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The Father of the Modern Alaskan Fat-Bike – Greg Matyas

Our long time amigo and bike mechanic to the stars, Jeff Gillmore, contacted me a couple of years back and suggested that we write a story about Greg Matyas, the founder of Fatback Bikes. So I’ve been collecting information and interviewed some accomplished and noteworthy fat bikers about Greg, while Jeff started to assemble the list of fat-bike innovations that have come out of Greg’s beautiful brain. Way before, we started this project, fat-bike.com interviewed Greg a couple of times, and you can read and listen to those interviews here and here. Now, Jeff doesn’t work for Fatback. He works up in Fairbanks at Beaver Sports as a mechanic. So Jeff has had a front row seat and, literally. had his hands all over the bikes that have won the Iditirod Trail Invitational over the last several years. Jeff is an Alaskan and , I think that it takes an Alaskan to know how to, go about writing an article like this, about Greg’s contributions to the evolution fat-bikes and we’re fortunate to have Jeff’s help. This is what Jeff shared about Greg.

So the first time I saw a fatback, Jeff Oatley brought his into the shop for me to build him wheels ..i just stood there holding his frame “fukk” I said to myself what is this ..? He made his own frame / fork and had Hadley make him hubs ..unreal …I had to make tools to take apart those hubs apart and get them winterized for Oatley ..and in jeff Oatley fashion he didn’t want too much grease in there ..”I Ain’t gonna give that grease a free ride ” so I was extra careful to not use too much …that was introduction to fatback and jeff Oatley all at once ..the bikes we ride today are all Greg’s fault he came up with the 170mm rear end which became the 190mm that everybody does now ..he had a carbon fork made which was a sweet upgrade from the steel turd that was on my pugs …he had 70 mm hoops made then 90mm ..fsa making him a double ..the hive making him a fancy triple ..  Its cool to point your finger at something and see where it all came from  and it’s all his damn fault …lol …a great guy who loves to ride bikes like the rest of us ..and seems like he’s always making that the “ride ” better! I don’t know how he does it… but he does. I can buy an 18″ frame from him ..I know what length stem/bars seat /seat post and bam I’ve got my bike it’s that easy!!

I’m not from Alaska, but I do ride an Alaskan fat-bike. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel there a few times. During those visits, I learned a little bit about Alaskan culture and customs. Alaskans are one of the most hospitable people that I’ve ever met. The folks that I’ve met in Alaska would never admit to that, because they’re also some of the most modest people that I’ve encountered. I’ve had the good fortune to meet the legends of the sport, in my travels, and those folks all have an honest, humble personality that defies their incredible adventures & achievements. So, at the risk of getting on Greg’s nerves a little bit, Jeff and I, along with some of the best racers in the world, from up in the AK are going to talk about Greg’s innovations and contributions to the modern fat-bikes that we all love to ride.

Alaskans love their state and Alaska has a rich history, when it comes to Fat-Bikes. Our story about the (post-pug) modern fat-bike can’t be written without recognition of the snow bike pioneers that led to the first widely produced fat-bike. I know Greg holds those pioneer builders in very high regard and has quite a collection of Alaskan, custom fabricated Iditirod bikes that he has displayed at his shop in Anchorage, Speeedway Cycles. So I want to make sure that everyone understands that we present our story with respect the pioneers of omni-terrain bicycles that helped us get to the point in history, marked by the offset 135mm spaced fat-bikes, that started the age of the modern fat-bike. So bikes like the Wildfire or Pugsley mark the spot on the timeline, where we’ll begin our focus of attention.

Greg Matyas – Outdoor Demo – Interbike 2012

I met Greg, back in 2012 at the Outdoor Demo at Interbike. I had corresponded with Kevin Breitenbach and he introduced us to Greg. Greg was riding one of the early aluminum Fatbacks (made in the usa) and if I remember correctly it had an inverted sus fork on it. (Talk about seeing the future!) I remember that Morris Palter was riding a stainless steel

Stainless Fatback from 2012

Fatback at the demo as well. This was before Fatback had a booth at the show. Greg and his crew were there and they just happened to have a couple of made in the USA fat-bikes from the future. Fat-bikes with a symmetrical rear triangle. The stainless bike, that I mentioned was built to Greg’s specs at Waterford in Wisconsin and his ti team race bikes were built by Lynskey down in Tennessee. This is a pattern that echos throughout Greg’s philosophy of innovation. Greg chose to contract the best manufacturers available to create the frames, forks, hubs, rims to create new innovations that are part of every fat-bike that we ride today. Greg worked with Hadley to make 170mm and 190mm hubs to fit his bikes. And just like every piece of hardware that Greg created, they were backed up with hours of testing and experiences from legends like Pete Bassinger and Greg riding in the legendary Alaskan races that form the very foundation of the modern fat-bike. Greg and Fatbck drove fat-bike innovation that resulted in the bike that we ride today. Greg worked with RaceFace to develop the Next Crankset. Greg had the first tubeless rims available. He continues to innovate in the age of carbon fiber fatties. Fatback’s new FLT line brings cutting edge team bikes directly to the public and we should mention that Fatback’s team of racers have dominated the Alaskan Endurance race scene. Fatback’s focus is on making the best bike for riding in Alaska, so it only makes sense that most of the folks that we talked to about Greg, are Alaskans and accomplished ultra marathon athletes. Let’s hear from the folks that race the bikes that Greg designs and produces.

