There’s a big, stupid permagrin plastered across my face. I knew fat bikes were fun. I’d heard about their prowess as snow-eating winter cycling machines. I’d seen those big balloonish tires gobble up roots and rocks and all manner of obstacle with ease. But what took me by surprise was the grippy traction and precision handling on the downhill of Buckhorn, Captain Jack’s and the Chutes.
If you’ve done any mountain biking in Colorado Springs, you’ve probably ridden those classic trails. They’ve earned their status as local favorites, but their decomposing granite can be notoriously sketchy. I’ll confess, surfing gravel through tight switchbacks above plunging drop-offs can make me nervous. But the Borealis Echo I’m on rolls right over any trepidation and locks into the trail as if it were a roller coaster rail.
Call me a believer. Fat bikes aren’t just for snow anymore. Thanks to new and rapidly expanding designs from the likes of the hometown company Borealis Fat Bikes, fat bikes are becoming more versatile. That means they’re perfect for Colorado Springs trails any time of year, and they may just open up our amazing trails and terrain to a wider variety of riders. There’s a lot of fat biking potential all around us.
You’ve probably seen the balloon-wheeled bikes on a local trail or in a ski town by now. For the uninitiated, the concept is all about maximizing wheel contact with the ground over a wide space and low air pressure—about 4 to 8 pounds per square inch (psi) on soft surfaces—to let the tires grip the ground to absorb obstacles and bumps. By comparison, road bikes typically run at 80 to 130 psi. The large footprint from 4- to 5-inch wide tires provides comfort and control on terrain that other bikes can’t always handle.
Fat bikes got their start in Alaska, where cycling enthusiasts in the late 1980s began modifying and doubling rims for wider tires to create more surface area to float over snow and mud. Around the same time in New Mexico, a cyclist named Ray Molino was making similar modifications for sand riding in and around desert canyons.
It wasn’t until 2005 that fat bikes reached the masses. The Surly Pugsley rolled off the production line in bright purple and 3.7-inch wide tires, and it ushered in the fat bike era. More companies, such as Salsa and 9:Zero:7, followed with their own models, and new wheel designs and components opened up greater options. Fat bike popularity took off in snowy areas, such as Alaska, Canada and the northern Midwest. Adventurers discovered a new way to explore new parts of the globe by pedal—yes, the South Pole has been reached by fat bike. And along with its global appeal, fat biking has also gone local.
Steve Kaczmarek was teaching innovation classes at Colorado College when he met student Adam Miller in 2012. Miller, from Alaska, had an idea to build a better fat bike. He hoped to win CC’s annual Big Idea entrepreneurial contest and its $50,000 prize money. Kaczmarek, 49, had retired young after a successful career in printing and manufacturing. He had the capital to invest and thought it would be a fun opportunity. Borealis Fat Bikes was born.
“This was supposed to be a hobby,” Kaczmarek says with a laugh. But the company surpassed initial sales projections immediately. Instead of reaching $180,000 in sales the first year, Borealis shipped $1.1 million worth of bikes in its first quarter—$3.2 million its first year. The operation quickly moved out of Kaczmarek’s garage, eventually settling in its current warehouse on Sierra Madre Street backing up to the downtown railroad tracks. Kaczmarek bought out Miller’s share of the company last year.
What has set Borealis apart from the beginning are its carbon frames and rims, which make a lighter, faster bike that’s easier for a rider to move and maneuver. “They’re the Ferraris of fat bikes,” says local cycling organizer and advocate Allen Beauchamp, himself the owner of a Borealis bike.
No one else was using carbon when Borealis began. Few are still. The small company quickly built a strong reputation as the high-end leader with a quality ride to back up the price tag, which runs on average from $2,500 to $5,000 for base models.
New to the fleet, however, is a lower-priced aluminum frame model. It’s Borealis’ slightly heavier, more affordable answer to the fact that even large bike companies, such as Specialized and Cannondale, have entered the market recently with higher volume and lower prices. It’s to be expected since fat biking has been the hottest segment of the cycling industry the last few years.
