History of the Fat Tire Bike: Iditabike Drives Innovation

According to data presented at the 2015 Global Fat Bike Summit, fat tire bikes are the fastest growing segment of the bicycle industry. No doubt about it, fat tire bikes are here to stay and we’re seeing more and more people looking to join the fun. So… we thought it would be fun to dig in and discover a little bit more about the history of the fattie.

Related: First Time Fat Tire Biking in Duluth

Adventurous Innovations & the Modern Fat Tire Bike

By Dave Grandmaison

Modern versions of what we know today as the fat-tire bike seem to have sprung out of the Iditarod Trail Invitational – a human powered winter adventure bike race that challenges racers to a 200-mile Alaskan backcountry trek following the first section of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail dogsled race route from Knik to Nome. Today elite racers follow the full 1,000 miles across the Alaskan tundra, but rest assured that there’s still a shorter race option for those who aren’t really into endurance cycling… it’s only 350 miles. Oi!

Anyhow, the Iditarod started as a dog sled race by Knik, AK resident Joe Redington Sr. in 1973 to recognize the brave mushers and dogs who shuttled life-saving serum to the Western Alaska village of Nome during a 1925 diphtheria outbreak. The race would later incorporate snowshoeing and cross-country skiing components and the bike race (“Iditabike”) was added to the extreme list of options in 1987.

Known as “The Toughest Mountain Bike Race in the World”, the first Iditabike must have been (at least) slightly intimidating to its participants… even to the hearty adventurers who decided to follow the Iditarod mushers. Charlie Kelly’s account of the first Iditabike in 1987 provides some great insight into just how difficult it would have been to prepare for such a challenge.

Kelly explains, “According to the race rules, riders had to carry, in addition to the usual tools, survival gear for minus-20 degree nights and blizzards, food, stove, flares, riding lights, first aid kit, and so on-the same gear the mushers were expected to have on their sleds, less of course the dog food.

Iditabike Martha Kennedy

Minnesotan Martha Kennedy racing the Iditabike in 1987. Photo Credit: Charlie Kelly.

Kelly’s narrative is very interesting and there is a section that describes some of the creative modifications that bikers used for the race – tires studded with sheet metal screws, for example – but no description of fat tires. At this point, these brave men and women were still riding standard mountain bike tires.

And a cool piece of the Iditabike history is that during that inaugural 1987 race, the first man and woman to finish the race were Dave Link and Martha Kennedy, respectively – training partners from St. Paul, Minnesota!

Each year the number of participants grew along with the excitement surrounding the event. According to Jill Homer, author of Half Past Done’s Brief History of the Iditabike, 1989 also saw some interesting mountain bike innovations. Dave Ford, for example, built an “Icicle Bicycle” comprised of two rims welded together side-by-side and mounted with two tires for a double-wide wheel.

Iditabike Icicle Bicycle

Dave Ford’s innovative “Icicle Bicycle”. Photo Credit: Charlie Kelly.

In his Brief History of Fatbikes writer Nicholas Carmen described how “rims were pinned or welded side by side, laced in tandem to a single hub, with two tires. With twice the footprint, the wider system allowed more riding and less walking“.

One notable experiment by Iditarider Steve Baker, called the ‘six pack,’ consisted of three rims welded together with three tires to create a mega-wheel that improved floatation on the snow-covered route.

Tandem rim designs evolved with a pair of rims being welded together to create a platform for large-volume custom-built tires. Eventually the 44mm Snow Cat Rim was manufactured to allow for the widest footprint possible but still function with conventional mountain bike frames. As Carmen notes, the great part of this development was that Snow Cats were available off the shelf. This paved the way for fat tire bikes to reach a greater cycling audience.

Alaskan designers continued to innovate the fat tire bike and put it through some of the most extreme product testing imaginable. Alaskan Mark Gronewald – owner of Wildfire Designs Bicycles in Palmer, Alaska – took inspiration from earlier work by Ray Molina and deserves considerable credit for pushing the sport towards its modern popularity. Gronewald refined Molina’s designs with offset wheels and improved symmetrical frames and is credited with coining the term “fat-bike”.

According to Wikipedia, Gronewald and another Alaskan frame builder, John Evingson, collaborated to design and build several bikes using Molina’s rims and tires around 1999. With Molina’s work and innovations by Gronewald and Evingson, the modern fat tire bike was born.


Fat Bike Universal Klister

The fat bike has evolved since the early days of the Iditabike. Photo Credit: Hansi Johnson.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the fat tire biking or what to get out and experience the fun for yourself, please visit our Guided Fat Bike Adventure Page and consider booking an adventure with The Duluth Experience!

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Charlie Kelly January 29, 2016

The Iditabike is also covered in my book, Fat Tire Flyer: Repack and the Birth of Mountain Biking.

Dave Grandmaison January 29, 2016

Charlie! Send over a link to your book and we’ll add it to the post. Thanks for stopping by – your contribution to chronicling the Iditabike is amazing!

cCChacrlie Keclly January 30, 2016