PORT ORFORD — Erin Kessler pedals down a sketchy pathway to Battle Rock Beach, her chubby bicycle tires easily weathering the transition from gravel to sand.
The nearly 5-inch-wide tires act like snowshoes on the soft sand, dispersing her weight.
“See how stable this is?” says Kessler, 33. “I’m just floating over the sand.”
Kessler pops a wheelie that drops her into the soft surf and down Battle Rock Beach she goes, the latest to reveal how being fat on the beach definitely can be a good thing.
Fat-tire bicycles are a growing alternative to hiking as a way to discover and explore Oregon’s beaches.
Adapted from bikes initially created to traverse snow, fat-tire bikes and their incredibly low air pressure make for ideal vehicles to pedal over soft and wet sands.
“They’re made for snow, but we’ve adapted them for sand and they work great,” says Kessler, whose Pineapple Express Adventure Rides rents fat bikes out of its Highway 101 digs in Port Orford as well as leads exhibition rides along beaches from Bandon to Brookings.
The bikes are also the latest way to take advantage of Oregon’s unique laws that have made beaches publicly owned and accessible for more than a century.
Oregon traces its public-beach history to Gov. Oswald West, who in 1913 persuaded the Oregon Legislature to lay claim to the state’s beaches as a public highway. The so-called “wet sands” law took public possession of the beach from low tide to high tide.
Oregonians quickly took to the sands, and over the decades it became standard acceptance that the public domain was up to the foredune.
In 1967, then-Gov. Tom McCall pushed through the state’s Beach Bill that lays claim to all 363 miles of coastline from low tide up to 16 feet above the top of tide. But the impetus for laws lay solidly with West, who also was a staunch prohibitionist — so the only Fat Tire he would’ve wanted Kessler to bring to the beach is on her bike.
Fat bikes in the United States trace their designs to two areas. Alaskans began fiddling around with fusing regular wheels together for a fatter profile to work on snow, while New Mexicans worked on similar designs for riding in the desert.
Kessler, a former Alaskan who designs mountainbiking trails with her husband, says early adventurers covered Alaska’s Iditarod Trail on fat tires.
Now fat-tire trails are groomed in snow during winters around Bend, and liveries are showing up along beaches in Bandon and Port Orford, where Kessler opened her shop in January with rentals as low as $35 for two hours.
With popularity growing east and west of the Rogue Valley, fat bikes have yet to put much of a dent in the traditional mountainbiking community here.
“There’s less monster-trucking around our trails, for sure,” says Adam Artner at Cycle Analysis in Jacksonville, where one fat-tire bike is on display.
The more popular Rogue Valley trails are steep and single track with tight turns that work better with traditional tires, Artner says. Also, riders here tend to prefer speed to the regular pace of the lower-riding, slower fat bikes, he says.
“They’re taking off around Bend where there’s snow five months out of the year,” Artner says. “But the valley isn’t the ideal spot for fat bikes. They just offer a different riding experience.”
The trick with fat-tire bikes on the beach is relatively slow, methodical pedaling in lower gears, Kessler says. It’s best on the two hours before and after low tide because pedaling is best on the compacted sand just above the surf.
Stay out of the water if possible because the salt is brutal on gears and rims. Keep an eye out for quicksand, or soft depressions in sand that can swallow even fat tires and cause riders to tumble, Kessler says.
“I’ve had 60-year-old ladies ride these things,” Kessler says. “They’re awesome.”