WINONA LAKE — Rewind to the year 2004 and, especially if you were a bicycler then, consider how much things have changed. In 2004, trail systems were not nearly as developed or were still in the planning or dreaming stages, motorists were less friendly to and patient with bicyclers and there were still questions about just how much bicycling would develop locally.
Stop and fast forward back to the present and much has changed. And much of it locally can be attributed to the Fat & Skinny Tire Festival, which began in 2004 and will have its 15th edition May 18-20.
There are close parallels to the growth of bicycling in Kosciusko County and the growth of the festival. Greg Demopoulos, one of the founders of and a co-director of the festival, recalled for that first year “there were maybe a half dozen people coordinating everything” with volunteer help.
Also in that first year, the festival was only two days, Saturday and Sunday, and there was just a mountain bike race, kids events, live music and the criterium race.
Now, the planning committee alone has 35 people and “we are sitting at 200 plus volunteers with open spots to fill,” Demopoulos noted. And the festival has expanded to three days, beginning with bike to work activities Friday morning, and has considerably more events.
At least for the host Kosciusko County Velo Cycling Club, the Fat & Skinny Tire Festival is nearly a year-round project. “After the event we finish the books, receipts and thank yous and we might take a month off, but then we start thinking of next year and what changes do we need to make,” he said, based on feedback received from participants.
He also recalled during the first year, “all we had were the mountain bike trails” and there were no greenway trails locally. Trails didn’t open until the second or third year of the festival, he added.
Safety was certainly a concern in the early years, but often amounted to “call 9-1-1” for help. Now there is EMS support on site and coordinators can communicate via walkie talkies to address safety issues or concerns.
Planning now involves three co-directors and includes the specific areas of kids events, entertainment, mountain bike racing, road racing events, volunteer coordination, tours and casual rides, marketing and logistics. As the years have gone by, planners can now see how much technology has changed and how it affects the festival.
“We can see how many (for example) use the Strava app on their smartphones,” Demopoulos said. And there is an app that can be downloaded for the festival itself.
Rules need to be adjusted sometimes due to bike or equipment changes, but USA Cycling establishes the rules and the committee doesn’t deal with it much, he noted.
Planning for the festival is a “moving target” and events need to added, dropped or simply tweaked. Changes are made based on available funding, the number of sponsors and the number of volunteers. Sometimes decisions need to occur based on other factors such as this year having to rebuild sections of the mountain bike trails due to flooding.
Attendance and participation have skyrocketed. It has grown from a couple of hundred participants to easily more than 2,000 and it is not uncommon to have 6,000 or more spectators.
Growth has exceeded expectations. Demopoulos admitted “some of us didn’t think we would get that far,” past the five year mark. Bicycling in the U.S. is a good leisurely activity, he said, but is not a good sporting activity and most races don’t exceed the five year point.
But the goal of the festival has remained the same — to highlight the benefits of bicycling physically, socially and economically. The festival has aided the development of greenway trails, the Ride+Walk Committee and the installation of bike lanes on some roads.
“For us, the fest was more than just a weekend to ride bikes,” he said. “We wanted to show what can be done locally with bicycling.”