BEMIDJI, Minn. — When asked how he did last year in the big race, Denny Barry shrugs his shoulders not because he did poorly, but because he can’t remember.“I don’t know,” said Barry, a retired gym teacher from New York Mills, Minn., as he unloaded his fat bike Saturday morning at Lake Bemidji State Park. “My bike is not a Ferrari,” he said. “It is a tank.”
The Northland Fat Bike Rally is that kind of race, where finishing last is no less of an achievement than finishing first, where children pass the race by sledding and their parents stay after for a beer, where people show off black bikes with carbon fiber frames, and white bikes with … mud stains.
Saturday was the second annual race, an event intended to gauge local interest in fat bikes — bicycles with oversized tires designed to traverse snow, mud and uncertain terrain.
It’s a growing sport here and elsewhere, the bikes exploding in popularity in the past few years. The people who ride say it gives them something to do in the winter, when traditional bicycles usually are stored away in the garage.
Saturday’s rally was split into two races, a 28K and a 10K. Organizers said this year’s race was bigger than last year’s, both in attendance — it rose from 53 to 66 — and in amenities, with a concession stand at the race and an after party at Bemidji Brewing Co.
“We were missing beer,” said organizer Jerry Smith. That was the racers’ No. 1 request last year.
About 11 a.m. the racers lined up on Lake Bemidji, the start of a course that ran along the shore before climbing up onto dry land, winding the rest of the way through the park.
At the starting line there were shiny new bikes and clumsy old ones.
There were mothers and fathers ready to take on their sons.
There were gray beards and adolescent chins dotted with peach fuzz.
“I think people like how it’s non-competitive,” Smith said, “how they don’t feel pressured.”
Even those with high expectations.
Lyan Karger, last year’s winner, is a 30-year cycling veteran. His little brother got him into fat bikes a few years ago, and now he trains by pulling his dog around their Bemidji neighborhood.
“They’re like monster trucks and will go over pretty much anything,” Karger said. “Don’t expect to set any land-speed records, but expect to have a good time.”
Work on this year’s race started with meetings in October, and included an eleventh-hour grooming of the course after a few inches of snow on Friday.
“Then we had a little rain, and it got below freezing overnight, so it’s perfect,” said Cory Boushee, who co-organized the rally and monitored course conditions.
Boushee and Smith said they’re trying to improve trail access for fat bikers here.
“We want it to be year-round,” Smith said.
Barry, who couldn’t remember how he did last year, has created his own opportunity for fat biking.
“This isn’t a race bike,” he said. “It’s a utility bike.”
Barry works in Wadena at Black’s Grove Park. He uses his white Surly fat bike, one of the first mass-produced fat bikes, to haul around a chariot filled with tools.
For this particular bike, hauling is a more practical function than racing.
“Look at that bike,” he said and pointed to a sleek black one. “Just my tires probably weigh more.
“You know how some people have antique cars? I have an antique bike. People come up to me and ask about it.”
That was probably his only chance of winning Saturday, as a distraction.