First Impression Review of a Fat Bike with the RockShox Bluto Fork

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Riding at River Glen in Milwaukee.

I’m forever trying to find tools that can do the most things, reasonably well, and within a budget I can afford. This past summer I blissfully fell down the rabbit hole of mountain biking on a 15-year-old donor given to my son a decade before it would fit him.

By summer’s end I appeared to have reached the limits of the bike’s geometry, suspension, brakes, and gearing and started researching upgrading to something more modern. Then it dawned on me…did I want to wait 5 months to ride again in Wisconsin? Nope! The answer? A fat bike.

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Wearing a pre-suspended winter outfit.

I picked up this first generation Trek Farley and started shredding once trails were sufficiently snowy or frozen. I was glad to be winding through the woods, but early on I realized that my palms and wrists had zero interest in tagging along for a rigid ride. A cabal of riders owning you’d never need more than those big tires for suspension opinions are well known, but my left wrist in particular was not in agreement.

I started looking into suspension systems and was quickly a little bummed that they were overall about as expensive as the amount I’d paid for this well-maintained secondhand fat bike. So what did I do? The same thing I did to find my fat tire bike. I called Dream Bikes. Ever Heard of Dream Bikes? Dream Bikes is (their words) “a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization that strategically places used bicycle stores in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods to provide hands-on, paid job training to teens.” They also accept and refurbish donated bikes.

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See those rings on the fork stanchions? That could mean a rebuild is in my future. No big deal, still cheaper than new.

Granted, Dream Bikes doesn’t as of yet receive many donations of fat bikes or components, but in a month my once-a-week calls paid off and in March they received a secondhand RockShox Bluto fork. “Hooray,” cried my left wrist.

Being an early fat bike, the first Farley wheel set wasn’t outfitted with accommodations for a suspended fork. The Dream Bikes crew were patient and stayed the course when it became clear a new front wheel would be required to fit this upgraded fork, so I was without my bike for a few weeks of the rainiest, snowiest, melt-browniest time of year in Milwaukee. Perfect timing! Once it was all put back together, I’d paid less than half of the price of a new Bluto (let alone the new quick release re-laced front wheel setup).

So how’s it ride?

I’ve only been out to the trails a few times so far, but already I can tell a big difference. In addition to the fork, this bike also features a 1x shifting system, dropper seatpost, and updated geometry – all upgrades I’m acquainting. So far I don’t really notice the added weight of the fork, and if anything I’m probably learning more to lean my weight toward the back to lift and jump obstacles.

I’m already a lot faster on this bike now than a couple of months ago. Part of that I can sum up to not slowing down to avoid coming down hard on the front end and my palms taking the brunt of that force. I’m more comfortable, so I’m able to ride harder, fast, and go bigger on jumps or obstacles without concern an uncomfortable descent.

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Fat bikes are pretty capable, but I haven’t tried water yet.

I tend to ride with higher pressure tires than some people on fat bikes because I enjoy the fast rolling characteristics of a taut tire. When not in snow, I run tubed tires between 11 – 15 psi depending on the conditions and degree of slickness. These fast, bulbous tires, however, with a rigid fork, can result in the front end easily sliding out in tight curves. With the Bluto, the fork absorbs those forces, allowing me to attack turns aggressively without concern for low siding. It’s a balance between fork air pressure and tire air pressure. For my (presently) ~220 pound frame I’ve been running the fork pumped to about 130 – 140 psi.

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Thank you Dream Bikes! Have a nice day.

The bike isn’t as fast or as quickly cornering as a smaller, more conventional-sized mountain bike tire bike, but I knew that going into this endeavor. With motorcycles, people often say it’s more fun to ride a small bike fast than to ride a big bike slow. In an odd way, I’m finding that’s almost reversed with mountain bikes. I’m finding it fun to surf this big tire bike, whereas a more precise scalpel-esque race bike might feel twitchy and expose my relative lack of skill.

