This article was originally written in early 2017.
The information presented is still quite applicable, though things like pricing are a little out of date.
What is it with all these fat bikes with straight or almost horizontal top tubes?!? It’s like these bike companies have never ridden a bike in the snow. Maybe this “review” is part rant too. Seriously though, if there is one sign that a bike company is phoning in their work and cashing in on the fat bike craze it’s a straight top tube. Here’s what happens when you ride a fat bike in the snow. You truck along at a moderate pace. You aren’t rippin’ along like you might in the height of fall, a wake of dust and leaves the only sign that you were ever even there. In the snow you have to be a little more careful.
You are going to stop, and sometimes you are going to stop suddenly. When you do, your bike that is designed to float is going to float on the snow. When you put your feet down you aren’t going to float. You are going to sink. And when you do you need a top tube low enough to get out of the way. A straight top tube isn’t out of the way. When I see a straight top tube all I see is discomfort and poor execution of a fat bike frame. It’s the same as downhill mountain biking in the 90’s. Why the hell did they ride their seat posts so high??
This video is the first thing that comes to mind every time I see a fat bike with a straight top tube. Worse yet, when I see a fat bike with a straight top tube and an alloy fork without accessory mounts. Who is that fork for? Look at these bikes.
Let’s look at some pretty pictures. You might mistakenly think these photos came from a 2001 mountain bike catalogue if it weren’t for the big tires.
It’s as if Diamond Back designed this bike to sit in someone’s garage, collecting dust. On the occasional NFL Sunday party the owner might take his friends out to the garage where they might stand in an awkward silence and then the owner says, “This is my fat bike, I don’t get out much. It was expensive.”
He never thinks about why he doesn’t get out much, he might blame the kids or work, in reality it’s the bike. It’s no pleasure to ride, it shifts ok-at-best with it’s front derailleur and 2 gears up front and 10 mid range gears in the back. Wouldn’t it be great if Terry had a bike he was excited to ride, that didn’t have a terrible head tube angle, or tires made of such cheap rubber that they threw him off trail every time he hit a bump? That when he went out, stepped off the bike, and sank into the snow he didn’t crush himself against the top tube?
When I first set out to find a fat bike to sell at my shop I had no idea the terrible nonsense that was out on the market. I figured that it was so competitive and fierce that no one could afford to make a single mistake. Holy cow was I wrong. The Surly? What the hell happened there? They used to make such a wonderful and affordable bike. I’m fine if they’ve become so popular that the bike price has come up.
However fifteen hundred dollars for this bike is an insult:
I spent the better part of three days visiting shops and riding bikes. I had all but given up when one of the companies I had interest in for their kids bike selection caught my eye with there fat bike. Could it be? A real deal fat bike at a reasonable price?
Yes. There is. Or I should say there has been. For the last nearly 20 years. Norco have been making some form of fat bike for a long time. They’ve figured out that front derailleurs on fat bikes get frozen and jammed up with snow and ice. They know that all the perfection of geometry in the world is worthless without a good set of tires. They also know there are many reasons why someone would buy a fat bike and there are many uses. They produce a bike for each one. For instance, that Specialized fat bike above, it has the geometry of a touring/trail fat bike (even though they missed on the steering a little bit), yet it has minimal points of attachment for accessories. And even the ones that are there are riveted instead of welded eyelets. That’s like using snap buttons to hold the wings on an airplane.
Look, I don’t have crazy expectations here. I just feel like a lot of bike companies out there are fleecing the market. Putting wide rims and sort of fat tires (4 inches? what is this 2001) on bikes and because the rush production that their manufacturers are charging them have cut into their margins they are selling these things at a premium. Let’s compare some bikes:
Salsa Mukluk NX1
Look Salsa is, like super cool. They invented fat bikes and adventure bikes and they invented gravel roads and they have a guy that road the entire length of the US along the Rockies and that’s the first time anyone has ever done that, EVER.
