If you are a bicycle retailer, especially one in the northern U.S., a comment like, "We don't have an off-season anymore," may not seem possible. Heck, I know of bike shops that actually close or greatly reduce their hours once the snow flies. Well, friends, the times, they are a changin'. (sorry Bob)
Why? Simple: Fatbikes and winter-specific bicycle gear and parts. I remember seeing my first fatbike a few years ago. David Pramann, who was the race director for the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, showed up at a local club off-road ride on his Pugsley. His "clown bike" sure turned a lot of heads, but he rides it year-round.
Even just a few years ago, a retailer would possibly stock one fatbike to display. Did they think they would be selling a lot of them? No way. They would bring one in—similar to how car dealers may have a vintage or unusual car on the lot—to be a conversation starter or something to help customers remember them by. That's changed.
The fatbike Pramann showed off a few years ago was really heavy, a winter utilitarian machine. But technology, selection and quality have all improved on this specialized bicycle line. I called Jason Gaikowski, head of marketing at Quality Bicycle Products, to learn more about the sales patterns for winter bikes. QBP manufacturers a couple fat bikes, Pugsley and Mukluk, and has launched a new line of fat bike gear and accessories designed for winter riding. He said that, in 2011, they doubled sales and expect rapid growth in 2012.
It is not really niche anymore. But is it becoming mainstream? Probably. Another thing that Jason said (and I have observed) is that people are riding their fatbikes year round. “These bikes are in fact terrific in winter and on snow – but fatbikes are great fun for all sorts of terrain – sand, rocks, obstacles, curbs – pretty much anything,” he said.
I also spoke to David Gabrys, who heads QBP's 45 North, its winter bike division. He’d recently spoken with a couple employees of regional parks that have singletrack trails. They estimated that there is now about three times as much bicycle traffic in the off-season compared to just a couple years ago.
The quality, technology, selection and weight all have improved greatly on these bikes in the past 12 months. Being an economics major, my bet is that demand drove those improvements. Last year, I purchased a fat bike and wasn't sure if I would have many people to ride with (I live in a rural area, population 2,500). After asking around, I discovered there are about 20 people who have these. Pretty amazing. They are everywhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I see them all the time when I am visiting, especially on the river bottom trails. And there are dozens of fatbike races now: another indication that these are not just a fad.
If I were a bicycle retailer the imaginary light bulb above my head would be shining really brightly!