From Cycle EXIF’s technical correspondent, Richard Gearing.
I’d been looking to get back into mountain biking for a while, but the options were becoming overwhelming — do I make use of the fact that they’re a slowly dying breed and go for a cheap 26″ build, step up to the new-but-old 650b format (I still refuse to refer to them as 27.5″ wheels), or go with a comparatively tried and true 29er; and that’s before I’ve even attempted a decision regarding hardtail or full-suspension, 2×10 or 1×11 drivetrain and which material the frame should be made of.
It seemed to me the MTB world has become too complex. Then I began investigating fat bikes.
“But aren’t fat bikes are designed for snow?” I hear you cry? Originally, yes; and then applied to desert use, which naturally evolved into beach riding — but along the line someone somewhere had the brainwave that they might just be a bit of a giggle for regular trail use.
I wanted to find this out for myself. Chatting to the Australian Salsa distributor, Dawson Sports Group, lead to them suggesting, and offering, a test of the current Salsa Beargrease 1 — a bike which was perfectly aligned with the kind of fat bike spec I had decided suited me in that it runs a 1×11 drivetrain, is on the lighter side and runs hydraulic disk brakes (I’m not a fan of cable disk brakes).
With slight trepidation and nervous excitement, I set off on my first ride that weekend. With only 10psi in the 3.8″ 45NTH tyres the road sections to get to the trail head offered an interesting alternative to the last few years of skinny-tired road riding!
Having arrived at the start of the trail, and after a couple of brief stops to tweak the setup, I got stuck into a lap of Manly Dam on northern outskirts of Sydney. Having only done one MTB ride in the previous three years — thankfully at the same location — I knew my skills would be rusty, and I expected to wish I had gone with a fat bike running front suspension.
That turned out to be far from the truth though, those big tyres doing exactly what they should do in dampening the ride sufficiently to not need a suspended fork — even despite this loop being quite technical in places.
The ride was an absolute hoot and I found myself grinning and giggling the whole way round. Uphills were hard going, but I doubt that would have felt much different on a full suspension 29er with my current skill set.
The opportunity to get the bike up to speed on a couple of flatter sections resulted in a really sure-footed sensation — those fat tyres hugging the terrain, the bike digging in surprisingly well through turns and the front end being much less vague than I expected those big tyres to make it.
Technical sections felt easier than I remember them thanks, no doubt, to the ‘monster truck’ approach of the tyre volume and low pressure making it easy to roll over seemingly anything and everything. To my own surprise, I even managed some jumps! Later rides were full of equal enjoyment. The fat bike appeal had become immediately, and thoroughly, apparent. It’s all about pure fun.
One gap in my test of this fatty was to get it on the sand and see how if fairs with a spot of beach riding. Thankfully our esteemed editor, Adam, borrowed the bike to make use of the lengthy beaches where he lives — I’ll hand over to him to report his findings:
“Like Rich, I’m yet to take a fat bike on a multi-day epic adventure through uncharted territory, but I’ve been a companion to my good mate Adam MacBeth riding his Salsa Mukluk on one while I slaved away on a much-skinnier tired Fargo. I watched enviously while he seemed to float up hills of shale while I stumbled up them, thinking that I’m going to definitely give one of these fat bikes a go.
“My home suburb is Cronulla, a seven kilometre-long beach on the southern outskirts of Sydney, with a national park at each end — fat bike paradise. The Beargrease and I spent a good afternoon getting sideways along that beach and I am now dedicated to acquiring one for my garage. There’s too much of this country to explore, and a fattie is the ultimate #adventuremobile.
“It’s a straight-up model. There’s no rack mounts, it’s constructed from carbon fibre and is designed for serious marathon racing. That said, it’s a naked canvas for a full suite of bags from Bike Bag Dude or Porcelain Rocket, and you’ll be set for some serious, and comfortable, back country exploring.
“The Beargrease tracks perfectly and the component choice is an ideal platform to build upon. A carbon frame actually does provide a subconscious levity for riding up dunes. Thankfully, you won’t have to worry about rust issues, either. My only regret in capturing these photographs was that they’re a little dark. I missed the Golden Hour because I was having far too much fun to stop.”
It has to be said that there’s still a decent level of overwhelming options within the fat bike arena when you begin to delve deep enough. Rim width can be anywhere between 65mm and 100mm, tyre widths range from 3.8″ to 5″, there’s rigid forks, front suspension and now even full suspension… the list goes on.
Thankfully the standard Beargrease 1 spec decided all these build choices for me and I never found myself wishing anything was different or better on any of the rides I took it on.
As a first foray into fat biking, the Beargrease 1 is edging towards the higher end of the market and we were privileged to have the opportunity to give such a quality bike a thorough testing. One of my fears with trying fat bikes was that I would dislike the weight, but this bike eliminated that concern from the get-go (published weight is 12.3kg for a large without pedals).
If a fat bike appeals but you have the same fear you would do no wrong going with the Beargrease 1 if your budget allows. For anyone who has already caught the fat bike bug and is looking to upgrade, the Beargrease 1 offers an off-the-peg solution to a lighter weight and very well sorted machine. For either camp, the bike has room for future upgrades and weight reduction potential with a change of wheels (Dawson Sports Group have the HED carbon fat bike rims available) and changes to the cockpit.
For those deep-of-pocket who want nothing but the best, Salsa also offer the Beargrease XX1 which swaps the SRAM X01 1×11 drivetrain and Avid DB5 brakes for their top-of-the-line XX1 kit with X0 brakes, along with a change from Surly Marge Lite to a set of top end carbon Whiskey 9 rims to lighten up the wheels (both bikes run the highly regarded Salsa hubs). At a published 11.2kg weight, the XX1 model drops over a kilo with these changes.
If you’re in Sydney the Beargrease is available through The Fixed Wheel in Manly, or through Belrose Bicycles (who have an absolute top spec sub-10kg Beargrease XX which is run by one of the shop staff and is well worth a look!) north of the harbour bridge, and from Summit Cycles in the south.