by David Gould
June 4, 2013
You don't need a fatbike, but you may just end up needing this one
Ok, let’s get one thing clear, you don’t NEED a fat bike. I’ll readily admit, I was initially sceptical about fat bikes and the thought of owning one never really crossed my mind until a combination of a friend lending me his Surly Moonlander and increasingly frequent visits to www.coastkid.blogspot.com saw me become “fat curious”. As images of Salsa’s racing fat bike, the Beargrease, filtered onto the net, I became a man on a mission eventually tracking down one of only a handful which came into the country courtesy of Dave at Law Cycles in North Berwick, the spiritual home of fat biking in the UK. The Beargrease is Salsa’s offering to those drawn to the racing side of fat bike culture as well as potentially offering a viable trail bike option without the traditional perceived downsides of heavy wheels and ponderous handling.
Picking up the bike for the first time, I was immediately struck by its lack of heft. Even in the size large as tested, it tips the scales at around 28.5 pounds which for a bike with 82 mm rims and 100 mm wide tyres is no mean feat. Previously, trying to build a fat bike down to that weight took an awful lot of time poring over the internet and being faced with blank stares from all but a handful of specialist bike shops in the UK when looking for parts. Swinging a leg over it for the first time, the low slung and relatively long top tube felt immediately comfortable although the Salsa branded 110mm stem and wide flat bars didn’t give me the cockpit set up I was hoping for. Combined with a 625mm effective top tube, the front end had a slight tiller effect when turning. Bar and stem combos are very much a personal choice and swapping them out for a shorter stem and slightly wider Easton Havoc carbon riser bar gave the front end a snappier, more responsive feel..
Turning the pedals, what is striking is how quickly the bike accelerates. Ok, it’s never going to be the fastest bike off the blocks but the bike gets up to speed a lot faster than I had anticipated. Just looking at the width of the rims and tyres would suggest quite the opposite yet after years of choosing narrow cross country rims for my mountain bikes, my perceptions were subtly changing. Only after riding for several hours do you begin to notice the effect of running heavier wheels than a regular mountain bike but the effect is only at the margins. Running gear duties are taken care by a mix of SRAM X7 and X0 with a double ring eThirteen crank taking care of keeping the wheels rolling. Shifting is reliable and fuss free though the left hand crank has a tendency to loosed off after several rides meaning an occasional check is the order of the day.
Running approximately 8 PSI in the tyres, my first ride on the sandy and rocky coastline of North Berwick proved to be a giggle. As a friend struggled to make any kind of reasonable progress on his normal mountain bike, I spun along the beach and rocky shoreline completely failing to register his difficulties in the soft sand. On the rocks, the tyres moulded to the ground and found grip in even the most unlikely places. Only when putting a foot down did I realise quite how slippy the rocks were. As I got used to the bike, I started cranking up the speed and throwing it into some sharp turns. Despite the added weight in the wheels adding a slight flywheel sensation when turning, in practice, the bike handled how you would expect a well-designed modern hardtail to handle albeit with levels of traction that I’d hitherto never experienced. Only on really greasy, algal coated rock did I begin to find the limits of traction.
Subsequent rides have proven the bike to be equally adept in snow. While ultimately deep, soft snow will stop the bike like any other, in most instances I’ve been able to keep riding when my riding buddies (if you’ll pardon the American parlance) have been long since off and walking.
So far so good but what about using the bike for normal riding? To be honest, I had no real expectations as to how the bike would perform on my normal trails away from the sand and the snow. An initial ride round a notoriously muddy local loop proved that when the ground got squishy, there was a marked improvement in forward traction where my regular 29er would sink in and struggle. In singletrack, the bike can be thrown about with ease and makes easy work of smooth trails with a level of grip that encourages you to crank the bike over motorbike style. On rougher trails, as with any rigid bike, line choice and tyre pressure becomes more critical. However, the bike displays a very sorted, neutral feel which when the speeds are increased gives a feeling of confidence. Coming from years of riding primarily full suspension bikes, the undamped nature of the suspension from the tyres took a little getting used to. Not being a fan of fully rigid bikes, the addition of a USE suspension seat post made a notable difference to the comfort of the already pretty comfy bike while also effectively countering the occasional bobbing sensation that fat tyres run soft on bumpy terrain can bring. In the interests of balance, I’ve tried to find fault with the bike but other than an occasional squeak from the bottom bracket and the crank loosening off, there’s nothing that I can point to that has disappointed me. It’s not often a bike exceeds your expectations but in the case of the Beargrease, it’s made me fundamentally question my approach to riding and proves that fastest and lightest aren’t the holy grail of riding. It’s a bike that I’ll happily take out on a ride with friends even when we want to do a fast paced blast.
Two things become apparent when you ride a fat bike. In the first instance, you can’t help but smile. Every time I swing a leg over the Beargrease whether for a quick blast or a longer day ride, it’s hard to keep a straight face. In a word, the bike is just plain, old fashioned fun. In the second, be prepared to talk to strangers and better get used to people gawping and involuntarily uttering expletives, Tourette’s style. The Beargrease is a very striking looking bike. The combination of the electric blue rims against the anodised frame with blue detailing give the bike a genuine aesthetically pleasing look. From overhearing a little boy telling his mum that he wanted a bike with big wheels like mine as I rode past him to my car mechanic taking one look at it and deciding he had to have one, the Beargrease is more of a head turner than Claudia Schiffer. If you are a bit grumpy and people averse, this isn’t the bike for you but if you are open to complete strangers coming up to you for a blether and are happy to shoot the breeze, you’ll probably feel like a bit of a legend.
Downsides? If you want a 2013 model, you’re out of luck. The Beargrease’s that landed in the UK in February were all immediately snapped up. However, given the success of sales this year, it looks like Salsa are expanding their line to include an even lighter carbon version of the bike as well as the aluminium version. If you want one, you may be waiting a few months and will probably need to pre-order through your local bike shop. However, as a recent convert to the world of fat, I can tell you that with the Salsa Beargrease, it’s probably worth the wait.