After four days in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer show I took a quick flight north for a more niche meeting of outdoor minds: the 2015 Global Fat Bike Summit & Festival at Snow King Resort in Jackson, WY. As part of the event, major players in the fat bike game — Surly, Salsa and Borealis, among others — had their newest rides on hand to test, and I’d reserved the Salsa Bucksaw 1, the only full suspension fat bike on the market. After a quick tune-up and adjustments for size I threw one leg over the frame and pedaled carefully toward the road, picking up the pace as my confidence increased: these things are much more forgiving than road bikes. Then I rolled off the snow on to Pine Drive and hit a left onto South Millward Street, wiping out immediately.
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My riding companion Peter stopped up ahead and looked back over his shoulder.
“You all right?” he said.
“I went over the handlebars and smashed my glasses this afternoon.”
“I remembered you with glasses”, I said, picking myself up off the icy street. “The big wheels give you a false sense of security.”
Fat bikes are easily identified by their wide tires, which are monstrous — about 3.7-4.8 inches on 50-100mm-wide rims. While there are a handful of other features specific to fat bikes, they’re all built to accommodate fat tires and wheels. The advantages of such big wheels and tires compared to a traditional mountain bike are: (1) better traction on a variety of terrain (except on ice), (2) better float on snow or sand and (3) passive suspension thanks to the variable pressure in the tires. If a zippy triathlon bike is a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, think of a fat bike as the Mars Rover.
If a zippy TT bike is a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, think of a fat bike as the Mars Rover.
Fat bikes are built for exploration, and that’s what they’re being used for. Competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational follow the legendary trail on fat bikes and there’s a fat bike category at La Ruta de Los Conquistadores (a major coast-to-coast mountain bike stage race in Costa Rica). The Salsa Bucksaw was unveiled at the Sea Otter Classic in 2014. It’s the first fat bike with full suspension (though others are on the way), using the fat bike-specific RockShox Bluto in the front and the RockShox Monarch Rt3 in the rear as one component of the Split Pivot rear suspension system, which is complicated, but amounts to a feat of engineering that allows for consistent suspension independent of the forces exerted by braking and pedaling. Other key features of the Bucksaw include 26-inch wheels, the SRAM 1X drivetrain (see below) and powerful SRAM Guide RS brakes.
Relatively light (for a fat bike)
First fat bike with full suspension
Heavy (it’s still 32 pounds in size medium)
Probably too much bike for snowy trails
After some easy cruising around Jackson we parked the bikes. The next morning the training wheels came off, and we headed out for some trail riding on Turpin Meadow Ranch, owned by Olympians Hans and Nancy Johnstone, in the Teton Wilderness. Riding at the ranch consists of nordic skiing trails of varying degrees of grooming, with a few sporting substantial up- and downhill sections. The most impressive thing about the Bucksaw — and this is true of fat bikes, generally — is that small adjustments to the pressure (usually between 12 and 25 PSI) in the tires can change the ride significantly. In the softer snow, we let some air out to go from slippery and unresponsive to stable and responsive; on roads or packed snow, we increased the pressure and picked up speed. To truly test the capabilities of the full suspension you’ll need to take it out on some gnarlier trails with roots and rocks and gravel; this bike is meant to eat all of that road noise and reduce the feeling of bounce that big tires can produce.
Though numbers to back up the claim are scarce, fat biking is growing fast — particularly as a winter sport, as more companies introduce fat bikes and more trails open up to riders in places like Vermont, Minnesota and Wyoming. The Bucksaw is at the forefront of what’s available, with the chops to roll through parks in the winter or to tackle a big race like La Ruta. What we like most about it is that it’s more than a bike built for going from A to B as fast as you can: it’s a bike built for going on an adventure anywhere, on any terrain, any time of year.
If you haven’t been on a mountain bike in a while, then here’s some news: lots of riders are running a single-ring group with a 1×11 cassette, which SRAM introduced two years ago as the premium-level XX1. Now SRAM offers the single-ring group at three different price points — XX1, X01 and X1 (highest to lowest) — each with an 11-speed cassette that offers a 10×42 spread. Why? Along with some other technology, the single ring, 11-speed drivetrain gets you a very wide gear range while also dropping weight, improving shifting precision and eliminating chain drop. In short, with the 1X system, simpler is better.