With the burgeoning popularity of fat tire bikes in Minnesota, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that the “fatty” was looked upon by many bicyclists as more an object of curiosity than a desirable mode of two-wheeled recreation and transportation. Today, fat bikes bring in $50 million and more in sales, up from $6 million in 2013.
But the ubiquity of these off-road bikes with oversized tires disguises the fact that some people, even today, have still not yet gone beyond the curiosity stage. Some holdouts may be leery of biking in the winter, or are hesitant to make a substantial investment in a bike they think has limited capabilities. Others may simply believe that a fat bike just looks hard to ride.
Regardless of the reason, if you’re one of those who have been reluctant to take the plunge, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve asked Twin Cities area fat bikers, bike shop operators and trail stewards to help separate fat bike fact from fiction and make potential riders feel a little more comfortable about further exploring fat bike riding.
What is a fat bike?
For all practical purposes, fat bikes are mountain bikes with wider tires. Fat tires are typically about 4 to 5 inches wide, roughly twice that of traditional mountain bikes. This size, with the lower air pressure they require, makes fat bikes easier to ride in snow and sand and on other surfaces that can cause narrower tires to hang up.
Fat bikes weren’t invented in Minnesota, but Bloomington-based Surly Bikes is generally credited with jump-starting the industry with the introduction of its Pugsley model in 2005. Today, most bike makers offer their own line of fat bikes.
Some cyclists adapt their traditional mountain bikes for winter riding by changing to studded tires or tires with snow-appropriate tread. But riders who are not averse to adding a new bike to the stable are increasingly turning to fat bikes as their preferred choice for riding in the snow.
Moreover, “many of those people are deciding that their fat bike isn’t just a winter toy but a better mountain bike,” said Nick Milton, manager at Tonka Cycle & Ski in Hopkins. “They’re ending up using their fat bike year-round.”
But since it’s December in Minnesota, we’re going to concern ourselves with winter riding.
How to try and buy
“Great bikes are not necessarily expensive,” said Chelsea Strate, who rides and races fat bikes and is an owner of the Hub Bike Co-op in Minneapolis. Like other bicycle types, though, quality can come at a cost.
“You can get the job done for $700,” Strate said. “But if you’re looking for better components and lighter weight, which makes for a faster, easier ride, the price goes up from there.”
Milton said, “I compare a fat bike for around $1,000 to a pickup truck or a sport utility vehicle. A bike that goes for $1,500 and up is more like a high-performance sports car. It’s exciting to see the look on people’s face when they ride them.”
Dealers do realize that potential buyers might be hesitant to open their wallets to invest in an activity they may not end up liking. So besides dispensing education, advice and demo rides, many dealers offer fat bike rentals for those who want an extended tryout. Some renters join group rides that help newcomers get a feel for the sport.
In addition, several places that operate fat ride trails in the Twin Cities area, including Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley, offer rental bikes to use on their trails. Also, Three Rivers Park District runs several fat bike classes each winter at Cleary Lake Regional Park in Prior Lake; the classes include a beginner level tour, with equipment provided.
What it feels like
April Morgan, a longtime triathlete who lives in Hopkins, took up fat biking as an alternative to using a bike trainer indoors during the winter months.
“Now, when we have our first snowfall, I’m itching to be outside,” she said. “Fat biking gives me the same joy I had as a kid playing in the snow. It’s like being on a Big Wheel.”
“People are kind of cautious and tentative the first time riding a fat bike on a snowy trail,” Milton said. “But 100 feet into it, they look back and say, ‘Hey, this is easy.’ They’re flabbergasted that this large fat tire bike is actually easier to ride than the one they have at home.”
Fat bikes are more stable than many people expect, and they aren’t particularly difficult to pedal, Morgan said. “But it is a different kind of riding. You have to get comfortable with understanding how the bike is going to react. You can’t turn quite as sharply; you need to slow down and go a little wider in the turns, and you don’t pedal as fast.”
Riders do need to pay attention to conditions. Heavy, wet snow can end up as ice when temperatures drop, while drier snow that falls at lower temperatures usually offers better grip. “Icy pavement or trail is not a good place for someone just trying to learn,” Morgan said.
What you need
These days, almost every outdoors retailer pushes sport-specific clothing and gear. But anyone in Minnesota who gets outside in the winter shouldn’t need to make any major apparel purchases to take up fat biking.
“Most of what you need — base layers, insulation and shell — is probably already in your closet,” said Martha Flynn, a dedicated winter rider who runs Crank Sisters, an organization that helps girls get involved in off-road riding through the Minnesota High School Cycling League. “You don’t want to lose the opportunity to be riding in the winter by thinking you need a long list of things.”
Good gloves and insulated footwear are obviously important, but Flynn said it’s actually preferable to start off a little cold — you’ll quickly warm up. “Most people put too much clothing on,” she said, “then they sweat and get wet, and that’s no fun.”
Keeping your face warm is the biggest issue, Morgan said, which makes a balaclava or neck gaiter a critical item of clothing. Some riders add a pair of ski goggles to the arsenal, but others find large sunglasses can work just as well to keep a cold wind out of the eyes.
Morgan said many winter riders opt not to buy expensive insulated bike shoes that are designed for clipless pedals, but instead use platform pedals and then simply wear regular winter boots.
Where to ride for recreation
The Twin Cities area has many easy, flat trails that are good choices for new riders, said Chris Chavie, who blogs at MN Bike Trail Navigator (mnbiketrailnavigator.blogspot.com).
“If you haven’t worked out the muscles you need for rigorous climbing, look for those places that don’t have much elevation change,” he said. “You don’t want to encounter a bunch of hills early in your ride and end up winded.”
Chavie’s blog, along with the website run by Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, are excellent sources for information about skill-appropriate trails. Matt Andrews, the group’s executive director, recommended several groomed single track trails for beginners: Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove; Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan; Carver Lake Park in Woodbury, and Lake Rebecca Park Reserve in Rockford.
The group, which maintains 85 miles of trails at 11 locations, also maintains up-to-date trail conditions on its website (morcmtb.org).
Commuting on a fat bike
Riding a fat bike is not just fun and games. Riders such as Flynn and Strate use theirs so that they can commute to their jobs year-round.
Both said, however, that the harsh weather and short days mean that they may not commute on their bikes as much in the winter as they do in summer.
“Some people think they can’t call themselves a commuter unless they’re doing it five days a week,” Flynn said. “But that’s not true. Commuting even occasionally in the winter is better than not at all. In fact, you keep it more interesting by only commuting one or two days a week.”
Strate said she tries to commute at least twice a week. “It forces me to get a little bit of fresh air and sunshine, and that increases my quality of life a bit in the colder weather,” she said.
When commuting, don’t think you have to resign yourself to being miserable, Flynn said. She knows the location of coffee shops or other places she can stop if she gets cold.
“If the ride takes a long time because I stopped for hot chocolate, that’s fine,” she said. “I’m experiencing the outdoors and embracing winter, and that’s good.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at email@example.com.