Fat Bikes ARE Mountain Bikes

Words Adrian Montgomery
Photos Adrian Montgomery (unless noted)
Date Feb 3, 2015

Fat biking has an identity crisis. A quick glance at the content available portraying Fat Bike use would probably make you wonder if it should be called a snow biking. While riding your fat bike during the winter months certainly has appeal to the year-round cyclist, the use is not limited to on-snow. There are emerging groups using the Fat Bike in sand situations, gaining access to special places via the beach. The bikes can be used nearly anywhere, and for some new riders it can be argued that it’s a more stable way to learn how to ride off-road.

vista

Big views in Sun Valley Idaho.

According to the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) Fat Bike use is Mountain Biking, pure and simple. The fact is, we’ve been  fat biking since the early days on Mt Tam; the ATB/MTB culture was born from the desire to ride mountains on something more viable than the ’10 speeds’ available at the time. The difference is we’re now talking about 26×4.8 instead of the 26×2.125 ‘Balloon Tire’ of the early Clunker. Though IMBA might admit they have been constantly playing catch up with bike technology and the ever changing places the bikes can take you, there are some hurdles to this new fat experience in the form of access to groomed trails. The snow must be packed or “groomed” to ride on it, and this takes work.

DD2

DD getting his swerve. And check out those mitts.

Anyone who has ventured out on a Fat Bike in winter conditions can attest that they are not a powder snow option, nor are they an ice option (unless equipped with studs). Fat biking is very condition dependent, and timing is crucial to having a good experience. Riding on spring or ‘late-day’ conditions is not recommended, so it’s prudent to dress warmly since you’re usually going to be out at the coldest time of the day.

Why ride in winter conditions?

For those living in a winter resort community, a fat bike can get you outside when other winter sports’ conditions aren’t optimal. Backcountry powder skiing is king for locals, and fat biking can provide the yang for its ying. When the pow is flying there’s almost no way to ride, but once the conditions deteriorate for backcountry access, you can keep active by jumping on the bike. Also, the fat bike is lower risk for solo missions. Skip lining up a touring partner and planning a route; just jump on the bike and get after it.

For areas that are snow blanketed half the year, fat biking can serve up some sweet winter adrenaline. When you’re riding on a snowshoe trail, or a narrowly groomed path through the snow, it’s downright hairy. It feels a lot like riding the skinnies of the North Shore, giving you an off season riding rush.

lars

The Verde Crew Lars and Kyle on the right (who owns the record for the longest fat bike manual performed at the summit).

Fat Biking’s Challenges

There are currently more opportunities for fat bike use on public lands than we have funds to maintain. While many fat bikers are quick to point out riding options they’d like provided to them by land managers, we need to be thinking about how, and by whom, the trails will be maintained. Land managers are generally sympathetic to Fat Biking; many of those decision makers have seen the rise of mountain biking and they know we are a proactive group to work with. The problems are access to machinery and the funds to keep them running. Those expenses mean it’s probably best to embrace the same funding solutions the Nordic community has long since adopted; paid access to trails. It’ll take some work to find solutions to fund trail maintenance and overcome the notion of exclusion.

singletrack

Full suspension is so good on a fat bike.

Dependence on snow will greatly limit the sport’s growth potential. It puts us in the same position as the ski resort with the need for snowfall or expensive snowmaking. We need to diversify the uses we promote to prevent the sport being contingent on snowfall. The variables we deal with on traditional Nordic trails, like ability to hear other users, the speed variance amongst user groups, legacy users exercising their historic rights, and the fact that we’re not the only folks who want access to public land in the winter time, are real obstacles. The idea of adding more overland trails specifically built for fat bikes is not widely popular amongst land managers, especially when considering cost.

