So you’ve bought yourself a fat bike. You’ve marvelled at the ability of it to ride over all manner of terrain that would have your 160mm Enduro sled quaking in its boots. That mega steep climb that you’d never cleaned before? Pah – piece of cake. That rocky shoreline of greasy boulders and seaweed. Yup – done that too. The ride to the artisan roast hipster café at the end of the road where you have to battle (gasps) a pothole that would swallow you and your 23mm shod carbon road bike? Not a problem.
Fat bikes have an uncanny ability to put a big, sh#t eating grin on your face in spite of their perceived inadequacies. They aren’t light, they rarely feature suspension and they can be positively pant-wettingly sketchy on wet grass and mud. For most, they are a second or third bike.
But what if I was to tell you that with a bit of modification, you could have in your hands a trail capable toy that is more than a match for that super sketchy horror show of roots, wet rocks and jaggedy pointy things just waiting to skewer you like the elephant’s leg in your local kebab shop?
Moreover, that it could be your bike of choice leaving your weapons grade carbon fibre wunderkind bouncer languishing in the corner of your garage facing the wrong end of an eBay listing? Let me explain……..
1. Take a load off where it matters – invest in lighter rims
When fat bikes first started out, you had a choice of rims that would have had even Hobson complaining. Heavy duty would be an understatement. You simply accepted what you could get and just got on with riding. However, as fat bikes have become mainstream, the options have increased exponentially.
If you swap your stock rims for a carbon rim or lightweight alloy ones such as the BR710 from DT Swiss or Sun Ringle’s Mule Fats, you can save a few hundred grams of rolling weight. It might not sound like much but I managed to drop over a kilogram of weight just by swapping over the wheels on my Surly Ice Cream Truck. After a few hours of riding, you definitely notice the difference and your legs will thank you for it.
2. Tired (boom and indeed tish) of the same old thing? Get some new rubber
If, like me, you ride your fat bike throughout the year on all manner of trails and don’t just keep it for the snow and the beach, you will probably have experienced the white knuckle and yellow pant joy that is fat bike tyres and wet grass. At those moments of clarity where you contemplate the folly of buying the super-lightweight tyres with all the grip of a de-fingered Action Man, perhaps resolve to replace them with tyres that have actual tread and not the suggestion of it.
Your tyres are what keep you connected to the ground. Weight doesn’t come into it as you frantically search for a soft landing while you manage to jam your left nut between you and the saddle and leading to the pain that is silent. No cries. Just the gently sobbing whimper of a middle aged man. Manufacturers such as Surly and Maxxis offer some meaty options that will have you positively laughing in the face of your slippery green foe.
3. The best bar none
Ok so now I am going to get a bit niche (Because fat bikes aren’t niche enough? – Ed) and talk bars. Riser bars are the industry norm these days. For the most part, they work brilliantly but if you run fat tyres, there is considerable scope to ride a little differently to take full advantage of those five inches of rubber you have up front. Forget forward geometry and titchy stems, we’re talking bars with a big back sweep. Perhaps the most instantly recognisable is the Jones Loop Bar.
I will admit that they do look a little, errr, unusual but the performance advantage they offer on steep technical terrain and fast descents is hard to argue with. By placing your hands further back than regular bars, more of your weight is transferred to the rear of the bike. As a result, you’re not so much riding the front wheel as allowing it to soak up the hits and grip hard when you need it without tipping you too far forward.
4. Double or quits?
Ah yes, time for my favourite shout at the moon. One by drivetrains. I sometimes feel like Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character – “Oi! One by! NOOOOOO!” I know. I know. Sanny is going off on one again. But hear me out. Or should that be read? Who knows? I digress. Anyhoos, two by drivetrains. One of the great things about fat bikes is the frankly gobsmacking level of traction on offer. With the right gears and a decent level of fitness, you can out climb any other bike.
