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“WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?”
“LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THOSE TIRES?”
“DOES THAT THING HAVE A MOTOR?”
“MY MOTORCYCLE HAS SKINNIER TIRES!”
The fat tire bike sits in our store window, stopping traffic and getting people to come in and gape at it. It truly is a jaw-dropper, and person after person shakes their head and walks away.
I’ve never seen a bicycle that blows people’s minds the way that the fat tire bicycle does.
Also Read: The Best Fat Bicycles
What Is A Fat Bike?
The fat bike is built around a tire that is much wider. Where most mountain bikes (MTB) have a tire that is typically 2.5″-2.85″ wide, the fat bike has a tire that is at least 5″ wide. Additionally, the wheels are technically only 26″, but the greater side-wall height means you basically have the rolling circumference of a 29er.
Origins Of The Fat Bike
In Minnesota it gets cold. Real cold. And cyclists have a much shorter season to ride in. Snow comes early and stays late, pushing athletes into sports like hockey and cross country skiing.
But that doesn’t stop the locals from trying to ride in the snow. Every year, the kids will get their bikes out and give it a valiant effort.
And as the years buy, and these little boys grow into men with power tools and welders, their bicycles start getting modifications. The front tire is always the easiest to alter, and as the years went by you’d see more and more of these hand-built “fat tire” bikes.
In 2005, Quality Bike Products decided to give these riders a real bike for year-round use. The Pugsley was born.
The Pugs was a unique animal. It got a lot of attention and even more scoffing. But QBP wasn’t about to give up n their baby. They took it from one event to the next, pushing shop owners to ride it.
On the Pugsley, you could conquer anything.
Our store manager came back totally sold on the idea. I was skeptical. After all, we barely receive any snow, and we don’t have much sand to contend with. What we need are bigger and better shocks.
“Just try it.”
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We took the “just try it” stance with all of our customers. A small deposit let you take the bike out for the weekend. That, combined with some demo days at the local mountain biking park, and we suddenly had a rabid following of fat tire fanatics.
What was exciting was seeing how many of the 45+ riders were loving this bicycle.
The tires are tall enough that you have about 3 inches of cushion. And, they are wide enough that you can virtually balance the bike (track stand) at a standstill.
This mixture of comfort and stability makes these bikes ideal for the novice rider and those who were once on the forefront of the mountain biking movement but who are now wrestling with fused discs, repaired ACLs, and all the ailments of an active lifestyle.
The wider footprint also means that these bicycles can handle conditions regular MTBs shouldn’t mess with. Where other mountain bikes tear up wet ground and trails, the fattie can be out riding in less than perfect conditions with less environmental impact.
The result is that on any given weekday, you will find nearly 25% of the bikes at our local off road track are all fatties. People of all ages love these bikes for their ability to ride deep into the woods and to traverse areas that no one else can go. We’ve even had a lot of bow hunters start using this bike to easily access spots that were previously only accessible by foot.
Is A Fat Bike Right For You?
Mountain bikes are made to go off road. And I’ve ridden mine through open fields and back through the woods with no trails. But, MTBs do best with at least a little bit of trail. When you go off trail, there are so many unexpected swamps and logs that most riders soon find themselves returning to the marked path.
With the wider tire, there is a much greater ability to roll over items. There’s added stability for when you need to stop quickly. And there is less frustration with thistles (especially if you convert to tubeless) and swampy conditions.
“Off road” actually means “off road”.
(Caveat: The ecological footprint is something we should all be concerned about. And there are simply some days where it is too tacky to ride.)
The wider tire helps to spread your body weight over a greater area and lessens your footprint. As the old ads in Popular Mechanics for off-road motorcycles used to say: “lighter than a man’s footprint”. While I’m not making the same claim, the principle applies. You get wide enough and suddenly you are no longer digging into the ground as badly.
Snow? Sand? Can’t get enough (Ok, so these babies need some hardpack, or they WILL flounder). Wet out? A lot of times you can still ride. This one can do all four seasons. Sure, there are some limitations. I’m not going to lie to you. But while your buddies are at Crossfit whining about how they wish they could ride, you and your Golden Retriever are out having the time of your life.
One bicycle. Four seasons. For the rider who wants to be unstoppable.
Stability And Comfort
One of my road racing buddies is approaching 50. He got his start in mountain biking. But all of the jarring finally took its toll and he had to leave the sport. “It just takes too long for me to recover on Monday” he says woefully.
With the wider tires, there is this enhanced stability that leaves the rider feeling much more confident. Unlike the 29ers, this bike is welcoming the 50-year-old crowd back to the sport they love with a teddy bear embrace. And while most of these bikes do not have shocks on them, the sidewall of the tire acts as a shock absorber, offering all of the cushioning you could ever want for general mountain biking.
I’m all about using technology to get an unfair advantage. Since I spend much of my time on the roads, my technical skills are always lagging. I need a bike that makes riding “idiot-proof”. The wider tire does that for me. I’m tearing up the trail with the best of my friends.
A New Group Of Friends
As with most sports, we’re seeing a cult following spring up around this bike. While you can still go ride with your “regular” mountain biking friends, there are a lot of these guys packing tents and heading back into the woods on trails that haven’t been used in 50 years. Here in the Ozark Mountains, we are seeing trails that used to only be ridden by Mules, now being accessed by the Fat Tire crowd.
