GILFORD — When Kale Poland, manager of the Nordic Center at Gunstock Mountain Resort, pitched the idea of offering fat bike rentals, one of his selling points was that they'd provide a way to sell trail passes when snow conditions were poor. He had no idea how quickly he would be proven correct.
The fat bike dates back a couple of decades, with riders in Alaska and the American southwest modifying conventional mountain bikes to fit larger tires, which could better handle snow and sand. According to an article on adventurecycling.org, Mike Curiak won the first Iditasport Impossible race, a 1,000-mile race to Nome, Alaska, in just over 15 days. He was riding a custom-built mountain bike with tires three inches wide. They remained exclusive to the custom-builders until 2005, when manufacturer Surley made fat bikes available to the masses with the Pugsley, a model with 3.7-inch wide tires.
"I've never seen a segment of the industry grow with more explosion," said Poland, who has been involved in the cycling industry as well as Nordic skiing. The interest in fat bikes seemed to bloom two winters ago, when manufacturers sold out of fat bikes before the snow started flying. Now, just about every mountain bicycle maker has a line of fat bikes for sale.
Poland sought to capitalize on that trend, and provide some insurance against weather, by purchasing six Reid fat bikes for rental this winter. It proved a prescient idea, as the poor snow quality has made for a miserable start to the cross-country ski and snowshoe season.
"The fat bikes are naturally something else you can do here," Poland said, "In a bad snow year, it can help to pull us through a little bit." Last weekend was the first time this winter that the Nordic trails were opened. All the fat bikes were rented out, with more than twice as many trail passes sold to people who brought their own fat bike.
"This has gone over pretty well," Poland said. Unlike some other Nordic areas, which restrict fat bikers to certain trails, or certain dates on the calendar, Poland has allowed free reign on Gunstock Nordic's 50 kilometers of trails. There are many miles of trails which will be enjoyable to the beginner or casual fat bike user, while the adventurous can follow the trail up and over the summit of Mount Rowe.
The largest, and most noticeable, difference between a fat bike and other mountain bicycles are the tires, and the larger frame components to accommodate them. The tires are about 4 inches wide and inflated to only about 10 pounds per square inch. There are some other differences, such as the lower gearing to make up for the greater rolling resistance of the large, soft tires. And the brakes are always applied to disks attached to the hubs of the wheels, as opposed to the rim of the tire, due to the greater possibility of snow or water on the tire rim. Poland said anyone who can ride a bicycle can hop on a fat bike.
"If you can ride a bike, you won't have a problem on this," he said.
While Gunstock Nordic's trails usually close at 4 p.m., after-dark fat bike-only rides are offered on Thursdays until 8 p.m. And, on Sunday, Jan. 10, the bikes will make possible Gunstock Nordic's first-ever winter triathlon. That event, which begins at 9 a.m., will featured a 5k snowshoe run, a 10k bike ride, and a 5k cross-country ski. Poland said registration for the event is $15, participants must supply their own fat bike, and those who wish to register may do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Laconia, Myles Chase, owner of MC Cycle and Sports, is riding the fat bike wave.
"I've never seen a type of riding or style of bike so on fire," said Chase. "Everyone that rides a bike wants one of these fat bikes... it's unreal."
Chase said he sells a couple of fat bikes per week, and his customers use them to explore snowmobile trails or groomed trails at places such as the Ramblin' V'ewe farm in Gilford.
"It's probably the best thing to happen to a New England bike shop," Chase said.
On the other side of the lake, though, fat bikes aren't seeing the same enthusiasm. Tim White, of the Nordic Skier Sports, which sells cross-country skiing and bicycling equipment, said, "We do sell them, we have moved a few, but it doesn't strike me that it will be as big as mountain biking in general was when it exploded in the late '80s, early '90s."
Factors hindering fat bikes, in White's view, include the limited availability of replacement tires, and the effect they have on cross-country ski trails. Fat bikes are not permitted in the Sewall Woods or Abenaki trail networks in Wolfeboro. As an experiment last winter, a fat bike user was allowed to ride on some of the trails in the Abenaki area, and the results were not good.
"There was quite a lot of damage," White said.
He can understand why a Nordic center would want to allow fat bikes on their trails when the snow conditions are poor, but he questioned having both skiers and bikers sharing the trails. He thought that most fat bike users would be inexperienced as skiers, and therefore wouldn't understand the importance of a smooth trail surface.
"The question is, what are you going to do when the skiing conditions improve?"
In Plymouth, fat bike riders aren't worrying about finding time on cross-country trails. Slade Warner, vice president of the Pemi Valley Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, said members of that club have been making their own trails through Fox Park in Plymouth, packing the snow down using snowshoes. He said the trails at Franklin Falls Dam, in Franklin, are also an excellent place to take a fat bike.
"Obviously, snowmobile trails get a bulk of the use," Warner said, adding that fat bikes offer a welcome opportunity to get fresh air and aerobic excercise. "In a year like this, they're particularly attractive. As a cross-country skier, there's nowhere to go."