Fat and Free Frontiers: The Fat Tire Mountain Bike Story

August 20, 2021
Fat Bike

The Fat Tire mountain bike is a unique, albeit relatively odd, bike species. You look at it, and you feel some reservations. You have seen it on the road, and you tell yourself how awkward it looks. If you have the traditional mountain bike, what's the point of this bike? You wonder. If you’re able to look past the fat tire bike's appearances, you'll find something that relaxes your inhibitions. And it may even encourage you to go beyond the frontiers of the known.

Made for Adversity

Fat tire bikes are a product of a need to surpass adversity. Half the story came from Alaska, where the snow has made it difficult or even impossible to take your typical mountain bike for a spin on the common routes. The thick snow-laden roads have forced mountain bikers to stay indoors and wait for the snow to melt until it’s safe enough to ride. People would have to test the snow by stomping on it to determine if it's strong enough to support movement. In most cases, however, it's a waiting game, and it doesn’t help that it snows there for almost half of a year.

Alaskans saw this adversity as an opportunity and developed an innovative solution to have fun in the snow. In the late 80s, Alaskans took two 2-inch rims, stuck them together to create a thick wheel with a 4-inch width, and a low to moderate tire pressure then fitted it into a custom bike frame. It worked. Simon Rowaker followed through on this innovation and sized the tires down to 44mm thickness. This became the staple for fun and adventure since the initial concept.

The other half of the story came a few years later when an adventure cyclist, Ray Molina, concocted the same concept in New Mexico. Taking Simon's rim work and putting them together to bring it back to a 4-inch wheel proved to be revolutionary when riding on sand. Before the new millennium, Ray founded Remolino Sandbikes and started producing his own fat tire bike brand.

These bike innovators set out to make something out of adversity they wanted to conquer. The Alaskans, Simon, and Ray have proven they can conquer the encumbering sand and snow with little adventure and mobility for people in the same community. It is one-of-a-kind, paving its niche in the biking world today.

But these aren't the only adversity left to be conquered by the fat tire bike.

The Rise to Novelty

After the fat tire biking trend picked up in Alaska during the early 2000s, knowledge transfer happened—John Evingson and Mark Gronewald becoming the emissaries of this new bike with wider tires innovation built to conquer the adversities of the heavily laden ground. John took the concept to Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) out of his need to get a supply of 4-inch thick rims.

QBP’s subsidiary, Surly, got involved in the knowledge transfer, and one designer named Dave Gary designed the hip Pugsley frame that can put 4-inch thick wheels under it.

All things came together for the novel fat tire bike's rise to fame. Factor in Surly's hip and rebellious demeanor and QBPs capacity for mass production; couple it with a prevailing need to ride bikes on snowy ground in urban areas, and the fat tire bike's popularity is assured.

QBP started mass producing the fat tire bike, and a couple of early adopters instantly got the gist of the thick tires concept, particularly in snowy regions.

Slowly, and then quickly, the fever caught on. Riding bikes on the snow—once an inconceivable activity—has now become enjoyable. With the help of other bike brands such as Remolino Sandbikes, the Pugsley bike captured the interest of the hardcore bike enthusiasts who sought ways and means to perpetuate riding bikes on snow.

The proliferation of fat tire bikes as a means for riding on snow has given them their identity—a snow bike. This identity attracts snow and sand bikers, but those who ride eternal flat ground or mountain trails couldn't see the benefit. And to bring these biking groups onboard, this bike has to be positioned into something with much broader use.

Thus, it was introduced as an all-terrain, touring bike to those who ride smooth roads and rough trails. Considering the snow bikers use the same fat tire bike on the road when the snow clears out, it made sense. They're even professing it's an awesome bike to ride on the road, but others seem to think otherwise.

Breaking The Mold

The huge effort of breaking the snow and sand bike impression for the fat tire bike has its wins. It attracted mountain bike enthusiasts who were curious to try the fat tire bike out for a tour. But every win comes with challenges.

