A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fat Tire Mountain Bikes

The world of fat tire bikes isn’t a new phenomenon.  The genre burst on to the cycling scene back in the  mid-2000s and has become a staple of the industry due in part to their seemingly endless all-weather riding applications.  Here in the Midwest, we’re smack-dab at the center of fat bike culture.  To help out all you newbies who are on the fence about buying one, we sat down with Mongoose’s lead bike technician Ben Stites to talk all things fat tire bikes!

Ben Stites standing outside the Mongoose van with his fat tire bike.

When did you first start riding fat tire bikes?

BEN: I got my first fatty in 2016, but I had been curious about them for a long time before that.  When the first mass-produced fat bikes debuted in the mid-aughts, the buzz was effusive and unavoidable – people were raving that they hadn’t had this much fun riding bikes since they were 10 and stuff like that.  One friend compared the experience to “riding an angry cloud.”

What do you mainly use your fat tire bike for?

BEN:  I use it for all kinds of things – commuting in deep snow, casual mountain bike rides, adventuring out onto frozen lakes…  If I’m going for a ride with friends who aren’t strong riders, I’ll take the fatty just to slow myself down a little.  I also love road bikes and going fast, but there are times when too much of a focus on speed can diminish your appreciation of all the other things that make riding bikes such a great experience.

Ben Stites taking a selfie with his fat tire bicycle on the frozen Lake Mendota

What are some differences in riding a fat tire bike vs. riding a normal bike that interested riders should know about?

BEN:  All things considered, it’s not that different – but you can go places on your bike that you could never access with narrower tires.  If you’re used to riding a mountain bike, you may even find that your lap times aren’t appreciably different.  My fat bike is about 5 pounds lighter than my carbon trail bike, and although it’s not as fast in a sprint or over rough, technical terrain, those huge contact patches really stick you to the ground in corners and up steep, slippery climbs.

What terrain/conditions are your favorite for riding your fat bike in?

BEN:  Riding in fresh snow at night is a magical experience.  The whole world is blanketed in white, and you’re rolling along soundlessly.  It feels a little like cross-country skiing.

Guide to Fat Tire Mountain Bikes with Ben Stites at Mongoose

What are your favorite things about fat biking?

BEN:  It’s fun!  Go ahead and monster-truck your way over everything in your path.  Catch sick air off that curb cut.  Do donuts on your neighbor’s lawn.

What are advantages here in the Midwest vs. other styles of MTBs?

BEN:  There are places right here in Wisconsin where you’d be better off with a full-suspension trail bike.  But fat tire bikes are perfectly suited to a lot of the flow trails in my area and are faster in some sections. 

If you want to ride groomed trails in the winter, fat tires are required – narrower tires sink into the snow and leave ruts that ruin the experience for other riders.

A fat tire bike parked on a frozen lake in Madison, WI.

What are important things to look for in shopping fat bikes, i.e. geometry, specs?

BEN:  If you intend to ride in the snow, make sure you have ample stand-over clearance.  You will need to put a foot down in deep powder sometimes, so give yourself a few extra inches to avoid unpleasant encounters with your top tube.  If you’ll be riding in extreme cold, you may want to choose a bike that uses cable-actuated brakes, or hydraulic brakes that use DOT fluid instead of mineral oil.  It has to be very cold indeed for this to matter, though.

As with any bike, stay within your budget but get the best spec you can afford.  Your bike will simply work better, and you’ll have more fun riding it.

What should riders know before they purchase one?

BEN:  Fat bikes are ideal for some applications, viable for others, and absolutely the wrong choice for certain use-cases.  If I could only have three bikes, one of them would be a fatty; if I was limited to one, it would have to be something more utilitarian.  But seriously – only one bike?  I couldn’t do it.

Tell us about some of the Fat Bike races you’ve ridden in over the years.  Where’s a dream location that you’d love to take your fat bike? 

BEN:  The most fun I’ve ever had racing was at an unsanctioned event called the Barnyard Classic – it’s 90 minutes of laps on a hand-built trail system on a small organic farm, followed by 90 seconds of sliding mugs of beer to your racing partner off a long table.  Everyone rides in costume, and extra points are awarded for things like doing a lap in tighty-whities or eating a raw egg.

I would love to go snow-biking in British Columbia someday, and I also want to try riding the sandy ATV trails in Joshua Tree on fat tires!

To learn a bit more about the fat tire bike Ben rides, check out our Mongoose fat bike collection.