Kaczmarek says many of his buyers are adding a fat bike to their fleet. “What people are finding is that they’re buying these snow bikes, or fat bikes, then they don’t put them away,” he says. “A year later they realize, I haven’t touched another bike in my garage. With the exception of a road bike, it’s literally becoming people’s first bike of choice.”
That was the case for Allen Beauchamp. “Every time I’m on a bike, I feel like I’m 5 years old again,” he says. “Especially on my fat bike because I found I wasn’t limited to certain trails or types of surface that I could comfortably ride on. It opened up new terrain possibilities and places you wouldn’t normally think to ride.”
To give our magazine team an intro to fat biking and some new terrain, we called on Beauchamp. With a vanload of Borealis demo bikes, we headed for Venetucci Farm to ride with staff from the farm and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which owns Venetucci.
The riding was mellow but beautiful as we pedaled between pastures and the swaying tawny grasses of winter wetlands. We rolled through a swooping loop in a cottonwood forest and tested our fat tires on a short stretch of sandy, cobblestoned beach along Fountain Creek. The area is not open to the public for biking, but Beauchamp and farm manager Susan Gordon are coordinating to create Fatties on the Farm, fat bike tours of the farm combined with farm to table brunches that will introduce visitors to the sustainable agriculture and wildlife preservation taking place on the historic property. (Watch for info at ppcf.org/our-projects/venetucci-farm.)
It’s a perfect pairing to see and enjoy the land, and it’s just the kind of cycling partnership that Beauchamp loves. The pedal evangelist holds many titles, including adaptive cycling specialist for the City of Colorado Springs’ Therapeutic Recreation Department, advocacy director for Bike Colorado Springs, and previous long-time president of the Colorado Springs Cycling Club. His mission is “more butts on bikes.”
Fat bikes are one of his favorite ways to accomplish that, crediting their ease of use. Thanks to the wide, stable girth of those tires, just about anyone can ride them—even if they haven’t been on a bike since childhood. “Fat biking is not an extreme sport,” he says. “However, it’s really cool and you can feel super-adventurous, but you don’t necessarily risk breaking something or have to ride at such a level you could be injured.”
Beauchamp has put Mayor John Suthers and members of City Council on fat bikes for Bike to Work Day, and he began organizing local Global Fat Bike Day celebrations four years ago. In 2013, Venetucci was the site for 2-degree, snowy Fat Bike Day festivities.
Beauchamp has had the access and opportunity to ride and explore many of the local waterways in working with the Parks Department and Greenway Fund, which advocates for healthier waterways and more riparian-recreation integration. He dreams of a day when sandy creek beds such as Jimmy Camp Creek in the yet to be developed Banning Lewis Ranch will be incorporated into a fat bike friendly trail network that is environmentally sustainable and ecologically healthy. “In the creek beds, every time water flows it reshapes the surface. So you have a consistently changing and sustainably durable environment in which to ride bikes,” Beauchamp says. “The Greenway Fund calls them complete creeks, with access for all—bikes, paddle parks, beaches, interpretive sites about the riparian environment.”
But access and safety issues are still to be solved for creeks, and for now, they remain off-limits due to city ordinance. “There’s a responsibility that comes with fat bike riding, and I am not an advocate of creating your own trails just because you’ve got the traction and float,” Beauchamp says.
But as fat bikes continue to evolve and grow in popularity locally, they’ll remain an example of how a change in recreation can change attitudes, desires and involvement in finding sustainable solutions for recreation and trail access.
Kaczmarek imagines a biking destination park and more connectivity between trail network—both items included in the city’s “Parks System Master Plan.” He eyes Pikes Peak and wonders about the possibility someday of an epic, flowing downhill that would be perfect for fat bikes.
Cyclists have been dreaming and looking for new ways to ride for years, but fat bikes offer a perfect example of how new technology can change perceptions and paradigms and even draw more people into exploring and engaging their community in new ways. Of course, ultimately, it’s fun that keeps people pedaling. As more and more riders start pairing fat bikes with our epic trail systems, Colorado Springs may soon be home to an epidemic of stupid grins and big fat two-wheeled fun.
Photography by Allison Daniell, Stellar Propeller Studios