You may have seen one of these rare beasts – a mountain bike looking thing with cartoon-like over-inflated knobby tires. These bikes were once as rare as a Sasquatch sighting, but in the last two years the fat bike has opened up all-season, all-terrain biking in the Pacific Northwest from the backcountry trails of Kootenay B.C. to Oregon’s Christmas Valley Dunes…and all points in between.
For those that might have missed this latest trend in cycling, the thing that makes a fat bike special and able to go just about anywhere is the extra-wide tires inflated to just 4 – 10 psi. The wide tires and low tire pressure make the bike more stable in traditionally hazardous conditions like snow, ice, and sand. This added stability allows bikers to enjoy winter environments formerly reserved for skiers and explore areas previously only reached by foot.
Avid skier and endurance bike racer Karla Segale thinks that fat bikes are, “a game changer, a way to mix it up,” in the winter months. Karla says she bought a fat bike after just riding twice. Brian Drye of the Northwest Fat Bike Club has been riding for two years and says the bikes are “another great way to enjoy winter.”
For bike shop owners Joe Brown and Julie Muylaert of Methow Cycle and Sport the allure of the fat bike speaks to the smiles they see after customers rent a bike for the first time. Ben Oliver of the Surly fat bike company agrees saying, “I’ve been on one of these bikes in all types of conditions so I know how much fun they are to ride and it’s inevitable that when someone gets on one for the first time they will come back smiling.”
In addition to the smiles, there may be another reason why fat bikes have become so popular so fast. Methow Cycle and Sport also rents skies and while I was interviewing Joe and Julie I watched several families come in to get fitted for skies only to see the fat bikes and ask about bike rentals. And this is one of the reasons why fat biking is going to be big, because families can do it together with no additional skills or lessons. If you can ride a bike you can ride a fat bike.
Methow Cycle and Sport currently has 12 rental fat bikes and Julie says in the four days before Christmas in 2013 they had 196 rentals compared to just 155 in all of the 2012-2013 season. The couple expects the 2014-2015 season to be even bigger and has expanded rentals to Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in Mazama as well.
Fat biking started in Alaska as a way for locals to get around in the winter months. Soon these fat bike fanatics started racing each other in grueling winter endurance races and bike crazies in the lower 48 had to get involved. One of these early enthusiasts was Shawn Pedersen of Seattle, a longtime bike guru with REI, who was looking for a better bike to compete in the Susitna 100 endurance race outside of Anchorage. In his pursuit of all things fat biking, Shawn found fellow fat biking experts Ward Whitmire from Yakima and David Nelson of Spokane. Now the three, along with the help of a dedicated community, run the Fat Biking Northwest club and Facebook page. The club is a gathering place for fat biking fans with members meeting several times a year in different parts of the state to ride and discuss current trends in the sport.
The evolution of fat biking as a recreational sport has not been without controversy. Early concern from resort managers and trail associations were that the bikes would damage groomed trails by leaving deep tire groves. Whistler and several other large resorts don’t allow fat biking on their trail system for this reason. However, this concern has proven to be mostly false says Mike Pruett, a senior trail groomer for the Methow Trail Association. The Methow Trail Association manages the largest Nordic skiing trail network in the Pacific Northwest and has been testing the use of fat bikes on their trails for the past few seasons. Pruett says that much depends on the snow conditions, but that skiers generally leave more marks on the trails than fat bikes do.
Fat bike companies have mostly been small scrappy shops started by bike aficionados and have names like FatBack, The Fat Bike Company, Salsa, Surly, and 9:ZERO:7. However traditional powerhouses like Trek and Kona have also entered the fat bike market in a big way. One thing these bike manufactures all have in common is that they can’t keep up with demand, and they all agree that’s a good thing.
Co-founder of the Fat Bike Company in Colorado Springs, Adam Miller said he was, “blown away by the demand.” Fat Bike is in its second year of production and manufactured the industry’s first carbon fiber frame. The company had projected first-year sales to be 50 bikes; Adam said they sold 50 bikes in the first 20 minutes after their product website went live. Now there is a two to three week wait for their bikes. Trek has seen similar demands for its product says brand manager Ross Rushin, “We’ve experienced exceptional demand for fat bikes. We sold through our Farley bikes and frame sets very quickly last year. We see this segment as one that still has a lot of growing to do, and we’re excited to see how the market continues to develop.” Ben of Surly agrees with other manufacturers, noting that they have a hard time keeping up with demand and are always a little behind. He says marketing research indicates the number of fat bikes have doubled in the last year from 10,000 to 20,000.
The sport is still pretty new so you will want to call ahead and make sure fat biking is allowed where you are going and to make reservations for bikes if you are renting. The friendly folks at Northwest Fat Biking can also give you tips for great places to ride and riding contacts in your area.
Rachelle Colthorp, media relations for Kootenay Rockies tourism in British Columbia, says “Fat biking is definitely something that is becoming more and more popular throughout the Kootenay Rockies region of B.C.” Rachelle recommends Fernie, B.C., Nipika Mountain Resort with over 100 km of maintained trails, the east and west Kootenay fire roads, and the Hector Gorge and Dolly Varden trails in the Kootenay National Park.
