Thursday, September 08, 2016

How To Choose Your First Fat Bike: What To Look For

Obviously- You should be looking for the fat tires to make sure you're getting a "fat bike".
When it comes to checking out what is available in fat bikes, things can get a bit overwhelming. There are different width tires, different "axle standards", and there are even front suspended and fully suspended models to choose from. There are steel frames, aluminum frames, and high zoot, carbon and titanium frames out there. What do you do?

Obviously, price can and will be a factor in your decision. Most folks are going to automatically exclude many choices immediately based upon prices. There are different choices to be made here and maybe some that are not fat bikes, so I am going to defer writing about this subject until my next post where I will discuss the various price points and choices within them.

What I am going to do now is list things that you might look for and why in terms of checking out fat bikes. Here's a bullet point list-
  • The Tires: Generally, "fat bikes" start out at 3.8"-4.0" tires and then wider. There are not a lot of "in between" tires until you get to 4.6" or so and then there are several really fat tire choices from there till you get to the current fattest size of just over 5 inches wide! Think of width in terms of XC skiing or snow shoeing. Wider is better for heavier folks. Most folks will be just fine on 3.8"-4.0" tires though. If you never see yourself doing anything off trail, or in deeper, unpacked snow, just stick with the 4.0"ers. 
  • The Frames: Steel, aluminum, or carbon? Titanium? Can you even feel the difference with those crazy fat tires? Yes. Yes you can, oddly enough. Steel and titanium are going to yield a different ride than aluminum, and carbon is another level altogether. For most folks, an aluminum or steel frame will end up being fine. What is most important is how the frame is equipped and its geometry, which will be covered in my post on prices and what you get for your money.
  • Suspension? Really? Yes......really. It makes sense when you think about it. A fat bike tire, while having some give, or suspension, of its own, does not have damping. That quality of controlled rebound is called damping. Think of a basket ball. You toss it down to the floor, and it bounces off the floor. Fat bike tires are similar. They want to bounce back off the trail. Tires not connected to the ground are not a good thing for control and stability at high speed. That's where suspension forks and rear suspension comes in. If you are going to pursue "real mountain biking" with fat tires, you probably should look into a suspended fat bike. Riding just for adventure and fun? Pass the suspension by, as it adds significantly to the costs up front and is higher maintenance. 

Fat bike full suspension bikes are great for trail riding at speed.
  • Weight: The cheaper you go, the heavier the bike, to an extent. Really inexpensive fat bikes, like those at the department stores, can weigh in excess of 50 pounds! Typically, a "bike shop" purchased fat bike will weigh somewhere in the 30's for weight. High end, carbon fiber framed fat bikes can weigh as little as 23-24 pounds, but will cost $3,000.00-$6,000.00 or more. Most folks will end up with something in the 30-ish pound weight category which isn't outlandish and is really easy to handle. 
  • Intentions and Use: You should examine your intentions and expectations. If you desire a bike that will go through the sloppiest mud, deepest snow, and be able to shake off any nasty tumbles, you'll need to spend more bucks to get that in a fat bike that will last. If you are thinking that you just want to get out and ride all year, maybe do some light trail riding and commuting/recreational rides in inclement conditions or on loose rock, sand, or snow, an entry level bike should do that. Choose wisely. 
  • Features: Likewise, features will either add to, or in their absence, take away from your overall experience. Rack mounts will be important for some, but not all fat bikes have them. Suspension, as mentioned above, can be added to some bikes, but not all. Tubeless tires are an option for many fat bikes, and you may want that, but not all are easily compatible with that type of tire set up. Kickstands.......really? Do we even need to say that you just do not put a kickstand on a fat bike unless it is one of those beach cruiser deals. Maybe then. Really, just don't expect a kickstand. 
  • Miscellaneous: Trek and one other company do 27.5" diameter based fat bikes. Don't worry too much about that. Those have a marginally different ride quality that won't translate to beginners. They are great bikes though. Then you have the axle standards. Again- If you are a beginner, and just getting into it, don't get all caught up in this. One caveat: Through axles are going to be a better deal than quick releases, but for the recreational cyclists, where it probably isn't a big deal. If you are curious, and haven't tried a fat bike, go to a bike shop and just ride whatever size would fit you. Only then will you understand. Finally, it is a buyers market now. This may sound a bit self-serving, since I work at a shop, but right now fat bikes are in a state of over-supply, which means lowest possible pricing. Get one now if you are even slightly curious. You'll never get better deals than what are out there currently. 
You might think, "But wait a minute! All these points sound just like what you might do if you were buying a mountain bike!", and you would be spot on. A fat bike is a mountain bike with fatter tires. It goes further afield than a mountain bike does though. Think about cycling on snowy, icy streets on your mountain bike. Sure, you could do it, but it is sketchy, hard, and ultimately is not fun. You could try riding through that sand, mud, or deeper loose rock, but you usually ride around that stuff. You could try that deer trail. You could try that beach. But you don't, because your mountain bike is not the best at that, and you'll end up walking more than riding. Well, welcome to the power of fat bikes! Those scenarios and more are why a fat bike really is the ultimate all-terrain bicycle.

