Fat Bikes are growing, and we do not just mean in size! This wildly popular segment of the cycling industry continues to attract new fans all the time.
Luckily for the consumer, bike categories have traditionally been identified to make them quite self-explanatory: Road bikes. Beach cruisers. Gravel bikes. Racing bikes.
Then along came fat bikes and left some consumers scratching their heads: “are they really intended for (putting this delicately)… heavyset individuals?”
Rather than describing its function, “fat bike” describes its characteristics. It is, in a nutshell, a mountain-ish bike on “fat” tires. The bike’s design is geared toward increasing a rider’s ability to handle any terrain, which can mean a petite 110-pound cyclist or a stout 300-pound rider. To spell it out quite clearly: fat bikes are not “bikes designed for fat people.”
These are bikes created for anyone seeking adventure, and we are also here to tell you: fat bikes are FUN.
If you are in the market for a fat bike, you will inevitably have questions about how one will differ from previous bikes you have owned and what to be on the lookout for when shopping. After telling you a little more about the history and components of a fat bike, we will look in greater depth at the all-important rim choices.
- 1 The History of the Fat Bike
- 2 Types of Fat Bikes and Their Parts and Accessories
- 3 Fat Bike Tire Rims
- 4 How to Choose the Right Rims for Your Fat Bike
- 5 Our Favorite Fat Bikes on the Market
- 6 Fat Bikes and Safety
The History of the Fat Bike
As is the case with most of history’s greatest “inventions,” we often see disputing claims as to who can claim rightful ownership of the idea. Connecticut, Kentucky, and California all claim to be the birthplace of the cheeseburger. Four different communities in Quebec claim to have invented poutine. And when it comes to fat bikes, there is more than one storyline as well.
The timeline of fat bikes has overlapping stories that took place more than 3,000 miles apart in the 1980s, in Alaska and New Mexico. These locations are not surprising when you consider some of the ways bikes, especially mountain bikes, can be outfitted for specific needs, such as riding on snow and riding on sand.
In Alaska, long-distance riding on the famous Iditarod trail included harsh conditions that called for a wider tire. In New Mexico, where cyclists traversed sand dunes and arroyos, the call for a wider tire was quickly growing, too.
Fat bikes were born to address this need, and at first, were a niche product, but have since grown to a much wider consumer base.
At first, cyclists in Alaska tinkered with ways to increase their performance in difficult terrain. They welded rims together and then laced them to a single tub with two tires. And by doing so, they eventually realized that the tandem rim could simply take on one larger tire.
Wide, lightweight rims were produced to accommodate these fat tires, and suddenly Alaskans could turn their mountain bikes into “fat bikes” even if they did not have a name for it yet.
In New Mexico, the same rim and tire evolution occurred, only to address tackling sand dunes rather than snow.
Throughout the 1990s, this remained a mostly niche market. Then in 2005, a new era was born with the Surley Pugsley. This was the first mass distribution of a fat bike to the market, and others quickly jumped on board.
Because it is now a competitive market, that means the end consumer has the benefit of more choices, lower prices, and better performance when it comes to fat bikes. Best of all, it is still a relatively young market, so we know we have even more great advancements to look forward to in the years to come.
Types of Fat Bikes and Their Parts and Accessories
A fat bike is not a reinvention of the wheel, and it is not so significantly different from other bikes that it requires special skills to ride. Granted, it will feel quite a bit different to someone who is used to a traditional road bike. But for those who are already experienced in mountain biking, the transition should be quite easy.
The basic makeup of a fat bike is a mountain bike frame with a fork that allows for the mounting of wheels up to 130 millimeters. Within the fat bike market, a few different types have emerged, including:
- Carbon Fiber Fat Bikes, with carbon fiber being an outstanding light yet durable material for a bike that is already going to be heavier than normal.
- Full Suspension Fat Bikes, where the tires are not the only source of suspension.
- Single Speed Fat Bikes, where a cyclist works harder to pedal as the drivetrain only has one wheelchain and cog.
- Titanium Fat Bikes, which are made of the ideal high-end material (but are costly as a result).
