Wildfire's in the paper
For these broad-tired bikes, 'fat' isn't a dirty word
Alaskan's creations conquer snow, but face cost challenges from Outside
By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News
Published: November 26, 2006
Last Modified: November 26, 2006 at 03:36 AM
In the snow on the wintery trails around Anchorage these days can be found the imprint of Mark Gronewald's success.
It is writ in the shallow chevrons of the print of a bike tire nearly 4 inches wide.
Years after Gronewald first advocated the fat-tire bike as a viable alternative for winter transportation and recreation, his vision is rolling up hills and dipping into valleys across Southcentral.
The FatBike, as Gronewald calls it, has arrived.
Visit almost any bike shop in Anchorage today, and you will find a fat-tire bike on display. Most shops display them prominently.
Unfortunately, it is hard to know whether to congratulate Gronewald or console him.
That's because the owner of Wildfire Designs Bicycles in Palmer -- builder of the FatBike that first attracted attention by tying for victory in the 2001 Iditasport Impossible human-powered race from Knik to Nome -- no longer drives the fat-tire phenomenon.
Gronewald is still in the FatBike business. He's subcontracted frame construction to DeSalvo Cycles in Ashland, Ore., but he's still building bikes, selling wheels and rims for fat-tire conversions and promoting winter mountain biking.
But leadership in the fat-tire market has clearly passed to a Minnesota-based company.
Surly Bikes hit the trails last year with a reasonably priced (at least by upscale mountain-bike standards) fat-tire that's built in Taiwan. The Surly Pugsley, as the bike is called, is the fat bike you'll see in most Anchorage shops.
"When you design bikes up in Minnesota you have to think fat, especially if you want a ride that can handle the Midwest's snowstorms and mud," the magazine Hooked on the Outdoors said at the rollout of the Pugs last year. "The Pugsley (is) a mischievous bike that rolls on super-pudgy 4-inch-wide, 26-inch rims. ...The Pugsley eats up snow and slush, but it's also the ideal ride for beach bums looking to cruise the sand or explorers looking to off-road the outback. Nature's worst will never stand in the way of your commute again."
Nice bit of revisionist history that conveniently overlooks Gronewald and bike builder John Evingson, once of Anchorage.
Both of those men have been playing with fat-tire bike designs for years. But Gronewald says the origins of the FatBike go back even further.
He traces the lineage to Texan Ray "El Remolino" Molino, who experimented with wide-tire bikes for riding on sand in the 1980s. Remolino modified bikes to accept super, extra-wide rims that could support monster tires. He eventually pushed rims to such widths -- three times wider than regular rims -- that special bike frames were needed to accommodate them.
"He was before me," Gronewald said, "and he had a couple prototypes before that. They weren't quite as refined."
Gronewald took the Remolino concept and started tinkering with refinements six or seven years ago. Eventually he had a reliable, solidly functioning FatBike. By the middle of this decade his FatBikes were cleaning up in the ultimate test of fat-tire bikes -- extreme races across the snowy winter trails of Alaska.
Riders on FatBikes won the 350-mile Alaska Ultrasport race along the Iditarod Trail from Knik to McGrath in 2004, the 1,100-mile race along the Iditarod to Nome in 2005 and the 350-miler again this year.
Guessing FatBikes might hold potential to turn at least some summer mountain-bike adventurers into winter riders, Surly picked up the idea and ran with it. The company, a division of even bigger Quality Bike Products Inc., not only makes bikes, it also makes a 65-millimeter (approximately 2 1/2-inch) rim it calls the Large Marge to fit those bikes.
For Gronewald, this has been a mixed blessing. Pugsley bikes compete for customers, but until the Large Marge rims showed up, rims for FatBikes were hard to find.
"So that's a good thing," Gronewald said, though he still longs for Remolino's 80-millimeter (more than 3-inch) rims. These rims, which have big holes drilled in them to reduce weight, have a cult following in the small but growing world of fat-tire cyclists.
"I was just offered $500 apiece if I could get a hold of some older Remolinos," Gronewald said last week.
