Shopping for a mountain bike used to be simple: figure out how much you can spend and pick the one that fits right in a color you like. However, it’s a bit more complicated now. Over the years, different categories of MTBs have evolved as rider preferences have changed, more locations have opened, and of course technology has exploded. The first major advancement was suspension, then came disc brakes and later 27” and 29” wheels. The latest evolution – and like these early innovations, this is definitely not a “trend” – is wider tires: the first official “Fat” Bike, Surly’s Pugsly, appeared in 2005 and they’ve flourished ever since.
Fat Bikes feature basic MTB-style frames that are tweaked to allow for much wider wheels and fat tires, generally over 4”, as compared to the 2” – 2.6” tires generally found on traditional MTBs. Invented for folks who simply couldn’t put their bikes away when the snow came – but needed a safer, more efficient machine in these conditions – fat tire bikes have developed a huge following well outside the original intent. Riders soon discovered these rigs are also outstanding on mud and sand (even the soft white stuff on your fave summer vacation spot).
But they haven’t been confined to these uses either: turns out the huge balloon tires provide excellent traction in any condition, as well as decent shock-absorption, especially with the far lower tire pressures at which they can operate. It’s now common to see dozens for Fatties on your local trails no matter how hard-packed and/or dry. You’ll even find them tearing it up in XC races.
Now that within the relatively small category there’s a wide range of options and prices, we’ve put together this Guide to help you choose the best rig for you. In this guide you’ll learn what certain options do for the ride experience, what spending more on higher-end models will get you, and some of the standout options in different price ranges, all to help narrow down your choices.
Bike Brands evaluated by Active Junky
- Rocky Mountain
How We Tested
Depending on your location, riding preferences, size, budget and other factors, picking the right Fattie can be a daunting task. Here are five insights and questions to ask yourself to help make a solid selection, knowing that pricing is important even as Active Junky considers this an “investment-grade gear” category that warrants notching up the budget if needed. And we’ve also identified some of the biggest Fat Bike purchasing mistakes to avoid.
Question #1: Do you really need all those bells and whistles?
Just because a bike costs more and/or features the latest kick-ass tech does not mean it’s the right fit for you. For instance – and this is just one of many instances – with the inherent shock absorption of the 4” tires, and subsequent lower tire pressures, a suspension fork may not be the necessity it can be on traditional MTBs. If your trails don’t have major boulders to navigate, or drops of over a foot, fat tires will be quite sufficient and you’ll save considerable extra weight, cost and maintenance of a suspension fork.
Question #2: Where and how will you be riding?
Your bike choice should depend almost entirely on the precise type of riding you’ll be doing – not color, name brand, etc. Be realistic about how far, often and aggressively you’ll ride, and on what types of trails and terrain.
Question #3: Are you hoping to improve and grow as a rider or are you happy where you are?
If you legitimately intend to use your purchase as a means to improve and grow as a cyclist, buy a bike that will perform where you want to be, not just where you are. But be realistic – if this bike is just going to be ridden occasionally, with no real goals in mind, stick with what’s appropriate now.
Question #4: Do you really get what you pay for?
In general, a bike is as good as its components and frame, and the more you spend, the better they are. For instance, cheap, mass produced frames will simply not last as long or perform as well as most higher-end Fat Bike frames. That said, because components are generally from third parties and not from the bike’s brand, you can certainly find bargains with the same or similar parts.
Question #5: Do you really need a Fat Bike or will a standard bike do?
If you intend on riding a lot in nasty conditions like snow, mud or sand, Fatties make a huge difference. But if it’s just a few times a year, it may not be worth the investment – just tough it out (and perhaps get a better workout) on your standard MTB.
Three Purchasing Mistakes
#1. Buying the wrong size bike: If this is your first MTB-style bike, let the professionals at the dealer suggest – and confirm – the best size.
#2. Buying the wrong style bike: Especially with something as niche as a Fattie, make sure the bike you choose matches your TRUE riding style and works with your usual and preferred trails.
#3. Spending too much (or too little): It’s easy to get sucked in by a ridiculously low price tag or to want the fanciest, sexiest bike in the shop. Most people don’t need, and in fact can’t handle, a top-end bike; and the least expensive bike in the shop may quickly become obsolete as soon as you improve and/or up your miles.
While all five of the following characteristics were solid in every bike selected for testing, each product displayed a singular strength, one Key Attribute noted in our Fat Bike reviews. As such, the quintet of factors considered covered everything except value: Active Junky considers $5,000 the top end, with $1,000 normally a minimum for suitable quality.
The stiffer and stronger a frame is in the fork/headtube conjunction and the bottom bracket/real triangle area, the quicker accelerating and better handling it generally will be. However, it can also mean a harsher ride.
Ride quality means how much ruggedness of terrain can be felt and the over-all comfort during the course of a ride. Along with suspension – which not all Fat Bikes feature – the frame’s tubing and geometry along with the wheelset dictate how comfortably a bike rides.
Since most bikes’ components – drivetrain, wheels, brakes bars and seatpost – are provided by third parties, these go a long way toward the overall performance and value of the bike in total. An outstanding frame can be rendered sub-standard with lousy components and vice versa.
While weight is a huge issue with other categories of MTB, Fat Bikes are all fairly heavy. A single pound in an XC bike for instance can make a huge difference, but not so much in a Fattie. That said, it should still be a consideration – if you’re considering two similar bikes, the lighter-weight option is generally the smarter choice.
While we can’t test these bikes long enough to determine durability on specific models, we’ve ridden enough of each bike brand and components brands to make a good prediction. And it’s safe to say that these bikes will generally outlast riders’ tastes and/or motivation. However, it may be more important to consider the longevity of the style and its components: Is the bike made with future trends in mind or could it become obsolete quickly?