Does the added expense and time investment of buying and maintaining a fat bike justify its overall fun and usefulness?
Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at email@example.com. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.
The first time I rode a fat bike was at Interbike’s Dirt Demo out at Bootleg Canyon in 2012. The first five minutes on that orange Salsa Mukluk was admittedly pretty fun. I rolled through the expo area on a completely obnoxious mutation of a bike, getting a lot of attention at the expense of whiz-bang carbon fiber road bikes worth more than my car.
The sound of 4.5-inch wide tires humming harmoniously on the asphalt was also admittedly pretty fun, but as soon as I reached singletrack and started riding the rocky, rutty and loose Nevada desert terrain, all the fun pretty much stopped. It was nothing more than an oversized, awkward, heavy and slow steel bike with no suspension that clumsily banged and clanged its way downhill with more racket than a drawer full of kitchen utensils falling down a stairwell.
After that maiden voyage, I had written off the fat bike as a mere novelty. The cuteness of gargantuan tires would quickly expire as soon as people started rattling molars out of their skulls while getting passed by senior citizens on full suspension rigs. As an aside, I do realize that recently I penned an article about the merits of riding a rigid mountain bike, but the advantage of a traditional rigid mountain bike is that it’s lightweight, nimble and extremely efficient – none of which apply to the fat bike. And yes, I know about the $5,500 Salsa Beargrease XX1 Carbon. It’s got an equivalent novelty quotient as a Ferrari with mud terrain tires.
While my friends and I scoffed at fat bikes, last winter I was seeing numerous photos of people riding in the snow on fat bikes. What’s more, they seemed to be having fun. I began to reconsider. Maybe they did serve a useful purpose for those living in parts of the world where winter would otherwise render riding impossible. But living in San Diego at the time, I had forgotten the entire concept of winter and continued riding my traditional mountain bike. Occasionally I’d see a fat bike on the trail. I’d look at the bike, then look at the rider, smile and say, “cute bike”.
This past summer I rode a fat bike for the second time at a Salsa event in Duluth, Minnesota. A group of us did a fat bike night ride along the shores of Lake Superior through deep, soft sand that would paralyze a regular mountain bike. Admittedly, it was a super fun ride, with nearly 20 of us piloting these monster truck-like bicycles through downtown Duluth in reckless abandon. My eyes were opened to the merits of the fat bike. If you live on the beach or in hardcore desert terrain like Arizona, a fat bike might make sense.
My third and most recent ride on a fat bike was just the other day. My buddy Mike who co-owns JetLites let me borrow his Surly Moonlander sporting 4.7-inch wide Big Fat Larry tires. I had already ridden a fat bike on rocky trails and a sandy beach, now it was time to ride the fat bike in some snow and ice up on Mount Rose Meadows above Lake Tahoe.
After nearly giving myself a hernia wrangling the fat bike from the back of my truck, I rode a section of Tahoe Rim Trail that was firmly packed but laden with footprints, turning the trail in a ribbon of mini-potholes. Those memories of riding Bootleg Canyon came rushing back, as my eyes rattled in my skull and my teeth chattered in perfect time with the clanging of chain slap. Dropping the air pressure just below 10 psi didn’t really help matters.
After a rough start, I came to a relatively steep climb that was easily doable on a regular mountain bike, even in the snow. I shifted the Moonlander into granny and found myself struggling to maintain any semblance of forward movement, let alone speed. Suddenly I felt like the fat kid in gym class, especially when two guys on regular mountain bikes with studded tires effortlessly rode past me. One of them smiled and said “cute bike.”
Cresting the hill I was resolved to catch them on the downhill, after all, I’m on a fat bike in the snow. The Moonlander is in its element now. Or so I thought. The banging and clanging ensued, shooting me all over the trail, and the fact that my 4.7-inch tires were floating on the surface of the snow and not digging in meant awkward and unpredictable cornering. I really wasn’t having that much fun on the fat bike, so I aborted mission and headed back to the truck dismayed.
I want to like the fat bike. I really do. After all, it’s a bike. And even if it isn’t my preference, any bike is better than no bike. For specific conditions and parts of the world it makes sense, but for the vast majority of mountain bikers, a fat bike isn’t the wisest investment. Its usefulness is far too limited. You can do almost as much with a regular mountain bike and 2.5” tires.
I’ve ridden my normal mountain bike in snow plenty of times, and virtually every time I had a blast, so why would I need a fat bike? I’ve ridden my 30-year-old Bianchi touring bike on the beach for miles – making sure I rode near peak low tide for the firmest conditions – and it was equally as awesome, so what’s the point in having another bike that fills such a narrow spectrum of riding?
Contrary to what many people who’ve never ridden a fat bike think, you can’t ride these contraptions everywhere. They’re not motorized. You still have to provide the power, and because they’re so godawful slow, you have to provide a lot more power than what’s normally required. Conditions that render a regular mountain bike useless more often times than not also render a fat bike useless, or at least barely useful, which at that point maybe not riding a bike at all would be a wiser choice.
For $1,500 I could by an extremely versatile cyclocross bike that can ride efficiently across a wide range of conditions. Alternatively, I could get a full backcountry ski setup so that when the snow starts flying, the bike gets a break and I do something every bit as fun yet better suited to the conditions. As much as I love riding, I love it even more after I’ve taken a break from it for a little while.
Fat bikes are like boats – it’s less expensive and more fun to make friends with somebody who owns one than to actually own one yourself. For most people, a fat bike will spend more time collecting dust in the garage than doing anything else. And nothing is worse than a bike that rarely, if ever, gets ridden.
So if you’ve been considering a fat bike and you don’t either A) live in the middle of a desert B) live in tundra that’s frozen over half the year or C) live on a beach in the middle of nowhere, a fat bike probably isn’t the best investment. Just find a friend who owns one. That way when you get that once a year urge to ride a fat bike, you can just borrow it, get your fill of fatty and give it back.