My biggest concern when sitting down to write this review is that I was going to run out of superlatives to use while describing Fatback’s Skookum. Of course, all of the classics apply–the frame is stiff, yet vertically compliant; it climbs like a mountain goat; its slack head tube angle makes for playful handling; it’s supremely rideable; you all know how the glowing review goes. However, such review tropes just seem to fall short of truly describing the Skookum, possibly because the bike is so much more capable than its spec sheet would lead one to believe.
Looking at the numbers, the Skookum should be labeled a trail bike, but it fits 4.8 inch tires. Based on the tire capacity, then, this is truly only a fat bike. However, with a set of 27+ wheels and tires underfoot, I’ve been racing it in the local cross country series and have been more than competitive with riders on dedicated 29er XC racing rigs. This means that it’s a race bike, correct? Then I took it on a 250-mile bikepacking race, thereby making it a bikepacking rig, right?
Can this bike really be pigeonholed into a single category or is it truly an anomalous, do-all, wonderbike that defies convention? At the risk of sounding trite, the answer just may be “yes.’
It almost seems as though the designers at Fatback were presented with a list of options for their newest creation and simply replied, “I’ll take one of everything.” The Skookum was created in hopes that it would become the go-to bike for any situation, and this is clearly evident when looking at the wide range of wheel and tire options that the frame can accommodate–from a 27.5+ (as equipped on this tester) to 29+, to as wide as a 26×4.8 full-fat tire, allowing the bike to be ridden year-round, regardless of what the seasons may bring.
The Fatback Skookum is a bit of an oddity in the fat bike world, as it forgoes the laid-back geometry of fat bikes past for numbers much closer to those of a trail bike. From the outset, the Skookum was designed around a 120mm Bluto fork and the ability to fit the aforementioned three wheel sizes without drastically effecting performance. I was only able to sample the Skookum with the WTB Scraper 27.5+ rim and Fatback hub wheelset wrapped in Schwalbe’s 3-inch Nobby Nic this go-round, which is ideal for summertime riding up here in the home state of the Fatback. It should follow, then, that the geometry would be well-suited to Alaska’s more primitive, less-forgiving Pacific Northwest-style terrain and, for the most part, it certainly is.
However, numbers can only tell a rider so much–after poring over the geometry chart, read on for a more telling review of the Skookum out in the real world.
On Trail — Race Mode
I’ve spent plenty of time ogling the Skookum either in press photos or in person at Speedway Cycles here in Anchorage, but my first opportunity to free the bike from the showroom floor and take it to the trails coincided with the first ArcticMTB race of the season. What better way, I thought, to put a shiny new bike through the wringer than to take it out racing? After a quick spin around the staging area to make sure that seat height and lever positioning were just where I’d want them, I pedaled up to the starting line and waited.
My previous race year was… less than illustrious, with one mechanical DNF thanks to a crank arm that had freed itself from the spindle, and my other race saw me getting passed by a singlespeed fat bike going uphill. Following those two events, I opted to sit the rest of the season out and try to focus on becoming a better rider. Hoping that this season would play out differently, I signed up for the ArcticMTB XC race series and awaited the race director’s call to start with nervous anticipation.
In the chaos that ensued shortly after the starting bell was rung, I somehow found myself clipped in, pedaling, and, much to my surprise, at the head of the pack. I would like to take a moment to emphasize again that I am, by all accounts, a fairly average racer. However, the Skookum is truly an impressive bike that will translate every last bit of pedaling power seamlessly into concentrated forward motion without any sense of power loss. The carbon frame is surprisingly stiff at the bottom bracket and even during a full sprint, I couldn’t detect the faintest bit of flex under power–you will not be robbed of your efforts while on this bike.
After charging through the opening straight, the real test of both rider and bike was fast approaching–the loose, rooty goodness of Anchorage’s finest singletrack. As I braced myself for for what has typically been a harsh ride, I was pleasantly surprised as the Rock Shox Bluto and plus-sized Schwalbe Nobby Nics smoothed out the majority of the terrain-induced shock that I had grown accustomed to. Rather than getting dropped by the field after stuffing a wheel into a mangled mess of roots, the Skookum gave me clear passage over the patches of twisted undergrowth and scattered rocks without any real drama.
However, if you’re riding over more than a short stretch of rough terrain, the Bluto begins to show that it still has its shortcomings. With extended, aggressive load cycles, the fork seems to become overworked and can’t seem to rebound quickly enough to prevent the shock from bottoming out. By fiddling with the compression and rebound settings (which are independently adjustable), along with adjusting the shock’s air pressure, this bottoming out effect can be mostly mitigated, but I then found that performance on less demanding terrain began to suffer. Thankfully, I’ve been able to find a happy medium that suits my particular riding style, and can still bomb down flow trails and over hard scrabble with a fair bit of confidence.
Speaking to confidence, the Skookum is one of the most stable and sure-footed bikes I’ve had the chance to pilot through Alaska’s varied trails. In buff, open, flowing singletrack, I have a hard time thinking of a better way to cruise though the terrain. With the impressive levels of grip provided by the plus-sized tires, the responsive trail bike-esque geometry, and low bottom bracket height, the Skookum loves to be thrown into corners and is like that one friend who is always there egging you on to push it just a little bit more, working to make you take just a little more risk, and carry just a little more speed. After crushing a few miles of of fast and clean descents, odds are the rider’s confidence will be at stratospheric levels.
