The Appropriate Tool for the Job

Highway commuting with a 350 diesel truck, jacked up with big mud tires.
Got the image? Now maybe you'll get my point below.

Bikes are tools... but they're different from many tools in that they can provide vast amounts of enjoyment, regardless of the amount of effort we put into using them. But like all tools, there is an appropriate one for each project, job, purpose, etc.
This is a rant of frustration and of support. Frustration in the sense of how many people are riding fatbikes where fatbikes are not necessary (read: appropriate) and in support in the sense of where they are designed to be used or ridden, including promotion of riding bikes in general. Fatbike popularity has skyrocketed in the past year. They are dominating winter bike races, causing an almost disappearance of 26 & 29 inchers, and being taken to places where people never thought bikes could go. At the same time, thousands of people are riding them on singletrack and on city streets. Isn't there a better bike for these applications?
I will say now that anyone is free to ride whatever bike anywhere, but I will also say, from experience, that you'll be missing out some by not using the appropriate tool for the job, even though, I admit, fatbikes are fun to ride everywhere... even pushing them is moderately enjoyable, at least in the places I've pushed mine for a hundred miles or so.

I like to ride long distances in remote places, so maybe my perspective is a little skewed... Before I got my fatbike, I wasn't much of a biker. I liked to hike, even when I owned a 29er on Snow Cats, as it wasn't the right tool to replace my own two feet for the places I like to explore. When I got my fatbike, I started racing and doing bigger remote & self-supported Alaskan trips in the winter, mostly 100 miles or more. Now, my entire summer is planned out with four 100+ mile off-trail fatbiking trips in Alaska. I'm sure I'll get plenty of hiking in, i.e., taking my bike for a walk.

I'll start this rant with the biggest aggravation to nearly every Alaskan rider I have talked or ridden with in the last six months:
This past winter has marked the explosion of fatbikes into the mainstream bike world. Coincidentally, the Lower 48 did not receive 'winter' for more than 5 days... at least not in the Midwest, where 95% of fatbike blog posts, stories, reviews, articles, ride reports, and the like are coming from. There is no legitimacy to these (specific) writings about how well the tires or certain fatbike models perform on 'dry leaves,' as a lot of us up here jokingly say. Why are people writing about the application of fatbikes (designed for sand, snow, & off-trail) outside of their intended purpose? The misuse of fatbikes is being perpetuated over the internet.
Would you buy a copy of a mountain bike magazine twice if all their articles revolved around pavement or dirt road riding and not singletrack? Or what about a road biking website that never talked about riding roads, just about gear and being a roadie? Both are not experts in that field, I'd say.

12 miles to work at -49F
I don't mean to offend anyone for any riding or writing they've done, wherever they live or in whatever conditions they experience, but I read one blog post this past winter, talking about how he'd stop at every traffic light and 'take a sip of hot brew to warm up.' It was 14 degrees above zero! When I read this article, it hadn't gotten ABOVE minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit at my cabin for three weeks straight. Are you serious? A buddy had just told me how funny it was that his rear wheel wouldn't even make one complete revolution when he picked up his bike and spun the tire, simply because it was so cold. And yes, his wheels are winterized.
Duck for cover if you have to ask what that means.

My point with this post? Fatbikes are snowbikes. But they were originally designed for sand... in Texas. Most appropriately, they're designed to be ridden off-trail (except in winter, when on-trail is where they shine, as opposed to where most bikes completely fail). They are slower and heavier than other mountain bikes and built for the ability to ride when other bikes cannot. While they are not built for speed, they are a BLAST to ride just about anywhere, which could explain their popularity, even in urban settings.
Could rough-road touring overseas be added to the appropriate usage list?

