Text by Evan Johnson, Photos by Herb Swanson
With the arrival of lasting snow and midwinter conditions, people are returning to their favorite wintertime outdoor playgrounds for Nordic skiing, Alpine and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and, increasingly, mountain biking.
Yes, that’s correct; mountain biking in January. This winter, while kicking or skating merrily on skis, or marching along in your snowshoes, expect to catch sight of bundled-up cyclists cruising the woods, trails, and even closed beaches on beefy tires.
These oversize mountain bikes—or fatbikes, as they’ve come to be known—are the latest trend in wintertime outdoor recreation and they’re rapidly taking to the trails. The tires measure from 3.5 to 5 inches wide, and some riders opt for low tire pressure and use studded tires.
Ryan Thibault is the owner and head operator of Mountain Bike Vermont, an event promotions organization and resource for all things-riding related in the Green Mountain State. As an avid mountain biker who rides hard for much of the year, he says he won’t let a change in seasons dictate his ability to pedal.
“There’s such a high level of fanaticism in mountain biking in the summer that it’s really hard to put it aside for an entire season,” he says. Before fatbiking, in the event of a midseason thaw, he and his friends would take their mountain bikes and try to ride on the snow.
“We were ill equipped, but we had fun doing it,” he says. “Now, (with the fatbikes) it’s one more option to get out and play.”
At first glance, most fatbikes resemble traditional mountain bikes from the ’90s. Fatbikes are hardtails and lack front suspension, using the tires to absorb any bumps. Unlike agile and lightweight singletrack bikes, fatbikes are typically heavier and slightly less wieldy, trundling along over terrain. The concept is simple—a hardtail bicycle with a very upright stature designed for cross-country riding.
Justin Carter, a technician at the Old Spokes Home in Burlington, says in the past three years, the popularity of the fat-wheel has increased as evidenced by the trends in major producers.
“It’s like the buzzword in the industry,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of evolution in a short amount of time.”
Bike manufacturer Surly produced the first bike suited for conditions most would find intolerable for two wheels. Titled “Pugsly,” the bike had several technical specifications to accommodate the massive tires. Surly later released a second model, the Moonlander.
The increased interest in this new form of biking gave rise to a number of boutique bike manufacturers, some of which produce exclusively fatbikes or fatbike components. Many of which are produced in states with dramatic winter weather: Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, and Minnesota are all home to small manufacturers—Alaska as two, but none, so far, in Vermont.
Greg Matyas, owner of Speedway Bike Shop in Anchorage, Alaska, first began producing “Fatback” bikes after getting tired of riding the widest tires available on 29-inch Snowcat rims. Matyas said the motivation behind designing the bike was “performance-oriented geometry” and a more symmetrical frame.
Alaska-based bike company 9:ZERO:7 has been making fatbikes in a region intimately familiar with snow. The idea for the company was born in February 2004 when founders Bill Fleming and Jamey Stull competed in the Sustina 100 Winter Endurance Race across the frozen arctic. The company designs solely fatbikes and has since made headway in making the massive bikes lighter. Their latest aluminum frame—composed of super-lightweight 7005 aluminum—is due to be released next September.
The secret to the success of these big-wheeled machines is in the tires. As bikes developed over the past five to seven years, riders became more aware of the advantages of a wider tire. In years past, the widest mountain bike tires were 3.8 inches wide. Today, fatbike riders sport tires 4.8 inches wide on the widest rims to absorb bumps, float on top of snow, and power through soft sand. While the bottom bracket on most mountain bikes is 68 or 73 millimeters wide, the bottom bracket for new fatbikes are 100 millimeters wide. Fatbikes also run on lower air pressure—using as little as eight to 10 pounds of air pressure where conventional mountain bikes sport 30.
But the fatbike craze hit the mainstream when major bike manufacturer Trek introduced its own fatbike model, a slick looking machine called the “Farley.” Illustrating the popularity in the trend, the entire inventory was purchased before anything was rolled off the factory floor. Other manufactures such as Kona, Specialized, KHS, and Norco have all produced fatbike models. More companies have begun to design their own models and are slated for sales floors next year.
Trail access and festivals
Ryan Thibault at MTBVT describes fatbikers as a sub-group of a broader biking community in Vermont.
