Have you noticed the mountain biking equivalent of a monster truck rolling around the local trails lately? If so, you probably remember the first time you saw it. "Fat Bikes" as they're affectionately called because of their "fat" tires, are a fast growing segment of the mountain biking world.
The Highly Un-official Origin of Fat Bikes
Like most good mountain biking stories, it seems like part fact & part urban legend. Fat bikes originated in the 1980s as one-off projects by those who needed more traction. Oddly enough, stories indicate two different groups working on the same problem independently. The first group was based in Alaska & needed a solution for extreme snowfall while the other group was riding the sand-dunes of New Mexico.
Tradition off-road tires were so narrow that they kept puncturing through sketchy surfaces so some ingenious folks found a way to combine two rims side-by-side with a single hub, thereby doubling the surface area of the contact patch. In the same way a snowshoe increases the surface area and distributes weight more broadly preventing your foot from punching through the snow, the double-wide tires held the bikes on top of the snow instead of continually drilling through it.
It wasn't long before the rims & tires had evolved to accommodate a single, wide tire that could be run at a much lower pressure. Just like the standard mountain bike tire, lowering the pressure increases the contact patch, further increasing traction. A new form of mountain biking was born. Super wide, low pressure, incredible stick-to-the-trail awesomeness ensued.
The introduction of the Surly Pugsley in the 1990s marked a big leap forward in mainstream production for fatties. Up until that point, most fat bikes had been custom one-offs and niche manufacturers. Although it's still a relatively new segment of the mountain biking world, I recently found a list of 60+ manufacturers cranking out fat bikes including major brands like Specialized and Trek. Other popular brands include Surly, Salsa, Borealis & Kona.
Fat bikes come in frame options including steel, aluminum & carbon. They can be found in single speed, 1x11, or multiple geared options. The geniuses at SRAM have even recently introduced a Rockshox Bluto fork, specifically engineered for fat bikes. How much will one cost you? Like most builds, it varies a lot depending on grouping options & frame material but think $1500 on the low end and $5000+ on the high end.
They look slow... but they're not.
Bigger, yes. Heavier, maybe. Slower... hell no. I remember my first ride with a group of guys riding "fatties" (as they're often called) on standard, dry trail at Chestnut Ridge. I thought it was going to be a slower, leisurely ride. Ha! I couldn't have been more wrong!
Here's the thing: because they have so much traction, riders don't have to slow down. For anything. The lower air pressure in the tires also allow for faster speeds. Just like suspension helps moderate any vertical translation of the bike when riding over choppy surfaces, the bigger tires at lower air pressure act like giant shock absorbers allowing the bike to continue moving forward. Fast.
The wheel set-up alone makes for a heavier ride but for most normal riding situations, the weight doesn't really matter. Let's face it; we're not climbing Columbine here. If you were on a steady diet of epic climbs, this would probably not be your first choice or even your primary bike. For the bumps & rollers found in this part of the country, it's plenty good enough!
In fact, what many riders originally thought of as a nice addition to the bike collection has become their go-to bike in any riding condition for the simple reason that the fat bike is so damn fun to ride. Contact your local bike shop & ask if they have a demo fat-bike for you to try. You might just find your N+1.
Well, that's the skinny on Fat Bikes. Now it's your turn; I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Anyone out there riding a fat bike? Anything you'd like to add to the discussion? Who's going to demo a fatty anytime soon?