The off-road “fat-biking” craze taking cycling by storm

“Fat bikes”, with giant tyres that deliver tank-like traction, have unlocked wild landscapes previously off‑limits to riders. Mark Bailey saddles up

Ragnar Baldvinsson of Mývatn Activity leads the way through smoke at the bubbling mudpools of Hverir
Ragnar Baldvinsson of Mývatn Activity leads the way through smoke at the bubbling mudpools of Hverir

I’m pedalling down a volcanic crater in the smoking lunar landscape of northern Iceland, my bike miraculously bouncing over jagged lumps of pyroclastic rock and bulldozing through waves of black ash and rust-red sand. The outer wall of Lúdent (pictured on final page), a kilometre-wide ring of ash, is a riot of stony trails and solidified lava flows that would send most bikes skidding into the dust. But today I am piloting a “fat bike”: a niche off-road design fitted with giant tyres that deliver tank-like levels of traction and durability. The 4.5in tyres are about the same width as the front tyre of a Ducati SuperSport motorbike, and only 2in smaller than the nose-gear tyres of the 107ft-long Dash-8 propeller plane that whisked me from Reykjavik to the fjord town of Akureyri, the gateway to Iceland’s secluded north. The volcanic terrain near Lake Mývatn – a darkly atmospheric expanse of water encircled by craters, lava pillars and steaming fumaroles 90km east of Akureyri – is a sublime fat-biking arena. The region is so desolate it was used by Neil Armstrong for training ahead of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and by the producers of the TV series Game of Thrones as a location for the lawless wasteland beyond the Wall. But thanks to the enhanced balance and grip of those plump tyres, which look like they have over-indulged at the breakfast buffet, fat bikes deliver an instant upgrade to the skillset and confidence of any rider and help to unlock privileged access to landscapes previously off-limits to cyclists.

While most visitors here don’t make it past the photogenic mudpools of Hverir (pictured below) or the black lava turrets of Dimmuborgir, my bespoke fat-bike expedition, led by Ragnar Baldvinsson of Mývatn Activity, ushers me deeper into the sulphurous landscape. Our tyres sink in black sand but never stop rolling; they judder over pumice rocks but never burst; and even when they leap into the air over unexpected ridges they land again with cushioned ease.

Racing downhill through the Skardsdal pine forest
Racing downhill through the Skardsdal pine forest

During our ride we discover hidden craters and hot caves and grind up the Lúdent crater to enjoy a stunning 360-degree tapestry of black ash fields, scorched yellow earth, bubbling lakes and stark table-top mountains, before dashing back down. “These tyres just eat rocks,” yells my other ride companion, experienced local biker Rögnvaldur Már Helgason, as we descend. “They swallow them whole.” 

Two-wheeled fat bikes first appeared in the 1980s when frame-builders in Alaska and New Mexico simultaneously began experimenting with wider tyres that could wade through snow and sand. In 2005, the innovative Minnesota bike brand Surly released “Pugsley”, the first mass-produced fat-bike frame. But following a recent surge in interest among the trendsetting cycling cognoscenti, other major bike brands have launched commercial models. Fat-bike names tend to be comically unflattering (think Specialized’s “Fatboy” and Scott’s “Big Jon”) or intrepidly bold (as with Surly’s “Moonlander” or Mondraker’s “Panzer”). “Fat bikes are now lighter and faster, so rather than being seen as a novelty, they are viewed as the Swiss Army knife of bikes, capable of riding on roots, rocks, sand and snow,” explains Duncan Kennedy, UK brand manager of Surly Bikes. “The tyres have a tractor‑esque quality, so riders can explore off-piste and ‘monster truck’ over obstacles.”

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Although fat-biking adventures are available worldwide, from the sand dunes of Dubai to the frozen wilderness of Finland, northern Iceland’s rugged landscapes offer an exhilarating kaleidoscope of volcanic terrain, muddy tracks and forest trails all within a few hours’ drive. Today I’m riding a Cube Nutrail, and as we glide past the mud pits of Hverir before starting our ride, the camera lenses of tourists sweep from the steaming pools to the strange bikes with gargantuan wheels. Heads turn. Fingers point. A child squeals with excitement. 

The physical sensation of riding a fat bike is unlike any other form of cycling, delivering the same blend of buoyant grace and jolting turbulence experienced on a rigid inflatable boat or a white-water rafting expedition. However, the biggest thrill comes from how quickly it rewires the fear circuitry in your brain. At first, I instinctively dodge upcoming hazards. But after accidentally slamming over protruding slabs of rock and successfully churning through volcanic sand, I begin to actively seek out challenging rocks, gravel and ridges. Fat-bike tyres are double the size of those fitted to downhill mountain bikes and five times bigger than road cycle tyres. Obstacles morph into opportunities. Dangers turn into delights. “We are riding above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates,” explains my guide Baldvinsson, whose tailored tour options include a unique island-hopping trip on the frozen Lake Mývatn in winter. “We can get more than 400 small earthquakes a week here. Some of the lava is 10,000 years old, from the end of the Ice Age, but some is just 30 years old, from the Krafla Fires of the 1970s and 1980s.”

From left: crossing a river close to Leyningsfoss. Baldvinsson gets airborne on a trail near Lake Mývatn
From left: crossing a river close to Leyningsfoss. Baldvinsson gets airborne on a trail near Lake Mývatn

Dotted with bleached-white tree branches and grey scree, the landscape seems barren, but Ragnar slams on his brakes to pluck some wild juniper berries. Their taste evokes the giddy pleasure of a gin and tonic – a strangely summery sensation beneath the metallic autumn sky, which is thickly textured with swollen rain clouds.

In Iceland it is easy to pair jolts of adventure with dashes of luxury. So having fuelled up on a dinner of slow‑roasted Icelandic lamb at Fosshotel Mývatn, a low-rise lodge with a larch-wood façade and a grass roof overlooking Lake Mývatn, and paused for geyser-baked rye bread and smoked trout at the Vogafjós farm restaurant for lunch, we finish our ride with a leg-warming dip in the alkaline lagoon of the Mývatn Nature Baths. Már Helgason fetches some cold beers and we soak in the geothermal water, naturally heated to 40ºC, and watch the darkening expanse of Lake Mývatn at twilight.

Powering up the black and red sand of the Lúdent crater
Powering up the black and red sand of the Lúdent crater

To experience the full bewitching variety of landscapes in the region, I spend another day fat-biking through the brooding mountain valleys, icy streams and pine forests around Siglufjörður, the northernmost town in Iceland. Surrounded by glaciated mountains and fjords harbouring whale pods, the town is just 40km south of the Arctic Circle – close enough that polar bears have been known to drift here on ice from Greenland. Siglufjörður used to be the capital of the North Atlantic herring fishing industry in the 1940s and 1950s, but now bathes in the luxurious commodity most prized in the modern world: isolation. Nodding fishing boats doze in the town’s harbour, which is flanked by cosy houses with vivid red and blue roofs. Arriving late at night, I relax by a fire at the Sigló Hótel (pictured above), a chic resort built around a marina, where I eat seafood soup and homemade ice cream. In the morning I enjoy a breakfast of thick Icelandic yoghurt, muesli and berries while watching fishermen bring in their catch, before meeting up with Gestur Þór Guðmundsson, lead guide at Wild Tracks, who also tells me about the company’s private fat-biking tours, including multiday expeditions to the barren highlands and torch-powered night rides to view the Northern Lights. 

Þór Guðmundsson hands me a Mongoose Argus fat bike. When I start riding in the silence of this vast landscape I notice for the first time the delicious sound made by fat-bike wheels, like the throaty purr of a Spitfire engine. Soon after leaving Siglufjörður I am dashing over rocky trails and plunging down muddy tracks between the mountains. We snack on the blueberries and crowberries that fill the meadows around us.

The Sigló Hótel in Siglufjörður offers a welcome respite from the rigours of the cycling expedition
The Sigló Hótel in Siglufjörður offers a welcome respite from the rigours of the cycling expedition

Fat bikes slash the learning curve of off-road cycling, so I ride into terrain I would not previously have dared to enter. Þór Guðmundsson asks if I want to try my first two-wheeled river crossing. I build up some speed and pump my pedals furiously to wade through the water, somehow wrestling the bike across without tumbling, ego and clothing intact. Þór Guðmundsson digs out a flask of cocoa and some kleina – Icelandic doughnuts fresh from the local bakery. We race through the Skardsdal pine forest, bouncing down wooden steps cut into the track and bursting through the narrow gaps between the trees. After a rest at Leyningsfoss (the hidden waterfall) we emerge from the forest into a clearing above Siglufjörður. When we return to the town we collect some sea kayaks and go for an arm-burning paddle, weaving between the exposed ribs of a sunken herring ship before gliding out into the Arctic Ocean. 

It feels like the ideal vantage point from which to ponder the potential of these innovative, all-terrain bikes. Even the polar region far beyond our watery horizon is now accessible to their oversized tyres, with fat-biking expeditions available north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland and Nunavut, Canada. In 2014, at the opposite end of the earth, the American cyclist Daniel Burton became the first person to cycle from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole on a fat bike. From Iceland to Antarctica, fat bikes are emboldening intrepid cyclists to pump up their tyres – and their ambitions.

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