Additionally, feeling fast isn’t necessarily the same as being comparably fast. I’ve never raced bicycles in any competitive sense. Last year I started mountain biking in earnest and I’ll turn 40 this summer. I’m having fun and couldn’t care less if I’m not as fast as someone with a more accessorized lifestyle.

Overall, for me, the Bluto fork has made this bike faster and more fun to ride. In the past the Farley felt overall stuck to the terra (and maybe that’s because I spent the first few months of our life together riding in snow), but now I feel like I can really make this ride fling and sing. And that’s what we’re all looking for, right? A little more harmony.

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Oh and that slick retro wool jersey? Got that years ago at Dream Bikes too.

Why I went Fat Bike instead of a Mountain Bike

Welp, I picked up a fat bike. Here are the reasons why I went fat, even though I might one day look back. This piece isn’t so much a fat bike review or comparison, but more of an observation of why I settled on a fat bike instead of a more conventional sized tire trail bike.

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In my head I’m smiling, instead displaying RBF: Resting Beard Face.

This summer I remembered I had an old 26” wheel triple chainring mountain bike hanging in my basement. I did a few things to it, got it riding ok, and started thrashing the heck out of it. Quite frankly, I was a little caught off-guard by how much I enjoyed riding on trails. I spent a few months riding two or three times a week and then started to feel that my skill had probably eclipsed the bike’s capabilities. I decided to begin looking around for a 29” wheel bike with modern geometry, gearing, and amenities like a dropper post and/or a lockout fork.

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Disc brakes are new-to-me. As is the accompanying banshee wail when using them.

Then it snowed.

I considered that I’d end up realistically waiting until April or May before being able to get out onto the trails again. Having felt such enjoyment riding on the trails, I didn’t want to wait for the trails to dry out before being able to ride again. Enter the fat bike.

I shopped around for awhile and found this used first generation Trek Farley. It’s got an aluminum frame and fork and the tires are 3.8” Bontrager Hodags. This is the largest width tire that the first gen Farley will realistically fit. Having such a wide tire allows for what riders refer to as “float,” this is when having such a large contact patch allows the tire to move above a surface with greater ease, such as snow or mud. This tire isn’t as wide as more contemporary fat bike frames will allow, but I’m happy with having paid one third the price of new to get to know this style of riding.

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Jackelopes and Hodags.

So how does it ride? So far I’ve only been out a couple times (I picked it up two days ago) but it’s definitely a different feel than a 2.1” mountain bike. You definitely feel like you’re driving a monster truck, whereas the 2.1” tire might have been a Subaru. It’s not as responsive or quick handling as a smaller tire, but you have the sense of being able to roll over everything.

Speaking of rolling over everything, I’ve definitely noticed that sense of floating. It’s been rainy and the trails are muddy but not overall waterlogged. Definitely conditions in which I wouldn’t have had a clear conscience about creating trail ruts with a 2.1” tire. With the 3.8” tires, however, I’ve been able to ride above without ruining the trail. Days in which a little bit of rain before would make me not ride, now I feel like I can go out on the trails without damaging them.

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I’ve enjoyed the grip offered by Bontrager 3.8″ Hodag tires and have been impressed by how little mud they retain.

When riding a fat bike, one definitely has a sense of requiring greater effort to turn the larger front tire, which isn’t surprising. Again, turning a monster truck compared with maneuvering a Subaru. I’m 5’10” and relatively stout so the greater effort required isn’t an overall issue for me, but it’s noticeable and something to consider if one happens to be more slight of build.

If you’re on the fence about riding trails or getting back on them after a long layoff, fat bikes can be a good option. I’m finding this one to be forgiving, confidence inspiring, and generally offers exceptional balance because the size of tire making contact with the ground is roughly about the same size as a human foot. You sacrifice razor-crisp handling to be able to ride year-round, and at the moment that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

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With the green accents of this bike, I think I’ll name it Slimer, after the ghost in Ghostbusters.