Should I get a fatbike?
October 8, 2012 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Should I get a fatbike?

I'm a year-round bike commuter in Madison, WI, with additional recreational rides here and there on evenings and weekends. I own two road bikes, a tandem, a monstercross bike I use as my commuter, and usually have some weird project bike going for whatever reason. So I'm sort of into bikes.

Since I suffer from depression, getting my exercise is really important, and especially in winter. My riding tapers off a little during winter: the rec rides get cut out 100%, and the commuting slows because of either conditions or inertia. Some folks have suggested that I get a fatbike for both. I've test ridden a Surly Moonlander for ten minutes, and while it was a ton of fun, I'm not sure if those ten minutes would endure long enough to justify the price tag.

Here are my concerns:

1. A bike mechanic friend of mine said the high Q-factor of a fatbike would wreck my knees in no time. I didn't think it would be a problem since too low a Q-factor can irritate my hips, so I normally ride with some spread. This same friend didn't believe that a low Q-factor would cause hip problems.

2. Will tires still be available in these sizes in, say, 20 years?

3. My commute is 11 miles one way, though with a fatbike I could take shortcuts I'd never dream of taking today. Still: is this too long a distance to be riding on a fatbike?

4. Most of my ride is over pavement, and most of that is bike path. In winter, the paths can get pretty hairy. My thinking is that hitting the snow when the ruts and ice are treacherous would keep me from walking my bike too much. Is this magical thinking?

5. I understand the key to a fatbike is appropriate tire pressure for the riding surface. Would the variable conditions of winter riding dictate that I constantly dismount to adjust my tires? If so, I'd just keep riding the monstercross with studs (ugh, how I hate studded tires).

Any insight or opinions would be very helpful!
posted by rocketman to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
These seem to be a novelty, but it will be interesting to see if they gain in popularity. Cross bikes were unusual 10 years ago and now they are an established genre. Since you have a cross bike I think it would try to make that work. Unless you enjoy the unpaved riding areas, cruising more quickly over longer paved distances can often be quicker than unpaved shortcuts.
posted by dgran at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2012

I only have personal experience with one fatbike: the Surly Neck Romancer my shop built for a customer (full Shimano Saint, Chris King ISO hubs (rear hubs for both front and back, so it sounds like 2000 angry bees when he's rollling), Chris King everything else. It was a ridiculous build, and I think he ended up dropping close to $4000 when it was done. Freaking awesome.

Your concerns:

1) I wouldn't worry about the Q-factor at all. You'll adapt.
2) Yeah, I think so. There are a lot of fatbikes out there now.
3) How do you feel on the commute now? You're definitely going to roll slower, but dude, you're going to roll through everything. The loss of speed is worth it. If you can do 11 miles fast now, you can do 11 miles slowly in the winter.
4) Not magical thinking. That's what fatbikes are for.
5) Probably not, but you'll experiment to find out what works for you. Low pressure, high volume means you can use a compressor or floor pump.

Do it. You have the chance to ride year round.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2012
Surly Moonlander
Surly Pugsley

Fatbikes being the category of bikes with a modified drivetrain to allow for clearance of 3.0" and wider tires. The theory being that wider tires run at low pressures allow a rider to float over snow, sand, very small rocks and smaller mammals.
posted by rocketman at 12:36 PM on October 8, 2012

Googling "fatbike" tells you exactly what a fatbike is.

My sibling rides one. He tells me it changed his winter riding life. Take that for what you will. His commute is not nearly that long, though.
posted by Sternmeyer at 12:37 PM on October 8, 2012

How do you feel on the commute now?

I feel fine. I can blast through it in 28 minutes on a road bike if I have a tailwind and make all the lights. In winter, if the ruts are bad on sections of the trail, it can take me as long as an hour if I have to walk my bike over them. Right now, conditioning is not a problem for me.

I should have included this in my question: I can take the bus to work, but on mornings when we get heavy snow, or in the cold days following a snow where the roads turn to hard-packed shitfests, the bus is a 2.5 hour ordeal at best, and a no-show at worst. Every time I've copped out for the bus in winter, I've regretted it.
posted by rocketman at 12:42 PM on October 8, 2012

Studded Schwalbe tires will do you well for the commute on your monstercross..

I'm somewhat suspicious of the Fatbike claims about riding on snow - it just doesn't have the surface area of even a single cross-country ski - but not suspicious at all of the claim they're a hoot to ride and lots of fun to build. Find a set of kid's skis on craigslist and build a bike trailer, too!
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:45 PM on October 8, 2012

I've ridden a Pugsley and that thing is slow as hell but Oh My God I want one so bad for the winter. If I had the disposable income, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

The cheers and stares and shouts from the neighborhood children when they saw me on that thing was enough to put a smile on my face for days.
posted by misskaz at 1:15 PM on October 8, 2012

A thought since you don't explicitly mention that you want/need to plow through really deep snow for your winter commute/exercise; why not build a near-fatbike appropriate for longer commutes but capable of handling some snow and mud? Have you considered something like a Karate Monkey or Ogre (if a Surly) that can handle reasonably large tires but will also work well for other kinds of riding?

My daily commuter and exercise bike is a Surly Karate Monkey with Schwalbe Big Apple (2.35" wide) tires. It looks a lot like this bike, with some different components. I built this rig as a versatile, all weather commuter and exercise bike. During the summer, I keep the tires at high pressure and can keep up with my riding buddies on their Bianchi road bikes for 20-50 mile rides. The Big Apples actually have a pretty slim contact patch when fully inflated and roll wonderfully once you get up to speed. During Oregon's long, very wet rainy season, I drop the pressure and have a slower bike that offers great traction and mud slogging capabilities, although the Big Apples do spin if you try to hammer it in the mud. I don't get to ride it in the snow very often, but during our freak 6"-12" snow storm this winter I was able to do my normal on-road commuting with just a little more care than usual.

