By Lee Klevens
Speedway Cycles in Anchorage, Alaska has been building Fatback bikes for about five years now. Titanium was the material of choice at first, but in an effort to bring a more affordable bike to the people, owner Greg Matyas introduced an aluminum-framed model. The Fatback Aluminum shares the same design aspects as the other Fatbacks, such as a curved top tube for increased standover clearance while allowing for the use of a longer head tube. Having more top tube clearance is always welcome when riding in soft conditions, and a taller head tube gives the rider a more upright position, which helps with control. Ride stability is designed into the frame by utilizing a 69.5° head tube angle and a 73° seat tube angle along with a 24” effective (on an 18” frame) top tube length.
Building a bike with almost four-inch wide tires has its challenges, and Greg found that off-the-shelf parts don’t always work. Striving to achieve better performance from a snow bike, he decided to make some of his own Fatback-branded parts. Fatback’s own chromoly fork with 1-1/8” steerer tube accompanied my test frame. The hubs have wider spacing (170mm rear, 135mm front), which allow the hub flanges to be equally spaced for dishless, extra-strong wheels. The wider rear triangle makes room for the frame and chain to clear the massive, 3.8” rear tire.
The The Hive FifteenG crankset has a 100mm wide bottom bracket to stay with the wider-is-better theme. Luckily, my test rig came equipped with Fatback’s UMA II 70mm rims, which have massive holes drilled in them to make them one of the lightest fat bike rims on the market at 860g. The light (relatively speaking) wheels on this bike really helped it feel much lighter than it looks. Speaking of looks, I can’t help but get an ear-to-ear grin when I gaze at the Fatback. It has a monster truck appearance that sends the testosterone flowing through my veins in a chest-thumping kind of way. Other people definitely noticed its looks as well, often resulting in what I call “tire envy.”
While Fatbacks are primarily designed for snow biking, they are actually quite capable mountain bikes. This is a good thing, as the Fatback Aluminum showed up here at Dirt Rag right smack in the middle of summer. The trails were quite dry in these parts; so dusty hardpack terrain was the call for my maiden voyage. I realized that changes in the air pressure of the extra-large volume tires are the key to the Fatback being able to conquer different conditions, but at first I was reluctant to start with too low pressure and risk flatting or worse, rolling a tire. Soon I was letting air out, searching for the best possible ride. It’s worth noting I never did roll a tire.
However, I did notice that when riding with too little air pressure on hardpack, the front tire would deform towards the inside of a turn. This tends to pull the front wheel in that direction, a self-steering kind of feeling if you will, which was never a problem for me…at least when I was sober. Other than that, this bike is a blast to ride on hardpack. The tires gobbled up the bumps while the super-large contact area led to tons of confidence and control when cornering hard. This put me out in front of some full-suspension rigs at times, but at other times the tires’ lack of damping had a tendency to give a bit of a bouncy ride. This would make me work for my speed and remind me of my mortality.
Since I was taking my family to the Atlantic coast for a vacation at the beach, I invited the Fatback along for some fun. Finally, I was able to really air down the tires and see what the bike could do. Without a doubt, this bike rules the beach. No need to push your bike across the soft sand just to try to ride on the surf-pounded hard sand during low tide. The Fatback will let you ride through it all. I was still, however, riding on soft sand. As railing turns was out of the question, turning fast necessitated leaning the bike over less and steering more with your hips. This is definitely where the longer head tube helped and I couldn’t help but think how well it will ride in proper snow.
After a couple days of playing around on the beach, riding on long-abandoned sand creations in search of challenges, I decided to go for an adventure. About five miles north up the road from where stayed was a 14-mile, four-wheel-drive section of beach. I have done this ride before during low tide on my own bike. Since I had the Fatback, I headed out when the tide was already coming in and getting close to high tide (remember the testosterone). When the pavement ended, I lowered the air pressure in the tires to the teens and hit the sand. Along the way I took some detours to explore the dunes. (Please note that I stayed on four-wheel/quad trails, and not on the sensitive dunes.)
