Paul Wagner has fun racing his fat bike at the Snowbound in the Underdown. PHOTO BY JORDAN SCHOTZ
Paul Wagner has fun racing his fat bike at the Snowbound in the Underdown. PHOTO BY JORDAN SCHOTZ

It was at the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in December 2009 where I first laid eyes on a Surly Pugsley fat bike. This event has 35-, 75- and 150-mile options that participants can cover by bike, ski or foot. I had naively arrived in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, for the start of the 75-mile race on a conventional mountain bike equipped with 2.2-inch studded tires. These work as advertised on ice, but as I quickly realized, can only outperform on rare occasions a fat bike with 3.5-inch-wide or greater tires.

Snow had come late that year so the snowmobile trail and eight inches of fresh powder couldn’t be groomed until the night before the race. Many of us would have been better off if the trail had been left untouched. The packed snow was rarely sturdy enough to support a bike but always firm enough to resist forward progress. We often resorted to riding through the powder and brush at the edge of the trail. Lengthy walks by riders, myself included, pushing their bikes were not uncommon. All of us let as much air pressure out of our tires as we dared. But it was the strong riders on four-inch-wide tires who moved away. 

Eight miles in I was dropped by a skier pulling a sled. And as I reached the first town at mile 15, I was caught by two guys who had walked that whole way. Fifteen miles had taken me five hours to cover. I, and much of the fat bike field, took that opportunity to bail. An intrepid nine rolled on.  

Dave Pramann, veteran of the even more grueling Arrowhead 135 winter ultra in Northern Minnesota, took more than 10 hours to finish the 75-mile Tuscobia course first on a fat bike. For the sake of comparison and commendation, I should point out that a hearty Jason Buffington defied all odds and finished on a conventional bike over nine hours later.

If it wasn’t already, that race made clear the advantages of fat tires. The following year, Buffington returned better equipped and rode the out-and-back 150-mile event faster than he had travelled half that distance the year before. That Tuscobia 150 finish qualified him for the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational where he did his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, proud by finishing seventh in just over three days.

Since that first Tuscobia Ultra there have been years when new six-inch tires have had the upper hand while four-inch tires are left fish tailing in delicate snow. There are times when “the fatter the better,” but that window closes when powder so deep stops all bikes. 

Some observers of the nascent race scene have expressed concern that these events will become so seriously contested that racers will feel obliged to show up with multiple bikes to match the exact conditions. That fear has not yet been realized. For now a pump and a pressure gauge should be all racers need to fine tune their rides.

New revolution
This is the year to get the fat bike, yet it feels a lot like 1985. That was the year when an American reinvention gave the cycling world its last great paradigm shift. Back then a rigid steel mountain bike would still turn heads and leave people wondering if those two-inch, so-called “fat tires” were just a passing fad. 

Back in ’85, there were barely 10 mountain bike brands to choose from, and a doubletrack ski trail qualified as a wild race course. The idea of racing bikes on the Birkie trail in September was still as exciting and new as the TV’s “Love Boat,” and the eight-race Midwest Point Series was yet to be born. Old school races saw plenty of camaraderie and grins all around as pioneers constantly found new ways to ride the new bikes. It didn’t take long for industry giants to get in on the ground floor and take mountain bikes mainstream.  

As early as 1987 there were whispers of a second revolution as Alaskans started to race on snow and stitch together two mountain bike tires into the first truly fat tires. It took until 2005 for a revolutionary company in Minnesota to build a steel frame around four-inch tires. Voila, the Surly Pugsley was born. For years later and the Pugsley was as synonymous with fat bikes as Band-Aid is to adhesive bandages.  

Surly is still a leader in fat bike wheel and tire design, but they are far from alone today. Dozens of builders, now being joined by industry giants Trek and Specialized, offer fat bike models in any material from steel to full carbon. Pounds of weight have been cut from wheel designs, and fat bikers have enough tire and winter gear choices to consume any disposable income. The new fat bikes handle more like mountain bikes on sand and snow than the dune buggies they once were.

More trails open up
To further justify the purchase of a fat bike, the number of fat bike events and miles of trails open to fat bikes is growing. 

Fat bikers should assume that groomed ski trails are off limits to bikes, but the accessibility of snowmobile trails to cyclists remains somewhat unresolved. Some counties forbid bikes on snowmobile trails, and there have been angry encounters between bikers and snowmobilers in more heavily trafficked areas. Other counties have not addressed the issue and might never set rules as long as there are few fat bike riders out there and those that are can be trusted to get to the edge of the trail whenever a sled appears on the horizon. 

Regardless of whether fat bikes are welcome on particular snow-covered multiuse trails, singletrack trail systems are ideal for fat biking. Snowshoers and fat bikers complement each other on some exceptional singletrack in Wisconsin, such as Underdown in Lincoln County, Mt. Ashwabay near Bayfield, the John Muir Trails near Whitewater and Canopy Trails near Lake Geneva. More mountain bike trails, designed to be ridden year round, are being built in Duluth, Minnesota, and throughout the upper Midwest.

