Fat bikes—those mountain cycles with cartoonishly wide wheels and tires—may seem purpose-built for riding in winter when the air balloons they appear to sport afford excellent flotation on snowy trails. But the most plausible creation story traces their origin to warm desert climates. Exploring the dunes and dry washes of southern New Mexico and northern Mexico, the intrepid off-road biker Ray Molina decided he needed something better to pedal through sand. So he custombuilt a bike with 3.5-inch-wide tires—more than 50 percent wider than a mountain bike—and a new category was born.
Today, just about every major bike manufacturer offers fat bikes, and they remain the best way to ride to, from and on the beach. Easily outfitted with racks, their stability also makes them better at carrying gear, from beach chairs to coolers to boogie boards. But they are still adept at warm-weather technical single-track. In fact, many converts prefer them to conventional mountain bikes for trail riding because fat tires eat up bumps and resist tipping over. They are not only the most versatile bicycle you can buy, but provide great value because expensive, breakage-prone suspension components and ultralight materials are largely unnecessary.
Not that all fat bikes are primitive. Surly Bicycles released the Pugsley, the first commercially available model, in 2003 and has steadily made improvements in design and materials. “It’s a myth that they are heavy or clunky—race caliber fat bikes now weigh under twenty pounds,” says marketing manager Dan Rasmussen. Today’s Pugsley features 4.3-inch-wide tubeless tires, disc brakes and 11 speeds, and at $1,900 occupies the middle of Surly’s fat bike range ($1,675 to $2,100). At Salsa, Surly’s sister company, prices can run up to $6,000 for the race-ready, carbon-fiber Beargrease X01 Eagle.
While Rasmussen calls fat bikes “barrier breakers,” he suggests steering them through the dense sand closer to the surf. “Riding in the middle of the beach is like riding in soft ungroomed snow. Closer to the water, it mimics riding on packed snow, and that’s easier and more fun.”