Easy rider meets the fat pack
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.
Mud, sweat and gears: Marc Abbott’s fat bike gets to grips with a woodland trail near Hamburg