Ah… wintertime. If you’ve been putting in the grueling hours it takes to get the perfect crease worn into the couch then it is likely that you don’t ski, skate, or swim. I bet you have been holding your breath, thinking “golly, I wish somebody would school me on those strange fat-tire bikes that seem to be everywhere”. Well, exhale and read on.
Fat wheeled bikes have been around in one form or another for at least 17 years, probably even longer. They’re brilliant in the snow and even adequate on ice – certainly better than any other bike. In the past five years they have gotten hugely (get it?) popular.
I won’t bore you with a history lesson, but in short there are more fat bikes around because they are vastly improved since the first production bikes hit the market 10 or so years ago. Most fat bikes ride pretty much like normal bikes now, and just like the road, tri, or mountain bike market there is a big range of price and spec to be had. And just like other bikes, I don’t advise picking one up at Target or Walmart. Three hundred dollars will get you a sweet drying rack for your garage. To get started without too much pain, check around for used bikes. There are often fatties listed on Craigslist and similar venues. Do keep in mind that fat bikes have been evolving rapidly. Don’t get a used one with the intent of upgrading. Modern parts may not fit, and in this case modern is generally anything from 2013 and later with 190 rear spacing and 135 front spacing. Older bikes will be a great intro, but they may ride sluggishly. Even three or four year old bikes are heavier than their modern counterparts and geometry didn’t really get figured out until 2012 or so. That being said, these things are getting so popular that prices for used bikes are pretty static. When you decide to upgrade to a better model, you should be able to offload your first one easily.
If you’re going to jump right in, look for a bike that has 12×197 rear spacing and 15×135 or 15×150 front spacing. 150 front will let you add a suspension fork without changing your wheel. Other choices you’ll have to make are:
• Single front chainring or double? Single is plenty for a lot of riders and in addition to simplicity the improved chainline may allow for larger tires.
• Larger tires have much greater traction in the snow and a wider range of useable tire pressure. If you’re not trying to win races, a 100mm wide rim and 5 inch tires will get you a bike that is almost impossible to fall off of, and that will do better over poorly groomed trails. 85mm rims and 4 inch tires will be much lighter and faster but at the cost of some traction. They’ll be fine if you are a good mountain biker already.
• Tubeless or tubed tire set up? Do tubeless. The decreased weight is more than worth any hassle.
• Overall weight? It is possible to get a reliable bike that weighs 23 lbs, but it will cost you. If you have the budget, do it. Seriously. If not, aim for 28 or so lbs so that you end up on a bike that rides pretty much like a regular bike, except WAY more fun and able to go places you never even considered. And, speaking of weight and budget, if you have the means I highly recommend picking up some Hed Big Deal or BFD wheels. I can’t think of any one bike upgrade ever that lets you drop 3 to 4 lbs off your bike in one fell swoop. (full disclosure, I am employed by Steve and Anne Hed).
Fat bikes are the most fun thing I have ever ridden, they’re eminently useable all year, and they’re not going to fade away. Try one and find out why. Then sign up for one or more of the many races already scheduled for this winter. Get more in depth info at your local shop, or swing by fat-bike.com for some reading.