In Alaska, fatbikes have seen extensive usage in all seasons. Most notably are the famous Lost Coast adventures of The Captain and Dylan, with Roman, Doom, & Mike in tow, most recently. The wildest shoreline in possibly all of North America? Hundreds of miles of beaches and cobble? No trails? Perfect for a fatbike. Exactly what the original was designed for, actually.
Winter snowbike races are where fatbikes excel in winter. Sure, you don't always need a fatbike and yes, a 29er on Snow Cats is lighter and potentially faster and have and will continue to win some winter races (in ideal, firm snow conditions), but if it snows the night before the start, you can still beat the skiers if you're on a fatbike. Those sticking to 29ers for winter racing might as well hand the trophy to the best skier at the start line.
Some people downstates have found their best use, too. This guy rides in Minnesota and even came up to AK to test a protoype. And Dave is practicing for bigger things next year... IN ALASKA! I plan to be with him. Ooh, the anticipation!
THESE are the people that should be writing about fatbikes and their abilities and usage and giving reviews about how they and their components perform.
This isn't about if you're not riding in Alaska, you're misusing fatbikes... fatbikes are awesome tools for exploring the world! There's 700K people in Alaska, which is 1/5th the size of the Lower 48. There's SO MUCH terrain perfect for fatbiking in Alaska and many other countries that it seems strange for us (Alaskans) to think of using fatbikes downstates. Anyone down there just needs to search a little harder for ideal fatbiking ground than we do in the more remote & wild sections of the world.

Why are people riding them on singletrack? Or through town on dry pavement? Or commuting? Or on icy roads? Or even racing them on-trail in non-snow/sand conditions? Or to the extent of fatbikes being their only bike for all riding purposes?
It seems like, in most places, people are dying to find a legit use of fatbikes simply because they are so much fun to ride or because they think fatbikes are cool. They are, but again, think of the jacked up diesel with mud tires on the highway...
Fatbikes are a niche tool, designed for soft substrates where maximum flotation is necessary to be able to ride. Just like how road bikes are meant for roads, mountain bikes for singletrack, bmx for punk-kid riding, and sit-up cruisers for old people who want to relax, fatbikes have their niche or appropriate usage, too. But let out some air and go rip some singletrack with 8 psi and you might start changing your mind about their niche-ness.

In the video below, I ask you if a fatbike is really needed? I argue no, as you could carry any bike across this creek instead of trying to ride across and get water in both hubs and the bottom bracket... but you'd miss out on some fun if carrying.

Fatbikes are fun to ride anywhere, yes... but, I tried my Pugsley on singletrack once... it was slow and heavy, but it did absorb the roots and rocks a little better because of the volume of the tires, giving it a much more comfortable ride. Yes, I commute to work on my Pugsley, too... in winter, on soft snow-covered trails. Fairbanks streets are covered in ice from November 1 to mid-March when studded tires on a 29er are way better than fatbikes, but I avoid the streets and opt for the quiet trails. The Midwest is even slicker, as our temperatures stay well below zero all winter, but their's swing up to and around freezing often, causing water to form on the surface of the ice. So why so many fatbikes downstates and not studded 29ers? Ride quality.
And who would think a 30 lb fatbike could keep up with a 22 lb cross-country race bike? Unless you're riding really rough or soft stuff or off-trail, I'd say there's no way. Pretty fun to try and compete on a fatbike but winter snowy trail bike races are the only races fatbikes will win... unless someone comes up with a race where you're crossing the Gobi Desert or something like that... or maybe the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic... but still.

