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Booty Call: The Fattie custom craze

Forget choppers and custom bikes, there’s a new craze sweeping the USA from the West coast to the East. It involves grafting ridiculous oversize tyres and swingarms onto previously normal sportsbikes...

Pic Credit: superstreetbike.coml

The old Sir-Mix-a-Lot rap praising oversized arses is a likely anthem for a small but growing fraternity of sportsbike owners in the US, particularly on the country’s Eastern seaboard. Big, fat tyres grafted onto the back of superbikes is the latest craze amongst America’s more discerning rider. A minimum of a 240-section booty slotted into a handmade swingarm, sometimes going all the way up to a ridiculous 360 monster, is the latest look to be seen on. The look is now established and  growing at a ferocious rate, so much so that whole chop-shops and riding gangs are springing up to embrace this new movement. But what’s it all about?

The stretched and lowered look has been around in the US since drag strips across the country permitted two-wheelers to share the tarmac with hot rods in the 1950s, but it didn’t cross over into the custom streetbike scene until the mid 1990s. Until then it had been common to see boardracer-styled customs crackling around New York and Los Angeles, long, low and powered by old push-rod Harley motors with slash-cut pipes.

But with the arrival of the FireBlade in 1992, for the first time the chop-shops directed their attention to Japanese sportsbikes. In 1994 a handful of CBR900s with extended swingarms and loads of chrome started appearing from small bike shops up and down the East coast, their shape inspired by the drag-bikes of the era. At the time, such novelties were few and far between and reserved mostly for display and the occasional cruise down the boardwalk. They looked weird, people weren’t sure what to make of them, but one thing was for sure: they were impossible to ignore.

As the freestyle stunt riding movement slowly gained momentum from 1998 with acts like the Starboyz making it more mainstream, so the custom chrome phenomena grew alongside it. Bling was in, and the look at the time was to polish everything in sight: wheels, frames, plastics, even tyres. By the turn of the Millenium drag strips and racetracks from Boston to Miami hosted stunt exhibitions on-track while custom sportsbike contests drew crowds to the paddock. It was becoming a scene of its own. But both the builders and spectators soon grew tired of seeing the same collection of bikes (much like watching the same wheelie time and again), and change was imminent. Fatties were just around the corner, but the inspiration came from an unlikely source.

Jesse James’ West Coast Choppers exploded onto American televisions in 2001 with Motorcycle Mania. Overnight the Discovery Channel made custom bikes and tattooed bad-asses cool and accessible, and James’s oversized rear wheel custom bikes gained national attention. This was the new look that the custom sportsbike scene was looking for, and they pounced on it. Within a few months sportsbike custom shops started incorporating this standard procedure from the chopper fraternity. Fatties had been born.

Now a fat rear tire doesn’t simply slot into a stock swingarm, and the transgression into this uncharted high-performance bike realm required a fair amount of trial and error. Bob Fisher, owner of one of the first and most popular custom sportbike shops in America called Roaring Toyz, recalled his early attempts with a hammer and a hacksaw. “When stock sportbikes came out with 180-tyres they looked bad ass and everybody wanted one,” he remembers. “And when Avon came out with the 240 tyre that gave me that tingly feeling all over again. In 2002 we started putting 240s on Hayabusas, but we had to grind the frame back at the lower join to keep the chain in line, and the wheel was offset a little too. The biggest challenge was convincing customers that it was safe to ride with the offset 240! I think some of them thought the whole bike would break in two 300ft up the road. Then we got into the 300 rears with the jackshaft sprocket and double chain and that let us bolt them right on no problem.”

While Fisher was tinkering with his early wide tire bikes another Florida-based shop had similar motivations. Nick Anglada’s Custom Sportbike Concepts soon became a rival of Fisher’s nearby shop, stirring healthy competition between the two and pushing the limits of customization. Anglada reflects on his experimental days: “Back in ‘02 the custom bike scene was pretty much just chrome and paint, it had been that way for a couple of years and we wanted to be different. We had a shop Hayabusa back for running around on and experimental work, and that’s what we used for our first 240 build. The problem was that there weren’t any huge sportsbike wheels available, so we had to machine hubs for the rear brake, sprocket and everything else. Another problem was keeping the chain in a straight line, so we cut and then reinforced the frame to make it fit. Shortly after that a number of companies popped up and had offset sprockets to make it a lot easier, but being the first ones to do it was tough as there were no measurements and it all had to be done by hand.”