- Electric Bikes with Fat Tires, which even include folding flat bikes.
Before we get to our guide on choosing the best rims, we will take a quick look at the other important components of the fat bike.
- Crankset: The crankset on a fat bike can have a single or double chainring. The former means the bike will be lighter, but the latter means the hills will be easier.
- Frame: The frame almost always comes down to budget. Aluminum will get the job done if you are on a tighter budget with less to spend, but carbon is ideal as it is incredibly durable and corrosion-resistant. It just costs more than aluminum, its only drawback.
- Fork: The normal mountain bike fork is adapted on a fat bike to accommodate the wider tires, which means the fork will be heavier.
- Handlebars: Fat bikes incorporate a straight or double-height handlebar, which are wider than traditional handlebars and keep the cyclist in a semi-upright position.
- Suspension: In some cases, only the tires provide suspension, or the bike may be equipped with front suspension.
Now that we have covered a general overview of fat bikes, we will direct our attention to the width of fat bike rims and how to choose the right ones.
Fat Bike Tire Rims
The width of the rims on your fat bike is hugely important to its performance. The rims affect how the bike will handle and how it feels on irregular terrain.
Considering most people purchase a fat bike to ride in either blustery winter conditions or across desert landscapes, you want something that can handle uneven terrain, so your rim decision and width really matters.
We will break this down into four sizing categories for the rim widths on fat-tire bikes:
40 to 50 Millimeter Rims
Let’s call these “fat bikes LIGHT,” which we appreciate, seems like an oxymoron. The rims in this size range can accommodate up to a four-inch tire (but nothing larger) and are often considered in the “plus” tire category. Perhaps you could consider these the gateway drug to fat bikes.
65 Millimeter Rims
This is what you might call a beginner fat bike rim. At 65 millimeters, the rim can take a 5-inch tire without problems, and they work well as long as you are not trying to tackle exceptionally deep sand or snow.
80 Millimeter Rims
An 80-millimeter rim is the “you cannot go wrong with this rim” rim for fat bikes. This rim can accommodate all tire sizes and are quite close to the float you get from a 100-millimeter rim. They are perfect for fat bike owners who are mostly riding in sand or snow and want the option to ride singletrack.
100 Millimeter Rims
Nothing puts your fat bike in beast mode quite like 100-millimeter rims, and the price you pay (being the actual dollar amount) is the weight. This will make for a heavy bike that you CAN ride singletrack but will take a lot of effort. The flip side of that is nothing will give you the float in deep snow or sand than a 100-millimeter rim does. These are truly the rims for the “I will accept any challenge and ride over anything” fat bike owner.
How to Choose the Right Rims for Your Fat Bike
Now that you understand the differences between the sizes, it is clear that the decision will be geared heavily toward preferences. You have to make decisions about sacrificing float for weight and about tire sizes, and what your rims will accommodate.
As is the case with most decisions regarding your fat bike, the starting point is MEASURE. MEASURE. MEASURE.
If you are at all unsure about measurements, check with your local bike shop for help. The rim and fork measurements have to work together for everything to function properly, and tire clearance is a key performance factor, no matter what kind of bike you are riding.
The material decision with rims follows the same pattern we saw with frames:
- Aluminum, the best rim choice for those on a budget.
- Carbon, a better, yet slightly more expensive, choice for durability.
- Titanium, the least common choice because of the expensive costs to produce, was found with only the highest high-end bike parts.
In some cases, you may be purchasing an entire wheelset, including the hub and rim. Even if you plan to order your fat bike parts online, we always recommend double-checking with your local bike shop for advice and support on what is best for your needs.
More than anything, time and experience on fat bikes will give you a feel for the ride that best suits you, and this will dictate the size of tires and rims you prefer.
If you are shopping for a fat bike for the first time, we will take a look at some of our favorite choices on the market.
Our Favorite Fat Bikes on the Market
The Surly Ice Cream Truck
The first company to bring a fat bike to the mass market, Surly is still beloved among fat bike enthusiasts and the Ice Cream Truck, even with its not so serious name, is a serious beast of a bike.
