Avid cyclists always have reasons to like the bikes they’ve chosen, but Michael Lemberger has a particular reason he enjoys the one he’s riding these days:
He likes to mess with fishermen.
On a quiet Lake Mendota or Monona, Lemberger has pedaled up to ice fishermen on his custom-built bike with 4 ¼-inch wide tires, seeming to come out of nowhere on a bizarre contraption they’ve never seen before.
“I’ll ask them if they’re catching anything,” Lemberger said, bewildering the anglers with his presence and mode of transportation. “It was pretty hilarious.”
Lemberger’s was among the first of many such bikes to come. They’re called fat bikes, built for sand and snow with tires that look as if they were pilfered from a jalopy. They’ve been around for more than a decade since being developed in Alaska, but in the past year reached a critical mass that has brought them into the mainstream. Or as much into the mainstream as biking in the winter might ever be.
“I feel like last winter is when it really spiked, and this year you notice a lot more,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, who owns Revolution Cycles on the East Side. “It seems like triple what we were dealing with last year, and we’re just one shop.”
Many factors have signaled the arrival of the fat bikes in the past year, including:
• Production of the bikes has gone from small companies to major manufacturers such as Trek and Specialized, with even Wal-Mart introducing a $200 model called the Mongoose Beast all-terrain bike.
• The Badger State Winter Games introduced a fat bike event for the first time, at a park in Wausau that is open specifically for fat bikes.
• Prices that were well over $1,000 are going down on some fat bikes to draw in more users, while prices are skyrocketing with other fat bikes to appeal to the niche riders who want carbon frames and other components for fast and sleek performance.
• The Fat Bike Birkie, an event in its second year on the famed trails of the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Cable, Wis., announced in January that its event on March 8 would serve as the U.S. National Fat Bike Championships.
Even with a national championship pending, most people are hopping on their fat bikes for one reason: fun.
“It provokes an incredible joy,” Fitzgerald said. “Everyone who gets on one comes back with a smile.”
Dave Schlabowski, deputy director of the Wisconsin Bike Federation, agreed.
“There’s a grin factor when you’re riding them,” Schlabowski said. “And it sort of takes the hurry out of your ride. It removes that competitive go fast nature I know a lot of guys have.”
The laid-back nature of the fat bike culture is reflected in the names given to bikes, parts and events. The earliest bike to corner the market was called a Pugsley, made by Surly. Then came Trek’s Farley and Specialized’s Fatboy. Wheel rims have names like Large Marge and Clown Shoes. Events include the Platty Fatty, held in December in Platteville, and the Sweaty Yeti in Neillsville on Saturday.
“The crowd at the fat bike events wants to have fun,” said Tim Ingram, a fat bike enthusiast who owns Momentum Bikes in Platteville. “They don’t want it to be so serious.”
While the events are technically races, speed is not a big part of the fat bike experience. Nor is cutting a trail. They are designed to float over the snow or sand, as opposed to the studded tires that winter riders and commuters have generally ridden with to cut through snow. The bikes do better on trails that are already somewhat packed down, and many riders create trails with snowshoes.
A fat bike isn’t just a bike with really fat tires. The frame is built to handle the larger tires. The pedals are farther apart. The tires on fat bikes range from 3 ½ inches to nearly 5 inches. That’s considerably larger than road bikes, which have tires in the inch to inch-and-a-half range, and mountain bikes, which have tires in the 2- to 2 ½-inch range.
Schlabowski said fat bikes are still a small part of the market, and based on manufacturers’ numbers he estimates there are only about 30,000 in the world.
“There will be 100,000 next year or maybe even 200,000 because the major manufacturers are involved now,” Schlabowski said.
The Midwest, particularly the Great Lakes region, has been a hot spot for the bikes, Schlabowski said. That’s because the area has the two things for which the bikes are built: snow and sand.
Lake Michigan beaches in the Milwaukee area, in Door County and along the Lake Superior shore have become popular fat bike destinations in warmer weather.
The question of where to ride has become one of the challenges for fat bike and winter recreation enthusiasts. Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the state has had to increasingly consider cycling as part of the winter recreation picture.
The DNR has tried to clarify trail use rules regarding fat bikes, but Brown said they can get complicated. Essentially, fat bikes are allowed on any state multi-use trail except those that have been groomed for cross-country skiing even if mountain bikes are allowed on them in the summer.
Brown added that county and municipal trails might have different rules and users should check with local authorities. In addition, rural trails on private lands that have been marked and used by snowmobiles are off-limits to fat bikes. That land use has been negotiated between land owners and local snowmobile clubs.
Ingram rode some of the snowmobile trails around Platteville a few years ago when his conscience got the better of him. He thought if the local snowmobile club was doing all the work to create the trails, he should pay his dues and join. He did, other fat bike riders followed and the result has been a cooperative effort between the area’s biking and snowmobiling communities. It’s also provided the bike riders with access to places they’d never otherwise get the chance to go.
“Only snowmobiles would see these places in the winter because the rest of the year the farmers are working these fields,” Ingram said. “It’s amazing.”
That kind of access is part of what puts the grin on the faces of so many riders.
“It’s been this incredible doorway into this environment that I’ve always loathed because it’s so oppressive for cycling,” said Fitzgerald, who enjoys riding on trails and on the lakes.
For Earl Serafica, who works at Revolution Cycles, fat biking sparked an enthusiasm for exploring in the winter, something he never did before.
“I think it’s been a gateway for a lot of people who think skiing or snowshoeing is a lot of money to spend for something that’s only for the winter,” he said. “I ride this bike all year.”
And all year, he hears the questions and sees the looks. It’s all as much a part of the fat bike landscape as snow and sand are.
“Any time I’m riding with someone who doesn’t have a fat bike, they’ll say, ‘You do realize everyone is looking at you, don’t you?’ ” Serafica said. “And I say, ‘Yeah, I know.’ To me, it’s weird. It’s just a bike. You still push it; you still pedal it. You still turn it like any other bike. It’s just got fat tires.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the owner of Revolution Cycles. He is Jeff Fitzgerald. An earlier version of the story named him as Jeff Fischer.]