Surly designer Dave Gray.
Surly designer Dave Gray. (Tim Tomkinson)

How Fat Bikes Became the Hottest Trend in Cycling

Blimp-tired bicycles were developed for one of the most grueling endurance races in the world. But then everyone else realized how much fun they were.

Surly designer Dave Gray.

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The boys on the clown bikes flash ahead, with oversize tires making easy work of the serpentine trail beside the Minnesota River. I’m chasing my trio of guides on a borrowed Salsa Beargrease carbon fat bike, its tires more than twice as wide as those on my regular mountain bike. The bulky rubber eases through muddy hairpins and floats across lengthy sand traps. I track smoothly through rock gardens and over intestinal tangles of roots. I haven’t had this much fun on new gear since I first strapped on fat skis and pointed them into fresh powder. Aren’t these rigs supposed to be piggish and slow? Weren’t they built only for snow?

While the origin of fat bikes is widely debated, with deep ties to Alaska and the desert Southwest, it’s here, in the Minneapolis suburbs—home to bike makers Salsa, Surly, and their parent company, Quality Bicycle Products (QBP)—where this particular design has grown from an obscure novelty to mountain biking’s newest big thing.

The fattie phenomenon might well have stayed confined to the winter-sports wonk-o-sphere were it not for the efforts, about a decade ago, of Dave Gray, a designer at Surly and a self-described garage tinkerer. In 2005, Gray produced the Pugsley, a squat machine painted purple and kitted with bulbous four-inch tires—the first mass-produced fat bike.

“When I saw the Pugs, it blew my mind,” says Nick Johnson, a product-launch coordinator at QBP and one of my riding companions on the river-bottom trail. “It was like a human-powered monster truck. I had that feeling you get when you’re a little kid: This bike is freedom.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the need around these parts was for a bike that could roll over the Midwestern snowpack, which can linger for five months or more. At the time, Johnson had been working as a bike messenger in downtown Minneapolis, skidding and squirreling around icy roads on an ill-suited, skinny-tired cyclocross bike. The Pugsley was an epiphany. The fat tires floated on the hardpan and plowed through new pow. The bike worked with winter, not against it.

Fat bikes evolved slowly, and then quickly. After the Pugsley was released, pockets of enthusiasts sprang up around the country, particularly where snow was prevalent. Cyclists who had been quarantined indoors could now ride outdoors year-round. For a few years, people referred to fat bikes as snow bikes, because oversize tires really excel in winter conditions. In some areas, like Grand Targhee, Wyoming, or Marquette, Michigan, riders and organizations began maintaining snow trails specifically for fat bikes—packing them down with cross-country grooming machines, snowmobiles, or snowshoes. Races and club rides materialized. Big players like Specialized and Trek saw the growing market and brought out their own models.

Soon the use of fat bikes began to expand beyond wintertime. When I arrived in Minneapolis in mid-April, there wasn’t a smear of snow within 100 miles. But that didn’t seem to matter: nearly everyone I saw on the river trail—on a sunny, 70-degree day—was aboard a fat bike.

“The equipment has gotten so much better,” says Joe Meiser, product manager at Salsa and another member of our group. “We went from piecing a bike together to buying a complete bike to solving drivetrain issues. We made lighter tires, rims, and frames and improved the geometry. Basically, we used all the technology that any mountain bike has.”

That may sound simple, but it hasn’t been. In the beginning, all mountain bikes were fat bikes—or, as the retrofitted Schwinn cruisers of Marin County were called, klunkers or ballooners. (See Joe Breeze) The modern fattie splintered off from those early models in the 1980s as mountain biking opened up new and more varied terrain and ignited riders’ imaginations. In 1986, Alaskan Joe Redington, the guy who had dreamed up the Iditarod sled-dog race, suggested a cycling version of the event. Dubbed the Iditabike (now the Iditarod Trail Invitational), the race required bikers to navigate 210 miles out and back along the first section of the sledding course on the day after the mushers passed through. The first winner, Minnesotan Dave Zink, took nearly 34 hours, pushing, pulling, and dragging his relatively narrow-tired mountain bike for half the distance.