The rate at which fat bike equipment is changing is painful for the consumer. There are very few standards and little inter-compatibility. The trend seems to be moving towards a 27+” wheel size, which would leave many 26” owners feeling like they bought an iPhone 5 the day before the six came out. As an industry, we owe it to our customers to try and offer some standards allowing riders to grow with technology and not be alienated by it.

fatbike_touring

Fat bike pedalling to go touring. Why? Because you can. Photos – Pete Roggeman

The Future of Fat Biking

Mountain biking began on wide-open fire roads and quickly morphed into a single track obsession. In the same way, it’s no surprise that Fat Bikers are looking for something a little more thrilling than basic road riding on snow. Let’s face it, it’s fun at first, but the increased speeds you can attain on a groomed path in the cold months only serves to amplify the wind chill. What we’re all looking for now is a cold rolled, single track experience. Climbing is a great way to build your own heat; the undulating rhythm of single track keeps you focused and warmer than an all out speed spin.

A year-round approach to trail building in areas that get snowfall should be deployed. Build a flow trail for the summer in a way that can make it useable in the wintertime. This allows more people to use the resource for a longer season. Resorts that feature bike parks in the summer can consider maintaining them for Fat Bike use in the winter.

dumb_idea

Fatbiking; it only seems like a dumb idea when you aren’t doing it.

We should look at access to yurts and backcountry huts to create the overnight experiences. We need crowd-sourced trail reports to educate users before they commit to a Fat adventure. We need to avoid looking down our nose at low cost Fat Bikes or new users. The feeling of belonging and acceptance fuelled mountain biking’s growth in the early days. Embrace your fellow fat biker and make them feel part of something bigger; don’t be a new school bike snob.

This piece appeared in a slightly different form on the Verde PR Blog.


Adrian’s got the path to ultra fat nirvana all figured out. Did he miss anything?

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Comments

tashi
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tashi  - Feb. 9, 2015, 12:24 p.m.

I can't see owning one here, but if I lived in Edmonton it would be one of my primary bikes for a bunch of the year. They're excellent there! I gotta wonder who the "we" is in that article though - I'm guessing industry folks as it all seemed to be geared around building a financially viable sport more than figuring out how to have a real good time on bikes with big tires. The bit about standards is important - I was shopping for a cheap fatty to keep in Edmonton and my head was swimming with all the wheel/tire/hub/BB sizes out there. Seems like it would be pretty easy to get stuck with the Fatbike Betamax right now.

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gdharries
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Geof Harries  - Feb. 5, 2015, 10:09 a.m.

Fat bikes are EVERYWHERE up here in Whitehorse, Yukon. People of all ages and skills are commuting to work on them, they are packing and riding mountain bike trails on them and they're racing and riding incredibly long distances, all on fat bikes. For some cyclists, fat bikes may seem like a passing fad but here in Canada's north, they are actually quite practical (not to mention super fun).

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matt-preston
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Matt Preston  - Feb. 5, 2015, 9:54 a.m.

I think that if you live in the lower Mainland you really are in no position to judge fat bikes and the experience of riding them. I live in PG and fatties are becoming really popular because they are just so much fun to ride on the snowshoe trails. It's like riding a low consequence skinny for km after km. Tons of fun and a great option to mix up your outdoor fun. We have started grooming some of the trails to further the fun factor which is a ton of work, but really who cares? It's fun and that's all that matters.
I also see fat bikes as being great for alpine riding up here where you often cross wet alpine meadows or are essentially route finding over raw terrain. Lots of traction with minimal footprint which also reduces the chance of other user groups complaining about bikes damaging pristine alpine environments.
Would I get one to do laps of Espresso or Dale's? Certainly not. But for winter fun or raw alpine they are a compelling option.

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CraigH
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Craig Hunt  - Feb. 5, 2015, 1:14 p.m.

"I think that if you live in the lower Mainland you really are in no position to judge fat bikes and the experience of riding them."

I think we are, after renting them 3 times last in Pemberton:

My wife and I bought a couple of them to open up more winter riding opportunities.

Due to the lack of snow in the Metro Van area, last weekend we traveled to Manning Park to ride in snow.

We've also used them to ride beaches in Metro Van and on the Sunshine Coast. Riding on sand & round rock beach isn't possible with a regular mountain bike.

