Sunday, April 01, 2012


Fat. It's a winter thing. The bears eat like crazy in the summer and fall and squeeze into their dens to live on stored fat. Other wild creatures follow similar routines whether they are true hibernators or not. Humans hang around indoors, eating too much and moving around too little.

I salute the highly motivated individuals who take up indoor training classes. The winter bike commuters are another intrepid bunch.

Then there are fat bikes. I looked at the Surly Pugsley as an amusing curiosity when it first came out. Fine for the upper Midwest and Alaska, it seemed out of place on our steep, rocky, muddy terrain and often icy trails.

Over the years, a fat bike subculture developed. We started to get calls about them last winter. They started appearing in photos of winter events around the area. We decided to try selling some.

I won't get hooked. I have all the bikes I need. Yep. I can pass on this one.  I don't have a problem.

So far that remains true. But as we work on selling points they sound like downright practical ideas. For instance, winter mountain bikers have used the snow machine trails since the studded tire craze of the mid 1990s. But what about those times when the surface is soft? Studs don't matter and even a wide regular mountain bike tire sinks in. With warming winters, those conditions become more common.

The fat bike may be the thing that replaces or at least seriously supplements cross-country skiing in an era of warming winters. If you want to exercise outdoors and don't want to deal with winter road biking; if you want to commute in all weather like our visitor from Alton told us he does; if you want to move at a steadier, faster pace than a walk; if you want to take advantage of the network of snow machine trails at least as extensive as the public highways, the fat bike may be your choice.

A basic Pugsley costs more than a really good racing cross-country ski package, but not that much more. Of course it is a very different experience. The racing ski is like a road bike: light, fast and limited to firm, smooth trails. This is especially true of skating skis, which need a wide, smooth, firm trail to allow the freest use of the technique. In return, the skier experiences the swiftest form of cross-country skiing, provided conditions are right. When they're wrong it can be a tedious plod. So the fat bike has to compete with less expensive touring skis or snowshoes on price. But consider this: just as the cyclocross bike can take you on dirt with confidence and on pavement without feeling like a treadmill, the fat bike can roll on snow, sand, mud or rock. It is the mountain bike writ large, at least where the rubber meets the ground. Skis or snowshoes are just more weight on your pack when you leave the snow or the snow leaves you.

A used car can cost several thousand dollars. Think what an arsenal of bikes you could put together for that amount of money. Better used cars and new cars cost many thousands more. So it's reasonable to consider a fat bike for winter, fixed gear for wet, 'cross bike for general three-season transportation and maybe a road bike for zippy fun. You could achieve this with simple componentry and steel frames for less than $4,000. The more of your own work you can do, the less you pay to build and operate these bikes.

The economic argument suffers when you consider that most of us do keep a car around for many valid reasons. I can imagine Biketopia as well as the next person, but we don't really live there yet. So the purchase of a fat bike has to compete with many other expenses in people's lives. But I did not expect it to seem even remotely practical until I rode one.

The human engine can be fitted to many different machines. People generate electricity, power boats, and propel vehicles with two, three and four wheels. Adding one with cartoonishly large tires is a small stretch. What seemed like a goofy idea and a recreational diversion now seems more like a valid addition to pedal-powered capability.

Customers either love it or hate it. The vast majority of people who come in are astonished, but accept the explanation. An interesting minority will blurt out, "Why would anyone want to ride anything like that?" That's a direct quote from at least two, one of whom surprised me because he had never seemed like a closed-minded type. And it was instantaneous and visceral, like they couldn't stop themselves from spitting out their opinion on sight. The ones who don't like it seem almost offended that anyone even built it. Everyone else seems amused and somewhat intrigued.

It will be interesting to work with fat bikes for a while to see if they really work around here. A piece of equipment has to earn its keep with me. It may pay its way with purely psychic coin, but it has to qualify for its place. Since the late 1970s every bike I've added has had to meet that standard.


RANTWICK said...

Fat bikes appeal to me bigtime, and yet... I commute on roads where snow is sometimes a problem but ice is the bigger danger. Studded bicycle tires, either "road" or "MTB" sizes, will probably do the trick and allow me greater speed, I think. Does a big fat tire take care of ice for me in the same way? How much slower might I be? Would big fatties allow me to ride unplowed but well walked paths now?

I don't expect you to answer these questions... they are half rhetorical.

As I gather myself to build a new winter bike, I'm torn between the extremes; skinny studded or FAT? Both options cost money. I don't have lots of cash. Grrr and Hmmmm.

cafiend said...

Rantwick, you know I find questions hard to resist.

I thought the fat tire at low pressure might put down enough contact area to handle ice adequately, but The Guy from Alton who appeared in a mysterious and timely fashion right after we put the Pugsley on display said that he ran 10 psi and had no traction on ice at all. Rumor has it that studded fat tires will be available for next winter but I have seen no official announcement. I'm a bit surprised they haven't appeared before this, since fat bike culture has been developing for a few years now. I can only guess that the bikes have been spreading from areas where snow or other softer surfaces were much more prevalent than ice.

I would bet that a fat tire would do better on the paths you describe than a mere mountain bike tire would. My own vintage Continental MTB tires slithered and wallowed a good deal in the thawing surface of the rail trail on my earliest commutes. I did not have a chance to try the Pugsley on the trail, and now the surface is firming up rapidly to its warm-season condition.

You could get a frame, BB and crank and transfer many old parts from your previous winter bike. That would save something over the price of a complete bike. I haven't checked to see what options you have for a 100 mm BB. You might even find one that let you transfer your old crack. And you would need disc brakes, since fat rims aren't suitable for rim brakes.

If ice is a much more common problem then studs would be the way to go. Remember that they compromise traction on bare pavement quite a bit. Don't get frisky in the corners EXCEPT on ice or something deep enough to let the knobby tread engage.