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Mountain Gear

Riding Alaska’s Outback on a Fatback

Fifty racers are taking on the Iditarod Trail Invitational, 28 of them are cyclists. The first- and second-place finishers were on Greg Matyas' Fatback snow bike.

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Editor’s Update: Cyclist Pete Basinger won the Iditarod Trail Invitational on Thursday, the fourth time he has won the 350-mile race from Knik Lake to McGrath, Alaska. Jeff Oatley finished second 33 minutes behind Basinger. Both men rode Fatback bikes from Speedway Cycles.

Bummed that snow and cold are hampering your riding? Well, you can always embrace Ma Nature and her old man, Winter, just as 50 hardy souls are doing at the Iditarod Trail Invitational as you read this.

Following the same route as the famed Iditarod dog sled race, the annual Iditarod Trail Invitational, which started Feb. 28, is limited to 50 racers, who may choose a mode of travel (bike, ski, or hike) and a race distance (350 miles to McGrath, or 1100 miles to Nome).

This year 28 cyclists, 15 runners and 1 skier are taking on the wide-open Alaskan outback. Those on two wheels, like past ITI winners Jeff Oatley and Pete Basinger, are riding Fatback bikes from Speedway Cycles in Anchorage.

The Fatback is built by Speedway owner Greg Matyas. After several years of developing the ultra-fat tired rig, Matyas is now producing, among other things, his own line of hubs, wheels and cranks for “fatbiking.”

We caught up with Matyas recently to talk about the Fatback.

ST: What are common misconceptions about snow/sand bikes?
GM: A common misconception is that these bikes are heavy and slow. I have built a 1X9 version that weighed in at 22 pounds, but most builds end up between 25 and 28 pounds. Race speeds on firm ground are pretty damned fast. A fit rider can maintain 15 to 20mph.

ST: What are the biggest challenges in building snow/sand bikes? Bottom bracket widths; wheels; weight issues?
GM: In the past, getting the proper chainline with wide wheels has been the biggest challenge. Progression was relatively slow, and there wasn’t much to choose from.

ST: What were the drivers that pushed development?
GM: Once Surly did the Endomorph tire, things advanced fairly quickly to where they are now. Everyone was making do with existing products, but there were several compromises.

ST: You’ve come out recently with new hubs, cranks and wheels.
GM: I have burned more midnight oil than I care to think of figuring out the best approach to the challenges. Now I have frames, forks, hubs, rims, cranks, and handlebars made specifically for the bikes.

A good friend Eric Parsons at Epic Designs makes an assortment of frame bags and carrying systems custom fit to each frame size.

The whole project has been a labor of love. Many of us here in Alaska think the winter riding is better than the summer riding.

ST: How many people chose to do the ITI on bikes this year?
GM: About two-thirds of the field will ride bicycles this year. The next largest group is on foot, then a few skiers. When the riding is good, it’s faster than skiing, but when it’s not, it’s not all that much slower.

Jeff Oatley (last year’s winner) is riding a Fatback, as well as Pete Basinger, (the record holder in the race to McGrath, and also the 2008 winner of the race all the way to Nome). Jeff and Pete went one-two in the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota in early February. Janice Tower also rides a Fatback and won the women’s division setting a new course record.

ST: How many ITI riders are on your bikes?
GM: There are eight riders on Fatbacks in the ITI. Many of the riders come from foreign countries, so we have not yet reached them! In our Susitna race just two weeks ago, Fatback riders swept all top spots in all categories and distances in both men’s and women’s.