Tester: Jon Pratt
Age: 45; Height: 5’10”; Weight: 190 pounds; Inseam: 31”
Salsa Cycles is not one to shy away from big tires, so it is only natural to see another one of its bikes with a bit of extra rubber show up at our door for review. This time around it’s the Pony Rustler, Salsa’s 27plus rig sired from the esteemed line of the Horsethief. In fact the two bikes are so similar, they might be better classified as twins. I think the Pony Rustler just decided to wear different shoes and jacket to make sure we didn’t mistake one for the other.
And where did that name come from? Jokingly, Pete Koski, the product design engineer for the Pony Rustler, told me “It rhymes with Horsethief.” I’m kind of glad Pete designs bikes and doesn’t write poetry (that I know of).
As for that design, Joe Meiser, product manager at Salsa, explains that the Pony Rustler was crafted to add to the growing trend of short travel bikes that can climb and descend, while providing increased traction through the use of plus-sized tires. Joe sees it as not just a good bike for trail riding, but one well-suited to bikepacking as well.
The Pony Rustler uses the wide 45 mm WTB Scraper tubeless rim and 3 inch WTB Bridger tire to create a large contact patch between the tire and trail surface, increasing the amount of grip you will experience. This was quite apparent to me in several different scenarios: craggily climbs, rocks and roots, and fast downhill berms.
I commonly ride up hills strewn with rough rocks and slippery roots where getting up and over something not only depends on strength and timing but on the amount of rubber you can keep on the ground. With the Pony Rustler, I always felt the gains in traction overcame the weight penalty. Unlike narrow, higher-pressure tires that rely more on suspension to smooth out the ride, the Pony Rustler’s lower pressure tires more easily deform around objects and limit the amount of shock transmitted to the rider.
When you are motoring through a rock garden the bike’s suspension doesn’t get distracted by the smaller noise, leaving more in reserve to handle bigger hits. This makes the Pony Rustler feel more in control than a narrow-tired bike with similar travel. It feels more in control and leads to more confidence and faster sprints through the trail chatter. Finally, the Pony Rustler is really fun on those fast, flowy trails we all know and love. The increased grip of the larger tire allowed me to take my favorite berms just that much faster. It’s a noticeable difference.
All that grip comes at a price though. Not only does the wheel weigh more, the larger contact patch creates more resistance with the ground. You have to work harder to get going, and keep going. That’s where the trade-off between the 29 inch Horsethief and the 27.5+ Pony Rustler really lies.
But don’t fret too much about the wheel size choice, because the Horsethief and Pony Rustler share a frame and fork. You can purchase either bike and build up the alternate-sized wheelset and swap to your heart’s content. To make this swap as seamless as possible, Salsa used 3 inch WTB tires to maintain very similar geometry between the two bikes. This tire size choice is important to maintain the overall wheel diameter and keep bottom bracket height within 5 mm of each other without making changes to the frames.
According to Salsa engineer Pete Koski, standard 29 inch tires average 735-745 mm in diameter while 27.5×3 inch tires average a very close 730-740 mm. The smaller 2.8 inch tires average 715-725 mm. Those smaller tires would result in the bottom bracket up to 20 mm lower on the Ponty Rustler. So in this case, 3 inch tires are a no-brainer.
Since the 2014 model year, Salsa Cycles has used Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot suspension on their bikes, and that’s a really good thing. At its heart Split Pivot rear suspension is designed to separate braking, pedalling and bump absorption from each other. The Pony Rustler’s mechanical linkage is used to provide pedaling efficiency instead of relying on the low-speed compression damping of the suspension.
Where on some bikes I’m forced to switch between the various modes of the shock, the Pony Rustler allowed me to leave the shock wide open for most of my testing. It’s great knowing that if an unexpected hill appears I just have to mash up it, or slam the RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper and take off for a fun ride down. There’s virtually no need to worry about flipping the shock from trail to descend and back again.
Split Pivot design isolates the shock from braking forces. Because the Pony Rustler’s seat stays rotate around the rear axle, when you engage the SRAM Guide RS brakes the braking forces are not transmitted to the RockShox Monarch RT3 and therefore don’t affect its ability to absorb bumps.
Weagle’s design is an incredibly simple, but effective, single pivot suspension. It allows the Pony Rustler to be predictable during braking and adds to the already good small bump compliance afforded by the large, low-pressure tires.
Besides just taking the Pony Rustler out for a few laps around the local park, Salsa designed it to be a great bikepacking tool. Since the bike does not have very much space for a frame pack in the front triangle and no easy way to attach gear to the fork, most of your load is going to either be near the top of the bike or on your back, which raises your center of gravity. The wider tires do a good job offsetting this issue and keep the bike stable under large loads. Increased grip from the tires will also limit the bumblings that can topple a top-heavy biker at the most inopportune times.
I took the Pony Rustler out for a few loaded excursions on both singletrack and slush covered gravel trails, and it performed as expected. I didn’t notice any errant movements from the bike as my bags naturally shifted due to pedaling or experience any puckering situations when traversing some more challenging trails. Overall the bike felt well-planted, stable and comfortable on long treks.
As with most full-suspension bikes, if you feel the need to take everything and the kitchen sink with you, the lack of on-bike storage options might be of concern. I’m OK with paring down and using a backpack when needed.
With the Pony Rustler, Salsa has done a great job building off the Horsethief’s successes and creating an incredibly good bike with arguably more going for it. It’s becoming apparent that plus bikes have a real purpose in the marketplace and that the Pony Rustler is a good example of a well-executed bike that can handle various trail-related tasks with poise.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you head over to your local bike shop and try one on if you are in the market for a bike that could breathe some excitement back into your local trails, or give you the confidence to venture out and explore a bit more.
Stats (with a 130 mm fork)
- Reach: 17.4”
- Stack: 24.4”
- Top Tube: 24.9”
- Head Tube: 67.5°
- Seat Tube: 73°
- BB Height: 12.6”
- Chainstays: 17.2”
- Weight: 30.1 lbs. w/o pedals
- Specs based on size tested
Price: $2,500 frame. Complete starting at $3,500. Tested: $5,500.
Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL
More info: Salsa Pony Rustler
The Salsa Mukluk is all-new for 2017. We admittedly almost overlooked this beast. One does not really think about five-inch fatties when it’s 80 degrees and sunny on the site of a mountain bike park. Well, maybe you do.
The all-new Mukluk is available in both carbon (pictured) and aluminum. The stiffness of the carbon version was adjusted, but in the direction often not taken. Because the Salsa Beargrease is the company’s speed-focused fatty, the new Mukluk frame was actually tuned to be more comfortable and more compliant for longer days in the saddle. The chainstays shrunk to 430 mm, making them the shortest on the market on a fat bike.
