A brake on fat bikes

The fat bike, a type of electric bicycle with wide tires, a sturdy saddle and an overall appearance resembling a moped, has gained popularity on Dutch bicycle paths in the last few years, especially with younger riders. And with its rise in popularity has also come a proportional wave of opposition from critics who consider it dangerous and demand stricter government measures, especially since fat bikes are often modified to exceed the e-bike 25 km/h legal limit to reach speeds up to 60 km/h. Recently, after several calls from city traffic councillors, municipalities, members of the cabinet and even legal fat bike manufacturers, the government has finally proposed a ban on enhanced booster sets for fat bikes that will leaveoffenders with hefty fines or even the confiscation of their vehicle.

The calls for intervention had been heard for a while, pointing out that fat bikes are closer to scooters and mopeds than to actual bicycles, especially those illegally enhanced to ride at high speeds. If a motor-assisted two-wheeler goes faster than the legal speed limit for an e-bike, it falls under a different category than bicycles, and would therefore require a driver’s license, compulsory helmet use and license plates, along with insurance for third-party damage in the event of an accident. Furthermore, enhanced fat bikes cause danger on bicycle paths, since (often teenage) riders on boosted fat bikes tend to overtake and turn wider at higher speeds. The overall feeling of insecurity on the road has increased significantly due in part to the appearance of these bikes, and according to a study done by data agency Cyclomedia, only 59% of cyclists in Amsterdam felt safe on the road in 2023, down from 72% the year before.

That is why the government has finally stepped in, with Minister for Infrastructure and Water Management Mark Harbers unveiling his plans in a letter to parliament in late March. The ban now includes all booster sets for fat bikes, including those that can be switched off at the moment of inspection, and throttles that exceed 6 km/h without pedaling. For that purpose, checks incorporating roller test benches will be set in place. Offenders will now face a €310 fine and repeat offenders can have their fat bikes confiscated by the police. The plan also includes a communication strategy to educate younger cyclists. But notably, it excludes other requests made to the government by city councils and municipalities, such as a minimum age for fat bike use and even banning fat bikes from cycle lanes altogether.

But the government is not the only one taking measures. In early March, fat bike manufacturers Brekr, Phatfour, Doppio and Knaap announced a boycott of shops and retailers that fail to comply with legal rules and keep selling enhanced booster sets, which often come already installed on imported fat bikes. Their strategy also includes launching a website that helps consumers get informed about how illegally enhanced fat bikes, although harmless at first glance, can carry significant risks for the safety of the rider, children and others. According to Niels Willems of Brekr: ‘illegal fat bikes are on the rise, posing safety and financial risks to consumers.’

In stricter fashion, advocacy organization Veilig Verkeer Nederland (Safe Traffic Netherlands) announced that no fat bikes will be accepted in the upcoming practical cycling exam for elementary school students, since they ‘do not fall within the bicycle category’. In that regard, VVN director Evert-Jan Hulshof declared that ‘fat bikes are easy to boost, which can lead to dangerous situations and unpredictable behavior on the road’. Nevertheless, e-bikes other than fat bikes which comply with regulations will be accepted for the exam.

That last clarification is an important part of Minister Harbers cabinet plan: to stop illegally enhanced fat bikes without restricting legal e-bike mobility in general, because it is a fundamental resource to school students, many of whom depend on e-bikes to traverse long distances when no other transportation is available, as well as to the elderly population who cannot use regular bicycles anymore. In the end, the plan is to make cycling more available for everybody, not the other way around.

Written by Juan Álvarez Umbarila