How Fats Bikes Grew to become the Hottest Development in Biking
The boys on the clown bikes flash forward, with oversize tires making simple work of the serpentine path beside the Minnesota River. I’m chasing my trio of guides on a borrowed Salsa Beargrease carbon fat bike, its tires greater than twice as broad as these on my common mountain bike. The cumbersome rubber eases by way of muddy hairpins and floats throughout prolonged sand traps. I monitor easily by way of rock gardens and over intestinal tangles of roots. I haven’t had this a lot enjoyable on new gear since I first strapped on fats skis and pointed them into contemporary powder. Aren’t these rigs imagined to be piggish and gradual? Weren’t they constructed just for snow?
Whereas the origin of fats bikes is extensively debated, with deep ties to Alaska and the desert Southwest, it’s right here, within the Minneapolis suburbs—house to bike makers Salsa, Surly, and their mum or dad firm, Quality Bicycle Products (QBP)—the place this explicit design has grown from an obscure novelty to mountain biking’s latest large factor.
The fattie phenomenon may effectively have stayed confined to the winter-sports wonk-o-sphere had been it not for the efforts, a couple of decade in the past, of Dave Gray, a designer at Surly and a self-described storage tinkerer. In 2005, Grey produced the Pugsley, a squat machine painted purple and kitted with bulbous four-inch tires—the primary mass-produced fats bike.
“Once I noticed the Pugs, it blew my thoughts,” says Nick Johnson, a product-launch coordinator at QBP and one among my using companions on the river-bottom path. “It was like a human-powered monster truck. I had that feeling you get once you’re somewhat child: This bike is freedom.”
If necessity is the mom of invention, then the necessity round these elements was for a motorbike that might roll over the Midwestern snowpack, which may linger for 5 months or extra. On the time, Johnson had been working as a motorbike messenger in downtown Minneapolis, skidding and squirreling round icy roads on an ill-suited, skinny-tired cyclocross bike. The Pugsley was an epiphany. The fats tires floated on the hardpan and plowed by way of new pow. The bike labored with winter, not towards it.
Fats bikes advanced slowly, after which rapidly. After the Pugsley was launched, pockets of fans sprang up across the nation, notably the place snow was prevalent. Cyclists who had been quarantined indoors may now trip open air year-round. For just a few years, individuals referred to fats bikes as snow bikes, as a result of oversize tires actually excel in winter situations. In some areas, like Grand Targhee, Wyoming, or Marquette, Michigan, riders and organizations started sustaining snow trails particularly for fats bikes—packing them down with cross-country grooming machines, snowmobiles, or snowshoes. Races and membership rides materialized. Large gamers like Specialized and Trek noticed the rising market and introduced out their very own fashions.
Quickly using fats bikes started to increase past wintertime. Once I arrived in Minneapolis in mid-April, there wasn’t a smear of snow inside 100 miles. However that didn’t appear to matter: almost everybody I noticed on the river path—on a sunny, 70-degree day—was aboard a fats bike.
“The tools has gotten so significantly better,” says Joe Meiser, product supervisor at Salsa and one other member of our group. “We went from piecing a motorbike collectively to purchasing a whole bike to fixing drivetrain points. We made lighter tires, rims, and frames and improved the geometry. Mainly, we used all of the know-how that any mountain bike has.”
Which will sound easy, but it surely hasn’t been. To start with, all mountain bikes had been fats bikes—or, because the retrofitted Schwinn cruisers of Marin County had been known as, klunkers or ballooners. (See Joe Breeze) The fashionable fattie splintered off from these early fashions within the Nineteen Eighties as mountain biking opened up new and extra diversified terrain and ignited riders’ imaginations. In 1986, Alaskan Joe Redington, the man who had dreamed up the Iditarod sled-dog race, recommended a biking model of the occasion. Dubbed the Iditabike (now the Iditarod Trail Invitational), the race required bikers to navigate 210 miles out and again alongside the primary part of the sledding course on the day after the mushers handed by way of. The primary winner, Minnesotan Dave Zink, took almost 34 hours, pushing, pulling, and dragging his comparatively narrow-tired mountain bike for half the space.
When phrase unfold concerning the epic nature of northern bike racing—a preferred slogan on the time was “Cowards gained’t present and the weak will die”—it started to draw an elite area of individuals, together with, over time, Mountain Bike Corridor of Famer John Stamstad and Mike Curiak, a 24-hour bike-racing champion. It additionally prompted some wild innovation. Early hacks for snow using had been garish and unusual, together with the “six pack,” a mountain bike with a number of wheels positioned aspect by aspect, three in entrance and three in again; and customized frames mounted with ATV wheels, just like the freaky Hanebrink X1. By the top of the nineties the answer had settled, not surprisingly, on a standard body with a easy set of wider rims and high-volume tires. Drawback was, just one man made such wheels. And he lived in New Mexico.