Both frames have the Alternator Dropouts 2.0, allowing room for up to 4.7-inch tires (paired with 70 mm rims) on the carbon version with a chainstay length of 432 mm. You can still use Salsa’s Alternator 190 Rack with this setup. The aluminum version gets Alternator Dropouts 1.0 for 440 mm chainstays. By moving the wheel back for bigger tires, the chainstay grows to 450 mm.
Set this bike up with a 1x or 2x drivetrain—it will indeed take a front derailleur. The top tube got a bit longer to play well with 60/70 mm stems alongside the 69-degree headtube angle, 73-degree seat tube angle, 63 mm bottom bracket height and 100 mm threaded bottom bracket. The rear dropout grew to 197 x 12 mm.
The routing for derailleurs and rear brake housing are internal through the top tube and external down the inside of the seatstays. Customizable rubber grommets for the cable ports allow different drivetrain and brake setups. Stealth routing for dropper posts is also provided. Finally, the bike will also accept a 100 or 120 mm fork.
The Salsa Mukluk will be offered in five builds. Expect to see it in your local shop in October/November.
- Mukluk Carbon XO1 – $4,500
- Mukluk Carbon X1 – $3,500
- Mukluk Carbon GX1 – $2,700
- Mukluk ALU NX1 SUS – $2,500
- Mukluk ALU NX1 – $1,800
The go-fast-oriented Beargrease remains unchanged for 2017, but did get some rad new paint jobs across the four different models (three carbon and one aluminum). Photos courtesy of Salsa Cycles.
Blue Bicycles was once based in Georgia but is now in California. It was once struggling to survive but now has new life breathed into it. It was once only (or best) known for triathlon and cyclocross bikes but now has three different mountain bikes in its line. We took a peak at what’s coming in 2017 for Blue while at Press Camp in Park City, Utah.
Crew EX and Crew AL
The Crew is Blue’s new 11-speed, 27plus hardtail (pudgy tires not pictured because these bikes are pre-production). The EX is carbon and the AL is—you guessed it—aluminum. Blue first tried its hand at mountain bikes in 2009 but by the time it got its first 26er together, 29ers had come on the scene full-force and the company didn’t think it would be able to properly sell its small-wheeled bike. Now that new wheel sizes have (somewhat) settled (for now, at least), it was ready to jump in, again.
The carbon EX retails for $3,000 and comes with a FOX 32 SC fork, Shimano XT build, Hayes Prime Sport disc brakes and DT Swiss M wheels. The production carbon bike features internal cable routing, special seat stays designed for vibration reduction and is predicted to tip the scale at around 22 pounds.
The Crew AL still runs Shimano XT and the same Hayes brakes but steps down to a FOX 32 Performance fork and loses the special, flat seat stays to retail for $2000. An SLX build for $1,500 is also expected. Four sizes (small through extra-large) will be offered.
Crew AL M-140
The Crew AL M-140 is a full-on trail bike with 140 mm of suspension front and rear and 27.5 wheels. Suspension is handled by a FOX 34 Performance up front and a Float X Performance in the rear. Build kit is Shimano XT 1×11, Hayes Prime Sport brakes, a few in-house bits and a FOX dropper post. The bike will retail for $3100 and be available in only three sizes: small, medium and large. Expect to see a carbon model at Interbike in September.
Blue said it chose a 140 mm full-suspension trail bike to target the widest possible audience and complete its bike lineup.
Philly Fat Bike
Finally, the Blue Philly is an all-aluminum fat bike with a SRAM X5 (1×10) build kit, mechanical Tektro disc brakes, PF30 bottom bracket and four-inch tires. The bike is available in four sizes for $1,259.
Blue Bicycles also earned the Dirt Rag prize for “best USB drive of bike Press Camp.”
This is our third annual roundup of trail bikes that aren’t priced to the stratosphere. We could call them affordable, budget, real-world, blue-collar or college-fund-friendly, but someone would take offense at our assumption of disposable income level. It doesn’t really matter though. These are great bikes for the price, and we’ll leave it up to you about what to spend. Each bike was hand picked, not just for its price, but its components, geometry and modern features. From Issue #189.
Get an overview of all of the bikes in this test, here, and keep an eye out for full reviews of each.
Tester: Katherine Fuller
Age: 29, Height: 5’4”, Weight: 120 lbs., Inseam: 30”
Sizes: XS, S (tested), M, L, XL
P.J. O’Rourke opined in a 2010 issue of Car and Driver about why he chose a Jeep Wrangler as his daily vehicle. He described the utilitarian machine as “three things not easily found these days: straight, square and forthright.”
O’Rourke wrote of irrational love, acknowledging he would rarely use the Wrangler off road and explained that cars are largely outward manifestations of our inner selves. All of that essentially sums up how I feel about the Surly Wednesday: It’s a bicycle that is “straight, square and forthright” and deserving of your irrational love no matter how you intend to use it.
Building on a decade of fat bike design experience, the affectionately cantankerous Minnesota company cross-pollinated its lineup to create a bike equally capable of crushing your local trails as it is wandering off for loaded touring. Not as shreddy as the aggressive Ice Cream Truck but more singletrack-curious than the old-school Pugsley, the Wednesday carries on the “Addams Family” nomenclature and offers four-season ride capabilities.
The use of 4130 chromoly steel and voluminous rubber mean you can have a lot of fun plowing over rough stuff. That is really the only way to ride the Wednesday since its 100 mm wide bottom bracket means you’re not daintily threading rock gardens. You might be pedal striking more than usual on your favorite 12 inch singletrack until you get used to the Q-factor girth.
The Wednesday won’t respond to dainty, last-minute wrist flicks like a svelte carbon bike, but that’s actually part of the fun. Handle it aggressively and see how big of a smile it puts on your face. Whenever the trail turned playful, its front end was more than willing to rear up and launch over rollers on fast descents. Yep, this is a pudgy rigid hardtail that wants to go airborne.
The seat tube and head tube angles are each one degree in the slacker direction than the venerable Surly Pugsley, a bike I have owned for a few years. The Wednesday’s top tube is also a full inch longer. The difference is noticeable on long, steady climbs and hour-long grinds over flat ground where I found the more laid-back, stretched-out ride of the Wednesday to be slightly less comfortable for the job. A simple parts swap to a more upright cockpit, and ditching the stock seatpost for one with no setback, should help make it more suitable for non-rowdy cruising and touring.
Front hub spacing is 150 mm and rear is 177 mm (symmetric) and—hooray— the bottom bracket is threaded. Thanks to track dropouts with 20 mm of fore-aft adjustment, you can move the rear wheel (relative to the wheel/tire combo you are running) to achieve a rear chainstay length of 17 to 18 inches. With the rear wheel fully aft in the dropouts, it fits up to a 4.6 inch tire on an 80 mm rim. With the wheel slammed full-forward, you’re looking at 3.8 inch tires on the same rims.
