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Made in Alaska Fad

Many of the gang of trailblazers who conspired to make fat bikes the fad they are today gather Saturday in Anchorage to discuss how an old idea — a bike with balloon tires — became a new idea that caught fire in Alaska and spread around the globe.

And to think it all began, as did so much other economic innovation, with the wheel.

Credit for the first fat bike looking anything at all like today’s fat bike probably has to go to Steve Baker of Alaska’s Icicle Bicycles who first welded standard mountain-bike rims together and Roger Cowles, then a University of Alaska Anchorage student.

6-7 P.M. at the Egan Center

Baker in 1988 laced his homemade, double-wide rims to four-flange hubs, then mounted a tire on each rim to create a double-wide tire measuring 4.4 inches. Afterward,  he welded together the frame to fit the wheels, and thus was born the first fat bike.

One year later, Baker and Cowles teamed to weld together three rims and built those into a set of wheels for a 1,000-mile ride along the Iditarod Trail. Cowles that year rode a bike with “six-pack wheels” in the First Bicycle Expedition to Nome north from Knik with fellow cyclists Les Matz, Mark Frise and Dan Bull.

“On hard snow, only the largest center tire contacted the ground,” wrote Bjarne Holme, a then Anchorage biker active in the early winter racing scene. “The other tires came into play when trail conditions softened. As one can imagine, the bike was very heavy and unwieldy.”

That the “six-pack”remained a one-of-a-kind forever defines its market reception. But the six-pack and the double-wide  displayed proof of concept. Others liked what they saw.Thievery, a key component of economic progress, started quickly thereafter. It was unavoidable. Evolution is a force that cannot be stopped. It is human nature for someone, somewhere, sometime to look at even the best idea and decide it can be improved upon.

Snowcats rule the jungle

Simon Rakower of Fairbanks looked at Baker’s hefty double rims and decided he could do better. So were birthed 44mm wide “Snowcat” rims that reigned as the king of the snows in Alaska for the better part of a decade. Wheels built with Snowcats were just narrow enough to fit inside the widest frames of standard mountain bikes. And outfitted with the widest downhill tires of the day, they created bikes that could be ridden on the best packed of snowmachine trails.

Not-quite-fat, fat-bikes, these modified mountain bikes were similar to the  “plus bikes” of today. They were the snow ride of choice in the early 1990s. Plus bikes originated only after the not-quite-fats grew into fat bikes that kept getting fatter until someone decided to put them on a diet.

But we’re getting ahead of the story that should at the moment stay centered on All Weather Sports in Fairbanks where Rakower worked. All Weather built the Snowcats on which John Stamstad, now a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, dominated the Iditasport bike race — the cycling version of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — from 1993-1996.

Down in New Mexico, an adventure cyclist, tour guide and bike builder named Ray Molina saw a story about Stamstad in 1995. Molina decided “I gotta do this race. I’d been doing a lot of really rad mountain biking,” he said. “It was really scary to go into the cold.”

Molina ordered a pair of Snowcat rims, built himself a set of wheels plus some extra wide tires, and rode them for almost a year across the sand dunes of New Mexico before the 1996 Iditasport, which wasn’t such a success.

“I was the total red lantern,” he said, but the homemade Raggedy Ann tires he created by splitting tires in half and then sewing in rubber inserts to make them 4- to 5-inches wide were an eye opener.

Combined with a new bike Molina had designed and built, the tires provided an amazing level of float for riding not only on snow but on sand. Molina, who’d spent time playing on Southwest dunes with motocross bikes and three-wheel, all-terrain vehicles, realized he might be onto a whole new way to ride the dunes — fat bikes.

Wide and wider

“But once I had wide tires, I needed wide rims,” he said.

He went home to New Mexico and started building those by cutting Snowcats up the center and welding in some more aluminum to create 80mm rims almost twice the size of the original ‘Cats. He quickly realized this was too costly. Snowcats were one of the most expensive rims around in their day.

Luckily, Molina had cycling friends in Mexico. They talked and eventually he found a company that would produce 80mm Remolino rims and Remolino Sandbikes in Mexico for a reasonable price. The bikes were somewhat odd-looking by conventional standards with elevated chainstays running above the crankset to allow for 3 X 9 gearing with a minimally offset rear wheel.

But they worked, and by 1999, Molina had a production sand bike ready to go. He took it to Interbike in Las Vegas, the nation’s biggest cycling tradeshow. Mark Gronewald from Palmer and John Evingson from Anchorage saw it there. Gronewald, who’d just opened Wildfire Designs Bicycles, had previously experimented with a fat-tired recumbent for winter riding only to find that a no-go.

He and Evingson, a long-time bike builder from his younger days in Minnesota, almost immediately saw the Alaska potential in the Remolino Sandbike with its almost four-inch-wide rims. Gronewald took a lot of photographs of the bike and made a deal to buy Remolino wheels and tires. Evingson said he was confident he could build something similar, and so the two headed back to Alaska.

A Southwest design goes north

Together, they tweaked the Molina design a bit. They lowered the chainstays to a more conventional position and solved the problem of how to prevent the chain from rubbing on the rear tire by offsetting the wheel a whopping 18 degrees in the frame.

The offset was to become something of an industry standard when Surly Bikes years later started building the Pugsley, the first mass-produced fat bike. But again we’re getting ahead of the story.

Evingson built the first Wildfire bikes and Gronewald built the tires. Both rode fat bikes in the 2000 Iditasport Extreme 350 mile race to McGrath and decided they were on to something. Gronewald contracted with Palmer Machinery and later DeSalvo Cycles to start building a line of Wildfire Fatbikes in 2001.