To argue from the other end of the spectrum, disregard everything I'm ranting about and go ride whatever bike you have or want. It's good for you. Ride what you can afford to... all year long.
And on that note, in contrast to riding what's appropriate, I admit I have taken my Specialized Rockhopper 29er and turned it into a commuter. I swapped big lugs for flat-proof slicks. I put on less aggressive handlebars and a cushier seat. I also made it rigid up front with a carbon fork and single-speed in the rear, via a Surly Singleator.
Is it ideal? No, hardly. Does it work? Sure, I like the mountain geometry better than road or urban, as it's more my style and if it's nasty riding, I can just put the mountain tires back on. But just like fatbikes work for dirt roads, something else would be better for commuting. In my case, I couldn't afford to buy another bike, so I took the one I had (and didn't have a use for after getting my fatbike) and turned it into what I wanted... a tool with a distinct purpose. I'd rather have a steel frame to absorb more of the bumps and braze-ons for adding a rear rack easily, but hey, it's there in my living room, hanging, and ready to be ridden to work this week and didn't cost me anything extra, much unlike a new fatbike ridden not on snow, sand, or off-trail. I bought a fatbike to ride with the purpose they were designed for, hence my frustration, or maybe lack of complete understanding, with the thousands being ridden on hard surfaces and established trails.

Will you still see me riding my fatbike on rough dirt roads, especially in Alaska? You bet. I think rough dirt road touring could be the one application outside of what fatbikes are designed for where they do very well and could be about as good as any other bike. They're fun & comfortable bikes, which I think is the main reason so many people are riding them for so many purposes. With all that air in those wide tires, they smooth out the miles of washboard quite nicely and are very stable in loose and large gravel. Is it the ideal bike for dirt road touring? No, but it's pretty good for it, mostly where the dirt roads are very poorly maintained, and I also don't have a touring bike.

Here are three videos, all by the same dude, who has done thousands of miles of fatbiking in Alaska in summer & winter.
The videos show where fatbikes aren't necessary, are the only bike possible, and also where they may not belong... in that order:

Did I argue in a circle and contradict myself multiple times? Probably; it's a rant. But, I hope you get the point. Sure, I'll admit, fatbikes are a blast to ride, anywhere, anytime. I even started a fatbike rental company with my buddy, in order to get more people on them and show how much fun they are. But our whole business plan revolves around snowy trails in winter and off-trail riding in summer... not in places where other bikes already shine. And I would never tell someone to go buy a fatbike if I didn't think they were going to use it on snow trails or river beds, etc, in the summer.

The underlying message is this...
Fatbike popularity is skyrocketing. They are starting to be seen everywhere, especially downstates, where there is seemingly very little usage for them in such a civilized & developed (read: trail-filled and paved) world. Please don't waste your time trying to tell the world how good fatbikes do where another tool (bike) would be more appropriate... because that's the whole reason fatbikes exist - no other bike can do what they do, where and when they're designed to be ridden. Yes, you can ride any bike anywhere, with varying degrees of enjoyment and success, but don't try and argue how good your jacked up monster truck is for commuting on the highway. If you use it in the mountains or for real off-trail exploration, I'm all ears because you're testing it for what it was designed for, with the one exception I see as rough dirt road touring.

Maybe the conditions and available summer off-trail wilderness & winter snow trail riding opportunities up here in Alaska are so far removed from what 98% of people experience that WE are the ones giving slanted reviews and putting unfair expectations out there.
Let's just not make fatbiking the new snowboarding, as I don't want to be associated with any image or style, other than that which embodies the vision to ride expeditiously where no bike has ever tread before.

To hammer my point farther, no one can do THIS with a road, track, mountain, fat, or whatever-bike. There is only one appropriate tool:

Although, maybe time will prove otherwise...


  1. I don't think you looked at my blog when you put me in a paragraph with "posers". I was one of the first adopters of the Pugsley back in 2006. I've ridden over 3,000 miles on snow with my Pugsley, and have competed in the Arrowhead 135 twice. I'm not a poser and resent being included in a rant about posers.

  2. Doug, my apologies if you are offended. As I stated, I attempted to not do that. I did not put you in the paragraph with posers. We, as Alaskan fatbikers, who ride in temps to -50F, all felt like the 14 degrees is so cold post was a slap in the face to what we experience up here. It's really frustrating to read about how a person rides on wide dirt trails and raves about how good the new tire is or how awesome their stock Pugsley performs. There is nothing novel there. I tried to not point fingers too much with this post and I'm sorry if I did with you. Again, I don't want to offend anyone directly, but just get this, I think, important rant and message out there in the fatbike world.
    Thanks and I hope you can understand. I admit, that post was the first one I had seen of your's, so no, I knew nothing of your fatbike history. We definitely got off to a bad start. Sorry.

