Fat bikes flourish, thanks to Alaskan ingenuity
Fat biking is booming across the winter states and abroad. Alaskans have been at the forefront of fat bike research and development given our convenient back-door winter laboratory to test design concepts and engineering.
With so many manufacturers, including the industry giants, jumping on the bandwagon, I thought it worthwhile to showcase some Alaska companies.
Three frame designers are either lifelong Alaskans or have been living in Alaska long enough to be considered so. Their exposure to long winters and experience riding hundreds of miles of trails make them superbly qualified to create some of the best-handling fat bikes on the market.
The original fat bikes were simply mountain bikes with a rear triangle wide enough to accommodate a Snowcat rim, which is essentially double the width of a standard mountain bike wheel. Early in the development of the modern fat bike, Alaskans such as Mark Gronewald led the trend of the increasingly expanding rear triangle and fork spacing to handle wider wheel widths. The concept being, the wider the wheel, the better the float on top of the snow.
Early frames were made of steel, then aluminum to save weight and provide an economical price point. Recently, three Alaskan-born companies rolled out their versions of the carbon fat bike. As a frame material carbon is light, stiff and downright sexy.
Adam Miller, a 22-year-old Service High School graduate and Colorado College student, started Borealis, a new brand of high-end fat bikes. As an undergrad, Miller made a connection with retired businessman Steve Kaczmarek who, of all things, taught a course on entrepreneurship. Last year the business partners rolled out a subtly curvaceous carbon design called the Yampa.
Miller’s enthusiasm for the Colorado-Alaska connection of the company is obvious. The chainstay graphic displays the flags from both states with the tag line, “Design inspiration from CO and AK.”
“This duality of the two coolest states for fat biking and mountain biking, respectively, forms the basis for Borealis’ brand image,” says Miller.
According to Miller, the Yampa is “the lightest fat bike frameset in the world and boasts fully internal cables and rack mounts making it an ideal adventure machine.” A thin carbon seat stay is intended to improve the comfort of the ride.
The Yampa’s wide hub spacing provides clearance for any width of wheel and tire combination. Throw on an 85mm dual-walled carbon tubeless rim and you’ve got a bike that reportedly comes in at 21.5 pounds. With this build, the Yampa is a sack of flour lighter than my summer mountain bike.
The Alaskan grown 9:ZERO:7 is the brainchild of Bill Fleming and Jamey Stull. The company was born in 2004 during the Susitna 100 winter endurance race in Alaska. Fleming and Stull formed a friendship while pushing their makeshift snow bikes through soft snow. They founded Chain Reaction Cycles and developed the aluminum 9:ZERO:7. Their carbon Whiteout frameset hit the market in 2013.
The Whiteout has wide hub spacing allowing it to “easily handle the widest tires and rims for maximum floatation in soft conditions,” says Fleming. “The frame incorporates front and rear thru-axles to maintain frame stiffness instead of quick releases that have been traditionally found on fat bikes.”
Fleming and Stull designed the Whiteout with long chain stays which they believe improve the bike’s tracking ability. The swoopy top tube emphasizes the importance of stand over height to increase the rider’s clearance during frequent dismounting.
Fleming and Stull looked for every opportunity to shave weight by utilizing post-mount brakes and internal cable routing. They skip the rack and fender mounts staying true to the Whiteout’s purpose as a race/performance bike. The Whiteout can be built to a feather-light 22 pounds. At this weight, it is lighter than my first road bike.
Greg Matyas was born and raised in Anchorage where he grew up cross-country ski and bike racing. Matyas worked as a contractor before opening Speedway Cycles to pursue his dream of developing the Fatback “all-terrain bike.”
Fatback’s new Corvus carbon frame is based on a symmetrical 190mm hub width to accommodate tires up to 5 inches wide. Early versions of rear hubs were relatively narrow and required an asymmetrical maneuvering of the chain stays to make room for growing wheel widths. Matyas’ symmetrical innovation has become an industry standard.
“The main goal for the carbon fiber project was ride quality above all,” Matyas explains. “We utilized a 15mm thru axle in the fork and a 12mm thru axle on the frame for added rigidity. We then balanced stand-over height without sacrificing room for a large frame bag in the front triangle for racers and adventurers.”
Matyas has been outfitting competitors in winter races such as the Iditarod Invitational to McGrath and has designed his new Corvus carbon fat bike with the adventurer in mind.
“The Fatback Corvus is made for snow treks and shoreline tours, long hauls and short joy rides, weeklong excursions and weekend races—it’s ready for any adventure.”
Like the Yampa and the 9:ZERO:7, the Corvus is sure to be lighter than most everything in my bike quiver.
Based on what these Alaskan innovators have told me, and on the anecdotes of some early purchasers of these svelte machines, I can’t go wrong with any of these Alaskan-grown carbon fat bikes. While some themes such as hub spacing, thru axles and light weight are consistent among them, a purchase decision will likely come down to personal preference and a test ride, which I can’t wait to do.