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What Is Fat Biking?

Learn all about this 'big-boned' bike


©Beth Puliti

A truly unique means of exploring snow-covered trails has emerged in recent years: fat biking. Made to ride on snow, sand and other types of terrain, fat bikes are equipped with over-sized tires and rims. To accommodate this generously-proportioned wheelset, the bike is also fitted with over-sized forks and chainstays. In short, fat bikes look ridiculous.

However, they are also ridiculously fun to ride. So fun, in fact, word seems to have spread and this new bike style has been steadily growing in popularity over the past few years. Those of us lucky enough to own one are truly enjoying the ride, even if everyone who crosses our path stares at us in bewilderment. The cartoon-sized wheels are pretty hard to miss. In my experience, they draw stares, whispers and questions.

That’s OK. I like the attention. I stare back. And I’m here to answer the most common questions I’ve been asked and share my responses with you.

But first, a brief history.

Simon Rakower of Fairbanks, Alaska, is said to have created the wide handmade rims found on original fat bikes by welding two rims to each other. When he developed and produced a 44mm rim soon after that worked with most commercial mountain bikes, winter cycling was transformed. Designer and producer, Surly Bikes, would make fat bikes available to local bike shops around the world with their Pugsley frame and specialized rims and tires.

Today, fat bikes have evolved from being used specifically for ultra-endurance winter events to being commercially available throughout the world in independent bike dealers.

In 2012, the first annual Fat Bike Summit was held on January 20 with the objective to introduce fat bikes and talk about related concerns and challenges, such as riding them in parks and forests.  

So, what are they for?

A fat bike will take you places no other bike can, as they excel where all-terrain mountain bikes fall short. As mentioned above, fat bikes are specifically designed to ride over snow, sand, roots, gravel and other unstable terrain. Most people I know, myself included, use them to extend their mountain biking season, riding them over snow-covered trails during winter months. Want to know what else they do? Put a gigantic smile on your face. I haven’t come across a single unhappy fat biker.

How do they work?

The wide tires on a fat bike allow it to “float” over loose conditions like snow and sand. Due to their big footprint, just a small amount of tire pressure is needed. Fat bikes typically perform best under 15 PSI depending on rider weight conditions and terrain. You’ll need to experiment with the PSI to find the ideal traction. The benefit of crazy-low pressure is unmatched traction over rocks, roots, sand and, my favorite, snow!

How much do they weigh?

This is going to vary, obviously, depending on quite a few factors, including frame material, size and components. Of course, because fat bikes are bigger than your average mountain bike, they’re going to most likely weigh more than it too. However, with the various frames and parts available to consumers today, it might be lighter than you think. The 2013 carbon Borealis Yampa frame weighs in at 1,270 grams, or 2.79 pounds (painted, finished, size medium frame, including derailleur hanger). Other lightweight carbon and titanium options are available as well.

Is there anything fat bikes can’t do?

NO! OK, actually yes there is. Sure, fat bikes can pretty much go anywhere, but they do have some limitations, mainly deep powder and ice. They also can’t make you dinner. You’ll need to do that on your own still.

In conclusion, as a fat bike owner living in New England, I can say without question that my mountain biking season has been significantly extended. And for that, I worship any ground my big-boned beauty rolls over. Which is a lot, mind you, as these bikes can go many snow-covered places other mountain bikes cannot.  

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