Adventure December 16, 2015

Fat Bikes Shift into High Gear

From Sand to Snow, Fat Bikes take Hold

Ketchum firefighter Tory Canfield had to chuckle when she stepped off the plane at Logan International Airport in Boston for the Head of the Charles Regatta this fall. The first billboard she saw showed people fat biking on a beach in New England. 

“It’s not just a winter sport,” said Canfield, who was headed to join her crew to compete in the Women’s Alumni Eights. Canfield is the founder of the Fat Bike Advocacy Group (FBAG), which has a large local presence. The group’s clunky, amusing acronym somehow suits the sport it promotes. “It’s amazing how much this sport has grown in just a few years. It’s everywhere. It’s exciting.”

As for many mountain-town Idahoans, Canfield’s introduction to fat biking began on snow, yet the sport that employs wide fork frames and fat-as-can-be, low-pressure tires also has roots in the sand. A week before Canfield arrived in Boston, one of the early fat bike promoters and manufacturers, Mark Gronewald, of Palmer, Alaska, was ushered into the newly established Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame. He shared the stage with Dr. Alex Hall, recognized as a co-creator in the 1990s of Wi-Fi. Gronewald is celebrated for his fat bike innovations that have led to remarkable victories in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, among many other events worldwide. As the machines evolve, they are also aiding the popularity of bike-packing—long distance, self-supported backcountry riding.

Snowball Special Fat Bike Race, Sun Valley/Ketchum, Idaho​Gronewald started experimenting with and producing snow bikes at a time in the 1990s when winter clothing was also getting lighter, cozier and sportier. He credits Texan Ray “El Remolino” Molino with the earliest modifications in the 1980s to forks and frames so he could guide riders in the dunes of the Southwest and Mexico. Molino’s bikes could accept extra-wide rims he developed for the mammoth tires that are so recognizable today.

The ability of fat bikes to “float” over the loose surfaces of snow or sand and their comfort are prime factors in their explosion in popularity. Manufacturers across the country have evolved frame design from the cobbled-together machines of the ’80s and ’90s to today’s streamlined versions that are giving more traditional full-suspension bikes a run for their money, even on the competition podium. Also to note, a set of his and her inexpensive fat bikes can be purchased for the price of some high-end mountain bike components (a Lauf leaf-spring front suspension, for one).

A number of athletes credit winter fat bike riding for their summer racing success, said JP LaMere, owner of LaMere Cycles in Minneapolis, who trades in the seemingly oxymoronic niche of “affordable custom bicycles.” Jeff Hall won the Chequamegon (She-wa-me-gon) 40 on a rigid fat bike in September. The race in northwestern Wisconsin, one of the premier fat tire events that has been around since 1983, draws thousands of riders each September. “Jeff raced fat bikes for us all last winter, and I think that helped him, too,” LaMere said. “The bottom line is, pushing the bigger tires just builds a ton of strength.”

Designed to work with the messy facets of variable snow, fat bikes—unlike Nordic skis—require no attention to wax and make winter training a breeze right out of the garage. Then there’s the influence of changing weather patterns that are making snow less predictable. In Blaine County a snow line has appeared in recent years at about 6,000 feet above sea level. In the middle of winter people are skiing at Galena (7,200 feet) in the morning and hiking Carbonate Mountain in Hailey (5,300 feet) in the afternoon. Fat bikes fill a niche where winter is marginal or at least not productive for more snow-dependent winter sports. Pioneers, like the single-track trail groomers at Grand Targhee Resort, are replicating the summer single-track experience by sculpting the snow with customized grooming equipment and custom berms, for instance. The folks at Harriman State Park, in Island Park, the first state park to customize trails for winter fat bike riding, say the extent of grooming there also depends on what winter has to offer. “We encourage people to ride our trails year-round,” said Kyle Babbitt. “When there is three to five feet of snow on the ground, the trails look a lot different in the winter—the trees get shorter.”

Beginner to intermediate riders are getting an introduction in the Sun Valley area on high-visibility, wide groomed trails like the popular Durrance Loop in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. BCRD Executive Director Jim Keating is hoping that the temporary permit to groom the popular seven-kilometer Durrance Loop will soon get a more permanent designation. The demonstration course is popular with new riders because it’s sunny and open, without blind intersection points where divergent users can surprise one another. It’s considered a great place to build skills before riders head out to the sections of the BCRD trail system where fat biking is supported. Of course, the Blaine County Recreation District also hosts fat bike riding on the old railroad grade to Ketchum. 

Currently, however, most local grooming amounts to groups of riders packing out their own trails on public land, like in Adams Gulch. Efforts to groom single-track with some form of machinery on public land would trigger a permitting process.

With the growing popularity of the sport comes a wealth of fat bike events taking hold locally and regionally. Sun Valley Company helped to host FBAG’s Snowball Special last winter under the umbrella of Rebecca Rusch Productions and plans to do so again this year in conjunction with Nordic Town USA activities starting the last weekend in January. Sun Valley Resort, long a crucible of novel winter recreation, loaned fat bike riders the name of the famous train that brought dignitaries and stars to the resort in its heyday. In addition, there are plans for the Town Sprints in Ketchum the Thursday before the annual Boulder Mountain Tour, the capstone for the Nordic festival, to again include fat bike laps. Also, the Stanley Winterfest, the third weekend in February, will be a fat bike event venue this winter. 

Regionally, there is a fresh round of events for fat biking this winter, as the Fat Bike Nationals return to Ogden, Utah, and the Global Fat Bike Summit looks like it will return to Jackson Hole. Finally, for the truly hearty, there’s always riding in the last frontier at the Fat Bike Expo in Anchorage, Alaska, in the dead of winter. 

Snowball Special Fat Bike Race. Photo: courtesy Fat Bike Advocacy Group (FBAG)

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.