Cycling Links



November 26, 2013

by Don Stefanovich

Fat bikes can be used for riding around town or races in the snow. (Image: Flickr user fotoman311)

Fads always have a polarizing effect; they create as many haters as followers. The bike industry is no exception. Enough trends have come and gone in the last few decades of cycling that we could fill a War and Peace-sized tome to those that have become fixtures of our sport and those that have faded into obscurity.

While PeopleForBikes believes in anything that gets more people on two wheels is a very good thing, fat bikes aren’t a hit with everyone at the party. We know some of you have done it – looked on with disgust as someone mounted one at the trailhead, made fun of a friend for riding one to work or maybe even rode one yourself when no one was looking.

What started as a niche product, available through only select manufacturers, is now creeping into the product lines of mainstream mountain-bike makers. Folks now shamelessly smile aboard their fatties and these big tire beauties even have their own international day of recognition: Global Fat Bike Day on December 7. There’s even a Global Fat Bike Summit. Not bad for a “fad.”

Today there are a number of fat bikes on the market from a variety of boutique brands. Even some of the big names in the biz are “rounding” out their lineups with them. But how did we end up with such an epidemic?

Which came first, the fat bike or the mountain bike? (Image: Flickr user Chris Sgaraglino)

The First Fatties

Some argue that the first fat tire bikes were also some of the first mountain bikes – the “ballooners” or “klunkerz” of Marin County, California. These modified 1940s Schwinn cruisers had high-volume “balloon” tires that were ridden on and around Marin’s Mount Tamalpais in the 70s and 80s. But most accounts put the birth of contemporary fat bikes in Alaska during the early 90s. Just like Marin’s klunkerz, they evolved to go where their two-wheeled contemporaries could not.

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 gentleman named Ray Molino, whose big tires appeared around the same time in New Mexico and Texas, where touring bikes were needed to cover great distance in the desert.

Existing bike frames were modified to accommodate the wide wheels, often by welding two rims together, and tire carcasses were cut and sewn to fit the rims. With rims up to 80 millimeters thick and high-volume tires up to four inches in diameter that could be run at low pressures, tackling deep snow and soft sand on two wheels didn’t seem like such a silly notion.

But it was most likely the Minnesota-based Surly brand – previously known for commuters and singlespeeds – that brought big rubber to the masses. Their Pugsley was the first mass-produced fat bike and debuted in 2005, rolling on Surly’s own Large Marge rims and Endomorph tires. The rest, as they say, happened after that.

Fat bikes can even be ridden on warm days in the city.

Why go fat?

So, why would any self-respecting cyclist be caught dead on one of these? There are plenty of reasons, including the original impetus of floating over snow and sand, but perhaps the best reason is one shared by just about any form of bike: it’s fun.

Should you dump your daily driver for a fat bike? Of course not. Will a portly steed in your stable render your full-suspension bike obsolete? Not a chance. But there is a simple pleasure that comes with forgetting about things like weight, rolling resistance and Strava times, and instead, charging your favorite singletrack on a steel frame and big rubber with no abandon. So go on, ride one. As the rocks and roots disappear beneath the corpulent casings, perhaps you too will fall in love with a fat bike. And if not, at least you tried it. We won’t tell anyone.

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