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The plummeting mercury in Alaska this time of year doesn't keep bikers inside. More and more of them are heading to recreational trails and to the office on "fat bikes." They look like mountain bikes on steroids, with tires wider than most people's arms.
Kevin Breitenbach runs the bike shop at Beaver Sports in Alaska's second-largest city. Aboard a fat bike, he makes his way down a trail that winds through a forest as wet, quarter-sized snowflakes drop from the sky. Visibility is low, and the snow hides the roughest spots on the trail.
Breitenbach's bike is his primary form of transportation. When he's not commuting to work, he's racing in ultra-distance events.
"Now, if we were out here on regular mountain bikes, you'd just be all over the place. The bikes are set up to be stable, and so you can go much slower and still maintain your balance," he says.
In the late 1980s, cyclists in Alaska were looking for a good way to tackle snowy trails, so they welded three mountain bike rims together. That allowed for fatter tires that almost float on top of the snow.
Today, fat biking isn't quite so do-it-yourself. The market for a bike like this is still small, but it's the fastest-growing segment of the cycling industry. At Goldstream Sports, just north of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, owner Joel Buth specializes in cross-country skis and road bikes. But four years ago, he added fat bikes to his winter inventory.
"The bikes are typically a $3,000 sale, versus a ski package, which is much less. So there's more customers in the ski, but the bike market is growing rapidly," he says.
That $3,000 isn't just for the bike. It includes all the other gear as well, like extra tire tubes, shoes and lots of winter clothing. It's the fat bike clientele that surprises Buth most.
"Mostly what I see is the backcountry enthusiast and older couples, too, that just want to get out and get exercise in the winter and don't want to mess around with skis, and they just like to bike," he says.
Back on the trail, Breitenbach says fat biking is more fun than skiing, even when temperatures hit 50 degrees below zero.
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