  3. I admire what you do in Alaska, and realize our Arrowhead 135 race was an attempt by Pierre Ostor to bring Alaska type snow adventures to Northern Minnesota. And I think he succeeded. It's great I don't have to go to Alaska to ride like Alaskan's. In my first Arrowhead race it was -32 degrees. We routinely have cold spells with temps that never rise above zero degrees for several weeks at a time. I've never written a "14 degrees is so cold post". I've written many times that 15 degrees is the perfect snowbiking temperature. I live in a town of 86,000 people,yet one mile from my front door I can access a snowmobile trail network that has 100's of miles of winter trails. I live in Minnesota and ride a Pugsley that was created right here in Minnesota. I do agree with most of your post, but to say anyone that doesn't live in Alaska is a poser is flat out arrogant.

    In all honesty though, I'd like to rewind back to 2007 when I was the only person I knew who owned a Pugsley. I've stopped reading all those fat tire blogs. So many people are surprised to find I've owned my Pugsley since 2006. They think the Pugsley and fatbikes in general have only been around for a year or two.

  4. Doug, Your last line, 'a year or two,' is gold. Thank you. It's these same people you speak of that I'm talking about, as well.
    I knew this post would be problematic, as it's similar to a heated argument where things can be taken the wrong way because they weren't say in the most elegant manner. I'm truly sorry for making it sound like anyone not in AK is a poser. You and many others all over the world are using fatbikes in awesome ways. It's great to see that.

  5. Josh
    You have fallen into a trap that many Southerners find themselves in once they have moved to Ak. Living in a cabin on Farmers Loop (or wherever) and generally messing about in the Ak backcountry does not automatically elevate you to sage status. Sorry dude, but there it is.
    Roman, Rocky etc were using regular old 26" wheeled affairs years ago, so one could argue that Pugs' and their ilk are overkill and not necessary at all in any backcountry scenario. Indeed, commuting to work to your office job kitted out like you are heading off to Nome could be considered an inappropriate use of the gear. Consider this; at anything below -20 or so, packed trails of any sort take on the consistency of concrete, so the use of a Pugs is overkill and inefficient and you would be better off on a studded CX rig than on a Pugs where much of your input is spent overcoming the flex of the stiff sidewalls and the huge contact patch. One could go on about gear overkill and point out that messing around on Fox and Dragonfly with all the modern implements is inappropriate use of the gear, in light of watching Chuck Comstock climbing both of them with one Simond Chacal back in the '80s. No crampons.
    Its all relative dude.
    If ripping down for a Cappucino on your FatBack in San Fran floats your boat, give 'er.
    Remember, if it wasn't for all those "posers" out there buying fat wheeled bikes, the economy of scale would not have allowed manufacturers to produce the equipment to any sort of degree that they do now, which allows all of us to reap the benefits of superior fat wheeled tech.
    Ease up on the tub thumping bro.

    1. Anonymous Alaskan,
      Thanks for the leveling honesty. Sounds like I need it, unfortunately. Winters, as you probably know, make us bitter about what we put up with.
      Good thoughts and points about gear and what's necessary or overkill.
      I do agree with Doug, below, about the changing trail conditions, though. My 29er with Snow Cats was never as enjoyable to ride in winter as my fatbike, i.e., as capable, even on white blacktop. Just not the same confidence level or ease of riding.

  6. @Anon

    I've ridden my Pugsley many times on snowmobile trails at -20F. You are correct they can be like concrete at times. I've ridden snow that I could have ridden 23c road tires without a problem. But I've also ridden on high traffic snowmobile trails at -20F that are so chewed up from the sleds that it's like riding powdered ice...and the only bike that is going to make it in that is a fat tire bike.

