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The fatty fad

A modern iteration of the invention that transformed winter recreation in Alaska/Craig Medred photo


The year 2020 began with one of many bike publications suggesting the market for fat bikes – possibly the only international fad rooted and fostered in Alaska – is on the verge of fading away.

And now it is ending with the editor of another bike publication proclaiming a fat bike “one of my favorite bikes of the year.”

Not just for the snow and ice, either. Go figure.

Still the latter observation can come as nothing but good news for two Alaska-born companies – Fatback Bikes and 9:Zero:7 – which helped fuel a fat-tire boom that had sucked almost two-dozen manufacturers into the fat-bike business by 2015.

Some sort of market shakeout was probably inevitable after the rapid growth, and Jeff Barber, reporting at Singletracks in January, found bike companies fleeing the fat-bike business almost as fast as they had rushed into it.

A business that went from 15 models of fat bikes in 2014 to 22 in 2015 was back down to 11 by the start of this year, he reported.

“The saying goes that the way to make a million dollars in the bike industry is to start with two million (or maybe it’s more like ten),” he wrote. “In any event, a few of the brands that introduced fat bikes in 2015 are either no longer in business or they’ve been sold to new owners.”

It should be something of a testament to the marketing skills and products of Fatback and 9:Zero:7 that they survived, and the endorsement of warm-country fat biking by Mountain Bike Action magazine can only come as good news to both of them.

But then that’s where Greg Matyas of Fatback always thought the major market for fat-tires was to be found.  Back in 2009, he was already backing Australian cyclists Russell Worthington’s efforts to ride a fat bike across the deserts of the continent Downunder and has steadily in the years since promoted fat bikes as all season, all-terrain adventure cycles even if they remain to this day largely viewed as snow bikes for cold country.

In naming the “Best Fat Bikes of 2020,” Outside magazine stuck to that narrative, labeling the Fatback Rhino FLT a best buy “for a great winter ride” though the magazine did note that “with the 100-­millimeter Manitou Mastodon suspension fork, it even holds its own on dry trails.”

Boing, boing

It was a different but similarly equipped fat bike – a KHS Four Season 3000 with a Wren suspension fork – that won the fancy of Southern Californian John Ker of Mountain Bike Action.

He confessed his affection for a fatty might sound a little crazy given “all the amazing, lightweight, full-suspension bikes that have come out in the last year…But, after we reviewed the bike in our November issue, I started taking it out for late-afternoon rides myself, and I kept having a blast every time.”

These, it should be noted, were not Alaska snow rides, but Southern California trail rides.

“I had thought that this bike would be as hard to turn as a monster truck, but it seemed like it turned sharper than any bike I could remember,” Ker wrote. “I’m also amazed by this bike’s ability to climb steep hills. That may sound crazy, since it weighs more than 37 pounds—almost twice as much as the world’s lightest cross-country race bikes.”

Thirty-seven pounds is without a doubt a lot of bike. Some steel-framed Surly Pugsleys, the first mass-produced fat bikes, weighed less when built up, and they were often jokingly referred to as “Pigsleys.”

Weight (not to get too deep in the weeds here) is a much-debated subject among cyclists. There are “weight weenies” to whom every extra gram of bike and necessary accessories (pumps, bottle cages, multitools, etc.) is one gram too many. There are those who don’t care. And there are a bunch in the middle who are willing to make trade-offs for comfort or performance.

Some of them can spend hours debating the merits and demerits of heavy, aluminum suspension forks and lightweight rigid forks of carbon fiber. The author owns two fat bikes at the moment:

One is a carbon-framed, carbon-forked, no longer manufactured Ibis Transfat with weight-weenie, tubeless carbon wheels and lots of other carbon parts that weighs in at under 25 pounds fully loaded with a pump, multitool, headlight, taillight, handlebar “feed bag” for a water bottle and snacks, and a waterproof saddle bag containing an ultralight wind shell, windpants, a spare tube and a fire-starting kit just in case something really goes wrong far from any road.

The other fatty is a beat-up, aluminum framed, On-One (a no longer manufactured British fat bike) with a weighty Wren suspension fork like the KHS and heavier wheels with studded tires this time of year. It might weigh as much, or possibly more, than the KHS Ker reviewed.

The weight of the two bikes does not appear to make as much difference in their performance as does the rolling resistance – a whole other subject – of their differing tires with one exception:

If forced to hike-a-bike because of bad trail – and this almost always happens somewhere at sometimes in this state outside of the most heavily used trails of Anchorage – the effort required to push a bike seems to grow at the cube of the bike’s weight.

Both bikes do have, as Ker noted, great traction making it possible to climber steeper hills in looser soils than on skinnier tires. And the wide tires with their additional float make both bikes kinder to soft trails winter or summer

The suspension fork makes for a noticeably nicer ride on rough trails or off-trail in summer, and seems like a lot of excess weight for little reward in winter.

Either bike would be an impediment to keeping up with younger friends on lighter bikes on a day-long loop of the Devil’s Pass/Resurrection Trail system on the Kenai Peninsula where some older cyclists have turned to the latest fad in bikes: e-mountain bikes.

At least one of those weighs within a couple of pounds of the KHS 4 Season.

E-bikes (both mountain and road) and gravel bikes are now the hot ticket fat bikes were at mid-decade. 

