Nov 26, 2006

ADN FatBike Article Nov06

For these broad-tired bikes, 'fat' isn't a dirty word

Alaskan's creations conquer snow, but face cost challenges from Outside

By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News

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In the snow on the wintery trails around Anchorage these days can be found the imprint of Mark Gronewald's success.

It is writ in the shallow chevrons of the print of a bike tire nearly 4 inches wide.

Years after Gronewald first advocated the fat-tire bike as a viable alternative for winter transportation and recreation, his vision is rolling up hills and dipping into valleys across Southcentral.

The FatBike, as Gronewald calls it, has arrived.

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Visit almost any bike shop in Anchorage today, and you will find a fat-tire bike on display. Most shops display them prominently.

Unfortunately, it is hard to know whether to congratulate Gronewald or console him.

That's because the owner of Wildfire Designs Bicycles in Palmer -- builder of the FatBike that first attracted attention by tying for victory in the 2001 Iditasport Impossible human-powered race from Knik to Nome -- no longer drives the fat-tire phenomenon.

Gronewald is still in the FatBike business. He's subcontracted frame construction to DeSalvo Cycles in Ashland, Ore., but he's still building bikes, selling wheels and rims for fat-tire conversions and promoting winter mountain biking.

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But leadership in the fat-tire market has clearly passed to a Minnesota-based company.

Surly Bikes
hit the trails last year with a reasonably priced (at least by upscale mountain-bike standards) fat-tire that's built in Taiwan. The Surly Pugsley, as the bike is called, is the fat bike you'll see in most Anchorage shops.

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"When you design bikes up in Minnesota you have to think fat, especially if you want a ride that can handle the Midwest's snowstorms and mud," the magazine Hooked on the Outdoors said at the rollout of the Pugs last year. "The Pugsley (is) a mischievous bike that rolls on super-pudgy 4-inch-wide, 26-inch rims. ...The Pugsley eats up snow and slush, but it's also the ideal ride for beach bums looking to cruise the sand or explorers looking to off-road the outback. Nature's worst will never stand in the way of your commute again."

Nice bit of revisionist history that conveniently overlooks Gronewald and bike builder John Evingson, once of Anchorage.

Both of those men have been playing with fat-tire bike designs for years. But Gronewald says the origins of the FatBike go back even further.

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He traces the lineage to Texan Ray "El Remolino" Molino, who experimented with wide-tire bikes for riding on sand in the 1980s. Remolino modified bikes to accept super, extra-wide rims that could support monster tires. He eventually pushed rims to such widths -- three times wider than regular rims -- that special bike frames were needed to accommodate them.

"He was before me," Gronewald said, "and he had a couple prototypes before that. They weren't quite as refined."

Gronewald took the Remolino concept and started tinkering with refinements six or seven years ago. Eventually he had a reliable, solidly functioning FatBike. By the middle of this decade his FatBikes were cleaning up in the ultimate test of fat-tire bikes -- extreme races across the snowy winter trails of Alaska.

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Riders on FatBikes won the 350-mile Alaska Ultrasport race along the Iditarod Trail from Knik to McGrath in 2004, the 1,100-mile race along the Iditarod to Nome in 2005 and the 350-miler again this year.

Guessing FatBikes might hold potential to turn at least some summer mountain-bike adventurers into winter riders, Surly picked up the idea and ran with it. The company, a division of even bigger Quality Bike Products Inc., not only makes bikes, it also makes a 65-millimeter (approximately 2 1/2-inch) rim it calls the Large Marge to fit those bikes.

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AN INVESTMENT

For Gronewald, this has been a mixed blessing. Pugsley bikes compete for customers, but until the Large Marge rims showed up, rims for FatBikes were hard to find.

"So that's a good thing," Gronewald said, though he still longs for Remolino's 80-millimeter (more than 3-inch) rims. These rims, which have big holes drilled in them to reduce weight, have a cult following in the small but growing world of fat-tire cyclists.

"I was just offered $500 apiece if I could get a hold of some older Remolinos," Gronewald said last week.

Winter 'fatbiking' on the Kuskokwim

Readily available Large Marge rims go for about a fifth of that. Not all mountain bike frames will accommodate a rim this wide.

So an investment in fat-tire rims is usually going to force an investment in a fat-tire bike.

The Pugsley frame can be had for $500 to $600. A Wildfire frame from DeSalvo will cost you about half again as much, a lighter titanium version even more. Gronewald contends the DeSalvo frame is a higher quality product than the Surly.

A fully built up, ready-to-ride Pugsley -- frame, rims, wheels, tires, cranks, brakes, etc. -- can be had for less than $2,000. Gronewald said the cheapest FatBike he can build will run $2,100.

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A big part of the cost for either bike in true FatBike form is the wheels. Large Marge rims cost $100 to $150 each.

CUTTING THE COSTS

Built-up wheels -- rim, hubs and spokes -- cost $250 or more, depending on the quality of the hubs and spokes involved. And then there are the Surly Endomorph tires at about $100 each.

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Start adding such niceties as Magura Marta SL hydraulic disc brakes ($630) to avoid cables freezing in their housing or ice interfering with rim brakes, state-of-the-art Shimano XTR cranks ($629), lightweight Sram X.O shifters and derailleurs ($500) -- not to mention pricey little goodies like carbon-fiber handlebars and seatposts -- and it would be easy to push the price of even a Pugsley toward $5,000.

For the dedicated tinkerer, there are cheaper ways.

