The 4″ sceptic

Fat bikes are brilliant. They’re fantastic at covering the frozen, snow covered wilderness of America, Canada and northern Europe. They’re superb in the arid, sandy deserts of the world from the Sahara to the Australian outback. They’re great when things get soft and boggy, often allowing you to keep riding when you might otherwise have to push … but is a fat bike really a viable proposition for all year, UK riding?

I’m going to try and find out!

There’s certainly lots of fat bikes out there and I ride fairly regularly in their company. Some people tell me it’s all about ‘fun’ and that riding a fat bike makes them smile but I have to say, this testimony is often uttered breathlessly and with an expression akin to that of a freshly caught fish on a canal side. Others tell me about the new trails that riding a fat bike opens up but I’m not sure I want search out crap places to ride so I can justify my latest two wheeled purchase. No, I’m sure there must be something else, a quality that perhaps can’t easily be expressed or some properties that defy logic and rational thought … well, I certainly hope so, otherwise I’ve wasted quite a sum of money in an attempt to answer the original question.

01

 

As fat bikes have become ever more popular, the inevitable sub-divisions have been created. It’s nothing drastic, it’s not chalk and cheese, it’s just that some have been designed with snow in mind, others with an eye towards racing and some are more trail orientated. Seeing as we’ve had the grand total of 4cm of snow over the previous two years and a fat bike race holds the same appeal as putting a hot soldering iron up my nose, my attention was obviously drawn to what might be described as an ‘all rounder’. We all know how difficult choosing a new bike can be, even when the choices are somewhat limited, we still go through those days or weeks of uncertainty and indecision. However, in this case the decision was almost made for me. A happy coincidence involving some ‘interesting’ pricing policies at On-One and me being tight, saw a big brown box arrive at Bear Bones Towers containing a Fatty frame, carbon fork and headset. As the days grew longer, more boxes continued to appear, their arrival usually coinciding with some internet perusing the previous day. Eventually, the box mountain plus spares cupboard contained everything required to piece together my potential slice of cycling nirvana or the biggest lemon I’ve ever had the displeasure of riding.

Before anyone says, “if you don’t like them, why have you bought one?” I’d just like to clarify something, I do like fat bikes and I’m fully aware of their capabilities and in some situations they’re the perfect and occasionally, the only tool for the job at hand. This isn’t about trying to discover whether fat bikes are good or not, we already know they’re good … this is about trying to find out how practical a fat bike is for the average rider, on average trails, over the course of an average year in the UK.

All that was required to get the ball rolling was a spare afternoon to piece together the assembled parts and our voyage of discovery could begin…..

The build:

Although I had a substantial quantity of parts, there were a couple of important ones still missing – tyres. Tyres are probably the most obvious part of any fat bike and they have the ability to alter the bikes character considerably. It goes without saying that any 4″ tyre won’t be particularly light but some fat bike tyres are spectacularly heavy and I wanted to avoid those if at all possible. A phone call to the good folk at Keep Pedalling confirmed my earlier findings that Jumbo Jim’s would likely be the ideal candidate if weight was a concern. Sadly, I was also told that the chances of getting any before Julember 32nd were quite slim … I added my name to what I expect is a long waiting list and went in search of a stop gap.

I’ve been quite impressed with the Maxxis Chronice that resides on the front of my Stooge, I was also impressed with the amount of traction displayed by Ian Barringtons Maxxis Mammoth equipped Puffin while on the Winter Bivvy last December, so that’s what I’ve ended up with. Hopefully they’ll prove to be a good compromise between grip and weight and the ‘not too aggressive’ directional tread should help limit rolling resistance … well, that’s the theory.

02

 

Tubeless Trauma … Previous trips down the tubeless path have always proved a little hit and miss for me but I knew removing the tubes in this case would prove to be a positive step. Armed with Gorilla tape, laminate floor underlay and a couple of valves, I set to work. For no particular reason I did the rear wheel first and a result was fairly easily won, the front however decided not to cooperate and seemingly refused to seal, I suspected a leak between the rim and tyre, so re-taped the rim but to no avail. The actual culprit turned out to be the rim joint and no amount of tape, sealant or swearing would seal it, so for the moment it contains a tube. There’s a noticeable difference between how the two tyres sit, the rear has a much nicer profile … so once I can summon up the enthusiasm to go back in with some 2 pack resin, the front will receive the tubeless treatment, whether it likes it or not.

03

 

Uhm gears … There’s lots of options when it comes to gearing a mountain bike, from 1 to 30, just about anything’s possible. Although I’ve built, owned, ridden and enjoyed bikes with every type of gearing, the choice in this case came down to 1 x 10 or 2 x something. Both have positive attributes and it goes without saying, they both have negative ones too. Usually, I’d make a decision about something like this in the time it takes me to drink a cup of tea but not this time. I knew that if I made the wrong choice, it might taint my opinion of the bike. I also knew that this was meant to be a bike to ‘broarden my horizons’ and allow me to ride all those previously unrideable bits and it was that thought that finally swung my decision. Experience tells me that if I can’t ride something with 22 x 34 at my disposal, then I’ll probably be better served by walking, so the bike is adorned with an almost retro 9 speed set-up with 22/32 up front and a complimentary 11/34 bringing up the rear.