Uphills and power-sucking sand were definitely a challenge, while the downhill required the same point-the-front-wheel-and-use-your-hips technique. Back on the beach, the hard, surf-packed sand was hidden by the tide. This caused me to stop playing around as much and attempt to ride like electricity, i.e. follow the path of least resistance. The choices were pretty limited so I tried to stay in the wide vehicle ruts while searching for harder-packed sections of sand. Still, when every pedal stroke counts and some guy passing you up in a Jeep shouts “Nice tires!,” you just have to keep pushing it. Somewhere about mile 30 or so in my almost 40-mile power-sucking ride—in 90 degree heat with 100% humidity and a 10 mph head wind on the way back—I gained a huge respect for the people who regularly compete in endurance races in insanely brutal conditions, and I most definitely have the Fatback to thank for that.
In case you can’t tell, I had a blast riding the Fatback. I loved the riding position and think the versatility of a fat bike is a great thing. I am still trying to figure out how I can stuff one of these smile-inducers into my garage. The only downsides I could come up with all relate to the “fatness” of the bike. I found while pedaling tight, off-camber singletrack, the wider bottom bracket makes it seem lower than it is and I would occasionally catch a pedal on the ground in the downstroke. Once I became comfortable on the bike, this was no longer an issue. Also, the bike’s width may pose a bit of a challenge when fitting it on a bike rack. Finally, the large, thin contact area of the Surly Larry tires really seemed to like to pick up thorns along the way. Small nitpicks indeed.
The Fatback Aluminum comes in plenty of anodized color choices: black, blue, green, red, orange, and pink, as well as a polished version. There is a two-year warranty on the aluminum Fatback, lifetime on the titanium bike. For 2011, look for a slightly steeper bend of the top tube to give more standover, as well as a steel model. As I am lucky enough to be able to keep the Fatback until it snows, keep your eyes peeled for updates on how the bike and I fare in the snow.
Since my review of Speedway Cycles Fatback AL took place during the heat of the summer, I was encouraged to keep the bike long enough to be able to try some proper snow biking with it. I am pleased now, to finally be able to report on my findings here, and I can honestly say that riding the Fatback in the snow is a blast.
A fat bike really expands one’s winter riding. Generally, after several inches of snow falls, my off-road riding comes to an end until things thaw out. This year, however, instead of parking my bike and trying to find other activities (like couch sitting), I was still able to get out in the woods where I wanted to be all thanks to the Fatback. So how does the Fatback ride you ask? Well, the different depths and types of snow definitely yields different results. While I didn’t experience every combination of all of the different varieties and depths, I will try to report on what I found out.
Hitting the single-track when the snow coverage was light (4 inches or less), I thought that the Fatback rode pretty much like any other mountain bike. That is until I swapped back to a bike with a 2.35" tire. That’s when I noticed that the Fatback was indeed giving me a whole lot more traction than the lesser tire. I was running somewhere around the upper teens in tire pressure which kept the bike rolling along pretty well, but added tons more traction when climbing, stopping, and turning.
As the snow increased to over 8 inches, I found the riding to be significantly different. Tackling virgin trails was a challenge. I aired down the tires to somewhere around 8PSI or below and pedaled my butt off. Memories of how the Fatback handled soft sand quickly came back to me as slight inclines became hills to conquer, steeper uphill sections became hike-a-bikes, and descents required me to keep the bike much more upright and to turn mostly with my hips. In all of these situations, I appreciated how the Fatback’s slacker geometry kept the ride more stable. The slower steering helped to give me more time to move about and adjust my position on the bike. This helped me while riding in the deeper snow as it requires using lots of body English just to keep your forward momentum going.
I found that riding previously packed trails were probably the most fun. I would run the tires inflated somewhere in the mid teens and try to stay off of the softer outer edges of the trail. The wide contact patch of the tires give plenty of traction as long as you remember that, snow is indeed still slippy. Speaking of slippy, I never encountered a whole lot of ice while riding the Fatback. The small patches of smooth ice which I did encounter didn’t give me any problems though. I just crossed them while trying not to do anything suddenly just as I would normally do on any other bike.
Riding the Fatback definitely has let me ride more off-road this winter than I normally would have been able to. The fresh experiences and the increased challenges certainly made my rides fun and exciting. Once again I found that the Fatback has the ability to produce ear to ear grins on my face.
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Price: $600 (Frame/Fork) $2,000 and up (Complete Bike)
Weight: 32.2lbs. (w/Pedals)
Sizes available: 14", 16", 18" (Tested), 20", 22"