Monday, February 23, 2015

Fat Bikes: from obscure to annoying in 24 months

Fat bikes started out as sort of a secret society. Now they're incredibly hip. Maybe that's the secret to success in America: Get fatter. The original mountain bikes were fat-tired, fun-loving and durable. Then they became tweaky and expensive. But once you go fat you can never come back. So only a fatter bike can capture the public's affection. And with popularity comes misunderstanding and come-lately "expertise."

As the fat bike bus gets larger and picks up more idlers from the sidewalk, the cacophonous chatter of misinformation rises in the background. And news of misbehavior filters in, like the report brought to us by a fat bike rider from Barnstable, Massachusetts, that fat bike tracks across fragile dunes in the Cape Cod National Seashore have brought unwelcome scrutiny from law enforcement. When popularity surges, idiocy increases.

A bike shop in the 1990s needed good answers to semi-informed questions from newly-minted experts who got their opinions from the plethora of magazines that blossomed to provide them. Now a bike shop needs to deal with another crop of enthusiasts who want to see fat bikes and hear about fat bikes even if they have no intention of buying anything. A shop's credibility rests entirely on having the latest cool thing.

I wonder how many people who are getting fat bikes now will use them enough ever to replace a set of tires. From an industry standpoint, who cares whether a customer actually uses anything, as long as they buy it? From a human standpoint, I just see more waste.

The fat bike in winter takes advantage of the snow-packing efforts of others. Some intrepid souls may pack down their riding trails by tromping on them in snowshoes first, but the majority of snow preparation is done with grooming equipment, unless the snow type and temperature swings have led to a naturally condensed and firm trail surface. Many miles of trail are prepared for snow machines and other motorized vehicles. The trails and logging roads provide access for human and animal travelers. These trailways were the fat bike's initial habitat. Only recently have the rising number of riders in a coincidentally difficult economy opened the dialog and debate between riders and cross-country ski areas.

The common characteristic in all these potential fat bike venues is packed snow. It's the winter equivalent of a paved road. Thus the fat bike is doing what the automobile did in the early 20th Century, taking advantage of road surfaces improved through the lobbying efforts of bicyclist organizations to take over those roads with heavier wheeled vehicles that would eventually try to make the bicycle extinct.

A fat bike would be good winter transportation if the roads were safe to share, but they're not. So fat bikes become another indulgence for a toy-crazed culture. If you happen to live where bike routes actually go to practical destinations, and someone makes the effort to keep them passable by plowing, snow blowing or grooming, bike on. But around here we're lucky if there's room for two motor vehicles to squeeze past each other in some of the snowier places, let alone maneuver past a cyclist none of them are happy to encounter.

IF humans in general -- and industrialized-nation humans in particular -- suddenly changed their transportation mindset and started providing for winter bikeways and other winter transportation options that did not require bare pavement, winter-adapted bikes would not just be toys. Unlikely as that is, it's not impossible. I like to imagine packed-snow travel ways on which someone could commute by ski or fat bike. I would pay tax dollars for that. Take it out of the road salt budget. Economically, it might make more sense for people in snowy regions to put the car up on blocks in the winter and use tracked vehicles rather than bathe the automobile in brine for six months. But then the tourists wouldn't be able to get around up here to shed money on us. Damn. It's always something.


Steve A said...

A fat bike is less likely in my future than an ebike. That is less likely than either a folding bike or an overpowered motorcycle. Snow is rare in North Texas and even rarer in Ocean Shores WA. They do look cool, however.

cafiend said...

Got no use for ebikes after working on a bunch of them. Get a real motorcycle or don't get anything.

Fat bikes are also good on sand. Very popular on Cape Cod, even though now strictly barred from the National Seashore.

Today a bearded hipster dude came in to ask why fat bikes shouldn't be allowed on the snowshoeing trail portion of the cross-country network we oversee. We explained all the very good reasons we couldn't just fling wide the gates. He left, all friendly and nice. Then a couple of hours later a skier came in and reported seeing a bike rider on the trails.

The fat bike craze is starting to piss me off. It seems to have attracted a high percentage of people who feel entitled to use whatever they want, regardless of any pre-existing user groups.