This Fat Tuesday I thought I would take a look into the fat bike genre. As a Mardi Gras enthusiast, I was originally motivated by the pun of ‘Fat Bike Tuesday’ and decided the best way to research the bikes was to ride one. Upon initial inspection, they look utterly ridiculous. The massive 4 inch tires seem like they would be a hindrance rather than a benefit, yet the ride was surprisingly smooth and unbelievably fun. I plowed over piles of snow like it was my job and felt like a beast when I passed other cyclist. Yet as I rode around the local bike trails I couldn’t help but wonder why there were Fat Bikes at all. Were they a concept designed for sheer snow demolishing fun or was there more?
A few quick google searches later and I was surprised to see that the event that sparked the history of the fat bike was just as extreme and over the top as any New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration.
In 1987 Joe Redington Sr., who is known for establishing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race set out to create a 200 mile bike race following the Iditarod trail from Knik to Skwentna. The Iditabike was the begining of extreme winter bicycle races. It was designed to test the endurance of the cyclist and perseverance of the human body and mind. Twenty men and six women took on the challenge that first year. Self-described as “the most remote and exposed race in the world”, the poorly marked route the cyclist traveled covered the vast Alaskan wilderness; there are no roads, few villages, and although the mountains, lakes, and Northern Lights are beautiful the Alaskan tundra and open waters can also be very dangerous. Hypothermia complete with hallucinations, frostbite, changing weather, avalanche danger, getting lost from the course and depleted energy is a very harsh reality. Which is why the cyclist would spend hours meticulously planning and preparing what they packed on their bike to sustain themselves and keep warm.
The other thing that concerned the cyclists was how to prepare their bikes for better floatation and traction on the snow. Participants searched for the widest possible rims and tires they could find in order to give them an advantage over the other racers by increasing their tire footprint. Some participants would even try to further modify their existing tires. Simon Rakower, who was in charge of technical support for the Iditabike, took off on that idea and began to experiment with welding two rims together. He then cut out the middle ridge creating one 44mm rim that would still fit on the frame of the mountain bikes the cyclist were using. Bikes equipped with these extra-large rims would soon become known as fat tire bikes and would be available for sale to winter cyclist, but it would take several years before the public at large caught on.
In 1991 the Iditabike combined with skiing and foot endurance races to create a single event, the Iditasport. The last year of the historic Iditasport was 2001. Three races were conducted simultaneously that year. The 130 mile Iditasport race which finished at Finger Lake, the Iditasport Extreme, a 350 mile race which finished at McGrath, and the Iditasport Impossible continued to Nome for a total of 1,100 miles. The race began with a 30 mile trek to Finger Lake where all the racers had to attend a mandatory campout so that their gear could be assessed to ensure that they would be able to survive sleeping in the Alaskan outdoors with just a sleeping bag as their shelter for the remainder of the race. According to one rider the biggest mistake you can make when sleeping outdoors is opening your sleeping bag which is why he would store a heated water bottle in his sleeping bag with him at night and use that to create heat, quench his thirst, and relieve himself during the night. It may be gross, but in extreme conditions opening your sleeping bag could be the difference between life and death.
With such a lengthy race participants actually did spend some time sleeping indoors and eating hot meals at check points that had available lodging. Drop bags were also placed throughout strategic points in the race so that racers could replenish their stores and not have to carry all 26 days of supplies with them. Racers on average burn approximately 8,000 calories a day and depleting vitamins, minerals and dehydration means refueling and hydrating becomes a constant necessity. In 2001, several snowstorms made conditions nearly impossible for cyclist to ride their bikes. One cyclist estimated that en route to the checkpoint in Iditarod he pushed his bike for 400 miles and only was able to ride 100 miles. Perhaps that is why so many ultimately were unable to continue. Out of 120 racers only 70 arrived to the 130 mile finish line, 33 made it to McGrath, and 4 made it to Nome. Cyclist Andy Heading of the UK and Mike Estes of Alaska tied for first place with a time of 26 days 5 hours and 7 minutes. However, the foot racers were not very far behind. Tim Hewitt and Tom Jarding, both of Pennsylvania tied for second with 26 days 20 hours and 46 minutes. That race marked the end of what would be known as the grandfather of ultimate racing.
For thirteen years the Iditasport seemed as if it would just become a part of history until this past year when Billy Koitzsch decided to revive it. The race today is a throwback to the first Iditabike race featuring 100 and 200 mile options with many aspects of the original race remaining intact. Perhaps the biggest difference is now racers are equipped with SPOT locators so that they can be tracked online. This February ten people started the 200 mile race and eight people finished. The winner, Kevin Murphy completed the race in just 22 hours and 9 minutes. With a new leader and new enthusiasm it looks like the Iditasport tradition will continue. Plans for 2015 are already in the works, complete with a possible 225 mile route further into the Iditarod Trail.
Fat tire bikes have also taken off in a whole new way. Across the country small scale fat bike races are popping up and gaining the attention of cyclists. The fat tire bikes currently used in the Iditasport may still set you back thousands of dollars, but if you are just looking for a fun experience, Mongoose has been releasing affordable versions of fat-tire bikes which are currently sold at mass market retailers.
Fat Tuesday is all about taking things over the top and having fun. I think that nothing better represents that idea in the biking world than the Impossible Iditasport and fat bikes!
To read about the experience of a 2001 Iditasport cyclist, check out the blog of Biker Bill: http://bikerbill1969.blogspot.com/2012/02/february-2001-iditasport-extreme.html