Jeff and Greg

 

Jeff Oatley

Here’s my story with Greg/Fatback..as best I remember it.  I rode a Snowcat bike in my first three ITI’s.  The first one, 2005 I think, the trail was okay.  Snowcats worked fairly well.  There was a fair bit of walking.  But Mike Curiak set a course record that year on a Snowcat bike so it was obviously a good year.

2006 was a whole different animal.  Nothing worked very well after Puntilla.  Rocky and I were on Snowcat bikes, Pete Basinger was on a Pugsley (I think).  Lots of snow, wind, cold.  None of us rode much the rest of the way.  I had started to think there was something to the fat bike idea, but I guess still wasn’t sure.  I think Pete would have convinced me that year, but his free hub was frozen for the last three days, so he pretty much just walked with me most of the way.

Then I chased Pete all the way to McGrath in the 2007 ITI.  He rode a ton of stuff that I walked.  I was sold.  I knew I needed a fat bike.  I talked with Pete in McGrath and he told me a little about the bike Greg was getting ready to build. As soon as I flew back to Anchorage from McGrath I went straight to Speedway to talk to Greg about his idea.  It was more than an idea already.  I think he had a frame there.  I didn’t know Greg at that point.  Just wanted to learn about his bike.

It was clear right away that Greg *got it*.  We talked about what a what we thought would make a good ITI bike…the drivetrain, the handling characteristics, standover, carrying a load well.  Greg went right into the details of it…head tube length and angle, chain stays.  He just understands the details of what makes a bike work well.  A lot of that is not really a secret.  But not really everybody understands it either.  And that does show up on bikes that make it to the market. I put an order in for a bike on the spot.  I ended up purchasing Fatback #2.  I thought for a long time I’d gotten #3, but Greg recently told me it was #2.

Greg kept looking for performance improvements in the bikes.  He spec’d a carbon fork.  When 4.8″ tires came out he developed a 190mm frame.  He did all of these before anybody else.  With the Corvus, and the things that carbon lets you do from a design and manufacturing standpoint, he was able to really optimize the main triangle for space to keep the mass better centered on the bike. I love the Corvus.  I think it’s as purpose-designed and built as any bike that’s ever been made.  There are so many details in that bike that are just lost on the average consumer.  But really make themselves known when you get out on a long ride with a heavy load.

Greg keeps on looking for ways to innovate.  I’ve talked to him about some of the things he’s working on and thinking about and I’m pretty excited to see some of them come to fruition.

Greg at the start of the ITI Feb. 27 2011 by Sven Berglund

John Lackey

Let’s start by saying that Greg is a mad creative genius and an artist.  Seriously.  When there’s a problem worth solving, he figures out a way to beat it and it’s almost always a thing of beauty.

I met Greg when I moved to Anchorage and realized that we had a lot in common.  Bikes, beer and … well, what else is there?  I could go a lot of different ways with this, but you probably know most of the stats….like that he invented the symmetric fat bike and all that.  So I’ll touch on his passion for the bikes, the racing and just riding in general.

In 2013, the first year that I did the ITI, Greg had just prototyped three frames and wheelsets around his latest brainchild, the 190mm spaced rear hub.  They were medium and large frames so he gave one to Tim Berntson, one to Jeff Oatley and one to me.  Greg was so excited that we had these bikes that could use the super wide tires and retained the symmetric hub spacing (the Bud and Lou had just come out that year).  We were sworn to secrecy that we wouldn’t divulge info on them to anyone until after the race.  At the pre-race party, I think that Greg was more excited and nervous than any of us, and three of us were rookies.  He was so stoked for the race to get underway.  When it finally started, he rode out at the start with us for a few miles with encouragement for everyone.  He had fully committed and was so excited for all of us it was awesome to see him as the last person on the trail before we got out on the river and racing started in earnest.  Unfortunately, none of us managed to win that year, but we did a pretty good job filling the top 10 with Tim 2nd, Oatley and Kevin rolling in together for 3rd, me in 5th and Brian in 9th.  I think that was a pretty good proof of concept.

Friday before the 2013 ITI, (left to right) it’s John, Oatley, Kevin, Tim, Greg and Brian.

