Outdoors

Survival of faddest

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Oh the places you can go. A fatbiker climbs the Iditarod Trail to Rainy Pass deep in the heart of the Alaska Range wilderness/Craig Medred photo

Fatbikes are everywhere in Alaska and Alaska’s largest city these days. They have transformed a world where cross-country skiing once dominated human-powered, winter recreation in the great outdoors. And in the process, they have created a national craze.

Refined in the north, wide-tire, snow bikes have migrated south to become a cycling industry sensation. Fatbikes are the rare, possibly the only, Alaska fad to make a splash Outside as Alaskans prefer to call that other-world of the lower 48 states.

Popularity is a wonderful thing until it comes back to bite your business.

The 49th state is home to two fat bike companies – Fatback bikes and 9:Zero:7. Once they were battling Minnesota-based Surly bikes for sales in a growing market.

Today they find themselves in a fight for survival against dozens of other bike manufactures in a market that appears to have peaked.

Capitalism is a war zone. One could argue it has lasted so long as the globe’s prime economic system because it mimics nature where the over-arching, long-term rule is simple: Survival of the fittest.

Passing fad?

The Bicycle Product Suppliers Association in June reported fat bike sales down 24 percent for the year.

“Fat bikes appear to have peaked last year,” according to  BicycleRetailer.com.

Those reports and others had the international cycling website bikeradar.com on Friday pondering “The death of fat bikes?”

The subhead on the story might have been more the reality:

“Kind of, sort of, not really. It’s a bit complicated.”

Fatback’s Greg Matyas, an Alaska pioneer in fatbike research and development along with being a fatbike businessman, couldn’t agree more. He paints the picture of a classic market response to a new sale’s opportunity in the early 2000s.

“Everyone wanted a piece of the pie,” he said.

Buyer’s market?

The result was a boom in fatbike production. Almost every bike manufacturer got into the game. Fat bikes began to evolve, and prices began to fall.

Tires got wider and wider, and then started getting narrower and narrow as fat bikes morphed into “plus bikes.” Frame geometry shifted to change handling from the solid, truck-like ride of the ground-breaking Surly Pugsley to the sports-car like twitchiness of any of a slew of new, ultralight carbon-fiber fat bikes.

As market competition increased, various manufacturers produced some really good bikes, some mediocre bikes, and some junk. For a time, there was what could only be called a cult developing among people trying the modify the popularly named WalGoose (a Walmart Moongoose Beast, since renamed the Dozer , sold for $179.97) into a suitable fatbike.

After hours spent working on a WalGoose and varius upgrades using parts that would if purchased over-the-counter cost at least a couple hundred dollars, a bike mechanic at Fatbike.com offered this verdict on the Goose:

“I know it’s only $200 and its kinda cool, but unless you are willing to do all the work yourself and have a stocked parts bin it really isn’t worth it. Paying a shop to upgrade this thing would be silly. I suggest talking to your LBS (local bike shop) and seeing what they can do for you on a new Pugs (especially if they have any in stock this late in the season) or keeping an eye out for a used fatbike.”

Since the WalGoose arrived on the scene, the number of fatbikes competing for sales at the lowest price points has steadily increased. There are decent buys to be found there, but there are also plenty of bikes that look better on the showroom floor than they function on the winter trail.

“Many of these brands who jumped into fat bikes now have 12 different models and all are poorly spec’ed for winter use,”  Matyas said. “Those responsible for spec are pressured to use the cheapest parts to hit particular price points, as that’s the bottom line, not giving customers good value.

“Not just components that won’t last as long, but ones that won’t function in the cold. Those of us in Alaska know how to spec bikes. We test new components constantly. Each week I’m testing something different on my bikes from chains to tires, handlebars, grips, gearing, bearings, and lubes.”

A chief problem with many budget price bikes – a category that basically covers everything under $1,000 in today’s fat bike market – is that they are heavy and not geared low enough for riding in snow.

A $600 (plus postage), 9-speed “Minnesota 1.0” fat bike sold by framedbikes.com, a major source of budget fat bikes, looks like a good deal online until one notes the 32-tooth chain ring, the 11/32-tooth cassette and the more than 35-pound weight.

Fatbike realities

Anyone buying a fatbike to ride in snow country needs to recognize two important realities: 1.) Everyone will push at some time because of bad trail. No matter how good you ride, there will come a time when the snow is just so soft and mushy (or so deep) you will need to push. And 2.) there will be times when it becomes necessary to grind out the miles at a snail’s pace in a very low gear. Snow might look soft, but it can offer a lot of rolling resistance.

A 40-pound fat bike seems to push more than twice as hard as a 30-pound fat bike. Pushing uphill in deep, soft snow, the difference might feel like three times as much. The lighter the bike one can afford, the better.

