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Dec 28, 2016 04:22PM

Bring it on, winter: Ride a fat bike, no matter the season

By Todd Welvaert
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Todd Welvaert / twelvaert@qconline.com
More than 80 fat tire bike racers turned out to compete at the Friends of Off Road Cycling Frozen Fat FONDO Fest II at Credit Island Park, Davenport, on Feb. 6, 2016.
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Todd Welvaert's fat bike is an Ice Cream Truck by Surly.
As the snow starts to fly, a lot of skinny-tired bikes will find their way to sheds and garages and basements, but fat bike enthusiasts are just getting warmed up.

With low-pressure tires up to 5 inches wide, the bikes can tackle pretty much whatever winter throws, from deep snow-covered trails to hard-packed and icy roads and trails.

The ubiquitous fat bike has been one of the fastest-growing segments in the bicycle industry for the past few years, according to Bicycle Retailer. Riders are proving they are not just for winter anymore. Cyclists are enticed by the bike's go-anywhere capabilities, using them to commute, tour and tackle mountain bike trails.

The fat bike concept was born out of Alaska's Iditabike event, which is 200 miles of Alaskan backcountry in winter, along snowmobile and dog mushing trails. Riders patched together balloon tire bikes and mountain bikes with tandem hubs to get the widest tire setup possible so bikes would float over deep snow instead of sink into it.

Minneapolis-based bike maker Surly produced the first commercial offering with a bike called the Pugsley in 2005. Along with a garish purple paint job, the Pugsley came along with a 65-millimeter-wide rim, and 3.7-inch tires. Since then, makers have flooded the fat bike market.

The bikes first were popular in northern areas that see a lot of snow, but the popularity grew to include areas where sand and dirt were prevalent. What was once considered something of a fad is now apparently here to stay.

The price of a decent fat bike starts at about $850. The mid-range models run about $1,200 to $1,500, and top models run more than $5,000. The frames usually are a little beefier than a street bike, with accommodations for the wider tires.

Fat bikes are heavier than standard bikes, and with the tires running lower pressures, they can be a workout to ride. The big, wide tires are great for floating over sand or snow, but they make for slow acceleration. Once up to speed, however, several cyclists report them to be as sporty as many mountain bikes.

This year's Quad City Criterium even featured a fat bike 'race' in between events for their skinny-tired brethren.

Many of the fat bikes come stock with tubes in the tires, but one of the easiest performance upgrades is to use a tire sealant to go tubeless. It takes weight off of the wheels, and ensures you won't pinch flat with the lower tire pressures.

Bobby Parker, a manager at the Healthy Habits Bike Shop in Bettendorf, says the Quad-Cities fat bike scene is more about social riding than racing.

"There are quite a few people who just want to get together and ride, and maybe have a few beers," he says. "We have a (fat tire) shop ride once in a while. We just like to get out to ride."

It's probably no coincidence that one of the more popular accessories for fat bikes are fork-mounted cages that can carry a growler of craft beer, among other items.

In the Quad-Cities area, one of the biggest fat-tire bike gatherings is the annual Friends of Off Road Cycling Frozen Fat Fondo Fest. This year, the event will be on Feb. 17 at Credit Island Park in Davenport. You either can race solo or join a team of at least three riders and try to accumulate as many laps as time will allow.

The gathering also features a wheelie contest, skid mark slalom and a track stand contest. There also will be plenty of friendship, food and adult beverages. You can find more information at Friends of Off Road Cycling on Facebook.

If you are looking for even bigger challenges, the Triple D Winter Race and Poker Tour will be Jan. 15 in Dubuque. It features a 65-mile ultramarathon race, and a non-competitive ride where cyclists stop by checkpoints to get playing cards. The cyclist with the best poker hand at the end wins a prize. Search for TripleDWinterRace on Facebook for more information.

The Iowa Coalition of Off Road Riders also will put on the I AM FAT 3-hour Fat Bike endurance race in Iowa City on Jan. 22 at the Sugar Bottom mountain bike trails.
Todd Welvaert is a regular Radish contributor.

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