When word spread about the epic nature of northern bike racing—a popular slogan at the time was “Cowards won’t show and the weak will die”—it began to attract an elite field of participants, including, over the years, Mountain Bike Hall of Famer John Stamstad and Mike Curiak, a 24-hour bike-racing champion. It also prompted some wild innovation. Early hacks for snow riding were garish and strange, including the “six pack,” a mountain bike with multiple wheels placed side by side, three in front and three in back; and custom frames mounted with ATV wheels, like the freaky Hanebrink X1. By the end of the nineties the solution had settled, not surprisingly, on a traditional frame with a simple set of wider rims and high-volume tires. Problem was, only one guy made such wheels. And he lived in New Mexico.

Ray “El Remolino” Molina was an inventor and guide who led dune tours around the American Southwest and Mexico. His Remolino rims and 3.5-inch Chevron tires were initially developed to ride on sand, but they also became coveted components for snow cycling. If there was any doubt about the effectiveness of these products, it was settled in 2000, the debut year for the Iditasport Impossible—a thousand-mile version of the original Iditabike. Mike Curiak won the race in 15 days, riding Molina’s wheels fitted to a custom Willits frame.

As interest in mass-producing fatties began to percolate, other wheel and frame builders cropped up, chief among them Mark Gronewald of Wildfire Designs Bicycles in Palmer, Alaska. Gronewald helped refine fat-bike design with offset wheels and improved symmetrical frames. But the bikes were still cumbersome, finicky, and difficult to spec—either because stock parts didn’t work quite right or because they couldn’t be found. Only the most committed enthusiasts were willing to invest the time and money (a complete bike from Wildfire ran $5,000) to ride one.

Then, in late 2001, one of those riders, John Evingson, showed up at Surly in Minneapolis. Evingson had grown up in Minnesota but now lived in Alaska, where he worked with Gronewald at Wildfire. John’s brother, Matt, had worked at QBP and put him in touch with Dave Gray. John had expert welding skills—he’d done a stint on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—and applied them to building fat-bike frames. Evingson arrived with a few fat bikes he’d put together himself, and he told Gray to give them a test drive.

Surly had launched in 1998, and the company quickly acquired a reputation for edgy product development. It worked exclusively in steel, and its bikes had names like the Troll, the Ogre, and the Karate Monkey. For a few years, Surly made an off-road unicycle called the Conundrum.

“Basically, they’re punk rock,” laughs Mike Reimer, PR director at Salsa. “They build the bikes they want to ride.”

If anyone could bring fatties to the masses, it was Surly. And when Dave Gray rode Evingson’s fat bike, he wanted to do just that.

“We sort of bounced around the parking lot a little bit and banged into curbs, like most people do when they get on these, just because the novelty factor is so high,” Gray recalls. “Then we went back to our desks and called a meeting, and we were like, ‘Yeah, there’s something to this.’”

Gray took the project under his wing, at first intending to produce only rims, a low-risk way into the market. He made a prototype by welding together two standard 32.5-millimeter mountain-bike rims and shaving off the abutted inner walls. He dubbed his rim design the Large Marge and sent it to his manufacturer in Taiwan.

Within a year demand was surging, and Surly was creating not just rims but tires and a frame—the Pugsley. It wanted its products to work well, and fat bikes were notoriously finicky, given the Frankenstein-like history of bolting various parts together to make a complete machine. Even apparently simple things, like getting the chain to run past the wide tires, proved challenging. If Surly wanted the Pugsley to live up to consumers’ expectations—it now had to compete with light, reliable conventional bikes—the company needed to ensure that the pieces all matched up.

“The nature of our brand was to design around as standard a component group as we could,” says Gray. “We wanted our parts to mesh with components that you have lying around or that you could cannibalize from another bike. We just had to get it all to play nice.”

The popularity of the Pugsley helped stabilize technical specs for fat bikes, which in turn encouraged other manufacturers to enter the game. By 2007, Alaskan companies like Fatback and 9Zero7 were turning out their own high-quality frames and routinely found demand outpacing supply. Salsa, QBP’s other in-house brand, ramped up efforts to bring out its own fat bike, the Mukluk. By the end of 2010, both Surly and Salsa were delivering the first complete fat bikes to retailers. And specialty bike shops were discovering an eager market for them.

“We couldn’t get ahead of orders,” Bill Fleming, co-owner of Chain Reaction Cycles in Anchorage, told attendees at the 2014 Global Fat Bike Summit in Ogden, Utah. “People just loved these bikes. It changed the way they look at winter. These die-hard nordic skiers would get on them and realize it’s an easier sport. You don’t have to wax, you can ride out your front door. You’re on a little singletrack trail in the middle of winter, and it’s beautiful.”

