When fat bikes entered the mountain bike landscape, it wasn’t immediately clear what they were for. Focusing on the extreme surfaces they could conquer helped tell part of the story, but what they could do for off-road riding in general got buried in sand and snow. We think the modern fat bike deserves another look and a broader message — that fat bikes offer what many riders have been looking for all along.
In the late 1980s, snow- and sand-beleaguered riders in Alaska and New Mexico looked for an answer to what was believed to be unrideable terrain. Salsa Team Rider and life-long Alaskan Bjorn Olson recalls the days before four-inch tired bicycles were a thing. “To determine if a winter trail was rideable, a heel test was employed. This test consisted of bringing your foot down as hard as possible, slamming your heel onto the trail. If the surface broke or gave way, riding a bike was out. This was when the widest tires rarely exceeded 2.3 inches.”
Olson wasn’t alone in wishing there were better options. Thankfully, there were folks within a Minnesota-based bike company that saw merit in trying to Frankenstein a handful of their ideas, and those of tinkerers, into a new kind of bike. Surly Bikes introduced the iconic Pugsley – the first mass-produced fat bike – in 2005, and the seedling of a category sprouted.
A small group of people got them right away, but many were left scratching their heads. While the Pugsley generated a palpable buzz, fat bikes weren’t quite ready for primetime just yet. They needed to be understood, and focusing on the problematic surface conditions they were meant to conquer was the logical solution. While this approach helped the bikes make sense from a marketing perspective, it also inextricably tied them to snow or sand; two things that made the dismissal of fat bikes easy for riders who rarely if ever encountered or sought out either.
Those consumers who determined they didn’t “need” a fat bike and never gave them a second thought may be pleasantly surprised by how many modern mountain bike innovations have found their way into current fat bike design. Lightweight wheels and tires, trail-oriented geometry, and top-tier component compatibility have made today’s fat bikes surprisingly rippable while still preserving their defining trait; to boldly go where no other bikes can.
These characteristics alone should garner them another look. Fat bikes are easier to understand than ever, and their rideability and capability is helping them shed their off-season or worst-surface-only stigma, opening up entirely new experiences to riders of all stripes.
“The point we (Surly included) should have been making more adamantly all along about fat bikes is two-prong – access and accessibility.” Surly’s Global Sales Manager John Fleck has as much knowledge of the fat bike’s saga as anyone.
“Access is about going more places in any season of the year. Forest floor crawling, swamps and bogs, expedition style exploration. You don’t need a trail. And you don’t need snow or sand to explore. Opportunities abound whenever and wherever.”
The other prong, Fleck continues, “is accessibility – it’s about welcoming in potential customers by explaining to them what the fat platform can do for them personally. It expands horizons. Not only regarding where you can go but where you can go comfortably. Comfort zones vary by customer, but everyone has one. No matter where the defined boundaries of one’s comfort zone lies, a fat bike will help a rider test those boundaries.”
In the Salsa Cycles/Bjorn Olson film “Instruments of Adventure”, Surly Product Manager Amy Kippley notes, “I think previously, folks were much more inclined to look at where lines had already been written down for them.” It’s undeniably easier to venture out to a trail or route that’s already been mapped out, and if a location is well known, it’s usually for good reason and worth visiting. But for riders that are drawn to the excitement that comes from making their own adventures, fat bikes deserve a spot at the top of their equipment checklist.
Beyond Just Snow and Sand
Current marketing in the mountain bike world can sometimes lead to debate on what the “perfect bike” for a trail or region is — there’s a fear that a particular steed might be “too much” or “too little” bike for the ride at hand. Much like golfers carrying a collection of clubs so they’re ready for whatever they encounter on the course, it’s not uncommon to hear off-roaders talk about how many bikes they “need” to be able to successfully ride anywhere.
To a certain extent, fat bikes allow riders to throw the whole golf bag at whatever’s in front of them. Because a fat bike can hold its own in previously unnavigable terrain, it makes sense that any terrain below that extreme is fair game as well. This inviting aspect will appeal to a new customer base and should make fat bikes a part of any discussion with someone just getting their feet muddy in cycling. For veteran riders, fat bikes offer a chance to add a new dimension to their off-road experiences. Tackle familiar trails with a fresh set of treads, or explore new disciplines like bikepacking.
