Sloppy weather proves mettle of fat bikes

Cold temperatures and wet sand didn’t stop the cyclists at Bishop’s Beach last Friday as they celebrated 2014’s Big Fat Bike Festival. 

Whipping their large wheeled machines around a built obstacle course of teeter-totters, log bridges and angled walls, the participating riders clearly enjoyed being able to ride where other cyclists couldn’t. This year’s festival, sponsored by the Homer Cycling Club, gave them plenty of opportunity to do it. 

Designed by Alaskan Mark Gronewald, the first commercially available fat tire bike came out of Palmer. With a tire spanning 4 inches, this bike was designed to traverse the winter trails and other road conditions that would cause most bicycles to lie down in defeat. A whole sporting community soon formed around this machine that most would say resembles a moon rover. The use of fatbikes, as they are called, is growing in popularity. 

Now in its third year, the Big Fat Bike Festival draws participants from all over the state. About half of the 57 cyclists that rode in this year’s festival were from outside of Homer, coming from Palmer, Kenai, Wasilla, Anchorage, Fort Richardson and other places in Alaska. 

Most traveled to Homer to ride the uncommon ground. Riders from Anchorage said they came to Homer for a chance to ride on the beach, take in the views and see wildlife they don’t usually get the chance to see. 

“It’s so easy to get closed in during the winter. It’s fun to do something like this once in a while,” said one rider.

Several other cyclists said the festival is a great chance for them to mingle with other enthusiasts for the fat tire bike, a design that is still relatively new to the cycling world. 

The camaraderie was clearly evident at the halfway point during Saturday’s 16-mile ride from Anchor Point to Bishop’s Beach. The atmosphere at the bonfire was jocular and inclusive with many people chatting about fatbikes as they ate power lunches and warmed their legs for a bit before continuing on down the beach. 

At first glance, the bikes look slow, awkward and cumbersome to ride. But the riders during the festival handled them with ease and skill.

What’s the allure? Some riders say that it is a way for them to extend the cycling season. When mountain biking and road biking end with the summer, they can continue on wintery trails with the fat tire bike. 

Hayley Norris, a Homer resident who also serves on the board of the Homer Cycling Club, said she likes the versatility that her fat tire bike gives for commuting. 

“I love to cover the coastline, and it really widens the variety of commuting choices that I have. Now I ride on the beach instead of the road,” she said.

Commuters in Homer will be the direct benefactors of the proceeds of this year’s festival. 

Bjørn Olson, another board member for the Homer Cycling Club, says the club is hoping to use the funds raised from the festival to start an educational campaign to make Homer a safer place for cyclists. 

“The lion’s share of people are illiterate of bike laws,” Olson said. “There’s still a lot of education to be done in Homer about bike safety.” 

The festival ended Sunday afternoon with more camaraderie and a group ride for fat tire bikers. 

“It’s a great chance to have fun and hang out with a great group of people,” said a cyclist about the festival while she warmed her toes near the fire. 

With the Big Fat Bike Festival as a good indication, the fat tire bike has an enthusiastic group of people willing to put it to the test in Homer. 

Aryn Young is a freelance writer who recently moved to Homer from Texas.