Features & Essays

Fat Chance

How I came to understand Colorado’s favorite new winter sport—and why it’s on the rise.

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE the most challenging adventure of my life: fly to Alaska, pick up a Specialized Fat Boy bike and ride 100 kilometers through sub-zero wilderness on a portion of the world-famous 1,000-mile Iditarod Sled Dog route.

What could possibly go wrong? I’d long known of the race—and of fat bikes. I lived in Alaska on and off for a few years in the mid- to late-1990s. For some of those years, I was in Fairbanks, dog-mushing capital of the world. It was dark and frigid for several winter months. Moose gnawed on willow in main street front yards. Car exhaust, thick with the cold, hung in clouds it seemed you could eat. But local riders, some of the most diehard I would ever meet, tweaked their bikes with ingenious Nordic-ski-and-winter-mountaineering-inspired adaptations and rode all winter long despite the cold and the exhaust and the propensity for cycling to frostbite—or freeze—every millimeter of exposed skin.

I knew of these people, but I was not one of them. All of my riding took place on the death-ice roads within Fairbanks city limits. I’d heard that some crazy Alaskan hardcores had retrofitted bikes to negotiate soft snow, overflow and trails littered with sled dog poop. Soon, Alaskans had their first mass-produced fat bike, but I would miss it. By then I’d moved to Nederland.

For many years, though, the Alaskan fat bike remained a Colorado enigma. It wasn’t until around 2013 that they entered mass consciousness, something you could see, almost immediately, in my bike-and-winter-loving town of Nederland. Once again, I was intrigued, but instead of sampling the fat bike craze conservatively like a normal person, I thought back to a fat bike race I’d heard about long ago in Alaska, the Alaska Iditasport Human Powered Ultramarathon, which I Googled, found and learned had a beginner-level race that would allow me to fulfill my dream of pedaling through a frozen land.

It was October 2014. Iditasport unfolded in February. That gave me just four months to train for a serious endurance race on a vehicle I had yet to really try. I live at 8,000 feet and skate ski four to five days a week from November on each winter, so I figured I must be in endurance sport shape. Why bother training on a fat bike? Hubris was about to become my racing companion. I skied hard to train, but only once rode a fat bike before flying into Anchorage for the big “excursion.”

There, I grabbed a loaner bike and two days later, started the race. It was a fiasco from the first pedal stroke. I layered wrong, packed wrong and broke my chain less than a mile from the start. I fixed it then sprinted to catch the group, thus drenching myself in sweat. Then I missed an important turn, getting myself lost in the dead of winter. I discovered my error, but now my peanut butter sandwiches had frozen solid, along with the water in my “insulated” Nalgene bottle. The cold and my lack of a GPS all expanded the lethal-feeling enormity of the Iditarod Trail.

Long story short, I pedaled with freezing toes, gummy fingers, dehydration and mounting panic, yet somehow managed to make it to the mid-race turnaround, with smiling attendants, steaming chili, The Northern Lights and heated wall tents. Once there, however, I made a decision. Exhausted and afraid of making the long journey back in the dark, I deemed my “race” a “ride,” spent the night and rode back in the morning light.

I cranked my way back, thinking that when I returned home, I’d “get all over” fat biking.

In fact, I didn’t, believing the only “real” fat bikers were in Alaska. Yet they’re everywhere now, in Colorado. Despite the slow takeoff and some lingering weirdness about how they fit in, there’s a sudden explosion of interest in these awkward, cartoony, but fun-as-hell rides that extend our bike season year round. And they’re creeping into a winter trail system near you.

If you’re going to ride one, you might as well understand why these things even exist. Props to Alaska for birthing the fat bike craze in the 1980s.

In ’87, Joe Redington, father of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race, challenged Alaskan cyclists with a 200-mile out-and-back on the lonely, isolated track. He expected 10 to show; 26 came. They pedaled bikes with standard mountain bike tires down the long, winding ribbon of white. Days later, they limped back to the Iditarod headquarters, where heroes were named, ideas shotgunned out of adrenaline-soaked brains. Two years later, four Alaskans pedaled standard mountain bikes the entire length of the Iditarod Trail, just as several mechanical-minded cyclists were revolutionizing the winter bike. One visionary lashed three front tires together, to distribute weight across soft snow. In 1994, Alaskan Simon Rakower built the first dedicated snow-bike rim—44-mm wide. It pleased winter biking diehards, and three years later, 26 people rode fat-tire bikes in the first 350-mile “Iditasport Extreme,” crossing the Alaska Range.

But the bikes didn’t catch on. Steve Kaczmarek, founder of Borealis fat bikes in Colorado Springs, says the early models were extremely heavy and had an overly long wheelbase. So while they were great from a utility standpoint, they didn’t attract riders accustomed to mountain bike weight and geometry.

Alaska retained a small but fanatic fan base through the late 2000s. Then Borealis built a more mountain bike-like bike for the masses. The company’s first model, the carbon Yampa, weighed nine pounds less than its lightest predecessor. This, in turn, showed big bike companies, like Specialized, what was possible. “In 2013, there were six to seven fat bike models,” says Kaczmarek. Now dozens of bike companies offer more than 100 models. But even with their new design, fat biking faced obstacles here in Colorado.

David Ochs, executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), blames diehard Nordic skiers, who saw them as a threat to their sport. As recently as 2015, he says, “I literally had people ragging on fat bikes on Facebook. We were like, ‘It’s a bike, settle down, it’s going to be okay!’ But it still took a while for some of the biggest adversaries to turn around.”

