Fat bikes are here to stay

Fat bikes are here to stay

The first time I saw a “fat bike” on a cross-country ski trail I was upset.

It was a sunny Saturday morning and I was enjoying a nice leisurely ski at Lake Farm County Park, taking advantage of the newly-groomed tracks. Best I could tell, I was the only skier on the trail.

Then out of nowhere came a guy in full winter biking garb, including heavy mittens and facemask, riding the biggest bike I’d ever seen.

“Hey c’mon dude,” I said. “We only get a few days a year to ski and you’re wrecking the trail.”

The guy then argued that he had a right to use the public park, too, and was taking care not to ride over the classic tracks.

I calmed down a bit after that and began to look closer at his bike, which featured 29-inch wheels and tires wide enough to fit a Harley Davidson. It did look pretty cool.

Then I looked closer at his tracks and had to admit it wasn’t really ripping up the trail too much. In fact, it was doing a lot less damage than a walker and a dog, a major issue at many cross country ski trails near urban areas.

Now, five years later, fat bikes are here to stay and represent the fastest-growing segment of the bicycle industry.

And Wisconsin, not surprisingly, is emerging as a leader in winter trail bike riding. The state just hosted the largest fat bike race in the world held on the famous Birkebeiner trail near Hayward.

In its fourth year, the Fat Bike Birkie has grown from fewer than 200 riders in 2013 to just over 1,000 registrants for the 2016 race held in perfect conditions March 5. The race drew riders from 14 states with Will Ross of Anchorage Alaska repeating as the winner in the feature 47-kilometer “Big Fat” event, topping Brad Bingham of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Corey Stelljas of Madison was the top local finisher in 7th place overall.

Jenna Rinehart of Mankato, Minnesota, won her third consecutive women’s “Big Fat.” Leia Schneeberg of Madison was the top local women, grabbing 3rd place in the 30-39 age group. Full results are available here.

“We started the Fat Bike Birkie race in downtown Cable this year, which worked really well and created a terrific festival atmosphere,” says Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. “Northwestern Wisconsin has really become the epicenter for the whole fat bike craze. We can’t wait to see how the race grows in the next 10 years.”

Given the state’s fickle winter weather, fat biking is also drawing converts from cross-country skiing. Among them is Beth Donley, the CEO of Madison’s Stemina Biosciences, who finished third in the 50-59 age group in the 20K “Chico” event.

“I got my fat tire bike this winter and I haven’t touched my cross country skis since,” Donley says.

 It was Donley’s first Fat Bike Birkie and she is already hooked. “I had a great time so I’m sure I will do it again,” she says.

Donley got in her training riding at the Blackhawk Ski Club and Pleasant View Golf Course in Middleton. She also enjoyed riding at the new “Win Man” trail system between Winchester and Manitowish Waters in Vilas County.

Once considered little more than a craze among hard core mountain bike riders, fat bikes are rolling off the assembly line. The number of manufacturers has doubled to more than 100, including Wisconsin-based Trek.

While XC skiers might grumble that fat bikes are for people who don’t want to take the time to develop good ski technique, the attraction is obvious: Over-sized tires allow riders to cruise in all types of conditions, year-round, including groomed single-track trails, frozen lakes, firm trails or fresh powder.

Birkie director Popp says fat bikes have extended the biking season and have added a whole new twist to winter.

“We’re really proud to promote the sport and to welcome riders to the Fat Bike Birkie to enjoy the beauty of our north woods,” he says.

The development of the fat bike grew of the mountain bike craze in the 1980s as riders looked for a way to navigate over sand and snow. In 1987, the first “Iditabike” event challenged riders to travel 200 miles of Alaskan backcountry in winter, following snowmobile and dog mushing trails including a section of the legendary Iditarod trail.

Competitors quickly realized that wider tires were needed to navigate in fresh snow or melting slush. Early adoptees customized their mountain bikes but today you can walk into just about any bike shop and go home on a fat bike.

As the climate continues to warm, we all might be looking to add a fit bike to our toy box.

Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has been riding bikes for nearly 50 years and counts 28 consecutive Birkebeiner ski marathon finishes.