Take advantage of that adjustability based on how you want this bike to ride. I can imagine that a shorter stem and a 100 mm suspension fork (which slackens the bike and raises its bottom bracket) would make it even more of a blast on singletrack. You can endlessly mold the loveable Wednesday to your whims thanks to its versatile frame design that accepts an internally-routed dropper, has room for 29plus tires and features numerous braze-ons.
The SRAM X5 build kit, tubeless-ready rims, 3.8-inch Surly Nate tires and Hayes MX Comp mechanical disc brakes all make sense for keeping the price down and offered a reliable ride experience. With the right pressure, the Nates’ aggressive traction is phenomenal on wet trails and climbing on snow, but they are painfully sluggish rolling on smooth, dry ground.
“So, what can a person of modest means do to get a life?” O’Rourke asked at the end of his Jeep Wrangler story. He was writing about cars but, if you feel that way about your bikes, try a Surly Wednesday; you just might like how “straight, square and forthright” it is. It’s one of the most fun, versatile fat bikes out there.
- Ultra-low maintenance without suspension or hydraulics
- Grows with you better than the clothing your mom said you’d “grow into”
- Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy
- Wide load can be cumbersome on skinny trails
- Balloon tires don’t negate that it’s still a rigid hardtail that can beat you up
- It’s heavy and, oh, who the hell cares
- Wheelbase: 43.3”
- Top Tube: 22.7”
- Head Angle: 69°
- Seat-Tube Angle: 73.5°
- Bottom Bracket: 12.5”
- Rear Center: 17 to 18”
- Weight: 35.6 lbs. w/o pedals (specs based on size tested)
Fuji’s Bighorn 27plus trail hardtail will recieve an update for 2017 that was showcased at Sea Otter. The bike is ready for whatever with 27.5 x 3.0 Schwalbe Nobby Nics, SRAM GX components, a KS Lev dropper post, internal cable routing, three sets of bottle cage mounts, rack and fender mounts and 120 mm of RockShox Pike suspension. The bike will retail for $2,649.
With all the attention the Fuji Auric has recently been getting, it was good to see some love still going toward the rowdy trail hardtail category.
Fuji also stepped up its fat bike game by adding a carbon model to its 2017 Wendigo line. The bike features a 197 x 12 mm rear dropout, which an accept up to a 5-inch tire. The carbon fork has 150 x 15 mm hub spacing. Build kit is SRAM XO1 (1×11), DT Swiss BR 2250 wheels, Schwalbe Jumbo Jim tubeless-ready tires at 26 x 4.8 and SRAM Guide RS brakes. The frame also has internal cable routing, plus rear rack mounts and ample bottle cage mounts for all of your bikepacking adventures.
Bets around the Dirt Rag virtual water cooler (which is located in the virtual Dirt Rag HQ) put money on Trek releasing a 27plus full-suspension trail bike or a Stache 29plus full-suspension ripper.
Neither guess was accurate, obviously. Instead, Trek dropped a 27.5 x 3.8 Farley EX trail bike with full suspension at the Sea Otter Classic. Actually Trek dropped a pair of them. This 120 mm travel fatbike is looking to insert itself into what Trek sees as a growing high-end market for fat bikes.
Farley EX 9.8
Trek didn’t cut corners here, equipping the 9.8 model with a carbon frame, the full compliment of Trek suspension tech (RE:activ shock, full-floater shock, active braking pivot, etc.), a new Bontrager Drop Line dropper post and Bontrager 27.5 x 3.8 tires.
Those big tires have many of the same advantages of 29 vs 26 wheels, and some fancy engineering actually drops weight from the 26 x 4.7 tires seen on many of Trek’s previous fat bikes.
While many companies seem to be pulling back from the fat market, this release shows is Trek doubling down with a serious commitment to riders looking for a full-time, full-fat trail bike.
Farley EX 8
Sharing most features of the Farley EX 9.8, the EX 8 saves cash with less-expensive components all around. The critical RE:activ shock and Trek’s suspension technology remain in place, but aluminum replaces the carbon as the frame material of choice.
Geometry is trail oriented. Not super slack, not super steep, but looking like a good balance between slack-shred-machine and cross-country race bike.
Trek isn’t ignoring the hardtail side of the fat bike market. There were plans in place to develop a less-expensive fat bike, but sales trends showed huge sell-through in its higher-end carbon models, hence the 9.9. Even with 27.5 x 4.5 tires, the Farley 9.9 is claimed to weigh 22 pounds. Twenty-two pounds! With real tires. Pretty amazing.
A host of lightweight Bontrager bits accompany the OCLV carbon frame, but the real star of the show are the HED Big Deal carbon rims, which are one of the lightest, if not the lightest, fat bike rims on the market.
With fat bike races now selling out in most parts of the country, this looks like a serious contender for raciest fat bike ever, even directly out of the box.
Pricing and Availability
All these bikes are scheduled for a fall release. Pricing looks like this:
|Farley EX 8||$3,499.99||August|
|Farley EX 9.8||$5,499.99||August|
There are less expensive hardtail fat bikes as well:
And one for the kids!
I had lots of plans to ride fat bikes this winter. But January seemed to have more days in the 50s than the 30s, and I missed the only real snow storm due to a trip to Chile to ride the new Santa Cruz Hightower. Winter is paying us back with some cold weather, and that should give us a chance to get out on some of this cold-weather stuff that has been staying warm inside.
Stan’s NoTubes Race Sealant
First up, a not-specifically-cold weather product, Stan’s new Race Sealant.
- Twice the sealing crystals = faster, stronger seals to get you across the line first
- Additional larger crystals = seals larger punctures to keep you rolling
- Premium low-viscosity latex = reacts fast and works in the widest range of temperatures and conditions
- Natural materials = safe for the environment
It is also good until -30 degrees, which is pretty important for fat bikers.
This is the first product developed in Stan’s Racing Development (SRD) group, a newly-developed collection of employees dedicated to developing race-oriented products. This new sealant should be checked every two weeks, versus 4-5 for the standard juice. Pricing is forthcoming.
More info: notubes.com
Bar Mitts Extreme Cold Pogies – $125
With below zero wind chills threatening in a few days, I should be able to put these to the test. Lot’s of room inside to keep snacks from freezing and various glove thicknesses. They install via handlebar end-plugs, which seems pretty simple compared to the internal Velcro loops of standard Bar Mitts pogies.
- Waterproof, 6 mm thick neoprene with Fleece on the inside and nylon lamination on the outside
- Removable Velcro cuff for easy access & removal of hands with no draw string complications
- Expandable bar end plug, which keeps the mitts stiff and in place
- Zipper can be opened for ventilation and temperature regulation
- Easily installed and removed
- Reflective material on seam & logo
More info: barmitts.com
SKS FatBoard fenders $55
Fat bikes need fenders, too. SKS has these easy on-and-off set that should provide coverage all the way up to a 5 inch tire.
More info: sks.com
Orange Seal Subzero Tubeless Sealant $14.50-$22
We’ve had great luck with Orange Seal’s standard sealant, and look forward to trying this new Subzero stuff. Should be fun to have a face-off versus the new Stan’s Race sealant.
