Fat bikes — mountain bikes with tires more than twice the width of normal mountain bikes — have added another dimension to cycling for experienced and inexperienced riders alike. They’re good on risky terrain like snow and sand, which opens the door for more reliable year-round training.
These bikes allow top riders to push the limits of where bikes can go. Tim Johnson set a record by riding up Mount Washington on a fat bike, and each year Iditarod cyclists challenge Alaska’s harshest climate on fat bikes equipped with frame bags for their gear. Fat bikes have not just benefited the pros, though. They have expanded the cycling season for many riders and riding destinations. Fat bikes allow riders to explore sandy beaches where road or trail bikes are not as good — and for winter recreation, the fat bike has added a fun way to get outside for workouts in conditions that would leave cyclists suffering in their basements on indoor trainers.
With the advent of fat bikes, serious cyclists can train through cold and snowy winters without getting nearly as bored or burnt-out as on indoor riding. Paring a couple of hard interval rides on the trainer with long fat-bike rides and some cross-training is a great formula used by many top pros and age-groupers over the last few seasons.
READ MORE > FINDING THE RIGHT BIKE FOR YOU [INFOGRAPHIC]
Fat bikes have developed over the last five years to become lightweight racing machines at the top end. Like any other bicycle class, there is a range of features, sizes and price points to suit your needs. From basic models around $500 right through the top-of-the-line models with carbon fiber frames and dual suspension pushing toward $10,000. Many stores, ski-resorts and fat-bike events also offer demos or rentals.
FAT BIKE TERRAIN
Fat bikes roll best on firmer snow, so look for areas that allow fat bikes and groom the trails for the best conditions, but also look to explore snowshoe and multi-use trails that will be packed. Because snow changes with sun, depth and moisture, it is inevitable you will have to dismount/mount during most rides and also fight for traction with a smooth, seated pedal stroke, both of which are valuable skills for all cyclists. Generally you will use a lower cadence so you have a great chance to build muscular endurance, as well.
Anyone who has gotten frostbite trying to train in the winter on a road bike or while buzzing along on cross-country skis will appreciate that cold temperatures aren’t usually an issue on fat bikes. Since you are working hard but not moving very quickly and also periodically jumping on and off your bike, you get warm quickly.
Dress for weather that’s 5–10 degrees warmer and wear multiple breathable layers. I wear a base-layer and a breathable jacket. I recommend carrying 2–3 sets of gloves so you can adjust your temperature by removing or switching gloves. Rather than your normal clipless cycling pedals and shoes, try wearing boots and using flat-pedals to allow for warmth and easy mounts/dismounts. Flat pedals are great skill builders for cyclists who start with clipless — another bonus to riding your fat bike all winter.
Even if you don’t have to deal with snowy or cold winters, the fat bike may still hold value for you. My favorite riding destination for winter camps is Ventura, California, and one of the shops in the area, Trek Bicycle Store of Ventura, does a fat-tire ride on Sundays that allows for a great ride on beautiful, sandy beaches without dealing with traffic.
Trail, road and even triathlon (really) have seen an increase in fat-bike participation. I have seen parents riding with their kids, while working a bit harder due to the large tires, and I have watched friends and family come out of the forest with big grins, no crashes and a love for cycling. For new cyclists or riders intimidated by mountain biking, the wide tires offer a huge boost in stability and perhaps an extra challenge. This translates to more fun and a lower barrier to entry.
As the sport gains traction, another great development is fat-bike races that run throughout the winter. These fun, intense gatherings can be a great motivator and social opportunity when you are trying to motivate yourself through harsh winters. There are a growing number of local and large-scale races each year. Even USAC is holding a Fatbike Nationals.