We are also hoping to use them for bike packing trips this summer (after swapping to ~4″ tires from the current ~5″.)

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matt-preston
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Matt Preston  - Feb. 5, 2015, 2:27 p.m.

Lol. Well Craig you guys are the adventurous types so I'm not surprised. For some of those epic backcountry rides they are perfect. Up here the Sugarbowl- grizzly den loop and Vineyards alpine are great examples of places they would be great. Even some of the wet zones in the chilcotins would be much nicer on one!

But I stand by the statement that you really need to live somewhere with 6 months of winter to truly appreciate their appeal 🙂

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CraigH
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Craig Hunt  - Feb. 5, 2015, 2:45 p.m.

Wet Chilcotin bike packing is what we were thinking of.

Kamloops is another area where they are packing trails to create fat bike loops. The group up there has a very active FB group.

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ib
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IB  - Feb. 4, 2015, 6:51 p.m.

My dilemma with fat bikes is finding that unique time when they are more fun than regular bike. And I live in NE with tons of snow. In order to ride a fat bike - one needs to pack the trails. By the time they are packed - they are good enough for a regular bike and more fun on a regular bike. Granted there is that one day when they are packed but too soft for regular bike - then fatbike works - slowly. It is still heavy and cumbersome with self steer and too low pressure to jump. with potential to blow a tire or destroy a rim. They are great rentals on x ski parks that groom specially for them. But to own one is tough - i know id be always reaching for a more nimble bike.

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muldman
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muldman  - Feb. 4, 2015, 3:37 p.m.

Fat bikes around here (Southern Alberta) are a tool to get a ride in between December and April. Even then, it's just another bike the the quiver. For the first couple of weeks in January this year, there was more dirt than snow on the local trails, so the "skinny" tire bike comes back out. New snow? Bring out the fatty.

We're riding the same trails in the winter that we ride in the summer. The first couple of hardy souls get to pack down the trail for the rest of us, and then it is fun at 50% speed (because these bikes are anything but fast!)

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CraigH
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Craig Hunt  - Feb. 4, 2015, 10:35 a.m.

"And check out those mitts." They are called pogs; motorsports (motorcycles, atv, snowmachine) & winter bike riders have been using they for years.

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Captain-Snappy
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Merwinn  - Feb. 5, 2015, 3:21 p.m.

Huh. They still make me want baked goods.

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - Feb. 6, 2015, 12:57 p.m.

I knew they had a name - I just thought it was funnier to call them mitts!

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wncmotard
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WNCmotard  - Feb. 4, 2015, 10:06 a.m.

It almost never snows here, still love my fat bike, and all the rest of my bikes as well. And I agree with uncle duke, you guys try way too hard to justify something that is by definition not justifiable to begin with. Bikes for the vast majority of us are for fun and are not a necessity, they're a luxury item. So if you're having fun, don't worry so much about what everyone else thinks.

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john-canfield
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John Canfield  - Feb. 4, 2015, 9:46 a.m.

I reject fat biking because the unbelievable conditions dependent nature of their utility and the massive lengths PR companies and "the industry" are taking to make it seem fun, or viable.

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - Feb. 4, 2015, 10:30 a.m.

Interesting. Have you tried riding a fat bike on dirt John? I haven't spent much time on one but a little at Interbike. What amazed me was the velcro traction. A flat gravelly turn on a dirt road has almost as much grip as a berm would on a conventional tire.

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doug-nielsen
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Doug Nielsen  - Feb. 10, 2015, 7:26 a.m.

Hey Cam, we've had a recent thaw here in Utah and I'm concerned about our trails due to fat bikes. I went and rode this week (on a 26 inch by 2.35 can you believe it!) and the fat bike hurricane has hit Utah-and they've been riding the trails when the trails ain't ready, but since they've got a fat bike, hell, let's go over and around anything. Here's a photo of what was perfectly good single track before the fat bike revolution. As of now… no one is addressing this issue. I was out number 3 to 1 by the FB crowd. I talked to as many as possible and all bragged about "never missing a week". Well ya jacked the trails boys.