More info: orangesealed.com
Bontrager Gnarwhal studded fat bike tire – $225 (each)
I paid almost the exact same amount of money for a set of steel wheels and winter tires for my car. That was used, and off craigslist, but still. Front and rear is going to set you back $450. But for riding the packed-down, icy and bumpy trails these might turn what would be a completely frustrating ride into a good time. And good times often have a price tag.
More info: trekbikes.com
Stay tuned for full reviews of all these things in the future. In the meantime, go enjoy the weather, whatever it is doing in your locale.
Words: Sarah Galbraith
In parts of our country, when winter takes a firm, frosty grip on your core, some mountain bikers mark the turn of seasons by putting away their bikes and tuning up their skis. But explosive growth in winter fat biking has taken hold in the past few years: Sales grew 44 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, with nearly 38,000 fat bikes sold in 2014 alone. It turns out pedaling on two wheels is just too much fun to call it quits when Jack Frost comes a-banging.
As Andy Williamson, Great Lakes Region director with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), puts it, “Fat biking is not a fad; it’s still mountain biking.” Mountain bikers in his neck of the woods, like Illinois and Iowa, are psyched to have an option to ride year round. “What we enjoy on mountain bikes in the summer is now also available in the winter season,” he says.
While the popularity of fat biking has exploded, the number of places to ride has not necessarily kept the same pace. When it comes to winter trails, many land managers and mountain bike advocates are still figuring things out. Folks in Colorado, Illinois and Vermont are working hard at developing new relationships and gaining trail access for fat bikes, and they’re all making progress in exciting ways.
The Same Access Fight
At first, bike shops were selling fat bikes like hotcakes but couldn’t really advise customers on where to ride, so they began sneaking onto groomed cross-country ski-touring center trails at night when no one was there to catch them. (They were riding snowmobile trails without permission as well.) They were also heading out on local ungroomed singletrack, often disappointed after struggling over a trail that was tracked out by snowshoers and dog walkers. None of this was terribly fun, so soon bikespecific snow singletrack became the goal among fat-bikers.
“We’re in the thick of it in terms of finding access for fatbikers,” says Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association based in Aspen, Colorado, and associate region director for IMBA. “Our philosophy is ‘build it and they will come.’” Pritchard explains that his community’s goal is to create winter mountain bike trails rather than searching for access on existing trail networks. “We’re looking to provide a separate experience. Riding singletrack is more enjoyable than riding 8- to 12-foot-wide groomed Nordic tracks,” he explains. “Bikespecific singletrack is the goal. That will give everybody the best experience possible.”
To achieve this, Pritchard believes fat-bikers have to do the same thing mountain bikers did a few decades ago to gain summer access. In the ’80s, bikes were used to explore existing routes in forests and beyond, generally on public lands, much in the same way the first fat bike riders took to established winter routes. When the administrative decision came down to exclude mountain bikes from legislated Wilderness areas, mountain bikers got organized and worked with land managers to find places for trails that were sustainable, catered to a broad ridership and provided the best experience.
Now, Pritchard says, fat-bikers need to organize in the same way: “We need to join together so it’s clear to land managers that this is not a fad, and that providing great fat bike experiences is a truly worthwhile cause.”
His community is working on access to naturally groomed trails that are currently used by skiers and snowshoers, skirting town on public and private land. They’re also working with National Forest land managers to develop fat biking on federal land, where snow compaction is an issue for wildlife management. His group thinks fat bikes could be added to National Forest areas with existing compacted routes such as roads and snowmobile trails, and National Forest staff are planning an environmental analysis of the issue.
The Global Fat Bike Summit and Festival, held in January 2015, brought together fat bike advocates and land managers, including staff from the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and various state parks. The summit was held in Jackson, Wyoming, where local U.S. Forest Service staff have been progressive with fat bike policies.
But other public and federal areas, like Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, have banned fat bikes. The takeaway message of the summit is that this is not going away. For riders, fat bikes mean new trails and new terrain to ride. For bike shops, fat bikes allow them to still be bike shops through the winter, rather than laying off staff or switching to skis. But for land managers, it’s a new user group to manage, and new strategies are needed.
Pritchard says that quickly evolving fat bike technology can help the case for winter access. For example, tires have gotten wider and can run lower pressure. This means less compaction, which is important when sharing trails with other users, as on groomed Nordic trails, or riding in natural areas. Suspension forks are increasingly available as well, making riding on naturally groomed trails smoother.
“This technology can lend itself to better access, compared to bikes from 10 years ago,” says Pritchard. Plus, smaller-wheeled fat bikes for kids were added to the market last year, and that should help more families get out on the trails.
Getting to Know Snow
“Winter riding was already happening when fat bikes came along,” says Matt Andrews of his home state, Minnesota, where he’s executive director of Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) and an assistant region director with IMBA. “MORC already had winter cycling, so when fat bikes came on the scene we just started grooming trails we already had.”
MORC maintains 50 miles of winter singletrack that exists in six public parks. Fat-bikers share the trails with snowshoers and runners. They don’t share trails with snowmobiles because there is a concern about the safety of combining motorized and non-motorized use, particularly in the dusk and evening hours.
Andrews also believes it’s important for trail maintainers to learn snow science. Learning how to groom is a big deal, and it can take years of experimenting to learn when to groom and what tools to use in different snow conditions. His group learned about grooming by connecting with the local Nordic community. “They understand when to groom,” he says. “If there is fresh snow, they’ll groom at midnight and let it set for four, six or 12 hours to get it solid.”
The key to good grooming is to fluff the snow to get the air out and then pack it down with something heavy. On trails where they can use motorized equipment, MORC employs a Yamaha Big Wheel, which is a fat-tired motorcycle. A club member who is handy with a welder designed their own grooming implements to attach to a hitch behind the motorcycle. “One looks like a big cheese grater,” Andrews says.
Where motorized use is not allowed, snowshoers will pack in the trail and drag truck tires behind them. In northern Minnesota, a group called The Snowshoe Zombies packs in winter singletrack by snowshoe. “These are athletic, CrossFit-type people,” according to Andrews. They snowshoe in a line, sometimes walking sideways, up and down the hills. “They’re Jazzercising down the trail,” he laughs, “working it out, and that makes beautiful singletrack.”
But snowshoe grooming takes a tremendous effort and works only where there is a dedicated group of volunteer snowshoers or runners. Aside from grooming advice, Andrews recommends that mountain bike groups think about winter when they’re proposing new trail projects and maintaining existing trails.
For example, trim tree branches higher when building trail to accommodate for the extra height of snow. Look at features like berms, double jumps and drops and think about how they will ride in the winter, or how they can be improved upon with snow. Because snow is a more durable surface, trail builders can break the rules a bit when designing winter trails.
