The almost overwhelming need for every bike brand to have a fat bike in its line-up has intrigued us. They look really cool and different. But what is it about this type of bike that might be beneficial to South African mountain bikers? Is it a fad? We got to ride two of them for a few weeks to work out exactly what the answers are…
Words and photos, TREAD Editors (Sean Badenhorst, Dino Lloyd)
Once you’ve grown comfortable with the visual aspect of obscenely massive wheels (it takes quite some time), you start to treat a fat bike like any other bike. During this time you get used to everyone staring, pointing, passing smart comments or asking questions. It’s an attention-grabber like we have never before encountered.
Other than the huge wheels, fat bikes actually look pretty similar to regular bikes. They obviously have a specially made frame that has wide enough rear stays to accommodate the large wheel, while the fork must do the same and the bottom bracket needs to be wider too. Fat bikes use a 100mm wide BB, while most mountain bikes have 68mmm or 73mm wide BBs…
Interestingly, from a diameter perspective, fat bikes use 26-inch rims (see, it’s not a dead platform), with the thickness of the tyre taking the total wheel diameter to 29 inches. This is why they look rather well proportioned from side-on.
The two bikes we tested both had rigid forks, but Rock Shox has produced the first fat-bike specific suspension fork, the Bluto RL, which comes in 80, 100 and 120mm of travel options and which is specced on some of the higher-end fat bikes currently available. With the rapid growth of this category, we expect Fox and other suspension brands to follow with their own fat-bike fork models.
We have only come across one dual suspension fat bike in our research, the Bucksaw from Salsa, but expect more will follow as the demand increases.
So the frame, wheels, fork and BB are the key differences from a regular mountain bike. Hmmm, other than the BB, those were the initial differences between 29-inch wheeled bikes and 26-inch wheeled bikes. Essentially, if you bought the frame, wheels, fork and BB, you’d be able to build your groupset, drivetrain and cockpit across from your old 26-inch bike that’s just hanging in the garage. Now there’s a thought…
We rode a full carbon fibre frame 9 Zero 7 Whiteout and an aluminium frame, carbon fork Specialized Fatboy Expert to get a feel for mainstream brand vs niche brand and carbon vs aluminium.
9 Zero 7 is an Alaskan brand that only makes fat bikes. The Whiteout is the personal bike of African mountain biking legend, Mannie Heymans, who completed the 2014 ABSA Cape Epic on it. At 11.67kg it’s deceptively light. You expect those burley wheels to weigh it down, but with carbon fibre rims, they’re amazingly light. Like anything in the bicycle game though, light weight usually means hefty price. It’s no different here. The HED carbon wheelset alone costs R15000 although at R11000, the Surly wheelset (the aluminium option) isn’t exactly cheap either. But this is to be expected when the dominant feature on the bike is the swollen wheelset.
“Wheels and tyre prices were initially high, but are coming down as more manufacturers enter the fat bike market,” says Heymans. “Even in the three months since you guys got my 9 Zero 7 to test ride, the pricing has become more competitive and affordable for more mountain bikers.”
Where did it start?
As a concept, fat bikes have been around since the 1930s, although only really developed from the 1990s. They have been/are used for trail riding, racing, recreation, commuting and commercial use in snowy climates of North America, whilst also fulfilling similar duties in more sandy regions of the same continent.
Who actually developed the bikes varies with the source, but Mark Gronewald is often credited. Reportedly, he invented the first fatties to gain a competitive edge in ultra-sport races, such as the 1000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. Others point to a bloke named Ray Molino, whose big tyres appeared around the same time in New Mexico and Texas, where touring bikes were needed to cover great distance in the desert.
Early fat bikes had individual rims that were pinned or welded side by side, laced to a single hub, and wrapped with two tyres. But wider rims and hubs are now the result of fatty wheel evolution over the past two decades.
Their lack of suspension, relative simplicity, large tyre footprint and high tyre volume make fat bikes perfect for use in snow, sand, desert, swampy bogs and mud; and more recently more ‘normal’ mountain biking and adventure type rides. While they’re practical to ride through snow and sand, due to their ‘snow-shoe’ like ‘footprint’ they’re also fun to ride elsewhere, which is why we’re now seeing them on local singletrack.
Besides racing or touring across snow and sand, some uses for fat bikes include hunting in wilderness parks, gaining access to walrus along rocky beaches for biological studies, park ranger patrols in remote areas, such as South West Alaska, a South African expedition across the Arabian Empty Quarter Desert and a camping adventure ride across the Namibian desert. Check out the video: 9ZERO7 Namib Desert
Fat bikers also have their own stage race event – The Snow Epic in the Swiss Alps, organised by the same slick South African team that organises the ABSA Cape Epic (www.snow-epic.com).
How do they ride?