Evingson, meanwhile, went back to Minnesota for a spell. There Evingson Cycle began custom building Voyager fat bikes, which were similar to the Wildfire Fatbike.  And Evingson went to talk to Minnesota-based Quality Bike Products, one of the globe’s biggest distributors of bicycles and bicycle parts, about its providing rims for his bikes because Remolino rims were becoming hard to find.

The company would end up producing a lot more than rims.

“I brought the fat bike to Surly,” a QBP subsidiary, Evingson said. “Brought them out on a number of rides on my bikes on Minnesota snowmobile trails. That’s how they got the interest in making them.”

At Interbike 2004, Surly unveiled the first Pugsley fat bike, the prototype for a lot of Pugsley’s to come. It sported heavy, 26 X 3.0 Nokian Gazzaloddi downhill tires because the lighter, wider, 3.7-inch Surly Endomorph tires were not yet ready for production. The bike had cantilever brakes, because disc brakes for mountain bikes were so new.

Bike industry reaction was less than overwhelming, but better than what Molina encountered in 1999 with the Remolino.

“There were a lot of naysayers,” he said.

By 2004, there was at least begrudging acceptance the fat bike might have a place, at least in snow country. Still Rocky Reifenstuhl, one of the top Iditasport competitors remained a skeptic, and would stay so almost up until his untimely death in 2014.

Clank, clank, clank

Nobody really knew a big fat revolution was building. The early Pugsleys, or Pugs as they were often called, were rather tank like with their heavy steel frames, heavy Large Marge rims and laid back geometry.

“The Large Marge was a step back,” Molina said, and if that wasn’t enough the offset tires front and rear made the Pugs steer a little odd. It took some time to adapt to a bike that sometimes seemed to want to go where it wanted to go — not necessarily where the rider wanted to go.

The offset was great in theory given the Pugs marketing pitch as an “adventure bike.” The bike was designed so one could run rear tires both front and rear, the thinking being that if a rear cassette somehow failed you could swap the front tire for the rear tire and keep on pedaling. But almost no one ever ran into a need to swap the front and rear tires.

The supposedly innovative design was a design weakness that sent others in search of a better fat bike.

By 2006, Greg Matyas of Speedway Cycles in Anchorage was deep into the development of the Fatback fat bike he would introduce in 2007. Working with young Pete Basinger — the winningest rider in the history of the Iditasport and the race that came to take its place, the Iditarod Trail Invitational — Matyas created a new industry standard for rear hubs.

His 170mm hubs allowed him to build wheels with no offset. Centered wheels combined with a frame with a longer top tube and a slacker head angle helped create a fat bike that rode and handled a lot like a regular mountain bike.

When Basinger, Jeff Oatley from Fairbanks and other riders started winning the Invitational  — the Tour de France of winter cycling — on Fatbacks, a lot of other cycle businesses began to take notice. Nine-zero-seven, an Anchorage company named for the Alaska area phone code, was quick into the competition.

Pretty soon, it seemed there were more sleek titanium and aluminum Fatbacks and 907s on the streets of Anchorage than there were everyman, steel Pugsleys. But that would change, too.

Within a decade, Surly, Fatback, 907, and a handful of other early adapters had been joined by almost every other manufacturer selling bikes in North America. Today Giant Bicycles is the only major manufacturer that doesn’t have a fat bike in its line.

And almost all fat bike manufacture has moved to China. Molina thinks Mexico missed a chance. Wildfire, Fatback and a few other manufactures tried to maintain production in the U.S., but found the costs prohibitive. Molina doesn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.

“This mushroomed into something,” he said. “(And) China played such a big roll in that.”

The essence of the fat bike is not pretty well established. Continuing design changes have begun to parallel those of other bikes. There is an emphasis on weight reduction. Carbon fiber frames, carbon fiber rims and lighter tires have helped make possible sub-25 pound bikes, down from the Pugsley days when people were happy with sub-35 pound bikes.

Matyas, who offered a 22-pound titanium Fatback back in the day, can now put a rider on the seat of a 19.5-pound carbon Fatback — if she or he has the money. Lighter frames, lighter wheels, and lighter components have all contributed to the weight reduction, but they cost.

A lot of the tank-like fat bikes of yesteryear have been replaced by the the sports-car like top-end fat bikes of today. But the market has diversified at the same time. As the costs for lightweight fat bikes have gone up, the costs for heavyweight, entry-level fatbikes have gone down.

The top-of-the-line, 20-poundish Fatback Skookum will set you back $6,299, a 23-pound Specialized S-Works Fatboy about $7,500. A bike shop can build you up a 907 Whiteout (the company no longer sells complete bikes) in this weight range for somewhere in the same price range.

On the other hand, a 35-pound Framed Minnesota, arguably an improvement on the early Pugsleys, can be found online for as low as $750 these days, not counting shipping, and there are a couple Framed dealers in Alaska. Used, 18- to 27-speed bikes can be found for even less. Or you can get a budget, seven-speed from big box stores like Walmart or Target for $200 to $300. Walmart calls their “super-cool.”

When budget bikes of marginal quality start showing up a specialty items in places like Walmart, Target and Kohls, you know a trend has become a fad.

Molina, who gave up on the Remolina after selling only a couple hundred bikes, never thought he’d see the day. So, too, for Gronewald who abandoned Wildfire after selling only about 100 bikes. They were ahead of the wave.

But they changed the world of cycling.

Fat bikes today can be found all over the city and wilderness trails of Alaska, on the sunny beaches of Florida and California, and roaming trails all over the Midwest. The only place them seem to be missing are on the dunes of the Southwest.

Dune riding just never caught on, Molina said. But maybe some day.

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REVISION: This story was changed on February 26, 2016 to reflect the John Evingson was at Interbike with Mark Gronewald in 1999 when they first spied the Remolino Sandbike.

 

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