    That's one of the things many posers and newbies don't yet understand. Trail conditions change daily due to freeze/thaw, temperature fluctuations at night, amount of traffic, new snow vs old snow, direct sunlight vs overcast skies. There are endless variables that affect snow conditions. You can't make a blanket statement like "Consider this; at anything below -20 or so, packed trails of any sort take on the consistency of concrete, so the use of a Pugs is overkill and inefficient and you would be better off on a studded CX rig than on a Pugs".

    People will read one of my Pugsley ride reports and ask me what tire pressure I was running. It's irrelevant unless the reader was riding in exactly the same conditions. I adjust tire pressure each ride as needed to match the conditions. It's a learning process gained from riding a lot of snow.

    1. Well said Doug. For this very reason I want studded _fat_ tires for my fatbike. I was going to do DIY studded tires with Nates and probably will if Surly or 45NRTH doesn't come up with a reasonable priced alternative.

  7. Josh, somehow your feelings reminds my feelings when we started to see (and still do) ordinary walkers using poles on asphalt pedestrian roads. This form of exercise is apparently called 'nordic walking' in English. The use of poles is certainly great on trails/offroad, but on asphalt?! Overkill and plain stupid.

    The late Mika Myllyla, legendary cross country skier, certainly played a part on this because he was known for his brutal and extreme training on swamps with poles in the summertime. But he was a top level athlete.

    Back to fatbikes. I have had mine soon for a year, and my experience is that it's good even on singletracks in the spring, summer and fall. That said, I would probably not use it in XC racing, but I would use it in one notorious 24-hour race here in Finland if the conditions are wet. I could imagine that for my riding skills a fatbike with Nates would be superior on nightmarishly slippery roots in the dark.

  8. Josh, great thought provoking piece! I was going to agree with you, though than it came to me: It is called a Fatbike. Not a Snowbike or something else. Fatbikes being called Fatbikes means that its intended use isn't limited to one area in particular; the industry itself came to call it that (maybe a smart marketing ploy to not limit it too much?!).

    I was (who am I kidding - I still am =) considering a Fatbike myself, and have been in correspondance with Peter Nylund & Toni above, my two local Fatbike aficionados. While I could drive it year around and get good usage out of it, I decided to get a 29er first and see if the need for a winter Fatbike arrises (there! I want to use a Fatbike in winter!). The reason I went for the 29er, though, is that with a six month old son week-long winter trips, which would make a Fatbike perfect, are a bit off still, and so a 29er gives me more general usage - from grocery shopping to bikepacking, and even the occasional winter overnighter on snowmobil or skiing tracks.

    Anyway. I think while it has its perfect usage cases, the Fatbike is an allround bike - trips in swampy Lapland and other environments have shown that. I will continue to safe for a Fatbike, but in the meanwhile will buy a Cargobike and drive happy on my 29er - in all seasons =)

  9. Good thought, Hendrik. I agree!

    On another note, I'm a little disappointed you didn't take that job in North Carolina :)
    Would have been nice to have you stateside, at least.

  10. // Disclaimer: Might include ranting about ranting? Meta-ranting? //

    I'm not a biker (Though I'd like very much to have a proper bike or two in my tool kit for outdoor travel!) but I still read the whole thing. And to me it all started to be very clear towards the end: "- - it's a rant. But, I hope you get the point." Sorry Josh, I didn't get the point this time. I don't think there even was any, just ranting.

    You could replace the word fatbike with any (outdoors) product or thing that's been designed for niche use and has been used by these few people for some time forming a sub-culture and creating a certain image related to the product/thing. And when this image is cool enough, there are people who don't really need the stuff but want it for the image and sheer fun of using/doing it. And when that happens, there are occasional voices that will say that something is done in a wrong way and some potential is being wasted and people are missing something... But is it really so?

