Of all the different types of bikes, perhaps the one that causes the most debate are fat bikes. If you pull up to a group ride in a fat bike, there is a good chance you’ll see some enthusiastic high fives and some despairing head shakes.
So, were fat bikes a fad that has now disappeared, or was there some real practicality behind those super large tires? And if they are still around today, who is riding them and where?
The Quiet Fat Bike Origins
Like many inventions, fat bikes took a lot of twists and turns before becoming what they are today. The history of fat bikes originates from Alaska where the extreme weather demanded some creativity in adapting for the snowy conditions.
Realizing that more surface area would allow more contact with the ground, riders initially began finding different ways of joining multiple wheels and tires together. Two and sometimes three rims were welded together side by side. Tires were stuck next to each other to create DIY bikes that made traveling in the snow much easier.
Interestingly enough, something similar was happening in New Mexico at the same time. This terrain, however, was sand instead of snow.
Yes, the concept of explorer riding that became popular in the 1980s with mountain biking had already taken off. However, riding in sand and snow presented a new set of challenges. These harsh terrains had specific needs for grip. These early experiments set the foundations for what would later be the fat bike.
Initial fat bike developed primarily focused on creating more traction. And not much longer, frames started being developed specifically for these larger wheels. Frame designers and riders got busy to start creating extra-large parts. One of the key figures in this development was an Alaskan frame designer named Mark Gronewald, who ended up naming these bikes, “fat bikes”.
1000-Mile Race Efficiency
The main goal of fat bikes was to get across snow and sand-covered plains. But soon enough, they found a place in endurance racing. Not only did fat bikes need traction, but they needed to be efficient.
Back in 2000, a rider called Mike Curiak rode his fat bike over 1,000 miles for 15 days to win the Alaskan Iditasport Impossible race in the harshest of conditions. Curiak has a fascinating recount of the race, which he affirms, “Where cowards won’t show and the weak will die”. Not your average joy ride to say the least.
At the levels of extremes that these races are ridden, efficiency and durability is a must. These bikes must not only perform well but keep them alive. The larger surface area and wheels of fat bikes have made them the most popular bike for these races. Despite the extra weight, the traction is invaluable and Alaskan races include fat bikes nearly exclusively.
Fat Bikes Go Mainstream
Like many design developments, people started noticing and demand grew quickly. Fat bikes officially stepped into the mainstream when Surly introduced the first mass produced fat bike in 2005. The benefit to retailers was obvious. There was not only a new innovative design to sell, but there were now bikes that could be used for the deepest mud, snow and sand. With the all-weather adventure design, suddenly there was something tangible to sell in the off-season.
Both small and big brands followed suit. From 2010 to 2015, fat bikes were at their peak. Models like Specialized’s Fatboy and Fattie, along with Trek’s Farley led the way as fat bikes’ popularity grew. What started in the extremes of Alaska and New Mexico quickly found a home on both trails and streets. Riders who were looking to ride year-round or just wanted something quickly jumped on board.
Are Fat Bikes a Fad?
In many ways, fat bikes have gone full circle. Initially, their purpose was practical and needed. But like many innovative products, once they hit the mainstream they morphed into something different.
If we define fads as something that is popular for a short time, then fat bikes definitely had their moment in 2015. As with many trends, there is a surge of excitement and a clamor for brands to develop products to reach the market quickly.
What’s interesting for fat bikes is that the customer base could be loosely split into three types of riders. The people who follow cycling trends, riders who enjoy different types of rides, and riders who live in extreme conditions.
It’s fair to say that as a fad, fat bikes have been replaced by other developments in cycling. If you’re looking to be an early adapter to cycling trends you will not be needing a fat bike anytime soon. But what stops fat bikes being solely a fad is that there are still plenty of people who feel that using anything other than a fat bike wouldn’t be practical.
If you live in Alaska or Montana you’re not riding a fat bike to keep ahead of the curve. You’re choosing the best option to get across the snow. Fat bikes also offer a different and fun ride on trails. They absorb roots and bumps and handle surprisingly well. Many riders who enjoy different types of rides will have one as part of their quiver and bring it out when the circumstances are right. While the fad is definitely over, there are still a fair amount of riders.
Fat Bike Hate
Given that fat bikes have a legitimate history, why do so many people dislike them? Unless you live in a place where it does snow, you’re less likely to see these bikes in the environment they were designed for. Out of place, these bikes might look a bit weird.
Imagine seeing rugged 4×4 vehicles in your local grocery store parking lot. This can be seen as overkill, just as fat bikes can be in urban environments. While this may be true in a practical sense, lots of fat bike riders find them surprisingly fun to ride. And even with a few raised eyebrows, isn’t fun an important part of cycling?
There are high-level performance bikes by every brand in every type of bike measured down to the last gram. Surely there is room for bikes to be ridden for fun or style, even if their roots come from something more extreme. There will always be fat bike critics, but perhaps a ride on one will win the skeptics over.
The Future of Fat Bikes
The future for fat bikes is secure as long as there is still snow and sand to navigate. But with the shift back to the original purpose, a lot of the manufacturers have reduced their fat bike ranges. The brands that released models solely to catch the trend have now moved onto other trends. Still, there are still plenty of models on the market and improvements being made.
Many of the new bikes have been developed to solve problems with innovation just as the first fat bikes did. The plus bike, which has tires smaller than a fat bike but bigger than a mountain bike, could be a fine choice.
Some fat bikes are able to take larger standard wheels as well as smaller 26” fat bike wheels. For those choosing a single bike, this could allow the best of both worlds.
Common features found in mountain bikes are available on these fat bikes. While many fat bikes don’t need suspension, there are some that do. There are even carbon framed models available as well.
At the performance end, fat bikes are continuing to develop. Some advanced fat bikes, such as the Salsa Mukluk Carbon NX Eagle, cost $3500 and beyond. This bike comes equipped with 4.6-inch tires, perfect if an Alaskan 100-mile race ever sounds appealing.
While there are fewer fat bikes on the market, you can still find various models to fit your needs. The advances and development aimed at riders with serious needs mean you won’t be having to go back to welding together bike rims anytime soon.