OK, Salsa doesn’t make those claims, but they sure love to look the part. And for a lot of their product line they do. It’s because until they made the Bucksaw they didn’t really change much. They made a cool 29 rigid mountain bike, they made a touring bike, they made a steel road bike. Wait, is this Surly? No, Salsa is like a “high end” Surly. Because they’re owned by the same parent company. Salsa got lucky. Their sales numbers were not great and they had just invested nearly 8 years in R and D on a full suspension fat bike that they weren’t sure would sell. Then along came the fat bike craze at exactly the right time. Just as they were launching the second year of their full suspension Bucksaw the whole of the bicycle world all of a sudden figured out that fat bikes existed and were awesome.
Salsa knew exactly what happened and where they were in the world and dove right in. They’ve been nailing it ever since, staying right along the market wave of adventure cycling and plus bikes.
Their flagship bike the Mukluk has almost become a standard.
The Mukluk is a fine bike, it comes with an amazing carbon fork. Seriously, it’s a carbon fork with cargo mounts. Yes and please and thank you. Wait, uh oh. Wait just a second, is that? Could that be?
You get the more compact frame with lower top tube if you step up to their carbon bikes. So, if you spend more money you can ride safely in the snow. If you can’t afford carbon, then kiss top tube you welfare scum.
Hold on a second. Is that the same shifting spec that comes on other bikes at the $1400 price level, bikes like the Norco Bigfoot? Well, it does have a nicer (heavier) crank though? It does have those nice (heavier) Maxxis Minion (slower) Fat Bike tires. (I kid, these are great snow tires). It doesn’t have a dropper post? Are those mechanical disc brakes? Can you even put a rack on the back of that thing? Wait, are those Hayes mechanical disc brakes? What is this, 2006? Is this the entry level free ride fat bike? There is another small important detail about this frame with it’s super hip sliding dropout mounts. The max size rotors are listed as “160-180mm and not all calipers/adapters are compatible in this size range.” So basically it’s not compatible with all 180mm rotor options, just some. That’s a big deal. When you load this bike up with camping gear and want the brakes to work on that long descent, you’re going to hope you got the right 180mm compatible system for your bike.
Well, the color is nice. The paint looks good. I bet they do a good job shipping complete and undamaged bikes to their retailers.
How much for this almost Norco Bigfoot?
$1799 Hell yeah.
Trek Farley 5
Wait a minute, is that a 10 speed drivetrain? For seventeen hundred dollars!! Are you kidding me? Are you doing a thing where you misdirect my attention and then slip something past me in an effort for me to look like a fool or to be mildly harmed? You know, am I being Ashton-Kutcher-Punk’d?
Not cool Trek, not cool. It’s also got the uncoolest of uncool as well. A press fit bottom bracket. Why is this a problem? Press fit bottom brackets were designed to make bikes lighter and stiffer. However, the execution of this at the manufacturing level by most companies was an abysmal failure. Most of the issues come from lackadaisical tolerances that allow too much moisture to penetrate the bearing systems. The second part of the problem is the installation processes for these bottom brackets was so varied that most mechanics gave up on the instructions and installed them incorrectly. Most of these things are failures right out of the box before you even take it home. Trek tried to force their own version of this system which caught on a little bit in road bikes. Unfortunately, these bikes suffer the same issues of noise and short user life as the standard press fit products out there. Usually the solution is to get some kind of thread together adapter bottom bracket. Trek just doesn’t want to give up though, because it makes the frames cheaper to produce. It’s also makes for a whacky way to make a fat bike.
Holy cow. This bike is whack. ah. doo.
