Easy rider meets the fat pack

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

It looks like half a trac­tor and cuts an im­pos­ing fig­ure on the trails. But don’t let its enor­mous pres­ence in­tim­i­date you; far from be­ing purely of in­ter­est to the gnarli­est of moun­tain bik­ers, the boom­ing “fat bike” phe­nom­e­non is ac­tu­ally mak­ing it eas­ier for more peo­ple to ben­e­fit from the thrill and sheer recre­ational plea­sure of rid­ing off-road.

Fat bikes were orig­i­nally de­vel­oped in Alaska in the late Eight­ies to al­low rid­ers to con­quer heavy snow, and only now are their knob­bly 4-5in (10-12cm) wide tyres be­com­ing a more common sight in the UK. I re­cently went to try a fat bike out, and here are the re­sults.

Like float­ing on mud

Those su­per-wide tyres be­have like two knob­bly bal­loons. They’ll grip on almost any ter­rain and their ex­pan­sive con­tact patch lets you get on with the en­joy­ment of rid­ing rather than fret­ting over the in­sur­mount­abil­ity of ob­sta­cles such as sandy trails or ex­posed tree roots.

Pa­trick Josce­lyne, of fat bike im­porter Ison Dis­tri­bu­tion, says: “A fat bike looks like a dumper truck but feels so easy to ride; all you need is a ba­sic level of fit­ness. And the tyres are very for­giv­ing. The right amount of pres­sure to put in is 12-15psi, and with this low-pres­sure im­pact al­lied to high trac­tion lev­els, you’ll sur­prise your­self with where you can ride.”

He is right, of course; a Salsa Bear­grease fat bike I re­cently pi­loted on wood­land trails near Ham­burg, Ger­many, was the cy­cling equiv­a­lent of tak­ing a trip to Tesco in a mon­ster truck but it was as easy to han­dle as a Ford Fi­esta.

Although some fat bikes come with full-sus­pen­sion forks and a rear shock ab­sorber, the bouncy na­ture of their air-filled tyres pro­vides sus­pen­sion enough for most. “What you’re get­ting with th­ese tyres is tremen­dous grip, plenty of give and ridicu­lous climb­ing abil­ity,” says Josce­lyne. Well if that’s not tak­ing the stress out of off-road­ing, I don’t know what is.

De­fy­ing the el­e­ments

Many rid­ers hang their bikes up for the worst of the win­ter months, but a fat bike is a bike for all sea­sons – they were de­signed for snow, after all. Josce­lyne says: “New tyre de­vel­op­ment means that th­ese bikes are as suit­able for use in deep mud as they are in snow; the slushier the bet­ter, even wet rocks. Pretty much the only thing you won’t be able to ride on is wa­ter – and ice, although some firms have stud­ded tyres es­pe­cially for this.”

My for­est ride tack­led most sur­faces imag­in­able – deep ruts, wet tree roots, leaf-cov­ered mud and sandy trails. With a low gear to cre­ate min­i­mum torque through the rear tyre, it re­ally was pos­si­ble to roll straight through the lot.

Who needs 30 gears?

