Guides, MTB, Reviews

Who you calling fat?

As I rolled off the boardwalk onto the beach my decades of cycling experience tensed my body for the inevitable stall as my tyres sink into the sand, but not this time. Today my bike floats across the surface like I’m riding on a solid base, today I’m on a fat bike and that means I am king of the beach!

I’m on holiday at FeelVianna in Portugal and among the many activities this outdoor sports centre offers is ‘fat biking’.  You’ve probably seen them around, or heard one rumbling by – mountain bikes with monster tyres on them.  These are affectionately known as ‘fat bikes’ and although they started as a tiny cycling niche they are now relatively mainstream.  Here I’ve hired a Scott Big Ed but I’ve had the pleasure to ride a handful of different fat bikes on radically different terrain and thought I’d offer some thoughts on these beasts.

King of the Beach!
King of the Beach!

I guess if normal mountain bikes are the cycling version of an off-road 4WD vehicle then fat bikes are equivalent to tractors; if they can’t find traction, nothing will.  I’ve ridden them along beaches and in the Namib desert, and their ability to float across the sand seems to defy physics.  The first time I stopped in the desert and put a foot down I remember almost toppling over as my shoe sank deep into the soft sand that the bike had been nonchalantly gliding across.

Namib Desert Fat Biking
It is incredible how they can ride on even the softest sand…

their ability to float across the sand seems to defy physics…

Equally, these feats of traction and float apply to snow too, in fact this was the environment for which they were originally designed.  Their performance is less consistent than on sand, it really does depend on the snow ‘conditions’, but still, you can ride on snow where other bikes would simply sink.  As the tractor analogy would suggest, they can perform well in boggy or muddy terrain too and offer a confidence boost on any surface where extra rubber in contact with the ground aids control and comfort on rough terrain where all that air in those tyres can give a soft ride.

Fat bike snow riding
If anything can ride on snow, a fat bike can…

So one bike to conquer all then?  Well, perhaps not because, as with all things, advantages in one area become drawbacks in others.  When you ride away from the terrain in which they excel onto normal trails the ride characteristics become an acquired taste; grip becomes drag, the undamped ‘suspension’ provided by the tyres can become uncontrolled bounce, gyro effect makes those heavy tyres reluctant to change direction and you start to notice how much work is needed to get those big wheels up to speed.  A ride around the trails at Coed y Brenin on a fat bike was certainly a fun experience but I was not sold on the idea of replacing my usual trail bike.  Even at the Battle of the Beach I found myself constantly overtaking fat bikes as their advantages on the soft sand weren’t enough to overcome their drawbacks on the rest of the course.

as with all things, advantages in one area become drawbacks in others…

So, do you need a fat bike in your life?  If I lived in an area with reliable winter snow or had a beach or even desert on my doorstep I’d want a fat bike in my garage for sure. Equally, if you like the idea of expressing your individuality through choosing a bike that will stand out in the crowd and are prepared to accept the compromises then a fat bike could make you very happy.  But, as a general trail bike I don’t think they are either the simplest, fastest, most efficient, most practical or most comfortable choice.  So I’m not buying, but I will be hiring one whenever I get a chance to go on a sandy or snowy blast…

Fun in forested dunes...
Fun in forested dunes…
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