Dave Schlabowske recently got a new Milwaukee Bicycle Co fatbike. He rounded it out with completely custom components and he silver-brazed a custom rear rack. In the first of this 2-part series he reviews his new fatbike and shares about the build he chose. Stay tuned for part 2 where he shares how he designed and built a custom rack for it.
Story and photos by Dave Schlabowske.
Lugged steel bikes were my first love, when I got into cycling as an adult. My dream bike was the orange 1993 Bridgestone XO-1, which I even bought used. That bike was a unicorn and perhaps the first true bikepacking bike before bikepacking was a word. Sadly my XO-1 was destroyed in a freak accident when my 1920s era concrete garage collapsed at our first home in Milwaukee.
Insurance replaced that bike with a custom frame built at Waterford Precision Cycles, where I eventually worked as a builder for a while. I started tig welding Standard BMX frames and handlebars that Waterford built at the time, then moved to machining and finally to brazing. I was not there long enough to earn the title of master frame builder, but I have probably welded and brazed more joints than were smoked at Woodstock.
As mountain biking exploded in the later 90s, tig-welded steel frames became the the leading-edge technology for mountain biking because the process allowed for angles that most lugs could not accommodate. While tig-welded aluminum frames are inexpensive and carbon is now the choice of racers and weight weenies, I still have an affinity for steel … and the color orange.
Planning My Custom Waterford-Built Steel Ben's Cycle Fatbike
So when I heard that Ben’s Cycle added a Waterford-built fat bike to their Milwaukee Bicycle Company line of custom frames, I decided to hand down my Carbon Mukluk to my wife (who didn’t have a fat bike) and order a Milwaukee fat bike for my winter ride. We now live in Seeley, WI where I groom 5 miles of private trails in our neighborhood for fat biking and skiing. Plus the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association grooms around 70 miles of singletrack. Add in the hundreds of miles of snow covered gravel trails and you can see we live in fat bike nirvana.
A Fatter Orange Twin
I already own an orange (‘natch) Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral 29er, that I have set up as a dedicated bikepacking rig with lots of mounts and a custom rear rack I built. So I had them build the bike up as a fatter orange twin. Ben’s gets their MBC frames from Waterford bare steel, so they can customize them with their cool stainless logo badges and add extra mounts anywhere a costomer wants.
I asked for top tube bag mounts, three-pack mounts below the downtube by the bottom bracket and two water bottle mounts on the top of the seat stays for the custom rack I built. I opted for a carbon Mukluk fork because it has lots of mounts for bikepacking and routing for dynamo lighting wiring.
Selecting & Building Out the Components
The build on the bike was nice but not top end. I opted for the now industry standard Sun Ringle’ Mulefüt 80SL wheelset from Hayes Bicycle Group based in Mequon. I am running a Shutter Precision PDX8-150 dynamo hub on the front to power a Sinewave Cycles Beacon headlight (that also keeps my electronics charged while riding), but the rear hub is a Sun Ringle’. Tires are studded 45NRTH Dillinger 5s, set up tubeless of course.
I opted for SRAM Eagle GX, a step up from the NX group on my Mukluk, because it allows for a 52 tooth big ring in the back standard. I am pushing that with an FSA Comet crankset with a 30 tooth chainring ideal for the steep punchy hills on the trails out my back door.
Brakes are Shimano Deore rather than SRAM for the ease of maintenance with mineral oil. Ergon GA3 grips sit next to a PNW Loam dropper lever on the aluminum Jones H riser bar. The saddle is a Selle Anatomica X2 (which at one time were made in Elkhorn, WI) on a PNW Pine dropper post, one of the few droppers that come in 27.2 mm. Pedals are Fyxation Mesa Subzeros anodized orange of course, another great Milwaukee company.
Fully built up with the dynamo hub, riser bar, leather saddle the complete bike tips the scales at just under 32 lbs. For comparison, my Mukluk with a similar build but no dynamo hub weighs 29 lbs, so there isn’t much of a weight penalty to the Reynolds 853 air-hardened butted steel frame. When you add all the bikepacking bags and gear the bike will be toting, it is hardly worth thinking about.
Riding & Geometry
The bike rides super stable at speed. There is no wobble when I rip the downhills and the frame geometry seems ideal for bikepacking, with a slack-ish 69° head tube angle, 73° seat tube angle and 455 mm chainstays. The head tube angle and longer chainstays make for a stable ride when loaded and the big front triangle fits the same Salsa EXP frame bag as my Milwaukee Feral 29er.
The stainless rear rack I built for this frame is actually a few ounces lighter than the one I built for my 29er and still holds my tent, sleep system and Morkniv Bushcraft knife in case I want to stop and make some firewood to warm up on a ride.