The standard Ice Cream Truck has a steel frame and fork, 80-millimeter rims, and 4.8-inch tires. Surly boasts you could probably “hop over a grizzly” on this bike. We are not sure if that is entirely accurate (nor would we volunteer to test it), but we know this is an incredibly durable bike that can stand up to most any terrain.
Giant’s Yukon 1
When you name your fat bike a “Yukon,” you want people to know this is one serious ride for the snow. The Giant Yukon is low slung, which creates a better center of gravity. The 4.5-inch tires and SRAM NX Eagle groupset provide an outstanding ride on a bike that can take on any terrain, be it sand or snow.
The aluminum construction keeps the Yukon in the more affordable range of fat bikes on the market (bearing in mind the term “affordable” is relative here. These bikes are a significant investment any way you slice it!)
The Yukon also comes in four different sizes to suit any rider.
A Kona-Wo comes jam-packed with high-quality components, and it looks good to boot! SUN Ringle 80-mm rims, Schwalbe 4.8” tires, and a Shimano Diore drivetrain all make this fat bike a solid choice among the aluminum frame market.
You would be hard-pressed to find better value for the price than the Kona Wo. And did we mention how good it looks? You
Pivot Les-Fat 27.5 Pro XT
When it comes to competitive performance on a fat bike, the Pivot Les-Fat runs circles around other bikes, but at a steep price. This is a serious fat bike for serious fat bikers, and the price would cause amateurs to experience serious sticker shock.
For those who can afford it and those who compete, the Les-Fat offers speed and lighter weight, with a carbon frame and fork as well as 3.8-inch tires. A 12-speed Shimano XT drivetrain and Shimano hydraulic disc brakes also contribute to its excellent handling in any terrain.
Norco Ithaqua 1
While we cover the “sticker shock” category of bikes, we will go ahead and throw in this incredible full-carbon fat bike that outshines much of the competition in terms of overall performance and quality.
This top-of-the-line fat bike has an incredibly lightweight frame coupled with 4.5-inch tires, and the end result is a fat bike that ultimately glides right over sand and snow. Whatever the terrain in front of you, a Norco Ithaqua will get you over it with ease. This is not a bike that is accessible for every budget, but for those who can afford it, the Ithaqua really delivers.
Sixthreezero In the Barrel
You might think we are scraping the bottom of the barrel with this final choice, but affordability does not have to mean poor quality. This single-speed cruiser fat bike is the perfect entry-level fat bike for a cyclist simply looking for a recreational option. It is not built for competition, but it gets the job done when it comes to fun.
And with a price point that is a quarter of the competitive and higher-end fat bikes, the In the Barrel is an accessible option for more consumers. It has semi-slick 4-inch tires and a frame built for ergonomics as well as comfort.
Fat Bikes and Safety
Even though it seems like fat bikes are associated with dangerous pursuits, crossing snow-covered or rocky terrains, they are actually designed with increased safety in mind.
If you consider purchasing a fat bike, you may quickly discover that this favorite “toy” of an adrenaline junkie can also be safer than other bikes you ride.
The Wider the Tire, the More Confident the Rider
The width of the tire helps instill confidence in riders, who may fear a road bike tire. The extra sense of stability, both in the literal/physical sense and the psychological one, helps the rider stay confident on the bike, which also contributes to avoiding accidents.
Durability Adds to Safety
The thick and durable tires on fat bikes also keep us safer, and their low pressure makes them less vulnerable to problems. It does take some getting used to when you see the tires, especially studded tires. You may be tempted to overinflate them based on the way they look, but you should always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for tire pressure. When in doubt, have your local bike shop check the pressure for you.
A Fatter Tire Equals a Softer Landing
With more surface area to work with, the landing is softer after you catch a little air. And this means a safer experience and one that is easier on your body over time. Your rear end will probably appreciate the fat bike most of all!
Once you choose your new fat bike, making all of the preference decisions related to tire and rim width, frame materials, and other components, you will be ready to set out for a great adventure on sand or snow. Or both!