It’s loaded to the gills with all that house brand Bontrager stuff. I’m sure that’s nice, I’m sure that’s why all the other bikes in this list use all those parts. I mean, I get using OEM stuff to bring the price down, I don’t care what aluminum bar I get as long as it fits, it’s comfortable and strong without weighing a ton. The amount of OEM stuff on this bike is a mess. It’s like looking under a teenage boys bed. It’s like the bike is some mail order underwear catalogue and someone got their Bontrager all over it. It gets even crazier, the max rider weight limit on this bike? 300 pounds! What the actual Franconia Notch? Seriously? Lets be generous here and say that my friend Jason at 6 foot even weighs 260 pounds. That means he can pack a mere 40 pounds of gear for his week long adventure through the wilds of New Hamshoe-or. He can neither live free nor die with that little amount of gear strapped to the (proprietary mounted!) rear rack. To give you an idea, I packed about 50lbs of gear (including cold weather gear) for that wild East Mountain overnight.
How much for this whole ass attempt?
But it’s a Trek. And they need your extra $29 son.
Specialized Fatboy SE
I want to start a fight with this bike. Look, it actually comes with a pretty great drive train for the price point when you compare it to the other bikes on our list so far. It’s a proper 11 speed drive SRAM system for once. PSYCH! Take a look at the fine print from the Fatboy SE web page.You have to click on it to read it.
There it is, in the marketing jargon they claim 11 speed drive train and in the technical details we learn it’s another 10 speed option. Look, it’s clearly a typo from some poor intern. I hope he doesn’t get fired. However, reading through the rest of the build I feel like the whole thing could be the result of some poor interns unnoticed mistake. They don’t even hide it. That’s a winter landscape on the graphics of that tire. It’s like they want to see you rack yourself, like those old fail videos of skateboarders who fall on the rail.
How about that fork, what on earth are they doing? They took their carbon fork and made it out of aluminum. They went through a lot of trouble to make it look exactly like their carbon fork. Like they were ashamed of it being aluminum or something. They did all that and took away the best reason to have a fork like that. No cargo or rack mounts of any kind. They stick you with an awkward look-a-like and don’t give you any of the simple advantages. Worse yet is they stick that fork through an even more awkwardly steep 70.5 degree head tube angle and the trail of the fork just doesn’t quite match up with it. I loved the weight of this bike when I first saw it. It’s right on par with the Bigfoot. When I rode the bike, it was all over. I felt like the steering was off. I felt like it was twitchy, not in that “I’m a fast single track bike” kind of way. More like if you move the handlebars a little, they want to pull all the way to one side kind of twitchy. Of all the bikes on the list this bike felt the most like those Bikes Direct fat bikes that seem to steer themselves right off the trail if you aren’t white knuckle gripping the bars. Guess what the bottom bracket is? That’s right, a sort of kind proprietary press fit bottom bracket! Specialized has done this for a while. In fact for so long that several companies make their own, “Come on, Specialized, what the hell were you thinking designing a bike with that bottom bracket shell?” adapter so you can pay to fix the problem yourself!For as little as $1400 you can send an intern to bicycle design school, won’t you consider a donation today?
Scott Big Jon
It’s a bike with two first names! That seems like a good idea. This bike actually has some nice features. I imagine this bike started out as the pet project of some long time passionate about fat biking engineer/marketing manager at Scott and then 3/4 of the way through some uber-up-and-coming hot shot exec with slicked hair and a dead call girl in the closet at homecame in and stole the project away siting that he could accomplish twice the profits at half the cost.
First of all thru axles front and rear on a bike at this price is awesome. Let’s not take away from that. Well done. It comes with 4.8″ Schwalbe Jumbo Jim’s, not the tubeless compatible version, still pretty cool for the price. It’s too bad that’s where the cool ends.
The first two points on the “Key Features” list are OK enough. The Big Jon Alloy frame are supposed to indicate that it’s a thru axle frame I guess?
An alloy fork, on a $1400, sorry thats a $1425, fat bike is acceptable. Especially that it’s modern spacing and thru axle again.