Initially the steering feels a little different, and it should. The contact patch on a fat bike wheel is obviously larger than that of any regular mountain bike. But once you’ve been riding it for a while, you become accustomed to the feel. On the Whiteout, the faster-rolling, less-aggressive tread and narrower width of the two test bikes found us feeling an initial slide when going fast into turns, but it’s a temporary slide as it then hooks up traction firmly as you continue to lean further over. The Ground Control tyres on the Fatboy have a more aggressive tread, were wider and hooked up firmly on all corners. At our cover shoot, rider James Morland had to really push his own limits (which are a fair bit further than the average bloke’s limits) to get the Fatboy to slide into the turn, which had a loose-over-hardpack surface, normally easy to slide a bike on.
“Unbelievable! It’s like having traction control on a mountain bike.” exclaimed Morland.
Climbing feels quite similar to any other hardtail really, but this is where you do start to think a bit about the Q factor. What’s the Q factor? It’s the distance between your pedals, which is generally determined by the width of your bottom bracket.
It’s obviously a wider Q factor than on a standard mountain bike, which results in adjusting to a slightly lower saddle height to compensate from a set-up perspective.
We didn’t have power measurement stats to prove it, but we definitely felt a little less efficient in terms of climbing power than on a regular hardtail. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was noticeable by the generally increased effort required on long climbs.
As on all mountain bikes, descending was mostly fun! On very narrow/deep singletrack you need to be a little more focussed in order to ensure your tyre is firmly in the groove. You do need to choose your lines with care but there is a little forgiveness if you don’t, based on the fact that you roll over/through obstacles easier than a bike with regular width tyres.
The downside we felt was the higher rolling resistance. Try as we might, we couldn’t get close to any Strava PRs on our regular trails. But then fat bikes aren’t made to go fast anywhere other than sand and snow. We ran the tyre pressures at 0.5–0.8 bar and still they felt pretty hard. For such chunky tyres the ride feel is surprisingly firm. One tester, who was doing long rides (over 4 hours) on the 9 Zero 7 said that his wrists became a little tender, but that’s likely more because of the rigid fork than the beefy wheels.
“A suspension fork would make a big difference to both the comfort and to the control. As with any rigid fork bike, you feel every single bump,” he said.
Who should own a fat bike in South Africa?
The whole point of fat bikes is having ‘flotation’ and traction on surfaces otherwise unrideable by ordinary-wheeled bikes. Snow in southern Africa isn’t that common and never really that expansive, but sand we have a lot of… Areas like Namibia (desert and beaches), Mozambique (beaches), some bushveld and our own South African coastlines have exceptionally large tracts of sand. An additional area of strength is in mud, the thick gloopy stuff. And up loose, sandy, rocky, steep inclines.
“It’s like having a diff lock and low-range with so much traction,” remarked one tester.
In our test team’s experience, for the kind of riding most South Africans
do, fat bikes are surprisingly capable and hugely fun. If general riding, exploring and adventure rides are going to be your primary use for riding, then there are a few things to consider.
Tubeless is a must! Large tyres mean a larger footprint, this in turn means a greater risk of thorns and sharp objects causing a puncture. Tubeless can go a long way in combatting this; also carry a decent set of tyre plugs/repair kit. DH bike inner tubes work should you need to ‘tube it’.
Correct tyre pressure is paramount – experiment until you have the correct, consistent feel over a variety of terrain. We never went near the max pressure as this would just cause the bike to literally bounce off obstacles.
On average, our tyre pressures were between 0.5 and 0.8 bar between the two different tyre sizes (26×3.8 and 26×4.6). Tyre widths for fat bikes can vary from 3.2 inches right up to 5 inches – that’s 250mm!
If your regular trails have a lot of fast, rough, rocky or rooty riding, we’d definitely recommend a larger volume tyre up front and, if possible, a suspension fork.
A fat bike may not be considered a primary bike by South African mountain bikers, but if you have a bike or two already that you’re very happy with, then adding a fat bike to your line-up is a good option, especially if you spend regular holiday time in coastal areas.
You could ride a fatty for hours and hours on beaches, or in the Namibian desert and still also be able to ride on regular singletrack – on the same bike. There’s even a Global Fat Bike Day that’s been declared – 7 December (see www.fatbike.com) – and an annual Global Fat Bike Summit (fatbikesummit.com).
Fun? Yes! Fad? Nope. We don’t think so…
What price? You’re looking at anything from R10 000 up to R70 000. More cash will buy you lighter weight and, to a point, better reliability.
Some of the locally available brands we’re aware of with fat bike models in their range:
Momsen Big Gun – www.momsenbikes.com
Silverback Scoop Fatty – www.silverbacklab.com
Specialized Fatboy – www.specialized.com/za/en/home
Scott Big Ed – www.scott-sports.com
Titan – www.titanracingbikes.com
Rocky Mountain Blizzard – www.hullabaloo.co.za
Surly Moonlander, Pugsley – www.surlybikes.com
Salsa Mukluk and Bucksaw – www.salsacycles.com
9 Zero 7 Whiteout Carbon and 197 Alumnium – www.907bikes.com
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*Originally published in TREAD Soul Provider Issue 31, 2014 – All rights reserved