Why You Might Need a Fat Bike

by Mark Hallinger, Cycling Editor

Fat Bike
Photo courtesy of Otso Cycles

A lifelong cyclists gets fat, and ponders why you might want to consider gaining some weight this year

As a cyclist I am a curmudgeon. Or maybe I’m cheap. Or both. I don’t buy a new kit or venture in to newer cycling sub-cultures quickly.

I represent a small segment of cyclists: I’m an extremely avid lifestyle cyclist who doesn’t want to — or can’t always justify or afford — upgrading or expanding the bike family.

In 1999 I converted fully to clipless pedals, a good decade after most serious riders. But I was, and mentally forever will be, a track racer. We were the last to convert.

I also got my first brake lever shifters that year, although many of my bikes to this day still sport glorious downtube units. Again, as a trackie, I just never gave that much thought to shifters and gears. They were always something between a necessary evil and a passing industry fad … and who needs more than six cogs?

Bib shorts. Full-zip jerseys. After-market low spoke count wheels. I converted late but now love them all, even if my current ‘race’ wheels were state of the art back in 2002. Out-of-round chainrings? I had suffered through Biopace in the 1980s, so I’d been there done that. They are not for me, but who am I to say what works for people with other pedalling styles?

Electric shifting? Modern carbon frames? Power meters? Electric bikes? Compression wear? Not for me, yet. Maybe never. Never say never.

And my mountain bike? It was only about one year ago that I did my first ride on a modern mountain bike with hydraulic brakes, tubeless wheels (albeit ‘old school’ 26-inch!), and suspension forks. I texted my mountain bike friend that this ‘new’ stuff just might catch on. For the limited mountain biking that I do (5x/month in winter months) I had been using a circa 1990 fully-rigid light steel racing mountain bike. It had been the same bike with occasional new parts for a quarter century! It was time for an upgrade, and I was also happy this would force me to learn some new shop skills in-depth.

Massive Leap
About two years ago I had actually purchased my first ‘modern’ mountain bike with disc brakes. But it was more than just my first disc bike, it was a Fat Bike. Even if the discs were cable and not hydraulic, this was a massive leap in the modernity of my fleet.

From the start I became an advocate for the big bikes. In my bike shop part time gig, I started suggesting Fat Bikes (tires 3.8-inch and up) and the slightly less extreme 2.8-inch and above ‘Plus Bikes,’ to customers. I’ve come up with some obvious reasons you should consider having a blast on the big tires, and some less obvious as well.

Fat Bike
Photo courtesy of Otso Cycles

Snow & Sand (& Cold!) Riding
There may not be a lot of loose sand or snow where you live, but it’s worth mentioning as first on this list as the obvious and historical Fat Bike raison d’etre. The big bikes’ roots can be traced back to Alaska and New Mexico, according to Wikipedia, where they make riding in snow and bogs and desert sand quite possible. I bought my bike off the shop floor on a Friday when a big multi-day snow was just starting. My Fat Bike was intended to be something to ride on the road and light trails in icy or snowy conditions, when traditional mountain bike tires weren’t quite enough.

It did this well and was very welcome as an alternative to ‘indoor training,’ something I’ve never liked. The Fat Bike allowed me to ride a bit slower in the cold, a good thing, and to actually get a decent workout on my ‘short’ 11 mile road loop. It made my bad weather outdoor winter training more tolerable.

With the relatively snow-free cold snap many of us recently endured from the end of December through mid January, the bike was perfect on days when a ride would take place with temperatures 10 or more degrees below freezing. I did a lot of my January training on an 8 mile loop in the woods, shielded from the wind and maybe only averaging 9 or 10 mph, but who cares?

Yes, I’d rather ride slow in the woods in freezing temps than ride a trainer. I hate little in life, except the trainer.

Stability for those who need it
This is a less obvious reason for acquiring a Fat Bike. A bit of backstory here: An unfortunate encounter with a benign brain tumour that took up residence on my left vestibular (balance) nerve left me with just my right balance nerve and a big scar on the back left side of my head. While I re-learned to ride with just one balance nerve pretty damned well, I still occasionally have issues with confidence when riding in adverse ‘wet-root’ conditions. This may just be basic, logical fear coupled with age, reason, and having two mortgages. But I like to blame the subtle balance issue.

This being said, I now fully credit my Fat Bike with making me a bit of a mountain biker again. After using it as mostly a road and trail extreme winter road bike the first winter season I had it, I decided to actually try the thing in the woods in ‘normal’ mountain biking conditions. It ended up being one of the best experiences I’ve had on a bike in years.

Since my balance issue began about a decade ago, I’ve been tentative off-road. Now, with 26 x 4.0 tires inflated to 8 psi or some silly pressure, I just ride right over, up and across far more things. The Fat Bike made me a mountain biker again—-it gave confidence and brought fun back to riding in a way I had not really experienced in a long time. It is true that few people have my weird balance impairment, but many of your customers may lack nerve in the more traditional sense of the meaning. The big tires may inspire confidence in them to have more fun and worry a bit less.

Here’s another obvious reason: Fun. Riding a Fat Bike in the woods will put a smile on your face as it is a bit different than a ‘normal,’ mountain bike. It is a weird mix that results from having tires that allow you to roll through and across more than you’d expect, and it’s a natural reaction to the smiles and laughs it often elicits from the hikers and dog walkers who see you. They are laughing with you, not at you, of course. There’s a sense of silliness to riding one, and it definitely gathers attention if you ride it to the Starbucks, if that’s your thing.