SLX-Deore 20 speed. Don’t sugar coat it, Jon, er, Big Scott, whoever! We know that means two dumb things on one bike. A front derailleur and a narrow range cassette. I’m fine with 10 speed. There are lots of wide range 11-42 10 speed cassette options out in the world that other companies use and they work great. For some reason Scott chose the dumbest ten speed cassette to put on a fat bike. At least this one has hydraulic disc brakes. Then the bottom of the list, like they were listing the parts of the bike and got tired of it. Our super slick exec said, “Just put that it has Syncros Parts, what else do they need to know. It’s got parts! Why all the details, it’s parts on the bike and they’re made by Syncros. We’re done, next!”
I’m not going to talk about that top tube.
It fits a rear pannier rack. That’s cool right?
The cost of contributing to that year end executive bonus:
$1425. They need that $25 Jon. They need it.
Norco Bigfoot 1
Look, I’m gonna be a little biased here, I own a bike shop and this bike is my bread and butter. It is the second most sold bike at my shop. I’m not afraid to be honest and transparent about this bike as well. With this bike you should go to the nearest fingernail polish section of the drug store and find the matching paint. It’s gonna chip. Not much, just a little. Luckily Norco, along with most quality bicycle manufacturers coat their raw aluminum before paint to protect against filiform corrosion (that weird worm/bug crawly looking corrosion under some paint). So this isn’t a concern, mostly just annoying. The rest of the bike is so good I don’t care about this. Bicycles are a tool. They get scratches and nicks. The bike is aluminum with an aluminum fork. The aluminum fork and frame are fitted with at least 16 welded reinforced eyelets to mount accessories. All the rack and bottle mounts are direct tapped or welded eyelets. The cargo mounts under the frame and on the fork are all welded. It has two different points on the seat stay to attach the lower struts of a rear rack. If someone ever manufactures a full wrap fender set for this bike that isn’t a million damned dollars there are mounts to attach those as well.
More importantly though, the bike has the perfected geometry of someone who knows how and rides fat bikes in all types of terrain. Norco is from Canada, you can see the influence of where they live in each one of their bikes. The harsh wilderness of the North Country is apparent in even the cheapest kids bikes in their line of bikes. You can tell that this is a flagship bike for them, it’s painfully obvious that a good deal of the staff at Norco ride a bigfoot. There is so much attention to detail, we’ll beyond what you would put in to even a $1900 fat bike. The head tube angle is perfect for the rigid fork and 4.5 to 4.8 tire it’s designed to fit while still adaptable to properly fit a short travel suspension fork.
The bottom bracket height isn’t ridiculously high or forgetfully low. Norco knows exactly how high the pedals need to be on a fat bike and sets them as low as possible without giving up the ground clearance needed to handle the Winter terrain and occasional sink into the loose snow. It’s a threaded bottom bracket too. No press fit nonsense here. It’s a multi terrain bike, it’s also a multi season bike. Your bearings aren’t going to rot out on the first high humidity day of riding.
The wheel base is longer via a longer top tube and tightened cockpit. It’s the kind of clever geometry only seen on high end trail or downhill bikes. The rear is stretched only a little bit to allow just enough room for heal clearance with a rack and panniers and nothing more. It’s not hybrid bike long. Even fully loaded I felt confident descending at full speed down East Mountain after an overnight to an abandoned, haunted, alien visitor infested military base on the top of one of the steepest roads in Vermont.
Look, some crazy guy in the Netherlands built a machine. He built it to tell him if all the marketing jargon and nonsense that tire companies promote actually translates into real life advantages for bicycle riders.
Each year Norco picks whatever tire he says is the fastest fat tire and they put that tire on the Bigfoot. They literally wait to see which tire is best out of all available and then put that tire on their fat bike. They put it on their $1349 entry level fat bike. Why? Because they know that this bike will ride amazing from the very first test ride. They know how much a bad tire makes a fat bike stink. They know that people who buy a $1349 fat bike aren’t going to want to spend another $300 on tires.