The story is much the same for gearing. A 32-tooth chainring and a 32-tooth cassette might be OK for a gorilla or someone who only rides the flat lands in the best of trail conditions, but most riders will be a happier with a smaller chain ring – say a 22 – up front in addition to that 32 and a bigger cassette – say a 12-36 – in the rear.

Or, if running a single chain-ring, maybe a 28- or 30-tooth in the front and a 12-42 cassette in the rear.

There are other fine points, but in general an old rule that applies to most products applies to the rest of the fat-bike parts spec: You get what you pay for.

Evolving tech

With that said, there is a growing argument to be made for Alaskans, at least, that purchasing a top-of-the-line fat bike as the only necessary year-round snow, mountain and trail bike for the 49th state might be a good investment.

This is especially true for someone lacking the space to store the whole bunch of bikes some think necessary: a light, fast, hardtail mountain bike for Anchorage trails, a full-suspension mountain bike for rougher terrain in the Susitna Valley or on the Kenai Peninsula, a fat bike for winter, and a commuter for around town.

Most fat bikes can be easily fitted with narrower rubber and converted to “plus bikes” for summer riding. “Plus bikes,” a spin-off from Fatbikes, are both cutting into and expanding fat bike sales as bikeradar.com notes.

Plus bikes roll on tires from 2.8 to 3 inches wide. Fatbike tires start at 3.8 and go up.

“Plus is not going to replace fat for flotation,” Matyas said, but for non-snow season riding it’s starting to make more and more sense as the weight of 27.5-inch tires and wheels keep falling.

At his bike shop, Speedway Cycles in Anchorage, Matyas is seeing increasing numbers of cyclists buying a set of 27.5-inch-diameter plus wheels or even 29-inch wheels (another cycling fad) to ride on their Fatbacks in the snow-free months.

“The folks that have generally done that like it,” he added.

Fatter tires, like fat bikes, have become another modern cycling trend. Wide tires were once thought to produce inherently more rolling resistance, making bikes with wide tires harder to peddle. But recent studies have concluded the opposite is true. 

“I’ve gone to the wider stuff all across the board,” said Matyas, who also admitted that as much as he loves his Fatbacks, “they’re not necessarily perfect for everything.

“You’re not going to ride a fat bike in a time trial.”

But there are a lot of other places to ride a fatbike/plus bike, which might be why bikeradar.com reporter Russell Eich ended his story this way:

“So it’s clear as mud, the fat bike’s days are numbered. Well actually they probably aren’t.”

Whether Fatback and 907 survive the market adjustment of this evolution, however, only time will tell. Competition is a wonderful thing for the consumer, but it can be hell for business owners with no choice but to compete or die.

And competing in a market flooded with competition is tough. Very tough.

 

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10 replies »

  1. The only thing surprising about fat biking being a fad is that if there is someone out there that might be surprised that fat biking is a fad. Name a sport that hasn’t had a gear fad. Talk to Paul Denkewalter at AMH and all the fads he has seen come and go with skiing, climbing, outdoor gear and clothing and paddle sports. Take skiing. Paul once had people lining up out the door to by touring skis in the 70’s, skate skis in the 80’s, tele skis in the 90’s and a constant flow of backcountry skis with the hip shape of the year. Fads have driven a lot of ski sales for Paul. Yes, fad cycles can be rough on businesses. But when fads die it’s interesting to see who the real diehards are, the ones that still use the fad gear long after the fad has blown over. A good thing for local fat biking … seems like there will always be a lot of diehard fat bikers in AK long after the fad fades away in the rest of the world.

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      • How is changing the diameter of the wheel progress in technology? Never mind Tom Ritchey’s first mtn bikes had 700c wheels, essentially 27.5 inch. I still ride 26 inch wheels because I’m not dumb enough to be massaged into buying all new wheels by the marketing wizards. I went into Speedway looking for a 26 inch rim to rebuild a wheel and was told by some kid that 26 inch is no longer a standard size. He had a bunch of 26 inch rims hanging behind him and I was able to talk him out of one for less than half price, “since it’s no longer standard.” Thanks to eBay everything is still standard. I was just shopping for Dura-Ace AX cranks on eBay. Found a pair of 175s with pedals in Holland.

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  2. It should also be pointed out that Framed bikes are off the shelf bikes from China branded with their logo. This is where the savings comes from. No R&D, no design work, just paint. They also had the audacity to name their frame “Alaskan.” They are the house brand of a sporting goods store in Minneapolis.

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    • i am all too aware, Greg. i grew up in Minnesota. it makes me more than a little POed that the history of fat bikes there is ripping off the R&D from Alaska. it goes all the way back to the Pugs, and that was only the beginning of the thievery. is there anything they haven’t stolen since?

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