Ray “El Remolino” Molina was an inventor and information who led dune excursions across the American Southwest and Mexico. His Remolino rims and three.5-inch Chevron tires had been initially developed to trip on sand, however in addition they turned coveted elements for snow biking. If there was any doubt concerning the effectiveness of those merchandise, it was settled in 2000, the debut yr for the Iditasport Not possible—a thousand-mile model of the unique Iditabike. Mike Curiak gained the race in 15 days, using Molina’s wheels fitted to a customized Willits body.
As curiosity in mass-producing fatties started to percolate, different wheel and body builders cropped up, chief amongst them Mark Gronewald of Wildfire Designs Bicycles in Palmer, Alaska. Gronewald helped refine fat-bike design with offset wheels and improved symmetrical frames. However the bikes had been nonetheless cumbersome, finicky, and troublesome to spec—both as a result of inventory elements didn’t work fairly proper or as a result of they couldn’t be discovered. Solely essentially the most dedicated fans had been prepared to speculate the money and time (a whole bike from Wildfire ran $5,000) to trip one.
Then, in late 2001, a type of riders, John Evingson, confirmed up at Surly in Minneapolis. Evingson had grown up in Minnesota however now lived in Alaska, the place he labored with Gronewald at Wildfire. John’s brother, Matt, had labored at QBP and put him in contact with Dave Grey. John had skilled welding expertise—he’d accomplished a stint on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—and utilized them to constructing fat-bike frames. Evingson arrived with just a few fats bikes he’d put collectively himself, and he informed Grey to offer them a check drive.
Surly had launched in 1998, and the corporate rapidly acquired a fame for edgy product improvement. It labored solely in metal, and its bikes had names just like the Troll, the Ogre, and the Karate Monkey. For just a few years, Surly made an off-road unicycle known as the Conundrum.
“Mainly, they’re punk rock,” laughs Mike Reimer, PR director at Salsa. “They construct the bikes they need to trip.”
If anybody may convey fatties to the plenty, it was Surly. And when Dave Grey rode Evingson’s fats bike, he wished to just do that.
“We form of bounced across the car parking zone somewhat bit and banged into curbs, like most individuals do once they get on these, simply because the novelty issue is so excessive,” Grey remembers. “Then we went again to our desks and known as a gathering, and we had been like, ‘Yeah, there’s one thing to this.’”
Grey took the venture below his wing, at first intending to provide solely rims, a low-risk manner into the market. He made a prototype by welding collectively two customary 32.5-millimeter mountain-bike rims and shaving off the abutted inside partitions. He dubbed his rim design the Massive Marge and despatched it to his producer in Taiwan.
Inside a yr demand was surging, and Surly was creating not simply rims however tires and a body—the Pugsley. It wished its merchandise to work effectively, and fats bikes had been notoriously finicky, given the Frankenstein-like historical past of bolting numerous elements collectively to make a whole machine. Even apparently easy issues, like getting the chain to run previous the broad tires, proved difficult. If Surly wished the Pugsley to reside as much as customers’ expectations—it now needed to compete with gentle, dependable standard bikes—the corporate wanted to make sure that the items all matched up.
“The character of our model was to design round as customary a part group as we may,” says Grey. “We wished our elements to mesh with elements that you’ve mendacity round or that you can cannibalize from one other bike. We simply needed to get all of it to play good.”
The recognition of the Pugsley helped stabilize technical specs for fats bikes, which in flip inspired different producers to enter the sport. By 2007, Alaskan corporations like Fatback and 9Zero7 had been turning out their very own high-quality frames and routinely discovered demand outpacing provide. Salsa, QBP’s different in-house model, ramped up efforts to convey out its personal fats bike, the Mukluk. By the top of 2010, each Surly and Salsa had been delivering the primary full fats bikes to retailers. And specialty bike outlets had been discovering an keen marketplace for them.
“We couldn’t get forward of orders,” Bill Fleming, co-owner of Chain Reaction Cycles in Anchorage, informed attendees on the 2014 Global Fat Bike Summit in Ogden, Utah. “Individuals simply liked these bikes. It modified the way in which they have a look at winter. These die-hard nordic skiers would get on them and notice it’s a better sport. You don’t must wax, you’ll be able to trip out your entrance door. You’re on somewhat singletrack path in the course of winter, and it’s lovely.”
Between 2013 and 2014, the variety of corporations making fats bikes doubled, creating the fastest-growing market phase within the biking business. Individuals had been utilizing them for the whole lot, and now not simply throughout winter. As Molino had accomplished within the Southwest, riders explored sandy surfaces, be it desert seashores or shorelines. Others rode grime singletrack. Tony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist in Alaska, deployed a fats bike to review walruses, as a result of the bike effectively lined a whole lot of floor and didn’t disturb the animals. In Australia, just a few intrepid riders used fatties to navigate the complete 1,150-mile Canning Stock Route, a distant, deep-sand monitor that was unridable on standard bikes.