As cy­cling tech­nol­ogy be­comes more af­ford­able, fat-bike rid­ing is grow­ing even more be­gin­ner friendly. My Bear­grease test bike was fit­ted with com­po­nent company SRAM’s new “X1” gear sys­tem. It uses a sin­gle chain ring at the front and a gear cas­sette on the rear wheel. This does away with the need for mul­ti­ple chain rings (many moun­tain bikes have three, giv­ing a com­pli­cated choice of 30 gears, and a con­fus­ing ar­ray of han­dle­bar­mounted levers to match) and lets you con­cen­trate on the plea­sure of rid­ing, us­ing one but­ton to change up a gear and a sec­ond to change down. Un­til re­cently, this tech­nol­ogy was re­served for the pro­fes­sional. Now avail­able to the recre­ational cy­clist, it’s mak­ing mas­tery of the fat bike an even sim­pler task. Moun­tain bik­ing is the best way of in­volv­ing the whole fam­ily in a ride. Here are four rea­sons you should ride of­froad to­gether. 1. It’s so­cial Head to one of the coun­try’s many ded­i­cated trail cen­tres (look for the fam­ily-friendly “green” routes). There’s usu­ally a café and bike hire, too, so you have a ready-made day trip in one venue. A rid­ing hol­i­day presents an ideal fam­ily bond­ing break. Web­sites for popular ar­eas such as Cum­bria (go­lakes.co.uk), Lan­cashire (vis­it­lancashire. com) and the South Downs (south­downs­dis­cov­ery. com) have down­load­able routes. 2. It’s safe The only traf­fic you’ll con­tend with is the odd squir­rel and maybe fel­low off-road­ers, known for their ca­ma­raderie and cour­te­ous ap­proach. If one of you hap­pens to skid off, you’re fall­ing on a sur­face that’s much more for­giv­ing than tar­mac. And, of course, you can al­ways take the ride at your own­pace and pack a mid-ride pic­nic. 3. It’s child friendly Many ma­jor moun­tain bike man­u­fac­tur­ers cater for chil­dren by pro­duc­ing child-sized bikes. Bike brand On-One has launched a fat bike, the Baby Fatty, de­signed for rid­ers with a min­i­mum height of 4ft 8in (1.42m). Even lit­tle ones can get in­volved, with child seats and trail­ers eas­ily fit­ted to a moun­tain bike. 4. It’s good for all of you NHS guide­lines sug­gest that chil­dren over the age of five should com­plete an hour of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity ev­ery day, in­clud­ing “mod­er­ate in­ten­sity” ex­er­cise such as cy­cling. So, as well as the car­dio­vas­cu­lar ben­e­fits to all in­volved, the chil­dren will be get­ting fit and healthy with­out even re­al­is­ing it.

Bi­cy­cle tyres are strange things. You rely on them ev­ery day to get you to and from work, yet largely for­get they ex­ist un­til – bang – one punc­tures at 7.43am on the wettest morn­ing in Novem­ber when you’re half­way be­tween home and of­fice. Cue 20 mis­er­able min­utes in the lash­ing rain spent chang­ing your in­ner tube and slash­ing your fin­gers to pieces in the process.

Noth­ing can de­flate the mood quite like a punc­ture – which is why var­i­ous in­ven­tors have sought to pro­duce solid tyres since the air-filled (or pneu­matic) in­ner tube trun­dled onto the scene back in the mid19th cen­tury. The prob­lems th­ese tyres have en­coun­tered have been nu­mer­ous (heavy, weak, vul­ner­a­ble to heat), but the main stick­ing point has al­ways been shared: solid tyres just don’t roll.

Un­til now. Tan­nus, a South Korean company with a back­ground in shoe soles, be­lieves it has in­vented a solid tyre that per­forms just as well as con­ven­tional ver­sions. By us­ing a poly­mer that cre­ates a ro­bust mesh of tiny air bub­bles (each is about 10 mi­crom­e­ters in width), Tan­nus tyres adroitly side­step the is­sues that plagued their punc­ture-resistant an­ces­tors.

And th­ese tyres re­ally do roll. In a test­ing lab, the same amount of ef­fort was re­quired to get a pneu­matic tyre trav­el­ling at 30kph and a Tan­nus tyre at 29kph. That dif­fer­ence might make a pro think twice be­fore rac­ing with Tan­nus, but it’s small enough to at­tract the at­ten­tion of any com­muter who wants to avoid fix­ing a punc­ture.

On the bike, it’s a sim­i­lar story. The ride is a lit­tle bumpier with the Tan­nus, but if you weren’t told that you were us­ing solid rub­ber, you prob­a­bly wouldn’t guess. The solid tyres are as light as a nor­mal rub­ber tyre plus its in­ner tube, so your bike feels no heav­ier with its new set of shoes.

There are some down­sides. Get­ting the tyres onto my rims took me a good hour, with enough pro­fan­i­ties to fill a cookie jar – but, then, I don’t re­mem­ber fix­ing a punc­ture the first time be­ing fun ei­ther, and at least with the Tan­nus you only have to do it once. The tyres also have a ten­dency to flat spot dur­ing skids, which means they’re not suit­able for fixed gear or moun­tain bikes.

For the av­er­age road bike com­muter, how­ever, the Tan­nus re­ally could bring to an end the has­sle of punc­tures. It doesn’t quite rein­vent the wheel, but it does give it a damn good resole.

Tan­nus. co.uk

Mud, sweat and gears: Marc Ab­bott’s fat bike gets to grips with a wood­land trail near Ham­burg

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