Readily available Large Marge rims go for about a fifth of that. Not all mountain bike frames will accommodate a rim this wide.
So an investment in fat-tire rims is usually going to force an investment in a fat-tire bike.
The Pugsley frame can be had for $500 to $600. A Wildfire frame from DeSalvo will cost you about half again as much, a lighter titanium version even more. Gronewald contends the DeSalvo frame is a higher quality product than the Surly.
A fully built up, ready-to-ride Pugsley -- frame, rims, wheels, tires, cranks, brakes, etc. -- can be had for less than $2,000. Gronewald said the cheapest FatBike he can build will run $2,100.
A big part of the cost for either bike in true FatBike form is the wheels. Large Marge rims cost $100 to $150 each.
CUTTING THE COSTS
Built-up wheels -- rim, hubs and spokes -- cost $250 or more, depending on the quality of the hubs and spokes involved. And then there are the Surly Endomorph tires at about $100 each.
Start adding such niceties as Magura Marta SL hydraulic disc brakes ($630) to avoid cables freezing in their housing or ice interfering with rim brakes, state-of-the-art Shimano XTR cranks ($629), lightweight Sram X.O shifters and derailleurs ($500) -- not to mention pricey little goodies like carbon-fiber handlebars and seatposts -- and it would be easy to push the price of even a Pugsley toward $5,000.
For the dedicated tinkerer, there are cheaper ways.
Find an old mountain bike frame with at least 3 inches of rear-tire clearance; a Large Marge rim can be built up to a low-cost hub. And Nokian makes a cheaper 3-inch-wide tire, the Gazzaloddi, designed for downhill mountain biking but usable for winter riding.
It doesn't offer quite the float of the Endomorph, but it's better than a standard mountain bike tire.
Some riders have also had success in mounting Endomorph tires to 40- or 50-millimeter rims designed for downhill mountain bikes, even though Surly discourages that.
The greater the difference in width between rims and the tires that are put on them, the greater the likelihood of pinch flats, particularly when riding at the low pressures necessary to make fat tires perform well in snow.
Still, long-time mountain biker Carlos Lozano of Anchorage said he's been running Endomorph tires on 44-millimeter SnowCat rims without trouble.
"It works just fine," he said. "The thing I'm learning about having the SnowCat/Endomorph up front is that the profile of the tire is taller."
As a result, when tire pressures are low, the big sidewalls can flex a lot, "and that induces tire wag," Lozano said.
While cyclists on Large Marge rims can use extremely low tire pressures, maximizing float on soft trail, Lozano said he has to keep pressures above 10 pounds per square inch to keep the bike from feeling too loose.
SnowCat rims are available from All Weather Sports in Fairbanks (www.allweathersports.com) for $120 a set.
Even with tire width reduced somewhat, Lozano said his bike still astounds him with both its soft-snow float and its comfortable ride.
Despite the price tag and the big marketing push being made by a cheaper competitor, Gronewald's FatBike business is still plugging along.
"I'm still getting quite a few bike orders," he said. "It keeps me busy all winter."
Couple winter bike building with a summer job working for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Division of Parks, and Gronewald has a year-round income.
But will it last?
The Surly Pugsley could be part of a rising tide of interest in winter biking that lifts FatBike builder Gronewald to new heights, or Pugsley could be the leading edge of a wave of low-budget competitors that sweep over him.
"I don't think it's hurt me at all so far," said Gronewald, who believes knowledgeable cyclists recognize that he has a better product. "Mine are lighter and faster, and they've got a better track record for races."
All of those things are commodities marketable to a small core of serious cyclists.
Among this group, the old standard used to be that a lighter part was worth the increased cost up to about $1 per gram. Now an increasing number of cyclists appear willing to sometimes pay $3 or $4 per gram for weight savings.
EASY TRAIL RIDERS
But for the bulk of the cycling market, the budget-price Pugsley will probably prove attractive.
"I do wish more people were on mine versus theirs," Gronewald said, adding that he also values the growing market.
