Photos by the author and Anthony Bareno, Velo Cult
It’s hard to point a finger at what was the “first” fat bike. Just like the origins of the mountain bike itself, there are several branches in the family tree.
This prototype of what would later become the production Hanebrink “Extreme Terrain Bike”—which is still in production today—is the second design, but used many of the parts from the first bike, so it is likely the oldest example in existence. Today it resides in Portland, Oregon, at Velo Cult, a combination bike shop, tavern, event venue and bike museum where it joins dozens of other pioneering off-road bicycles from the likes of Yeti, Ritchey, Salsa and more.
In the early 1990s, mountain biking was still in its infancy and Dan Hanebrink was building quite a few eyebrow-raising bikes, including a dedicated downhill road bike with a sleek fairing that resembled a vintage Moto GP bike and a modified SE Shocker, one of the first mountain bikes with a suspension.
While many early fat bike pioneers were welding together rims and sticking together tires, Hanebrink was experimenting with tires from a whole different source. These original tires are from an ATV and were shaved down as much as possible to shed weight by a company called Skat Trak in California. Small screws were added for traction on ice and snow. They are designed to be ridden at 2 to 4 psi on soft surfaces.
Click on the magnifying glass at the bottom right to see larger photos.
The drivetrain is offset, such that the Q-factor is the same as a normal bike, but a secondary drive chain powers what is essentially a standard derailleur system. The gearing is low enough that it can be ridden at or below walking speeds. The chainrings are only 12t-18t-24t but they are the equivalent of 24t-36t-48t when factoring in the extra ratios of the secondary chain.
Since it is a prototype, some of the details are less than polished, but the basic layout is nearly identical to the current models. The head tube sports a prototype shock absorber, and the brakes are early ProStop models. If you’re wondering why suspension is necessary giving the big tires, a Mountain Bike Action article from 1993 points out that the front wheel was occasionally replaced with a pair of small skis and ridden in the snow around Hanebrink’s home in Big Bear Lake, California, and the front end would bounce harshly without a shock absorber.
Today Fortune Hanebrink bikes have found uses in military and other extreme terrain, often with an electric motor assist. There is even a special golf-specific variation. The prototype is part of Velo Cult’s collection, though it still sees occasional use. If you’re ever in Portland be sure to stop by, have a beer, and take a look.