The death of fat bikes?

Kind of, sort of, not really. It's a bit complicated

Are fat bikes done? Are their ten seconds in the spotlight up? Did the industry dive too deep too fast before the genre was developed? Turns out the answers are not that simple. 

What future is in store for the widest tire mountain bikes?
What future is in store for the widest tire mountain bikes?

Mountain bikes with mega-wide rubber (now known as fat bikes) started slowly in the mid to late nineties with riders in Alaska using them to traverse their endlessly snowy terrain, and in southern New Mexico and northern Mexico to make riding sand a reality. It wasn't until 2005 when Surly introduced its Pugsley that the real boom of fat bikes began.

With Surly's purple steel frame, fork and purpose-built rims and tires, practically every bike shop in America had easy access to these new and interesting machines. 

This brought an explosion of new rims, hub widths and frame standards, and of course, with bike companies still remembering the bitter taste of missing the 29er bandwagon just a few years prior, many jumped into the fat bike scene with fervor. However, unlike the singlespeed/fixie boom on the road side, fat bikes took a bit of engineering. 

Fat bike sales slowing

As little as two or three years ago, every bike industry event was almost like a fat bike event as more and more companies introduced fat bikes. From tiny start ups to the major players, everyone wanted in.

The numbers don't lie. All the major brands over ordered, then didn't hit sales targets

Now it's 2016 and things are a bit different. Bike companies, as well as bike shops, are sitting on excess fat bike inventory. So is the fad over? Have consumers moved on to the next mountain bike salvation?

A survey by Bicycle Retailer in February 2016 showed fat bike sales for the winter 2015/16 season were 18 percent better than expected, 31 percent about as expected, and 51 percent not as good as expected. Bicycle Retailer also reports that fat bike sales have declined by 24 percent since the start of 2016, while inventory is up 107 percent. So was everyone over prepared? 

Todd Cannatelli, product manager for Specialized's Fatboy and Fuse says: "Fat bike sales are certainly slowing down from where they have been the past two years. A large part of that is due to market saturation and some of that is due to the introduction of Plus bikes." 

On the opposite end of bike suppliers is Whit Johnson, the one-man custom framebuilder of Meriwether Cycles. He states: "I do think we are experiencing a self-correction in just the numbers of people trying to rationalize yet another bike purchase, especially one that is usually a seasonal bike (not used year round) and very dependent on snow conditions. They most certainly will not replace their fat bike each year for a seasonal bike."

Surly's Minister of World Cyclo-Domination John Fleck agrees: "We certainly saw sales slow a year ago as it seemed countless brands came to market and covered price points across the board."

The crazed geniuses at Surly brought fat bikes to the masses
The crazed geniuses at Surly brought fat bikes to the masses

Adam Miller, founder and former co-owner of Borealis, now founder of Why Cycles, points out that "The numbers don't lie. All the major brands over ordered, then didn't hit sales targets."

So it appears there's a bit of a three-pronged situation happening where fat bikes are getting pressure from plus-tire bikes, the market is filled with many brands offering fat bikes, and the core demographic has already bought a fat bike, and unlike other bikes, won't likely upgrade or buy another.  

Plus bikes taking over?

Are bikes with plus-size rubber (2.8–3.0in) cutting into fat bike sales? "To some degree, yes." says Cannatelli, "For anyone wanting to ride a fat bike on MTB trails, the plus bikes became a much more practical option for that rider."

However, the versatility of bigger than 'normal' mountain bike tires has also pushed some folks into fat bikes. Johnson explains: "When people realize their fat bike can also be a 29 plus or 27.5 plus they are more likely to stay with the fat bike choice."

Miller thinks plus bikes are taking some market share from fat bikes simply because "Fat bikes aren't as different anymore. Plus bikes are the latest, greatest, most fashionable." But Miller also mentions, "Plus bike will never take away from snow or sand riding. The brands that will be successful are the ones that are pushing the fat bike segment."

Here come the new kids. Are bikes with plus size tires the enemy of fat bikes?
Here come the new kids. Are bikes with plus size tires the enemy of fat bikes?

"It varies by region and where a rider wants to go," points out Surly's Fleck, "A lot of Surly customers own both a plus bike like a Krampus as well as a fat bike."

The future of fat

Where do fat bikes go from here? Even as the bike market adjusts, there's still a lot of room for fat bikes as Specialized's Cannatelli explains: "The fat bike market remains largely North American, as it has been for many years, and I feel a large portion of the international market still has potential. The versatility of these bikes makes them a great option for a number of regions and riders that are relatively untapped at the moment. There are a number of emerging rider segments (surfing, bikepacking, hunting) that are just now finding the value in the category."

Johnson has hope for the future of fat bikes as well: "With the right geometry, narrowing Q-factors, the new range in tire size and tread patterns, I think a lot of people will enjoy riding a true fat bike that has more cush, traction, with not a huge weight penalty, and feel comfortable buying a bike that can easily transform into a plus bike if they simply invest in a second wheelset."

Many riders think of snow when they see a fat bike, but they're much more versatile
Many riders think of snow when they see a fat bike, but they're much more versatile

Fleck notes that while a lot of bike companies are no longer offering fat bikes, he's "encouraged that the brands remaining in the category, by and large, are committed to growing it as a viable segment of the market. And they are investing in creating better products." 

Why Cycle's Miller reiterated similar points: "The brands that will be successful are the ones that are pushing the snow and sand riding segments of the fat bike market."  

So it's clear as mud, the fat bike's days are numbered. Well actually they probably aren't. 

Russell Eich

Tech Writer, US
Russell fell head over heels in love with bikes in the '90s, and has been involved in the bike industry ever since. Between wrenching in bike shops, guiding professionally, and writing about bikes, Russell has honed an appreciation for what works, gained knowledge of what doesn't, and can barely contain his enthusiasm for what comes next. His two-wheeled passion continues in the Rocky Mountains high above Boulder, Colorado.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road, cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: High altitudes, forgotten singletracks, bike parks, roads without cars
  • Current Bikes: Custom Meriwether steel hardtail, Specialized S-Works Enduro 29, Kona Jake the Snake, Trek 69er, and a bunch more
  • Dream Bike: Yeti SB5c, Intense Tracer 275C, Black Cat custom road
  • Beer of Choice: Gin + Tonic
  • Location: Rollinsville, CO, USA

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