Today’s fat bikes can trace their roots to the Sahara, New Mexico and Alaska.  Innovators Jean Naud, Simon Rakower, Ray Molina, and Mark Groneweld are widely credited with developing the concepts – the wide tires, the ability to ride on sand and snow – that define fat bikes today. How did they do it? User innovation.

What is User Innovation?

Circa 1900, New South Wales Beach, National Library of Australia

Circa 1900, Lead Users at the Beach, National Library of Australia

User innovation is the concept that users are the innovators of new products, not the
corporations that make them. Eric von Hippel, an economist and a professor at the MIT Sloan
School of Management, was one of the first to recognize this concept. According to von Hippel,
lead users are people who realize that existing products do not meet their needs. Innovators,
who are also often the lead users, leverage this knowledge to modify existing products into what
they need – thereby creating new products. As more users realize the value of these
innovations, corporations bring these new products to market.

For the past four decades, riders (a.k.a. lead users) have been responsible for evolving the
cycling platform beyond road bikes and cruisers. Parents and kids built the first BMX bikes to
mimic motocross racing; hippies and ski bums built the first mountain bikes to ride mountain trails;
and enthusiasts who wanted to explore deserts and snow‐covered trails built the first fat bikes.
These platforms all took root with riders who wanted something different than the marketplace
offered – i.e., lead users who became innovators by creating it themselves.

 

Brief history of Cycling’s DISRUPTIVE User Innovations

BMX bikes

  • 1956: In Holland, kids race on a dirt track with berms and number plates similar to a motocross race.
  • 1960s: US children ride street bikes in vacant lots and dirt trails mimicking motorcycle racers. Parents and kids change bike components to suit off-road riding.
  • 1974: Fathers build dedicated BMX components and frames. New companies are formed to produce bicycles and components for this new market segment.
  • Two companies started by BMX fathers are international bicycle brands today.
  • Schwinn, the market leader at the time, was slow to respond and lost significant market share. Arguably they never recovered.

Mountain bikes

  • 1970s: Cyclist in Marin County CA and Crested Butte, CO added ten-speed road bike gears to older Schwinn cruisers to ride mountain trails and fire roads. These early user build bikes are referred to as “Klunkers”
  • 1978: Marin County bike builder, Joe Breeze is widely considered the first to build a purpose built mountain bike frame.
  • By the late 1980s production mountain bikes were outselling road bikes.

Fat bikes

  • 1980: Jean Naud rode a custom built fat tired 3 wheeler across the Sahara desert. His adventure was chronicled in the 1987 book: “Trois roues pour Tombouctou: 3200 kilometres a velo a travers le Sahara”
  • 1980s: Independently, enthusiast in New Mexico and Alaska build wider rims and tested wider tires for Desert and Snow riding.
  • 1999: Fat Bike innovators from Alaska and New Mexico meet at the Interbike trade show.  This collaboration leads to the first commercial Fat Bikes.
  • 2005: US bicycle brand Surley, offers the first mass produced Fat Bike
  • 2014: Fat Bikes are the fastest growing bicycle segment