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Captain-Snappy
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Merwinn  - Feb. 5, 2015, 3:20 p.m.

A friend of mine, who's been riding for 2+ decades tried one on dirt last year. He liked it. A lot.

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john-canfield
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John Canfield  - Feb. 5, 2015, 4:42 p.m.

I'm sure It'll be a fun experience- I am going to ride one in the snow this weekend. Its like a mini-monster truck, ya? A really slow mini-monster truck that apparently is the most fun on dirt- which will be when I am riding my "regular" bike, going fast.

Stoked to hear that if you compromise everything else about a bike, it corners well.

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kain0m
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kain0m  - Feb. 7, 2015, 10:44 p.m.

One point: Does a Mountainbike have to be fast in order to be fun? I can understand the desire to have a "fun" bike, not a racing machine. Sure, it won't get you KOM, but it will make you smile - and thats what counts.

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maverick-moto-media
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Maverick Moto Media  - Feb. 5, 2015, 3:57 p.m.

My fatbike is a mountain bike, period. Yes, I do ride it in the snow, but I ride it in the dirt, too. 2500 singletrack miles last year, it is anything but conditions dependent. I've raced my fatbike in xc and enduro events, done a century ride on it and the low tire and ground pressure allows me to responsibly ride in marginal conditions when a narrower tired mountain bike might damage the trails. Oh yeah, trails? fatbikes don't necessarily even need trails! i've done 30 mile beach rides down the Jersey shore, explored river bottoms and more. Yeah, the wheels are heavy and at first, they're difficult to get going fast, but if you htfu, you'll get up to speed quickly enough. Another added bonus, training on a fatbike will make you a monster when you transition to a regular MTB or even a CX or road bike. Finally, they're fun to ride. Remember how you felt when you got your first BMX bike when you were a kid, hucking off of everything in sight? Riding a fatbike is not unlike that, an experience of childlike giddiness, adventure and freedom.

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david-mills
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David Mills  - Feb. 4, 2015, 9:33 a.m.

Why would you build fat-specific trails? Ride the singletrack you know and love. We ride the same trails in summer and winter. Hell, we ride the snowshoe trails too, opening up a tonne of additional riding. The only thing we don't ride is XC ski trails because they're boring and filled with angry XC skiers wielding pointy sticks.

Also, why wouldn't you ride with studded tires? Granted, it's a common rookie mistake, but it's very easy to fix and turns icy conditions into just another awesome ride.

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uncle duke  - Feb. 4, 2015, 6:40 a.m.

why are you guys trying so hard? if people like it they will ride it. if they don't they won't..

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - Feb. 4, 2015, 10:31 a.m.

Duke, this was a guest editorial from Adrian Montgomery who lives in Sun Valley Utah. A different world to be sure.

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uncle duke  - Feb. 4, 2015, 5:26 p.m.

i wish them all the best of luck…all i am saying is if people are attracted to the sport, they will end up there..

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pete@nsmb.com
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Pete Roggeman  - Feb. 4, 2015, 8:50 p.m.

And if they want to read about it, they will read about it.

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uncle duke  - Feb. 4, 2015, 9:26 p.m.

well there you go. keep on pushing…

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doug-nielsen
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Doug Nielsen  - Feb. 10, 2015, 7:19 a.m.

I'm from Utah… is it Sun Valley Idaho? If it's in Utah I have never been there. I'll make sure to never guest write while uncle duke is around lol!

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pete@nsmb.com
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Pete Roggeman  - Feb. 3, 2015, 11:37 p.m.

Nothing like riding a fat bike in ski boots.

Really, there's nothing like it.

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nat-brown
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Nat Brown  - Feb. 4, 2015, 1:35 p.m.

Sounds like there's a market for ski binding pedals! Might be a bit niche I suppose. Perhaps they exist already. I suspect SPDs evolved from them in the first place and this would close the circle.

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pete@nsmb.com
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Pete Roggeman  - Feb. 4, 2015, 8:51 p.m.

Haha. Oh, god no.

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