Norco is “bringing-a-knife-to-a-fist-fight” serious about fat bikes and this where they cut the competition deep. They don’t buy some OEM only cheap version of the tire and they don’t play up some bull$#!t house brand tire like it’s the greatest thing they ever paid Hutchinson to make for them.
They stick the Tubeless Ready newest compound version of the tire on there. They’ve sometimes switched tires mid-season when a new version comes out that rates higher.
Tubeless ready, that’s an important aside. Most companies claim that their fat bikes are tubeless friendly. That’s careful wordplay there. They are avoiding saying compatible. They are avoiding it because their fat bike isn’t tubeless compatible. You can pay some hipster who smells like he pockets his half smoked cigarette in his front pocket to Ouigi Board up some half-cocked rigged up version of tubeless where he splays open a $19 fat bike tube (which he will charge you full price for) in sacrifice to the tubeless gods. And it will work great until you have to add sealant to the tire a couple of weeks later. Or worse, most of the time it doesn’t work at all and the second you hit a harsh bump the tire burps and doesn’t reseal, leaving you out on the trail in the toughest part of the course with out a spare tube because it was cut in half to make this work and you’ll be damned if you are buying another twenty dollar tube!
The Norco Bigfoot comes with SUN ringlé Mulefüt 80 rims. They’re like magic to set up tubeless, they have such a massive positive lip inside the rim that I’ve never actually been able to burp mine. A little tape over the rim strip and some Orange Seal Tubeless Sealant is all you need. Take your old tubes and pack them in one of the many wonderful places on the bike for cargo in case you do have a catastrophic duct tape need flat and live the rest of your days knowing that you only spent $65 to do what most people spend thousands to do, lose a pound off your bike.
Let’s talk about some weakness.
This bike is amazing, however even the most amazing bike has a weak spot. The hubs are house brand nova tech that sometimes come from the factory with loose free hub bodies. Make sure your shop checks this! Seriously, if they don’t pull the axle and stick a long 11mm wrench inside the hub they won’t know until it’s too late and your hub is destroyed.
Honestly the hubs are fine if you avoid that small issue. Some people complain cause this bike is quick release front and rear and uses loose ball hubs. Remember, this is a touring bike. This hub choice is on purpose. It pleases the retro grouches of the world to some extent. It’s also wonderful to be able to service your hub with 20 year old tools. More importantly if you do go proper Vietnam touring on your new Bigfoot, the kid with the hut bike shop in some small village will have bearings and can help you too.
The only other small complaint I have is actually not too terrible. The brakes. While I actually loath the lack of reliability from a lot of Shimano’s latest mountain bike products I love one thing from them: they use mineral oil in brakes. SRAM uses DOT fluid. In spite the many years of recalls and warranties this has cost SRAM they simply will not give up on this caustic, extremely unfriendly to the environment chemical. DOT fluid shortens the lifespan of your brakes between services, and even with proper service intervals it still shortens the life of your brakes when compared to mineral oil equipeed brakes. It’s dumb. Everyone else has moved past DOT fluid, Magura, Shimano, TRP/Tektro. Everyone. SRAM is the last holdout. SRAM stop trying to make DOT fluid happen, it’s not going to happen.
Those are really the only misses I see with the bike. Some people think the crank is a bit cheesy. It’s an OEM crank made by Samox. I like it. It actually weighs the same as the SRAM X0 Carbon fat bike crank thanks in part to the very light chain ring. The Samox crank is also compatible with SRAM direct mount chain rings too. The Samox crank does come with some awkward bottom bracket and spindle spacers that bring the weight up and look a little cheesy, however, the crank set is bomb proof. If they ever figure out how to make it interact with the frame in a more elegant and lighter manner they may be the next big brand out of Asia.
How much moneys do all those welded eyelets cost?