So why is it so many manufacturers insist on supplying their fat bikes with one by drivetrains? It’s like putting the gearbox from a Ferrari in a Landy Defender. You could do it but why would you? You’d be horribly over geared. The same is true with your fat bike. Trust me. Give it a try. You might just like it.
5. Dropping in
With dropper posts increasingly becoming de rigeur, it’s easy to look at your fat bike and think “why bother?” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Fat wheels give you a performance advantage on steep, loose and rocky descents. Where your 2.4in Minions can ping from rock to rock, a 4in fat tyre will find grip and stick like dog poo to a trainer in even the most unlikely of settings.
With a dropper post fitted, don’t be surprised if you find yourself searching out those steep, technical trails which have always given you the heeby jeebys. Golfie at Innerleithen? Why not? I have and it was a riot.
6. Great Scott! Go back to the future
<Dons flame retardant suit> Back in the nineties and early noughties before the, errrr, rise of the riser bar, no self-respecting mountain biker would be seen riding a mountain bike without bar ends. Weapon of choice was anything from Onza. There was a curious fashion for bar ends that looped all the way around and joined at the front (a la Profile and Scott) but they soon went the way of all flesh and sunk back into the mire. Whether stubby or cow horn, bar ends made a noticeable difference on climbs and for keeping speed on the flat.
At the risk of gasps of horror from the cheap seats, may one suggest that now is the time to revive them? Fitting them to my Cannondale Fat Caad long term test bike, I used them to great effect to climb up a local test piece climb known affectionately as “Bastard Hill”. It’s funny how fashions come and go but there is still a place for bar ends for those in the know.
7. Going ghetto
One of the big advantages of balloon tyres is that you can run your tyres at really low pressures. Want to run them at 6 psi on the beach? No reason not to. However, if you REALLY want to take advantage of those low pressures, why not consider going ghetto tubeless? Pretty much any fat wheel can be set up to run tubeless with a little ingenuity.
Forget dedicated rim tape or Gorilla Tape. What you want is a 24 inch DH inner tube with a removable core. Carefully slice the tube along its length then fit it to the wheel. Next, take a roll of thin packing foam and wrap it twice around the circumference of the rim to create a lip for the tyre to sit against. Fit your tyre, pop it onto the bead with your air filling device of choice (Compressor. Pressurised cylinder. Home-made pop bottle.), juice it up and inflate. Job done. Just think. No more pinch flats. No more worrying about thorns. Good days.
8. Get to fork
There can be no denying that 5 inch tyres offer an awful lot of cushion but being tyres, there is little in the way of damping. Pedal hard and you can find yourself bouncing along like a hyperactive pogo stick. You do get used to it and adapt your riding style to compensate but nothing works quite as well as a suspension fork.
I’ve run both the Rock Shox Bluto (reviewed & recommended here) and the Cannondale Olaf (sadly no longer available in the UK now that the really rather spiffy Fat Caad isn’t imported anymore) and both make a significant difference to how your fat bike rides. No matter how skilled a rider you are, when it comes to cranking up your hyperdrive motivator and pointing yourself down a rooty rockfest of pointy lumpiness, front suspension makes things easier and arguably more fun.
9. Go plus
Fat bikes and plus wheels are a match made in heaven. Ever since Surly introduced the 50mm Rabbit Hole rim and the Knard tyre, fat bikers have been running their bikes in plus mode when they don’t want to be humffing round 4.8 inch tyres and 100mm rims every ride. Plus hits the sweet spot of traction, comfort and trail eating speed that fat tyres don’t.
Investing in a set of plus wheels that come close to matching the ride height of your fat bike but which make for a more cross country friendly riding experience while avoiding the cost of a second bike is a bit of a no brainer. When it comes to bikepacking, there is a good reason why so many riders have gone down the plus route, while for regular trail riding plus is good for both beginners and seasoned riders alike.
So there you have it. Nine top tips to upgrade your fat bike. Some of them may seem pretty obvious but once you try them, you’ll probably be asking yourself what took you so long!