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Fat Bikes Gain Traction as the Northwest’s Newest Winter Sport

March 16, 2016

Winter is usually when cyclists store away their mountain bikes and switch to skis or snowboards. But that’s changing, now that fat bikes have rolled onto the scene.

Fat bikes are the monster trucks of the cycling world. With tires about twice as wide as a regular mountain bike’s, fat bikes provide more traction so they can travel over almost any surface. They bounce over hard-crusted snow and plow through drifts of soft powder.

They can handle mud, ice, sand and pavement, making them true all-terrain bikes.  That flexibility has helped them gain traction in winter recreation hot spots like the Methow Valley of Central Washington, a destination made popular by a different winter sport -- cross-country skiing.

The Methow region has more than 120 miles of Nordic ski trails, the largest such trail system in North America. The local economy draws more than $12 million a year from visitors. And in the winter, recreation seekers keep Winthrop from becoming a ghost town.   

Washington's Methow Valley has the largest Nordic ski trail system in North America.  Greg Davis, KCTS9/EarthFix

“Snow is basically the dollar sign behind the local economy in the winter. And without it, I don’t think you’d have a thriving community,” said Steve Mitchell, who owns a bakery in Winthrop, Washington. Mitchell is also an early adopter of fat biking. He started biking across the snowy landscapes of Alaska in the 1980s. Back then, he’d get weird looks from snowmobilers and sled dog mushers.

“They would just take a double-take and sort of shake their heads in disbelief. They had no concept of why we’d be out there,” he said.  Mitchell and his buddies quickly learned the mountain bikes of the time didn’t fair well in the snow. So they began building their own bikes, welding rims together and sewing custom tires to create more surface area.

Steve Mitchell leads a group of fat bike cyclists on a early morning ride in the Methow Valley over the hard-crusted snow.  Greg Davis, KCTS9/EarthFix

 “We failed a lot but eventually figured out that the bigger the tire, the better,” Mitchell said. “What started out as a 2-inch tire is now up to 5 inches and seemingly will keep going wider.”

When Mitchell moved to Winthrop five years ago, he brought along his enthusiasm for fat biking and helped the burgeoning sport take off in the Methow Valley.

Surviving Lean Snow Years

The Methow has had plenty of snow this year. But snowfall in recent years has been less and less consistent. And that trend is likely to continue as the climate changes. Northwest winters are expected to see warmer average temperatures leading to more rain and less snow.

Across the West, snow accumulation is expected to drop, decreasing the number of days available for recreational snow activities. That could hit Washington hard. Outdoor recreation industry supports more than 200,000 jobs and contributes more than $20 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Fat bikes are the fastest growing portion of mountain biking sales nationwide.  Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix

Nationwide the impacts of climate change are expected to curtail spending on snow-based recreation by as much as $4.2 billion by 2060, with the number of skiing visitor days across the United States dropping by half of what they were in the 1990s.

That’s a big concern for people like James DeSalvo, the executive director of the Methow Trails Association. He’s been working on strategies to maintain the valley as a winter destination, even when there’s little if any snow. “We want to be prepared for that day so that we’ve still got something to offer tourists who are coming here,” DeSalvo said.

That’s where fat bikes come in. Because they work with, or without, snow on the ground, fat bikes could help places like the Methow Valley survive lean snow years. James and his team have begun making room on the Nordic trails for fat bikes. They use snowmobiles with special equipment to groom single track-style trails for fat bike. 

The Methow Trails is one of the first places in the country to allow fat bike riding on their Nordic trails.They use special grooming equipment to create single track trails. Greg Davis, KCTS9/EarthFix

“We were one of the first areas in the nation to allow fat bikes on our trail system,” DeSalvo said. “We know that there are other types of users that would use our trails year around if we are just flexible enough and inventive enough to give it a try.”

If fat bikes catch on here, there’s a chance that cyclists will find themselves in conflict with other winter sport enthusiasts as they have with snowmobilers in Minnesota and Nordic skiers in Colorado. But so far, that hasn’t been a problem in the Methow Valley. Fat biking has become increasingly popular in the four years that Methow Cycle & Sport has rented out fat bikes – so popular that it’s had to double its stock of fat bikes to meet rising demand.

“Fat bikes help us respond to changing climate,” said Julie Muyllaert, a co-owner of the shop and a converted fat bike enthusiast herself. “Almost everyone knows how to ride a bike. They can easily get on a bike and go, ‘Oh, this is familiar to me, I know how to do this.’”

Washington’s Methow Valley isn’t the only place that’s giving fat bikes a try. No longer an obscure novelty, fat bikes have become the fastest-accelerating portion of mountain biking sales nationwide. Alpine ski resorts across the country have begun embracing fat bikes as well. Low snow years have hit alpine resorts hard. Last year’s low snow in the Pacific Northwest meant about 2 million fewer visits, according to the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

Fat bikes are gaining popularity for winter recreation in the Northwest.

This year Mt. View Cycles in Hood River, Oregon, held demonstrations at Mt. Hood Meadows to introduce skiers and snowboarders to the sport. After taking a fat bike for a test ride, Portland resident J.C. Sawyer was convinced.

“Would it increase the days that I come up here and am active?” Sawyer said. “Yeah, absolutely.”

Carolin Jones contributed to this report.

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

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