"It is turning into kind of a sport for more people," he said.
Because fat tires offer more float, the bikes are easier to ride on Susitna Valley snowmachine trails than regular bikes.
Front tires don't punch through nearly as often, and riders don't do nearly as much snaking down the trail, a problem linked to tires sinking deep in snow and being pulled to one side or the other.
The low-pressure, 4-inch-wide Surly Endomoprh tires sink in so little that local nordic skier Tim Kelley said he'd be happy to see more of the bikes on local multi-use trails. Where other mountain bikes tend to tear up the trails, Kelley said, fat bikes pack them in. His experience so far this year, he added, is that getting on a trail behind a pack of Pugsley riders is actually better than getting in behind fellow skate skiers.
VIEW FROM THE FRINGE
"They don't tear up the trails like skinnier tires do," he said. "It doesn't take many passes before there's a really nice trail."
Fat-tire bikes also take the abuse of frozen rocks well.
All of these things make the bikes attractive to athletes who cross-train in a variety of endurance sports. Whether any of these factors will combine to create a true fat-tire fad remains to be seen.
"I don't know if you're going to see a boom," Gronewald said. "It's still sort of on the fringe, but I do think you will see more people getting into it."
Already there are enough that Gronewald doesn't find his FatBike getting laughed at when he's out.
"When I first started riding them," he said, "people were kind of making fun of me."
Now there's a new, equally irritating issue.
"The one that gets me," he said, "was I was out riding my Fat Bike, which I've been building for seven years now, and some guy tells me, 'Hey, man, you just copied the Pugsley.' "
What's a little guy from Alaska to do?
"I don't have much of a marketing budget," Gronewald said. "Marketing these things in Alaska, there's only so much you can do."
Still, he isn't ready to abandon his FatBike dreams. He knows he's got a good product and visions of how to make it better.
"I've actually been toying with the idea of carbon fiber (rims)," he said.
A wide, molded carbon-fiber rim could significantly drop wheel weight on a FatBike. Lighter wheels mean lighter bikes, and lighter bikes always roll faster and easier.
Why, a sub-25-pound FatBike pedaled by a skinny rider could float down most Alaska trails, opening more Alaska wilderness to winter biking.
It doesn't hurt to dream.
What an awesome article.
After taking a ride on Rio's Fatbike a few weeks ago. I have started to save my pennies for one next winter.
Checking Out The Big Phenomenon
As usual there are a few stupid, un-researched comments in there.
XTR cranks on a fatbike? Unless Evingston's do. I heard he was using a 73 shell. Can't imagine the chainline would work. Anyone know?
How may "old mtn bikes" except the Surly 1x1 accept the Large Marges with 3.0s?
But overall it was nice to see Mark get some credit.
Great article!!!!! It's great to see local recognition for our sport. You see many people in other forums hang it up for the winter because they say they cant ride....yet it's proof positive that you can ride all winter long. If we can do it in Alaska they can do it in the lower 48. Keep up the the great work wildfire.
Great Article Mark...congrats!
Flickr users out there!
I just put up a 'FatBike' group and posted some of my photos:
Post and search tag fatbike
Last edited by qayaq_alaska; 11-26-2006 at 02:59 PM.
$500 a piece for remolinos???? Wow.
Luckily I was able to scrounge up some green ones!
Originally Posted by carlhutch
And not in the police blotter for once.
Thanks, it was good to get a little recognition. I kind of felt like I was getting swept under the rug like an inconvenient dust bunny. It's a bit ironic that for years I had to overcome the prevailing stigma that the FatBike was slow and hard to pedal coming from all the "experts" and now that a well known bike company is making basically the same product, it's the best thing since sliced bread. Go figure. And it does hurt a bit to see all the people jumping on the Pugsly bandwagon (not that there's anything wrong with that ), even some of my friends I've ridden with for years. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, people are very concerned with price and instant availability, look at all the people who shop at Walmart at the expense of local businesses.
