I once attempted to ride my single-speed cruiser along the beach. I descended from the bluffs with the intention of continuing happily along to the edge of the surf. My plan was interrupted when my front tire rolled from the solid, packed dirt of the trail to the loose, dry sand of the beach. The front wheel locked and twisted, the bike jackknifed, and I sailed over it, landing abruptly and impressively beside more peaceful beach goers. That marked the end of my brief venture into beach biking. Fortunately, not everyone gives in so easily.
Evolving out of a frustration with the limitations of traditional bikes, fat bikes soar where my cruiser crashed. The bikes were first developed by a small number of cyclists pedaling over desert sands and Arctic snow. Their wide rims and huge, under-inflated tires allow for greater contact with the ground and better traction on unstable surfaces. They are now commercially available and being used for everything from jumping competitions, to adventure expeditions, to the daily commute.
Fat bikes represent one of the fastest growing segments of the cycling industry. One reason for their growth: they allow cyclists to ride through all seasons. The bikes can tackle mud, snow, and even ice. Riders keep tire pressure low, 5-10 psi is common, and some add metal studs to help with traction on frozen roads and trails.
Jon Strosahl of West Central Wisconsin rides two to three times a week in the middle of winter. The bike allows him to beat cabin fever by exercising outdoors, despite the sometimes brutal weather. “I ride it in every condition Wisconsin has to offer,” he says
Fat bikes can go nearly anywhere. Mark Donovan of Wichita, Kansas, says, “My fat bike is my only bike, so whether it’s a paved bike path, single-track, bashing through the woods, dried up river beds, it doesn’t matter. It’s like a two-wheeled Jeep.”
With their bulky build, these bikes aren’t going to break any speed records, but enthusiasts say that’s not the point. Nate Hawkins of Indianapolis, Indiana, is new to the sport, with under 100 miles on his bike. He says he didn’t buy a “fatty” for efficiency; he bought it for fun. “I think fat bikes excel for people who don’t mind slowing down and enjoying the ride a little bit more.”
For Dennis Ordiway, beach riding provides the ultimate in fat biking fun. The San Clemente resident regularly rides the beaches between Santa Monica and San Diego. He says the bike offers a different perspective. “Other people on the beach stay in one spot,” explains Ordiway. “I see many beaches, their personalities and people, in one ride. I have paced schools of dolphins, stopped and watched surf competitions.”
Of course, being near the sea presents its own challenges. “If you ride on ocean beach sand, you will corrode and destroy bottom brackets and hub bearings. Period. Be ready to inspect and replace often,” warns Ordiway. Winter riders also have to contend with road salt, muck, and freezing water. The tougher the conditions, the more maintenance required.
When local resident Clint Callahan decided to add a sixth bike to his collection, he went fat. “I wanted the bike just to ride on normal trails, and I used the excuse that it was for riding on the sand to justify it,” says Callahan. “It has been really fun on normal trails like I hoped it would. But it has been more fun to ride on the beach than I thought it would.”
Callahan says our shores present some awesome opportunities for fat biking. “The beach riding in Santa Barbara is really good. If the tide is minus-one-foot, you can go from a mile west of Bacara to at least seven miles east of Santa Barbara.” His current favorite ride has him pedaling from Ellwood to Hendry’s. “If the tide is zero, you can still do this with a couple of carry spots.”
Fat bikes tend to draw a lot of attention. Callahan says, “People definitely want to talk to you about the bike way more than other bikes.” Ordiway agrees, “I think I could be riding with a naked woman on the bike, and most guys would see the tires first.” Fat bikes may appear to be freakishly overbuilt and inefficient, but these workhorses have proven they can carry cyclists through previously unrideable terrain. I may just have to give beach riding another shot, though I think I’ll keep my clothes on for the ride.