Fun with Fatbikes

“Fatbikes” (generally mountain bikes with 3.7-to-5+ inch wide tires) have taken the bike industry by storm over the last few years. They’ve…

Fun with Fatbikes
Riding on the beach in Pacific City, Oregon

“Fatbikes” (generally mountain bikes with 4-to-5+ inch wide tires) have taken the bike industry by storm over the last few years. They’ve been called the latest fad and already gotten the cynical “fatbikes are so totally over” by many in the industry. And yet, more companies are putting out more fatbike models to the point where this week USA Cycling announced they were adding a fatbike class to the MTB National Championships. As much as everyone seems sick of fatbikes, the fad seems like it is here to stay.

I’ve been fatbike-curious ever since I saw my first Surly Pugsley several years ago. While it snows occasionally in Oregon and we have loads of sand dunes along the coast, it didn’t seem like something I’d use as often as the photos I saw of people in Minnesota riding them all winter long on cross-country ski tracks and frozen lakes. “Fatbikes make a great 9th bike for your garage” a few people joked to me. When I shopped for one around Portland, Oregon there was only a handful of shops that even carried them, and only in limited sizes so I never really got a chance to ride one myself to see what it was like.

A couple weeks ago, I saw a friend on Instagram riding sand dunes on a fatbike. There were lots of photos from a sand dune camping trip with loads of fatbikes and I emailed him many questions afterwards. I got my answers, but even better I got an offer. Since he was headed for foot surgery soon and would be off his bike for a couple months, I could borrow his size XL fatbike. I stopped by to pick it up a few days later, and we took a spin around his block before I could pack it into my car.

The bike fit me perfectly, had a relaxed feel, and with 15lbs of air pressure in the tires (“That’s the most I’ve ever inflated them!”) the ride was nothing like I imagined. The huge four and five inch tires rolled effortlessly down the street. I jumped off a curb, I darted through traffic, I popped a wheelie. However much this bike tipped the scales, it felt like any random 20lb hardtail mountain bike, and it was wickedly manuverable, which surprised me even more. I fell instantly in love with this giant overgrown BMX bike underneath me.

Wheelies around my neighborhood

A few days later, I brought it with me to a cyclocross race, but I didn’t race on it. Instead, I used it as a pit bike, riding around the farm where the race was held. The race course was quite bumpy on our cyclcross bikes, and I had a blast riding over the same trails but feeling none of the bumps after the racing was over. I bunny-hopped the bike over foot-high barriers in the course, and I popped wheelies all around the venue, all day long. I had 8 hours of fun on this beast, and the best part was the bike made people smile uncontrollably. Everyone wanted to know more about it, kids pointed, racers kept asking me how much it weighed. I put the seat down a bit so more friends could ride it. One said “I need to stop riding this before I end up ordering one.” Another said “That’s it, I have to get one now.” Then I realized:

The bike was a machine that output pure joy to everyone that saw it or rode it.

It’s so fun, you can’t stop doing wheelies on it

As much fun as I had, I was still unsure if I would ever buy one until I got to ride the bike in the real conditions it was designed for, namely deep sand or snow. After having the bike around for a few days and having plenty of fun on smooth dirt trails and asphalt, I finally put the bike through its paces with an Oregon beach visit, complete with sand dunes.

I parked my car a couple miles north of Pacific City, Oregon along the beach where off road vehicles are allowed to drive. The plan was to ride down the beach a few miles then over a set of dunes, and down into Pacific City proper for lunch before riding back. I knew I’d get a variety of terrain and I’d get to see how this bike floated over soft, firm, and wet types of sand, and up and down large loose sand dunes.

I’ve ridden typical road, cyclocross, and mountain bikes on the beach before, and I’m used to simply riding a couple feet into the dry sand, burying the front tire, and falling over. I headed right into the beach expecting the same, but of course the bike floated right over it all. I assumed riding in the soft stuff would sap my energy and feel like trying to run a marathon in the sand, but again, I was surprised by how easily a low gear could keep the bike moving at a 5–10mph pace.

when you saw one set of tire tracks, it was then that the fatbike carried you

I instinctively headed to the where I thought the firmest sand would lie, right where the water hit the beach but contrary to every other time I’ve visited a beach, the dark, drenched sand sank deeply beneath my tires and slowed me down. Paradoxically, I found moving back to dry sand made things easier, and I continued down the beach for a couple miles, enjoying the views and getting looks and waves from the few people scattered along the coast.

Approaching the dunes at the end of the ride, I could spot several paths people had taken by foot, and of course there were zero bike tracks. I picked the most mellow looking approaches, and as long as I stayed clear of the heaviest sets of footprints (it was too loose there) the bike climbed like a champ. It was hard work, and I was in one of the lowest gears in the drivetrain, but I was moving faster than I could walk and it wasn’t until I hit the steepest pitches that I had to get off and push.

In the saddle between dunes, looking down on the sea

I let some more air out of the tires and continued to try climbing up the dunes. The bike climbed pretty well up to about 5% grades in the loose sand. Beyond that the back tire couldn’t push enough, but even with a mixture of walking and riding I was soon at the top of what looked like a giant ski bowl with tiny houses and trucks below.

About to drop in!

My first serious descent was pretty sketchy, as my approach was at an angle to minimize the speed and the front wheel bulldozed the soft sand. I quickly got the hang of it, but it wasn’t until I hit the lower slopes that pointed it straight down and really got cooking.

I made it to the flat beach, rode by a few dozen perplexed people, and rode up to my favorite burger/taco beach shack to get some lunch. Everyone that walked by asked about the bike and the huge tires and a local business owner was convinced he’d buy a couple fatbikes to offer up as rentals next summer.

After lunch the sun came out, I blasted onto the beach with more confidence and speed, and ended up riding up and down the dunes for a good while. When it was time to head home, my couple hours of experience made getting up and over the dunes a lot easier and the descent on the other side was more enjoyable since it wasn’t nearly as steep.

I pedaled the last few miles down the beach, took a few photos along the way, and by the time I got back to my car my face hurt from smiling all day. I was convinced: I am definitely ordering one of these fantastic, joy-emitting, go-anywhere, do-anything machines.

This bike is literally fun for days on end, wheelies or not

This piece was featured in Issue 17 of BikeHugger Magazine. Subscribe today!

If you’re in Portland, Oregon, 21st Ave Bikes is ground zero for fatbikes in the area and offers the widest selection and sizes.