I think Craig did a good job translating my somewhat random remarks into a readable article. I think Evingson did put XTR cranks with a 73 mm shell on a couple of his earlier bikes but there were some chainline issues and he could only get about 4 or 5 gears to work on the rear without the chain rubbing the tire. And you're right there are few if any stock frames that will work with the big wheels, even if they fit there are chainline issues to deal with. I think he might have been referring to Stroganof's and Tscheezy's Turner mods.
One thing I wish I had mentioned (I was called out of the blue on this interview) was to thank the racers who rode FatBikes and kicked butt, doing a whole lot to prove their worthiness: Yourself, Mike Estes, Bill Merchant, and Carl Hutchings to name a few. And Mike Curiak, though he wasn't on the Wildfire brand. Thanks you guys.
Originally Posted by pbasinger
Does anyone have Old Iditabike pictures collections
Looking for old Iditabike Pictures from 1988-89 thanks
Congratulations on the article, Mark. I hope it sells some product for you and promotes this small niche to a broader audience. It doesn't necessarily paint Surly in the best light, but that's not entirely surprising. Our affiliation with QBP often gives people the idea that we're a huge company with deep pockets and that we're trying to squelch the "little guy". The fact is...we are still the little guy in the grand scheme of things. We're 5 avid cyclists who get to do what we love for a living...ride bikes, design bikes, and sell bikes to people to who actually ride bikes. Financial viability certainly is a consideration when making decisions regarding new products, but most of our offerings were born from our collective desire to ride what we sell. It's that simple. Greed and desire for notoriety have no place in this office.
Obviously, the Hooked article, quoted in the Anchorage Daily News, doesn't really reflect the full history of the evolution of adventure bikes. In the actual interview with our Hooked contact, more credit was given to the early pioneers than was presented in the article. It's a function of the Hooked writer's editorial license and the space allotted to the article. There's not much we can do about that. In my experience, that's generally the way articles appear in print. An actual interview can contain 3 pages of text, but the final article will contain one fourth of that. The writer slices and dices it as he sees fit. Quotes are taken out of context and important details are often omitted or given incorrectly, because the writer doesn't fully understand his subject matter. Luckily, most press is good press.
Wu-Tang Academy Alumni
For what it's worth
My inexperience and eagerness to own a snow/sand bike, in my opinion, led me to buy first and shop later. After building the Puglsy (thanks again by the way) and seeing what you had to offer I realized that I should have sat on my wallet for another couple of months and saved up for a Wildfire.
Originally Posted by Wildfire
I am definately going to be shopping at Marks Wild World of Fatbikes as soon as I can justify replacing the blue bomber.
.....cheatin' life, and peelin' out on the lawn.........
Wood chips are stupid
Don't worry Dave
Most of us riders know Surly are great people who run a great company. You have to take half the stuff that guy writes with a grain of salt. Remember,he only has a week to become an expert in the field he is reporting on.
"Trust me,you don't want a big baby."
I think it did tell a bit more of the story then was generally known, so from my point of view it was good to see that part of it. If you're a little guy, I'm microscopic in relation. I didn't know what the gist of the article was going to be about when I was interviewed, I thought it was just going to be a small blurb about FatBikes in a bigger article about the growing sport of winter riding. So anyway hope it sells more bikes for all of us. It really is a great sport with tons of potential and there's no way I could grow it like you guys have done with the Pugs, I do have to grudgingly acknowledge that, so that's a good thing for all of us. And come on, you guys have got tons of press nationwide, so let us Alaskans have a small slice of the glory pie, we deserve it.
