Most bicycles back in the day had wide tires and low tire pressures to handle rough roads. Seems like we’re going full circle with the fat bike craze.
After buying my first skinny tired bicycle, a cheap K-Mart 10 speed, I started to resent the harsh ride and ease with which rims were damaged. My 26X1.5″ tires on an old Black Hawk never had to be trued yet all my skinny tired bikes with rim brakes were in constant need of wheel truing every year, particularly when mounting curbs to cycle on pathways.
I began to resent the lack of wheel durability and the time required to keep wheels trued so brakes wouldn’t rub on the high spots in the rims. Even 26×2 tires that greatly reduced rim damage required frequent truing to keep brakes properly adjusted.
Eventually, after 10,000K, the brakes had worn so much metal off the rims that the wheels had to be tossed. Whatever happened to building durable bicycles?
The fast speeds of narrow tires became a serious liability on some of Calgary’s busted pathway pavement. On numerous occasions I had to slam the brakes on or jump the bike over badly buckled pavement and frost heaves. Folding bikes are not designed for such rough use and the steering snapped off.
Every bridge I had crossed seemed to be designed with sharp concrete wheel destroying lips. This only added to the worry about whether my wheels would finally be destroyed on long rides, leaving me stranded miles from help. Even though skinny tires were faster, many times I could not ride fast because of broken and cracked pavement.
I bought a winter bike with 26X2.125 tires and a coaster brake hub, thinking that surely this was the best way to avoid shot rims and constant wheel truing. The bike was heavy which was exactly the right specification needed to get great traction from studded tires all winter long when pulling home made snowplows.
Now and then I’d eye a fat bike in a store and have to walk on. The deciding factor in purchasing a fat bike was cost. The lowest cost fat bikes were at least $1-$6,000 above my price range. When I asked a dealer why fat bikes were so expensive, I was told they were not mass marketed. Fat bikes were built in small numbers, still being somewhat of a niche market.
Then I spotted a fat bike ad under $1,000 and immediately drove to the dealership to check it out. I rode it inside the mall at low speeds (what with it being winter). The steering was heavy. Disc brakes are standard issue on fat bikes because of the wide rims. Hurray! Although the bike had an aluminum frame it was a very heavy 48 lb beast, only 11 lbs heavier than my winter snowplowing bike (when unloaded).
The fat bike did feel much more stable and more solid a ride than any bicycle I’d ridden before. To be honest, it rode more like a motorcycle than a bicycle.
The wheel base was longer so I had to lean forward slightly to reach the handlebars. The frame was slightly high for me to stand over but once seated it was a good fit.
If I was ever going to try fat biking, it made more sense to try an entry level bike than buy an expensive one and find out afterwards that I didn’t like fat biking at all.
The next few months were spent building gigantic fenders to keep me dry and mud free from those massive debris flinging tires. Every ride was another off road exploration to tease out the characteristics of the bike, to figure out what kinds of terrain was rideable and what air pressures worked best off road and on road. In the back of my mind I kept thinking this bike has got to be slow.
Dropping the air pressure below 10 psi tripled the pedalling effort and the steering started pulling to one side then the other when air pressure was below 8 psi. The low tire pressure smoothed out the ride over rough ground though. Eventually I settled on 10-15 psi for nature cruising.
Jacking the tire pressure up to 25 psi made the bike easy to pedal on pavement when I discovered it wasn’t that slow a beast once the tires were spun up. In fact, doing 30 kph on the fat bike was less effort than my mountain bike with studded tires installed. The mountain bike was easier to pedal on summer tires however so the fatbike pedalling effort was somewhere in between winter and summer tires on the mountain bike.
I rode through rough grass fields with potholes, rode through icy puddles (not recommended) and tried to climb 60 degree slopes but ran out of low gears. The amazing thing was that the fat bike never once reared up on its back wheel and threaten to toss me off the back. Other than deep puddles of water on top of ice, the fat bike behaved better on difficult terrain than any other bike.
I raced down steep hills with my butt stuck out over the rear wheel. Unlike my mountain bike which often required me to stop before I could sit back on the seat, the fat bike frame geometry allowed me to slide forward onto the seat without effort. I was loving it!
I angled slightly up that very steep hill again, the one that my mountain bike would rear up on every single time despite heavy panniers loaded up front. The long frame and heavy front tire of the fat bike stayed firmly planted on the ground. If I lowered the gear ratio with a smaller crank gear there is no reason this bike couldn’t climb straight up this hill! It almost could climb it now with gearing that was closer to a road bike than my extra low geared mountain bike!
I rode over thawing mud, up broken 4×4 trails littered with deep crevices of loose rocks and ice, and through narrow foot trails with brambles on either side. It wasn’t until I let the brakes off descending a steep foot path and was tossed into the air several times that I realized here was a bike that was uniquely stable under extreme riding conditions, conditions that I would never consider riding before.
It wasn’t long before I was dreaming of home made tire chains made from worn bike chains and Velcro straps. Ice can’t stop me now! Wha-hahaha, I snickered with an evil grin as I rolled over curbs as if they weren’t there at all.
Fat bikes exude confidence with a not so subtle artistry of disproportionately huge wheels.
Roll on! 😊👍