Riding a Fat Bike on the Beach

Fat_Bike_Beach_Riding

There’s a huge fat bike craze going on, and a getaway to the shore seemed the perfect time to check out the ride on the behemoth tires that give these bikes their name.

A friend who recently bought a fatty graciously agreed to lend me hers for a spin at the ocean one evening last week.

The verdict: Riding a fat bike on the beach is a blast!

Pedaling upright with a salty breeze in your face, skimming the sand just beyond reach of the ocean’s foamy wake is an enlivening experience — one of surprising grace given the heft of what some, disdainfully, call the monster truck of bikes.

Fat Bikes Gain Traction 

Fat bikes are a hot category in the bicycle industry, with growing legions of fans. Sales of $8.8 million in 2014 represented a 155 percent gain over the previous year, according to NPD Group Inc. Chunky wide hunks of rubber take riders where skinnier tires dare not tread: to the beach, on bumpy trails and across snow and ice. People like them for sporting events contested on extreme terrain from the Arctic to the desert, for tackling rocky trails with gnarly roots and for the sheer fun of pedaling in cushiony comfort. And they’re not just for the country; urban commuters are buying them to extend their cycling seasons in cold climates.

Fat bike tires typically measure between 3.8 and 5 inches in width and are inflated at very low pressure (8 – 22 PSI for the tires of the Gravity Bullseye Monster I borrowed), so surface contact with whatever terrain you traverse is extra-generous. That gives you traction on uneven or unstable passages and helps you “float” across sand or snow. What you give up in speed and snap, you gain in a soft, forgiving ride that makes you feel very stable on the bike.

Fat Bike Frame

Options for Every Rider

While the earliest versions of fat bikes, tracing back to the early ’80 and designed for racing in Arctic conditions, tended to be heavy and hand-built, advances in design and components make today’s models look and ride much more like regular bikes. Frames are constructed of aluminum, steel or carbon with wide clearances to accommodate the XL tires. Prices range from $250 at big-box stores to more than $5,000 for carbon racers. (Fat bike events also are growing in popularity.) A name-brand starter costs about $900. The list of companies selling fatties continues to grow; among familiar names are Surly, a pioneer whose Pugsley model ushered in the commercial fat bike era in 2005, Salsa, Fatback, Trek, Specialized and more.

Fat Bike Tracks Beach

Fat Bike on Beach

Above All, Fatties Are Fun

My own fat bike adventure began on flat pavement. Since the tires were too wide to fit into the rails of my car’s roof rack, I rode the bike a couple of miles to reach the beach. For this, I inflated the tires to about 45 PSI and whizzed along the shoulder quite comfortably. With their new, knobby treads the tires emitted a slight buzzing sound on the tarmac. I gleefully pedaled over potholes and through loose gravel spilling from driveways, rather than having to dodge those obstacles as I would on a road bike. That’s part of the fun — it made me feel the same way as when I splash through puddles in sturdy rubber rain boots. Still, I was mindful of the effort that would accompany riding uphill.

Bicycle Pump Beach

Once I reached the parking lot, I started to deflate the tires to the recommended range of pressure. The first try was a miss, with the ride proving too mushy. Adding back some air to about 30 PSI ended up feeling right for the conditions at hand. Based on my experience, you’re likely to need to experiment, based on the terrain you’ll be traveling. Reminder: If you’re riding to your destination, be sure to take along a pump with a gauge!

As for pedaling on the beach, I found the sweet spot in the packed surface between the dry sand and the more saturated area at the water line. On the flat path that stretched out in front of me, the ride was smooth, and I was able to maintain a consistent cadence. The crank and rear cassette remained largely sand-free. The rubber shed it granular coating on the ride home, but I still gave the bike a rinse with a hose and dried it with a towel before returning it to storage.

Fat bike riding on the beach would make a great group excursion — an active way to spend an evening with friends who ride at any level — especially if it ended in a surf-side cookout with chilled bottles of rosé. That’s food for thought for the next adventure.

And, while I hesitate in August to mention winter — especially to evoke memories of the harshness we endured last year in the Northeast — I’m kind of looking forward to riding the fatty on the same beach in the snow.

Have you tried a fat bike? What’s your verdict?

Photos: Jonathan Foster. Thanks Jill for lending me the bike.

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