By Brink Kuchenbrod
What happens when your fat bike hits the jackpot and wins the Spanish lottery, El Gordo? It gets a stare-at-me Lauf fork, belt drive, a 14-speed Rohloff internally geared hub, and a suspension seatpost. This fat bike from Ventana is that winner, and they call it ... wait for it ... El Gordo, a.k.a. “The Fat One.”
I first spied El Gordo at the 2017 Interbike tradeshow’s Outdoor Demo. With eBikes commanding the longest lines for testing, I was able to jump aboard the El Gordo for a super-fun ride on desert trails. I could have railed those turns harder every time with 5.0in. wide tires.
Luckily, the nice people at Cycle Monkey and Gates Carbon Drive, maker of El Gordo’s belt drive, offered to send this machine to Adventure Cycling headquarters in Montana for a little winter riding.
And once this fat lotto winner arrived, I again stared at its prizes, starting with the alien-looking front end. Welcome to the unique world of the carbon fiber Lauf fork. Its 12 carbon leaf springs — six on each side — isolate you from the ground with a frugal 60mm of undamped travel, half the travel of many conventional forks. Fat bikes get the Carbonara model, retailing for $890.
Fat biking in my area can include smooth tracks groomed just for fat bikes (yay!), which doesn’t really require suspension, and we also hit some of the local mountain bike trails in winter once the hikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers have packed the snow down. This is fun but bumpy stuff. We call it boot tracks — I suppose it’s like rough desert singletrack, but slippery — and El Gordo kept a grin on my fat biking face, while the smooth Lauf fork kept the vibration out of my wrists.
Pick El Gordo up, a reasonable 31.8 lbs. with pedals and tires set up tubeless, and notice how light the front end is. Toss in zero maintenance and full functionality in any temperature, and the Lauf’s price tag starts to look pretty reasonable. When the oil in your heavy-ish, air-sprung/oil-damped fork turns to peanut butter in cold temps, muting its performance, the crazy-looking Lauf keeps smoothing the ride.
Moving to the next prize, Gates Carbon Drive gets the watts to the rear wheel. Belt drives on bikes look different, and with some Las Vegas–area desert sand sprinkled into the belt and sprockets, El Gordo sounded different too … kind of like a rusty chain. Gates assured me a quick rinse with water would silence the belt, and once on Montana snow, the belt went silent for many miles of maintenance-free riding.
The belt spins a 14-speed internally geared Rohloff hub. I’m convinced the Gates belt and the Rohloff combine to provide a snow-and-ice-proof drivetrain. I never had a hiccup. My first ride featured fresh, dry snow spraying off the tires — potentially a source of ice buildup that might foul a cassette and derailer — but couldn’t phase El Gordo.
Heck, I even ran this bike through some willows flopped across the trail and got branches caught between the belt and the sprockets — a potential showstopper on a normal bike. I untangled things, fretted briefly about woody material gummed into the belt, then continued on my way. Once home, I went to pick the belt clean, but I couldn’t find anything to remove. It cleaned itself.
If the front end of this bike is noticeably light thanks to the Lauf, the rear end tips the scales less daintily with the Rohloff hub weighing in the neighborhood of four pounds. That’s a beefy path to 14 unique gear ratios. And be sure to let off the pressure on the pedals more than you might be used to, or you won’t be grabbing any of those gears. But once you lighten up on your feet, buzz that grip shifter to any position and you’ll instantly have the gear you need. This quick shifting, combined with its foolproofness in ice and snow, certainly makes the weight of the hub forgivable on a fat bike.
One thing that bothered me, however, was the inability to spin the drivetrain backwards as freely as on a low-tension, traditional drivetrain. Unlike chains, belts require tension, and apparently a little bit of friction in the belt and sprocket is normal. Gates assures us that the efficiency of this belt is as good as a clean chain and superior to a dirty chain.
I wanted to dive in a little more, so I checked the belt tension with a handy smartphone app available from Gates. It uses the microphone to check the frequency of a belt given a good pluck. For an internally geared hub, you’ll be “listening” for a frequency in the range of 35 to 50Hz (28–40 lbs.). El Gordo showed up set at the max tension of 50Hz, and for experimentation I dropped it to 40Hz. While I was at it, I also checked the Rohloff hub to see that it was spinning freely — it was. With the lower tension the pedals could spin backwards more freely.
One question mark on El Gordo was the suspension seatpost — specifically, a Kinekt (formerly Cirrus) BodyFloat — the kind with the compression springs inside a parallelogram. Frankly, bouncy saddles offend my refined, road-influenced tastes, ahem, and I considered an immediate swap. Who would notice? Long story short: I ended up riding this post, liking it, and leaving it on the bike. Springs preloaded correctly, it feels rigid until it gives right when you get a jolt.
The other question mark on El Gordo was the Magura MT4 disc brakes. They were quiet and strong when they worked, but twice in temps well below freezing they “froze” and quit functioning. The wheels would spin, but the levers lost almost all of their travel, unable to send pressure to the calipers. One cold evening, I went to ride El Gordo home on snow-packed roads and wound up setting the bike inside for 15 minutes to get the brakes warmed up and working again. Downright disconcerting, yes, and this also happened on another test bike with a different brand of brakes.
This is a known issue with hydraulic disc brakes in the extreme cold, and DOT fluid reportedly performs better than mineral oil (Shimano and Magura use mineral oil, SRAM uses DOT fluid). For those riding in very cold temperatures, cable-actuated disc brakes are the safest bet, and a good bleed on any hydraulic system is imperative.
The frame does have all the modern usuals: tapered head tube, plenty of tire clearance for the 4.7in. tires, up to 120mm of fork travel should you opt for a more traditional suspension fork, plenty of rear axle options, etc.
I have to give El Gordo back to Gates Carbon Drive at the end of Fat Bike February, and I’ll be sad to see “The Fat One” go. I had a blast riding this bike, getting crazy grip in the desert, controllably sliding sideways in the snow, and loving the unusual cycling experience El Gordo and its unique lotto prizes can offer.
Brink Kuchenbrod is the Digital Media Coordinator at Adventure Cycling Association and 1992, 1993, and 1998 winner of the Western Montana Hill Climb Championships.