Kristina Navarro, a kinesiology professor, never rode a fat bike competitively until last year. Yet in the past month alone, she won Madison’s Frozen Assets Fat Bike Race, sponsored by the Clean Lakes Alliance, placed second in the Snowshoe Scurry in Pleasant View and, most impressively, was crowned champion in the “Master” category for females between ages 30 and 39 at the 2017 USA Cycling Fat Bike Nationals in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“What is awesome about fat bikes is that anybody can pick one up and ride, and it’s such a fun way to get outside in the winter. But the first time I got on one, I felt like I was driving a tank,” says Navarro, 33, a longtime triathlete who competed on tri teams during postgraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the UW-Madison. She’s also participated in IRONMAN Wisconsin.
“The majority of people that are on fat bikes aren’t racers,” says Isaac Neff, who was a longtime bicycle shop manager in Madison before opening the mobile business Neff Cycle Service last year, specializing in off-road bikes. “They’re actually casual riders, and I think that’s why the bikes have been so popular in Madison.”
For those not in the know, fat bikes are off-road cycles with oversized tires that typically measure between 4 and 5 inches wide. By comparison, many mountain bike tires are in the 2- to 4-inch range. Fat bikes provide greater riding stability and better tire grip, which make them ideal for traversing snow, sand or mud. A decent fat bike with an aluminum or steel frame costs about $1,000.
Fat bikes rolled onto the local cycling scene about seven years ago, according to Neff, a national cyclocross champion. “My opinion at the time was that they were kind of ridiculous,” he says. “But riding them changed my mind. Riding on snow is particularly fun to do. You just have to try it.”
Many local cyclists have done just that. Fat bikes provide year-round riding opportunities for commuters, and many mountain bike enthusiasts have gone fat, too.
“When you ride a fat bike, it puts a huge smile on your face,” says Lee Unwin, organizer of the Madison Winter Festival Fat Bike Race at Elver Park on Feb. 18. “It’s like riding a giant tractor around. You feel like you can go anywhere. They are very stable, durable and relatively inexpensive compared to ‘regular’ bikes.”
Kristina Navarro never rode a fat bike competitively until last year. Now she’s a national champion.
The nighttime race, also known as “Winter Fat,” runs from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on a 2.5-kilometer course that winds through the upper woods near Elver Park’s sledding hill, across flat sections and rolling terrain. Only half the course will be lit, and riders will need to supply their own lights — although Unwin hopes to make lights available from a local vendor on race night.
“Anyone and everyone with a fat bike is encouraged to come out, and no license is required,” he says, adding that this is the only time cyclists will have the opportunity to ride at Elver. “We have always made it a point that this is a fun race, and if you take it too seriously you will be disqualified. I think it’s one of the reasons it’s been so popular. We will award the top three men and women beer and cheese curds, so the only thing we are serious about is [helping] the winners [get] their winter fat on.”
The Frozen Assets Fat Bike Race two weeks ago was another nighttime event that began on Lake Mendota and looped around downtown Madison and the UW-Madison campus. “Off-road riding at night is super-fun,” Neff says, adding that most fat bike races happen during daylight hours. “It adds another layer of challenge.”
“You can usually find a race within a couple hours of Madison just about every weekend of winter,” Unwin adds. “Fat biking has become so popular that even during the summer most mountain bike races have a class just for fat bikes.”
Navarro, who lives in McFarland and works at both UW-Madison and UW-Whitewater, trains year-round on multiple types of bikes. She laughs when admitting she even rode in early December when temperatures hit minus 10 degrees in Madison. But ski goggles and boots built specifically for riding fat bikes protected her from the cold.
You’ll probably see Navarro out on the Winter Fat course, too. And she’s one of five pro-elite riders on the recently formed Team Neff Cycle Service racing team, which also includes 25 recreational racers. Team NCS participates at events in Wisconsin and around the country. They race in all disciplines, but off-road is the team’s specialty.
“Madison has a really vibrant cycling scene,” Neff says. “And bigger, wider tires are really taking over.”