The opportunities of the fat tyre bicycle
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Leszek Sibilski: The fat tyre bike is no longer the sole domain of hipsters.

The first bicycle built for practical use was invented in Germany by Karl von Drais in 1817. Coined the laufmaschine or draisienne, the bicycle has since had many colourful names, including célérifère, penny-farthing, boneshaker, and dandy horse. It continues to go by many names today and has evolved into many representative subspecialties including road, track, cargo, mountain, downhill, BMX, hybrid, recumbent, cruiser, and fat-tire among many others.

Fat-tyre bikes are a niche product of the cycling industry. It is a four-season vehicle suitable for extreme all-terrain conditions and is occasionally manufactured with an electric assist drivetrain. Originally, the main purpose of the fat bike was to expand a biker’s adventurous reach within North America, and for the joy of going where no other bike had ever gone before. Traditionally, fat-tyre bikes, also called “fatties” or “fat bikes”, are handled differently to traditional mountain variants.

A fat-tyre bike is an off-road bicycle with oversized tyres. Typically the sidewall is 3.8 in (97 mm) or larger and the rims are 2.16 in (55 mm) or wider. They are designed for low ground pressure to allow for riding on soft, unstable, diverse terrain, namely snow, sand, desert, bogs, mud, pavement, or traditional mountain biking trails. Fat tyre bikes are built around frames with wide forks and stays to accommodate the wide rims required to fit these tyres. The wide tyres can be inflated to pressures as low as 340 hPa; 0.34 bar (5 psi) to allow better traction and floatation for a smooth ride over rough obstacles. Lower pressures may damage the rim on technical trails in the summer, but too much pressure makes the bike feel rigid and bouncy. Typically, 8-10psi is ideal for most riders. A rating of 550–690 hPa; 0.55–0.69 bar (8–10 psi) is suitable for the majority of riders. As a comparison, tyres on typical mountain bikes are inflated to pressures between 25-65 psi.

Experiments with limited prototypes of fat-tyre bikes first took place in the early 1900s. However, the real expansion of the modern-day fat-tyre bike came to be in the 1980s, followed by more commercially popular models in early 2000s.

Some argue that the first fat-tyre bikes were also the precursors of the first mountain bikes, the “balloners” or “klunkerz” in California or Colorado. These modified 1940s Schwinn single-speed balloon-tire cruisers were fitted with the “balloon” tires that were spun around in the early 70s and 80s. Later, during the 1990s in snowy Alaska and in rural New Mexico the versatile capabilities of the fat bike were further unveiled and appreciated.

Two names credited with the modern development of the quintessential fat-tyre bike are Mark Gronewald who coined the trademark term “fat-bike” for his bikes in 2001. Apparently, he invented the first snow bikes to gain a competitive edge in ultra-sport races, such as the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational. Other sources indicate that Ray “El Remolino” Molina, whose big tyres appeared around the same time in New Mexico and Texas, where touring bikes were in demand to cover long distances in the desert.

The Minnesota-based Surly brand can be credited for bringing the big rubber to the masses. In 2005, it’s Pugsley was the first mass-manufactured fat-bike that has since brought to North America “fat-bike madness.” 

Fat tyre bikes have been tested on the length of continents, across the snow covered state of Alaska, and along unique sections of coastline. In 2014, Daniel Burton was the first to cycle to the South Pole, and he did it on a fat-tyre bike. Starting from the coast of Antarctica, Burton rode a Borealis Yampa 775 miles over the course of 51 days to reach the South Pole. Snow bikes, once an obscure novelty for the masses originated in Alaska where long, cold, snowy winters make normal mountain biking a very short season. These fat tire beauties even have their own international day of recognition: Global Fat Bike Day on December 7.

There are many reasons why the “fat genre” should no longer fly beneath the radar of international cycling enthusiasts. Fat tyre bikes are exploration machines that can be ridden in any weather with increased comfort and better balance during the ride and with little maintenance.

For those who dread indoor trainers or stationary bikes, fat tyre bikes are year-round outdoor exercising opportunities that provide access to a variety of landscapes. They are suitable for beginners and advanced riders alike. Fat tyre bikes manifest the freedom to bike anywhere, anytime, and almost any place.

Critics may call them slow and a bit too expensive, but they are an excellent option for off-road bicycle access and are deserving of a second look from the development community.

It is predicted that bicycles have the potential to revolutionise urban mobility, but fat-tyre bikes certainly have the potential to revitalise remote and rural mobility. In the era of rapid desertification, deforestation, and growing scarcity of water, locals may find the fat-tyre bike to be a tool of transportation that is sustainable and versatile on the rugged terrain of the African continent, South Asia, South and Central America. The technology is already in place to soak up plenty of bumpy roads all over the world. Certainly, it is an idea worth considering, as bikes are viable alternatives for future human mobility.