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Fat-Bikes for Dummies

November 4, 2014
Back Alley

In search of snow in Central Takapuna

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll no doubt have noticed my big purple bike popping-up from time to time. A mountainbike with tyres so rotund they look like they’ve been borrowed from a motorbike.

Of all the weird and wonderful contraptions I’ve pedalled around Auckland it’s my fat-bike that garners the most attention. It’s portly silhouette catches the eye and jaws drop, cars slow, childrens’ faces light-up – it seldom slips under the radar. I found that a little awkward at first, but soon got used to it, the bike was too much fun to leave at home. These reactions have always been positive and as a “bike advocate” of sorts I’m happy to get folks thinking about riding bikes, even from the seat of a car.

So here we go with my completely biased and rigorously un-comprehensive overview of fat-bikes, a cycling niche alien to most, misunderstood by many, and much loved by me. If you’re the shaved legs/lycra-cowboy type, tune-out now!

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Genesis of an Idea

Like most innovations in cycling going fat is nothing new, it’s been done many times since the safety-bicycle was first shod with pneumatic tyres in the 1890s. What we’re talking about here though is the “modern” fat-bike, and that came about with the mountainbike explosion of the 1980s.
The development of the mountainbike was driven by racing. More and more gears, lighter and lighter bikes for going up hills – stronger and stronger bikes, more and more suspension for going down the other sides. This emphasis on speed didn’t stop people exploring though, vast tracts of wilderness were now more accessible and riders were soon pushing the limits of where you could ride a bike without carrying it. Suspension was helping on roots and rocks but even the best mountainbikes were struggling on the soft stuff, snow and sand. To keep pedalling on natures spoilers you need some “float”, and although tracks and skis were tried, more tyre-volume is the simplest and lightest solution.

Paceline

Crossing a frozen lake in Wisconsin

So mastering sand and snow are the keys to this story and that takes us to the “home of the mountainbike”, North America.

The first Iditabike in 1987 saw riders tackle 200 miles of Alaskan backcountry in the dead of winter, following snowmobile and dog-mushing trails. When conditions weren’t ideal (with a hard ridable crust) there was lots of pushing involved. Cyclists don’t enjoy pushing and it wasn’t long before those canny Alaskans were modifying their bikes to ride more and walk less.

Initially two standard width rims were riveted or welded side-by-side and laced as one wheel. People tried two, even three tyre set-ups and the advent of downhill mountainbike racing had led to tyres up to three inches wide, perfect for floatation. Eventually a lightweight single-walled rim was developed specifically for local conditions. At 44mm wide the “Snowcat” was probably the first dedicated off-the-shelf fat-bike component, but of course they weren’t called fat-bikes at this stage, that term came many years later.
Some of these fat-wheeled solutions squeezed into regular mountainbike frames, but the need was there and before long locals like Mark Groneweld and John Evingson were building custom frames for this fledgling movement.

MNR4

Minnesota trails in winter.

Around this time, way down south, Ray Molina was finding solutions for riding his local terrain. The sand dunes and dusty deserts of New Mexico, and across the border in Mexico proper, provided similar challenges. Not only did Molina manufacture a specialist rim, the 82mm wide Remolino, a 3.5 inch tyre called the Tornel was produced specifically for his sand bike. That (at the time) gargantuan tyre, on an equally enormous rim, is instantly recognisable today as the essence of a fat-bike.

By the late 1990s a meeting-of-minds had taken place and the Remolino rim had found its way north to chillier climes. While still a niche activity, far removed from the industry as a whole, fat-biking was evolving and growing.

Breaktime

Fat friends stick together.

Mass Production

It took a large investment by a big player to really get the fat ball rolling. In 2005 American brand Surly bought a fat tyre, a fat rim and a frame capable of using them to market. “Borrowing” ideas from the pioneers above, Surly’s Pugsley frame, in combination with their own 65mm wide Large-Marge rim and 3.7 inch Endomorph tyre made fat-biking accessible to the masses.

The Purple beast hanging in my garage is one of those first-generation Pugsleys. The clever thing about the Pugsley (and probably why they’re still selling, virtually unchanged, eight years later) is the use of standard mountainbike components. Apart from the specialist rims and tyres (and a wider bottom-bracket) the rest of the bits are off-the-shelf parts like you’d use on a “regular” MTB.

Blizzard

Blizzard

With this new breed of bike now available through an established dealer network at reasonable cost, adventurers of all kinds were buying fat-bikes and the market started to grow. Mass-production of fat-bike rims and tyres enabled smaller companies to enter the fat-bike market with their own frame designs and (excuse the pun) things began to snowball.

Surly’s sister-brand Salsa got in on the act with their Mukluk. The Alaskans joined the party with their own 9:Zero:7 and Fatback brands, and as soon as this “niche” started looking like a “trend” you knew it wouldn’t be long before the big-boys got involved.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the likes of Trek, Kona, Specialized and Felt all have fatties in their glossy catalogues. Even our own Avanti is about to release an entry level fat-bike, the Tracker.

Fort Churchill

Desert crawling in Nevada.

Since 2000 there have been many technical advances in fat-biking equipment. You can have your frame in steel, aluminium, titanium, carbon fibre and even bamboo. Tyres are available up to 5 inches wide and have a multitude of tread designs for various surfaces, even studs for ice-riding if you need them. Combine that with comically wide 100mm rims and you have a massive footprint that will float over most anything. Rear hubs grew from the mountainbike standard 135mm to 170mm, and more recently 190mm to get the chain squeezing past these huge donuts without rubbing in the lower gears.