Originally Posted by Graveday
Pugs Comes of Age
Glad to see the Surly guys weigh in as I was getting tired of the Wildfire's poor me spin. I assembled bone stock Pugsley on my own after looking both DeSalvos (Wildfire) and Vicious - they all have design limitations compared to traditional MTBs, but without Surly's rims and tires mainstreaming was never possible and it extend the sale's season to our local bike shops which employ a bunch of folks pushing the edge. 2006 has shown Alaskans will tweak phat bikes for cold weather performance and in a couple of months a few highly modified sub 30 pound Pugs photos will offer to the public what creativity and elbow grease can do for long distance winter racing. My second Pugs is under way and while not a true "custom" frame I bet I can build a bike that is pound for pound a match to a Wildfire, at half the prices being quoted. Attacking Surly's quality when there are thousands of professional bike messengers using their framesets daily is silly. Quality may not be the smoothness of a weld or custom paint, but durability and cost effective function to the rider. 87beemer
Wood chips are stupid
Good work Mark
Mark, your bikes are light, pretty and work well for your customers. Surlys are cheap,heavy and ugly. They work good, but are ugly. Really,why is everyone, me included, painting their Puglies? I rode one of your bikes last spring, it felt really good. Don't change a thing Mark.
"Trust me,you don't want a big baby."
Wu-Tang Academy Alumni
Poor Me Spin
**SNIFF, SNIFF** We're just 5 lonely poor fellas trying to scratch out a tough living out here in the mid-west, and we outsource our frames to Taiwan because it saves you money not us **SNIFF, SNIFF**
Man I think next time I'll buy two just so those guys at surly don't starve.
.....cheatin' life, and peelin' out on the lawn.........
Thanks for the kind words
Actually, the Pugs are well made from what I've seen and all fat bikes are kinda ugly in a mutant sort of way.. When I mentioned the quality of the two products I was referring to the fact that the FatBike frame is, in my opinion, made from a much higher end tube set and is over a pound lighter. I havn't heard of any Pugsleys falling apart out there, so obviously they are well built. I'd love to be able to knock the price down to match but it's not a good business model to not shoot for a small profit. If it's any consolation, the extra cost of a Wildfire frame goes to support American and Alaskan companies. Somepeople are willing to pay extra for that, some people aren't. Take your pick, it's a free country. Glad you at least contacted me for a quote and I'll still ride with you Pugs drivers out there.
We should be thanking Surly for making a rim and a tire that works. Good luck finding a sand rim to fit you Wildfire or Surly. Also have fun sewing tires together to work with your snowbike. If there was no rims or tires, then we would be begging someone to make them. So thanks to the bike industry for going out on a limb for snowbikes. We NEED Surly, they don't need us. Great job Wildfire and Surly.
I agree, anyone who helps expand our "fringe" sport where we have a greater supply of "stuff" to bend, twist, mutilate, mix and match to accomodate our latest modification for winter riding deserves our thanks. I have been riding a Wildfire Fatbike for 4 years, winter and summer. I have one bike, a couple of forks and a quiver full of wheels and tires. Easier for me to store and afford than several bikes! Whether riding the 2500 mile Divide trail or the Iditarod Trail to McGrath it has worked equally well for me. It even doubled for an ice axe yesterday. Remolina Sand Rims with a Surly Endomorph rear and Nokian Gazzalodi front are my this years tools of choice so thanks Mark, Ray, Surly, Nokian and all them other folks that made components and gave me advice that work for me.
Lets go ride ice!!!!!!!
excuse that old fart at the ADN
he thinks XTR stopped with M900 square tapers. i've seen his bike. it's got parts on it that might have been made by fred flintstone. some of them are so old they predate the rickshaw.
that is OLD
Originally Posted by deerfoot
How may "old mtn bikes" except the Surly 1x1 accept the Large Marges with 3.0s?
I've been curious to see if my On-One Inbred would fit this combo. Do you have one at the shop we could stick in there to see? I know the front fork can fit a 3" Gazzawhatever from Nokian...not sure about the rear, but there's a bit of room.
The On One might actually fit. Might on a snowcat anyway. Never seen an on one in person be hear there is lots of room. Do you have horizontal dropout?
Depends. I have 2 Inbreds: a SS model w/ horizontal drops and a geared version. Not sure which I want to ride. I need to get a Chris King crown race to put on my rigid fork so I can swap it out. I'm really behind the power curve this season...
If you were surprised rumours of your union have spread to the sound then can i say they have crossed oceans to blighty as well.
Is it true a line of women specific geometry fat bikes will soon be available?