So there is one more thing about the Bigfoot that I really don’t like. It’s not so much something wrong with the Bigfoot as it is that there is something seriously dumb about Norco. For the second year in a row they have run out of these bikes almost immediately.
Like a United Flight taking you home to bury Uncle Albert, the Norco Bigfoot was oversold they didn’t announce it until we were all standing at the gates ready to board. Some Norco dealers were drug off the proverbial flight even. Unsure if they would ever get the total of their orders. In December of 2017 Norco informed us that all the 2018 Bigfoots were sold out and no new Bigfoots were going to be produced.
That’s right, in 2017, Norco ran out of 2018 bicycles. What the actual Francis and the Lights?
So what do we do? At the shop we have scoured every brand out there again again to see if we could find a replacement. Which is in part where the (somewhat faux) frustration and writing of this article comes from. It’s amazing that in the two years since doing the bulk of my homework before opening my shop that of all the companies making fat bikes, most still don’t seem to get some of the simplest functions of these bikes or the potential in versatility. Most of my complaints in this article are in jest, they are friendly jabs however they are valid points. If I could find a company that made a bike as good as the Bigfoot and I would even settled on something that was a little more money I would stock it. There are a couple out there that come close. Rocky Mountain makes some amazing bikes. I don’t look at fat bikes at the top of the line. Those are cool bikes for someone, not for me. I want the fat bike that makes it possible for everyone to ride. The Bigfoot so perfectly fits that. Finding something close and at a similar price is nearly impossible.
Nearly. There is someone that’s been hard at work on this sort of thing. And if it said Salsa or Specialized on the side of the bike it would probably be on every VAST trail in Vermont. KHS doesn’t make the same Kool-Aid those other companies do. They just make bikes. KHS has made the 4 Season fat bike for 4 years now. While the head tube angle is still a little steep for the touring side of things it does have an appropriate trail geometry on the fork to make for a quick handling yet confident bike. It may not come with tubeless compatible rims or tires, or a dropper seat post it does come with a 1×11 drive train and a great set of Shimano Hydraulic brakes. The $1300 KHS 4 Season 1000, good lord that is confusing name, has a decent stand over height and one special little feature that sets it a part from the others. It has a thru axle front end. This means that you can upgrade to a Wren Suspension fork directly from KHS or later when you get the itch for shocks you can buy a fork and not have to change much else. It’s a pretty nice bike for the money. It’s usually found in places where rental bikes are a part of the mix as it’s a bike that is cheap to maintain and serves as a great platform to those who rent in order to decide to buy.
Why would I choose these three fat bikes over all the others? Why do I think after 20 years in the bike industry, and over 10 years selling fat bikes that companies some folks have never heard of do a better job than the big guys? Why not Specialized, or Trek, or Kona, or Scott? I mean, they’re the biggest bike companies in the world right? So that means they have to make the best fat bikes too right? No. This isn’t their bread and butter. This isn’t the sort of thing they make because it hasn’t been the bike necessary for where they live. Look at the three bike companies I’ve talked about above. Norco and Rocky Mountain are from Canada. They’ve been riding bikes in the snow before that was a thing that people did. There’s an old Wade Simmons free ride video produced in partnership with Rocky Mountain where all of a sudden in the middle of crazy ladder bridges and huge 25 foot hucks their riding in freshly fallen powder out in the middle of the night in B.C. It’s the best part of the video.
KHS is an upper East Coast US company and their testing grounds for bicycles have always been New England. Their guys ride the same trails I ride here in Vermont. It only makes sense they got on board with fat bikes right away and they did it the right way. They do a good job. Of all these companies though I really do think Norco hit the mark the best. They make a bike that introduces fat biking to the masses, and they do it with a bike that the masses can love and can learn all the fun things a fat bike can do, from mountain touring and every day trail riding, to winter snow pack and Iditarod contender. Norco has figured out a way to make a bike that works for all of it.
This bike is amazing. And one day, when Norco figures out how to make enough of them, it will take over the world.