The Fat Bike Summit
Chad heads into dusk.
According to presenters from QBP, this weekend at the second annual Fat Bike Summit, there are around 10,000 fat bikes out in the world today. They expect it to double in the next twelve months. Where will they be used? What is the future of fatbiking?
The organizers of the summit, and presenting sponsors Salsa and Surly, are betting that it will become a significant alternative to nordic skiing, and a destination activity. Will Island Park and West Yellowstone, with their hundreds of miles of snowmachine trails, become the Moab of fatbiking? Only time will tell, but the answer is not going to evolve in a vacuum.
Joe discussing the technological and economic state-of-the-fatbike.
I was on the fence about hauling down to the summit until Casey made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a free ride and good companionship. I left town after work on Wednesday and did what has become all too rare lately, made a relaxed multi-hour drive away. These days Missoula, with all its traffic and culture, is foreign and brings about culture shock in a hurry. I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen in far too long for the best pizza in Montana, and had some outstanding local gin to cap everything off. Casey and I got organized and on the road mid-morning for a bluebird day of 85 mph highway driving and polymathic gear chatting. Continuing the theme, we stopped in Dillon, hit up the Patagonia outlet, the Safeway Starbucks for (really good) espresso, and were soon over the continental divide, into Idaho and a high ceiling of low-slung clouds. We made our way to Mac’s house in the Teton Valley (he invented the GDMBR), and spent the evening listening to the first human to ski the Grand play the banjo, after the fashion of small hardware poured slowly down polished wooden stairs.
The next day, Friday, was the first day of the summit, and it was snowing. The roads up north were icy, and the interface between hills and sky subtle and blank, before we crossed the Henry’s Fork and climbed up into the pine forests. Suddenly fat flakes were falling and the banks along the highway were piled 6 feet high. Areas which embrace winter as native, and count feet of snow as commonplace, are in the lower 48 increasingly rare outside steep mountains. Between the funnel of the Snake River plain bringing Pacific storms safely west and the gentle but massive, indeed postiviely bisonic, orographic uplift of the Yellowstone Plateau, snow is never in short supply. The comparison to Moab, insofar as uniquely precious landscapes are bound together by what they evoke in the human eye, is a correct one.
The whole weekend was very well organized, but the rapid-fire presentations Friday morning were the best. I’ll just say that in the world of mental health conference presentees don’t stick to their time slots very well, so this was a pleasant contrast.
Fatbike access, at least oversnow, is a curious creature. Once the snow piles up fatbike are truncated to well-packed surfaces, which under all but extraordinary conditions means snowmachine trails or trails groomed for skate skiing. Fat bikes are thus beholden to potentially hostile user groups, until more places gain a critical mass of bikers and start bike-specific grooming programs. There seems to be three primary concerns here, each given over to a certain user group. Land and ski area managers worry about safety, snowmachiners worry about cost sharing (their registration often pays for the grooming), and skiers worry about fatbikes rutting up their trails.
The summit organizers had compelling answers to all of these. A representative from Grand Targhee discussed how they’ve successfully integrated fatbikes on to their nordic trails, by having them ride opposite of skiers and restricting biking on days when conditions are too soft. IMBA and QBP representatives had several examples from Washington and Minnesota of areas where skiers and bikers have coexisted well with only modest changes to existing rules. The Teton valley crew have created a sticker program for fatbikes, in essence a voluntary donation buys you a sticker to put on your bike, and the money is donated specifically to the grooming program. Snowmachiners do not own trails on public land, but they’re a big enough force that being neighborly is especially worthwhile.