For road cyclists, riding bikes that have thin tires and light frames is the norm. It allows them to ride fast on roads. A fat tire biker riding side-by-side with a road cyclist arouses curiosity—questions like how heavy the bike is, how thick the tires are, and how fast it could go.

The idea that fat tire bikes are meant for open road racing seems like a challenging concept to grasp. Especially those who ride lightweight, thin tires that pierces the wind as they move forward. It became clear that the fat tire bike is destined to conquer a different niche to stay committed to breaking the mold it's been put into.

Professional mountain bikers, on the other hand, have an expert opinion of the fat tire bike. Famed mountain bikers are given a chance to try on a men's fat tire mountain bike for size in freeride mode. The verdict? They understood the idea that a fat tire bike can be an all-terrain, yet it definitely performs at its best when on snow or sand. This opinion is reasonable for professionals considering they have a specialized bike for their respective biking modes. But this opinion gave brands that carry a fat tire mountain bike the clarity they need regarding the fat tire bike’s identity.

Withdrawing South

The fat tire bike's endeavor to break the mold has caused a reluctance from mountain bike enthusiasts to own one. Businesses that anticipated a favorable sales volume of the fat tire bike loaded up on stock, but it was left to sit in the dark, at least until the days of snow. Revenue goals weren't hit, and what businesses thought was an innovative idea that could take off turned into a fad. They started dropping the fat tire bike line as a form of damage control.

The stale demand made sales go south in 2016. It fell 24 percent—the lowest among all the bike categories that year. 2016 was the year it began to withdraw from the limelight it once occupied. The previous fat tire bike owners didn't want to replace it with a new model, and those who don't own one didn't want to take the risk.

Over time, the advent of the full-suspension fat tire mountain bike, also called a plus bike, is addressing the problems of fat tire mountain biking. And it's gaining interest on the mountain bike and enduro crowds. 2016 marks the falling action of the fat tire bike's narrative. Some blamed it on how brands marketed the fat tire bike—experts noting that they should have retained the original identity as a bike that belongs in snow and sand. While some brands heeded that advice, others believed in the bike's potential to be something more.

Beyond the Frontier and Embracing Identities

Somewhere along the way, the fat tire bike eased into its struggle for identity. Brands that kept a product line of fat tire bikes only need to look at its origin to find its true essence.

This bike is a vehicle that's made to conquer adversity. The difficulties of riding on snow and sand are just the start. The brands soon realized that the fat tire bike could go beyond the frontiers of sand and snow. The powerful traction can tackle mud, dirt, marshlands, and other similarly difficult terrains—truly a bike made for adversity.

The fat tire bike soon reemerged from a slump and conquered its identity crisis. It refused to be limited to its true purpose: a bike that's capable of going anywhere and doing anything. It's a bike that materializes the feeling of freedom because it was built to be that way.

Brands that sell fat tire bikes began positioning it as such—an all-terrain rig you can use for freeriding, a bike that accepts that it can't be as fast as a road bike or as agile as a mountain bike. It became the main vehicle for some bikepacking into the wild for an unforgettable adventure.

Today, these bikes have an analog and an electric fat tire mountain bike variation. You'll find fat tire bikes everywhere. They'll be on open roads and open spaces, wheeling around without fear of shame. You can also see it donning backpacks as adventurous riders take it to the backcountry for some camping fun. It's a ride for all terrains, meant for all seasons.

The World of the Fat and Free

The fat tire bike teaches us a lesson: we don't have to be boxed into a label. We're complex because of the adversities we conquered, and these adversities are what eventually shape us into who we are meant to be. That can only come if you allow yourself to go out there and experience the world.

So, take that leap, and go places you are afraid to go. Defy the rules, explore the unknown. Let your freedom take over. To do this endeavor, get yourself a fat tire bike for a change and do with it what you will. It can handle the free-spirited side of you. It will usher you into frontiers you've always wanted to go to. It will welcome you to a world of adventure—fat with fulfillment and lessons to learn—and the beauty of freedom that only comes from roaming on a fat tire bicycle.

Cycle Buddy

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