That said, there are a few points to consider about fat bikes which may be a negative for some of you out there. Fat bikes are not for everyone, and the following may be reasons they are not going to work for you.
  • Wider pedal stance: To make a fat bike drive train work around those really wide tires, the pedals are going to be at a wider stance- further outboard from the saddle- than a traditional bike's pedals. This may cause certain bio-mechanical issues for some folks. NOTE: There are a couple of fat bike alternatives to this issue available which I will discuss in later posts. 
  • Tires are expensive: Some may want to think about making different scenarios work with different tires on their fat bike, which is totally possible. But consider that fat bike tires are generally $100.00 and up. That might be a deal breaker for some folks.
  • Tire pressure is a Really Big Deal: You've got to get into paying attention to tire pressures if you are going to really squeeze the best experience out of a fat bike. This may be too much fuss for some folks. 
  • You are going to get really dirty: While this may sound weird to some, if you aren't in to getting really dirty, you may want to stay away from fat bikes. I've had my best ever experiences on a fat bike when I got really dirty. That's because I was doing things in the mud, dirt, wet snow, and sand that only a fat bike is good at. If that is a turn off for you, a fat bike's capabilities might be lost on you. Think about that........
All right. Look for my next post on fat bike prices and what to look for coming up on Sunday.


teamdarb said...

This timely. I'm in Maine considering to live here through winter. I just started looking at the internet for suggestions on fat bikes. I've continuously traveled America by bicycle for no reason but to explore in a multitude of bicycles. I even spent the '13-'14 polar vortex winter bicycling Canada, W.NY, Ohio on a 520. Terrible idea. My current rig an 88 Panasonic Mountain Cat 4500 has its fork and stays full with Maxxis holy rollers 2.4. It's obvious I'm going to need something more then a hammock and Leatherman to stay rad here. I'm a "bushwacking, simplistic, oh look a 3' foot drop kinda guy". Previous rad rigs Barracuda A2M (great bike loved to be ridden hard, sucked at carrying gear) , Bridgestone MB3 (bland, but comfortable), 520 modified 26" wheel conversion, Performance M404. I'm looking at Ritchey Commando and Surly Moonlander. Are they too similar or different? Looking for the similar handling durability of the Panasonic.

Guitar Ted said...

@teamdarb: I think my upcoming post this weekend might start to help you sort this out. For now I will say that a Moonlander and a Ritchey Commando are very different rigs with some similar features.

Robert Ellis said...

Thanks for that. That's a great post!

teamdarb said...

Staying tuned in. I had a feeling the two were of different relms.

teamdarb said...

Will you also make a note on bottom bracket heights? which geo would be for overland versus prepared or mild trails?

Guitar Ted said...

@teamdarb: Keep in mind this series is geared towards those who are first time buyers and maybe don't have the level of "bike nerd" knowledge that many other riders do. I will get into some of the particulars,but things like bottom bracket height are minutia that is just lost on the majority of cyclists, so I hesitate to get that far down the rabbit hole.