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At first glance, a fat bike looks a bit like something a cartoon clown oughta ride, its big, bloated tires somehow suggestive of huge floppy shoes on guys with too-tiny hats.

A leading fat bike manufacturer, Surly, even sells a 4-inch-wide wheel rim called the “Clown Shoe.”

But in the decade or so since the Minnesota-based company first brought a fat bike to the mass market, the heavy-set frames with thick, knobby tires have gained serious cred in the cycling world — though fans say they mostly like riding them because they’re so darn fun.

“It’s like being 4 years old and riding your first bicycle,” said Santa Rosa resident Sebastian Brewer, an acknowledged fattie ambassador. “It’s absolutely amazing. It’s so grin-inducing, it’s crazy.”

From the makeshift bikes first assembled in garages and workshops, largely by tinkerer cyclists in the snowy north eager to get out on two wheels in winter, fat bikes have successfully found a niche in the mainstream, especially among mountain bikers like Brewer.

Their wide, low-pressure tires provide for a broad plane of contact with the ground, offering grip, superior traction and shock-absorption while allowing flotation on sand, snow and mud, as well as stability on rutted or rocky terrain, even at very low speeds.

Though still a novelty in a universe populated mainly by slender road bikes and trim, muscular mountain bikes, fat bikes — some now with tires up to 5 inches wide — are reported to be the fastest growing sector of the cycling market. They’re available from many brands, at multiple price points, and through everyone from bike shops that cater to the high performance crowd to discount stores like Kmart.

Windsor resident Miguel Suarez, 36, said he knew as soon as he tried one about two years ago that he had fallen “in love.”

“I was shopping for a bike … trying to try all the new things,” he said. “Once I came across that fat bike, I knew that’s what I wanted.”

The earliest fat bikes on the evolutionary timeline are said to have appeared in the late 1980s, the product of necessity and its offspring invention, and the innovative instincts of cyclists who jury-rigged conventional rims and tires so they could ride two- and three-abreast across snow, ice and desert, creating a broad footprint that would keep them from sinking.

Early experiments appeared largely in Alaska, on the Iditabike race first launched in 1987, eventually resulting in more refined, one-off products a decade and a half later.

Finally, came the wide tire and wheels that led in 2005 to the release of Surly’s Pugsley, the first commercially available fat bike.

Manufacturers have continued pushing the envelope, producing larger wheels, different tire widths and trends, adding full suspension to rigid frames.

Overall, the bikes have only gotten fatter, so the newer models “are like elephantine, obese bikes, in fact,” said Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Gary Helfrich.

Helfrich said he rides a 3 1/2-inch wide tire, but says the true fatties “are in that category that you really hope your best friend buys one, so you can borrow it.”

Tim Anderson, government affairs manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency, said he saw his first fat bike in Truckee about a year ago but thought maybe 62 was too old to become a trendsetter. A friend convinced him otherwise, and a month ago he bought one to work into his commute between Fountaingrove and his office at the Airport Business Center, north of town.

“I was ready for a new idea,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of ways to enjoy biking, and this is a totally new experience. I really enjoy it.”

The bike, though a bit slower than old one, is also great when it comes to confronting the 500-foot hill he has to climb on his way home.

“It has a really low creeper gear, almost like a tractor. I can just grind up the hill at night without a lot of difficulty,” he said.

The attention from passersby is entertaining, as well.

“People pull up to me in their cars, and roll beside me and say, Are you loving it? Kids on their bikes to school wave at me and smile. … it’s been fun to get all the attention.”

Not everyone is sold.

Yannick Calvez, 18, works at Cotati’s Hub Cyclery and said he tried a fat bike for a few months but eventually sold it. It had 3-inch tires and was “a blast” to ride, but just wasn’t as versatile as he wanted.

“The people who like their fat bikes the most,” said Raphael Sonstein, tech manager at Mike’s Bikes in Petaluma, “this isn’t their first bike. It’s just something different, and that’s my take on it.”

Sebastopol Bike Center owner Denver Booker said he’s had too little interest and seen too few of them to include them in his inventory.

“The best reason for riding them is because you have very soft ground that you’re riding on — snow, maybe, sand, mud,” he said. “It’s a great concept, but I think you need to be in the right area.

“You’re not going to go very fast on one, if speed is your thing,” he added.

But Suarez said the flexibility of a fat bike and its virtually “flat-tire proof” tires means “I don’t feel limited to the places that I can go” when out riding.

“They have a lot of traction. They are great climbers, and not to mention going downhill, you can shred and go over just about anything without fear,” he said. “It’s like riding a dirt bike, except the horse power is in your legs.”

Brewer, who is in his mid-40s, conceded many owners use their fat bikes as secondary bikes. But his, he said, is his “go-to bike,” even with 10 or 11 in the garage he shares with his girlfriend.

“Because fat bikes were initially designed for sand and snow, their infiltration of normal mountain biking has been relatively slow,” he said. “I think a lot of those who would consider themselves as mountain biking purists scoff at fat bikes I guess because they’re easier to ride. They’re slower.

“If you want to be super fast and super light — if you’re a weight weenie — it’s probably not the bike for you,” he said. “If you’re looking for a much higher fun bike, if you’re looking for a ride that may do well where regular bikes don’t do well, this is it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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