Sharing Is Caring
When fat bikes first came on the scene, Vermonters were finding their own places to ride, legal or not. But in the last couple of winters, Vermont has been adding fat bikes to existing summer and winter trail networks, and the shared-use model is working. Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont, which sees 60,000 summer mountain bikers per year on its vast network of singletrack, switches to a cross-country ski-touring center in the winter.
But in recent years the nonprofit organization that maintains the trails has been encouraged by the popularity of fat biking, so they added it to their winter operations. A 12-mile network of singletrack is snowmobile and snowshoe groomed by the trail crew, and last winter they had 2,500 fat-bikers ride there.
The Jay Cloud, a full-service bike shop located near Jay Peak Resort in Montgomery, Vermont, just added a winter bike shop at the mountain. Co-owner Ethan Dull got excited about his own fat bike last season and talked to the operations staff at the ski resort; management saw it as an additional recreation opportunity that would bring more people to the mountain. Everyone was happy to bring more people to the Nordic trail network, which hadn’t been seeing a lot of skier traffic.
Plus, fat biking complements skiing, says Dull: “On crappy ski days, the trails are great for riding.” Dull moves his bike shop to the Nordic center at the mountain for the winter and offers sales, service and fat bike demos and rentals. Fat-bikers have access to nearly 12 miles of Nordic ski trails and about 2 miles of snowshoe-groomed singletrack. He also likes to set up his demo fleet at the base of the mountain on a nice day and says the bikes get a lot of attention. “Most people have never seen or heard of these things, and once they see them they want to get out and try it.”
Dull also gets a lot of attention just biking around the base area to get coffee or run errands. Last year was particularly stellar when it comes to fat biking events in Vermont. New England’s fat bikers enjoyed Le Grand Fat Tour, a six-event series organized by Mountain Bike Vermont. The events spanned the Vermont-Quebec border and drew in 1,000 participants. Winterbike at Kingdom Trails was the culmination of the series, with 400 people joining the ridiculously fun daylong festival of riding, drinking, food and music. Plus, the Stowe Derby, a nutty downhill ski race that combines cross-country and downhill ski racing on old-school gear, welcomed 100 fat-bikers to the start line in 2014, marking the event’s 70th anniversary.
Vermont Mountain Bike Association’s (VMBA) executive director, Tom Stuessy, has been working tirelessly on winter access. Plans are in the works for an interactive online trail map, which this year will show 15 to 20 areas with open access for bikes, and expanding access is also at the top of the agenda. “VMBA’s been working very closely with public-land managers to find more and better access in Vermont,” says Stuessy. A new partnership among VMBA, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation has invited five VMBA chapters to allow fat bikes on groomed snowmobile trails that are on state land.
“The point is not to provide long, 20-mile corridors of shared snowmobile trails,” says Stuessy. “The partnership is based on an understanding that we want access to the corridor to connect other fat bike riding areas.” To support the partnership, riders across the state will join local VAST clubs and will pitch in with trail maintenance and signage.
The Future Is Not Frozen
Clearly the number of places to ride your fat bike is on the rise across the country. Williamson, IMBA’s region director working in the Great Lakes area, thinks the winter fat bike access fight will be expedited, since this is just mountain biking, after all, and we’ve already come a long way with summer access. Yet he sees a future of providing trails on public land where people live that are purpose-built for fat bikes. He expects more ski resorts will add groomed fat bike trails in the coming years as well, since those riders represent a new market. To help all of this happen, he says, “We need to talk up the benefits of winter mountain biking.”
Just so we are clear, this story is about Crested Butte Fat Bike World Championships, as in SSCXWC and SSWC and #fatbikeshit. The acronyms UCI and USAC had nothing to do with the super-fat-tire race that went down last weekend high in the Colorado mountains.
Crested Butte, Colorado, claims itself as the birthplace of mountain biking (in tandem with Marin County, California, of course), making it a fitting place to host a “world championship” for one of mountain biking’s newest iterations. But just like it shares that mantle, it has to share another: Midwesterners argue that they have hosted a citizens fat bike “championship” race for several years near Cable, Wisconsin, called Fat Bike Birkie. Others will tell you that Noquemanon World Championship Snowbike in Marquette, Michigan, which ran in 2012 and 2013, was first. On a more formal note, USA Cycling will run Fat Bike Nationals in Ogden, Utah, February 27.
Technicalities aside, there’s nothing bad about getting a bunch of knobby-tire lovers together for a weekend dedicated to fun. The four-day event was hosted by the chamber of commerce and sponsored by Borealis Fat Bikes of Colorado Springs. A relay/team race and bike demo kicked things off Thursday, January 28, followed by a regional advocacy and access summit on Friday.
The official, so-called world championship race happened on Saturday, when about 260 people gathered to ride a six-mile loop—three passes for the open class and five times for the elites—on a wide, groomed track normally only open to Nordic skiers.
Two hundred and sixty is also the number of people estimated to have showed up to race the first Single Speed World Championships of mountain biking in 1999, so Crested Butte Fat Bike Worlds is off to a proper start.
The event was very inclusive with categories including 55-plus, junior men and women, and adaptive racers. Kids on fat bikes were probably the coolest thing I saw all weekend. Most of the participants hailed from Colorado or one of the surrounding Rocky Mountain states. A handful of those were racing on demo bikes, having never powered a fat bike prior to the event, including the elite men’s winner, professional American road cyclist Robbie Squire.
Sanctioned shenanigans were decidedly tame when compared to the SSWC events (which I was under the impression this event was trying to replicate, at least somewhat), but the outdoor performance by Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band was fantastically awesome and Odell Brewing was pouring tasty brews all weekend.
Race planner and chamber of commerce director Dave Ochs loudly proclaimed to the finish-line crowd that Fat Bike Worlds would never be taken away from Crested Butte, so there were no drunken games played to see which city would host the race, next, though free marijuana from the local distributor was included in some of the winners’ prize packs.
No matter what, Crested Butte is one of the most picturesque, charming mountain towns in Colorado—the archetype for a place were you’d be pleased to be trapped by a snowstorm for several days. And the bicycle culture is deeply ingrained. Adjacent each of the in-town bus stops were tall snow drifts with several rusty, old bicycles crammed into them, unlocked—apparently the formal method of bike parking. But it’s not an easy place to get to, and then there is Colorado’s penchant for dumping non-bike-friendly powder to contend with. As the locals said, “We don’t ride on snow days—we ski.”
At the end of it all, a rider still walked away with a permanent mark on his bottom, a la SSWC. Andre-Paul Michaud, winner of the men’s open race (pictured below in black), was the only champion who consented to having his skin branded, literally, with the event logo. Michaud, hailing from Durango, Colorado, laid down his three laps in one hour, 18 minutes and was rewarded by being laid face-down in the snow to have a hot branding iron pressed into his flesh (video from Bikepackers Magazine).
