Fat bikes are on the rise. Once the specialist reserve of extreme adventure racers and the terminally snowbound, these big-wheelers are are being produced by big brands and small manufacturers alike.
Essex-based Travers Bikes started out making high-quality, handbuilt titanium frames, such as the Rudy Fat 29+ and the 26in Fat Race, and has recently expanded, developing a selection of titanium finishing kit to complement the frames. This range includes the H1 titanium handlebar (£129) and the S1 titanium seatpost (£109).
As well as working with titanium, Travers isn't adverse to using lightweight carbon: the latest addition to its component list is the Prong fork, which comes in versions suitable for several wheel sizes. The super light 26in Prong fat bike fork (£329) weighs in at an impressive 533g.
So does the fat bike transcend its roots in snow and sand? Will it take us to places that are unreachable by conventional mountain bikes? We've been riding a prototype of the Fat Race, and putting it through its paces for a long-term test for What Mountain Bike magazine, to find out.
Fat Race kit
Even before getting in the saddle, first impressions are good. The brushed titanium frame is a thing of beauty, incorporating clever details such as a split chainstay (a feature of our prototype test bike and an option for production framesets), a mud-friendly horseshoe chainstay bridge and a tapered head tube.
The split chainstay on our prototype is an optional extra on the production model
The production frameset also boasts a slightly longer chainstay allowing for 29+ 'summer' wheelsets, making for versatile build options. The geometry looks more aggressive than most fat bikes, with a slacker 69.5-degree head angle, which implies it's intended for off-road trail use rather than as a utility snow bike.
The horseshoe chainstay bridge allows for huge tyres and plenty of mud
We've left the spec almost as it was provided by Mike at Travers Bikes. With fat bikes, a large contact tyre patch is important to the ride quality, so we swapped out the Surly Nate tyres in favour of quicker-rolling Vee 8s.
This has sped things up on our local hardpack circuit in dry conditions, reducing rolling resistance while still delivering ample grip. The Vee 8s were more than capable on a dry Welsh trail centre route, even gripping techy rocky climbs with ease. With a high enough tyre pressure, they make the 10-mile road commute easier than you would expect too.
First ride impressions
There have been plenty of early fat bike adopters, but many others have been happy to claim that fat bikes don't make sense and therefore can't be any good. However, most testers who've given the Fat Race a go have been surprised by how it rides. It's certainly safe to say that it does not ride how it looks.
Standover is increased thanks to the curved top tube
One thing to get out of the way early is speed. Fat bikes aren't as quick as a full sus or an XC 29er. This isn't to say they are slow. On a group ride, you would be the one holding things up, but if being King of the Mountain is the most important thing in a day's riding, then fat bikes probably aren't right for you anyway.
The flipside to not being the speediest is that fat bikes offer a few things that quicker and comfier suspension-assisted bikes don't. The most noticeable aspect is that your connection with the trail is far more direct. By removing the luxury of suspension you have to be more aware of what you're riding and how you're going to tackle it. Choosing your line suddenly becomes very important and we found ourselves concentrating intently on upcoming trail features.
By the end of a long rocky descent, our tendons and muscles were screaming, but taking on a challenging descent while firmly outside of our comfort zone certainly adds a feeling of achievement.
Something we weren't expecting was the ease with which the Fat Race climbs. The huge contact patch added so much grip that it made short work of even loose and pebbly ascents, sticking stubbornly to terra firma.
The added traction makes short work of any incline
This isn't to say that the oversize wheels and tyres come without quirks. When travelling at speed on similar loose surfaces the heavier wheels gain a kind of gyroscopic element – and if the rear end skips out, you get kicked back upright with a jolt. At speed, the Fat Race wants to remain upright and travel in a straight line. It's unnerving at first, but once you know what to expect, wrestling it into corners feels fun and keeping your desired line becomes an additional challenge.