It’s fair to say that the build is a fairly basic one, there’s nothing exotic or expensive in there. Whatever is there found a home either because it was cheap or because I already had it languishing in the workshop, so I was a little surprised to discover that the finished article tips the scales at 30.5lb up and dressed. Okay, so that’s not exactly light for a mountain bike but when you consider the tyres alone weigh over 5.5lb I think it’s quite reasonable and obviously means there’s scope to reduce it further without things getting too out of hand.

04

 

What next?

There was only really one answer to that question – ride it, then ride it some more. Take it to the trails I know well and see how it compared to bikes I know well. Discover whether it really can float across those tracks that have others hub deep in gloop and lets not forget what I’m told is the most important trait of a fat bike … its ability to make you smile.

If you were ever unfortunate enough to watch the X Files, you’ll know that they were fond of telling us that “The truth is out there” but sadly, they never actually bothered to clarify quite where it was. With no clues forthcoming, I decided to take my personal search for the ‘truth’ to the Berwyn Mountains.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Berwyns, imagine a huge green island rising from an even brighter green sea. Its flanks and spine are criss-crossed with the scars of a rich history in both trade and agriculture. There’s no sharp edges here, nothing pointy or jagged, time has sanded the rough edges away from the mountains leaving curvaceous valleys that rise and fall in a seemingly never ending wave. The only inhabitants are woolly or feathered and for much of the year you can enjoy it all in a blissful solitude that’s increasingly difficult to find … they’re also the location of numerous UFO sightings, so they seemed quite appropriate.

05

An initial bounce or two round the yard had done little to convince me one way or the other as to whether a fat bike is suited to the role of ‘all rounder’. It rolled okay on the relatively smooth, flat gravel, the expected tendency to self-steer at low speeds was present but easily ignored and thankfully all the mechanical bits worked as intended … I didn’t really have any excuse not to go and ride it properly.

The first climb was as first climbs often are – steep and seemingly never ending. The initial 300 metres were fine but as the gradient increased, the track became rougher until I begrudgingly admitted defeat, got off and started on a 3km push. A bikes willingness to be shoved and manhandled up an unhelpful hill isn’t generally something that receives an out of ten score in bike magazines but this isn’t MBR, it’s Bear Bones and pushing goes with the territory. To the uninitiated, this may seem like a strange thing but some bikes do lend themselves to pushing better than others and after 3km, I can say that this is a good one. Whether it’s the low centre of gravity, the 4″ tyres or something else, I don’t know but it does push very easily.

06

Everyone had told me that the 4″ tyres would come in to their own once the ground became squashy, so luckily a misguided turn gave me the opportunity to sample the floating delights of fat tyres and seeing as I had to retrace my steps after a few 100 metres, I got to do it twice. The particular section of track in question, would usually have stopped those ‘brave’ enough to attempt to cycle across it dead in their soggy tracks but not this time. As the ground got wetter, I kept expecting forward progress to stop but it didn’t, we just kept on plodding through until we reached dry land – result.

Our next section of note occurred a few miles further on and at first appeared to be no more than a slightly rough bridleway with enough gradient to make pedalling unnecessary but how quickly things can alter. The gradient changed from not pedalling to gentle braking and small stones morphed into big stones before eventually becoming really, really big stones with added rock steps for good measure. As the ground got more interesting, so the angle of descent continued to steepen, I expected things to quieten down as I entered a wood on the lower slopes but no, the only change was the addition of a series of switchback corners and the occasional bonus root snaking through the stone. Anyone who’s ever ridden a rigid bike down something similar can testify that (a) you take a bit of a battering and (b) to minimise the battering, line choice becomes an important consideration … it’s not a situation where you want to sacrifice your ability to be accurate, for an increase in speed. Now, while I didn’t exactly float down the trail (at the end of the day, it’s still a rigid bike), I was able to take a few more liberties without thinking it was going to result in imminent head – floor interface. Sounds ideal? Well, nearly – you still need to be aware that although the cavernous volume of the tyres does take the sting out of most things they come into contact with, you still need to consider the amount of undamped rebound a tyre this size produces and act accordingly. It’s not enough to cause any undue concern but it will make its presence felt, meaning that you can’t throw caution to the wind completely as is sometimes mentioned.

The final leg of the day was probably the least surprising but maybe the most disappointing … we hit a tarmac climb. It’s obvious that a bike with 70mm wide rims and 4″ tyres running at 12psi is always going to require a little coaxing when it comes to climbing and it did. What I wasn’t really prepared for was the odd effect these components would have on gearing. Usually, you change to a lower gear as things become steeper, this then enables you to keep pedalling at a similar rate with no extra effort. If things get even steeper, select another gear, carry on and repeat the procedure until you stand triumphantly at the top … not this time. Instead, it appeared (and felt) that every time you selected a lower gear, any mechanical advantage gained was instantly ‘swallowed up’ by the tyres … another click, same thing and another and another. The end result was pedalling up hill in the lowest gear available but feeling like you were 8 gears higher – very disconcerting. I’m usually a middle-ring kind of chap, if I have a granny fitted I tend to view it as emergency use and only to be used on special occasions. Luckily, when I pieced the bike together I decided to fit a 22t to the front and envisaged using it on those long steep grassy climbs that suck the life from your legs … I didn’t think I’d be using it on tarmac, with a gradient that OS don’t allocate the odd chevron to. Hopefully, I’ll get used to it in the same way you adjust when you start riding a single speed but we’ll see.

