Like a lot of U.S.-based bike businesses, HQ resembles a shipping center more than anything else (click to enlarge).
Editor's Note: This article is part of the Mtbr Ultimate Guide to winter mountain biking, fat bikes, gear, apparel and trainers. In the first two months of 2016, we are taking a deep dive into all manner of cold weather mountain bike gear, with round-ups and reviews of fat bikes, tires, wheels, apparel, trainers and more. To see all the articles, head over to our Winter Guide Hub Page.
Though better known as Borealis, the entity occupying an old print shop on North Sierra Madre Street near downtown Colorado Springs is officially called The Fat Bike Company. Same goes for the website, www.fatbike.com. This specificity in moniker is indicative of the operation's mandate. While most bike makers cast about in a variety of two wheeled niches, Borealis is focused solely on fat bikes and fat bike gear.
On this cool, but sunny early Rocky Mountain winter day, that focus is specifically on the several hundred boxes containing frames shipped direct from Asia that need to be unpacked, inspected, then repackaged with parts for shipping to dealers across the country. It's not a particular sexy operation, and the heat is actually on the fritz during our visit, so it's downright cold. But perhaps that is appropriate for a business built primarily on the idea that just because there's snow on the ground doesn't mean your bikes have to collect dust while you lounge on the couch.
We spent a day at Borealis HQ in Colorado Springs, touring the facility, talking to the people behind the brand, and of course riding fat bikes. Here are 10 of our most interesting takeaways.
Our test Borealis Crestone got a little extra TLC before we headed out the door. That included getting set-up tubeless and the addition of a dropper post, which for our money is absolutely key to winter riding (click to enlarge).
1. Their product line-up expanded a ton this year
Maintaining its rapid upward growth trajectory, Borealis has added two new bikes and a high-zoot carbon fiber fat bike wheel to its product line-up. The Crestone is the company's self-proclaimed "state-of-the-art" carbon fiber fat bike frame aimed at giving riders the best possible riding experience thanks to fun-inspired geometry tweaks and lower overall weight. Borealis says it challenged staffers to utilize an entirely new computer generated design process, which helped reduce waste in manufacturing along with reduction of the frame's heft.
During the last two months, we've been testing an size XL Crestone spec'd with SRAM XO1, and RockShox Bluto fork, and Reverb dropper post (which is not a stock offering). And while not all that light at 30.5 pounds, the bike has still managed to deliver consistent winter fun thanks to its snappy handling and playful ride feel. Borealis is also now offering a more budget-friendly alloy frame (the Flume), as well as the 80mm internal width Elite carbon wheel that was co-developed with Reynolds.
Like most cycling industry companies, Borealis doesn't make its own bikes. But after-the-fact QC is extensive (click to enlarge).
2. Quality control is extensive
Like all but the smallest of bike makers these days, Borealis' bikes are made in Asia. Obviously that can be problematic when a company resides so far from where its products come to life. But Borealis stresses vigilance at every step of the production process, as witnessed by this extensive quality control checklist that guides the staff at its Colorado Springs workshop.
"We pull the frames out of the boxes and make sure there is nothing wonky, scratches, that kind of thing," explained Scott Kraeger, who heads up Borealis sales and business development and was our tour guide. "If we find something minor, cosmetic blemishes, etc., then we'll use those for employee purchases or demo bikes. After that's done, the guys put the frames back in boxes along with all the necessary parts and ship them to dealers."
We have about a month of testing aboard the new Borealis Crestone. Love the snappy handling, but on days such as this we'd prefer a little more standover (click to enlarge).
3. There's a reason the Crestone has a high standover height
Admittedly we'd like to see a lower standover height on what is designed to be a performance (not touring) frame. Easier to get on and off. Safer when you post hole in deep snow. But Borealis CEO Steve Kaczmarek says the bike's geometry closely mirrored its predecessor, the Echo, "because we surveyed our dealers and they didn't want to change the inner triangle too much because of the limits it would put on frame bags." Fair point. Hydration packs just don't work very well when riding in winter, while a frame bag can be a great way to carry spare clothes and repair tools.
