the ümabomber


Fat Bikes or Fad Bikes?

Dear Umabomber:

I fancy myself an avid cyclist. I enjoy both road and mountain biking. I’ve got 4 bikes right now—a hardtail mountain bike, a full suspension bike, a 10 year old road racing bike that I now use for recreational and fitness rides, and a cross bike I use mostly for commuting. I’ve been thinking about getting a bike to do more comfortable off-road-but-not-quite-single track bike trekking adventures. I’ve been looking into gravel bikes for this purpose, but lately I see more people getting fat bikes and using them in the same way. Which—if either—is better? Should I just modify my cross bike to be able to tour on it? Aren’t gravel grinders just another industry niche product manufacturers are using to sell more specialty bikes? Are fat bikes really just fad bikes?
—Don’t Wanna Fad Away


Dear Don’t:

In a way you’re asking the wrong person, but in a way you’re asking the right person. I’m the wrong person to answer this due to the fact that I have neither fat nor fad bike. I have limited exposure to both gravel and fat bikes, so it’s hard to share from direct experience. I’m the right person to answer your questions because I am weighing those options as well.

Innovation for the sake of innovation is called “marketing” and really doesn’t offer great gains to consumers. But if there are real gains to be had through innovation, I’m all for it. Those gains should be both quantifiable and qualifiable.

Personally, I’m all about the right tool for the job. That being said, I’m also known as something of a pro-level MacGuyverer. Innovation starts when the current resources fail. And I’m a long time proponent of N+1 being the correct number of bikes. But whether something is a fad or not, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass.

The differences between a “gravel bike” and a strait up cross bike arenÆt huge—bigger tire clearance, better stability, slightly more relaxed geometry and a more relaxed riding position—and sometimes it’s not even that. Can you do light touring on a cross bike? Absolutely! You’ll probably need to swap out parts to make it more comfortable for longer distances, but many people do it successfully.

Fat bikes on the other hand, are completely unlike anything else you’ll ride. They are heavier and much slower handling than their skinny counterparts. The extra wide balloon-like tires are perfect for rolling over shifty surfaces like sand or snow, but on firm ground that cushiness becomes horribly inefficient.

For gravel or dirt road touring, my advice is to go with a cross or touring bike with fat, smooth tires. Even a 29er mountain bike with slicks would work fine.

But don’t just take my word for it. I asked the boys at Limberlost—a Portland-based adventure touring outfit—about their preferences to get a second opinion. Here’s what co-owner Gabriel had to say:

Fat bikes are gobs of fun on sand dunes or snowmobile trails but you don’t need that much cushion for exploring dirt roads. Using them for most bikepacking trips is going to be overkill. While it might be FUN overkill, it won’t be efficient and efficiency is definitely a factor in bikepacking. I used my Surly Krampus on the Oregon Outback because it’s what I had. And I put the lightest, narrowest, smoothest tires I could find on it: Schwalbe’s 2.5″ Super Motos.

Coming back to the right-tool-for-the-job ethos, a fat bike is the right bike if you’re touring the Sahara or Gobi deserts or riding around Nome, Alaska in January. Otherwise, go gravel grinder (if you must).

Is it a fad? If it is, it’s one of the most well-adopted, quasi-mainstream fads in the history of the bike industry. According to a recent article in Alaska Dispatch News, the fat bike-to-skier ratio around Anchorage is 10 to 1. And new crops of Fat Bike races continue to pop up all over the country every winter.

A year in Alaska has been on my bucket list of life experiences for many years now. Until I head north for that adventure, I’ve decided I’ll probably get a gravel bike for off-road touring or throw gears and skinny tires on my singlespeed 29er. But you can bet your ass the moment I have a chance to ride and race in snow… I’m getting a fat bike. Fad or not.



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