    I don't think so - though I share your feelings regarding many other outdoors related things and their use! But do we miss something because other people are not utilizing the full potential of things they own or because they spend money on things they don't need? No, most likely not. Why would we? Will still have everything we need and use it in a way we like. Is it bad if the market grows? Probably not, it might be actually even beneficial to us. (Though maybe not for the nature as we all should consume less.) But what will, unfortunately, happen in some cases is that we might get associated with "snowboarding". Pity, but it won't kill you - or me. And instead of ranting the best approach is probably keeping it real on our own part and doing things in the way we like.

    Cheers! Ride hard and enjoy!

    1. Yeah, Korpi, I hear ya. It definitely was a rant, unfortunately too skewed towards the 'misuse' of outdoor gear (fatbikes), and not enough towards those who write about gear, techniques, and what they do who really don't have the credibility. You read what Dave just wrote... that's kind of what I was getting at, but got lost in the rant.
      You're also absolutely right on this article could have been any outdoor gear, not just fatbikes. I had that exact mindset when I was writing it.
      And yeah, let's just keep doing what we do and focus on that. -30 to -55F winters can make a person bitter and I think this was a product of riding my fatbike in those temps all winter.

  11. Yooo Josh...

    I agree wholeheartedly with the anonymous Alaskan. You gotta lay off & just go out and have entirely too much fun, and resist ranting about fatbike riders down South raving about tire performance on dry leaves. That'd be like me blasting off if someone criticized packrafts because they were too slow on their tour of the entire Missouri-Mississippi. Just remember that even if people are using adventure equipment for the "wrong" reasons, it's still a "good" reason, because it means people will use them for "any" reason, and thus promote the general popularity and success of the product. Casual 9-5 workers/weekend warriors like to keep up with the Jones's like all others. The time to start complaining, is when the producers of adventure equipment start listening to the demands of the "wrong" user group. Has that happened yet for fatbikes?

    Laugh robustly at those amusing sorts who "think they know what they're talking about," including, and most especially, yourself.

    Keep on having fun.

  12. I bought one of the first mountain bikes offered for sale, before Specialized came out with the first Stumpjumper, circa 1980. I had a great time exploring the legendary early dirt trails of Northern California before bikes were outlawed on Mount Tam, Repack Road, etc.

    But my mountain bike came into its own when I did a cross-country tour a couple years after I got it. I put 2.125 beach cruiser tires with a raised center ridge on the wheels, and rode over 4,000 miles fully loaded with camping gear. Total score for the trip: ZERO flats, ZERO mechanicals, ZERO hands too numb from road vibration to continue, ZERO broken spokes, ZERO wheel truing sessions at local bike shops. As close to maintenance free as you can get. And yet it was a clear case of using a tool for something that made no sense. Not having to worry about wheel damage or flats, and not having to worry about crashing when getting blown into the gravel by the slipstream when passed by a semi six inches away doing 75 miles an hour made the trip a lot more enjoyable.

    I'm not a fast rider, but I'm a durable one. So the mountain bike was always great in the century rides in Northern California, when I didn't care if I was in the first few finishers. I could come bombing down hills like the back side of Mount Hamilton at full blast without having to worry about gravel on the curves, and thus passed all the guys on skinny tired Italian frames who were picking their way down the nasty road surface and who were worrying about blowing tires because of the heat buildup from their brakes. It didn't matter to me that the road guys had a top speed advantage on the flats... I just loved the way I could attack on downhills even though they always beat me on the flats due to their higher top gears and lower rolling resistance.

    I still have the bike for sentimental reasons. In its 20 year career, with over 15,000 estimated total miles, the total of ZERO broken spokes still stands.

  13. Wow, John, what a story. That is just awesome and such a cool example of using something non-traditional with excellent results. Thank you for sharing and countering my argument, which was hoped to be more of a dump of strong feelings in search of others' advice & experience to open my mind on the topic.


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