The current Borealis staff numbers 11 employees, most if not all of them passionate fat bikers (click to enlarge).
4. They are big proponents of "the right" fat biking experience
Go back a few years and fat biking might as well have been a euphemism for utilitarian transportation. The bikes (most of them heavy and long in the rear end) were designed to get from point A to point B, but not much else. Fun factor was not a primary design driver. But Borealis and many other bike makers are doing their best to change that sluggish perception. By shortening the chainstays (459mm for the Crestone) and lowering weight, these bikes are more Bugatti than bus. "I honestly believe we are still in an age of discovery with this segment," said Kaczmarek. "But by getting people on good handling, light bikes, their getting the true fat biking experience. And when that happens we're convinced they'll be hooked because they'll see you can do so much more than they might have thought."
If you didnt know any better, you might think wheels were this company's primary business (click to enlarge).
5. They sell a lot of wheels
Judging by the stacks and stack and stacks of rims, fat bike wheels are a significant portion of the Borealis business plan. Indeed, the Fat Bike Company sells both house brand carbon and alloy wheels, along with HED's high-end Big Deal wheelset. Good wheels, of course, are integral to the fat biking experience, both providing adequate width to allow these wide tires to realize full traction enhancing girth, and keeping weight down. The difference between a carbon wheel set up tubeless and a budget alloy rim plus tube is huge. Tubes alone can weigh a pound apiece.
Continue to page 2 for more from our Borealis HQ tour »
Meet the company's newest addition, a $100,000 wheel building robot that will be capable of churning out 200 wheels a day (click to enlarge).
6. Robots build wheels faster than humans
During our visit, Borealis employed a pair of human wheel builders, each capable of producing 10-12 wheels a day max. But that production cap was about to increase exponentially with the addition of a new $100,000 wheel building robot that will be capable of churning out 200 wheels a day. "The tensioning is the real limiter," said Kraeger. "It really works the hands of the builders, but fatigue wont be an issue with the new robot."
During our HQ visit, we spent a couple hours riding the fantastic trails just west of Colorado Springs (click to enlarge).
7. The local riding is great
Though not as well known as such fat biking hot spots as Marquette, Michigan; Cable, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; Jackson Hole; or Crested Butte, the Colorado Springs area has some superb terrain. Indeed, the mix of close-in trails, four-season weather, and abrupt elevation change conspire to deliver a varied and exhilarating experience. During our visit, Kraeger and I rode on the trails around Gold Camp Road (after getting shuttled up by Kaczmarek). The surface of these swoopy, fun trails in mid-November was a mix of smooth decomposed granite, snow, ice, mud and the occasional ledgy rock drop. "You get a little bit of everything around here this time of year," said Kraeger, affirming the beauty of a snappy handling fat bike that can handle a little bit of everything.
8. They support the sport
Look around at some of the major fat bike events and the name Borealis comes up again and again. They are a presenting sponsor for January 15th's Ullr Bike Festival in Breckenridge, Colorado, and their name is at the top of the marquee at late January's first annual Borealis Fat Bike World Championships in nearby Crested Butte. In February, they've stepped up as the official bike sponsor for the USA Cycling National Fat Bike Championships in Ogden, Utah. "They've been amazing to work with," said Dave Ochs, executive director of the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce. "They're not just talking the talk, they're walking the walk and supporting the growth of the sport."
It used to be a print shop. Now this building near downtown Colorado Springs houses one of America's best known fat bike makers (click to enlarge).
9. It's a small company
Despite this active outreach, Borealis is still a veritable mom-and-pop shop, employing just 11 people (and now one robot) in its Colorado Springs headquarters.
10. If you can't find a dealer you can still buy a bike
If you like what you hear and want to buy a bike but don't have a dealer in your area, don't fret. Though Borealis doesn't sell direct as a general rule, Kraeger says they're willing to do what it takes to get bikes in people's hands. "All the frames in the building today are either headed to dealers or to direct sales overseas," said Kraeger. "But if someone calls from a place in the U.S. where we don't have a dealer yet, we'll definitely work with them."
For more info head over to www.fatbike.com.