All I can say is this: At some point a few rides after using the bike to get reacquainted with the woods, I actually started to think of my Fat Bike as my ‘Starter’ Fat Bike. Imagine how much better it would be if this 33 lb aluminium bike were a 25 lb titanium beastie! I never would have thought that possible when I made my purchase.

Also, the reason I upgraded my ‘normal’ mountain bike a year after my Fat Bike buy was all the fun I was having off-road. Fun begets fun, and confidence apparently.

And while my purchase was largely based on riding more in snow and ice, I discovered a lovely long gradual deep sand climb in New Jersey’s Allaire State Park. It was impossible on my old bike, but a fantastic, gut wrenching workout on my Fat Bike. Fun.

Fat Bike
Long Branch Fat Tire Bike Beach Race

A Natural Sandbag
Speaking of sand, in bike racing parlance a ‘sandbagger’ is a racer who races in a category where he could win even if he was carrying a big heavy bag of sand on his bike. Have you ever ridden a mountain bike on a road ride with weaker, perhaps fledgling riders on faster road or hybrid bikes? Same idea.

I have my own version of this: I have discovered that a Fat Bike is the perfect bike to ride with most of my mountain biking friends who don’t quite put in the miles I do. Those big, soft tires allow a stronger rider to get a good workout when riding with newbies and those a tad less intense. I also know one customer who got a FB to ride with his kids.

Some suggest that electric bikes can do the same thing in the opposite direction—they can allow a weaker spouse to ride along with a stronger spouse. Why not just get a Fat Bike and keep it all human powered?

Clydesdales and such
Anybody who’s sold bikes will have a story about an enthusiastic customer who tips the scale at 250 lbs, but really wants a road bike with 700×23 tires. That’s tough, on the bike. And on the rider who might get discouraged from flats, broken spokes and bent rims if he’s not careful. If the customer really wants a road-oriented ride, I might point them to a cross or gravel bike where fatter, tougher tires are possible.

A Fat Bike might be a version of this scenario for mountain biking. I’ve had one customer who dropped from about 280 to 220 lbs in two years, partly by riding a ‘plus’ tire mountain bike on the road. Consider a Fat Bike if you’re big.

Fat Bike
D&L Epic near Easton, PA

Shops, Events, etc.
So what to do if you’re interested? Some bike shops are clearly heavily involved in Fat Bike culture and riding. Good on them for taking a niche bike and making it something bigger. Find a shop that knows a bit. Really, a shop needs to do more than just have a Fat Bike on display. ‘Demo days,’ and shop rides where customers can really try one out are appreciated.

I bought my bike from the shop I worked at as a part timer, but we never promoted the bikes and nobody really knew anything about them till I made the leap. Now that I’ve moved on from that job, I don’t think there’s anybody left who will enthusiastically promote the big bikes.

Choose your shop wisely, or something as simple as getting a spare tube for your bike could be difficult.

As for events, I did Marty’s Fat Fifty last year. It’s 50 miles, mostly dirt and gravel trail with just enough woodland singletrack to keep it interesting and get the legs burning. I also really want to do another Mid Atlantic ride/race called the D&L Epic some year. This is a flat 200 kilometer (!) ride along the Delaware from near Yardley, PA, up towards Easton, PA, along the Delaware & Lehigh Canal towpath. It bills itself as the East Coast’s only self-supported Winter-Ultra-Endurance Fat Bike race. The 2018 rendition was just cancelled, but maybe the promoters will offer a shorter 100 kilometer version next year, for those of us only half-crazy.

While researching a bit for this story — and doing a simple search for Fat Bike events in Mid Atlantic on BikeReg.com — I came across multiple events and races. My dance card is filling up fast this year, but next year I’ll aim to do the annual Long Branch Fat Tire Bike Beach Race, a 10 miler along the waves presumably. There’s an event called Fatty & the Bandit near Lancaster, PA, that I might be able to squeeze in this year. Fun!

Heck, in late March the Algonquest Fat Bike Festival is a whole three day weekend on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I might actually be able to check that out, too, if I have the time and the cash to do more than one event each month.
If you’re like me, you’ve looked at the big beauties from a distance with a quizzical smile for a few years. I made the leap and am now at least conversant in this sub-genre of off road riding. It was worth it.

Mark HallingerMark Hallinger took about 106th of about 165 riders in the 2017 ‘Marty’s Fat Fifty,’ annual Fat Bike ride, in sub-freezing temps and a good snow in the last hour. Marty’s Reliable Cycle calls itself ‘New Jersey’s Fat Bike Headquarters,’ and any shop that can attract more than 160 people to a mid-January ride must be doing something right. Some of these pictures are from that event. In 2018 he wussed out from the ride because of the cold, but did penance for that by riding the Sourlands Semi Classic in the rain a month later.

Mark is a 35+ year cyclist who has raced road, track, crits, cross, a bit of mountain bike, and even his Brompton. He’s also a commuter, randonneur, mechanic, cycling advocate, and vintage collector. He blogs at redbrickbikes.com


1 Comment

  1. Yep, I feel you. Fat bikes tick a lot of boxes. lots of people would benefit for having one as they’re only ride.

    I’ve had mine for 12 years and love it. I’ve upgraded it over the years into a very hi=spec machine but ……..the best upgrade i did was to install a 1500watt mid drive motor and hooked it up to a 52v 20ah battery……Now it’s a monster and I rock.

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