Greg was a huge part of my success in the 2015 ITI and racing in general and I’m sure that Kevin, Tim and Oatley would say the same.  He was there for me to bounce ideas off of, when it came to gear selection, tactics, nutrition and everything else prior to the ITI last year.  It’s awesome having a guy standing behind you, with unwavering support and pure passion.  It definitely brings out the best in me.

The other photo that I have is when we teamed up to do the Soggy Bottom 100 mile race on the Kenai Peninsula, AK in 2011.  Greg had been having some trouble with his back and had been timid for racing since he tackled the ITI that winter, so when we convinced him to take the anchor leg of the race he was super excited, but I think a bit concerned that it could go sideways if his back acted up.  We crushed the team category that year, and Greg was the first rider into the finish in Hope with the biggest smile on his face.  The photo is about 30 seconds after he crossed the line, we had just been yelled at by the bartender for running outside to greet him with our beers in hand, so we made our way back to the bar with Greg right behind us, he’s just walking through the door about to grab his first beer of the evening.  We sat at the bar all night and bullshitted about our respective rides until I don’t remember how exactly I ended up where I did in the morning.  Pure passion and love for the sport.

I could go on and on, but I’ll cut myself off at that.  The dude is a legend.

 

Tim Berntson

I started racing bikes in 2008. I visited a number of local shops that spring, with the hope of finding someone willing to talk, provide good information, and deliver the service one would expect from a good lbs.  I was a total newbie and really knew very little about bikes, or the racing of them.  One of those stops brought me to Speedway Cycles.  Little did I know but Greg’s shop was little more than a year or two old.  I spent the summer doing a few road and mtb races.  That winter I bought a pair of skis and spent most of my time skiing and doing a few rides on my newly purchased 29er.

Over the next year and a half I continued the same schedule, but always drooled at those cool looking fat tire bikes.  That being said, the ultra-races that fat tire bikers like Greg, Jeff Oatley and Pete Basinger raced, seemed incredibly long and way more than I could undertake.  I always thought, “What would anyone want to push their bike for”?  In February 2010 Greg loaned me a titanium Fatback to race the Susitna 50K.  I rode a Fatback for the first time that Friday night before the  race.  It was soooo much fun!  I did the race with fellow Fatback newbie, John Lackey.  We both were a bit of a shit show.  Too high of tire pressures forced us to push the soft sections, but we had a great time, learned a lot, and there was no turning back.  I bought my first Fatback in the spring of 2010.

Tim and Greg at the 2017 Talkeetna Trio

After getting to know Greg a bit it was obvious he always wanted to improve his bike.  Unfortunately in 2010, 2011 and even into 2012, there was not much available in drive trains, wheels, tires, and even brakes that worked with fat bikes.  Greg has worked with suppliers to get cranks, rims, tires, hubs, seat posts, seats and handle bars made to his liking.  Not everything was perfect, but he always tried and tinkered to make things better and more useable.

Greg’s first bike was symmetrical.  Some people scoffed at the idea and said the off-set design was good enough.  Greg has never settled on good enough.  It started as a 165, then 170 and now 190.  As you can now see, everyone else has followed.  It’s often in the details where Greg’s ideas have shined.  Maybe it’s the notch in the front fork for the brake cable to run down, the stand over on the top tube without severely sacrificing the room in the frame triangle, mounts for a rear rack…simple things, but definitely options wanted by the bike packing, ultra racing and riding crowd.

It’s now 2016 and his carbon and aluminum lineup of bikes is not left wanting.  Skookum, Corvus, Rhino, they are all pretty amazing and fun rides.  The exciting part?  Greg is still tinkering.

 

Greg racing the White Mountains 100 in 2011

Kevin Breitenbach

I feel like a like a relative late comer when it comes to the entire Fatback family. I didnt start riding one until 2012.  I think the real story is mostly from before that time. I know Oatley bought Greg’s second or third frame he ever made. Pete basinger would be interesting to hear from as well. I certainly know Pete was a big part of the story in the early years, and he deserves some credit for the ground breaking ideas that Greg and Fatback are known for.

Greg got into building fatbikes, to fill the need for the small market of Alaskans.  Winter riding can be a fun distraction from much of the country. and it’s fun to have fatbikes as an option. but in Alaska, winter trails are often our only option for riding for the majority of the year. So once he started building 170mm symmetric fatbikes, it opened up a lot of Alaska for a lot of ordinary folks that just enjoyed being outside.  It takes some big country and makes it accessible . I know this is the story for Fatbikes in a lot of the country, but he turned Alaska into a hotbed for bikepacking gear innovations in general.

