Monster truck of bicycles: ‘Fat bikes’ gain popularity among bicycle enthusiasts looking for exercise
GRAND FORKS — The temperature had fallen into the midteens above zero, but the brisk north wind made it feel more like zero Wednesday afternoon as the sun dipped behind the dikes along the Grand Forks Greenway.
The cold wouldn’t keep Kevin Jeffrey and David Sears inside, though. In their world, it was a perfect afternoon to hit the snow for … a bike ride.
Yes … you read that correctly.
Jeffrey and Sears are among a small but growing brigade of Grand Forks-area outdoors enthusiasts to catch the “fat bike” bug. So-called for their extremely wide tires, fat bikes enable riders to go where no bicycle has gone before.
Think of a mountain bike on steroids, and you’ve got the idea.
Ridden at low tire pressure — anywhere from 5 pounds to 15 pounds of air depending on the conditions — fat bikes provide flotation, traction and stability in sand, rough terrain and snow that mountain bikes can’t match, riders say.
“I ride mine year-around,” said Sears, 45, a paraprofessional at South Middle School in Grand Forks who bought his first fat bike in 2009. “It’s just so much fun. It’s like everyone that hops on them … it’s like being a kid all over again.”
The tires are 4 to 5 inches wide, depending on the bike, and fat bike prices range from $1,500 to $3,000. Popular brands include Surly — a Bloomington, Minn.-based company that was at the forefront of the fat bike craze — Mukluk and Trek.
“I call it the monster truck of the bicycle world,” Sears said.
Fun and fitness
An avid summertime bicycle rider, Jeffrey bought his first fat bike, a Mukluk Salsa, last winter and uses it to get outside for fresh air and exercise during the cold months. A knee issue made cross-country skiing difficult, Jeffrey said, and he didn’t feel safe riding icy streets and trails with his mountain bike.
“I needed a bike that I could trust on the road, even just doing the greenway trails,” said Jeffrey, 55, a multimedia specialist for Minnkota Power Cooperative. “That’s basically what I bought it for. I’m not so much concerned about going off road — just getting out, getting some air.”
Because of how they’re geared, fat bikes require more pedaling to turn the tires, but there’s less resistance than traditional bicycles.
“It’s a different kind of ride,” Jeffrey said. “It’s really slow. If you want to bust through a lot of snow, this is the bike to do it with. For me, I’m just doing it to get on the greenway.
“Even when the greenway’s snowy, you feel fairly safe.”
Sears, who owns two fat bikes, recently bought a Surly Moonlander with 5-inch tires but kept his first bike, a Surly Pugsley with 4-inch tires. He describes the ride as faster than a hike but slower than a traditional bicycle.
While Jeffrey stays on the trails, Sears takes a more hardcore approach to his riding.
“Wherever there’s a path, I try to avoid it and pick my way through the bushes and bramble and it’s a lot of fun,” Sears said. “Everywhere we go on those bikes, there’s no way you’d ever ride a regular mountain bike back there.”
The slower ride, he said, allows him to take in scenery along the Red River that he’d miss at a faster pace. Getting off the beaten path, Sears said, makes it feel like he’s not in Grand Forks anymore, even though he’s still in city limits.
“It’s just much more enjoyable,” Sears said. “On my regular bike I feel like I have to get somewhere fast.”
The popularity of fat bikes can make them difficult to find for potential buyers. Pat White of the Ski and Bike Shop in Grand Forks said major manufacturers have started producing the bicycles, but demand for some models still outpaces supply.
The bikes initially were associated with riding in snow, White said, but that perception has changed.
“They’ve kind of exploded” in popularity, he said. “I think just the name itself rather than calling it a snow bike, keeping it as a fat bike has opened it up to a lot more markets. We’re seeing some growth in beach areas, sandy areas.”
That growth has made the bikes easier to find. As recently as two years ago, White said, the Ski and Bike Shop assembled most of its fat bikes piece-by-piece, and finding parts wasn’t always easy.
“It’s not as difficult anymore to go ahead and get a fat bike,” White said.
Some of the people riding fat bikes in Grand Forks use the bikes for competitions such as the Arrowhead Ultra, a grueling 135-mile winter marathon taking participants on foot, skis or bicycles from Tower, Minn., to International Falls, Minn.
More recently, though, people are buying fat bikes for the same reasons as Jeffrey — to get outside and stay in shape, White said.
“The last bikes that I’ve sold, I think only one of them is going to see any racing this year,” White said. “If you want to get back on a bike and haven’t been on one for awhile, this would be fun to get and make everything else pale in comparison.”
Not about speed
It’s not about speed, Jeffrey said. He’ll ride for an hour or two after work and cover no more than five to 10 miles, depending on how many tea breaks he takes.
Hot tea, he says, is the reward for cold days on the trail.
“For me, it’s just getting the air, getting some exercise in,” Jeffrey said. “The nights I ride, I sleep so good. You’re putzing along, you’re going slow and that’s what I’m looking for — something to get out and get the air.”
Sears said he estimates about three dozen people in the Grand Forks area now own fat bikes, a number that seems to be growing based on what he’s seen at the Ski and Bike Shop and the local Northern Star Cycling Club.
“It’s a pretty easy learning curve,” Sears said. “As long as you’re familiar with riding a bike, it’s just a matter of how adventurous you want to be at that point.”
White, of the Ski and Bike Shop, said he’s curious to see how the fat bike trend unfolds locally.
“I’m waiting to see when it makes it in Grand Forks as a year-round product,” he said. “We’re used to it being, ‘This is a snow bike for winter time,’ and it’s more than that.”