TRAVERSE CITY — You won’t find “Fatalon” in Funk & Wagnall’s.
Fatalon: noun, (like biathlon, decathlon, heptathlon) signifies a multiple-event race, starring … the fat bike.
“We made the word up,” said Michele Howard, one of the Fat Bike Race coordinators for Traverse City’s North American VASA Festival of Races on Feb. 8-9. VASA’s Ski Fatalon combines race times for athletes who ski the 27-mile Nordic race in the morning, then pedal the King/QueenVASA Fat Bike Race around the same 27-mile course in the afternoon.
“The whole event is made up for our endurance athletes, and as far as we know, it has never been done before,” Howard said.
The VASA Festival’s inclusion of fat bikes is also a first.
The plumped-up popularity of fat bikes, or “fatties,” is becoming as wide as their comically tubby tires. Its inclusion — or infiltration, personal philosophy-depending — in Traverse City-area events is just as broad, too. Einstein Cycles kicked off a three-race Northern Michigan Fat Bike Series in January with “Fat Chance.” March features “Fat Camp.” Sandwiched between is the King/Queen VASA Race.
Fat bikers and skiers sharing the same course at VASA is a big step, said Pete LaPlaca, VASA President. Fat bikers are currently asked as a matter of “etiquette” to refrain from using the Nordic trail except for “Fat Bike Fridays.”
“We wanted to be proactive about it,” LaPlaca said. “This is a one-year trial period and it seems to be working well.”
King and Queen VASA will wear crowns fashioned from bike parts.
Fat bikes, once a niche market, are rolling into the mainstream as cycle enthusiasts tout their all-terrain toughness.
Howard likes to ride hers in whiteouts. Why? Because she can.
“It’s just the idea going out in these crazy conditions,” Howard said. “You get the worst weather thrown at you and you get to go biking. It makes you feel like a goofy kid.”
The bike’s large tires, kept at low pressure, grab purchase on loose sand and slippery snow. Bulky price tags – low-end models start at $1500 – mean most buyers are serious bike enthusiasts adding a “fatty” to their fleet.
“About 70 percent of people buy them as a third or fourth bike and rotate them around,” said Travis Cole, City Bike manager. “The other 30 percent use them all year.”
But this year’s spike in fat bike sales caught the vendors that make specialized fat bikes and parts by surprise, leaving several retailers in scrawny supply.
“They didn’t see it coming,” said Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels. “We could have sold many more than we sold, but the vendors under-estimated the market.”
Everyone is scrambling to catch up but retailers can still only order parts two at a time, he said. Brick Wheels has a few bikes in stock, plus a rental fleet of fat bikes available for $60 a day.
“They’ve been discovered,” Brick said. “People in Florida want to ride them in the sand. Older people like the stability of a wider tire.”
McClain Cycle & Fitness are cleaned out and keeping a waiting list, said David Hagan, a McClain mechanic.
“There’s a huge demand,” Hagan said. “We get one or two a week — then they’re gone.”
People are buying bikes new, marking them up and and selling them on Craigslist, he added.
Traverse City’s Steve Brown went to great lengths to procure his “fatty.” Connections to Brick Wheels and the Iceman Cometh Challenge Race allowed him to snag the last 2014 Trek Farley frame in stock. Trek’s entire stock of fat bikes sold out to dealers in just a few hours at a pre-sale event.
“I would say they were very surprised by the current demand for fat bikes,” Brown said. Early flying snow inspired the Iceman Cometh director to join the “fat bike crowd” this year, he said.
“Snow lights up the trees and ground turning a typically drab early December day into a winter wonderland,” Brown said. “It also makes the trails a little more challenging and slippery.”