Winter riders have been taking gear and re purposing it to work for marginal conditions for decades. Greg looked at the Margins, and he focused on how to make them mainstream, as a consequence, a lot of marginal places in the back-country became manageable, and a lot of places that seemed manageable became easy.
I think that’s what a lot of the bike industry was missing for nearly a decade before everyone jumped on the Fatbike bandwagon. It turned unridable conditions into ridable. That’s where a lot of the industry stopped thinking about Fatbikes. They never thought about how it would recreate ridable terrain, it turned manageable conditions into easy conditions. It turned easy conditions into Luxurious conditions. Once customers noticed that, the wider industry took notice.

I honestly think you can attribute that directly to Fatback, he made things look normal that seemed marginal. I think it turned people onto the road less traveled.

I feel like the fatbike industry is a lot like American Idol. Greg wrote and performed a ton of  great songs. Now all these companies are singing his tunes and calling it their own. There’s probably a lot of decent singers out there that can nail the song, (for example) ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen. But there’s only one Freddy Mercury.

Greg is a guy that keeps it really loose too. I feel like fatbike racing has changed, with the influx of new riders. A lot of focus on strava and extra speed and dropping grams. Greg has one eye on all that crap, but he has his other eye on enjoying the ride. I bet he’s as up to date on brewery trends as he is on bike trends.

Not sure if any of that helps. Again, I bet there’s a lot of people that have better things to say than me. I just think Greg did it all first. 9 zero 7 is cool, but they first did 135mm then went to 170mm after they saw the success of the fatback. in 2013 Greg Tim, Jeff, and John on 190mm bikes for the ITI. In 2014, the rest of the industry followed suit.

 

Ward Whitmire

Here’s a couple images of my Fatback when it was brand spankin’ new. I picked blue because it looked so good against the sea and sky and I new it would spend allot of time at the coast. I took it straight to the beach as soon as I put it together. This was March of ’10. If I remember right, I got on the list for the second batch of these 1st gen ALU Fatbacks. The old chopper rims were the only 100mm option at the time… and Greg was the only one actively offering them. Speaks to all he did to get the ball rolling on floatation riding in general. Speedway, as you know, was really 1st to spearhead a bunch of cool fat specific components as well… and of course got copied by others. I’ve never met him in person but have traded many emails, facebook stuff & a few phone calls.

Anyhow, Greg, seems like a great guy and certainly gambled it all on/for fat bikes! He took what Mark Gronwald was doing at Wildfire to a new level. Mark kind of got “stuck” with what could be done with off the shelf stuff at the time… Greg went out and got the needed stuff made- and set new standards. And then did it again and again. Drinking a toast to him as we speak (PBR “shop maitainance beer”)

The sunset shot was featured on one of they’re earlier websites for a while. I was riding solo and had to sit around staring at the thing with a beer (and a cookie) once in a while. Still, as you know, “Old Blue” is a very capable beach bike. I’ll hang on to this one… worth far more to me as a spare than it’s worth in $$.  I’ve got about a zillion pic’s of it all over the place- mountains, snow riding etc… but this 1st beach trip is still my favorite.

 

Katharina Merchant – ITI race director

Greg is definitely an Alaskan innovator that put his heart and smarts into making fat bikes what they are today and they ride extremely well on snow out on the Iditarod Trail course as well as on dirt with his latest innovation, the Skookum.

Greg sponsored the “fat bike museum”at the Egan Center for the 2016 Fat Bike Expo with several early designs (Evingson, Icycle,Wildfire). He also participated in the fat bike pioneer round table at the Expo alongside other Alaskan, New Mexican and Minnesota fat bike pioneers. Greg is an all round true Alaskan, cyclist, competitor, and a great guy to be around.

 

Troy Rarick/ Over the Edge

“There are only a few true “creative people” in the world. People like Greg who bring a “go all in” passion that infects you while kinda leaving you wondering “WTF” just happened?

So next time you put your 170/190 fat-bike between your legs, give a nod to the Father of the Modern Fat Bike, Mr. Greg Matyas! Thanks to everyone that helped Jeff and I put this post together! And once again thanks to Jeff for being patient and freak’n hilarious during the long wait!

Check out Fatback.com – http://fatbackbikes.com/

3 Responses to The Father of the Modern Alaskan Fat-Bike – Greg Matyas

  1. thub August 28, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    Solid dude, solid bikes and Speedway is a great shop. Awesome to read the views of other legends on Fatback and Greg. His innovation and devotion to Fat-Bikes is unparalleled. Greg is a really nice guy and a serious badass on any bike. I bought a Fatback Skookum in April, hands down the best bike I’ve owned.

    • Jon Gleason August 28, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

      I’m surprised Simon did not get some credit for the very early wheels.

  2. Brad Sandison August 29, 2017 at 7:36 am #

    I first met Greg in a coffee shop near his first shop, what a great guy to talk with, and turns out we had many things and friends in common. I had no idea who he actually was or capable of as an innovator. I very much enjoyed this piece and photos on this website. Congratulations and many thanks Greg for all you’ve done for fat biking.