What is fat biking?
August 15, 2016
Out on the trail this winter, there's an increasing chance you'll have a close encounter with a fat-tire bike. With roughly 4-inch-wide balloon tires that almost turn a 26-inch rim into a 29er, fat-tire bikes, or fat bikes, are on the rise in the realm of winter sports. With close to two times the tire width of an average mountain bike, fat bikes 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.
With origins in the world of custom-built biking, fat bikes 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. Locally, 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."
Out on the trail
Jumping at the chance to take a monster-truck-of-a-bike for a spin, we took to the trail for a quick field test of the Salsa Mukluk and Kona WO.
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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 fat bikes, 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 tendency to get snow clumped between the treads, making them less effective. Tire pressure may have been a factor. With fat bikes 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 fat bikes 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
Fat bikes 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 fat bike could make a solid option for any wintertime bike commuter or bar-bound patron willing to brave the cold.
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