The first time former bike courier Chris Zito rolled a fat bike over the sand at Bradford Beach, he had a cycling epiphany. By the magic of the 4-inch tires turning underneath him, miles of shoreline north of the Downtown skyline suddenly became “a mountain bike playground,” and snow-covered trails and slushy streets parted like the Red Sea.
For this weather-beaten cyclist, there was new hope. And he wasn’t the first to realize the “fat” advantage: Local events for the bikes equipped with oversized, mud-loving tires have grown in recent years from a single relay race in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest to an eight-race series around the state, from Kenosha County to Merrill.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Made in Riverwest
Climbing atop a fat bike “makes everyone grin like a kid,” says Greg Smith, a partner in Milwaukee-based Schlick Cycles, which makes three fat bike models, steel-framed bikes that go for $2,300-$4,000. “They’re goofy,” he says, “and everyone on the street wants to talk to you about it.” Schlick operates out of a warehouse in Riverwest, where the small company hopes to build more than 90 bikes in 2013, including fat bikes, for which there’s a waiting list. And Smith helped launch fat-bike.com, a hub for the fat scene that lists some 100 races and events.
Born in Texas
Texans built the first fat bikes in the 1980s to ride on sand, and related designs later emerged in Alaska, where they were called “Snow Bikes.” Builders welded rims together to accommodate the extra-wide tires, and the riders braved extreme races such as the Iditasport Impossible in Alaska and the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota. The latest and largest wave of fat-biking is unfolding now – of the 10,000 fat bikes sold in the U.S., 8,500 have hit the streets since 2009, according to industry sources.
At more than 30 pounds – about 10 pounds heavier than most mountain bikes – a fat bike handles more like a minivan than a sports car and offers commensurate levels of stability and gear-hauling capacity. Some of the extra heft comes from the tires themselves, which are about twice as wide as a traditional mountain bike tread. Andy Bettinger of Backyard Bikes, located near the South Kettle Moraine, says renters who take his fat bikes out for a spin report enjoying their momentous feel.