Anchorage, Alaska is the place to be if you are in the fat bike business. They are literally everywhere, and even before the snow has fallen, the local trail head had more riders on fat bikes than normal mountain bikes.
We caught up with 9:ZERO:7 at Interbike to see a lot of their new product. Being a relatively new and small company, they are putting out an impressive amount of new designs. Bill Fleming and Jamie Stull are the owners of Chain Reaction Cycles in Anchorage [no relation to Chain Reaction UK], and started 9:ZERO:7 right out of their store. On a brisk fall morning where you could feel that fat bike season was near, we sat down for a coffee with them to hear their thoughts on the future of fat bikes, and the future of their small company within this market. Would this rising tide raise all ships or sink the small ones?
BIKERUMOR: It’s really obvious that fat bikes have taken off, and become somewhat mainstream this year. There are a lot of big companies jumping on board, and it may get crowded. It has also been prophesied that fat bikes could reach 20% of mountain bike sales. What is 9:ZERO:7 going to do to stay ahead?
James Stull (9:ZERO:7): We are in the market early enough and a lot of people ask us if we are going to venture into other things, such as rims, tires, etc. We are not, we are going to focus on the bike and design the best bike for the purpose. We are going to focus on snow, and the performance of the snow, and focusing on the frame and fork being very specifically design for this.
Bill Fleming (9:ZERO:7): With everyone piling on board, it just reaffirms that we have carved out this specialty niche, and that is all we will ever be. We will stay focused on this performance oriented fat bike market, we wont come out with a cross bike or anything like that. Everybody’s got a fat bike now, every
crappy little brand has one. The company is built around racing, and we are going to stick with that. Its why we don’t do a $1500 bike.
BIKERUMOR: You were one of the first to bring dedicated fat bike frames to market. Being that you guys are a small bike shop, why did you choose to become a manufacturer?
James Stull: The first one we did, we were riding Surlys and just wanted to improve on them, and being up in Alaska we were very used to doing all kinds of modifications to make them work better. We went through writing down on paper what we thought could be better, and worked on making a small initial order.
Bill Fleming: Being designed in Alaska gives us the ability to stay ahead, for people who are true enthusiasts, they know who we are, and those are the people we want to reach anyway.
BIKERUMOR: How did you go from being a bike shop to a manufacturer?
Bill Fleming: With those first designs, we worked with a manufacturer in the lower 48, but we had a lot of problems with consistency. It was a good way to start because they were easy to access. As we grew we had to move to another manufacturer that could be more consistent with quality and keep up with delivery. We learned as we went.
James Stull: Refining design was pretty easy because we can take direct customer input and respond pretty fast.
BIKERUMOR: 9:ZERO:7 bikes are available in a lot of shops across the country. During the initial years of fat bikes being in high demand and low supply, it appears you were able to establish yourself by distributing the brand to bike shops as well. Do you think that will change now that these shops have bikes available from their main line brands?
Bill Fleming: We went into Interbike this year, and I was pretty nervous about it. The way I see it is the pie is getting bigger, but our piece is getting smaller and smaller, and we won’t know where that ends up. We had a successful Interbike, and walked out with more orders than the previous year. With fat bikes being more popular, people are starting to do more research, they are finding us and knowing that we have done it. For distributors or shops looking for a fat bike specific brand, that is what they can get from 9:Zero:7. They won’t have to buy into another brand and all of the other bikes associated with it to have stock [of fat bikes].
BIKERUMOR: What do you think about companies that make a fat bike, but doesn’t understand exactly what they are building the bike for?
Bill Fleming: One of the big brands was contacting us a long time ago, and we were sending them frames, rims and other stuff back in 2009. We were not naive to what they were doing.
BIKERUMOR: You showed a prototype of a full suspension bike at Interbike. People that have ridden a full suspension fat bike rave about them, but many others look at them and are puzzled. Do you think suspension is needed?
James Stull: The suspension bike is in a prototype stage, with what you have seen being the first iteration of it, and there are several changes we need to make to it, it’s not ready for prime time yet. We could push it out right away, but we would rather refine it until they know its bomber before we are ready to release it. We are not very secretive about the stuff we are working on, most others are secretive about it, but its no big secret, we are working on it.
James Stull: The plus sized thing for me is alright, but there are not many people in Anchorage riding them. We don’t really have the bikepacking thing happening here in the same way, so its more about the full fat bikes in Anchorage. We came from endurance racing, and that’s what we will continue to focus on. We are not working on anything particular in this area.
BIKERUMOR: How do you plan to keep 9:ZERO:7 ahead of the competition from the big brands?
Bill Fleming: When looking at one of the large brands bikes, we could tell that it was just a generation 1 design. We actually used it to show some of the details, and sell our own bike on the merits [of the 9:Zero:7] over the flaws of the large brand bike.
James Stull: Consumers are still to some extent just seeing fat tires and going for it, without even asking questions. That’s what is fueling sales for the large brands, but after the customer gets into the sport and looks for particulars, that would be why they would come over to 9:Zero:7. The big brands are specced well, look good, but tend to miss the details.
BIKERUMOR: What is your hope for 9:ZERO:7 in the future in the fat bike market?
Bill Fleming: I hope this settles down, because its impossible to to run and plan a company when you are growing this fast. We are always out of inventory, and it would be good to see the industry settle down. There is so much in flux right now, I know that we are going to focus on our core niche, and support grassroots racing, and stick tight to our identity. It doesn’t make sense to chase down what the big companies are doing, and it would be suicide to try to react to this.