The Cure for Fatbike Fever
While I have always liked fatbikes and admired the Iditabike riders, come winter I was content to ride my local trails on my regular mountain bike with Nokian studded tires. It was not until this summer, that I caught Fatbike Fever after hearing tale after tale from my friends about the fun they have riding their monster-tired bikes up the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
I found myself spending an inappropriate amount of time on Google Earth, panning up the coast from Port Washington to Kohler Andrea State Park and daydreaming of summer days riding on miles of uninterrupted sandy beach. I imagined myself stopping to jump in the lake whenever I got hot, and hanging with friends around a campfire on the beach after the ride. Concerned that Fatbike Fever was keeping me awake at night and left me unable to concentrate at work, I went to see Dr. Greg Smith of Schlick Cycles who prescribed a cure in the form of an Orange Schlick Northpaw.
There are other manufacturers of fatbikes out there, but since we have such a great bicycle industry in Wisconsin, I always try to ride local if I can. Schlick Cycles is company on the north side of Milwaukee founded by Greg Smith. They have a number of cool bicycles in their product line, and the Northpaw is their version of a fatbike. It is built right here in the USA by long-time frame builder Tom Teesdale.
The frames come in standard sizes and are tig-welded from a mix of True Temper Versus HT and OX Platinum tubes. Semi-custom options are available, so I had my fame built with Paragon Slider belt drive compatible dropouts and standard front and rear dropout spacing so that it would accommodate a Gates CenterTrack Carbon belt drive, and the new Shimano Alfine 11-speed internal hub and a matching Alfine dynamo hub.
Even though it is a bit spendy, I decided to go with the Afine 11 because I am a big fan of the low maintenance qualities of the internal hubs on my commuter bikes. When I factored in that the new Alfine 11 is an oil bath hub that allows me to run a lighter oil in the winter and that this bike would be exposed to a lot of sand, a belt drive internal hub was a no-brainer.
That said, after quite a bit of time searching on the internet and a number of phone calls to Gates and other fatbike builders, I could not find anyone who was running a belt drive with an internal hub on a fatbike. I did find a reference to some nobody running a belt drive single speed on a custom Ti fat bike newsboy in Colorado, but nobody knew if the chain line would work on an Alfine hub. A number of people were running Alfine 8s, but all with gears. Even Greg expressed concerns when I placed the frame order with him. It was a gamble, but if it worked out, I would have the first and only geared belt drive fatbike.
The frame is built with a 1.5” head tube to accommodate an adjustable headset, like Cane Creek’s AngleSet, so riders can dial their ride to the local or seasonal conditions. Rack mounts in the rear and on the (cooler than unicrown) front segmented fork come standard. I plan on building custom racks myself for my Northpaw, but there you can buy racks that will fit the wide frames.
While the Shimano hubs are certainly a departure, I built the Northpaw with as many locally sourced products as I could find. I think of it as a Cheddar Build, extra sharp. It would be cool if local shops would begin offering the all (or “mostly”) Wisconsin build as an option to their custom bike buyers. Given orange is my favorite color, it was only natural that I look to Fyxation for matching orange bmx grips, bar plugs, Gates pedals, and Curve Saddle. For those of you out of the loop, Fyxation is a company based in Glendale, WI and run by long-time local bike nut, engineer and all-around cool guy Nick Ginster.
For stoppers, I did not have to go any further than Hayes Brakes, headquartered in Mequon, WI. The Hayes Prime Pro hydraulic brakes are top of the line lightweight brakes with two-piece rotors and a ton of adjustability on the fly. I recently got a tour of their factory in Mequon and the technology and level of quality control they put into their products it is incredible. Hayes was actually the first US company to make disc brakes for bicycles way back in the 70s and they have been the industry leader since then.
The cockpit inspires confidence as it is outfitted with Answer products, another Wisconsin company. I chose the 90mm Answer Rove AM stem because it is light and strong and offers an additional 8 degrees of rise. I find that as I get older, I enjoy riding in a more upright position, even when mountain biking. For that reason I opted for the Answer Protaper 720 AM bars because they come with a 2-inch rise. The 720s are wider than I can run on our local single track trails, but it is no problem to trim them down.
So, how did the belt drive work out? Since nobody had ever built a fat bike with belt drive and internally geared hubs, I admit that this was a bit of a gamble. You can draw chain lines on paper or in CAD all you want, but until we actually fit those fat tires in the frame and tried to tighten the belt across the sprockets, nobody was sure if it would work. Greg was not sure how the chainline would come together, but he does have quite a bit of experience running an Alfine 8 with a chain on his personal Northpaw.
Even with the 409% gear ratio on the Alfine 11, Greg suggested I would need to use the biggest rear and smallest front sprockets Gates made to get the necessary low-end fat bikes need in deep snow and loose sand. That meant a 24 on the back and a 39 in the front. Because questions remained about chain line, I asked Jim Huber at Ben’s Cycle, one of the best wrenches I know, to do the build. I have a lot of confidence in Jim because he works on a lot of odd stuff at Ben’s and takes a problem solving approach to his work. Luckily, the frame, 100mm FSA bottom bracket and crankset and Gates center track all worked out nearly perfect. The only very minor fooling around Jim had to do was put very thin chainring spacers between the front sprocket and the FSA spider on the crank arm. These little shims gave the bike the perfect chain line that the belt drive requires.
As expected, Jim did a great job putting together all the rest of the parts in the “cheddar build,” and I ended up with a flawless ride the first time the big Endomorphs hit the dirt on my neighborhood mountain bike trails along the Menomonee River in Wauwatosa. The bike corners like it is on rails and I felt like I could roll over anything in my path.
I was riding with Coop, Russell and Bubba, all of who also have Pugs. We picked up Dave along the way who was riding on a more traditional mountain bike, but he didn’t complain that we were holding him back. Fatbikes are surprisingly quick on the flats and the gearing I picked out worked perfectly even on the short punch hills along the river trails. Fully built, the bike weighed in at an appropriately chubby 37 pounds, but it climbs quicker than you would think.
The real eye opener came when Russell suggested I ride through the sand lot under the swings at Hoyt Park. Prepared for the usual sliding and need to spin my way out of the mire, the Northpaw rolled through the soft stuff like a Matchbox racer on a Hotwheels track. I can’t wait for my first full-on beach ride!