Mouths dropped open, eyes bulged and heads tracked a full 180 degrees to follow my path. Toddlers and grandparents alike stared. I was cruising through downtown Bozeman on a cold winter day, pedaling away on a white Salsa Mukluk, an otherwise normal-looking bike that rolls along on what look like two bee-stung doughnuts. I was straddling the illegitimate love child of a mountain bike and a monster truck—and unlike any other wintery two-wheel ride, the Mukluk handled black ice, snow banks and sanded streets.
While leaning into a sharp, slick corner, my hip and elbow gave out a phantom ache—muscle memory from dumping too many normal bikes in winter conditions—but I floated through unscathed and grinning like a labradoodle. From the throng of onlookers, “Sweet bike, man!” came in a close second to “What’s the deal with those tires?”
- Casey Greene
Around Montana, people know fat bikes exist, but seeing one in action still demands a second look. Over the last decade, fat bikes have steadily become a legitimate form of travel for outdoorsy types. With tires that are more than double the average mountain bike width, fat bikes will never reach the speeds of high-end mountain bikes, but they can handle almost any terrain. Snow, sand, mud, loose dirt—they’ll take just about anything.
As the multi-season potential of fat bikes is being realized, more and more people are throwing a leg over them for commuting, recreation and even racing. Demand for these alternative rides continues to grow, and ski resorts, race organizers, bike companies and riders across the country are gearing up for the biggest season yet.
There are reports that fat bikes were first designed for sand in the southwest, but winter use originated in Alaska. Riders competing in the Iditasport, a 160-mile winter bike race first held in the late ’80s, created the bike’s monster-sized rims out of necessity. They needed a tire that would float across packed powder without breaking through. All Weather Sports, a small company in Fairbanks, Alaska, stepped up to create rims fit for the task.
The company started by welding two standard bike rims together and carving out the middle ridges to make one extra-wide rim. Soon after, they decided to design a 44-millimeter rim from scratch, called the SnowCat. Riders with these rims dominated subsequent winter bike races, and word about the new “fat bikes” began to spread around the country.
The very first fat bike to roll from the fringe toward the mainstream came from a small Midwestern bike company in 2005. After two years of research and tinkering with rims, frames and tires, Surly Bikes introduced the Pugsley. This ride shared plenty with its Addams Family namesake: fat in an overstuffed sofa kind of way, simple and, well, awkward-looking. But despite its homely appearance, the Pugsley helped make fat-biking an option for the general public, lending visibility to a ride otherwise relegated to the far north.
“We were never really sure a bike with 4-inch tires would take off because so many people thought it would be a niche market,” says Tyler Stilwill, Surly’s marketing manager. “Every year, we’ve tried to be conservative on production, but every year we’ve completely sold out. All people have to do to want one, is to ride one. They get hooked pretty quickly.”
- Casey Greene
Surly’s fat bike production started small but has grown in recent years—as has competition from other bike manufacturers. “From 2005 to 2012, there were around 5,000 fat bikes produced by Surly and Salsa in total,” says Gary Sjoquist, advocacy director for Quality Bicycle Products, which owns both companies. “And in 2013 alone, that number doubled to 10,000. The demand is staggering.”
With sales on the rise, companies continue to put their own spin on the fat bike. Salsa recently debuted a lightweight carbon fiber version. Surly introduced a fat 29er called the Krampus, and Mongoose stepped into the ring, manufacturing a fat bike sold through Walmart and other mass retailers. “With Trek, Specialized and Kona debuting their own fat bikes, 2014 is going to be huge,” Sjoquist says.