FORT COLLINS, Colo. — They may look silly, and even clown-like, with their giant oversized tires, but the only thing bigger than the mark fat bikes leave on trails is the impact they are having on the cycling industry.
The hottest trend in the mountain biking world right now is the oversized bike that can accommodate tires up to 5 inches wide. Fat bikes are hard to miss. Their bulbous, "fat" tires roll over virtually anything, which makes them an ideal winter mode of transportation because they help cyclists traverse snowy and icy trails with ease and traction.
While the bikes were pioneered for snowy climates, such as found on the Front Range, they work well in a variety of environments including sand and loose rock, which has some local bike experts dubbing fat bikes as the all-around mountain bike of the future.
While most bikes are relegated to the trail, fat bikes give riders the ability to blaze their own trails.
Mike Douglas, 44, of Fort Collins, rides a Surly Pugsley fat bike with 4-inch tires to work nearly every day.
Douglas, who rides an estimated 6,000 miles per year, said the Pugsley is great in rough conditions such as snow, when he can deflate the tires to provide more traction. He compares it to the difference between a car and SUV. The fat bike can go more places, much like sport utility vehicles.
"It will roll over just about anything," Douglas said. "(People's reactions are) funny. People point and stare a lot. They will yell 'fat bike' because they do kind of stand out a bit and look awkward."
Douglas primarily rides the fat bike in the winter but said he will take the bike off trail other times of the year along the Front Range. One drawback to the hefty bike is the wheels weigh more than a standard bike, making it harder to pedal.
Ian Venable, production mechanic at Lee's Cyclery, bought himself a Surly Pugsley this season and said it was love at first ride.
"It's super fun; it really is. I thought they were ridiculous looking when they came out," he said. "We got one in the shop, and I rode it and fell in love."
The ride reminds Venable of his first bike with the emotional attachment he has formed.
Venable has been commuting to work on the fat bike this winter and sees more people inquiring about the bikes at Lee's. He has sold one this season and said there is more interest than ever before in the bikes.
Colin Treanor, manager of FatBikes.com, said the interest in fat bikes has grown exponentially among various sects of cyclists looking to continue their training in the winter.
"The popularity has increased drastically," he said. "They are designed to ride in the snow and for winter endurance racing, but we've found that fat bikes excel in various terrain."
Treanor estimates he has seen a 300 percent increase each of the past few years in fat bike sales and notes that Colorado is really taking off with the bikes. More people are commuting on the bikes than ever before, he noted.
While originally invented for the harsh Alaskan landscape, Treanor said he is seeing more people riding fat bikes on single-track trails in the summer. Rather than invest in a complex suspension system in a bike, Treanor said more people simply adjust the tire pressure to adjust the suspension.
Fat bikes are even becoming a cottage industry for other businesses. Longmont brewery Oskar Blues, which has gotten into the bike industry with its Reeb bikes, now sells Reeb fat bikes.
Oskar Blues spokesman Chad Melis, who has been racing fat bikes across Colorado, said the Reeb fat bike is turning more than a few heads.
"In the past, a lot of people hung up their bikes in the fall and didn't get out until the spring," he said. "We're opening people's eyes to fat bikes. A lot of people are asking about our bike. It's a good complement to skiing."
Last winter, Oskar Blues built one Reeb fat bike; this season, it produced 16 bikes and has had trouble keeping up with demand, Melis said.
Aside from riding the oversized bikes around the Colorado high country, Melis and the Reeb team have been racing in events from Crested Butte to Vail. Melis recently won a fat bike race at Copper Mountain.
Melis said he is seeing more fat bikes as he travels around the state.
While a recent shift in the bike industry from 26-inch wheels to 29-inch wheels, dubbed 29ers, took trails by storm in 2012, many are predicting that fat bikes are the next big thing.
Todd Heath, Fort Collins' Black Sheep Bikes co-owner of production, delved into the fat bike realm six years ago with its own version of the bike. This year, Black Sheep underestimated the fat bike market and sold out of some of their models.
"It is definitely taking off. It's a pretty huge trend right now," he said. "Big brands have seen the growth trend of 29ers in the past. I see that leveling out and see this as the next big trend."
Heath said his company has had a fat bike sitting around the shop for a while, but this past year, the concept transitioned from a novelty to a sustainable bike people use daily.
At this point, there is an 11-month wait list for one of their custom fat bikes. Between 2010 and 2013, Heath said he has seen nearly a 30 percent growth in the sale of fat bikes.
That growth locally is mirrored across the nation.
Gary Sjoquist, Quality Bicycle Products, QBP, advocacy director since 1998, compares the fat bike movement to the growth of mountain bikes in the mid-1980s.
"It is very much like mountain bikes were in the mid-1980s, driving the sub-25-pound full-suspension carbon, the whole gamut," he said. "(Fat bikes) are growing rapidly. They are a big chunk of business for QBP... Almost every fat bike or apparel manufacturer is fighting a losing battle to meet the demand."
QBP hosted its second annual Fat Bike Winter Summit & Festival on Jan. 25-27 in Island Park, Idaho, in order to raise awareness about the new bikes popping up on trails across the nation.
Last year's Fat Bike Summit focused on gaining access to national parks for fat bikes, a movement that has yet to succeed. This year's summit brought land managers and fat bike fans from across the country together to discuss where fat bikes can ride without causing negative impacts.
Sjoquist said part of the challenge with fat bikes is educating land managers who are not familiar with the bikes. One area that has seen success in allowing fat bikes on trails in the winter is Minnesota, where cyclists can pay $50 for a sticker designed at QBP that provides them access to snowmobile trails, Sjoquist said.
In Colorado, the same rules that apply to other mountain bikes also apply to fat bikes.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Reghan Cloudman said fat bikes are permitted on any trail in the winter that a standard bicycle is allowed on in the summer.
Cloudman said they have not seen an increase in biking during the winter but noted with a low snowpack this season it extended the cycling season. Cloudman noted cyclists are required to stay on the trails and roads designated for bikes.