– “The next big thing”
Alright… This sort of commentary had me disliking Fatbikes a bit before I’d even ridden one. Because I can be a contrarian bike snob sometimes. Cyclocross was supposed to be the next big thing (they were right) but that’d been steeped in heritage a while already, and it made sense since pretty much all other organized racing had all the fun sucked out of it. These fat bikes with their oafish tires, ridiculously wide pedal spacing, seemingly built up with proprietary everything… They seemed irrelevant and gimmicky- and not in the core, cyclocross sort of way- those bikes have limited usefulness, too, but at least you can have a party at a ‘cross race. Fatbikes looked like fine play toys, but not something for real riding.
I first rode a fatbike at Interbike in ’07, when Surly had a demo fleet of their Pugsleys there. They had a long line of people waiting to ride one around in circles on the gravel parking lot. The demo area had a a clowny vibe to it; mostly talk about how unbelievably wide the tires were, or how bouncy the bikes rode- often with shaking heads or giggles. Why should I get into that? I mean, it looks fun enough… but in order of quiver priorities, it’d be somewhere behind a cargo tricycle.
“Wilderness. The word itself is music.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
I spent a big part of the last winter tooling around the Anza Borrego desert while mapping various route options for the Stagecoach 400. We had a lot of extracurricular riding going on, to and from some of the desert’s watering holes by way of remote sand washes. The place is big- 900-and-something-square-miles big; full of all manner of deserty things like flora & fauna, geology, and expended munitions from Patton and everyone else who’s been through there to blow things up.
The crew of guys I’ve ridden with out there- Carter, Chad, Smitty- are a bunch of hard men who’ve been riding the sandy desert since before the days of 2.10″ tires. We’re talking 1.95″ here… many of them have upgraded to 29er bikes, and zero of them have started riding Fatbikes. They ride hard in places most riders avoid anyway. Sandy, soft places. They use tires with stiffer sidewalls and lower air pressure, and ride after rains, or before the off-roaders show up after the holidays and churn up some of the routes. Riding with them convinced me that a little skill and the ability to pick a good line can go a long way.
I came to enjoy riding in these remote (sandy) places so much that I’ve been thinking about it all summer long, when my riding mind is usually dedicated to the mountains. I’ve cracked open the maps to see what’s next out there. Palm oases, new/different routes, geological oddities. And different, cultural oddities. Some of that stuff is *way* out there, even by some of our remote Jeep road standards.
Enter the Fatbike. It’s a natural fit to ride in the sand; and you don’t have to wait until after the next rain, and it can ride on just about any surface. It might unlock the potential for new riding opportunity. We ordered in a Salsa Mukluk 2 to give it a whirl.
That’s a big bike box.
We got our first Fatbike in at Hub Cyclery just after Thanksgiving. It was received with much anticipation. Shop regulars called to ask if the UPS truck had arrived yet, anxious to see the beast. They emailed to schedule a turn to demo it. People in town literally stopped my in the street to talk about it. It’s large and in charge; garners attention everywhere it goes.
Out of the box, I took the advice of some peeps and installed a bigger front rotor. I also changed the handlebar to one of my own making, a titanium Barney bar that’d give me a better fit to the bike. I tuned everything in and took her out.
I gave the bike its first good shake on an overnighter, loaded with gear. Initial impressions… the Surly Nate tires are friggin slow. Distractingly slow. But grippy. I’d forgotten to pack a headlight on our overnighter out in gold mine country, but found the bike to be incredibly forgiving on technical climbs, even in the dark when I couldn’t see the trail I could clean rocky, techy climbs. So that was cool.
Errin Vasquez, an outspoken fatbike lover, came up from LA for the overnighter and had very generously loaned his Mukluk to Mary so we could give them a whirl together. We took the day off on our anniversary to find something fun to ride. Notably, we didn’t make specific plans as to where we’d go.
And it turns out, that’s just the beauty of it. You don’t have to plan as much. We set off in the wind farm amongst giant windmills in the Coachella Valley… Point A a known location, all points thereafter were open.
We ended up having a great ride, up and over a ridge, down to a river.. then across it, and downstream. Under the interstate. Out another wash to another wind farm. Truly bike riding adventure. The fatbikes performed as advertised, over the soft and through the rough. But the real benefit was the liberation of riding *anywhere* on a whim.
Fatbike is the next Freeride
I took the bike out for another Saturday shop ride. Singletrack. Rocky, hellacious, ninja-goat technical singletrack.
We rode some of Idyllwild’s choicest private reserve. Sessioned a place some are calling “Katie’s Broken Hand Rock” and other unnamed, scary spots. Cameras came out, smack was talked, and committing moves were punctuated with a noticeable hush from the group. The lower tire pressure and big contact patch gave me a little more confidence in those tenuous moments between “sticking” a move and cleaning over the other side to safety. It’s almost immediately become my favorite bike to ride the gnarliest sessions with.
So it turns out the fat bike doesn’t have to be ridden to the Back of Beyond to really shine. I believe they have their place on regular, after work rides too. They open up possibilities even on familiar trail.
I’ve had the Mukluk here for two weeks, today. For better or worse, I haven’t ridden any other bike since then. I’m anxious to get it out over some real distance in the desert, but I’m also anxious to feel how fast & light my 29er is. I’m not sure that Fatbikes are *the* next big thing, but I’m sure that I want to be a part of it, whatever it is.