Ed. Note: The full version of this piece appears in Dirt Rag 202. Grab your copy today to read the full story and much more.
In some ways, it seems that plus tires have always been with us. It was the summer of 2012 when Surly released the Krampus and the Instigator, the first production plus-tire bikes, which were well-received by an unsuspecting public. For a brand often thought of as retro, Surly has been the catalyst for a massive number of trends in the bike industry. The popularity of fat bikes, 29ers and plus bikes can be blamed, in large part, on Surly’s efforts to bring affordable bikes in new niches to the market.
Surly really doesn’t have to share the spotlight with anyone else when it comes to the creation of plus tires, but it wasn’t until WTB introduced the 27.5×2.8 Trailblazer in 2014 that the idea took hold of the entire mountain bike market.
While originally designed to add some floatation to existing 29er frames, 27-plus has become a category all its own. A majority of brands are designing hardtails and at least one full-suspension platform that can switch between standard 29-inch wheels and 27-plus tires. Plus has spread to the road and gravel side of things as well, with big 650b tires slotting into frames designed for less-voluminous 700c tires.
What about the future of plus tires? Rather than play prognosticator myself, I asked a number of industry folks to do it for me. Here’s the inside scoop from a cross section of companies large and small.
Our cast of characters:
Rocky Mountain: Kenneth Perras, product manager
Surly: Adam Scholtes, product manager
Scott: Zack Vestal, bike marketing manager
Jones Bikes: Jeff Jones, founder and owner
Kona: Ian Schmitt, “product manager” or something like that
WTB: Clayton Wangbichler, public relations and content editor
Ibis: Scot Nicol, founder, and Colin Hughes, engineering manager
Santa Cruz: Don Palermini, marketing manager
Trek: Travis Ott, mountain bike brand manager
Specialized: Todd Cannatelli, MTB business manager
Was your development of plus tires or plus bikes the result of internal support or consumer demand?
Surly: The pursuit of plus was focused on our interest in building a bike with the biggest tires possible; with less of the design challenges around a 4-inch-and-bigger tire. Plus let us build a bike using “normal” parts. Further, with Krampus, our leading product offering in the plus category, the goal was to build a hardtail 29er that maximized the big wheel riding traits, characteristics and experience.
Rocky Mountain: We were early adopters of plus tires at Rocky Mountain Bicycles as we saw the benefits firsthand. It seems like quite some time ago since we launched the Sherpa, our self-named Overland platform. It featured 3.0-inch tires and wide rims that lent stability to the bigger tires. Since then, consumer demand for plus platforms has been strong and led to the development of more platforms such as the Growler and the Pipeline.
Scott: Originally, when Scott charged into the plus category with our 2016 Genius range, it was both internal support in the company and broad interest among riders.
Jones: I always wanted this. I’ve been using the widest rims and tires available since I started Jones Bikes. I’ve been using 29-inch tires with the widest rims available since they first came out, and even considered producing a 29×3 tire and 50 mm rim back in 2008-2009.
Kona: We have a bit of both with our lineup. There are some folks who are pretty into the plus tires here at Kona and some less so. We also recognized the demand and wanted to offer something for our dealers and consumers. We were able to come up with some options that didn’t erode the core purpose of the bikes in question just to have the plus tire compatibility. We felt comfortable with this and moved ahead.
WTB: That’s a tough one to address because we aren’t necessarily targeting a specific type of rider with our plus tires. Plus tires deliver certain benefits that are unique to high-volume casings, including lower pressures and increased tire contact patch. We know that riders of all skill levels and disciplines can find benefit [from] those characteristics. Some may like the benefits, while others may not believe they overcome the benefits of a traditional width tire. Therefore, the advantages of plus tires are based on rider preference, making it difficult to target specific categories of riders. We instead take the approach of explaining the benefits of plus tires and then allowing riders of all types to determine if it is right for them. We see first-time bike buyers choosing plus bikes for the increased confidence and stability they provide. At the same time, we’re at the Downieville Classic every year and continue to see elite racers barreling some of the most brutally unforgiving trails in the world on plus tires because of the endless traction they deliver.
Ibis: We saw the marketing push coming from the tire companies and knew customers would be asking about them. We quickly started experimenting with any plus tire we could get our hands on. We figured out we only liked the 2.8s for the style of trail bikes we make, and we chose to draw the line there. By not trying to accommodate 3.0 tires or also make it a 29er we could make a better frame that was lighter, stiffer and had shorter chainstays. That was exciting to us, so there was lots of internal support for making that style of bike.
Santa Cruz: It’s probably a bit of both. We’re always looking to optimize the riding experience, and there are some conditions where plus tires excel. Plus seemed to have caught the consumer’s imagination for a minute or two and we felt the demand. It died down considerably, and more recently we’ve seen another uptick in geographically specific areas. It’s one of the more curious ebb-and-flow cycles we’ve seen, and, who knows, tire development could amp it up again.
Trek: Speaking just for Trek, it was interesting and varied how it played out. With 29+, internal support led. There was not a throng of riders at our door demanding a 29+ bike, but we believed and experienced the unique benefits of 29+ and that led to the unique critter called Stache. With 27.5+, consumer demand led. We were getting requests from retailers and riders for 27.5+ full-suspension and hardtails.
