Fat tires gaining traction in biking world
At twilight as the temperature dropped on a recent evening outside Glenwood Springs, a group of bundled-up bicycling devotees set out for a ride, but not on road or trail.
From the parking lot of Sunlight Mountain Resort, they huffed and puffed and snaked their way up groomed slopes to the summit, then enjoyed a quick and exhilarating ride down, chasing the beams of their own bike lights. Many wore nonstop grins on the descent, including a certain reporter on his maiden fat bike voyage.
It was an outing that was made possible, or certainly at least was made a lot easier, by their riding steeds of choice. The cyclists were pedaling fat bikes, also known as snow bikes, which feature tires some 4 inches wide, providing superb flotation and traction on snow.
The balloon-tired bikes first gained popularity as a form of winter fun in snowbound locales such as Alaska and Minnesota. More recently, increasing numbers of people have turned to them as one more way to train and play in the snow in high-country resort towns in states, including Colorado.
“It’s my new wintertime fun,” said Mike Wilde of Glenwood Springs as he prepared to join in on the night ride, organized by the fat-bike-loving owners of the Gear Exchange, a Glenwood Springs store that is selling a growing number of fat bikes.
Wilde, who enjoys biking in the summer, said he’s been looking for winter exercise options that are easier on his knees than skiing.
“I rode one of these and I said, ‘That’s just too much fun,’ ” said Wilde, who after trying out a fat bike quickly bought one of his own.
“I just needed something to get me out in the wintertime,” he said.
But as the snow begins melting up high and thoughts turn to summer riding, the question for fat-biking looms: Do the words “snow bike” best describe these mutant machines? Or do they have potential to become popular as a year-round form of fun, as at home on popular dirt trails such as Mesa County’s as on groomer runs at mountain ski resorts?
It’s very much still an open question, in what remain fat bike’s early days. Some people are wildly enthusiastic about the fat bike’s prospects for gaining traction as a year-round mountain bike, and others are pretty skeptical. A lot are somewhere in between, thinking the bike might establish itself as more than a fad, but not exactly become mainstream.
‘A growing niche’
Sandman, a maker of fat bikes in Europe, always has marketed its product as a year-round bike, said Tim Fry, owner of Mountain Racing Products, a Grand Junction maker of bike components.
“I think we’re starting to see some of that develop in the U.S. market as well. That seems to be the direction,” Fry said.
His company has been making a carbon, rigid fork for fat bikes, and although sales volume is still low and probably hasn’t been enough to pay off yet, it’s higher than expected, he said.
“I don’t expect that (the fat bike) is going to be the primary type of bike that you see on the trail anytime soon, but I think it a growing niche, and expanding” to year-round use, he said.
Hang around the guys at the Gear Exchange, and it’s easy to imagine a bigger future for the fat bike.
“It’s kind of like a monster truck. It wants to go anywhere and everywhere,” co-owner Darin Binion said of the bikes with their big, grippy tires.
Binion’s name should be familiar to 18 Hours of Fruita race fans, as he is a multiple solo champ, even winning on a single-speed bike. Now he and others, including Randy Tuggle — a store co-owner — have taken to summer trail racing on fat bikes.
Said Tuggle, “When we started racing fat bikes nobody was riding them. It was a winter bike only.”
Fat-bike racers can draw dubious looks from competitors riding on thinner tires.
“And then you start passing people,” Tuggle said.
Kendall Spyker, another owner of the store, said he rode the 18 Road trails near Fruita with his grown son, who was on a fat bike. Dad couldn’t keep up.
“Then we changed bikes and he couldn’t catch me anymore,” Spyker said.
Spyker said the Gear Exchange regularly sells fat bikes in the summer as well as winter. A customer went out the door with a purchase during a recent interview.
“They’re a lot more fun than regular bikes,” said the buyer, Craig Amichaux of Glenwood Springs.
Clearly, the fun factor is a big one for fat bikes, starting with their looks alone.
“They swing a leg over it and they’re so giddy,” said Mike Curiak, a bicycle wheel-builder based in Mesa County.
Pioneer sees limitations
About half the wheels Curiak builds are for fat bikes, and Curiak’s a fat-bike pioneer, having used them while competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a multi-day winter race in Alaska that he won in 2005.
Yet contrary to what you might expect, Curiak’s not one of those out touting the bike’s worthiness on dry trails.
No doubt, the popularity of fat bikes has exploded in recent years, he said, but he also notes that a lot are being resold through venues such as Craigslist.
He thinks a number of people are buying them on impulse and regretting it later.
“If they’re having fun (riding them), that’s great,” he said.
