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A Snowballing Sport: Fat Bikes Open Winter to MountainBiking

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fatbokes2The bikes look like a prop from Mad Max: The wheels are oversized, like something borrowed from a monster truck, and the frames angle more dramatically than a standard mountain bike, something more like the angle of a black diamond ski run that an aggressive downhill skier would bomb down. They are fat-bikes, and are designed for riding on snow.

“It is definitely a niche sport,” says Soctt Krupa, with a chuckle. But just as quickly, he says that Fed Ex just delivered a few new fat-bikes that morning and that over the Thanksgiving weekend, he saw a number of cyclists at Mt Ashland on fat-bikes. Krupa is the General Manager for Rogue Valley Cycle Sport, a four-decade old family-run business in Ashland and Medford.

With the over-sized wheels and high-suspension frames, fat-bikes are a specific mountain bike for riding snowy trails—like snow shoes are to hiking boots, fat-bikes take the trail riding excitement from mountain. Without the wide wheels, a regular mountain bike would simply dig into the loose snow.

The sport is only a decade ago, and just leaving its infancy. In 2004, bike manufacturer Surly launched the first mass-produced fat bike wheel rim, Large Marge (as in, Pee Wee Herman, tell them large Marge sent you”). Not long after, the company began producing customized frames and, by 2010, three bike companies were selling complete, ready-to-ride fat bikes to shops.

Most popular in Alaska and the upper midwest states where winter sports dominate one-quarter to one-third of the calendar year, fat-bikes have allowed mountain bikers to continue their sport year-round. Michigan and Minnesota have the Great Lakes Fat Bike Series, and Wisconsin hosts a good-spirited Fat Bike Championship.

“It is trickling down to other states,” explains Krupa. Three winters ago, it was estimated there were 5,000 fat bikes in circulation nationwide; it is believed that number had doubled by last winter. In southern Oregon, five years ago, says Krupa, Cycle Sport did not even carry fat-bikes. Now, he reports they sell 10 to 20 each year—by no means shattering any sales records, but it is a start, and it is, well, snowballing.

In Oregon, the sport is most popular in Bend, which has designated several popular trials to fat-biking after a couple winters of conflicts between cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and fat bike riders—all looking for the same rolling, lightly groomed trails.

In southern Oregon, Krupa says the sport is slowly building a fan-base. “Usually they have several other bikes,” he says, referring to those who purchase the fat-bikes from them, and an indication that the sport may not yet be attracting novice riders, but is widening the spectrum of activities for cyclists. He also says that Cycle Sports also sell a respectable number of fat-bikes to riders on the coast, where the loose sand poses the same challenges—and fun—as snow riding.

“I don’t think it’s a fad, it is here to stay as far as I can tell,” adds Alex Hayes, also with Cycle Sport. He goes on to recommend riding at High Lakes Mountain trail between Fish Lake and Lake of the Woods.

Cycle Sport carries a couple styles of fat-bikes, including the popular Farley from Wisconsin-based Trek.

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