The world just got a bit smaller, literally. Fat-tire mountain bikes have come on the scene over the last several years and have made a huge impression on the industry. These wide tracked behemoths allow riders to float over terrain and their prowess in the snow is unmatched. You may have seen a fat bike roll past you on the trail, the pilot grinning from ear to ear no doubt. It has brought a new segment into the market and companies like Surly, Salsa, KHS, Trek , and Specialized have created several iterations that cater to a variety of cyclists. Regardless of model, the fat bike is here to stay and the opportunities to get out and ride are ever expanding.
It’s no secret that Utah has the “Greatest Snow on Earth”, but it has been the bane of many cyclists throughout the years. Trails become slushy and snow covered and a good portion of riders is relegated to their home trainers, forced to stare at the wall for months. However, the advent of the fat bike has enabled riders of every ilk to get out and explore the snowy environs of Utah in a way like never before.
Riding on loose surfaces like snow and sand is nothing new. Cyclists have figured out a way to ride year round and in every climate from the frozen tundra to the scorching desert. However, it wasn’t until the turn of the last century that the idea of extra flotation became paramount to the idea of actually having fun while riding in adverse conditions.
Alaska is often credited as the birthplace of fat bikes for use in the snow. Riders competing in the Iditabike, an endurance bike race across the frozen landscape of northern Alaska, found various ways to increase the surface area of their tires. Makeshift wide wheels were constructed by welding two rims together and then stitching old tires together to make a more stable platform for the epic ride. These pioneers of the sport were laying the groundwork for the evolution of the fat bike and a revolution of the cycling industry.
It is also purported that around this same time period, riders in the southern states were experimenting with wide tires for use in the desert sands. Finding out that frames of the day were inadequate for accommodating larger tires, cyclist began crafting their own frames that had greater clearance in the fork and rear triangle. Original geometries were uncomfortable and clunky and the sport never really gained traction until bigger companies got behind the idea.
Surly Bikes out of Minnesota was the first real bike manufacturer to peddle production fat bikes in the consumer market. Their Pugsley model became the quintessential machine for “omniterra” riding and generated a ripple that has become a tsunami in the cycling world. You can now find at least one fat bike in nearly every major manufacturer’s line up, and Surly has nine iterations currently available.
Walking into any bike shop in Utah will give you an idea of the popularity of the fat bike. Retailers have added them to their product mix and many customers are coming in and inquiring- “So what’s up with those big tires?” People’s initial response is generally amusement followed by intrigue. However, riding one around the store for the first time, childish laughter ensues and they begin to see the value in the new design. A sales associate was even overheard saying- “This is the most fun I’ve had on two wheels since the glory days of riding my BMX around town as a kid.”
Various builds are currently available and encompass everything from fully rigid to full suspension. Extra wide forks like the Rock Shox Bluto have up to 100mm of travel and add even more squish to an already plush ride. Salsa Cycles is now offering a full suspension model and it is reinventing what is possible on a bike. Alaskan company 9:Zero:7 has even come out with carbon framesets to put your fat bike on a diet plan. Most fat bike models currently weigh between 25 and 30 pounds depending on wheels and components.
The tires on today’s fat bikes are approaching five inches and have knobby tread much like your average mountain bike. The high volume rubber allows for lower tire pressures to improve traction in loose conditions. When set up tubeless on a carbon wheel, it is not uncommon to be running sub-five P.S.I.
Fat bike price points are consistent with it narrow-tired cousins and range between $1,800-$6000+. While the sticker-shock may take some time to wear off, it is important to remember that these machines can be ridden year round. Snow riding is certainly the most novel application, but fat bikes are quite fun on the earthen trails Utah has to offer.
Getting Out There
Experiencing the technology for yourself is simple. Outfitters from around the state are starting to add fat bikes into their demo fleets for consumers to try before they buy. White Pine Touring and Jans in Park City has even gone so far as to offer daily tours guided by their staff. They provide the opportunity to get out and explore the excellent trails around the area both summer and winter. During our extended Fall, I had the opportunity to test the Specialized Fatboy for a day riding trails in Round Valley and PCMR. We had just received a bit of high elevation snowfall and the trails were nice and tacky for our excursion. Despite the frame being fully rigid, the machine pummeled over rocks and roots with ease. Airing the tires down a bit enabled it to achieve incredible traction in loose conditions and provided a supple ride. Cornering with the 4.6” tires was a blast and it is possible to lay the bike over without sliding out. Equally impressive was how well it climbed. Looking at the bike’s profile you would think it would trundle up hill like an elephant, but it is more like a sure-footed Clydesdale. The bike was spec’d with a 2×10 drive train that had more than enough gearing to get up even the steepest sections of Steps at Park City.
Now that winter has gained its icy grip on Utah, there is ample opportunity to take these bikes onto snow covered trails and paths. “We have definitely noticed a significant increase in the numbers of fat bike users on Park City’s multi-use, winter recreation trails over the past few years,” says Rick Fournier of Mountain Trails Foundation. He also notes that places like Round Valley and the Park City Rail Trail are ideal places to ride because they are already groomed for Nordic skiing. It is possible for advanced cyclist to get out and test their skills on single track that has been packed down by snowshoes. Riding in unconsolidated deep snow is nearly impossible since the tires tend to bog down. But with a skiff of fresh on hardpack, carving turns on two wheels might be as enjoyable as on two planks. Just remember to stay off the ski area trails, lest you receive a stern warning from the Ski Patrol. There are no fat-bikes allowed at ski resorts during the winter at this time, but we are hoping that certain areas start to foster bike programs like those in Idaho and Wyoming.
