The winter morning would hardly seem right for a bike ride. A fresh snow had fallen overnight atop the old, refrozen sheets and piles of snow all around. A chilly wind blew fine, stinging grit. The sidewalks were mostly invisible, the roads an uninviting mix of brown slush and salt. And yet there was my 14-year-old son, Jack, on the walkway beside our shed, checking the tire pressure on a thick-framed black bike. The driveway was to his left. A knee-high bank of snow was to his right. He took his seat, swung the front tire to the right, lunged down on the pedal and crested the snowbank and set off across our snow-covered yard. I followed him, listening to a crust of frozen snow break beneath my weight as my own bicycle moved easily along, across my neighbors' property, down a short but steep snowy hill, and then, with a little jump, past a dock and out onto the surface of a frozen lake.
The access we were experiencing was a triumph of thoughtful design. Aided by a strikingly simple concept—that a bicycle atop soft tires of outsize width will acquire traction on all manner of shifting terrain—we were riding where we had not conceived of riding before. Old hesitations fell away. I remembered a mountain-bike trip in the southern California desert a quarter-century before, and veering off a washboard dirt trail at 20 miles an hour, hitting soft sand and having the bicycle abruptly stop, nose jammed in the yielding ground—as I flew over the handlebars in a somersault and landed smack on my back, lucky not to be busted up.
Our adventure with fat-tire bikes began because Jack, a middle school cross-country runner, was suffering from an overuse injury called Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful inflammation of the tissue where the shins meet the knees that is often related to growth spurts among athletes in their teen years. He wanted to train. But many forms of training—and almost any running at all—caused him more pain. He enjoyed bicycling, but it was December, when opportunities for road and mountain biking narrow with the accumulation of snow.
With the help of Matt Bodziony, the owner of NBX Bikes in Narragansett, Rhode Island, soon we were renting a pair of Trek Farley fat bikes.
It is worth dwelling on the fineness of these bikes, which were superior to any I had ridden before. With disc brakes, smooth-shifting gears, and lightweight aluminum frames, they were swiftly responsive. And their wide tires, ridden at low pressure, gave them a softness over ordinary obstacles (curbs, roots on trails, and the like) that for a cyclist of my modest skill level was beyond the reaches of imagination. This was so even with a hard front fork and an absence of mechanical suspension. It is also worth noting that in the fast-developing fat-bike market, these Farleys marked but a phase. Fat bikes are a growth industry right now—already accounting for 5 percent of the mountain-bike market. Sales in the last year have more than doubled. Demand is so high and sales so brisk that, for a few years, many shops, including Bodziony's, could barely stock them.
There are now many fat-bike manufacturers offering an array of products at different price points. (See opposite.) All of them have brought into the mainstream an idea incubated in Alaska in the 1980s and 1990s, when bike-shop owners and bike designers were trying to bring to adherents of the trail ride a bike that could conquer ice and snow. For years the movement was centered there, and many of the products had a fundamentally local reach.
T. G. Taylor, a former member of the West Point bicycle racing team, told me of being an infantry company commander near Fairbanks in 2002 and discovering that much of the wilderness around him was marsh—impenetrable to mountain bikes in the warmer seasons. Come winter, he bought a rusting Kona mountain-bike frame and took it to a shop owned by Simon Rakower, who had developed a wide rim called the SnowCat. Rakower rigged Taylor's frame for the Alaskan cold, outfitting him with locally conceived rims, tires, and brakes, and Taylor immediately discovered what his Frankenbike fatty actually meant: access. "I was absolutely amazed that I could ride through fluffy white snow and on every single thing that was frozen—frozen rivers, sled-dog trails, everywhere," he said, and then summed up the epiphany that many others have since had: "I could ride."
I followed my son out over the frozen lake. He put his bike into tight turns, kept his balance, and pedaled on. Soon he was riding up the steep hill and then down it, jumping out onto the ice for a ride like no other. For him, the very nature of biking had changed. The local bike trails, typically off-limits until plowed, now held the allure of fresh powder, but with a feature uncommon to ski slopes: near solitude.
This meant an opportunity for exercise without inflammation, and in almost any weather at all. A looping ride on the main bike path near our house is roughly 12 miles long and provides (when pedaled hard), a fast, lung-expanding outlet. Jack found when biking that his legs did not suffer, and his baseline fitness could be maintained. Osgood-Schlatter disease can be persistent, however. Like a teenager's growth spurt, it can last a few years. By the time spring came around, Jack was still fit, and he tried tennis, which led to more leg soreness. Fat-bike rides had no such side effect, and so the winter bikes found a life in summer too. By fall, when his running season began again, he was able to keep up with many of his peers, though when he began running again the leg pain returned. (There was a lesson there for my older legs too.)
Truth be told, Jack also would ride sometimes not just for the sake of the ride but also for the buzz of being seen, even after the ice melted and the paths were clear again. Though he owns a fine-looking and very functional mountain bike, I quietly noticed on many a spring and summer day that he would forgo the mountain bike and take out the fattie for short rides to the market or to pick up one of his younger brothers at school or to go to friends' homes. Fat biking, he would say unequivocally, was cool. Once fat bikes achieved that kind of psychic stature—revolutionary in utility, sparkling with style—their popularity was inevitable. "They aren't just snow bikes anymore," Bodziony says. "They are labeled as all-purpose adventure bikes. They are really finding their own as all-around bicycles." What this means is clear: If you have not noticed fat bikes yet among you, you will soon. With time, you will only see more.
But it always comes back to the ride.
On my most recent fat-bike mini adventure, on a Sunday morning in November, I pedaled the bike over a beach parking lot, past a dune fence and the spot where a row of lifeguard chairs stands in summer, and then almost effortlessly across a wide belt of soft sand to the edge of the surf line. The water was cold. The beach was nearly empty. A young couple huddled in a blanket together against a dune looked up from the cuddling with surprise. At the waterline, a group of seagulls squatting and blinking into the chilly breeze grudgingly lifted into flight and squawked in protest as the bike and I came upon them more quickly than they expected—about 17 mph, according to my GPS. This is not very fast, to be sure. The wide tires, the soft sand, the low pressure, and the old body all combine to keep my fat-bike speeds modest. But it is far faster than we have experienced in such places before, and a reminder that, now and then, even among types of equipment that we long thought mature and thoroughly understood, a breakthrough can come, and a new design can update the familiar in marvelous and highly functional ways.
A Fat Bike For Every Rider
Felt DD 70 - $1,499
An aluminum frame makes this bike affordable and relatively lightweight. The fork legs are formed with high-pressure fluid instead of heat, which allows for more intricate shaping.
Surly Pugsley - $1,750
The original. Surly started the fat-bike explosion in 2005, and most of the bikes made back then are still around. A highly durable bike with mostly off-the-shelf (so, easy to replace)components.
Farley 9.8 - $4,800
Thanks to its carbon-fiber frame, the Farley experiences less road vibration and weighs less than some traditional mountain bikes. Even with those huge tires.
This story appears in the March 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline