Thinking About Plus or Fatbikes? Read This!
Plus bikes seem very similar to fatbikes, but there are some key differences between the two. Which one will be right for you? You'll have to take some test rides and find out!When I first started mountain biking I was on a 29+ bike, a Surly Krampus.
I felt as tho I had a capable monster truck to plow over rocks and roots with. However, the main disadvantage I had was being short. At barely 5'2" I had the pleasure of smashing my bits on the top tube if I had to quickly dismount when a climb fell short.
I made do with this and still enjoyed the bike due to the confidence it gave me.
Fast forward a few years later and Travis transformed a Salsa Beargrease X7 into a 27.5+ (650B+) bike for me. What I loved most about this bike is we were able to put a front suspension fork on it and I could stand over it comfortably. The wheel size made it fit more like a 29" bike rather than a bike taller than that.
Some might wonder "Why front suspension? Don't the tires cushion enough?" The answer for myself would be, absolutely not. I need more plushness to my ride due to my chronic shoulder issues/pain. Having a front suspension fork would allow me to have ample air in the tires for traction and control without feeling so bounced around.
My first season riding the bike (after having a majority of rides being on traditional wheel sizes) I found myself crashing a lot more. I had gained boldness with the tires, also, I was to a point where I felt experienced enough that my improvement with riding would be to "go faster."
I eventually got myself under control with the bike and enjoyed it for the rest of the season. It was a fun bike to take to Levis Mounds in Wisconsin due to the sandy nature of the trails.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I likely didn't try the plus bike concept long enough. Tires could've been changed out and I could've given it more time to really get used to the bike. I decided that it was a bike that really didn't have a place in the garage for my ride style. I found myself gravitating towards other bikes that I felt more confident with, so the end decision was to sell the bike.
My experience doesn't mean it's a bad bike, but it ended up not being what worked the best for my needs.
Onto the Fatbike!
Fatbikes are popular due to their wide tires allowing you to roll over just about anything. In the midwest (and beyond!) they have added benefit by allowing more folks to enjoy riding outdoors during the winter months.
They are going to be a stable option for folks who absolutely feel squeamish on smaller tires and want to feel solidly connected to the ground. They are going to be a fun option for folks who want to recreate all year round. It's a great bike to use for commuting on snowy winter streets and riding groomed trails.
The fatbike is a versatile machine that can be used for mountain biking during the dry season, too! And (as mentioned before) there is the option of transforming your fatbike into a plus bike if you would rather something more nimble during the other 3 seasons. Basically, it's an easy way of having 2 bikes with one bike, but it will require some additional funds and effort for the transformation from fat to plus and vice versa.
(*For riding hardpack trail one should put more air in the tires to keep the front end from feeling as tho it would want to wander. Lowering air pressure works only so well for dry-season/frozen dirt riding. Even with a carbon fork I felt so jolted on some of our downhills; I'm also having PT for my chronic shoulder discomfort, and that wasn't helping.)
Having a front suspension fork really made me feel more confident with riding, I didn't feel as to I had to "brace" myself nor did I have to work so hard using my own body as suspension. My neck/shoulder felt way less tense and fatigued. It's been a total blast! I've had the biggest smiles on my face when riding my Fatboy.
My Specialized Fatboy has 26" wheels that have cutouts- which make them really light! (Yes, you can have light rims that aren't carbon.) Currently, I'm running Surly Edna tires (4.3" for size), and they hook up great. I can really see this bike being utilized again for adventure rides and/or when trail conditions get really leafy/nutty during the fall season. No longer will this bike be a strict "winter only" option as I can't get over how spritely it feels when I'm riding it.
I do have a Trek Farley 9.8 and I originally rode this for a few rides this winter before we gave the Fatboy a makeover. This bike has 27.5" wheels and beefy Bontrager Gnarwhal tires in the 4.8" size. These tires hook up like mad, but when there isn't a lot of snow...let's be honest, it's a lot of bike to ride. When I compare riding the Farley to the Fatboy, it's a night and day difference. The Farley 9.8 is going to be the go-to for blazing trail on snow-covered trails, but it's overkill for dry riding.
I have found on our local trails, there is really only one trail and one section I really don't love riding on a fatbike. All of the other trails? It's super fun (especially if we're talking about riding my Fatboy with a Bluto fork!)
You do need to pay attention to air pressure, at most you'd likely find yourself at 9-10 lbs for dry season riding and anywhere between 3-5 pounds for snow riding. Like with a plus bike, you'll for sure want to invest in a low-pressure gauge so you can really dial in your tire pressure.
For some, wider tires on the trails are confidence boosters for sure. The big question between deciding between plus and fat will be if you want to ride regularly in the winter. If you're looking to hit up groomed trails, be sure to pay attention to if you need a minimum tire width. Many will say that 3.8" tires are the smallest tire size you can run on groomed fatbike trails.
If the snow is very hardpack or there is little snow, you may be able to make a plus bike work, but they are not recommended for deeper snow or groomed snow conditions unless otherwise stated. So if snow riding is of interest to you and you think you might like to travel to ride groomed fatbike trails, then investing in a fatbike would be a more logical way to go than a plus bike.
If you are looking for a bike for strictly dry-season/frozen ground riding and aren't looking to explore in the snow, then a plus bike will be a fine route to go.
As I've mentioned before, I'd recommend renting both options to really get a feel for what your needs will be. That's really the best way to figure out if going full-fat or plus is right for you. Remember, fatbikes can be transformed while plus bikes will always be "plus"- you won't be able to turn them into a fatbike.