My advice is to head down to your local singletrack and ride as long as conditions and local regulations allow.  Put on the snowshoes after a heavy snow to pack down the tread, but start small. Build your network as trails are discovered by more riders.

Always go out of your way to yield to hikers on snowshoes. They are really doing fat bikes a big favor. Short of machine grooming, I’ve found that a plastic toboggan loaded with 50 to 100 pounds can build a bike trail quickly. Trudge the climbs and ride the descents. Snowshoeing in powder can be a chore anyway, so why not pull a sled as you go?

A few locations around Wisconsin have developed the financial and mechanical means to maintain fat bike trails.Sunnyvale Park in Wausau, Wisconsin, will be open with groomed fat bike trails for the first time this winter, and the Reforestation Camp near Green Bay will continue to host a groomed fat bike trail system. The flat tracks of a vintage snow machine leaves a rideable tread on the tight trails of Bradley Park in Tomahawk, too.

The most reliably groomed trails to ride in Wisconsin can be found at the picturesque Levis Mound near Neillsville: An 8.5-mile loop of singletrack there is machine groomed. The IMBA Ride Center at Cayuna Lakes, Minnesota, uses a snowmobile and skid to maintain eight miles of six-foot-wide fat bike trail in the Sagamore Unit plus an additional eight miles of single rack maintained by snowshoe in the Yawkey Unit. Michigan’s best bet for great machine-groomed trail is usually Marquette, but lake effect snow depths have been known to shut everything down in a hurry. 

No mater where a ride is planned, it’s best to check the conditions before heading out. No amount of machine grooming can get a trail ready to ride the day after a blizzard, and dropping the p.s.i. in your tires down to single digits will only get a bike so far in mashed potato snow. Fat bike riders should be ready to accept pushing their bikes as part of the game. Some days it’s better to leave the bike at home and be thankful for the invention of snowshoes and skis.

Always willing to move heaven and earth to create great conditions for riding are a growing number of race directors. They’re dreaming up some amazing events for riders seeking the camaraderie and pioneer spirit of the mid-’80s mountain bike scene. 

Minnesota’s Arrowhead 135, the original Midwest fat bike quest, is no longer alone as it was in 2005. In 2014 a fat biker can race any weekend and any distance from the solo and team races of a state fat bike series to the arduous Tuscobia Ultra in Park Falls, Wisconsin, or the 130K Actif Epica in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. 

Riders who would rather not race into the night will find many events that start the party early. The Wisconsin Fat Bike Series includes eight weekends of racing in all corners of the state, from Platteville all the way to Manitowoc. The series includes the Fat Bike Birkie, which opens the Birkie ski trail to bikes for one day only on March 8; Levis Mounds has combined their Sweaty Yeti bike race with a Braveheart snowshoe race for Yeti Fest weekend March 1-2; and my crew has planned an Intergalactic stage race weekend with wilderness cross-country, team, and night races on three Tomahawk-area trails February 15 and 16.  

Though points are awarded, a state series is still all about having a good time with cool folks and riding whatever funky trails spring from the imaginations of a fanatical collection of race directors like me. The most fun I’ve had at fat bike events like these has been showing up solo and throwing a relay team together on the spot.

More destination festivals are worth a long drive. Minnesota’s best is the Cuyuna Lake Whiteout that includes night tours, snow cross and ice races on February 28. The Whiteout is one of eight races across three states in the Great Lakes Fat Bike Series, which will include the Noquemanon Snow Bike World Championship in Marquette, Michigan, on January 25. An additional five races form the Michigan Fat Bike Series, and another three races make up the Northern Michigan Fat Bike Series augmented by duathlon for athletes who would like to ski the North American VASA in the morning and race their fat bike in the afternoon. The success of this experiment could set a precedent for ski and bike cooperation across the Midwest. Clearly fat bikes are growing up fast, and 2014 will be an exciting year to ride.

Year-round riding
While most fat bikes spend the summer in their owners’ garages, there are a growing number of opportunities to ride on dirt. Fat bikes have found their way into summer races across the Midwest, such as Wausau24Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee and Iowa’s RAGBRAI. Beach sand rides have been held on the banks of the Eau Pleine Flowage to the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago. 

Douglas House was crowned the first Wisconsin Fat Bike Champion at the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Series race in Kewaunee late last September. However, as versatile as they have become, fat bikes were seen marooned on the side of trails at several events last summer. Many a fat biker met his or her doom with a flat in the backwoods. No mini-pump or supply of CO2 will get a fat bike home after that happens.

Unpredictable conditions and physical demands may forever keep fat bikes on the fringe of mainstream cycling. But after 2014 no one will doubt that the second American cycling revolution has arrived. Fat bikes are here, so if you’ve got $2,000 sitting around with nowhere to go, this is the year to “go fat.” You’ll be as giddy as a puppy in snow.

Chris Schotz is an endurance racer, author, history teacher and trail builder in Lincoln County, Wisconsin. He
is the race director for the Snowbound in the Underdown fat bike race and Thunderdown in the Underdown of the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series.