Fat bikes keep winter weather riders on the road

The bike culture in Kalamazoo is growing, even in wintertime.
When freakishly cold and snowy weather hit Kalamazoo the week of Nov. 17, bicyclist Ryan Shapiro was like a kid on Christmas morning.

"People were cursing me, I was so excited," he says. "Snow!"

Shapiro was eager to take his new Mongoose Dolomite fat bike on a snowy road test.

The fat bike phenomenon has been growing since the Surly Puglsy, considered the first mass-produced fat bike, came out in 2005. The fatness is in the tires; three to five inches wide. The tires are usually kept under-inflated, so they spread-out like snowshoes over snow, sand and other challenging surfaces.

That Monday night Shapiro donned a balaclava, goggles, a face mask with an air-warming breathing valve -- "The kind people who climb Mount Everest use," he says -- a few layers of garments, and hopped on his bike to ride downtown into lake-effect snow and temps dropping to the mid-teens.

Some might wonder how a bicyclist can ride through the Michigan winter. Others just might wonder, why?

"I've just always enjoyed being out in extreme weather," Shapiro says.

He and his wife faced a choice in 2009, when they were ready to leave their home in Oklahoma City for employment opportunities: Move to Kalamazoo, or to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Shapiro was briefly excited about moving to the state where the Iditabike was held -- an annual winter bike race in the tradition of the Iditarod sled-dog race. Alaska is also the birthplace of the fat bike movement, when riders started attaching two or three mountain bike tires together for arctic fun.

But his wife decided on a faculty job at Western Michigan University. Shapiro discovered the many bike trails around Kalamazoo, and was happy with the move.

He rides every day, year-round, for fun and to get to his job at Sawall Health Foods on Oakland Drive. He loves "being outside, being in nature, seeing things that I wouldn't normally see in a car."

Biking through a Michigan summer day can be beautiful. In the winter, "It's like being on the moon," Jeff Pregenzer, another year-round bike enthusiast, says. He  prefers metal-studded tires -- the pre-fat-bike solution -- on his road bike to deal with the ice.

Shapiro used a regular mountain bike in past winters. The Dolomite's fatness "makes a huge difference in stability -- I'm not sliding all over the place."

But it's a monstrous tank compared with the average bike. It's 54 lbs., with tires that weigh eight pounds each.

Let's be honest. Fat bikes look like the offspring of a one-night-stand between a Schwinn and a Harley. They're a thumb-in-the-eye of the decades-long trend of lighter, sleeker, faster bike design. They look a bit redonkulous.

But local bike shops have had to struggle to keep them in stock in the past two years. "We've sold quite a few of those already. We also ride em too," Ryan Maguire, on staff at Pedal (611 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo), says.

One can get lighter fat bikes, but it'll cost you. The heavy Dolomite, available online through Walmart, Target and Amazon, is at the cheapest end, at around $250-$300. Pedal's best-selling fat bike, the Kona Wo, has a lighter aluminum frame, and is $1,900. Then there's the new Sarma, with carbon fiber frame and rims, at $4,250. The Sarma is "lighter than my mountain bike," Maguire says.

With most models, "once you get it rolling, they're actually pretty fun. They don't seem like they're this big huge tank," he promises.

Fat bikes have "been my passion for the past year and a half," Jason Lechner, on the staff of Breakaway Bicycles (185 Romence Rd., Portage) says.

At Breakaway last year, "we easily doubled the sales from the previous year, even with a very limited supply of inventory," Lechner says. "If we got something in the door, it pretty much walked out the same day."

Lechner rode his fat bike throughout the year, and on Nov. 7 used it in the Bell's Iceman race, 30 miles of muddy trails between Kalkaska and Traverse City.

Fat bike makers and sellers might brag about the bikes' ability to "float" over any surface. "Sand, snow, mud, paved roadways, two track (trails), doesn't really matter," Lechner says. But they do have their limitations, made clear by last winter's Polar Vortex.

The record snow and low temps "put a damper on some of the fat bike experience," Lechner says. It doesn't matter how fat the tire -- if the snow is deep and fluffy, the bike will sink.

The solution is groomed trails, where the fluffiness is scraped off and packed down for better riding. It's been done in Northern Michigan, the Grand Rapids area, and, starting last February, at the Fort Custer Recreation Area in Augusta.

Members of Breakaway's mountain bike team groomed about four miles of the Fort Custer's mountain bike trails last winter, and will continue this winter. It's set be site of the first of this winter's Michigan Fat Bike Series race, Dec. 20.

Pedal owner Tim Krone wanted a trail a little closer to home. He's clearing trails at Kalamazoo's long-neglected Blanche Hull Park, bordered by Burdick Street, Kilgore Road and Lovers Lane. They'll get groomed for fat bikes when the next snow comes.

The park is a few miles of bike-able roads south of downtown, and right at the northern edge of Portage's extensive bike trail/lane network. "If you could just ride your bike from your house, go to this little place, ride a little couple of three miles on a trail, boom, you take a lot of car hassle and travel out of the occasion," Krone says.

Krone said the park's trails are nearly ready. "We need to clear out a few logs, do a little brush clearing, reroute around some sketchy bits," he says. "And the city has been gold about the whole thing."

He gets the same feeling all bicyclists get, spinning away on the stationary in the winter, waiting for the first thaw. "I just want to do something," Krone says. "I want to do something so that our friends, our customers, our fellow cyclists have something to do this winter."

Krone gets passionate about Kalamazoo's growing bike culture, and the work the city is doing to help bikers. "So much good is happening in Kalamazoo related to health and cycling and fitness and feeling better. I think this is just one more brick on that path toward, hopefully, a more happy and healthy community," he says.

Winter Bike Tips:

What to Wear: "When you leave, make sure that you're cold," winter biker Ryan Shapiro says. If you're feeling warm enough in that big coat and insulated pants when you hop on the bike, you will be sweating after a mile of pedaling. Sweaty clothing in zero degree windchill is really not a good time.

The standard wear should be three layers: One of sweat-wicking material, one of insulating wear, one of a wind-proof jacket/pants "shell." Accessories can include under-helmet caps, balaclavas for the head and face, fog-resistant goggles, cycling boots, and "pogies," large mitten-shaped coverings for hands and forearms, attached to the handlebars. And, for those moments when you stop, a full winter coat, kept in a bike bag or on rack.

What to Ride: There are the fat bikes, but other options, best for road riding, include regular mountain bikes or a bike with studded tires. Be aware that road salt will damage gears and chains, so you might want a bike version of that winter beater car.

Where to Ride: If you don't have any groomed trails nearby, the many bike trails of Southwest Michigan could be conquered if your tires are fat and the snow isn't too deep. But you won't be alone. Trails become the favored setting of cross-country skiers and hikers in the winter. Be courteous.

Don't Die:  "Pick yourself a route where you're not scared if something goes wrong," Pedal owner Tim Krone said. You don't want to be stuck out on the tundra with a broken chain.

On the roads, remember that motor vehicles are much more of a danger in bad conditions. Stay visible, wear a helmet, always be aware of the traffic around you. Snow banks might push you towards the center of the lane, ice might cause a wipeout, snow might camouflage a treacherous pothole -- understand the risks.

"Just go for it," Shapiro says. "Ride with a friend if you can -- I can't convince anybody to ride with me in this weather, unfortunately.”

Mark Wedel has been a freelance writer in Kalamazoo since 1992, and a biker who has put nearly 8,000 miles on his Electra Townie since 2011.
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