Someone did say that they thought I was doing my best to dislike it but I don’t think that’s true. I was sceptical about whether a fat bike makes a practical ‘all rounder’ and I still am. An initial ride has proved it’ll go anywhere other bikes will go and in certain situations it’ll go places other bikes won’t. Some sections of a ride are compromised, others enhanced but without more rides together it’s to early to say whether there’s enough middle ground to consider it an ‘all rounder’ … but the truth is out there.

Conclusion:

You may recall that I started this quest to discover whether a fat bike really does make a good ‘all rounder’. Many of those riders already trundling round the countryside atop a fat bike appeared to think so but my initial ride left me doubtful. Undeterred, I continued with my experiment until the 4 inch tyres eventually sucked the will to live from my aching, tired body … suffice to say, I still don’t get it.

I didn’t start off on this journey negatively biased, that would have been stupid and a hell of a gamble to take with the thick end of a grand. On the contrary, I embarked on this voyage of discovery with high hopes and an open mind. I had no axe to grind, if anything, my views were possibly leaning in the opposite direction. I was looking forward to experiencing the much talked about fat bike ‘smile factor’. I anticipated a different way of riding, just like when you change from gears to single-speed, I knew things might slow down a bit but I looked forward to the opportunity to sample all the great things that come from being fat.

We visited interesting places.

We visited interesting places.

However, I like to think that I hadn’t raised my hopes beyond reasonable levels of expectation, after all, it’s still only a bicycle when all is said and done. I did try and temper the Internets enthusiasm for fat and sprinkle a pinch of salt over many of the comments that seemed to imply that going fat would revolutionise my riding in a similar manner to what penicillin did for venereal disease. Nowhere could I find a lone swimmer going against the tide of approval, no dissenting voice audible amongst the thousands of believers proclaiming the second coming … which means I’ve spent the last few months desperately trying to love or at least enjoy it, yet the best I can do is endure it. I began to look for reasons to ride it but usually found excuses not to, so when someone asked if they could borrow it, I happily agreed, hoping that they’d deliver a fresh perspective. They came at it with the same open minded enthusiasm I had and two days of loaded riding later, delivered their verdict.

It’s a bike which is great for specific conditions, but outside of those it’s too much of a compromise.
If you’re going to Alaska great, Aberystwyth maybe not too much. If you’re out for a few hours and are riding somewhere specific, it’s fine but not on a bikepacking route where you’ll generally encounter a wide range of ground conditions. Bikepacking is generally about getting from A to B as efficiently as possible …. would I buy one? Maybe. Use it for bikepacking? No.

It would seem that Chew’s thoughts were similar to mine. If I took the time to plan ‘fat bike routes’ then perhaps I’d feel differently but my riding generally takes me from A to E and back via all points in between. Whatever’s there gets ridden over, pushed across or carried up. I’d always assumed that like most people, my trips contain varied terrain and just like most people, the areas where a fat bike shines make up only a small percentage of the total mileage but perhaps I misjudged things? Maybe my definitions of ‘all rounder’ and ‘varied terrain’ are different from other peoples? I don’t know, I’m confused. There are riders who’s ideas are not dissimilar to mine, they ride fat bikes up, down and all day, then do it again the next. I have nothing but admiration for them and envy of the gene that allows them to do it and maintain a sense of humour throughout the process. It could be that some people just enjoy unnecessary hard work? For some, a fat bike might be a socially acceptable outlet for a deep rooted masochistic streak? A case of mass hysteria perhaps or maybe they secretly enjoy the attention their bike commands from pointing kids and bemused dog walkers? I’ve asked, I’ve quizzed countless others in the hope of discovering the secret but to no avail. “I like it” or “it makes me smile” are the usual vague answers received after probing but seemingly no one can pin-point the actual reasons behind the statements.

At the moment my fatty is sitting in the workshop, there’s no love between us, in fact we don’t speak when I go in there. I’m almost wishing I’d remained snuggled up under the duvet of fat bike ignorance where I’d have remained warm and content, whereas climbing out from under it, has left me little more than cold, however I feel I must persevere. On a shelf above it are a pair of wheels, they sport 135mm and 170mm hubs but the hubs are laced to 29″ rims. Next to the wheels, is a pair of 2.3″ tyres awaiting fitment … I think this drastic step might be the only way I’ll ever get to ride a fat bike that truly is a good ‘all rounder’. I realise that a change of wheels is missing the point but it’s not really a surprise given that I still don’t know what the point is.

*If you’ve been affected or offended by anything in this post, our helplines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – don’t suffer alone.

Author: Stuart Wright

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