Tour De Fat: A brief history of the Fort Collins tradition

Sam Sedoryk

For the past 20 years, Labor Day has meant two things for Fort Collins residents: beer and biking.

This phenomenon is due to New Belgium’s Tour De Fat. The event first began as a way to honor the long history of the biking and craft brewing communities but has become a symbol of the freedom and reckless abandon associated with the people of Fort Collins.

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Group of bikers in street wearing costumes
Fort Collins community members gather off Mountain Avenue and Howes Street for New Belgium Brewery’s 20th annual Tour De Fat on Aug. 31. Famous for its bike parade and elaborate costumes, the celebration has raised nearly $6 million for local bike non-profits since it began. (Alyssa Uhl | The Collegian)

Though a staple of the town, the history of brewery culture in Fort Collins stretches much further than the opening of New Belgium Brewing Company in 1991.

Fort Collins was a nonalcoholic town until 1968, when student protests at Colorado State University helped end prohibition, which legalized the consumption and brewing of beer. The students’ passion for the culture and science surrounding beer throughout history made Fort Collins the perfect breeding ground for microbreweries in the 1980s. Today, Colorado, particularly Fort Collins, has been nicknamed the “Napa Valley of beer.”

“It’s good to remind people that the end (of) prohibition was connected to CSU, and the students that worked on the movement were for student rights, beer and freedom,” said Professor Thomas Cauvin, who specializes in public history. “Without CSU, we would not have the market for breweries. You have this culture that makes microbreweries like New Belgium so unique and possible in Fort Collins.”

Fort Collins’ history of beer crafted a community and culture revolving around the social drink. This connection came to a head with the creation of New Belgium Brewing Company. The Fort Collins staple was founded on the seat of a bicycle, according to Michael Craft, a New Belgium communications ambassador. 

Tour De Fat is for everyone. New Belgium wants to make this 100% inclusive, whether you haven’t ridden a bicycle in a few years or just an average cyclist looking to have fun. Everyone is welcome to dress up, get on a bike and ride.” –Michael Craft, New Belgium communications ambassador

“The founder, Jeff Lebesch, was touring Europe on a mountain bike, which was very uncommon,” Craft said. “He received the name ‘Fat Tire’ for it. He truly enjoyed Belgian beer and wanted to bring it back to Fort Collins to brew.”

From humble beginnings in Lebesch’s basement, New Belgium soon became a point of pilgrimage for beer lovers around the country. Having grown in popularity significantly, Tour De Fat was born as a way to reminisce about the beginnings of the company and celebrate the importance of the prevalent cycling community in Fort Collins.

Events like the Tour De Fat help celebrate the beer culture, and its impact has spread to a national scale. 

“When you look at New Belgium Brewery as a Fort Collins institution, I think that Tour De Fat is becoming a community event,” said Professor Keri Canada, a liberal arts advisor, cultural anthropologist and active participant at Tour De Fat. “I think it’s a neat thing that Tour De Fat is going nationwide, and it’s a way for our local culture to get out there nationally. The event is one of those things where it’s a great time to get a drink with friends and is family-friendly.”

Originally starting with simple carnival events like bicycle bowling, the idea soon grew to a vast function that encompassed the town.

“Tour De Fat is for everyone,” Craft said. “New Belgium wants to make this 100% inclusive, whether you haven’t ridden a bicycle in a few years or just an average cyclist looking to have fun. Everyone is welcome to dress up, get on a bike and ride.”

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Group of bikers in street wearing costumes
Fort Collins community members gather off Mountain Avenue and Howes Street for New Belgium Brewery’s 20th annual Tour De Fat on Aug. 31. Famous for its bike parade and elaborate costumes, the celebration has raised nearly $6 million for local bike non-profits since it began. (Alyssa Uhl | The Collegian)

In addition to providing a unique Fort Collins experience, Tour De Fat also serves as a fundraising opportunity for many local nonprofit organizations. The event is close to raising over $6 million in donations for nonprofit organizations like Overland Mountain Bike Club, Bike Fort Collins, Fort Collins Co-op and Ciclismo Youth Foundation.

For their 20th anniversary on Aug. 31, New Belgium set up themed zones specifically branded to beers like Voodoo Ranger, Mural and Fat Tire. Other classic events include the “Slow Ride,” a bike “race” where the winner is the slowest rider. The event exemplifies Fort Collins’ cultural values of holding a slow, relaxing lifestyle.

New Belgium also introduced a special brew for the event called “Carnie Blood.” This brew batch offered Tour De Fat participants a refreshing strawberry hibiscus sour. This beer was brewed as a way to say “thank you” to all the artists and creators who contribute to the festival annually. 

Whether you have just moved to Fort Collins or annually participate in the Tour De Fat, the event is a great way to fully integrate into the free, laid back culture of the town.

Sam Sedoryk can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @Samsedoryk.