These groups tend to spring up from places like Meetup and from chance meetings at the local bike shop and on the local trails. Because let’s face it, when you are riding one of these, you want to talk to everyone else who has one.
No shocks. (As I mention above, the sidewalls help deliver the absorption that you need.) You’re not fiddling with shock adjustments and maintenance. The end result is a bike that is always ready to go. As far as tire and chain wear (your two highest costs on any bike) it is pretty much on par with any other option out there.
Put the “Fun” Back Into Mountain Biking
The whole sport has gotten so competitive that sometimes we don’t just get to enjoy what we are doing. With the ability to ride anywhere, and the insane level of balance and confidence you get on any terrain, the fattie is a key to a new type of riding: The truly unbeaten path.
It is designed for those who need to set their spirits free.
Aren’t Fat Bikes Hard to Pedal?
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It’s all relative. When you are in the woods, it feels fast because you are going where no one has gone before. But, yeah, if you put it next to a road bike on the street, it would feel slow.
If you have a big enough motor, these bikes are as fast as any other. Just a few weeks ago, during one of the charity road rides, I was passed by one of the local amateur racers pedaling a fattie and wearing a Centurion-style helmet with feathers. He had to be doing a solid 18 miles per hour average. (I finished the ride on my “super fast” road bike at 16.6).
Typically, though, you aren’t going to be riding this on asphalt. You will be deep in the woods where no cell tower has any hope of ever reaching you. You’ll be exploring and enjoying and not thinking about speed.
When pedaling these bikes, it feels easy to pedal. You are more aware of how easy it is to roll over obstacles than you are on how slow you may be going.
And the wheels and overall frame are relatively light, so it’s not like you are trying to ride a steel Mongoose mountain bike through the woods. Now that would be miserable.
So no, they aren’t hard to pedal. But they aren’t the one to choose if mountain bike racing is your main goal. They are the perfect speed for those folks who ride just to enjoy riding and have no delusions of one-day racing.
vs regular mountain bikes
Could a Fattie be your ONLY mountain bicycle? Could it actually be a replacement for your MTB? I like fat tires. But I’ve also had the advantage of being a roadie. So it helps me avoid some of the “starry-eyed” obsession.
The frames are rigid, and while the wheels do provide a large amount of cushion, you start to notice it on the downhills and where your route gets extremely rough. Most aficionados get around this by decreasing their speed.
Now that front shocks are coming into play, the field is beginning to level. But there is still a speed difference.
These rides are slower than a regular mountain bike on tricky technical sections, when climbing, fast descents and extremely rocky sections. They are not an overall “sluggish” ride, or even as slow as you might think. Keeping up with other riders is not really a problem except for some of those specific conditions.
If you want to ride in the snow, in the sand when it is swampy, and if you appreciate mountain biking for WHERE it can take you instead of HOW FAST you can get there, the fat tire is better than a regular MTB.
Otherwise, don’t count the regular bikes out just yet.
vs full suspension
Downhill aside, if you need the full suspension because — like me — you are a non-technical rider who needs their bike to do a lot of the thinking for them, the Fattie can be an incredible alternative. Even on some of the wildest, rocky ledges, I feel more confident on my Fattie than I ever did on my full-suspension bike. It comes down to speed. If you must always ride at full-throttle, this bike might frustrate you. If you are riding because you love mountain biking, you’ve got to give the fat tire a serious chance.
vs all mountain/Enduro
If you’ve read the previous two paragraphs, you should have a pretty good idea what I’m about to say: Don’t count the fattie out. There is so much confidence from being able to roll over everything in your path. Confidence translates to speed.
The downside is going to be where there is a lot of climbing and outrageously rocky ground. They are even more fun on the descents, you just won’t bomb the descents like, perhaps, you are used to doing on your Enduro kit.
The trick with these is choosing a head angle that you are comfortable with. Some of the early snow bikes weren’t quite as comfortable or responsive for All mountain riding. But, times have changed and typically the fatties have a more relaxed geometry, so you will feel right at home.
I was surprised to see so many people asking for this comparison. I’m still a fan of the cyclocross for gravel and even for a lot of fire road riding. Anything more than that and you’ll need a mountain bike. The Fattie is an excellent ride to consider for a first-time mountain rider
(I know this comment will stir emotions. Let the roasting begin! 😉
Are They Good For Commuting?
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When I commute, I want to get from point A to B as fast as possible. So I have always been a fan of using road bikes and a messenger bag. I find that combination lets me carry a laptop and an extra change of clothes, as well as a few groceries now and then.
Wider tires do help with puncture resistance since they distribute the weight over a larger surface area. So, over time, I began using a cyclocross bike for commuting. The tires were still narrow enough for moving quickly but seemed to get fewer flats. They also offer a little more stability on wet surfaces.
The Fatties will offer greater stability and puncture resistance (especially if you go with tubeless tires). However, you must compromise on speed. Speed doesn’t matter when you are riding where no man has ridden before. But, on asphalt, the disadvantage becomes more clear.
However, these things are freaking comfortable to ride. You don’t have the bouncing and inefficiencies of the shocks in a normal mountain bike. Just good, comfortable riding. The closest thing to pedaling a Lay-Z-Boy (TM) down the road.
So if comfort is more important than speed, then this is a great way to go.
Folks who are convinced that this bike will make them slower, haven’t actually pedaled one off road. It’s time to get off-road and really see what this bike can do.
Next: Read about my favorite fat bikes.