By Ryan LaBar
Fatbikes, or at least their permanent purpose beyond obscurity, were a mystery to me. I moved from Marquette, Michigan, to Orange County, California–away from any resemblance of winter whatsoever–about four years ago, just as these kooky looking bikes started to hit the mass market. The majority of my rides in So Cal were spent on cushy full-suspension bikes with dropper posts, picking poor lines down rutted-out, steep, loose, dried out trails–I had little reason to give fatbikes any second thoughts.
Last fall, I stepped down from my full-time position at Bike and moved back to the U.P. to get hitched, and live life as far away from the "5" freeway as possible. This is when the full scope of fatbikes, and fatbiking, became a reality to me.
The riding buddy I pretty much learned to mountain bike with had switched to riding a fatbike full time, and the shop I cut my teeth wrenching in, The Sports Rack, had as many fatbikes on the sales floor as it did normal-tired mountain bikes. I was baffled. I went to the other shops in town–Downwind Sports, Quick Stop Bike Shop and Lakeshore Bike–and it was the same story. Every shop in town had a solid stock of these bikes. Rumors also passed that the local trail organization, NTN, was going to be grooming the some of the local singletrack for fatbiking once the snow got deep enough.
With my curiosity piqued, I tried calling in a few of these bikes to test. I didn't have much luck. Nearly every company I called was backordered or completely sold out, before winter had even started. This was not for lack of planning on the companies’ parts, either; Salsa had doubled its order from the previous year, and had completely sold out by the time I had called (The Beargrease I'll be reviewing is actually owned by a friend who works my old shop). I also tried calling in some 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD boots, just to find out that the company had sold out of the $350 boots before they were even off the boat. The only boot in stock was the prototype it was showing at Interbike, which ended up being my size (look for a review of these boots soon).
The same day I tried calling the Wolvhammers in, I receiving an email asking if I wanted to be on the board for organizing the Noquemanon World Championship Snow Bike Race. The next thing I knew, I was helping to plan one of the six races in the Great Lakes Fat Bike Series, which is just one of a handful of fatbike racing series in the midwest alone.
The popularity of fatbiking in this area was astounding, and I couldn’t understand it. The question I grappled with was "why?"
Why are these bikes so popular?
It was sometime during the past three months of riding these bikes (I managed to round up three test bikes: a 9:Zero:7, a Fatback Ti and a Salsa Beargrease–full reviews for each of which will posted soon) that I figured it out.
Before these mutant bikes became available, the cold, dreary, daylight-choked winters of the midwest had to be dealt with by skiing, snowshoeing, sitting on the couch drinking beer and eating nachos or, God forbid, actually riding the trainer. Not to say that these activities aren’t fun (except maybe riding the trainer), but, really, nothing compares to the escape from “reality” that shredding trails on two wheels gives you.
While fatbiking on the snow is generally much slower than riding dry trails, the lower friction and alien texture of snow–when conditions are good–replicates the sensation of ripping trails at full speed. It is a blast. Shallow pitches become technical descents, crashing doesn’t hurt nearly as much and power sliding corners has never been easier or more fun.
That said, conditions, and matching tire pressures to them, are vital. On my trail bike, I pump my tires to 30 psi almost no matter where I’m riding . On fatbikes the tire pressures are much lower. In softer snow conditions most people will run about 4 psi and in harder conditions up to about 8 psi. And on some days, or a lot of days depending on weather–too much snow or temperatures too warm–riding will be impossible or miserable.
From a technology standpoint these bikes are only going to improve. The surface is just being scratched. Salsa introduced a sub-25-pound complete carbon fatbike at Frost Bike a few weeks ago, and says it is ready to launch a full-suspension fatbike as soon as a solid suspension fork becomes available. Rumors of RockShox working on something have also surfaced here and there. From what I heard, a fatbike company approached RockShox about doing a run of about 6,000 suspension forks, which, interestingly, is roughly the same thing that happened when 29ers were new to the market….