If you’re one of those curmudgeons still skeptical of the fat bike movement, take note: It’s just getting bigger. Fat bikes now have their own national championship.
Last weekend, 500 riders gathered in Cable, Wisconsin, to race on the famed trails of the American Birkebeiner, a 41-year-old cross-country ski marathon modeled after the Norwegian race of the same name. It was only the second time that the Birkie trails, located three hours north of Minneapolis, have been open to bicycles in the winter.
The Fat Bike Birkie was launched in 2013 and capped at 300 racers. Because of its initial success, it attracted 500 riders this season and organizers envision it will keep growing in 2015. And although it falls outside the realm of cycling’s national governing body (in the same way enduro racing does), various power brokers in the fat bike scene decided this year that it made sense from a growth and visibility standpoint to crown the Birkie as the sport’s national championship.
“While fat biking is not yet sanctioned by USA Cycling, the concentration and infrastructure of fat biking currently in the Midwest made the Fat Bike Birkie the obvious and unanimous choice among the fat bike community for hosting the first-ever national championship,” says Ben Popp, executive director of the American Birkebiner Ski Foundation and Fat Bike Birkie.
This year’s event drew some national talent, including Specialized race ambassador Rebecca Rusch and Mountain Bike Hall-of-Famer Ned Overend. “The upper Midwest is the center of the universe for snow bike racing, so there was a lot of energy. I think everyone is excited to be involved because it’s so new,” Overend said afterward. “It was still a pretty intimate event, with 500 racers and the spectators— mostly their friends and family and lots of press and industry people. But there are a lot of mountain bike races in summer that can’t attract a field that big.”
The weekend featured both 20K and 47K races, both of which were mass starts. The courses were open to competitors for pre-riding the day before the event, and they ran on fully groomed, 10-foot-wide cross-country ski trails through constantly bending and rolling terrain. Thanks to plentiful snow in the last few weeks and cold temperatures (22 degrees at the start), conditions were hard-pack and fast.
In the premier event, a dozen strong riders lead the race until the pack began to dwindle halfway through under the impetus of Overend and 2013 Birkie Fat Bike winner Jordan Wakeley. Overend, 58, proved too strong, however, and after slowly whittling away the group, he built a healthy two-minute gap over second place finisher Will Ross of Anchorage, Alaska. In the women’s event, Jenna Rinehart of Mankato, Minnesota, took the top step.
“It’s a little bit silly to still be winning,” said Overend. “I train year round, but events like this are good motivation. Coming here is also about learning about the technology and the scene and seeing what’s going on.”
Overend says that while some of the big bike manufacturers, including Specialized, were slow to jump on the fat bike trend, they now see it as lasting movement. “A couple of years ago it seemed like a fad,” Overend said. “But the growth in popularity over the last few seasons, plus the fact that people are riding fat bikes on more than just snow…We definitely think this has legs.” Specialized launched its first fat bike, the FatBoy, last fall. Overend rode the bike to victory, though his race model was tricked out with a SRAM XX1 1x11 drivetrain and Hed carbon wheels.
The existence of the Fat Bike Birkie underscores just how quickly the fat bike movement is growing. “Fat biking wasn’t even on our radar until Kevin Ishaug of Freewheel Bikes in Minneapolis, which went on to become our presenting sponsor, approached Scott Chapin, one of our board members, and really encouraged us to get involved with this new segment,” says Susan Kendrick, media director for the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation. “I think the fear among ski operators is that bikes will negatively impact the trails. But we haven’t seen that. So far, everyone has welcomed it. We haven’t had one negative comment in two years.”
That fat bikes have garnered even a day of riding on the Birkie trails is a good first step and an indication of the sport’s growing stature. But will bikes ever get full access to wintertime trails?
“There’s nothing in the works," Kendrick says. "But I will say, fat bikers have proven to be one of the nicest groups of people we’ve ever dealt with.”
Therein could lie the key to the future of fat biking access.