Specialized: Initially we started looking into plus tires during the development of our Fatboy fat bike category. I remember riding some competitors’ fat bikes on local MTB trails in the spring and thinking the traction that fat bike tires delivered was insane. I thought, if this bike had suspension and a slightly narrower tire, it would be so much fun. Obviously I wasn’t the only person thinking this, and a 3-inch tire wasn’t anything new (remember the Nokian Gazzaloddis from the ‘90s??). I cobbled together a hardtail with some 26×3.0 tires and an inverted suspension fork (to clear the wider tire), but the 26-inch diameter still seemed to get hung up on square edge hits, and the tires were still super heavy. With that, we started developing our own 27.5 tire, which was just shy of a typical 29×2.3 outside diameter. This let us maintain a lot of our 29er geo that we’ve come to love, but offer more traction and control. It also resulted in a pretty versatile platform where a rider could swap between a 27.5×3.0 wheel/tire and 29×2.3 wheel/tire, depending on the terrain and tire feel they were looking for.
Do you think plus tires are part of the reason the fat bike market is in rapid decline?
Rocky Mountain: I think the declining fat bike market is coming from other factors, such as being a platform with a narrower range of use and being someone’s secondary (or more) bike. The fat bike market has peaked and riders with fat bikes are not interested in purchasing a new one every 2-3 years like they would with trail bikes. This is irrespective of having plus platforms out in the market, which serves a very different purpose. For us, plus bikes are meant for trail riding, not snow or very soft riding conditions.
Surly: I can’t speak to a direct correlation here. I know for us, the observation was that the rest of the bike market saw “fat” as a cash cow, everyone jumped in deep, and the market got flooded. There was a false peak in terms of sales, and potentially interest. I remember mountain bikes being marketed as “ATB” in the late ‘90s. All terrain is a bold claim. I always saw the fat bike as making good on the promise of the mountain bike to “go anywhere.” Plus certainly does a lot of that as well, with being much easier to design around.
Scott: It’s doubtful. Most people in the industry have a sense that fat bikes surged for a few years as committed riders in snowy or sandy locations quickly adopted them to extend their riding seasons. But now that most if not all those riders already have a fat bike in their quiver, as a 2nd or 3rd bike, the sales volume has dropped significantly.
Jones Bikes: Fat bikes were great, but there were too many downsides such as the wide bottom brackets and wide rear ends, which is why we have only done bikes with fat front wheels. It could also be that everyone already has a fat bike now.
Kona: The plus tire definitely eroded some of the appeal of the true fat bike in a lot of respects. I don’t think it is as simple as that however. Fat bike tech has kind of settled to a point where you’ve got 197 mm rear and it fits 5 inch tires, etc. If you have that bike already, why would you go get another brand new one? Not all, but most customers really only need one fat bike and it serves as a second/third/fourth type bike. Not the primary ride. This again, isn’t EVERY customer but just an observation. The plus tires are a ‘new’ curiosity for a lot of riders, and I think that is helping drive that purchasing behavior.
WTB: Fat bikes came about to, “Ride through sand, snow and anything else you may get yourself into. To extend your riding season through the winter. To float atop it all.” My 29+ Surly Krampus with 3.0 tires does all those things, while being more fun and efficient. Fat bikes will certainly stick around for those looking to plow through a snowstorm, ride across the Sahara or simply be the rider with something different. Although a large majority of the functionality related to fat bikes is covered (or even improved) by plus bikes and, therefore, I believe it’s certainly fueling the rapid decline and will continue to do so.
Ibis: The fat bike market just got oversaturated and now everybody has one who wants one. Now that fat bike innovation has plateaued, the one everybody has is good enough and they’re not buying a new one every year.
It’s a bit like what’s happening with trail bikes in Europe right now. Sales are down but e-bike sales are through the roof. Everyone’s trail bikes have been pretty good for the last couple years, and the next bright shiny thing in Europe is e-bikes, so they’re not updating their trail bike as often.
Santa Cruz: We’ don’t make a fat bike, but as an observer, I’d opine that what we’re seeing is the nexus of market saturation meeting oversupply. When nobody owned a fat bike and there were relatively few suppliers, growth and adaptation spiked. Now that most of the likely customers have a fat bike, and everybody-and-their-brother jumped in on the supply side, there’s a natural glut and slowdown.
But directly to the point of your question, anecdotally, we are hearing from shops that some of their customers are using our bikes with 29er wheels for most of the year, then switching over to plus wheels for the winter. Obviously they don’t have the full fatty capability and flotation for powdery conditions, but in packed snow and in general slop they perform pretty well. From a family dynamics standpoint, Shreddy Betty has an easier time convincing Chubby Hubby that she needs an extra wheelset over a whole new bike.
Trek: No. I think the fat bike market is still healthy and its perceived decline doesn’t have to do with more 3.0-inch trail bikes. Trek has seen great success with our fat bikes. As an industry, we overshot the fat bike forecast when the demand plateaued, and that left a lot of manufacturers and retailers with a glut of closeout fat bikes. However, Trek retailers have given us good indications every year, and we’ve had a responsible forecast that has kept our fat bike sales strong alongside strong plus bike sales.
Specialized: Plus tire bikes have certainly eroded some of the fat bike market. I think a lot of people that were riding fat bikes on the dirt have likely moved to a plus tire bike. They’re just much nimbler and lighter for a typical trail application. With the entry of plus bikes, I think we’ll see the large majority of the fat bike market move back to more dedicated snow bikes, with some additional bikepacking applications as well. Purely speculation on my part, but that’s my sense and anecdotal feedback seems to support that.