“Mountain biking has always been a subculture,” he says. “It’s a subculture that people have always been proud to be involved in. We’ve always felt we were of the same ilk.”
As mountain biking has grown in popularity, more people have come to Vermont to explore some of the best singletrack and cross-country riding in the Northeast. The community of riders has expanded dramatically, but a core group of riders, Thibault says, now rides on fatter tires.
“Right now, the fatbiking community has a very solid core and so you can go out on any given day and look at the tire tracks on the ground and probably discern which one of your buddies is out there on the trail.”
The interest exists along with available space. Vermont is home to the statewide Vermont Association of Ski Travelers trail network, one of the largest interconnected groomed trail networks in North America, and as long as cyclists obtain permission from the landowners, they can use the network to access even more terrain.
As biking becomes a year-round activity, trail centers around Vermont are moving to include newer “fatbikes” on trail systems. Starting this winter, the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston and Kingdom Trails in East Burke will officially open their terrain to riders. Rental bikes from The Old Spokes Home have arrived for rental at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston and in the Northeast Kingdom, Kingdom Trails now features a separate fully maintained trail system for winter bikes and snowshoeing at their Darling Hill center in Lyndonville.
The Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton will be renting a small fleet of fatbikes from bike manufacturer Origin8 for the 2014 winter season. Director Mike Hussey said before a major snowstorm opened more terrain in early January, the Nordic center had been skiing on three to four kilometers of skiing [Judy1] since mid-November on a loop served by snowmaking, but simultaneously they were able to offer 50 kilometers for biking. Since this is their first season with the bikes, the staff hasn’t yet developed an integration plan for sharing trails between bikers and skiers, but limits access to the type of bike, permitting bikes with a minimum tire width of 3.5 inches and asking riders not to ride if the snow is so soft the tires leaves more than a 1-inch deep track.
The hardpacked snow, he says, makes for great riding and the softer powder is easy as well.
“It’s pretty cool,” Hussey says. “It’s like riding a monster truck in relationship to regular mountain bikes. There’s no suspension but because you have about four pounds of pressure in the tires, you float along over the snow.”
In Stowe, The Trapp Family Lodge will host Überwintern, one of a series of fatbike events in the Northeast. While the Lodge currently does not rent any fatbikes, Briggs Pierce at the Nordic Center says the bikes are an opportunity for possible expansion of programs.
The Millstone Trails Association near Barre has also opened their trails to fatbikes this winter.
Eric Bowker, executive director at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center, says including fatbikes in the array of wintertime activities offered at the Center was a logical next step for winter recreation. He sold gift certificates for fatbike riding even before the bikes arrived.
“Fatbiking is a natural progression,” he says. “We already have a network of existing trails already popular with bikers and cross country skiers and runners. Winter as we know it is changing and biking is going to be able to fill that void when the snow isn’t what we’d like it to be.”
Tim Tierney, president of Kingdom Trails in East Burke says interest in Kingdom Trails as a fatbike destination began simply with a group of bike owners who used the trails in the wintertime when the snow was too poor for skiing.
“People want to pedal year round,” he says. “We have a hard enough time keeping people off for the one month we’re closed in November [due to hunting season].”
The goal, he says, is to provide both skiers and riders with their own areas that each can enjoy without impeding the other’s trail conditions. Tierney says the result so far has been positive.
“I think it’s a great way of keeping your trails alive in certain areas. If you’re expanding your market, people are going to preserve those ski trails.”
Growing the sport, he insists, is more important at this point than turning a profit.
“It’s obviously not a fringe thing this year,” says Carter of the Old Spokes Home. “The major players in bike manufacturing are fully involved and the more people we can bring into the sport at this point, the better. It’s a way to build the sport rather than making money off of rentals.”
Bowker agrees. At this point, both are focused on growing interest in the sport, but Bowker says he remains optimistic in the sport’s potential. In 1999, he started and has since run a cyclocross series for the past 14 years. Participation in the race has since grown from 20 to over 100 and he thinks interest in fatbiking’s future could hold something similar.
“I don’t see this becoming popular on a racing level, but on a participation level,” he says. “You have to start somewhere.”