Along the Wasatch Front, trail systems that often go underutilized are becoming a hotbed of activity on the coldest of days. Dropping into the plethora of trails at Corner Canyon or along the Bonneville Shoreline is a great way to get out on the weekends and more shops in the Valley are offering fat bike rentals. The fine folks at Thin Air Cycles in Draper have a stellar fleet of bikes waiting to shred the snow. Their shop is a short hop from Corner Canyon and it is easy to pick up a rental and hit the trail. Starting this winter, Thin Air Cycles will be showcasing their custom-built, carbon-frame fat bikes that weigh in at an astonishing 24 pounds. These beautiful machines will definitely have you reconsidering your plans this snowy season.
Pros Weigh In
The life of a professional cyclist is centered on year round training. Being in top physical shape is essential to performing at the highest level and joining the ranks of Tour riders is no mean feat. I asked Utah native and former professional cyclist Burke Swindlehurst to gain some perspective on why fat biking is such a new and exciting segment of the industry. His 13 years cycling at a professional level took him around the country and he stood atop many podiums for both road and mountain. “I wanted to be a pro simply to ride, making a living off of it was very fortunate,” says Swindlehurst. Upon retirement in 2010, he rediscovered his passion for the sport and looked at it through a different lens. “My body has become addicted to cycling, it is my meditation and my medication,” adds Swindlehurst. He sees the fat bike’s winter application as a terrific way for pros to stay in shape while riding on their home turf. The typical winter training regimen takes pro riders to the southern states where the temps never drop below 70 degrees. Training at elevation and in cold weather adds an extra element of suffering to the process. Hearty riders who cross train in extreme environments are often better off because their body doesn’t get used to one climate. The value of the fat bike continues to amaze.
“I’ll admit that at first it looked ridiculous and gimmicky, but once I got on one, my opinion changed,” says Swindlehurst. His favorite ride is out his backdoor on the Pipeline Trail in Millcreek Canyon. He notes that evening rides on a compacted snow-covered trail is way more fun than in the summer. The cold and quite air makes the experience more visceral and everyone on the trail gets a kick out of the fat tires.
The cold weather and ample snowfall of the Wasatch provides opportunity for year round cycling recreation, but it also proved the ideal training ground for one Utahn to realize his dream. Daniel Burton of Saratoga Springs had reached a point where his sedentary lifestyle was starting to take its toll. Hours spent working at a desk behind a computer screen left him with high cholesterol and poor health. “Mountain biking saved my life,” says Burton. The passion took hold and he eventually opened a small shop called Epic Biking. His next goal was to do something that had never been done before, ride a bicycle to the South Pole. Inspired by polar explorer Eric Larsen and his many expeditions, the intrepid Burton set out planning his journey. He wanted to raise awareness of the obesity problem facing the United States and show people that the way to better health is simply getting on a bike. Burton’s weapon of choice was a Borealis Yampa fat bike equipped with touring racks and a specially designed system that enabled him to tow a sled full of supplies. Training in Utah during the winter increased Burton’s level of fitness and bike handling skills. By November of 2013, his bags were packed and he was headed for the frozen continent. His journey began on December 2nd and he would spend the next 51 days traversing from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole. The unassisted expedition would take him nearly 750 miles across the snow while he battled -41 degree temperatures and increasingly frigid headwinds. Against the odds and nearly out of food, Burton reached the South Pole on January 21st, 2014, becoming the first person to achieve the amazing feat on two wheels.
Burton’s journey is of course the upper limit of what is possible on a fat bike, but it goes to show that there is a multitude of options for cyclists looking for a new way to enjoy their sport.
This winter is the perfect time to get out and see what fat bikes have to offer. Utilizing the many resources around the state and checking in with local shops will give you an opportunity to explore a new and exciting segment of the sport. Rent a machine and pull out your best cold-weather gear and hit the trail. A good layering system will ensure that you stay comfortable on the trail once you get the blood pumping. Finding a reliable pair of gloves and boots is essential to enjoyment and I recommend experimenting on short rides before you endure any committed outings.
Being a steward of the trails you ride is equally important summer or winter. While fat tires tend to float and leave less impact, please stay off of soft groomed surfaces until they have a chance to firm up. “As the new ‘kid’ (user-group) on the block, a little etiquette, a smile and wave hello will go a long way to keeping everyone out on our winter playgrounds happy,” says Fournier.
The growing popularity of the fat bike has started to spur event organizers like Swindlehurst to examine the possibilities for specific events that will entice more people to get out and ride. “The only problem is that I wouldn’t be able to race if I organized it,” says Swindlehurst. Perhaps one day there will be a winter version of his famous Crusher in the Tushar.
The addition of a Fat Bike National Championship by USA Cycling this February is one indication that this segment is legit. Check out the action this winter as riders gather in Ogden, Utah for their chance at a podium.
Finding happiness on two wheels is now a yearlong affair and it’s evident that fat bikes are able to go the distance. Keep an eye out for new events and conferences this season that continue to promote the sport as it heads down a new path.