If you’re a happy fair-weather biker, close your ears. Fat biking obliterates all obstacles and all excuses for getting out in the mud, sludge, sand and best of all – snow! Not just a ploy of the bike industry to sell more bikes, or a fad for old people – the once ridiculed monster trucks of cycling are fast becoming a big fat force to be reckoned with. Now every good bike shop has a fatty in its window, and someone in the shop to extol its virtues. Fun, versatile, all-weather machines to tackle any trail at any time of the year. There are now fatbike-specific festivals, races and an annual World Championships. Even the ski industry has stopped chuckling long enough to embrace this low impact sport. Unlike snowboarding, the last ‘innovation’ to hit the piste and stick, fat biking needs no special training, as is easy as riding a bike. Easier in fact, with the huge tyres making riders feel safer, and appealing to many who wouldn’t ordinarily consider biking.
These ‘balloon tyred’ bikes were born from snowy utility. From the shadow of the sled and husky, they were first used for transportation in the snow and the desert, as the comically obese tyres could surmount obstacles which usually meant multiple punctures for their thin-tyred cousins. The first fat prototypes were bikes with multiple wheels lashed together, then the 1980s mountain bike craze kicked off the urge to try and ride on sand and snow.
Then came Iditabike! Like Iditarod, the Alaskan endurance race but on a bike. (Now called Iditarod Trail Ivitational – less catchy). In 1986 the first Iditabike winner Dave Zink completed the event in almost 34 hours, dragging his bike for half of it. The bikes and the event have progressed. Now there’s an Iditasport Impossible, a 1100 mile version where you can’t compete unless you’re completely crazy, or have already completed a 300-mile event and are willing to prepay for emergency air evacuation. Less interested? There are no huskies involved. Although you do follow the ‘Iron Dog’ route. (Much more catchy).
The first commercial fat bike is claimed by Minnesota’s Surly Bikes, who launched the Pugsley, in 2005. Surly had been churning out outsize rims first, and on discovering there was a market, made the frames too, then eventually thought they might as well do the whole bike. Sadly, their off-road unicycle ‘the conundrum’ was a bit too ‘off road’ and bit too one-wheeled. Back in 2017, bike manufacturers are abandoning full-fatbikes and creating diet versions, even adapting rigid frames and adding suspension. Carbon fibre full suspension fat bikes are now for sale. Still fat, but not as heavy!
Skinny racers, medium mountain bikers, now plus sized fatties – what will be next? There’s the E-fats, brilliant fun for a lot less effort, with the added bonus of careering around the woods as if on fast-forward (cue the Benny Hill theme tune). But for the underinflated oversized fatbikes, the only way is up – fatbiking is America’s fastest growing winter sport and the biking calendar is gorged with fat-specific sportives. In the UK, two friends have started a Global Fat Bike day, there’s an annual fatbike Battle of the Beach, on Pembrey sands, site of former world land speed record attempts. Sponsored by Surly bike is now in its fourth year. Crested Butte in Colorado will host the third Fat Bike World Championships in January 2018, and Gstaad was one of the first resorts in the Alps to rent fatbikes with dedicated snow trails. Its Snow Bike festival, complete with a time trial prologue and three stages has both professional and amateur categories.
I remember my first spotting of a fat bike in the wild. I was weak at the knees with laughter rather than bike-envy, but riding it was an entirely different experience. I soon got used to the hilarious tyres (and the attention they got) and fell swiftly in love with my fat friend. Suddenly clambering over big rocks wasn’t an issue, and muddy puddles became even more fun with the added traction. In Britain, where nine months a year often means soggy singletrack and depressingly near-constant mud, a fat bike actions the adrenaline and keeps you buzzing from biking.
Thanks to Axevo bikes, whose e-fat bikes inspired this article. Axevo are an Italian bike manufacturer whose e-fat bikes are now available in the UK.