Diana Ducs of Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism suggests Mountain Station above Nelson, B.C.. The area has trails for all abilities with locals favoring Espresso, Rez, Badger, and Raccoon. Diana says you can’t miss the Giveout Creek Forest Service road with its great views of Nelson and Kootenay Lake and – for those looking for a workout – the Kokanee Glacier Road up to Gibson Lake. The more adventurous can follow any Forest Service road used by snowmobiles into the vast unspoiled backcountry. Your rental and accessory needs can be met by Gerick Cycle & Ski in Nelson.
Scott Lemon of Sovereign Lake Ski Resort says they did not let fat bikes on their trails last year, but are curious about the future and are considering offering biking on some snowshoe and backcountry trails. “Fat biking is still very much in it’s infancy in our part of the world. We are starting to hear about it mostly from the cycling industry based on the amazing successes they have had in the Northwestern United States,” says Scott. He recommends trying Sun Country Cycle in Vernon, B.C. for fat bikes and adds that Silver Mountain Resort has conducted successful trial rides with the shop.
Josh Foster of Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, B.C. says the sport has not reached them yet, but he said the resort could accommodate fat bikes on the many walking and snowshoeing trails. Josh says the resort looks forward to developing the sport in the future and recommends calling for current information.
Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort in Sandpoint, Idaho has opened several trails to fat biking and offers bikes in their rental shop for around $30 for three hours. Ward recommends the St. Anthony Dunes in eastern Idaho. In the Coeur d’ Alene area try Vertical Earth Bike Shop, they carry a full line of Surly fat bikes and accessories.
The epicenter of fat biking in Oregon is Bend and T.J. Jordan of The Hub Cyclery says the great thing about fat biking in Bend is that it allows people to bike all year and in all types of conditions. He recommends the Wanoga Sno-Park, Dutchman Sno-Park, and Tumalo Falls. These areas are on U.S. Forest Service land so check for parking and land use permits before arriving. Check with Mount Bachelor for current winter fat biking policies.
Summer riding possibilities are nearly endless. Mount Bachelor has a bike park and has started offering downhill biking. If you want to escape the crowds on Bachelor, T.J. recommends Phil’s Trail managed by the Central Oregon Trail Association.
Outside of Bend, Ward recommends the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area on the Oregon coast and Christmas Valley Dunes about 100 miles south of Bend.
Several bike shops in Bend stock fat bikes. The Hub Cyclery carries a full line of Surly bikes and accessories and rents all sizes of fat bikes for around $25.00 a day. Call for current prices and availability.
The Methow Valley has established itself as the go-to place for fat biking in the state. The Methow Trails Association boasts the most groomed trails and fat bike access of any area in the Northwest with 120 miles of groomed trails. Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop also allows fat biking. Trail passes are required and cost $22 per day, but children ride free. Rentals are available at Methow Cycle and Sport and Sun Mountain Lodge and will cost about $45.00 for a full day of riding – reservations are recommended.
In addition to the groomed trails maintained by the Methow Trails Association, Joe highlights a recent public/private partnership that has opened previously unused land for fat biking. He recommends the gnarly Lloyd’s Loop trail and the narrow 24” groomed Rex Derr trail. Methow Cycle and Sport can provide updates on new trails and land use agreements.
White Pass Nordic trails are fat bike friendly after 3:30 p.m., with trails running through the Wenatchee and Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but you will have to bring your own bike.
New opportunities are opening up in the I–90 corridor and Central Cascades. Crystal Springs is now allowing fat bikes on the groomed dog mushing trails and The Ski Hill in Leavenworth has opened up some trails on Sunday and Monday nights.
In the Spokane area David recommends Riverside State Park or Palisades City Park. For warmer months, try the dunes south of Moses Lake and Frenchman’s Coulee near George. The Columbia Plateau and John Wayne Pioneer Trail are also great options, according to David.
Bikes are expensive, but the prices are dropping fast with increased manufacturing and new companies entering the market. Entry level bikes run around $600 with upper-end bikes in the thousands.
Julie at Methow Cycle and Sports recommends warm insulated boots, ski pants, gloves, and layering of traditional cold weather garments. Most winter rentals will come with pogies (hand warming sleeves attached to the handlebars), it they are not already on the bike, ask the rental shop to put them on. You’ll want them if it is cold.
Races and Clowns
The Fat Bike Company collaborates with professional rider Ali Goulet, known as Rowdy the Clown, to make promotional videos of Rowdy riding Fat Bike’s Borealis bike down a snowy slope in Salt lake City, Utah while in full clown costume. Search for Rowdy riding a Borealis on YouTube – you will get the idea. Adam says they wanted to show how easy it was to ride a fat bike…even in big clown shoes. But the video also portrays the unrestrained edgy nature of fat biking with Rowdy more Insane Clown Posse than birthday clown. According to Adam, Rowdy was invited by Red Bull to demo fat biking during the Crushed Ice Downhill Ice-Cross Race in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska is the world’s longest winter endurance bike race and follows the same course as the Iditarod sled dog race. The short course is 350 miles while the butt- numbing long course is 1000 miles of grueling snow churning hard pedaling.
Northwest Fat Bike sponsors two annual group rides. One ride is at Ocean Shores in September and the other is over MLK weekend in Winthrop. The group hopes to add more rides in the future so watch their Facebook page.
The Northwest Fat Bike Club has videos on YouTube – check out the great views from all over the Northwest and the terrain shredding capabilities of the fat bike on their channel.
Global Fat Bike Day (yes it’s a real thing) is the first Saturday in December so be sure to ask your boss for the day off and check for rides in your area.