Crested Butte Fat Bike Worlds will need to figure out its niche personality, especially in order to compete with the multitude of other fat bike races occurring in the state and across the country around the same time. Either way it leans—by growing more serious with a bigger industry presence or crawling a bit more underground—throwing yourself around in the snow with a few hundred new friends then drinking local beer, listening to live music and going skiing the next day is a recipe for a good time.
One of the more interesting features of Ibis’ Tranny 29 hardtail is its two-piece frame. Not only can it be taken apart to fit in a airline-legal bag, it can also be used to tension a chain for singlespeeding. Now you can take your Tranny fat-biking by replacing one piece of that two-piece frame with a Trans-Fat rear triangle available early next year. No Tranny? No problem. Get a complete Trans-Fat for $5,099 or a frame only for $1,700.
For $699, you’ll get a rear triangle with 177 mm spacing, a spacer kit to take the bottom bracket shell to 100 mm for proper chainline, and a 3 mm taller crown race. Of course, you’ll also need a RockShox Bluto fork with 120 mm travel, a crank with a 100 mm spindle and a set of fat bike wheels and tires.
Tire clearances are based on the Schwalbe 26 x 4-inch Jumbo Jim with an 80 mm rim. Geometry is very similar to the Tranny 29 with a standard 120 mm fork, except for slightly longer, yet still reasonable 17.8-inch chainstays. Ibis wanted to keep this Trans-Fat on the fun end of the spectrum so geometry is decidedly on the slacker side of the coin. The complete bike includes a dropper post, more evidence this is more of a trail bike and not a back-country explorer.
Some other features via Ibis:
- 3.25 lb carbon monocoque frame
- Designed to work with 120 mm forks
- Works with 4-inch tires
- Geared or singlespeed compatible
- Gates Carbon Belt Drive compatible
- Internal routing for dropper posts
- Clean, versatile multi-option internal cable routing
- Tapered head tube (suitable for various Cane Creeks & Chris King InSet 3)
- 100 mm BSA thread bottom bracket (with provided BB92 adapters)
- 177 mm x 12 mm Maxle rear axle
- 160 mm carbon fiber post mount rear brake mounts (we recommend 200mm/180mm rotors)
- Headset: IS ZS44/28.6 | EC49/40
- BB height w/ 4″ Jumbo Jim tires: 315 mm
- Geometry measured with 531 mm axle to crown fork and our 3 mm crown race
Current production run of Trans-Fats have been allocated to dealers already, so you best get on the phone if you want one. This first run will only be complete bikes in the orange/copper frame color. There will be another round of production in February 2016, which will include completes, rear triangle conversions and frames.
Ibis website has more information.
Fat bike car racks were a bit slow to come to market even as frames shod with four- and five-inch tires took off out of the gate. Now, RockyMounts is offering a fat bike roof rack for $160. The TomaHawk can fit almost all wheel sizes: 20 inches to 29 inches, and up to 5-inch fat bike tires. It mounts to all styles of crossbars—round, square, factory and aero—and will hold your road bike, your mountain bike, your fat bike or whatever else.
Editor’s Note: This bike is part of our annual, sub-$3,000 bike test where the Dirt Rag staff spends significant time aboard less-expensive but fully capable offerings that we’d seriously consider buying ourselves. The final review will be out early 2016 in issue #189. Subscribe today so you don’t miss it!
The new Wednesday brings Surly’s fat bike offerings to a total of four distinct models. Before you shrug and look away, consider this: Surly created the Wednesday after breeding several of its bikes, not overlooking modern touches, finding a more economical way to build this frame and managing to offer a complete build and lots of fun that is well under $2,000.
I have owned a second-generation Pugsley for a few years and believe that if you’re going to have just one bike—or, if you’re going to have a lot of bikes—you should have an unpretentious Surly in your possession.
To offer up a comparison, I have been riding my Pugsley and the Wednesday together and the differences were evident immediately. The Pugsley is predictable and sure-footed; mine gladly does double-duty as a snow bike, camping rig and an around-town commuter. The Wednesday is still a stable beast covered in braze-ons and rack mounts and built to survive the apocalypse, but its geometry tweaks are obvious even hopping off curbs in an urban environment—the bike wants to get on a trail and shred.
The Wednesday frame features a head tube with a 69-degree angle with the stock tapered fork (68 degrees when running a 100 mm RockShox Bluto), a 43.3-inch wheelbase on my size small and adjustable rear stays ranging from 435 to 455 mm that accommodate a wide range of wheel/tire combos. It’s slacker and has more standover clearance than the Pugsley. Frame weight, wheelbase length, tire clearance and mannerisms fall in between the Pugsley and Surly Ice Cream Truck. You can take the Wednesday home to mom, but it will raise some eyebrows.
Stock stem length on my size small bike is 70 mm (stem length jumps to 80 mm on the medium frame, 90 mm on the large frame and a whopping 100 mm on the extra-large frame). Handlebar width is 700 mm (stock bar width jumps to 750 mm for frame sizes M-XL). Both bars and stem are unbranded as is the saddle which, so far, has been more comfortable than most in-house stock seats.
The Wednesday’s frame is cleanly TIG-welded out of Surly’s own 4130 CroMoly steel, painted in a lovely 1950s kitchen appliance blue and features a 100 mm threaded (yay!) bottom bracket. The wheels are built with Surly’s 80 mm tubeless-compatible (yay!) My Other Brother Daryl rims and wrapped in Surly Nate 26 x 3.8-inch tires. The drivetrain is all SRAM X5 paired with Hayes MX Comp mechanical disc brakes with 160 mm rotors front and rear.
In line with all Surlys, the Wednesday is rife with options and options for the options. It is a dream for restless tinkerers who aren’t satisfied with a bike that has a single, unchanging personality. Not only can you run a suspension fork, but the Wednesday takes a 30.9 mm seatpost and offers internal cable routing for a dropper. The rear-facing slotted dropout (unique to this frame) can accept either a 177 x 12 mm thru-axle or a 170 x 10 mm quick release. You can run up to a 26 x 4.6-inch tire on the stock rims, or you can jump to 29plus wheels with 3-inch tires. A move away from offset rear spacing means more wheel possibilities and simpler rack mounting.
All of the above options are not only nice, but they mean the Wednesday can grow with you and your budget and your level of adventurousness. It’s still a super-fun bike without a suspension fork or a dropper or a spare set of wheels with different tires or a full bikepacking rack setup, but adding those components over time is kind of a no-brainer.
So far, the Wednesday and I have explored beach sand and dry, rocky trails. Now that winter has arrived in Colorado’s high country, the next few weeks will involve exploring snow-covered singletrack. I might be wishing for wider tires if I hit powder, but I know I won’t be wishing for a different bike. The Wednesday may be wide and kind of heavy and require more thoughtful, forceful inputs than a supermodel carbon machine, but it still puts a huge smile on my face.
Subscribe today so you don’t miss the full review in our next issue, plus long-term ride tests of all eight bikes in our annual, sub-$3,000 bike test.
