Do these tires make me look fat?
story and photo by Bob Allen
UPDATE: In January 2014, the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance reported that a fat biker had received a $175.00 ticket for riding on snowmobile trails in Gallatin National Forest. The forest’s Travel Management Plan Decision (2006) prohibits wheeled vehicles on ski and snowmobile trails. Originally intended to keep pickup trucks and ATVs off these trails, the plan has not yet changed to reflect the rising use of fat bikes. It may take years to do so. For now, the Gallatin National Forest has published information on what trails are available for fat bike use. Read it here.
In the southern climates where winter mountain biking means a long sleeved jersey, the attraction of fat bikes may not be so obvious. But if you’re a cyclist who lives where winter means snow, ice, and frozen mud, these monster-truck-tired bikes translate to an immediate end to spinning class, a healthy shoulder season pursuit for skiers, and less need for that midwinter road trip to Tucson.
Once just the provenance of arctic endurance athletes (think Iditabike) who demanded custom equipment that could navigate and withstand the punishment of routes better suited to huskies, fat bikes have evolved. The standard fat bike’s rigid frame and fork design heralds back to the mountain bike’s more humble roots, but combined as they are with modern disc brakes and big volume tires (up to 4.8 inches wide) that you run at obscenely low pressures (eight psi on snow), the package delivers a ride you never thought possible. Seriously. It’s bizarre how well fat bikes handle even rocky, dry trail thanks to passive suspension and gobs of traction.
“It’s not a fad or novelty. There’s definitely something to these bikes,” says Dave Gray, industrial designer at Surly Bikes. “I see the aha moments at our demos. Experienced cyclists go out on their first test ride and come back with shit-eating grins. It’s not a snow bike or sand bike, it’s just a bike.”
No longer just the esoteric product of core builders like Surly and Salsa, look for fat offerings in 2014 from industry players like Kona, Specialized, Trek, and Norco. The entry-level bikes start around $1,600, with the sub-25 pound carbon race bikes busting the $5,000 mark. It’s estimated that in one year the number of U.S. fat bike sales will double—from 10,000 to 20,000.
The fatty pandemic has naturally prompted a market-driven demand for better components—especially with the snow riding set. A new four-inch wide studded, knobby Dillinger tire from 45NRTH makes even hard-packed snow and ice fun. The gear, in turn, has fat bikers seeking new winter terrain. Riders in Driggs, Idaho are collaborating with snowmobile and Nordic clubs to groom passes for bikes. One Nordic center in Marquette, Michigan is building fat bike specific singletrack in snow—complete with bermed corners and tabletops.
To ward off any conflict, IMBA coordinators are asking fat bikers to stay off Nordic trails and to ask permission before tapping into snowmobile networks. “It’s really tempting to fly down groomed trails,” says IMBA’s Midwest Regional Director Hansi Johnson, “but we need to realize that those trails are built by and for other user groups. Snowmobile trails are better suited to bikes than Nordic trails because they’re straight and level. But folks need to be visible. The bubbleheads roll at 60 mph; fat bikers roll at less than 15 mph. You know how that could work out.”
From the Winter 2014 issue.