As extra individuals rode, an rising number of fats bikes appeared. Newbies appreciated the steady platform; specialists appreciated the year-round versatility. When Salsa launched the carbon-fiber Beargrease* on the finish of 2013, it exceeded gross sales predictions by an element of 4. Originally of 2015, Surly had 5 fats bikes in manufacturing, together with the Moonlander (with whopping five-inch-wide tires), and the Krampus (a “29-plus”—29-inch-diameter wheels with broad rims and tires). Salsa was as much as 11 totally different fats bikes, together with a full-suspension carbon mannequin known as the Bucksaw that immediately garnered rave reviews. Different corporations akin to 45Nrth, Bar Mitts, and Revelate Designs sprang up, devoted to fat-bike-specific elements, equipment, and attire.
Ten years after the Pugsley appeared, fats bikes have transcended their novelty. As the parents at QBP saved reminding me: “Fats bikes are mountain bikes.”
Earlier than I left Minnesota, I headed north looking for snow. The area had emerged because the epicenter of fat-bike enjoyable, with a whole lot of miles of groomed winter trails, just like the Noquemon Network, close to Marquette. I wished to expertise “white velcro,” native patois for the form of traction that large tires present on groomed snow trails. Alas, on the tail finish of an uncommonly delicate winter season, there wasn’t a snowflake to be discovered.
After all, fats bikes are enjoyable on grime, too. I made it so far as Duluth, the place I met up with Hansi Johnson, a photographer and director of leisure lands on the Minnesota Land Belief. Johnson gave me a sneak peek on the Duluth Traverse, 40 miles of multi-use single- and doubletrack that spanned the size of town limits and had simply helped internet the city $20 million in improvement cash.
The mucky shoulder season didn’t faze our fats bikes, and Johnson and I navigated technical descents and woodsy cross-country trails. I used to be using Salsa’s grease, which dealt with the whole lot we encountered: damp, rock-studded singletrack, mellow jeep roads, a swampy meadow. It struck me why fats bikes had been so instantly interesting. What conventional mountain bikes supplied in nimbleness, fatties made up for in versatility. “Fats bikes have helped handle an issue that each the bike business and bike-friendly communities have struggled with,” Johnson informed me. “And that’s bringing in new riders.”
He defined that Duluth was going by way of a broad transition from gentle business to recreation. Trails just like the Traverse had been serving to hyperlink communities that had been struggling to revitalize.
“These of us most likely wouldn’t give a second thought to using a motorbike,” Johnson informed me. “However the humorous factor about fats bikes is how inviting they’re. There’s this large, steady platform that may go in nearly any situations. Individuals get on them and it’s immediately enjoyable.”
He informed me one other story, a couple of personal group from the East Coast that had come out for a deer-hunting journey just a few years earlier. Johnson had joined them to take footage. He rode a fats bike, which drew laughs and mock from the hunters, a minimum of initially.
“However then they noticed how a lot floor I may cowl,” Johnson says, “and the way quiet it was, and that they wouldn’t waste time shuttling in, one after the other, on an ATV.” The subsequent yr, two of them returned on Cogburn fats bikes, which had camo paint jobs and had been fitted with gun racks.
Once I point out this phenomenon again at QBP—how fatties appear to have broader attraction than your garden-variety mountain bike—it’s met with earnest nods. Are fats bikes going to reinflate collapsed economies? That’s most likely an excessive amount of of a stretch. However are they going to have an effect past somewhat additional winter enjoyable? Dave Grey thinks so.
“The factor I take most coronary heart in is once I hear concerning the bike store that may keep open and viable all winter,” Grey says. “That they will hold all their staff year-round, and that they’ve one thing they will flip to even when snow is unreliable. That’s once you actually really feel such as you’ve contributed one thing to the better good.”
*The print model of this story misnamed the bike. Exterior regrets the error.
Our mission to encourage readers to get outdoors has by no means been extra vital. Lately, Exterior On-line has reported on groundbreaking analysis linking time in nature to improved psychological and bodily well being, and we’ve saved you knowledgeable concerning the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous protection helps spark vital debates about wellness and journey and journey, and it gives readers an accessible gateway to new out of doors passions. Time outdoors is crucial—and we may help you profit from it. Making a monetary contribution to Exterior On-line solely takes a couple of minutes and can guarantee we are able to proceed supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers such as you depend upon. We hope you’ll assist us. Thanks.
Lead Photograph: Tim Tomkinson