Fleck recites a common conversation he has at demo events:
Consumer: “What is this thing for?”
Fleck: “It’s for everything.”
Letting go of marketed parameters placed on a mountain bike can be incredibly liberating. With fat bikes, there’s no “I should be riding this bike this way because it has x amount of travel” or “I don’t know if I can ride up to this bike’s potential.” Just throw a leg over, any time of year, on any terrain, at whatever speed you’re feeling, and see where the day takes you.
Where do You See Yourself Riding?
Olson refers to the wide-open opportunities when spreading the gospel of fat. “The bicycle has been called the perfect marriage of technology and human energy. The fat bike has enriched this marriage by expanding the scope and range beyond the confines of pavement and manufactured trails into the realm of near limitless possibility.” He adds, “Whether it’s a ride through a patch of trail-less forest or an untested expedition in a far-off corner of the globe, imagination on a fat bike is the only barrier.”
“With the advent of the fat bike, I have found a new source of inspiration.” Brett Davis is a Salsa Team Rider and Assistant Director of Outdoor Pursuits at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. “It’s something that dominates my daydreams and causes me to lie awake in anticipation of adventure during the dark hours of the night. These bikes have allowed me to do desert tours up sandy washes, to ride up snow-packed canyon roads with ski gear, but also to attempt to ride previously untouched sections of my local trail network. “
Davis has explored seldom-visited nooks and crannies all over the globe, but he says fat bikes, “Even stir in me a desire to find terrain in my own backyard that seems impossible to ride. Mix creativity and imagination with a fat bike, and you may just redefine what is possible. At the very least, a good ol’ fashioned adventure could develop.”
Fat bikes may evoke the feelings closest to those of the earliest mountain bike riders. Sitting aboard a bike with the biggest tires available at the time conjured a huge grin and a “You gotta be kidding me” sense of curiosity. Once those knobbies left pavement though, you felt capable, unstoppable, and certain you were having the most fun around.
There’s no question that modern mountain bikes are wondrous machines, and the variety of specialty categories allow riders to keep searching for the perfect bike if they want to. The question, “If I could only have one bike” is one that many dirt devotees would rather not answer, but, if they had to, it would be hard to overlook what’s possible with a fat bike. Short of World Cup Downhill, there aren’t a lot of situations where a fatty would be a completely illogical choice for the task at hand.
Olson concludes, “The heel test is a thing of the past. What the modern fat bike is capable of is still being discovered and, for me, this activity of indulgent freedom is a source of endless joy. From winter snow trails, multi-week wilderness routes, riverbeds, alpine tundra, and over countless other uneven, lumpy and bumpy surfaces, fat bikes are no slouch at overcoming obstacles, remaining aloft in soft conditions, or covering great distances in the backcountry. What used to be unthinkable on a bike is now possible or, at the very least, worth a shot.”
Build a 21-lb. year-round, any surface race machine, bikepack, explore off trail in flood plains or high alpine meadows, or head to your favorite nearby trails and just go for a mountain bike ride. For the sorts of experiences that mountain bikers seek, the undeniable versatility of fat bikes scratch many an itch. If they’re not included in your off-road repertoire, make a place for them and see where they take you. They may provide the feeling you’ve been looking for.
Please become familiar with and respect land use rules wherever you're riding so that we may all enjoy wild areas.
As the purveyors of the first widely accessible, mass produced fat bike, Surly is no stranger to the merits of fat. Its combination of idiosyncrasy and practicality result in fat bikes that have left tire tracks all over the world. http://surlybikes.com/
Salsa believes a sense of adventure makes life better. An early developer of fat, Salsa has influenced the design of today’s fat bike like few other brands have. From racing to podium places in a growing number of competitive events, to exploring never-before-cycled landscapes, Salsa fat bikes bring adventure to every ride. http://salsacycles.com/
Heller is focused on riding bikes off-road—rippin’ the trail and having a blast with friends. Heller makes solid, fun bikes that get the job done for a good value by using high-quality frame suppliers to ensure its bikes have a foundation for upgrades later. http://hellerbikes.com/