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The Last Frontier for Fatback ultra-biking

Craig Medred

For years now, Fatback bike designer Greg Matyas of Anchorage has been telling everyone who will listen that fat-tired bikes aren't just for riding in the snow, and this summer it appears a government agency not exactly known for innovation took his advice to heart.

For years now, Fatback bike designer Greg Matyas of Anchorage has been telling everyone who will listen that fat-tired bikes aren't just for riding in the snow, and this summer it appears a government agency not exactly known for innovation took his advice to heart.

The annual report for the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve 150 miles west of Anchorage reveals that Rangers for the sometimes hidebound National Park Service have turned to fat-tired bikes and pack-rafts, another invention in which a whole gang of Alaskans played a part, for patrolling the beach along the 4-million-acre park's Cook Inlet coast.

"The entire coast from Johnson River to the Chinitna Bay Ranger Station, about a 30 mile ride, can be traversed in a day by bike," the report said. "The raft is used to cross the major rivers encountered along the route. Otherwise it is mostly firm beach cruising. The riding is quite fast and provides a good alternative for travel without the use of fuel."

The fat-tired bike is an invention tracing its roots back to the Iditasport Snowshoe, Ski and Bike Race. That race, now extinct, was advocated by Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race founder Joe Redington. Bikes soon came to dominate that event, and as they did, cyclists began experimenting with new and better equipment.

By the time the Iditasport died, later to be reborn as the Iditarod Invitational, a whole bunch of Alaskans were heavily into experimenting with ever-wider bike rims. The experimental bunch included John Evingson of Anchorage, Mark Gronewald of Palmer, Simon Rakower of Fairbanks, Matyas and others who proposed that wider rims, tires and bikes would provide more float on packed snowmobile and dog trails.

However, fat-tire biking really didn't take off until a Minnesota company introduced a mass-produced bike that rode on tires nearly 4 inches wide. The "Pugsley" bike, produced in Taiwan by Surly Bikes, became a cult sensation. But it was the Surly tire, the "Endomorph," that really sparked a winter bike craze that started here in Alaska, where winter bikers sometimes ride the Iditarod Trail 1,000 miles to Nome, and soon spread Outside.

Pretty soon, national demand for fat-tire bikes was high enough that Matyas's shop, Speedway Cycles in Spenard, went into production with the Fatback soon to be followed by the 9:Zero:7 from Chain Reaction Cycles in South Anchorage. The Alaska companies' boutique bikes of lightweight titanium and aluminum became the envy of fat-tire bikers spinning the pedals on their hefty (albeit cheaper), chromoly steel Pugsleys.

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Matyas was among the first to recognize that the proliferation of snow bikes might saturate the market, and thus he began pushing the idea of fat bikes for riding any and all soft surfaces -- snow, sand, marsh or beach.

Australian Russ Worthington rode a Fatback across Australia's deserts in 2009. Meanwhile, a number of Alaskans took Fatbacks, Pugsleys, 9:Zero:7s, and Wildfire bikes, custom-built by Gronewald, on any number of epic Alaska coast rides. Some just turned to beach-cruising nearer home for fun.

The park service, however, found the bikes are good for more than just adventure and exercise.

"The fat-tire bikes also were very useful to VIPs stationed at Chinitna Bay who are not always trained and authorized to use ATVs (all terrain vehicles)," the Lake Clark annual report noted. "Much positive feedback has been received from visitors about the park's use of a good 'green' alternative and many appreciated the lack of noise ... The bikes also compliment the patrol boat by providing easy land transportation."

And, of course, come winter the park notes "the bicycles are available for alternative transportation by staff in Port Alsworth." The fat-tire bikes were, after all, first designed for riding in the snow.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com