Every year for the last few years, Dirt Rag has gathered up a half-dozen or so full-suspension trail bikes for complete testing that fall into the entry-level/affordable/budget category. Yes, three grand is still a lot of money, but good bikes aren’t cheap and this price point is much more reasonable for the average enthusiast rider willing to invest some coin in a great ride. So, there you go.
This year we are changing things up significantly by opening our test up to all types of mountain bikes, not just suspension bikes. The following caught our eye for one reason or another, but all of them are bikes we’d look very hard at in their respective categories. Or, rather, these are bikes I would look at since, really, these are all my choices. Direct your ire toward me about whatever it is that has you all wadded up. The rest of the DR crew is just here to ride the things and give us their honest opinions.
We’ll roll out first impressions of these bikes over the next few days and full reviews in Dirt Rag issue #189 (January). Subscribe today so you don’t miss it. In the meantime, here are the reasons each bike ended up on the list and who the testers are.
Scott Spark 950 — $2,700
I still have fond memories of the Spark 29 RC I raced in the Trans-Sylvania Epic a few years ago. The 950 is a much less expensive version of that bike, with an aluminum frame and a less expensive build kit. What is doesn’t lose is the Twin-Loc lockout and what is perhaps the most aggressive geometry for a cross-country race bike you can buy. Head angle is a slack 68.8 or 68.3 degrees; the bottom bracket height is around 13 inches; and the chain stays are right at 17 inches, which makes me think this bike would be well served by a dropper.
Dirt Rag Editor-in-Charge Mike Cushionbury is our resident former XC pro license holder, and assigning him the Spark is my continued attempt to get him on more modern bikes. Now if only I can pry those narrow bars and long stems out of his grasp, then we’ll be getting somewhere.
Devinci Hendrix — $2,999
I was surprised to see the Hendrix, to be honest. Devinci is a small company and a bike like this (120/110 front/rear travel, 27plus wheels) is taking a big chance with the limited resources smaller companies have to develop new products. Working in Devinci’s favor is in-house aluminum frame production, which saves a lot of time. With the American dollar strong against the Canadian dollar, those of us in the States have some serious buying power.
What really drew me to the Devinci is its aggressive geometry paired with shorter travel, a recipe that usually spells F-U-N. Dirt Rag’s new art director, Stephen Haynes, gets welcomed to the fold with this pretty righteous test bike.
Norco Torrent 7.1 — $2,425
Norco has a number of bikes under $3,000, but this is the newest to the lineup and is a return to the heavy-duty hardtail category for the Canadian brand. Maybe it is just me, but after years of riding all kinds of knobby-tired bikes, this thing looks almost perfectly proportional. And in case anyone was wondering about which 27plus tires are best for fall use on the East Coast, the Schwalbe Nobby Nics are perhaps the best thing to happen to leaf-covered trails.
I (Tech Editor Eric McKeegan) am riding this bike and am stoked on its slack, low and short geometry.
Marin Attack Trail — $2,750
I’ve been digging Marin’s evolving lineup over the last few years. The Attack Trail is a standout for a number of reasons. While the SR Suntour fork and shock might not be as well-regarded as the bigger names, both have more damping adjustments than many bikes at this price. The 1×10 drivetrain has a Sunrace 11-42-tooth cassette for most of the range of more expensive 11-speed systems. And out of every bike here, I think the Marin looks least like its price tag.
Our general manager and Dirt Rag photographer Justin Steiner is testing the limits of those Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires on the leaf-covered trails around Dirt Rag’s Pittsburgh HQ.
Kona Hei Hei Trail — $2,500
We’ve been fans of the many new bikes from Kona in the last few years. Kona has a bigger range of sub-$3k trail bikes than just about anyone, but another 29er seemed to be the best bet for this group so the new Hei Hei Trail got the nod. Taking the proven Hei Hei cross-country platform and swapping in some sturdier parts and a longer fork has resulted in something that I would almost describe as a Process 111 lite.
We might have lost Adam Newman as Dirt Rag’s web editor, but he moved only a few feet away to play editor-in-chief of our sister mag, Bicycle Times. He’ll be riding the Hei Hei in its Pacific Northwest homeland.
Surly Wednesday — $1,500
The Wednesday is a true sleeper. On the surface, it looks like just another fatty in an already-crowded field of Surly fat bike offerings, but looking more closely reveals a refined and thoughtful bike. A 177 mm symmetrical rear end, 100 mm threaded bottom bracket shell, horizontal drop outs that can fit either thru-axles or quick releases, full length cable housing, tapered head tube, internal dropper post routing and enough braze-ons to keep everyone happy. Mix that up with modern trail geometry and suspension fork compatablity and it looks like a winner to me. Its cheapest-of-the-bunch price tag and Addams Family-inspired name are the icing on the cake.
Our new web editor, Katherine Fuller, took the reigns on this one and is out in Colorado bouncing over rocky singletrack waiting for the snow to fall.
Charge Cooker — $2,400
A little confession: I really wanted this bike to be Cannondale’s Beast of the East, but it wasn’t ready in time and was replaced with this bike from Charge, another bike brand in the Dorel family. This video is what got the Cooker on my radar originally and, after seeing them in person at Interbike, I was pretty interested. The stock Trailblazer tires aren’t ideal around western Pennsylvania this time of year, but swapping the front tire to a much bigger and more aggressive WTB Trail Boss has helped tremendously.
Our circulation guy Jon Pratt is pedaling this one into fall and probably missing his dropper post.
Transition Patrol 4 — $2,999
Did you know you can get a complete Transition for under $3,000? Yes, even if only by one dollar. For a brand that is as well-regarded as Transition, this is good news for riders with smaller credit card limits. Considering that the frame itself retails for $1,999, there is a great deal of value in the parts kits. The Marzocchi fork up front was a bit of a worry, at first, but with the news that Fox purchased the mountain bike side of Marzocchi there is much less reason for worry about parts and warranty support.
Friend of Dirt Rag (official title) Bill Kirk is on this one. This Transition is a hell of a good looking bike for the money.
Fyxation might not be the most familiar brand to mountain bike riders, having started life focusing on the urban riding scene. Which is why this carbon fat bike came as a surprise from a company whose bike line is otherwise a fully steel affair.
I asked Ben Ginster, Fyxation’s marketing guy, about the decision to go with carbon for a fat bike. “A big driver behind carbon for the Blackhawk was our goal of producing a true four-seasons bike,” he says. “While steel fat bikes are a great entry to the fat-biking world, a carbon build allows you to make a sub-30-pound winter rig that’s quick when the snow is flying, but can also be a capable trail bike year round. We’ve done builds down to 23 pounds, which is feathery even for bikes that never touch snow.” Seems legit to me.
