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Blood, Sweat and Tires

Words by Jeff Burke, Photos by Mark Fisher | 5 Min Read

For the last two decades, endurance cycling champions Jay and Tracey Petervary have been at the forefront of evangelizing fatbiking in the western U.S. For the uninitiated, think big black tires, low pressures and warm, moisture-wicking clothes. Now, after twenty years, the Petervarys are finally seeing the formerly fringe winter sport get the recognition it deserves.

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Photos by Mark Fisher

“I’ve pushed my bike across Alaska as much as I’ve ridden my bike across Alaska,” says Jay Petervary. The Idaho-based endurance cyclist is known for competing and often winning Herculean bike races that span days to weeks and hundreds to thousands of miles over dirt, gravel, single track, mountain passes—all unsupported. 

Let’s back up. For the last two decades, Jay and his wife Tracey—herself an endurance cycling champion—have been at the forefront of multi-day competitions around the world, topping podiums and often setting course records. The New Jersey natives got their start in cross country mountain biking, then upgraded to multi-sport Eco Challenges, traveling halfway around the globe to compete before settling into the western slope of the Teton Range in Victor, Idaho.

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Since the early 2000s, the Petervarys have been an energy center behind the proliferation of fat biking (snow bikes) in the western U.S. To the uninitiated, think big black tires, low pressures and warm, moisture-wicking clothes. “Moisture management is paramount,” says Petervary. With other early advocates in the Victor, Idaho area, they’ve worked diligently to champion fat biking as a dynamic and invigorating endeavor. Because of their multi-sport racing background, the virtues of fat biking were obvious. “It took a whole new skill set to figure out how to ride the bike in the snow,” says Petervary. “As the industry was trying to introduce fat bikes it was an exciting time, with lots of new gear, and it was all about figuring it out.” 

The initial fat bikes were Frankenstein creations. “The early days were a total hodgepodge,” remembers Scott Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald’s Bike Shop and Jay’s former employer. “You had to buy a frame from Alaska. People were welding rims together and sewing regular mountain bike tires together to create a fatter tire.” 

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Other user groups, however, were a bit slow to see the value in fat bikers riding their trails. Nordic skiers thought the bikes would ruin groomed trails, and Jay would often ride his fat bike in secret. “I used to go around the area like a sheep,” he says. “I didn’t want to be seen. People thought it was so weird.” He was also told he couldn’t ride certain places. Whether it be Yellowstone National Park—where you can’t ride bikes in winter—to US Forest Service land, it would be against the rules. Much of what you see in winter is “no wheeled vehicles,” and what it really needs to say, according to Petervary, is “no wheeled motorized vehicles,” to allow fat biking.

By 2006, some manufacturers were building specific fat bikes, and Fitzgerald’s Bike Shop was an early advocate for the burgeoning user group. “We were one of the first shops to jump in,” says Fitzgerald. “We’d already seen them, had ridden them ourselves and seen the potential.” At the same time, Jay and Tracey were doing a lot of riding up in Island Park, Idaho, a snowmobiling mecca with over 500 miles of trails, regular grooming schedules, and a crowd hospitable to fat bikes. This was a big access point for the nascent user group, and it just so happened the existing snowmobile community didn’t have issues with fat bikers using their trail system. 

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Enter Fat Pursuit, a three-day bike, ski and running festival in the heart of greater Yellowstone. Based in Island Park, participants of all abilities can get what the Petervarys call an immersive winter experience with expert fat bikers, learn about specific gear, techniques, and safety considerations of riding a fat bike and camping on snow trails. In addition to the clinics and camps, the event includes two races, a 60k and 200k, where you can bike, ski or run. “It just so happens that bikes dominate the field,” says Petervary. “Runners have a decent turnout, whereas there are very few skiers because the conditions vary so much.” 

The Fat Pursuit race also serves as a qualifier for the Alaskan Iditarod Invitational, the preeminent North American fat bike event (Jay and Tracey have both won this event, naturally). This competition is so remote that AK-bound aspirants are vetted with water boiling checkpoints, for example, to ensure they’re prepared. With a 350-mile or 1000-mile option, competitors pit their multi-day winter racing chops against the mercurial, sub-zero Alaskan countryside. Remember moisture management? 

“One of the reasons we started Fat Pursuit was to create an event that showed our user group,” says Petervary. “It showed advocacy, responsible use by our group, and an educational component, not only in advocacy but in the skill set of riding on snow. I wanted to bring attention to this sport in a responsible way. And I wanted to be a teacher, something we’ve always done, giving tips and suggestions on how people can come here and challenge themselves, how I can help them be more successful.”

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“Jay has had a lot of breakthroughs with that,” says wife Tracey, who has seen a sea change in their community’s embrace of fat bikes over the last twenty years. Connecting with people at Fat Pursuit, educating them and showing them has been huge. “At first, when people get on a fat bike, they’re saying, ‘no-no-no,’” says Tracey. “But once they try it, they’re in love.”   

By all means, the Petervarys’ calling has long included competing at the highest levels, but the broader view of their raison d’être includes their commitment to the greater goal of championing the sport of fat biking. Fat Pursuit helps make that happen. “Just seeing other people succeed is a reward,” says Tracey. “Being able to share our experiences and knowledge and help somebody’s confidence. Seeing them finish a race, when they come back they’re a changed person. It’s just an incredible thing.”

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