BIKE TEST: BIG CAT FAT CAT XL 500

Now you can run with the big cats

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Electric bikes are great for getting people on two wheels to get some exercise and for rehab following an injury. Vincent Gebbia had seen electric bikes in Asia and thought they’d be great for his mother to help her get exercise and overcome a knee injury. She could use it to regain her freedom and confidence. He started from that initial idea and created a company that is now producing bikes. Big Cat’s line is all inexpensive, entry-level bikes.

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DIVING IN

We received Big Cat’s newest Fat Cat XL 500 bike. It’s very distinctive. It’s a fat bike with massive rims, a brightly colored aluminum frameset and a color-matched rack to add to the versatility. It’s not a low step-through frame, but the top tube does curve downward to make it more like a semi-step-through design.

Tektro mechanical disc brakes aren’t always the best with a big bike like this, but they turned out to be more than adequate. The big tires offer so much grip that braking is more effective.

Tektro mechanical disc brakes aren’t always the best with a big bike like this, but they turned out to be more than adequate. The big tires offer so much grip that braking is more effective.

There’s a button on the bars marked “horn.” We, of course, immediately felt compelled to press it. I mean, wouldn’t you? A quick press of that button inside our warehouse and the room was filled with a near-deafening horn sound. It’s the kind that will get you noticed when riding, warning pedestrians, drivers, other cyclists and the occasional dog that you are coming.

“One of the kids saw the bike, got a big smile and exclaimed, ’Whoa!’’

The battery is located behind the seat tube. There is a lever that releases a hinge that allows the seat to flip forward so you can remove the battery, which you can to charge it or replace it if you like, but you can charge it right on the bike. With the motor located in the rear hub, the bike feels back-end-heavy. You don’t really notice this when riding, but when you’re moving the bike around you will definitely feel it.

There’s a Medusa of wires coming out of this thing—one for the display, two for each of the brake levers, one for the throttle, one for the shifter and more. They’re actually nicely wrapped, only exposing the needed quick disconnects.

THE RIDE

We took it for its first spin on the bike path near the office. The first thing we noticed instantly was the acceleration. It’s very quick! The motor is torquey and powerful.

This big, lumbering beast doesn’t mind going fast. Something feels a bit strange when it goes fast. It’s the fat tires. They want to turn harder than you do, so you have to countersteer significantly. The slight whine of the motor is completely drowned out by the noise of the tires. Those alone will announce your presence. When coasting, you feel the drag of the tires.

While there’s no suspension on this bike, the big tires go a long way in making it feel like there is. Higher pressure for the street keeps them rolling along well, but can be a bit bouncy over bumps. Lower pressure for off-road offers better grip on surfaces like dirt, sand, mud and snow.

The 500-watt hub motor proved to be plenty enough to move this big beast with the ease and grace of an elephantine ballerina.
The 500-watt hub motor proved to be plenty enough to move this big beast with the ease and grace of an elephantine ballerina.

The bars are seriously swept back, with ergonomic grips on either end. The sweep of the bars does make it a bit harder to countersteer when the tires want to fight you, but it also makes it pretty comfy as a cruiser.

Assist is actuated by either pedaling or a twist throttle. The throttle can be used to manually control the addition of power, or simply drive the bike forward. There is a lockout button below the throttle that allows it to be turned off as well. Pedal assist works with a cadence sensor. There are 12 magnets on the front sprocket that let the system detect movement in the cranks and start delivering power immediately. As a cadence sensor, any movement of the pedals kicks in the system.

Because the acceleration is so fast, we started going pretty quickly almost immediately. Then we noticed two things about the brakes: first, the cutoffs work on these quite well, and second, they don’t stop this big bike very quickly. They’re Tektro mechanical disc brakes, often the choice of less expensive bikes, and rarely enough for a fat bike.

The rack looks crazy beefy, but it’s also aluminum. We didn’t test to see how much it would hold in the real world.
The rack looks crazy beefy, but it’s also aluminum. We didn’t test to see how much it would hold in the real world.