If I were doing a lot of snow commuting and traction became a real issue, I would throw studded tires on my rig. Fat bikes are awesome, but your use case sounds a lot like the reasons behind my Karate Monkey build, albeit with more snow.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:39 PM on October 8, 2012

"If I were doing a lot of snow commuting..., I would throw studded tires on my rig..."

Which is basically a monstercross bike. I somehow glossed over that you already own one of those. Nevermind.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:57 PM on October 8, 2012

Do you have studded tires? I ride 12 miles across Madison in the winter using studded schwalbe marathon winters. It takes a little bit longer, (60 vs 40 min) but control over ice and ruts is never an issue.

A fat bike would definitely help on big snow days, but I don't think they are worth it all the time in the winter(unless the shortcuts are huge). Also, don't think you can ride across the lake. Not ever even close to being faster according to a coworker who tried it(north Madison to Middleton) with his pugsley a number of times. Too many ridges and stuff.
posted by rockindata at 2:04 PM on October 8, 2012

Do you have studded tires?

I do. I've got a Nokian W106 I throw on when the black ice appears. In my experience, a studded tire (I only ride one in front) only helps with black ice, and on balance is a net-negative for winter riding. It slows you to a crawl on pavement, and I would argue it's worse on fresh powder up to 2" than riding a road bike with high-pressure slicks.

The shortcuts I was thinking of were going down the railroad trestles and through parks. Since I'm going from north Madison to Fitchburg, there's a fair amount of railroad and green space (Demetral Field, Kyle and Jenni Preserve, Alliant Energy Center, Novation Technology Campus) that could get me closer to a straight line route to work. These would help me dodge Rimrock Road, which is stupid in winter and is also stupid. It would also help me cut up and off the Capital City Trail, and shave maybe three quarters of a mile by cutting through the forest (there are some killer paths I've explored on my monstercross).

I've considered putting Big Apples on my monstercross (I've easily got clearance), but I'm only running an 8-speed Alfine hub, and it's definitely geared for mostly pavement. A Moonlander would give me a platform and gearing to eschew pavement where I find it inconvenient, which for now is something I can only do in summer/fall.
posted by rocketman at 2:47 PM on October 8, 2012

Additionally, nobody has really covered the rec ride angle on this. Has nobody done serious riding on one of these yet? I've got a golf course two blocks away that could be divine for winter exploration.
posted by rocketman at 2:49 PM on October 8, 2012

I would love to have that Surly Moonlander.

For me, the only potentially insurmountable problem would be the attention I'd get; there's too much of that already.

I think all that stuff about Q is nonsense, nonsense I first heard from Grant Petersen. What I haven't heard from him or anyone else is a plausible mechanism for the problems it's supposed to cause-- or any mechanism.

I'd want fenders (there are Pugsley fenders out there for ~$110) and I think your concerns about tire availability are very valid. I'd want two extras and three tubes when I bought the bike, and more later if I really liked it.

I looked at a (very positive) review and the only concern mentioned was cornering when tire pressure was low.
posted by jamjam at 4:16 PM on October 8, 2012

Vik Banerjee has done a lot of fat tire biking. You should check out his blog category on it.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:13 PM on October 8, 2012

A few of my friends have them and love them. One of them built one. If I had the spare cash right now I'd buy one just to mess around on. If I was still in Minneapolis I think I'd have bought one by now. When I lived there I dealt with intense seasonal affective disorder. I basically stopped riding in the winter except to get from a to b. The snow just made riding a massive effort. Or terrifying. Or both. If you're from the West Coast like me, maybe move back. But if you're staying in Madison, get a fat bike. Ride and have as much fun as possible doing it.
posted by rainperimeter at 2:16 AM on October 9, 2012

I know everybody has likely moved on from this, but I wanted to circle back around and update.

I've got a red Pugsley showing up on Monday. I wanted yellow, but those aren't around in my size anymore. I'm sticking with the stock build (for now), but buying a set of 82mm rims as replacements for the Large Marge Lites. Me and the LBS are going to drill out the rims to save weight, one of the shop workers is going to take the Large Marges off my hands.

Vik's blog ultimately convinced me that a Pugsley was a better choice than a Moonlander, and once I'd figured that out, it made no sense (to me) to get the Neck Romancer. We'll see how it rolls - hopefully I'll still have some snow to play on by the time it's all built up.

Even if the snow is all gone, I have a hunch I'll figure out places to ride it.
posted by rocketman at 1:53 PM on March 1, 2013

I don't know what tires you're running now, but I've seen two Surly Black Floyds show up in my shop with cracking sidewalls. That's not really enough data for me to not recommend them, but just be aware.

Post some pics of your new whip!
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:10 PM on March 6, 2013

I've got a HuDu up front and Larry in the back. I stashed the Endomorph in my basement for later use.

The Black Floyds are intriguing. I really want a set for summer rolling, but I'm worried about spending dough on big rubber for all situations. Good to know about the sidewall cracking - I wonder if people are running them at too low a pressure? Everything I've read about them says you have to max out the PSI, or at least go above 25 in order to really work them the way they need to be worked.

The bike is just stupid fun. First ride out to work, I decided to turn off the bike path and into the woods that border my company's campus, and rolled into work an hour late because I was exploring little paths through the snow. I'll post pics when I take some, right now I'm too busy riding the fucker!
posted by rocketman at 8:41 AM on March 21, 2013

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