DEC 2015 - BICYCLING
Another Step in the Evolution of Mountain Biking
By Janay Camp
For cyclists the onset of winter weather often meant that you switched to cross training winter sports like skiing or snowshoeing. If you really wanted to keep riding you had three main choices: brave the weather and hope for the best, join a spin class at your local gym, or perhaps sentence yourself to spend hours in your dimly lit basement on your bike trainer. Then one day you were out walking your dog after a couple of inches of snow and out of nowhere someone rides by on a bicycle with big wide burly tires. Like most people the first time you see a fat bike it is a bit of a shock. Why are the tires so big? Isn’t that thing hard to pedal? Perhaps, where can I get one of those, as I am tired of pedaling in my basement and I long for freedom and fresh air?
To understand where the fat bike comes from it is important to look back at the history of the mountain bike. While the basic functionality of the bicycle has been fairly consistent, people have been creatively modifying them for years. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, groups of riders in both California and Colorado started to create early versions of mountain bikes that first allowed bicycles to explore off-road. Their creative vision started with single-speed balloon-tire cruisers and expertly modified them to add durable lightweight components including a range of gears to allow for climbing in the mountains, and powerful cantilever brakes to aid in descending and conquering technical terrain.
Once mountain bikes started to be widespread and readily available, the evolution continued to allow for further off-road exploring. The history of the fat bike can be traced back to the snowy state of Alaska and the largely desert state of New Mexico.
In 1987 the first Iditabike event was held and it was 200 miles in the first section of the famous Iditarod dogsled race, which is held from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, every year. This event continues and is now called the Iditarod Trail Invitational and includes the full course of 1,000 miles! The terrain was harsh and involved a lot of ‘hike a bike,’ which initiated more innovation to allow for a bicycle capable of soft terrain like snow. This drove a wider footprint, following the same kind of idea as a snowshoe. In these early days it started by welding or pinning two rims together and lacing them to one hub. This allowed for two tires to be mounted, and gave the wider platform, and allowed for more riding and less walking in the winter conditions.
The wider tire with low pressure is key to riding on the snow. Eventually a wider rim was adapted to allow for a lighter setup, since it could accept one larger tire, yet still fit into most conventional mountain bike frames. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, similar challenges were faced when riding in sandy environments. New Mexican bike tour guide, Ray Molina, ended up designing a wider rim and tire to handle these conditions, and these inventions needed a custom adapted bike frame to handle the new wider setup.
December 5, 2015 is Global Fat Bike Day, which is now a yearly event so obviously there have been some big changes since the days of welding rims together. The innovation in Alaska and New Mexico was certainly proof of concept, but the Minnesota based “Surly” brand can largely be credited with bringing the fat bike to the masses. In 2005 the first Surly Pugsley was brought to market. Since this brand already had a distribution system, it became available to a widespread area in a relatively short time. Since then, the momentum has been continuously gaining, and in the last couple of years the fat bike market has absolutely exploded in growth.
Now large brands of bicycles such as Trek, Specialized and Cannondale offer a fat bike model, along with many custom brands that exclusively deal with the fat tire models. This is good for the customer because there are now plenty of choices and price-points, which continue to drive innovation in frames, tires, and other fat bike specific gear. Much like with road bikes and other types of mountain bikes, there is a wide selection of frame materials including steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon. Certainly some of the original fat bikes were fairly heavy, but you can now get a carbon race fat bike weighing in at 22 pounds! Now that is some impressive innovation!
Another area of development is in suspension. Generally if you have soft terrain like snow you won’t need suspension forks and rear shocks because the low pressure of the tires can offer the plushness you need for a comfortable ride. Suspension forks and full suspension fat bikes are newer to the market and offer more cushion for folks wanting to tackle trails with more features in the non-winter months.
One of the biggest reasons that people start riding fat bikes is to ride year-round and escape the monotonous spinning on the trainer. It allows access to riding outside where you may have not ridden before during the winter months. Even though riding in the snow may not be at the pace of a road bike, the rider will find they keep their fitness, and get some fresh air by getting outside in the winter. These bikes are versatile and good for any conditions including snow, mud, sand, trails, gravel, and yes, even the road! It is truly the ATV of bicycles.
But what are some other reasons that bring people to the world of fat bikes? Maybe an injury has sidelined you from riding where the low air pressure of the fat bike tire adds some dampening to allow you to enjoy the ride again. Or perhaps it inspires confidence for a rider new to off-road riding due to its stability and traction.
There are a lot of social aspects of fat biking as well. Group rides are generally at a slower pace in the snow so it allows fun for all. Fat bikes are showing up at many organized events, and therefore, there are starting to be more custom events featuring fat bikes – as well as fat bike categories in events that are already established.
The Black Fly Challenge in the Adirondacks featured a fat bike category for the first time in 2015; this year at Saratoga “Spa:CX” there was a fat bike specific cross race; and Saratoga Springs is now home to an annual Fat Bike Rally in Saratoga Spa State Park – coming up February 13, 2016. The Tour of the Battenkill will even have a fat bike category on May 21, 2016. The Midwest and Alaska are home to some of the oldest winter fat bike events, but these types of rides are gaining in popularity around the globe, so check around for new events in your area this winter. In addition to these organized events, there is a trend for cross-country ski locations to start allowing fat bikes on trails, which opens up riding to groomed conditions in the winter.
The fat bike is a highly versatile bike that allows you to tackle a variety of different terrain, which is a huge ‘pro’ of this new kind of mountain bike. Perhaps the biggest attraction of it all however, is when you get on a fat bike it seems to have an uncanny ability to take you back to that feeling when you used to ride around the neighborhood with your friends at eight years old – without a care in the world and a big smile on your face!
Janay Camp (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Malta is a passionate fat biker and enjoys exploring by bicycle. When she isn’t riding with her husband Shawne or her fat biking friends she works in the high-tech industry.