After the power cutoff from the brakes, the power reenters quickly, possibly the quickest and easiest of any bike we’ve tested recently. This works really well.

It’s a fat bike, cousin to the beach cruiser. You’d expect it to be comfortable to ride, and it is. The saddle is plush and is comfortable on every ride we take, even long-distance rides.

The Shimano SIS shifter gets you through the eight gears in the rear with an easily readable gear indicator. These shifters aren’t a personal favorite, but we see a lot of them, and like everything from Shimano, they get the job done.

We also took off and climbed a really steep hill with it. It made it much further than many bikes we have tested. The 500 watts in this bike is a great balance of speed and power, without draining a battery too fast or making your legs explode. It could be geared lower, but that would end up making you spin your legs off on flat ground. Since it has a cadence sensor, you can pretend you’re powering the bike and crank the pedals around slowly to keep the motor going. Or, you can also just use the throttle.

The controller is nice and big and easy to see. There are also five levels of assist. You can use that to your advantage when you fake pedal, changing levels to increase or decrease your speed. First level goes to about 12 mph, 2 goes to 14 mph and so on up to 20 mph in level 5. Going above 20 is pretty scary, whether in the straights or on turns—turns, especially, though. It’s really easy to see what speed you’re at on the big display. At a glance you also have battery level. It’s a good thing, because this bike is energy-hungry.

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(Top) We wish all displays had this much contrast and was simple and easy to read while riding. (Middle) The power controller was simple and elegant, and that button underneath was the electronic bell. It is loud and obnoxious enough to get anyone out of your way. (Bottom) Shimano SIS shifters are never a staff favorite, but it works surprisingly well on this bike.
(Top) We wish all displays had this much contrast and was simple and easy to read while riding. (Middle) The power controller was simple and elegant, and that button underneath was the electronic bell. It is loud and obnoxious enough to get anyone out of your way. (Bottom) Shimano SIS shifters are never a staff favorite, but it works surprisingly well on this bike.

ON’T FALL OFF 

Remember that mechanism for accessing the battery we talked about earlier? Well, the first ride we had, the saddle tilted while we were riding it. Oops! So, we tightened it and took it back out. It still tilted with a little pressure. We tightened it again, and it didn’t help much. Be aware that the binder mechanism is prone to letting the saddle tilt forward and backward.

We usually rode in level 2–3, and that was more than enough. Level 5 means you aren’t working and keeping yourself in shape, and you’ll drain the battery really fast. We didn’t find that this bike was optimized for especially long rides, and our battery life showed it.

We rode past a family at one point all out for a ride on their bikes. Dad had a mountain bike, while the kids had a couple of BMX-style bikes. One of the kids saw the bike, got a big smile and exclaimed, “Whoa!” That wasn’t the only reaction we got on rides. The bike is distinctive and stands out even in a crowd of bikes.

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THE VERDICT

Big Cat sells their bikes through big-box retailers like Walmart, as well as through traditional IBDs. They even help people set up their own dealerships.

The Fat Cat is an inexpensive fat bike that’s fun to ride and looks great. With the ability to change the ride by simply varying the tire pressure, it’s extremely versatile. It’s definitely a great cruiser, but owing to the effect of the tires on the handling, be careful when you ride it at higher speeds. It’s a great bike if you like bike paths and beach paths, all at a really great price.

SPECS

MSRP: $1595

Frame: Aluminum

Fork: Aluminum

Wheels: 26″

Tires: 26×4″

Motor: 48V, 500W

Battery: 48V12AH Li-ion

Controls: LED

Charge time: 6 hours

Top speed: 20 mph

Range: Up to 30 miles, depending on riding style, load and terrain

Drive: Shimano Deore, 1×10

Brakes: Mechanical disc brakes

Weight: 63 lb.

Sizes: 18 inch

Color choices: Green with black wheels, gray with black wheels, matte black with green wheels, matte black with orange wheels, orange with black wheels, white with black wheels

 www.bigcatelectric.com