Why you should care
Because there’s no need to stop cycling in the winter.
Cyclists whizzing down trails in the summer is a pretty normal sight. Cyclists taking on the same trails in winter — through snow, slush and debris — is far less common. But fat biking, where cyclists use fat tires to keep pedaling through the winter months, has become a sport of its own.
A fat bike looks like a bike on steroids: with larger tires designed to handle ice and snow. The saying goes something like this: “When the skiing is bad, the fat biking is good” — enthusiasts thrive on tackling the worst that winter has to offer. The fat biking world has become competitive in the past few years, but it retains an endearingly goofy side. At the 2018 world championship, amateur competitors dressed as Scooby-Doo, Vikings, ballerinas and an adult baby (clad in nothing but a diaper) and stopped for whiskey shots throughout the race. So, fun all around.
When you’re out there on the 5-inch tires, you can’t help but have a huge smile on your face. You feel like a kid again.
Ashley Carelock, fat-tire world champion
The idea of modern fat biking began in Alaska, in 1987, when the first Iditabike ultramarathon took place. The race required riders to travel 300-plus miles over frozen, snowy terrain. Regular mountain bikes would sink in these conditions, so riders began fastening two tires side by side to create a wider footprint. Years later, in 2005, the world’s first fat bike was created — with two fat tires.
And we’re talking fat — up to twice the size of mountain bike tires, which are typically 2 to 3 inches wide. The width provides better traction on snow and ice and low tire pressure helps the bike float. The sport is seeing increased popularity in states like Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, but it’s still largely recreational. While each race course is different — loops, 30 miles in a straight line, 5 miles over a mountain — the end goal remains the same: The first to cross the finish line wins.
There have been three annual fat bike world championships, with the most recent — in Crested Butte, Colorado, in 2018 — being the first to be recognized by USA Cycling. The 2018 world champion Ashley Carelock, a professional cyclist from Dolores, Colorado, says fat biking is the fun side of cycling: “When you’re out there on the 5-inch tires, you can’t help but have a huge smile on your face. You feel like a kid again.” Carelock was introduced to fat biking in 2015; a week later, she competed in a 10-hour solo race, the Silverton Whiteout, an event she won three years in a row.
Until recently, the sport was unregulated. That changed in 2017 when the Union Cycliste Internationale (or UCI, the federation that oversees all international competitive cycling events, including the Tour de France) was searching for a new activity for the winter season. In response to feedback from the mountain bike community, it chose fat biking, says Louis Chenaille, the UCI’s press officer. That year the Snow Bike Festival in Switzerland was accredited as a class 2 stage race — the only snow-based bike race recognized at that level. This not only legitimized the sport but also propelled its popularity. The number of professional fat bikers changes per season, as the sport is mainly used as a way for professional cyclists to promote their sponsors year-round while continuing their cycling training throughout the winter months.
In every race serious and fun co-exist, with pro riders in their sponsor-branded spandex and amateurs in whimsical costumes. “It definitely brings out a different crowd than cross-country races in the pro field where you’re all so serious,” says Carelock. The pros will often ride double or triple the distance of the amateurs, who, once they meet their shorter distance requirement, often indulge in adult beverages and cheer on the pros to the end.
You can find a fat biking event almost every weekend in the U.S. until the end of March. Beginner races like the Joyful Riders Club ride on Feb. 14 in Minneapolis — a “social ride at a social pace” that ends at a brewery — are available for riders who want to give fat biking a try. Most mountain bike shops sell fat bikes, and many resorts and ski rental stores in Colorado and Utah will rent them out by the hour. If you can ride a bike, you can ride a fat bike; it’s just colder and snowier, and as Carelock says, “it’s the most fun you’ll have in the winter.”