Rumours of a fat-bike suspension fork have been bouncing around for years and in 2014 RockShox finally released the Bluto. There are even a smattering of dual-suspension fat-bikes out there for those who need squish at both ends. It’s all starting to get a little confusing for simple-minded folk like myself, but it’s exciting, innovation is always exciting!

fat-bike lake

Fat-Bikes. Ride all year, ride all sufaces.

So what are they like to ride?

Fun. Plain, unadulterated, joyous fun…

The secret of a fat-bike’s capability lies in the low pressure you run the tyres at. The width of the “footprint” combined with a soft tyre that conforms to the riding surface yields incredible traction. Because the volume is so great there is little chance of the carcass compressing enough to contact the rim, so most of us are riding single-digit pressures. I generally run 7 or 8 psi on the beach and 12 – 15psi on harder surfaces. Snow riders will go as low as 4 or 5psi, crazy stuff!

I remember the first night I got my Pugsley home eight years ago. I was so keen to try it out I duct-taped a couple of LED torches on my helmet and hit the local beach at 11 o’clock at night. It’s a wondrous thing the first time you ride over that soft fluffy sand at the top of the beach, the same stuff you have enough trouble walking on. Riding fat, if you pedal with a nice smooth cadence (and don’t turn too sharply) you just churn straight through it, and as the sand firms-up you start floating on the top. It’s magic.

Peace and tranquility in the suburbs has its price.

Exploring the coast below Kennedy Park.

This new-found traction opens-up a raft of riding possibilities; sand, snow, lake-shores, riverbeds, rock-gardens – your location portfolio just got a whole lot bigger.

You pay for that extra capability with a little more weight and slightly slower steering, but it’s not a big deal. When I jump on the fatty after riding one of my “leaner” bikes I’m not thinking “gee this thing is heavy”, it’s just rides like a bike – a very comfortable one at that. With a carbon fibre frame and tubeless carbon rims you approach “normal” mountainbike weights, but unless you’re a racer (or a millionaire) why would you bother? Just ride more and shave a couple of pounds off the engine instead.

Would you use a fat-bike as your only bike? While my fat-girl is my only mountainbike, it’ll probably be most peoples second or third bike. They are perfectly capable of hustling through the forest (lots of fun actually), but you’ll use a bit more energy, especially climbing. I ride mine a ton around town too, like a big goofy BMX. But it’s not the fastest option, just the fattest and funnist.

Even when life is shit, a ride on your bike is never a bad thing. Ride your bike every day.

Campbells Bay Beach to myself.

So that’s my summary of the fat-bike. After twenty one years riding mountainbikes the simple addition of big tyres has made my world a whole lot bigger – there’s just so much more to explore. Do yourself a favour – get fat!!!

Due to a lack of snow in Takapuna this year I’ve used some winter shots from my North American fat-biking friends. Thanks Michael, Pete and Jeff, much appreciated.

Fat Links:

Fat-Bike.com – Fat tyre news from around the world

Fat Bike AKL – Facebook Group

Fat Bikes NZ – Facebook Group

Coastrider – Scottish Fat-Biking Blog

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2014 9:38 am

    Nice summary!

  2. November 4, 2014 9:48 am

    I remember being fascinated with the Pugsley when they were first introduced. I never could justify the purchase, though, thinking of them as purely snow bikes. Now that I finally got a Pugsley, I’ve realized how fun they are to ride on any terrain! The only time it seems slow, is when I show up for a group ride and I’m the only one with a fat bike. Looking forward to hitting the snow soon!

  3. November 4, 2014 10:37 am

    Awesome! Another plus of fatbikes is that if you are tall your bike doesn’t look goofy! This is probably the cleanest looking fatbike I’ve ever soon (shorter ones look kind of cramped and spread out at the same time).

    • November 5, 2014 7:41 am

      Singlespeeds always look cleaner!!! My purple Pug is a 22″, that’s a big-ass frame. Fits my spindly 6′ 5″ frame like a glove :^)

  4. November 13, 2014 8:56 am

    Just catching up on your blog Antonine, great post you have written!,

  5. Jade permalink
    January 24, 2016 11:46 am

    Well written. I tried a Fattie a few years back in Christchurch that was in for a service from an outdoor outfit and I couldn’t stop smiling. Now the prices are hovering around ‘achievable’ I’m looking forward to owning one someday soon. Only hope I can find one with a curved front fork….

    • January 27, 2016 8:10 am

      Prices are certainly coming down, although the entry-level bikes will be a fair bit heavier, and the bearings etc less durable for beach-riding etc.
      Why do you want curved fork?

  6. Mcshaz permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:29 pm

    This review has got me thinking about going fat – peddle along the beach from our bach at Karekare to Whatapu, up and over to Huia, coffee, feed and back again. Problem is that anything fat is either big bucks or a serious downgrade in componentry (which is really hard to tolerate). Any thoughts recommendations on models?

    • May 8, 2016 9:36 pm

      It depends what you mean by “big bucks”? The specialized Fatboy starts at around NZD$2000. Trek Farley and Kona Wo $2500. I like the Surly Wednesday ($2900), but I would say that – I own 4 Surlys!
      Evolution Cycles have the cheaper Reids and Charges. They are good value but heavier bikes with lower-spec componentry, you get what you pay for.

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