But for some, he thinks the novelty wears off because they realize a fat bike may not meet their needs.
The bikes are “almost irreplaceable” for soft conditions such as snow, said Curiak, who rides his often in winter on Grand Mesa. Fat bikes also are said to excel on sandy beaches.
But, “When it comes to hard surfaces like what we have down here in the valley, any old mountain bike works better than a fat bike and I think people are starting to realize that,” Curiak said.
He sometimes rides his fat bike on local mountain bike trails, and sees other fat-bike tracks on them.
“You’re going slower, you’re working harder and you’re doing more damage to the bike on any ride,” he said.
The bikes generally don’t have mechanical suspension, relying instead on the low pressure in the bulky tires to absorb bumps. As a result, rocks and other obstacles can beat up rims and tires, and those tires can easily cost $150 apiece, Curiak said.
Some think the low-tech, tire-based shock absorption is part of the back-to-basics attraction of fat bikes, an attraction that also fed growth in single-speed bikes.
Said Fry, “Certainly I think it appeals to some people because you have a very simple product with a fat bike.”
The Gear Exchange’s Tuggle contends, “It’s basically like riding on a TempurPedic mattress and you have complete control of the bike.”
Scott Winans, head of engineering at Fry’s company and owner of Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade, says fat bikes are “a hoot” to ride on snow. They are a small but growing market for his store, and he thinks interest in the bikes will continue to build. But he also thinks they have their limits on trails. The smooth-riding, forgiving tires can reduce trail chatter, but on big drops they tend to “Pogo” off the ground, unlike a less-bouncy suspension system, he said.
Alex McDonald, manager of Grassroots Cycles in Grand Junction, said his store focuses on bikes that can handle big jumps and drops, and doesn’t carry fat bikes.
“We sell what we ride. It’s not our thing, man,” he said.
The suspension question
People such as Winans and Curiak are curious to see whether fat bikes’ trail-riding prospects will improve if fat bikes with suspension systems start being introduced.
Fry’s company has debated whether to offer a suspension fork for fat bikes. Such forks require a bigger up-front investment than rigid ones, and Fry said it’s always a challenge to determine whether a new bike market will grow enough to warrant such an investment.
Landon Monholland, manager of the Over the Edge bike shop in Fruita, said he would be excited to see fat bikes with suspension offered.
“I think just like regular bikes, they become more fun when they have suspension, and I don’t think fat bikes will be any different,” he said.
He said his store is selling some, but not many, fat bikes. Store visitors love to talk about what looks “like a cartoon character’s bike,” he said, and most who buy them are using them for not just snow but for sandy conditions and general riding.
He said as they become more popular, manufacturers are lightening up the bikes, which further adds to their attraction.
Spyker, of the Gear Exchange, said buyers can expect to pay $1,750 or more for a new fat bike. That’s a price similar to what it can cost for a lot of quality mountain bikes.
The Bike Shop in Grand Junction doesn’t stock fat bikes.
“We haven’t had enough interest in them to dedicate the floor space for them,” said Keith Kitchen, the store’s service manager.
Chris Brown, owner of Brown Cycles in Grand Junction, both sells the bikes and enjoys riding them 12 months a year.
“I love it,” he said.
“It’s definitely growing in the summer,” he said of fat-bike riding, “but it’s being perpetuated by the winter stuff as well.”
More than a fad
Brown thinks the fat bike is here to stay. He said he’s seeing prices come down, and more parts being made available for the bikes.
“It’ll never be mainstream. It will always be a niche market but I think we’ll wake up someday and a normal shop like mine will sell three or four a year consistently,” and fat bikes will have proven to not just be a fad, he said.
Both he and Spyker of the Gear Exchange also pointed to a new tire being offered by fat-bike-maker Surly. It’s a 3-inch-wide tire on a 29-inch rim. The tire gives it an even bigger diameter than traditional 29-inch setups that in themselves provide a smoother-riding alternative to smaller rims and tires. And the width offers a compromise between fat and normal tires, in yet another evolution for the sport.
Brown says fat bikes are proving useful for what cyclists call “gravel grinders” — long, non-technical rides on routes such as Jeep trails where fat tires provide a more comfortable ride.
Eric Prinster, service manager for Mountain Racing Products, said he thinks fat bikes will be perfect for such long trips, like the Kokopelli Trail from Mesa County to Moab. He just bought a fat bike, and after enjoying some riding this winter on trails that otherwise would have been too snowy to bike, he is looking forward to summer bike-packing outings.
Although he doesn’t see fat bikes taking the place of traditional bikes that shine on technical trails, “I think they’re a fun bike, definitely. It’s something to add to your bike collection,” he said.