Summit County Gear Guide: Taking fatbikes for a spin
November 2, 2015
Out on the trail this winter, there's an increasing chance you'll have a close encounter with a fat-tire bike.
Whether they remain a niche product in the world of biking or become the next big thing is yet be seen. The tide of public opinion will probably land somewhere in the middle.
With roughly 4-inch-wide balloon tires that almost turn a 26-inch rim into a 29er, fat-tire bikes, or fatbikes, could be on the rise in the realm of winter sports.
With close to two times the tire width of an average mountain bike, fatbikes put more surface area on the ground to keep you stable in slick conditions and even let you charge through fresh snow.
“You can ride a bike in the snow and it can be fun,” said Bergin Parks, of Wilderness Sports in Frisco.
"You can ride a bike in the snow and it can be fun," said Bergin Parks, of Wilderness Sports in Frisco.
With origins in the world of custom-built biking, fatbikes have been around for more than a decade, but an increasing number of companies have been bringing them into the realm of mass production in recent years. This winter, a few area bike shops, including Wilderness Sports and Rebel Sports in Frisco and at Copper, have added them to their rental fleets.
"I noticed tracks last year when I was cross-country skiing," said Kevin Kahle, of Rebel Sports. "I was pretty impressed that someone was getting around on a bike all winter long."
Ultimately deciding it was a new way to play in the snow, Kahle ordered a handful to give them a try this season.
Both he and Clay Schwark, the manager at Wilderness Sports, said that their stores wanted to test the market this season and see whether the bikes' popularity will grow.
Field tested, High Gear approved
Jumping at the chance to take a monster-truck-of-a-bike for a spin, we took to the trail Saturday for a quick field test of the Salsa Mukluk and Kona WO.
First concern: How much harder are those oversized tires going to be to pedal? As it turns out, they handle a lot better than anticipated. That said, they require a little more pedal power, especially when you take to the snow. We found that the bikes performed well on a variety of terrain. Even on slick sidewalks and freshly plowed roads the wide wheels found a way to stick. The real test, though, was taking them to the trail, and that's where the fun really kicked in. On packed-out hiking paths the bikes really held their ground. They were a blast on rolling hills.
Both climbing and descending, the tires did their job. But you likely won't want to take them up a steeper grade than you might ordinarily charge in the summertime. At a certain point a tire can only do so much. Still, if you're up for pushing up a steeper section, the ride back down might be well worth it.
As for deeper snow, the bikes were tested in a few inches of fresh. They handled pretty well, but wouldn't necessarily be recommended for long stretches through untracked snow. Three inches of fresh seemed like a good threshold.
Don't tread on me
Tires are key in any mountain bike. And when it comes to snow and fatbikes, a good tread pattern is especially important. After testing two different tires, we discovered that a nobbier, wider tread pattern performed better when really attacking the trail. The tire with less rigid knobs that were patterned closer together had a tendancy to get snow clumped between the treads, making them less effective. Tire pressure may have been a factor. With fatbikes it's recommended that riders let air out of the tires to give them more bounce and more surface area contacting the ground. The tires themselves provide suspension. Most fatbikes are fully rigid without front or rear suspension. Unlike a standard mountain bike, fat tires should be inflated to less than 15 psi.
After riding both tire designs, we found that the tires we had a little trouble with were also noticeably more inflated.
The last word
Fatbikes come at a cost. The Kona retails at around $1,100, and the Salsa Mukluk at $2,300. That's a big investment for what could end up as more of a novelty. But for anyone serious about biking, they're definitely a solid way to keep up conditioning in the winter months without finding a milder climate.
And Parks was right, they can be fun. He said they perform well in sand, mud and loose dirt. And with the large-volume tires, they can support more weight, making them an option for bike touring — if you're not concerned about speed.
A fatbike could make a solid option for any wintertime bike commuter or bar-bound patron willing to brave the cold.
Wilderness and Rebel Sports both rent the bikes for about $50 a day. They can be rented by the hour or for a half-day.
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