Words and Pics by Sanny
Sanny has spent the last few months riding a fat bike, pretty much to the exclusion of all other bikes. The results have left him almost lost for words (which, believe me, is no small achievement). Flame retardant suit at the ready, here are his ten reasons why he reckons a fat bike should be your only bike.*
*(Ed – the views in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Singletrack team. In any way, shape or form. At all)
A fat bike as your only bike? That’s a step too far, isn’t it? They’re too heavy / slow / cumbersome / fugly / the preserve of the “look at me” extrovert / utterly pointless (delete as appropriate), aren’t they? Who in their right mind would consider having one as their only bike? You’d have to be three chips short of a fish supper to go down that route. Next thing you know, you will be taking up a sport where you wear cardigans and chase a little white ball around a big field with a stick… Ok, I’ll admit, it seems like a pretty tall claim to make but having committed to riding a fat bike since taking delivery of a Surly Ice Cream Truck fat bike as my long term test bike, it’s definitely opened my eyes up to what makes for a great mountain bike. Don’t believe me? Read on and I’ll try and explain.
1. No other bikes climb as well.
Think of a test piece climb. One of those long, draggy affairs that seem to go on forever and really push the boundaries of what is rideable. Do you think of the rocky climb out of Watendlath on the Borrowdale Bash? Or the steep zig zags of Keppel Cove as you head up towards Helvellyn? The unfeasibly steep bridleway up onto Skiddaw which seems to get steeper and steeper the further up you ride it? Or the classic Peaks test piece that is Jacob’s Ladder? To my mind, these are climbs to be relished. Steep and unyielding climbs that you have to gurn and grunt your way up, pushing body and bike to the limit in search of that elusive clean ascent. I have used every trick in the book over the years in my quest to clean them – a twenty tooth granny ring, deflating the back tyre, adopting the arse on nose of saddle / Quasimodo style hunch over the bars that looks like you are about to have the squirts, soft pedalling on the less steep section to regain composure – all have yielded success but at the expense of looking like a boiled lobster and feeling like you are fighting the bike at all times.
Enter the fat bike with wheels in excess of three kilogrammes a piece – yup, you did read that correctly. Lightweight, they aren’t! However, what you gain in weight, you more than gain in traction. Four or five inches of rubber on the trail stick to it more effectively than a dry half-eaten Weetabix does to a breakfast bowl (if only they made superglue out of the same stuff). Coupled with a weighted down front end that isn’t constantly trying to flip you onto your arse and you are able to concentrate on getting up the climb. You may not be the first in the mad rush to start the climb but come the end, you will be the one still spinning to win at the front while your mates on their single ringed Enduro bikes are forlornly carrying or pushing theirs up the hill.
2. Watch your network of trails expand in front of your very eyes.
If, like me, you are lucky enough to live in Jockland, you can look at a map and pretty much plan a route safe in the knowledge that you can ride it. However, saddled with positively arcane access legislation, our southern cousins are left to dine on the scraps of bridleways. It’s a piss poor state of affairs but all is not lost. What if I told you that there are thousands of miles of trail waiting to be explored? We are an island nation which means that we have literally thousands of miles of coastline to explore. See those bits on the map between high and low tide? Fancy riding them? If you have a fat bike, you pretty much can with the notable exception of riding on MoD land but then, if you prefer not to ride over unexploded ordnance, it’s not exactly a hardship to avoid! An ordinary bike will do but when the sand gets deep and the shoreline rocky, you’ll be glad to be on my weapon of choice.
3. Realise the inner trials rider in you without even trying.
Riding on the Cairngorm Plateau back in the autumn, I had an epiphany. It was when faced with the enormous boulder field between Cairngorm and Ben MacDui, I didn’t feel the need to get off and push over the ankle snapping jumble of boulders but decided to try and ride them. Previous attempts on my old Turner 5 Spot met with limited success; I felt like a very slow and uncoordinated pinball. However, with five inches of rubber front and rear, I thought I would give it a bash. A few metres quickly morphed into tens of metres and before I knew it, I was riding across the boulders. It was as if I had suddenly acquired Ryan Leech levels of trail skills. I was, as they say, stoked! Ever since then, I’ve searched out lines that I wouldn’t even have considered on a normal bike. Being able to bulldoze through boulder fields definitely changes your perceptions as the previously un-rideable becomes rideable! Technical now comes in many forms, not just vertical.
4. If you like bikepacking and touring, welcome to the ultimate bike for your off the map adventures.
For bikepacking, everyone knows that you need a 29er, right? For covering big distances on smooth gravel tracks, it’s hard to beat a good 29er or 29+ set up. But what if your desire for adventure takes you a bit more off the beaten track? It’s at that point that a fat bike begins to make sense. Fully loaded up, the big wheels show none of that flippy floppy nervousness that you often find on a race tuned 29er. The fat bike offers you a more forgiving ride over bumpy terrain while their geometry tends to be more relaxed and see the world than arse up, head down. In short, when you venture off the beaten track, would you rather be in a Land Rover or a Ferrari? Still not convinced? Have a look at some of the places Cass Gilbert has been riding on a Surly Pugsley in his really rather wonderful and inspiring blog, www.whileoutriding.com.