Between 2013 and 2014, the number of companies making fat bikes doubled, creating the fastest-growing market segment in the cycling industry. People were using them for everything, and no longer just during winter. As Molino had done in the Southwest, riders explored sandy surfaces, be it desert beaches or shorelines. Others rode dirt singletrack. Tony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist in Alaska, deployed a fat bike to study walruses, because the bike efficiently covered a lot of ground and didn’t disturb the animals. In Australia, a few intrepid riders used fatties to navigate the entire 1,150-mile Canning Stock Route, a remote, deep-sand track that was unridable on conventional bikes.

As more people rode, an increasing variety of fat bikes appeared. Beginners liked the stable platform; experts liked the year-round versatility. When Salsa released the carbon-fiber Beargrease* at the end of 2013, it exceeded sales predictions by a factor of four. At the beginning of 2015, Surly had five fat bikes in production, including the Moonlander (with whopping five-inch-wide tires), and the Krampus (a “29-plus”—29-inch-diameter wheels with wide rims and tires). Salsa was up to 11 different fat bikes, including a full-suspension carbon model called the Bucksaw that immediately garnered rave reviews. Other companies such as 45Nrth, Bar Mitts, and Revelate Designs sprang up, dedicated to fat-bike-specific components, accessories, and apparel.

Ten years after the Pugsley appeared, fat bikes have transcended their novelty. As the folks at QBP kept reminding me: “Fat bikes are mountain bikes.”

Before I left Minnesota, I headed north in search of snow. The region had emerged as the epicenter of fat-bike fun, with hundreds of miles of groomed winter trails, like the Noquemon Network, near Marquette. I wanted to experience “white velcro,” local patois for the kind of traction that big tires provide on groomed snow trails. Alas, at the tail end of an uncommonly mild winter season, there wasn’t a snowflake to be found.

Of course, fat bikes are fun on dirt, too. I made it as far as Duluth, where I met up with Hansi Johnson, a photographer and director of recreational lands at the Minnesota Land Trust. Johnson gave me a sneak peek at the Duluth Traverse, 40 miles of multi-use single- and doubletrack that spanned the length of the city limits and had just helped net the town $20 million in development money.

The mucky shoulder season didn’t faze our fat bikes, and Johnson and I navigated technical descents and woodsy cross-country trails. I was riding Salsa’s grease, which handled everything we encountered: damp, rock-studded singletrack, mellow jeep roads, a swampy meadow. It struck me why fat bikes were so immediately appealing. What traditional mountain bikes offered in nimbleness, fatties made up for in versatility. “Fat bikes have helped address a problem that both the bike industry and bike-friendly communities have struggled with,” Johnson told me. “And that’s bringing in new riders.”

He explained that Duluth was going through a broad transition from light industry to recreation. Trails like the Traverse were helping link communities that were struggling to revitalize.

“These folks probably wouldn’t give a second thought to riding a bike,” Johnson told me. “But the funny thing about fat bikes is how inviting they are. There’s this big, stable platform that can go in almost any conditions. People get on them and it’s instantly fun.”

He told me another story, about a private group from the East Coast that had come out for a deer-hunting trip a few years earlier. Johnson had joined them to take pictures. He rode a fat bike, which drew laughs and ridicule from the hunters, at least initially.

“But then they saw how much ground I could cover,” Johnson says, “and how quiet it was, and that they wouldn’t waste time shuttling in, one by one, on an ATV.” The next year, two of them returned on Cogburn fat bikes, which had camo paint jobs and were fitted with gun racks.

When I mention this phenomenon back at QBP—how fatties seem to have broader appeal than your garden-variety mountain bike—it’s met with earnest nods. Are fat bikes going to reinflate collapsed economies? That’s probably too much of a stretch. But are they going to have an impact beyond a little extra winter fun? Dave Gray thinks so.

“The thing I take most heart in is when I hear about the bike shop that can stay open and viable all winter,” Gray says. “That they can keep all their employees year-round, and that they have something they can turn to even if snow is unreliable. That’s when you really feel like you’ve contributed something to the greater good.”      

*The print version of this story misnamed the bike. Outside regrets the error.

From Outside Magazine, August 2015 Lead Photo: Tim Tomkinson