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Fat Bikes: The Winter Sport Of The Future?

This article is more than 8 years old.

On a snowy December afternoon, I dropped by the Onion River Sports shop in Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. Kip Roberts, who  manages the store, said that two years ago, fat bikes went from an oddity to a hot item.

"It exploded, and we couldn’t get our hands on them quick enough," Roberts said. "And that growth happened all across the country. Almost everyone that’s a major bicycle company has a fat bike now. And some of them have multiple models."

It exploded, and we couldn’t get our hands on them quick enough. And that growth happened all across the country.

Kip Roberts, Onion River Sports manager

Back in the late 70’s, the mountain bike was created by modifying a Schwinn bicycle with balloon tires. In the early 90’s, a cycling enthusiast in Alaska welded rims together to hold even fatter tires so their bikes could ride on snow. In recent years, these so-called “fat bikes” have taken off in colder climes.

Roberts gave me some fat biking advice.

"You figure out very quickly, you can’t stand and try and power up a hill like you might be able to do in the summer," Roberts said. "If you have too much weight over your handle bars and over your front wheel, especially if you grab a handful of front brake around a corner, you’re gonna slide out just due to the slippery nature of the snow or ice that you’re on."

Which is exactly what happened to me. You can’t ride very easily with just one hand on the handle bars, which is what I had to do while pointing a shotgun microphone down at the fat bike’s front tire crunching over the snow.

International Fat Bike Day

The next day, I got to ride two-handed on a narrow trail winding through a pine forest at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston, Vt. There are 15 miles of trails for cross-country skiing and fat biking, and you can rent fat bikes at Catamount all winter.

Dozens of Americans and Canadians gathered around a campfire on International Fat Bike Day. Others tried out new bikes, rode in groups and raced. This is just one in a series of events that comprise Le Grand Fat Tour to promote fat biking in Vermont and Quebec. It was 14 degrees outside as bikers fortified themselves with hot chili and cold beer.

"Just layer up," said Steve Fischer, a dentist who serves as president of Fellowship of the Wheel, a local mountain biking group. "As long as your hands and your feet are warm, the rest of you will warm up."

Fischer’s no frills bike cost around $2,000. Adding to the sport’s expense are insulated boots and pogies — down-filled handle-bar covers to keep your hands warm. A studded fat bike tire costs more than many car tires. The tires on fat bike are underinflated for maximum traction. Tires come as wide as five inches, double the width of a standard mountain bike tire.

It’s like being on another planet rolling over this frozen landscape.

Glenn Eames

If you can’t afford to shell out two-grand for a fat bike, you can rent one. This is the second season that the Catamount Outdoor Center has offered fat bike rentals.

Glenn Eames, the former owner of a Burlington bike shop called the Old Spokes Home, says that everybody who takes a fat bike for a test ride comes back with a huge smile on their face. Last winter Eames got to ride on Lake Champlain.

"We rode across the lake last year," Eames said. "The lake was frozen all the way to New York, so you can just go out there. It’s like being on another planet rolling over this frozen landscape. It’s kind of like snow-shoeing on a bicycle."

Many fat bikers are also cross-country skiers. Tina Santafonte, an environmental technician who works for the state of Vermont, started riding a fat bike three years ago.

"I’m a skier in the winter — that’s my main sport and passion," Santafonte said. "Fat biking kind works out perfectly with skiing, because when the skiing isn’t great, the fat biking turns out to be pretty awesome and vice-versa, so it’s a great way to still get outside in the snow."

A Changing Climate 

Before this year’s skiing season started, there was a gathering of the Cross Country Skiing Association in Vermont. Fat biking was definitely on the agenda because the ski industry has felt the economic effects of climate change.

"We opened the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving this year, but that was the first time we were able to do that in over 20 years," said Michael Stearns, executive director of the Catamount Outdoor Center. "The winters are shifting, where we’re not getting a lot of snow in December and January. But for fat biking you don’t need a lot of snow. You know, there’s maybe two inches on the ground right here and everyone is having an amazing time."

At least two other Nordic ski facilities in Vermont have begun to allow fat biking on their trails. More than two dozen others in the Midwest and West have done so as well. But fat bikes can damage tracks set on trails for classic cross-country skiing. Catamount trail manager Mark Stannard says that when fat bikers ride trails with skiers and snow shoers, they need to observe trail etiquette.

"One thing we try to encourage here at Catamount is bikers yield to all," Stannard said. "If you’re on a bike, you stop, you let the skier, the snow-shoer pass by you. It’s a safer approach. We have brakes, skiers really don’t, so, it’s just the right thing to do.

Fat biking competitions are springing up in the colder states. A 135-mile race is scheduled in Minnesota later this month, and on March 1, the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational follows the path of Alaska’s famous sled dog race.

This segment aired on January 24, 2015.



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