Fat tires keep ‘freak bikes’ rollin’ over all sorts of terrain

  • Sat Nov 5th, 2011 6:04pm
  • Sports

By Scott Sandsberry The Yakima Herald Republic

Fat bikes, the newest thing in off-road bicycling, are big in Alaska and Minnesota, where there is plenty of snow cover for seven months out of any year.

They’re starting to get big in parts of California and southern Oregon, where there are sand dunes.

Wherever you see them, though, in fact, fat bikes are big. Quite literally.

Certainly, their tires are, on rims two or even three times wider than those of a conventional mountain bike — 65 to 100 millimeters wide, as opposed to 24 to 30.

“Everyone who comes into the store comments on it: You know, ‘What’s the deal with these fat tires? I’ve never seen anything so big,’” says Jeff Clark of Revolution Cycles, which earlier this autumn became the first Yakima bicycle dealer to sell fat-tire bicycles. “They’re viewed very much as freak bikes.”

So people generally chuckle at those gargantuan tires, right up until they take a fat bike out for a spin. Then they chuckle for an entirely different reason.

“The greatest thing about (fat bikes) is the giggle factor,” Clark says. “You can’t help but chuckle the whole ride. You look down and you’ve got an ATV tire under you — that in itself is pretty humorous to me.”

But, says fat-bike pioneer Ward Whitmire of Yakima, most cyclists can’t get far enough past that funny-bone aspect to appreciate the fat bikes’ capability on surfaces — especially snow and soft-packed sand — that bedevil conventional mountain bikes.

“Washington has been so slow to embrace fat-biking,” Whitmire says, “and in the wintertime mountain bikers hang up their bikes and are done for the year.

“Fat-biking is the lunatic fringe. Those crazy guys.”

* * *

Whitmire’s tone carries an unmistakable hint of pride, though, for he is a pioneer among those outsiders. It’s the second time he has been part of such a vanguard, having bought his first mountain bike nearly three decades ago when those burly beasts were still regarded by many road cyclists as novelty items.

“People would write in to the (bicycling) magazine and say, ‘Those things aren’t even bicycles, quit writing articles about those stupid mountain bikes.’ They shunned it,” says Whitmire, 50. “Bicyclists would come by us and go, ‘Ptchuh, get rid of that piece of junk and get a real bike.’

“It was hikers and climbers who saw the beauty of crossing the planet under their own power, making quicker approaches to climbs, that kind of thing.”

It isn’t even mountain bikers who are being drawn to the fat bikes now, Whitmire says, “because we’ve all been brainwashed from the beginning that you want lighter and lighter equipment.” The early converts, he says, have come from within the motorized off-road community, people who understand the “high-flotation” advantage — the larger air cushion — created by wider tires.

The fatter-tire concept really took off in Alaska and Minnesota, Whitmire says, “because they’ve got great cross-country ski areas and snowmobile tracks going from lake to lake in Minnesota. And these guys wanted to keep riding (in winter) — they didn’t want to just ride three or four months out of the year.”

* * *

Without a nationwide demand, though, mountain-bike manufacturers weren’t racing one another to mass-produce fat bikes. The first fat-tired bikes, Whitmire says, were jury-rigged concoctions, people sewing together two mountain-biking tires or using tires originally made for motorcycles, or using downhill racing tires on wide rims created by welding Sno-Cat rims together.

Nearly five years ago, wanting to have an aluminum-frame bicycle specifically built for oversized tires with 100mm rims, Whitmire turned to a Yakima industrial designer named Oscar Camarena, who as owner of Simple Bicycle Company builds custom frames. Today there are a handful of companies building fat bikes, following many of Camarena’s concepts.

“The whole cycling community is like that. It takes time to adapt to new things, because just like anything else, you can’t reinvent the wheel. What we did was just tweak it a little bit,” the low-key Camarena said.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a pioneer. I saw something I wanted to try, I had a customer who was really patient and who was willing to gamble on me, and I think we made a really, really nice product.”

Whitmire is more outspoken on Camarena’s contribution to the bicycling world.

“(Camarena) changed fat-biking in a way. It was the first aluminum fat bike ever,” Whitmire said. “Oscar’s bike is so far ahead of its time in the fat bike world, it’s just now getting some recognition.”

* * *

Whitmire doesn’t ride fat bikes to be an iconoclast or to generate a reaction, but he’s like a kid who has found something really cool and wants everybody to enjoy it as much as he does.

To that end, he has posted dozens of videos on YouTube of his fat-bike trips, mostly on snow-covered trails, across southwestern Oregon’s sand dunes. But because mountain bikers typically avoid those very sorts of terrain, Whitmire is adamant about the need for fat-bike enthusiasts to go out of their way to make their presence known to the typical users — snowmobilers on those wintry trails and dune-buggy drivers on the sands.

“The other user groups out there — I’m mainly talking about snowmobiles and ORVs in the dunes — are not used to (coming) over a dune or around a corner and engaging cyclists,” Whitmire said.

“When I’m riding in dunes, I always mount a ‘dune flag’ on the rear of the bike. ORVs operating in designated dune riding areas are required to run them — a bright orange or red flag at least eight feet above the ground. I highly suggest that fat bikers riding in snow where they might encounter snowmobile traffic using them, too.”

While on winter trails where he’s likely to find snowmobilers, he uses a flashing red cyclist’s tail-light and a headlight. When he hears snowmobiles, he turns his lights on so he’ll be easy to spot and, he says, “politely” moves off the trail outside of their way.

Clark, who as a bike-shop owner typically owns and rides a veritable fleet of bikes, calls the fat bike “the funnest bike I’ve ever had.” It’s not as maneuverable as traditional mountain bikes and will never win any races, but its versatility and smooth ride are tough to beat.

“On a normal road bike you’ve got to stay on the pavement, pick your path to avoid gravel and road debris, and cars for that matter,” Clark says. “On a mountain bike you pretty much have to stay on the trail, and on the trail you still have to pick your line to avoid the big rocks and the ruts.

“But on a fat bike you can literally go anywhere.”