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Find an old mountain bike frame with at least 3 inches of rear-tire clearance; a Large Marge rim can be built up to a low-cost hub. And Nokian makes a cheaper 3-inch-wide tire, the Gazzaloddi, designed for downhill mountain biking but usable for winter riding.

It doesn't offer quite the float of the Endomorph, but it's better than a standard mountain bike tire.

Some riders have also had success in mounting Endomorph tires to 40- or 50-millimeter rims designed for downhill mountain bikes, even though Surly discourages that.

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The greater the difference in width between rims and the tires that are put on them, the greater the likelihood of pinch flats, particularly when riding at the low pressures necessary to make fat tires perform well in snow.

Still, long-time mountain biker Carlos Lozano of Anchorage said he's been running Endomorph tires on 44-millimeter SnowCat rims without trouble.

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"It works just fine," he said. "The thing I'm learning about having the SnowCat/Endomorph up front is that the profile of the tire is taller."

As a result, when tire pressures are low, the big sidewalls can flex a lot, "and that induces tire wag," Lozano said.

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While cyclists on Large Marge rims can use extremely low tire pressures, maximizing float on soft trail, Lozano said he has to keep pressures above 10 pounds per square inch to keep the bike from feeling too loose.

PLUGGING ALONG

SnowCat rims are available from All Weather Sports in Fairbanks (www.allweathersports.com) for $120 a set.

Even with tire width reduced somewhat, Lozano said his bike still astounds him with both its soft-snow float and its comfortable ride.

Despite the price tag and the big marketing push being made by a cheaper competitor, Gronewald's FatBike business is still plugging along.

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"I'm still getting quite a few bike orders," he said. "It keeps me busy all winter."

Couple winter bike building with a summer job working for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Division of Parks, and Gronewald has a year-round income.

But will it last?

The Surly Pugsley could be part of a rising tide of interest in winter biking that lifts FatBike builder Gronewald to new heights, or Pugsley could be the leading edge of a wave of low-budget competitors that sweep over him.

"I don't think it's hurt me at all so far," said Gronewald, who believes knowledgeable cyclists recognize that he has a better product. "Mine are lighter and faster, and they've got a better track record for races."

All of those things are commodities marketable to a small core of serious cyclists.

Among this group, the old standard used to be that a lighter part was worth the increased cost up to about $1 per gram. Now an increasing number of cyclists appear willing to sometimes pay $3 or $4 per gram for weight savings.

EASY TRAIL RIDERS

But for the bulk of the cycling market, the budget-price Pugsley will probably prove attractive.

"I do wish more people were on mine versus theirs," Gronewald said, adding that he also values the growing market.

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"It is turning into kind of a sport for more people," he said.

Because fat tires offer more float, the bikes are easier to ride on Susitna Valley snowmachine trails than regular bikes.

Front tires don't punch through nearly as often, and riders don't do nearly as much snaking down the trail, a problem linked to tires sinking deep in snow and being pulled to one side or the other.

The low-pressure, 4-inch-wide Surly Endomoprh tires sink in so little that local nordic skier Tim Kelley said he'd be happy to see more of the bikes on local multi-use trails. Where other mountain bikes tend to tear up the trails, Kelley said, fat bikes pack them in. His experience so far this year, he added, is that getting on a trail behind a pack of Pugsley riders is actually better than getting in behind fellow skate skiers.

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Gronewald agrees.

VIEW FROM THE FRINGE

"They don't tear up the trails like skinnier tires do," he said. "It doesn't take many passes before there's a really nice trail."

Fat-tire bikes also take the abuse of frozen rocks well.

All of these things make the bikes attractive to athletes who cross-train in a variety of endurance sports. Whether any of these factors will combine to create a true fat-tire fad remains to be seen.

"I don't know if you're going to see a boom," Gronewald said. "It's still sort of on the fringe, but I do think you will see more people getting into it."

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Already there are enough that Gronewald doesn't find his FatBike getting laughed at when he's out.

"When I first started riding them," he said, "people were kind of making fun of me."

Now there's a new, equally irritating issue.

"The one that gets me," he said, "was I was out riding my Fat Bike, which I've been building for seven years now, and some guy tells me, 'Hey, man, you just copied the Pugsley.' "

What's a little guy from Alaska to do?

"I don't have much of a marketing budget," Gronewald said. "Marketing these things in Alaska, there's only so much you can do."

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Still, he isn't ready to abandon his FatBike dreams. He knows he's got a good product and visions of how to make it better.

"I've actually been toying with the idea of carbon fiber (rims)," he said.

A wide, molded carbon-fiber rim could significantly drop wheel weight on a FatBike. Lighter wheels mean lighter bikes, and lighter bikes always roll faster and easier.

Why, a sub-25-pound FatBike pedaled by a skinny rider could float down most Alaska trails, opening more Alaska wilderness to winter biking.

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It doesn't hurt to dream.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com.

5 comments:

Pepperoni said...

Hello there!

I'm a bike manufacturer in my spare time, and I also love these incredible fatbikes! So was wondering if you have, or if you know someone who has a couple of old endomorph tires that can spare. I would like to build a bike based on those tires, so if some one could send me 2 old tires, I would be glad to pay the mail charges.

thanks, and keep on rolling! :)

Anonymous said...

i would love a fatbike and put a 80cc motor on it would make a perfect offroad moped but i realy dont have 2-3 grand to pay where can i get a good frame i found some snowcat rims with timberwolf 2.7 tires just need a good frame i can afford any sugjestions my email is f.mack@insightbb.com

suriya said...

This is great...got to see such good work aftr long time...
i hope u love works.


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