M Tools for Human Powered Oversnow Travel - State of the Market Report

by David Chenault

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Article Summary:

Fat bikes are mountain bikes with tire and rim combinations that approach or exceed four inches (10 cm) in width-on-the-ground. This girth allows the tires to be run at low air pressures (under 5 psi is typical) and thus achieve float undreamt of by conventional mountain bikes. Sand and snow riders have seen the need for big tires for decades, and while a few expeditious individuals have experimented in this vein, fat bikes became commercially established in the middle of the last decade when Surly introduced their Pugsley frame and Endomorph tire. The explosion of the genre since has been a testament to the heretofore unmet niche in the market. As of this writing there are ten or more distinct commercially available fatbike frames, and Surly continues to push the envelope with ever wider and more aggressively treaded tires. Fatbiking is just entering what will, two decades hence, be regarded as its golden age.

For all their wonders, fat bikes are acutely limited in what they can do on and over snow. Even the fattest currently available tire and rim combinations require a relatively firm surface, and are thus limited in the context of long-distance travel to established and well traveled routes, most commonly snowmachine trails. A helpful rule of thumb seems to be that if a bare shoe will sink in more than a few inches, the surface in question is unsuitable for fat biking. Thus, it is only under the most extraordinary of circumstances, such as hard melt-freeze crusts, that fat bikes are capable of wide ranging and unrestricted oversnow travel. On well-packed trails, fat bikes are without question the most efficient option, as their consistent domination of events such as the Alaska Ultrasport (the human-powered Iditarod) shows. In years to come expect a greater variety of ever wider tires and rims to expand the utility of fat bikes, and do so with less weight. They will be even better able to ride over and through soft snow. However, I suspect that the best wilderness use of fat bikes will always be on terrain which is both snow and trail free. Fat bikes are a fantastic addition to, but rarely a substitute for, skis and snowshoes.

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