District rangers from all the national forest around the GYE were in attendance (above, near center), and one person from the Yellowstone NPS who sat in the back (above, under fake plant) and did not say anything. The Wyoming and Idaho rangers discussed that, by and large and thus far, the integration of fatbikes on to the most extensive network of snowmachine trails in the lower 48 had been very smooth. In Montana we have a problem; language in the winter travel plan, built before fatbikes existed, prohibits wheeled vehicle travel on designated snowmachine trails. So trails you could legally ride in the summer and currently illegal in the winter. This was not mendacious or even intentional, but highlights the importance of proactive advocacy. Mountain bikes are excluded from Wilderness not by the Wilderness Act itself, but by a district-level interpretation which was promulgated in the mid-80s an has by weight of seniority become entrenched. Fatbikes, not yet especially popular or understood, risk such unexamined exclusion.
Me examining the chainline on a ti Mukluk.
The best defense is a good offense, or at least a good PR campaign which raises awareness and makes visceral understanding more likely. To this end, Surly and Salsa were on hand with demo bikes, and many fatbikes got ridden by some unlikely locals and passers-by. The visual novelty of fatbikes is undeniable: when Greg, Aaron (from Surly and QBP) and I were having lunch on Saturday a good half-dozen folks stopped to take pictures of the three fatbikes stuck in the snowbank out front of the bar. The more I think about it, the more this might be the big draw for fatbikes; for someone starting from nothing with human-powered oversnow travel, fatbiking is a lot easier to learn than nordic skiing. Everyone knows how to ride a bike, and having brakes is nice the first time out.
I took the opportunity, after the race Saturday morning, to use the demo fleet and perform an investigation into frames, rims and tires. I was able to ride my Mukluk (BFLs on Marges) back to back to back with Pugsleys, Moonlanders, Mukluks both alu and ti, and a prototype Beargrease. I rode everything from 3.8 Knards on Marge lites (Greg’s bike), to BFLs on Clownshoes, and most everything in between. The only tires not on offer were Bud and Lou, and the studded 45Nrth.
Acknowledging that it’s pretty hard to compare thing if components (especially bar width and stem length) vary widely, I was struck by how (on the soft snowmachine trails) everything except rim width made little difference. The Muks, Pugs, and Moonlander all rode pretty much the same, and all the tread patterns gripped and slid at about the same point. Variations in float were quite subtle. What was not subtle at all is how much better the wider rims tracked and steered. In the squishy, warm, tracked out snow I was able to turn much sharper and with more control on the Moonlander (BFLs, Clownshoes) than my own bike. Case closed; if all I rode was snow I’d need some fat rims ASAP. The Beargrease, which Joe rode as a proto last year, was the only frame which felt different. It was built with an experimental press-fit BB and Middleburn crank, and a good spread of light and fancy components. After riding it, I’m convinced that the only thing I’d change about my current frame is to make the BB stiffer. Otherwise, my ’11 Muk held up well by comparison. I particularly like the longer headtube, which was shortened considerably on all the subsequent generations.
Muskrat at Big Springs.
The most enjoyable part of the weekend was not the learning, or the riding (soft conditions cancelled the long race on Saturday, and I was content to bail and watch the trout and muskrats with Greg and Aaron), but meeting quality like-minded people and turning many internet friends into real-life ones. Getting a rare Salsa ti spork from Jason was pretty cool too, as was the copious standing around, malarkey-ing, and beer drinking, each afternoon and evening.
The future of fatbiking is in good hands.
Halfway through the weekend I was unconvinced that, for all their joy and novelty, I’d make a habit of fatbiking on snow. The window of opportunity for ungroomed riding is in the west fairly small, and I’m not so keen on being around snowmachines for the same reason I don’t ride the road very often: they’re loud. In the end it was Jay who convinced me. The ultimate end of fatbike advocacy in the GYE is having Yellowstone opened to fatbikes, some of the complexities of which I discussed here. Jay and I discussed this, and how he got turned around while on a fatbike tour in the park many years ago (no doubt putting fatbikes on their radar for the first time). The compelling comment was that were the park open for fatbikes he could do a huge loop from his house, encircling the Tetons and through the heart of the most significant landscape in America. It could be skied, but while the snowmachines still exist a fatbike it the most efficient way to do this. And that is something worth fighting for.