5. Make new riding buddies.
“I already have enough friends, thank you very much!” Unless you have aspirations to live the life of a hermit, making new friends is no bad thing as it widens your life experience and brings you into contact with all manner of new characters. When I was “fat-curious”, that stage between not owning and owning a fat bike, I would regularly look at fat bike related blogs. One in particular stood out, that of Bruce Mathieson aka Coastkid, an unerringly cheery fellow whose love of fat biking and local history are infectious. I would stare at the screen at the pictures and films of coastal riding just over an hour away from my door yet which I had never even considered in my usual weekend drive up north to the mountains. Jump forward to the present and I regularly ride with Bruce and his band of fellow fat bikers. Riding the coast and exploring the old World War Two ruins has rekindled my interest in local history as well as given me somewhere else to ride.
Can’t see the video? Click here.
6. Come to realise that it is all about the journey and not the destination.
How often do you set Strava or whatever tracking device your phone happens to be carrying before going on a ride? Do you find yourself riding fast up or down your local trails in search of that elusive “King/Queen of” designation? Do you feel yourself being a little downhearted if you are way off your personal best time? I have one question for you. Why? Does Strava really make the ride better? What is more important – the time you took to do the ride or the fun you had doing it? Would you not be better taking the time to stop and soak in your surroundings? Psychologists refer to it as mindfulness, of being in and savouring the moment. With a fat bike, you are never going to be the fastest rider on the trail (unless of course you are Resident Grumpy, Mark, who managed six KoMs on his electric fat bike on his commute to work not so long ago) so why not take the time to enjoy the whole experience of the ride? Leave Strava to the masses.
7. Hone your descending skills.
Suspension, ultra-short stems, wide bars and super long top tubes – if you believe the hype, you’ll never be a fast descender unless you have those at your disposal. Bollox, bollox and thrice bollox, I say. Tish and pish, even! Riding fast is as much about your mind as it is about the bike. It’s easy to be seduced into a world of marginal gains where every one tenth of a second counts. With a fat bike, you learn to ride downhill in a different manner and by that I don’t mean slowly. What you lack in suspension, you gain in terms of astounding levels of traction and wheels that can plough through rock gardens as opposed to being hooked up by them. Learn to trust a fat bike and push the limits of what it can do and I promise that you will genuinely be surprised at how fast you can get it to go. And that is before we even start talking about Bluto and Lefty forks.
8. Keep it simple.
Remember the first bike you had as a child? Unless your parents were unwittingly cruel and gave you some faux suspension bike shaped object made of pig iron, you will almost certainly have started with a simple, rigid bike. By eliminating suspension parts, there is immediately less to go expensively wrong. Not for the first time have I looked in a state of forlorn disbelief at a severely scratched stanchion resulting from my ambition massively exceeding my abilities and the inevitable bike / jaggedy rock interface. Generally constructed from steel or aluminium, most fat bikes have a level of robustness lacking in the latest and greatest carbon wunderbikes. Sure, you can go carbon but why would you want to? Fat bikes are built to last. With a bit of careful frame prep and generous application of marine grease, you can have a bike that will serve you loyally for many years to come.
9. Punctures are for losers.
One of the great hidden advantages of fat bikes is that by running the tyre pressures low, the likelihood of ever having a pinch flat compared to a normal mountain bike is pretty low. It takes an awful lot of effort to pinch flat a 1.5 kilogram tyre on an 80mm rim! Thorns are an ever present threat but again, given the low pressures, it’s easy to set fat tyres up as tubeless. Whether you buy a dedicated tubeless tyre and rim combo or opt for the gloriously Heath Robinson (but remarkably effective) split tube set up, it will be you that is laughing while others round about you are taking tyre from rim in their search for that elusive thorn. Quite why this only seems to happen at night when it is blowing a hoolie and the rain is coming in horizontally, I do not know! No matter, chances are it isn’t going to be you!
10. Keep fit while having fun.
As Greg LeMond put it, “It never gets easier, you just go faster”. I sometimes wonder if he was thinking about fat bikes. No matter how you cut it, the laws of physics dictate that heavier wheels take more effort to get up to speed than lighter wheels. When you are out riding with you mates, you will have to work just that little bit harder. I was reminded of this recently when riding my fat bike while my mate was on his carbon 29er race bike. Make that sometimes a LOT harder! However, switch to a regular bike and you will find yourself positively flying compared to your previous self. All that extra effort you put into the fat bike translates into increased strength and stamina when it comes to a regular bike. Consider it secret training with none of the ephemera that goes with “training”.
So there you have it. Ten good reasons why a fat bike should be your only bike. And to think I haven’t even mentioned snow riding, off trail adventures, the cheery responses you get from fellow outdoors people when seeing a fat bike for the first time, the shit eating grin you get when riding one etc etc etc. Ditch the quiver and buy a fat bike. No need for thanks, just send money.