Fat bikes – don’t call it a fad

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Guest column by Adrian Montgomery

There was a common theme during this year’s Global Fat Bike Summit in Ogden, Utah: fat biking is not a fad. Many statements in Summit presentations were preceded with, “I used to think differently about fat bikes, until I tried one.” The Summit provided the opportunity to throw a leg over the industry’s finest products for the uninitiated to the disciple.

There was a diverse group of attendees at the Summit, an event largely overlooked by the big brands in the Bike Industry. Land managers, enthusiasts and niche product suppliers all huddled up to address access issues, talk best practices for grooming and how to deal with potential user conflicts. Sounds pretty organized for a fad. IMBA was on hand too, and when Mike Van Abel compared the fat bike movement to the early years of mountain biking it was clear that this movement has the wheels to roll-over growth obstacles.

And don’t call it a snow bike

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Although most of the seminars addressed issues surrounding winter use, it’s clear the movement does not want to be pigeon-holed as an on-snow recreation product. This is good news because we haven’t even begin to scratch the surface of fat bike year-round appeal. In fact as the segment matures I believe we’ll be seeing many more summertime uses begin to appear.

My very first exposure to a fat-tires bike was somewhere around 1997 and it wasn’t for snow use at all. While living on the coast of Oregon I found myself near one of the largest sand dune recreation areas in the country, and the terrain offered in that zone was not unlike what you’d see in a Freeride movie today; smooth dunes shaped like flowy jump lines alongside spines and drifts. We wanted to ride those lines.

Having seen this fascination with riding on sand or snow grow from those early days of Iditabike and inventive souls willing to meddle in their garages for the opportunity to pedal in new places, I can say this is a coming of age for the fat bike. The prototype pictured above preceded any production tire and rim and required lots of ingenuity. The hoops were drilled out alloy motorcycle rims to save precious weight. The rubber was just an inner tube held to the rim with fish net, which was stretched around 100s of screws drilled into the side of the rim. If you wanted to Fat Bike in those days, you had to work for it.

Just as the MTB pioneers did before them, the Fat Bikers worked on standardizing a rim diameter and developed tires accordingly, signaling it was safe to open tire molds. All the other technology falls in line after the wheels are sorted, the best head tube angle and respective fat bike geometry starts to emerge, suspension can be developed and innovators can adhere to some standards as they continue to dream up new ways to make all things Fatter.

Bridging the gap

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The hook and bullet crowd have always been fascinated by the idea of human powered transport to remote areas for hunting purposes. The brand who embodies this movement is Cogburn Outdoors. For years now many hunters have mounted gun racks onto mountain bikes, but with the fat bike more terrain is open for exploration no matter the weather. Being human powered means the hunter can be quiter as they stalk their prey, and greener. UTV’s are noisy, stinky and expensive to transport and use when compared to bicycles.

Access issues and cooperation amongst users

winteryieldIn a short period of time, access issues for fat bikes have been identified and best practices laid out. Demographic studies have shown that if there is access to groomed trails that are fat bike friendly, participants are willing to travel to those destinations and stay for the weekend or contribute to the local economy.

The Summit had a lot of green coats in attendance—the Forest Service is quite interested in the activity and want to quickly adopt these best practices on lands that have already addressed winter recreation. Simple signage and trail head education are all that is needed in some areas. The healthy approach the fat bike community is employing to coordinate BEFORE conflict arises will help the segment grow rapidly and provide many new opportunities in a short period of time.

The business of fat

Retailers are singing praises of the fat bike movement, especially those who operate year-round businesses in mountain locations. The viscous cycle of slow winter sales hanging over into the summer season business can be offset by adding fat bikes to winter merchandising. Early adopters have realized increased revenue from bike sales and rentals during the “off season” for biking. The sheer appearance of the fat bike intrigues some users who just want to know what the bike is all about and end up renting a small fleet for the family for a day on the groomed path. The appeal of fat bikes goes beyond the core cyclist and extends to people of all ages and backgrounds. The consumer profile has not been established, and potential far from realized.

Retailers who’ve adopted the business and done well with it have also forged ties to advocacy by partnering with public agency’s and branded themselves as a source of fat biking information by publishing trail reports through their own channels. With the average fat bike sale netting $3,000 including softgoods, the allure of adding fat to the retail offering is strong. To top it off, fat biking is a global phenomenon with direct traffic to popular sites coming from places like France, Germany, Norway and Sweden. In less than ten years the Fat Bike segment has become a global trend.

Expanding on the experience

As the segment grows many users are finding joy in more advanced experiences. Once a user has the hang of the machine they begin to crave the same singletrack experience they enjoy on a standard mountain bike. The emerging trend of singletrack grooming is surfacing in places that have long and deep winter seasons. Early singletracks were made by human power using snowshoes and a pull behind drag sled, but fat bikers are beginning to toy with mechanized methods that can lay a rideable experience in a matter of hours. Groomers, plows and rollers of all types are just some examples of ingenuity coming from this movement.

Watch this episode of the fat bike documentary “Cold Rolled” to see these groomers in action:

What’s next?

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I was surprised to see most of the summit conversations were related to winter use, I think the fat bike represents many year-round uses that aren’t even developed yet. It’s possible we’ll see many more summer uses emerge for the fat bike as time goes on. As technology continues to develop we’ll see suspension designs, brakes and tires that are all purpose driven. Brands like Borealis have established a leadership position in carbon technology, offering a product that is 30 percent lighter than their competitors is a game changer.

What do you think?

Haven you ridden a fat bike? Own one? What do you think the future holds for big tires?

About the author

Adrian Montgomery is founder of First Tracks PR & Marketing, offering professional consultation for cycling, winter and outdoor brands.

Follow @MontgomeryBikes on Instagram and Twitter

 

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