Which can make the crashes seem that much more damning. The bottom bracket height, while making the Skookum incredibly stable in most conditions, can certainly put the hurt on a rider who lets their attention lapse when larger rocks and roots are around. When I first received the Skookum, it was equipped with 175mm cranks, which aren’t too terribly odd in the cycling world, but the longer length of the crank arms combined with the low bottom bracket height resulted in 8 noteworthy, speed-sapping, ankle-busting, confidence-reducing pedal strikes in my first outing alone. After a few more sessions over a wider array of terrain, it became achingly apparent that some changes to the geometry and component setup may be necessary. Thankfully, the mechanics at Speedway Cycles, home of the Fatback brand, are an accommodating and efficient bunch and were able to swap out the crankset with a shorter Race Face 170mm setup that did wonders for keeping my feet from becoming pickaxes in the rock gardens. Hats off to you, Speedway!
Though the occasional gut-punch of a pedal strike still occurs when a boulder’s size is misjudged, I imagine that the issue could be all but eliminated if the 110mm Bluto fork were swapped for the 120mm travel version and the 27.5+ wheels with a slightly taller 29+ wheelset. However, I’m at odds with whether or not I would want to change the geometry much, as the current setup is incredibly fun in almost every situation I’ve encountered, save the errant rock looking to remove rider from bike.
With the pedal strike issue mostly abated, I found myself falling for the Skookum and its unabashedly playful nature. If you can’t have fun on this bike, then it may be time to consider another hobby; perhaps competitive basketweaving or crossstitching may be more in your wheelhouse. Every time I stopped to take a breather, I found a goofy grin plastered across my face–this bike loves to be tossed around and just seems to keep getting better as I take bigger and riskier lines. In my time with the Skookum, I’ve yet to find a trail that could truly get the better of it–just pick your preferred line and, if you’ve got the legs, you’ll be able to clear miles and miles of singletrack without much issue.
On Trail — Bikepacking Mode
After several events, it became clear that the Skookum could certainly hold its own in cross country racing, much to the surprise of riders with tires much slimmer than those fitted to my tester. Looking for a new challenge to throw at Fatback’s surefooted offering, I prepared for something a bit more demanding–a 250-mile bikepacking race covering some of Southcentral Alaska’s finest trails and providing over 30,000 feet of elevation gain. Luckily, this also translates to 30,000 feet of downhill, so this three-day race equalling a trip to a 747’s cruising altitude and back provided a perfect testbed to see how the Skookum handles the rigors of bikepacking.
Starting from sea level in Hope, Alaska, the uphill slog began immediately, and I found myself pleasantly surprised at the climbing prowess of the fully-loaded almost-fat bike. On less technical, lower-angle climbs, the Skookum gains altitude with aplomb and makes it easy for the rider to ascend, even when weighed down with a weekend’s worth of gear. However, once the trails turn steeper, it’s time for the rider to pay a bit more attention to the cockpit and less to the scenery, as the shorter stem and trail bike-oriented geometry can cause the Skookum to wander a bit.
After each climb on the Kenai Peninsula, I was greeted with new terrain and trail designs to put the Skookum through its paces. In the flowing, high alpine terrain atop Resurrection Pass and Lost Lake, the bike was untouchable. Even with the added heft of my camping gear and supplies, the steering was still impressively quick to respond to even the slightest inputs, making it easy to speed through the high altitude trails while still holding the desired line. When returning back below treeline, this responsive handling made it easy to navigate through the messes of roots and rocks without crashign and risking a yard sale of all my thoughtfully-packed gear. The 27.5+ wheel and tire setup certainly was the right choice for the Kenai 250, with all the much-proclaimed “sweet spot” characteristics of the in-betweener tire size truly shining through.
Between the test bike and my previous 26-inch-tire-equipped bikepacking setup, the Skookum quite simply put my old bike to shame in all aspects. Comparing the two bikes was like bringing a donkey up to the line next to a thoroughbred; the Skookum outclassed the old rig in climbing, descending, hauling (of both gear and ass), and most-importantly, was just the more fun choice. In the realm of bikepacking, the Skookum is great for those who want to keep their rig’s weight low and are looking to clear the transits between rest stops in as short a time as possible.
The Fatback Skookum is easily the most ambitious bike that I’ve had the pleasure to ride. Its specification sheet reads as if the designers couldn’t decide where they should make sacrifices during the creation of the bike and instead opted to just try to throw everything that they had available at the planning board and do their best to make it all fit.
The frame is surprisingly light, shows no signs of flex, and can fit just about every tire on the market; its geometry displays the hybrid vigor of a crossbreed between a trail bike and fat bike; it occupies a certain “Jack of all trades” niche that other manufacturers have yet to nail down with their own fat-tired bikes.
This characteristic may just be the defining aspect of the Skookum–it does so much so well, but isn’t necessarily the best in any one category over other bikes that it competes against. Dedicated bikepacking rigs will come with features better-suited for hauling gear over longer distances, but will find riders shying away from the starting line at their local race series.
On the opposite side of the equation, aggressively-tuned race bikes would find the rider forced to schlep the majority of their camping gear on their back rather than on the bicycle’s frame which, speaking from personal experience, is truly an unfortunate situation.
But if the bike doesn’t truly excel in all areas, is it worth considering? Personally, I have found myself contemplating consolidating my cycling collection, and the Skookum would fulfill many a need. The wheel and tire options alone make the bike worth considering, as this could truly be a four-season solution. Couple this with the playful demeanor of the Skookum, and you’re presented with a very appealing candidate for the one bike to scratch every itch.
Most of you may be wondering who would name a bike “Skookum” or what the word even means, but after spending the past two months aboard this carbon fiber wonderbike, it makes perfect sense. Of Chinook heritage, the word Skookum has a variety of uses and can fulfill different needs in different situations, but at its core, “Skookum” roughly translates to something being of strong or solid nature, or being impressive. However, it can also be interpreted as meaning a mountain-roaming monster. Appropriate, isn’t it, that a bike that is so hard to pin down and define would have its namesake be just as open to interpretation.