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Chewing the Fat

Fat bikes are gaining popularity not just as niche snow and sand machines, but as everyday bikes for use on natural terrain. Cue the Surly Pugsley, one of the first mass-produced fat bikes. Now that fat offerings are available from various mainstream companies, more and more riders are now asking themselves if this sort of bike could be for them.

I purchased one of the last 2013 complete Surly Pugsleys a few weeks ago, as an alternative to a short travel suspension bike, for use year round and to complement my single speed Surly Troll. So far it hasn't failed to impress, in sand, snow, mud and on natural and man-made trails.

Its maiden voyage saw me trying to climb some of the fireroad trails around the Pentland hills, which were covered in deep snow. It's was a baptism of fire/ice, and it took a whole new set of skills to the keep the bike on the straight and narrow. I quickly learned the key was to stay seated to ensure the rear wheel kept traction, and stay in the granny gear to keep the wheels rolling consistently. I found that if you stood up, the rear wheel lost grip, and if you shifted up a gear, the big tyres would slowly grind to a halt. All this aside, the Pugsley impressed, and the narrower tyre tracks veering off to the left and right of the trail showed where lesser bikes had tried, and failed, to muscle their way through/over the deep snow drifts which covered the trail.

Chewing the Fat

Later in the week I went riding in the deep mud which had collected around Arthur's Seat after the snows had metled. The Pugsley was again in its element, and the impressive float of the 4 inch tyres allowed me to scrabble across deep muddy puddles, and although it was difficult to precisely steer the bike, general stability was excellent, and at no point did I feel the need to dab a foot, which was good, because the mud was thick enough to suck the shoes off my feet. It was like piloting a paddle ship, just spinning the cranks in a low gear, and aiming for the far shore.

Chewing the Fat

My third ride was an extended tarmac jaunt across Sustrans National Cycle Route 1, which runs from the Edinburgh city centre out towards Dalkeith. Obviously a long tarmac ride is beyond the scope of what a fat bike is really built for, but what surprised me was how quick the big tyres wanted to roll once they gathered speed, probably because the contact patch was only along the centre inch or so of each tyre if they were inflated past 15psi. It was by no means fast, and I only managed a 10mph average, but this allowed me to cover 20 miles in a couple of hours, and take in the scenery at a leisurely pace. To critics who say these bikes are just sideshow attractions for use one or two months a year, I'd like to disagree, and echo the idea that a fat bike can make a good everyday bike, and felt no more inefficient than a 140mm+ full suspension bike when on the road or path.

Chewing the Fat

My Pugsley was given its first true test at the new Cathkin Braes Commonwealth Games XC course. Although it carries a man-made vibe, the loop includes steep descents, rocky climbs and great views, alongside the staple berms, doubles and sweeping switch-back climbs. It's still in a slightly unfinished state, so the trail was rougher, the mud was deeper, and the rocks more prominent than they might be in future.

Despite finding myself in a group comprised of riders on 140-150mm travel rigs, the Pugsley never felt less than sure-footed, and easily kept pace with the full suspension rigs. The super fat tyres offered excellent traction through the berms and on the climbs, outclassing even the stickiest 2.5" tread on the other bikes. Winching up the climbs was no chore with a 22-tooth front ring, and full 11-34 rear cassette, the paddles on the rear tyre hooked up on even the softest terrain, and would only slip on the slickest of roots.

Interestingly, downhill sections were less of a challenge than expected. Run at 10psi, the Larry and Endomorph tyres offered plenty of float, and an inch or two of "free" suspension, which took the edge of rough descents and drop offs of up to a foot or two.

On the steeper sections I was glad I'd replaced the stock BB7 brakes with a pair of Avid's more powerful hydraulic Elixir models, which scrubbed off speed quick enough, even with the substantial rolling mass of the Pugs' big wheels and tyres to contend with. My only other changes had been to the cockpit, for personal preference, and I threw on a pair of Shimano's new Saint pedals, which allowed me to ride with hiking boots in the poor weather, so I could always get off and push if the going got too tough.

Chewing the Fat

The Pugsley truly shined in the unfinished sections, where deep swathes of mud or water cross the trail. The final climb was scattered with deep, sandy patches, which proved troublesome for the average XC/AM bike

So whilst many fat bike riders stick to sand, and to snow, I'm eager to try out my Pugsley as my "main" bike for 2013, and test the idea that fat bikes can be used as proper trail rigs, rather than just as clown bikes for soft, and otherwise impassable terrain.

So it's so far so good with the Pugs, and I'm looking forward to trying it out at some of the larger Scottish trail centres, to see how it really measures up against the more traditional all-mountain and cross-country machines in our demo fleet.

Most recently, having seen the footage from the recent "Forth Fat" fat bike gathering in East Lothian (which I sadly missed, arriving on the fat bike scene as recently as I have), I'm also eager to schedule a trip to the beach!

If you can't wait for the Pugsley, check out the Surly Moonlander, currently available in sizes 18-24". The Pugsley will be available again from late summer in the UK.

Until then, happy trails!