Shifting markets

Where those trends go is anyone’s guess. E-bike dominance of the growing market for bikes for commuters seems as inevitable as growing conflicts between e-bikers and traditional cyclists on some busy mountain-bike trails.

What happens with gravel bikes, which aren’t all that much different from road bikes with wider tires and the rider friendlier frames of bikes designed for cyclo-cross, is even harder to say.

One could argue that the market niche for fat bikes – designed for sandy beaches, snowy mountains and the deserts of the world – is actually to remain more stable than that for gravel bikes which are already trending more toward drop bar road bikes on one end and flat-bar mountain bikes on the other.

The niche for fatties would appear especially strong in places like Anchorage – the 49 state’s largest city – where the snow usually comes in October and remains until April. The lengthy snow season means there are actually more months for riding tires designed to float atop packed snow than bikes with skinnier tires designed for harder surfaces be those roads or trails.

And oh the places you can ride:

A string of fat-tired cyclists at the remote Knik Glacier north of Anchorage in March/Craig Medred photo

Thus the fat bike was always assured a long life in the 49th state where Alaskans Mark Groneweld and John Evingson started welding frames together by hand years before that first Pugsley was manufactured and mass-marketed.

Both men remain Alaskans, though they’ve moved on to more profitable careers than building fat bikes and Evingson, who now has artificial knees, is seen more often these days on a e-fatty than a standard bike.

Though the duo deserves significant credit for getting the fat fad rolling, Gronewald, who was named to the “Northern Innovators Hall of Fame” in 2015, is quick to concede the pivotal role of Ray “Remolino” Molina, a colorful character from the American Southwest.

Nicholas Carman writes more about Molina on his blog, Gypsy by Trade, but most of what needs to be known about Molina for the purposes of this story is summarized in Carman’s description of a first meeting with Molina in New Mexico’s Copper Canyon country:

“He was excited to meet us and talk about bikes and was the only person in town unsurprised that we had actually ridden there. The conversation quickly diverged to his distaste for Surly bicycles for they had ‘ripped off his design’ (paraphrase). Lael (Wilcox’s) Long Haul Trucker prompted the discussion, although he didn’t recognize the bike in its refinements and without its decals. I was hearing about the difficulties of manufacturing wide rims in Mexico in the ’80s and the joys of riding sand dunes on a homemade bike in Chihuahua.

“Most of what I was hearing was too far off to comprehend or to believe. Not until six months later when I was inspecting the wide rims on Mike Curiak’s Iditasport snowbike displayed at Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colo., did I realize that Ray was not entirely crazy. They were labeled “Remolino.” Indeed, some of his (Molina’s) history was accurate and in fact, his 80mm rim was an essential step in offering a lightweight flotation bicycle.”

Curiak is well known along Alaska’s, 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail from Anchorage to Nome, having repeatedly ridden up and down the route on various bikes. And Molina’s rim was the breakthrough that really


started the fat tires rolling across the north.

It nearly doubled in width the then coveted “Snowcat” rims designed and sold by Simon Rakower of Fairbanks. Twice the width meant twice the float, and suddenly snowmobile trails that had been marginally rideable on Snowcats, which were prone to punch through the surface in soft spots, became a whole lot more rideable.

The rest is history.

And though the fat-bike craze might have lost a little of its buzz Outside and in Europe, some Anchorage bike trails now seem busier in winter than in summer.

 

 

 

 

5 replies »

  1. At 30++LBS…..and the Gearing of a Tractor..NO THANKS!!!..These Things are Overpriced, Slow & Overweight…..But The BIKE Dealers Can Say” We Have Something New…..All They’ve got is an OVERWEIGHT, OVERPRICED (Read Thousands of $$$$)….and Slow= FAD BIKE…..Just Like the Beach Cruiser FAD…..Overpriced & Overweight…..= HUGE PROFITS FOR AN INDUSTRY with Normally Slimmer Margins= FAD…….=$$$$$$$$$$$

  2. Fat is where it’s at. But why are studded tires so expensive? $500 for a pair of studded Wrathchilds? That’s almost as much as I paid for Hakka 9s for my son’s car. Anyone have any luck studding their own? In the meantime, I air down and wear my son’s old hockey pants and elbow pads when the ice is dicey.

  3. The cornering seems to make sense, not having ridden one. I would assume you are just leaning the wide tire onto a patch on the side, like a motorcycle, instead of trying to turn a narrow tire and dragging the same small contact spot around, while also pushing up a little berm of whatever the tire is pressing into?

  4. “Thirty-seven pounds is without a doubt a lot of bike.”
    It is this exact reason that I still prefer my old Cannondales that weigh in a bit over 20 pounds.
    Sure I cannot push through those large powder days, but that is when I strap on skis or snowshoes or fire up the E-tec.
    I am amazed to see so many commuters pedaling fat bikes around Anchorage when any old “hardtail” with studs would do just fine in that terrain.
    A lot of the fat bike craze is centered around the concept that yuppies love expensive toys for their garages.
    Personally, if I was to spend $ 5K on a cycle, it would have a gas tank & motor.

  5. Funny Ray is bitter, because Grayboy, the designer of the Pugsley, is first to give him credit for the inspiration among others.

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