Monday, January 25, 2016

Under Pressure

With obvious apologies to Bowie fans for the use of the title let me take the red pill and go down the Fat Bike tire rabbit hole. I love fat bikes. You all know that by now. It is probably one of those things that annoy you but you put up with if you are my friend. If you aren't my friend you probably have a fat head of my face that you throw darts at every time I go full auto about fat bikes on social media. I know my ADD is bad. Fat bikes and fat biking for me is sort of like giving a red bull to a 14 year old kid with ADHD. The act of fat biking gives me full lizard brain and I just chill and can totally focus. But outside of the activity I go into total freak out mode thinking of all the possibly ways to make it radder. Or better. Or less un-rad. I think its very similar to cross in this way. I suck at cross. I may suck at fat biking. But I love both pursuits and I love all the little details that go into both. There are lots of similarities between cross and fat bikes. Ok I know you just spit your coffee out all over your Macbook. Before you throw it against the wall indulge me for a moment.

Both have ever evolving standards and riders and engineers are constantly pushing the boundaries of how the bikes are set up. We all know at this point how much cx racers obsess over tire pressure and tire set up. Unless you just embrace the file tread lifestyle…Fat bikes are the same way. I didn't understand this at first. I would pump the tires way up and bounce over and off everything and wonder why I wasn't having any fun. Then I started letting the air out. Its a teeter totter with tubes. Especially if you are riding on dirt and rocks. On snow you really would have to go low to get a flat even with tubes. But on dirt and rocks and mountain bike trails if you go below 8 with tubes you are going to flat. Ask me how I know. And changing a fat tire flat is a royal pain in the ass. Like use up ALL your Co2 chargers and then pull out the mini-pump and pump so much your hands seize up into angry lobster claws.

Ok so after flatting like a boss for a few weeks I decided to throw money and technology at this and go tubeless. All my bikes are tubeless why shouldn't my fat bike be? My mechanic rebuilt my current wheels. He went with 80 mm tubeless Mulefut rims from Sun. I asked if I could get them in purple ano. He obviously laughed at me and said 1989 called and it wants its mullet back. But other than the obvious low pressure no flats reason why go tubeless? A fat bike tube weighs about ten pounds. Ok that is an lie but they are heavy. A Surly tube weighs over a pound. So you take two of those out and there is two pounds. Lighter rims maybe another pound or two. So the conversion saved me about 3 pounds of rolling weight. That is a no-brainer. Was I worried about burping? My mechanic weighs about 200 pounds. He had to stand on the sidewall of the tire to unseat it. Which basically means if I do flat in the woods I am screwed. But that won't happen so why worry?

We went with tubeless ready Van Helgas. Very nice aggressive tires. Like a Nate but on steroids and tubeless ready. For a tire that looks like a motocross tire they also roll surprisingly well. Aka not like a tractor tire which is sort of nice. The conversion was noticeable right away. Not the weight as fat bikes are so heavy you really aren't going to notice 3-4 pounds. On any other bike 3-4 pounds would be a game changer. Not with fat bikes. We are still talking about a 30 pound bike that is built to roll slow over everything. But what is noticeable is the lower pressure. Massive traction. Both on off cambers and tricky climbs. Going from 12 psi to 8 psi makes a HUGE difference with a fat bike. Way less bouncing and way more shredding.

I have used three fat bike tires: Surly Nates, Dillinger 4 with studs and the Van Helgas. Like CX you are rarely going to find a tire that is going to handle all conditions well. They will be great on 90% of what your are riding and then suck at the other 10%. Or you could go the opposite and get a tire that is great at 10% of the riding and then just ok at the other 90%. Along these lines the biggest question to me is whether to use studs or not use studs. If you have ever had a heavy crash on ice this probably isn't even a question. Studs save your ass. Literally. I crashed so hard on Blue Hills on a patch of ice I laid there for about 2 minutes wondering if I had broken my hip. I opened my eyes to see Nable and Utah looking down at me with very concerned faces. I was fine. One of the upsides of being big boned is you have lots of paddling. But I took the Nates off and put studded Dillingers on after that ride.

Here are my thoughts on the three tires I have some experience on. All the tires I have used are 4 inch tires. I have room for 5 inches but haven't gone that route. Mostly because my riding tends to be year round and more woods riding than groomed ski mobile track. I suspect if you ride in heavy snow or on snow mobile trails you would want 5 inch tires for the extra volume. I just like the fat bike to be a bit more nimble. The bike is sort of slow anyway. Putting a 5 inch tire I worry about really slowing things down.

Surly Nate:

I started out on the Nates and love them. They were recommended by a bunch of friends. Great side knobs and aggressive tread. Heavy. And flat prone with tubes at low psi. Well flat prone the way I ride on rocky trails. As stated earlier I ride the fat bike year round and as a mountain bike.

Dillinger Studded:

A life saver. Great traction on ice. If you ride in the woods in winter you will encounter ice. Its like encountering a shark in the ocean. If you see it and the shark isn't hungry you are fine. If you don't see it and the shark is hungry you are fucked. Dillingers are also great tires in general. There one weakness is heavy or fresh powder. They have a pretty low profile tread. Which is awesome on packed stuff and frozen terrain. But gets pretty crazy on powder and slick rocks and roots. Its sort of like a file tread CX tire I guess. You just adjust your riding a tad. It is my go to tire for Winter

Van Helga:

Love this tire. Basically a Nate on steroids. Same great traction as the Nate just lighter. Rolls pretty fast. terrible on ice.

One last thought on fat bike tires and riding. Fat bike tires have a pretty horrible lean angle. I always forget this. A couple of good crashes and I am reminded of what you can and can't do on a fat bike. Most of my bikes I can dive pretty nicely into corners and carve out. On a fat bike if the conditions are right you can do this. But if its wet or loose things can go bad fast. There is so much weight and momentum behind the bike that when it breaks loose it crashes down like an 800-pound gorilla.

I am curious to try the new Bontrager studded tire. It looks like a nice mix of the Van Helga and Dillinger. But not unlike CX tubulars fat bike tires are ridiculously expensive. And are a pain in the ass to swap so its not like you can just swap at will on whim. Love to hear other riders thoughts on what tires they like and how they set up their bikes.


  1. you just need more wheelsets man

  2. i can't believe i read this #fatenvy

  3. I have the Vee Rubber tires that came stock on my bike... they are literally worn threadbare as you know. Love them, but since I haven't used anything else I have to assume it's just the bike.

  4. Good work…unique site and interesting too… keep it up…looking forward for more updates. carbon mtb wheels

  5. Informative and interesting Blog! Beautifully written, as usual, I like the post. Thank you so much for nice sharing with us. Keep posting!

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