some surprising travel and dramatically improved grip, as more rubber is able to conform to the trail. Of course, fat bikes are heavy—35 to 40 pounds on average—making them unwieldy at times, especially up hills. Yet this too, with the added inertia, helps riders like Anspach deftly roll over logs, roots and other features.
The weight of a fat bike, however, has been both its blessing and its curse, at least during the wintertime. Currently, fat bikes are not allowed on groomed trails in the North Valley (which also includes Croy Canyon) for a few reasons, including the concern that they’ll leave deep ruts. The other issue is how bikers will be able to interact with Nordic skiers on the 200km of Blaine County Recreation District (BCRD) trails. For fat bike riders, access has become a growing matter in the Wood River Valley and elsewhere. Fortunately, compromises are being made in prominent places. Methow Valley, one the nation’s best cross-country ski destinations, began a pilot program for fat bikes this season to see if they can coexist with other user groups. And while Grand Targhee initiated a similar policy, fat bikes are far from being universally accepted. They’re still prohibited, for instance, on trails in Yellowstone National Park.
So where does Greg Martin, BCRD’s Trails Coordinator, ride his fat bike? “Well, I only ride where it’s legal,” he laughed. The last thing Martin wants is for riders to confront the ban on fat bikes by breaking the rules. He doesn’t agree that fat bikes damage groomed trails, but recognizes that there will need to be established guidelines before BCRD’s winter trails are opened to chain-crankers. That being said, adds Martin, “The nature and experience of riding the bike itself on Nordic trails should self-police for the most part. If it’s too soft for you to be there, it’s not fun to be there. The firmer it is, the more fun it is.”
Even under the status quo, the popularity of fat bikes has continued to surge. “We couldn’t order any more,” said Anspach of the demand at Backwoods in 2012. “We were struggling to find them; they’re sold out nationwide.” Basically, there are going to be a lot more fat bikes in the future, which may push land managers to learn more about them and reconsider access bans. For Martin, the bottom line on Ketchum’s newest phenomenon, as was demonstrated during Sun Valley’s successful fat bike crit race, is that “Whatever gets people outside to recreate is a good thing. It’s human-powered recreation and I support that.”