They did, at least in his town, after CBMBA and a private landowner developed a groomed trail in Crested Butte’s North Village. Now riders could demo the latest carbon fat bike models and get a taste of the sport without tangling with local Nordic skiers.

Ochs also created the Alley Loop fat bike race, which piggybacked on the 32-year-old Alley Loop Nordic race. “The whole point was to create an intro to fat biking,” says Ochs. It barely gained traction, though, so in 2015, Ochs launched the Fat Bike World Championships.

“We had a global fat bike summit with an education piece and advocacy piece. We had events, like a downhill race at the resort and a singletrack race at North Village. It was cool because we could show people the versatility of fat bikes,” he says.

It worked, and even the crusty locals started to get in on the fun. But then Ochs applied for a forest service permit to put a groomed, three-mile fat bike trail down the pristine Gothic Road (closed in winter). “Again, it was like, the fat bike! It makes some people lose their mind!” says Ochs. Soon Nordic skiers realized they could stomp in their own two-track alongside the groomed bike trail and that every few days, using a utility snowmobile and a drag designed specifically for fat bike trail grooming, CBMBA buff a strip of gleaming corduroy for both skiers and riders.

CBMBA now grooms two other singletrack trails, a 15-miler in Brush Creek and a five-miler in Cement Creek, and it appears the clash of different user groups is largely diminished.

But other Colorado towns are still grappling with how to handle the fat-bike boom.

Only nine Colorado Nordic centers currently offer trails dedicated to fat bikers, according to the Colorado Tourism Department. They include Aspen Snowmass Nordic Center, Devil’s Thumb Ranch, Latigo Ranch, Durango Nordic Center, Howelson Hill, Emerald Lake, Catamount Touring Center, Sunlight Resort and Breckenridge Gold Run Nordic Ski Center.

Yet Breckenridge has turned a “huh, who knew?” trend into a business success story.

The Breckenridge Nordic Center near the base of Breckenridge Ski Resort doesn’t allow fat biking, while the Breckenridge Gold Run Nordic Ski Center, north of town, does. However, it took hands-on education of the staff at Gold Run to help them understand how to market fat biking. From 2014 to 2016, Gold Run had a fleet of heavy old-school fat bikes, which they didn’t promote because “no one expressed interest,” says Borealis owner Steve Kaczmarek. He sold them a new fleet of lightweight carbon bikes, encouraged the owners to place them front and center at the resort (right up there with skis and snowshoes) and soon they were booking bikes days in advance.

Clever thinking also led to skyrocketing bookings at Breckenridge Bike Guides fat bike tour operators—but it took a moment. They led guided fat-bike rides, but their tours didn’t match their clientele, says Kaczmarek. “The owners are ultra-athletes, but tourists are partiers,” he says. “The guides wanted to lead them on these epic rides, but the tourists would get a half mile up the trail and say, ‘I’m done with this.’ Well, another bike company, Ridden, had a different idea.”

They bought four Borealis bikes and took a totally different methodology, says Kaczmarek. “They drove tourists to the top of [downhill] Main Street and showed them a map to every brewery. At the end of the tour, whether their riders were drunk or not, they sent a van to get them. Their trips sell out every winter.”

Outfitters and retailers across the U.S. are realizing there’s more than one market for the new generation of lighter, tighter fat bikes. There’s the comfort crowd, just trucking along on forest roads and beach bike paths. There’s the novelty crowd, happy to hop on a tour, like those in Breck, or try something different just for laughs. Then there’s the hardcore bike crowd taking fat bikes to a new level. They’re showing up in summer point-to-point cross-country races, on muddy two-tracks during shoulder season. And in winter, lycra and neoprene clad go-fasters are taking to the ice and snow to extend their biking season to year round.

So why didn’t I take up fat biking after I returned from my Alaska race to Colorado? Well, simply, I fell back into my old pattern: bike summer, ski winter.

It’s true that riding a bike across the Alaskan outback was thrilling. Yet fat biking to me remained clunky and slow, and I guess, because I live so close to a Nordic resort, I do the thing that’s easiest, that I know best, and that almost always provides me instant gratification.

But my diehard fat biking friends, many of whom also Nordic ski, say I’m missing the point. They say it’s not a question of choosing one winter sport over another, but using multiple tools to get the most out of winter. And Ochs agrees that “as weird, big and clunky-looking as fat bikes are, they’re the perfect way to get outside when skiing conditions aren’t optimal.”

If you take a fat bike out on the wrong day, he says, “It’s going to be the dumbest experience ever. But if it doesn’t snow for a week. And everything is crusty and hardened up, it’s the right tool to explore winter. You’re not going to go as fast as you would on a mountain bike, but it’s still a muscle-powered, self-powered sport that will get you out in the natural beauty of Colorado. And think about it. It’s pretty cool. You’re riding a bike in the winter.”

It’s mid-August as I write this, but already I’m seeing small signs of the coming winter. On early morning bike rides, there’s a slight nip in the air, and it’s been cold enough that the ferns are starting to yellow. And just yesterday, as I bombed down a local trail, I thought about how fun it would be to live in a place where I could bike all year.

Thing is, I can. I just need to get a fat bike and be more willing to swap my skis for it. When I do, I know I’ll see fat biking’s true value—one I already instinctively loved, years before most people ever thought about winter riding, back when I was young and open minded and living in Fairbanks, where the original fat bike craze started. The ability to head out into the open wilderness, to float on snow and breathe the smell of ice and pine, is something I treasure above all else.

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