Fatbikes changing recreation landscape
By Linda Freeman
CORRESPONDENT | February 16,2014
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo
Riders take their fat bikes out for a spin on the snow-covered Cady Hill Forest trails in Stowe recently.
It is not a mountain bike with bigger tires. We’re talking FAT. In fact, we’re talking fat tires 3.8 to 4.8 inches wide and a bike frame built big enough and tough enough to ride them. We’re talking large forks, stays and rims built to accommodate the tires; suspension, clearance, and even cold-weather adaptations like shifters that work well with thick mittens. This is a bike designed to function in snow. It is not, I repeat, a mountain bike or hybrid or simply an alternative to a skinny-tire road bike.
Surely you’ve seen them. Once scarce, they’re here, and probably to stay. Vermont Sports called them “FAT and HAPPY.” Men’s Journal dubbed them “The Snow-Busting Bike,” savvy and trendy. Think a bit clunky, a bit heavy (I recently saw one weighed in at about 37 pounds), think the draft horse in a stable of Thoroughbreds, Morgans and Quarterhorses. Take that one step farther and remember that in early days of jousting, knights were mounted on strong, steady, reliable and tenacious steeds a/k/the draft horse.
But what grabs attention is the tires. We’ve already established that they’re fat, but also deeply structured to grip. Because of their large volume and low tire pressure, these tires combine floatation with traction to give a “strong, steady, reliable and tenacious” ride.
The north/south history of fatbikes makes sense. While a company in Fairbanks, Alaska messed with stocky rims to support chunky tires for competition in the 1987 Iditabike race, another creative guy in New Mexico wanted bikes to handle the sand as his dessert tour business expanded.
In 2005 a somewhat unique bike manufacturer named Surly came out with what looked like a monster of a bike, the Pugsley, that widened the crack in the market and made fatbikes accessible through local bike shops.
Here in Vermont, fatbikes serve a twofold purpose: they offer cycling enthusiasts a means of riding all year in a cold and snowy climate and they offer a snow sport alternative to skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling.
While it is helpful to own a few basic cycling skills, it is also possible to straddle a fatbike and head out for a good time, an adventure with a modest learning curve.
Kip Roberts, General Manager of Onion River Sports in Montpelier, puts it all together. An avid skier and cyclist, Roberts notes that the industry growth in sales of fatbikes attests to their growing popularity. “Fatbikes did not sell years ago,” Roberts said. “About the end of last year they seem to have shot into public awareness.” Rather than a passing gimmick, Roberts sees them as “another option for passionate cyclists year-’round.”
Fatbikes also help transcend the frustration of erratic winters and uneven snowfall. When skiing conditions are less than optimal (not enough snow or too much ice), fatbikes offer a unique outdoor opportunity. Riding can be strenuous, but the pace allows for keen observation of natural surroundings that a technical mountain bike trail or a busy road disallow.
“The buzz is huge,” Roberts said. “It’s still kind of nitchy, but the growth is here.” Perhaps the best proof of evident sales potential can be seen as major bike manufacturers, such as Trek and Specialized, jump into the market.
“You have a monster truck underneath you,” Roberts said. “They’re not nimble, but it doesn’t even matter.” Riding in the cold, however, means that some details do matter for safety and comfort. “Dress in layers,” Roberts said. “You go grunting up a hill, sweating, and then speed down.”
Speaking of freezing, can you imagine trying to fix a flat tire at 10 below zero? It happens. Never head out without a pack stuffed with emergency gear, tools and, as Roberts said, “what-if clothing.”
So, here’s the big question: where do you ride? Fatbikes are relatively new and as their use increases, so does the need for venues to ride. The fatbike community is urged to be respectful of the terrain on which they ride. Interestingly, the wider tires enhance performance while at the same time leave a less-invasive footprint than their narrower counterparts. As bike clubs and organizations explore opportunities to share trails and work with landowners, several resorts and cycling specific areas encourage the use of fatbikes on their grounds. (See, for example, Kindgom Trails in Northeast Vermont; Catamount Outdoors Center in Williston and Millstone Trails Association in Barre Town.) Some offer rentals and grooming for a use fee. This is just the beginning. As with any new sport, it takes time, sensitivity and cooperation to lay a foundation that ultimately proves to be mutually beneficial. Vermont as a state attracts the kind of people who value the outdoors, people who want to enjoy the benefits as they increasingly adopt the responsibilities of stewardship.
It may be tempting to consider fatbike cyclists as “nuts who were wanting to get out and ride all year-’round,” Roberts said. “They are, however, enthusiasts who want adventure, but not traditional winter sports.”
Fatbike cycling is more than just the new kid on the block. The bikes handle a variety of trail conditions from snow to sand and are not really weather dependent. For those looking for a strenuous workout but are strapped for time, an hour’s ride can be satisfying, a race even better. Those looking for a more leisurely tour can find it on the chubby tires. The fatbike crowd is social, connected by clean air, healthy exercise and the desire to play.
What kind of future is predicted for fatbikes? Sales will continue to grow, bikes will proliferate, groups will form and dedicated trails will be designed and built.
Above all, rather than standing back to watch, Roberts urges you to give it a try. You just might find yourself addicted to another snow sport.
For more information about fatbikes and the Fat Tuesday rides, go to www.onionriver.com.