The Blackhawk isn’t a Fyxation-exclusive design, but it hits all the targets of a four-season bike: modern axle standards (197/150), clearance for five-inch tires, suspension-corrected and capable of running 29plus tires on a second wheelset in the summer. Shift cables are internally routed through the top tube, and the 31.6-inch seatpost diameter is ready for a dropper post, but you are on your own for cable routing.
After consulting the sizing recommendations, I went with a medium (17- inch) frame and was comfortable from the get-go, but riders with long legs might need something longer than the stock 375 mm seatpost, as I was almost maxed out with my 31-inch inseam. The rest of the bike fit very well and was supremely comfortable from the jump—a good thing, since my first real ride was more than six hours long.
The build kit is a smart blend of affordable and sturdy. Some standouts are the aggressive Surly Nate 3.8 tires, Sun Mulefüt rims and Hayes Prime brakes. I rode quite often in single-digit temps, and the Primes seemed completely unaffected. My tester was one of the first off the boat and was set up 1×10 with a 28-tooth ring, but future complete bikes will have a Race Face Cinch 2x crank with 22/36 chainrings. I was happy to charge on the 1×10, but when fatigue set in I was wishing for a double ring or a wider-range cassette.
If you aren’t happy with the stock build, the frame and fork are $1,795. Since Fyxation assembles this bike in Milwaukee, it is able to offer a custom parts program through its dealer network. From mild to wild, you can get almost anything you can dream up; from racer-boy builds to super-fat trail bikes with a suspension fork, Fyxation can scratch your carbon itch.
As is becoming my wont with review bikes, my first ride was a doozy. Frozen Fat is a fat bike festival in Central Pennsylvania in January, and this year they added a 70-mile race to the fun. So after a few spins around the block to get saddle and bar height dialed, I slapped on some platform pedals for my winter boots and headed out into the cold.
The Blackhawk is one of those bikes that I clicked with immediately. Geometry is a happy medium between cross-country and trail, and it’s easy to set up with a riding position that’s efficient and all-day comfortable, yet still ready to rip. The 69.5-degree head angle can’t be classified as steep or slack, and combined with the 18.4-inch chainstays and 11.8-inch bottom-bracket height, it makes for a stable bike that retains a surprising level of playfulness for such a long rear end. Some of that might be attributed to the bouncy nature of the fat tires, which can be timed to spring off and over trail features.
Where that long rear end and low bottom bracket pays off is on ice. I spent hours on unmaintained Forest Service roads that were nothing but miles of icy ruts. I went down plenty of times, but overall the stable geometry of this bike was appreciated, more so as I fatigued and began to lose focus.
On warmer days and drier trails, the Blackhawk is easy to get along with. On high-traction surfaces, the typical fat bike tire-squirm issues are still present, but I’m happy enough ripping around in the woods. There is plenty of room to run 29 or 29plus tires in this frame. I was concerned the taller 29plus tires would raise the bottom bracket to an undesirable level, but even another inch taller wouldn’t drive things into the tippy range and may actually improve performance in tight, technical terrain.
What complaints I could muster are few. A single bottle mount on the down tube isn’t ideal for a bike that could be made into a cross-country racer, but the huge standover clearance is not a bad thing. With this build kit, I was surprised its weight was around 30 pounds. Going tubeless and losing the 27 tpi tires can drop an easy two to three pounds, or throwing money at carbon components can drop even more weight. And finally, that 197 mm rear hub has to be paired with a wide bottom bracket. Add in some platform pedals, winter boots, a low bottom bracket and long chainstays, and rocky, narrow trails can become a frustrating series of pedal strikes.
The Blackhawk may be one of the least expensive ways to get a carbon fat bike these days, short of dealing directly with a Chinese frame manufacturer. Of course that doesn’t make this an inexpensive investment, but the market is full of cheaper fat bikes, all the way down to $200 fat-bike-shaped objects at Walmart. With clearance for the largest tires on the market, what seems to be the settled-upon hub and bottom-bracket standards and the option to run a suspension fork, I wouldn’t expect this frame to be outdated anytime soon.
The stable geometry is well suited to icy conditions and long rides, making this a strong contender for wintertime endurance racers. Most riders will be happy with it as a trail bike, although those used to modern trail-bike geometry may find the long rear end cumbersome in technical terrain. All in all, I had a smashing good time on this bike and would have no problem recommending it to riders looking for a lighter-weight way to get fat.
- Price: $2,795 (complete), $1,795 (frame and fork)
- Sizes: 15″, 17″ (tested), 19″
- Wheelbase: 44.7 inches
- Top Tube: 23.8 inches
- Head Angle: 69.5 degrees
- Seat-Tube Angle: 73 degrees
- Bottom Bracket: 11.8 inches
- Rear Center: 18.4 inches
- Weight: 29.8 pounds
- specs based on size tested
Photos by the author and Anthony Bareno, Velo Cult
It’s hard to point a finger at what was the “first” fat bike. Just like the origins of the mountain bike itself, there are several branches in the family tree.
This prototype of what would later become the production Hanebrink “Extreme Terrain Bike”—which is still in production today—is the second design, but used many of the parts from the first bike, so it is likely the oldest example in existence. Today it resides in Portland, Oregon, at Velo Cult, a combination bike shop, tavern, event venue and bike museum where it joins dozens of other pioneering off-road bicycles from the likes of Yeti, Ritchey, Salsa and more.
In the early 1990s, mountain biking was still in its infancy and Dan Hanebrink was building quite a few eyebrow-raising bikes, including a dedicated downhill road bike with a sleek fairing that resembled a vintage Moto GP bike and a modified SE Shocker, one of the first mountain bikes with a suspension.
While many early fat bike pioneers were welding together rims and sticking together tires, Hanebrink was experimenting with tires from a whole different source. These original tires are from an ATV and were shaved down as much as possible to shed weight by a company called Skat Trak in California. Small screws were added for traction on ice and snow. They are designed to be ridden at 2 to 4 psi on soft surfaces.
Click on the magnifying glass at the bottom right to see larger photos.
The drivetrain is offset, such that the Q-factor is the same as a normal bike, but a secondary drive chain powers what is essentially a standard derailleur system. The gearing is low enough that it can be ridden at or below walking speeds. The chainrings are only 12t-18t-24t but they are the equivalent of 24t-36t-48t when factoring in the extra ratios of the secondary chain.
Since it is a prototype, some of the details are less than polished, but the basic layout is nearly identical to the current models. The head tube sports a prototype shock absorber, and the brakes are early ProStop models. If you’re wondering why suspension is necessary giving the big tires, a Mountain Bike Action article from 1993 points out that the front wheel was occasionally replaced with a pair of small skis and ridden in the snow around Hanebrink’s home in Big Bear Lake, California, and the front end would bounce harshly without a shock absorber.
Today Fortune Hanebrink bikes have found uses in military and other extreme terrain, often with an electric motor assist. There is even a special golf-specific variation. The prototype is part of Velo Cult’s collection, though it still sees occasional use. If you’re ever in Portland be sure to stop by, have a beer, and take a look.