Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Understanding fat bikes

I doubt there's a niche in all of cycling that attracts more widespread casual interest than fat bikes. I can't ride my Moonlander (see below for the Thill family fat bike fleet) anywhere without people staring, commenting, or asking questions about it. I assume that most of the looks and commentary, which usually seem pretty innocent, are not generally from avid cycling enthusiasts, but non-cyclists and casual cyclists. This doesn't happen to me when I'm riding my other bikes.

The questions and comments start to get a little redundant after awhile. What's that bike for? How much do those tires cost? Isn't that hard to pedal? Isn't that made for snow? Wouldn't skinnier tires be faster?

Well, I sell these things, and I ride my Moonlander year-round, so I feel pretty qualified to address the speed and "hard to pedal" questions. Every person who takes a first ride on a modern fat bike almost universally expresses surprise that "it rolls a lot easier than I expected". Most of my riding is commuting, and I haven't noticed much difference in how much time I spend riding the 7-ish miles to and from work on the Moonie compared to riding the same route on my other bikes. In fact, some of my quickest commutes have been on the Moonlander, usually when I was in a hurry, running late, etc. I will admit that the fat tires feel pretty slow going up big hills, but that's just basic physics - weight really only matters on hills, and fat tires and wide rims are relatively heavy compared to skinnier tires and rims. I suspect that I would be faster on a lighter bike with skinnier tires if, and this is a big if, I was trying to be fast. If I exerted my full effort, a lighter, skinny-bike would probably shave a few minutes off my commute time. But let's be honest, I haven't exerted my full effort in years, and shaving a few minutes off my commute has never been a priority for me.  Predictably, there are people who are interested in maximizing speed and minimizing the weight of their fat-tire bikes. With a pile of money, a person can now buy carbon fiber frames, forks, rims, and other featherweight parts, resulting in a fat bike that weighs 25 lbs or less. To each his own, but that's never been my cup of tea.

In my opinion, the great thing about fat bikes is that they aren't supposed to be fast, and for the most part, they haven't yet been tainted with that brand of competitive machismo. Many (but certainly not all) of the usual competitive types still regard fat bikes with a certain amount of uninformed scorn and take them as a joke unworthy of their attention, which is ok with me. These bikes are supposed to be, and are, great for traction, stability, control in unconsolidated snow/sand/gravel, etc. In other words, fat bikes inspire confidence. An experienced trail rider can confidently roll 4" 10psi tires over logs and other off-trail obstacles, while an inexperienced rider can confidently ride trails. What might have seemed impossible becomes not only possible, but easy and fun.

I read a silly article this morning that purported to explain fat bikes to the masses. The author trotted out the usual nonsense stereotypes about fat bikes being used to ride to the North Pole or across the Sahara. While those feats have been attempted and/or completed, in my scientific statistical survey, approximately 98.7% of fat bike riders will never be within 1000 miles of the North Pole or the Sahara. Most of us just ride them on trails, or on roads, or on beaches, or across fields, in the winter, and also during the rest of the year. Fat bikes are super fun and appropriate for a wide variety of cycling skill levels.


Anonymous said...

Jim, How are your drawing skills? Could you produce some visuals? I'm still not understanding.
Maybe I'll understand after the fat bike festival this weekend. See you on the Greenway. - Don

Graham said...

Well said. As a new owner of a fatbike, I can only add that these bikes can do so much more than just ride in snow. My favorite thing is riding up stairs.

Anonymous said...

Jim - Hello!
Based on what I read in a variety of forums, my understanding is that these bikes can be somewhat slow and ponderous. I also hear that they are heavy - which makes me question why so many enthusiasts seem to like them for riding in snow and sand which would further hinder your speed? Your account seems to directly challenge all of those assumptions. Has anyone ever done a side by side speed test with a traditioanl hard tail mountain bike?
I also am noticing thart many manufacturesrs are develping carbon fibre and titanium iterations - I assume this is to reduce weight which would hopefully improve your ability to ride fast.

Anonymous said...

Light Weight - I have noticed some of the heavyweight innovators in cycling have stepped up and begun to develop superlightweight componentry to mitigate the weight issues associated with Fat/Sno Bikes. Hed wheels - carbon fibre rims, Race Face, Middleburn - ultra light cranksets, etc. - Hopefully this begins a new era in lightweight innovations for these machines - this should help to broaden their appeal. It reminds me somewhat of the early days of Mountain Biking - those bikes were slow, fat and heavy whereas today a lightweight mountain bike can easily be sub 20 pounds making for a fast, spirited and enjoyable ride. The future looks bright!

jim h said...

I wish NiceRide rented something like this in the winter. Then I could give it a realistic trial. Could get interested if I were convinced it really is that much more stable in snow and slush.

Anonymous said...

Is my Pugs heavy? Yes, and not just uphill, but into the wind too. So's my LHT, though. Slow? Maybe, especially in the steering, but feels crazy fast on a steep downhill. (That could be an effect of the highish BB, in part.) None of this bothers me. Wheel diameter like a 29er, suspension without the complicated parts, places to rack and bag if I need to carry stuff through a blizzard. What's not to like? (Now I want a custom fatty, with a Rohloff and a dyno hub!)

Joboo said...

Would you shut up about the FatBike..... Please??!!
They suck, are slow, hard to pedal..... And are just plain NO FUN TO RIDE...... period!!
Of course I'm joking, but you get it!! Everybody and their brother's are snapping up FatBikes.....


Jim Thill said...

Obviously this post is aimed at the widespread incredulity expressed by "normal people", not at those of us who've already drunk the kool-aid.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 2:28 still doesn't get it.