Words by Brian Ohlen a.k.a. Spoke 'n' Fly ( @spoke_n_fly )
Not so long ago, I was pretty skeptical about fat bikes. Why would you waste your time riding a fat, slow bike when you could be snowboarding or skiing. Isn’t fat biking just some industry invented craze to sell more bikes, tires, and accessories?
Then I moved to the birthplace of fat biking, Alaska. Yes, Alaska is the origin of the fat bike, sorry Minnesota. A quick visit to Speedway Cycles to see their display of first generation fat bikes will educate you. The first fat bikes were modified mountain bikes with wide forks, and custom-milled hubs laced to two side-by-side rims. I’m no expert on the topic, but after spending a year here, it’s clear to see why fat bikes were conceived here in the last frontier.
Winter is long in Alaska. I concede, I was a little worried about it. I grew up in South Dakota and lived in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. These places are pretty familiar with cold temps and strong winds: ie. real winters. After a year in Alaska now, I’m happy to say my upbringing was good training. The mountains see the first snow snow in August. They call it termination dust as it signals the end of the short summer. By October, Anchorage has had its first blanket of the white stuff.
After a year in the 49th state, I can see why winter is the preferred season. Summer is great, but winter has some serious advantages when it comes to adventuring by bike. First, the bears are hibernating, and one can venture wide and far without worrying about that furry threat. Devil’s club, cow parsnip and other nasty plants are wilted and won’t cause problems. Ice also provides options. Lakes and rivers are frozen, creating smooth thoroughfares to glaciers and places not easily accessed in the summer. The mud is frozen and the trails are smoothed out. Perfect conditions to get out and ride.
Anchorage is criss-crossed with a plethora of designated bike paths, groomed trails, and ridden-in single track that changes year to year. The paths are great for getting from place to place, but the single track is where it’s at. There’s no grooming schedule on these tracks, just hundreds of people out on their bikes, which naturally packs the trails in. When the snow starts falling, people start riding. In fact, I’ve seen more people out on bikes this winter than I did all summer. Folks riding bikes that you wouldn’t expect to see on singletrack in the summer. I don’t normally run into 60+ year old folks out on summer trails, but it’s a regular occurrence through the winter. Too often mountain biking is a fairly homogeneous group. It’s good to see some new faces on the trail.
Winter is when Alaska’s bike culture really shines. Festivals, races, bonfires, pump tracks abound. The stoke is high and people are friendly. Most wouldn’t consider a winter trip to AK, but given the fat bike scene, it should be on your list. Simply put, winter is the riding season. Last November I wasn’t even sure I needed a fat bike. Now, I couldn’t be without one.