And it was from here that the whole Fattie look snowballed. The look just took off, with small machine shops springing up everywhere to cope with demand. Adrian Packett is a one-man outfit specializing in servicing Triumph motorcycles in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, when the craze took hold. “It really went mad about three years ago,” he says. “Before then the customizing scene was all about chrome, and it was Hayabusas. Always Hayabusas, chromed to the nines and being ridden – badly – by rappers and their entourage in tinpot nazi helmets. But if you don’t have a 300-section rear tyre today you’re nobody. Bigger is always best and the same guys who were riding huge Harleys are now riding Fatties.”

The bizarre appearance of a sportsbike with a massively oversized rear wheel obviously has visual attraction, but doesn’t dramatically altering the wheelbase and geometry of an otherwise razor-sharp handling sportsbike have detrimental consequences when it hits the road? The undeniable answer is that it certainly hinders performance, both in handling and power.

It’s all about a look, not extracting more speed. It’s about cruising and being noticed, not putting in a fast lap of a racetrack. “The whole look comes from drag bikes,” continues Anglada. “It’s that long and low style taken to extremes. A couple of years back people went all the way up to 360-section tyres, but they were truly horrible.

I mean properly dangerous – you could hardly turn the things, and a 330-section is where we draw the line. Even now I refuse to sell my more radical kits to those with no big-tyre experience, and tell them this is not the kind of bike you go crazy on.” There is no exact science in building a custom swingarm, and when its purpose is to accommodate an oversized wheel purely for the looks of it a number of issues must be considered.

Keeping it all in a straight line is the first matter of business, because a wide rear tire would obviously interfere with the chain and sprocket line of travel. And while managing to offset the sprockets, the rear wheel in its entirety can often come out of line, so when viewed from behind many wide-tire rides are visibly out of line with the front.

While these problems in construction and set-up are something for the builders to lose sleep over, ultimately the owner must consider the bike’s purpose because until only recently has a speed-rated tyre become available for these applications. Never a consideration for the custom choppers that seldom approached 100mph, it was more of a worry when putting sub-par rubber on a sportsbike capable of speeds nearly twice that mark. There have been a few grizzly cases of oversize rear tyres stretching and actually coming off their oversize rims at speed, with the consequential crash. In lawsuit America, such occurrences are rarely good news for anyone.

Equally eye-opening to the wide tyre craze in America is the country’s lenient licensing policy that allows any 16-year old with enough cash to ride anything he likes. Yes, that’s nuts. Not only are inexperienced riders riding bikes that far exceed their abilities, but now those very bikes are being made more difficult to ride simply to gain style and bragging rights and the envious eyes of others at bike events.

It really doesn’t need much exploration to determine that an oversized rear wheel and extended swingarm will drastically slow down a bike’s ability to turn corners, and even a basic roundabout can be a hairy experience. “They’re fucking lethal to ride,” says Adrian Packett without mincing his words. “You’ve really got to haul on the bars to get them turned. They’re straight-line machines, but then LA is a straight line town.” The added weight of large customized parts further complicates the whacked-out geometry, and the trend of removing a front brake rotor to show off the shin hoop behind it personifies the bike owner’s intentions: ride slow, show off and be seen. Just don’t have to stop in any particular hurry.

The East Coast’s sportsbike lifestyle in particular have accommodated these worrying limitations in their stride. In the States, motorcycles are generally a leisure item reserved for those with comfortable bank accounts. Sportsbikes are seldom used for commuting purposes, and the notion of riding in the rain would be as absurd as David Beckham applying for a Mensa club card. Naturally, there are a number of riders that enjoy fast road riding, but the ever-growing number of custom sportsbike enthusiasts are more interested in bike nights and gatherings than balls-out blasting.

It’s like Boxhill on methadone with palm trees and sunshine instead of rain and the smell of piss. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina hosts hundreds of thousands of custom sportsbikes at the annual Black Bike Week each May, and much of the festivities are contained on a 3-mile boulevard. Riders slowly meander down the road looking for nothing more than admiration from fellow enthusiasts and perhaps the opportunity to put a thong rocking beauty queen on the back. But invariably she’s already hopped on the back with the guy up ahead with the most money.

Daytona’s world-renowned Bike Week has become a similar affair, and the irony of the intense racing round the circuit is all too amusing for everyone to see as a 10-foot long sportsbike with a 360mm rear tire slowly wobbles past outside the track in a completely straight line. The blinged-out sportsbike has become the new Cadillac Escalade on 24-inch rims, and is much more about shock value than a sublime riding experience.

Meanwhile, the West Coast might be able to claim ownership of the celebrity hub of the universe, but in terms of custom sportsbike customization it tends to be content with the trickle-down effect from the East. The clichéd “canyon carver” sports riders of California are generally nothing more than Sunday riders who kit themselves in flash gear and potter gently through canyon roads. In comparison to the young hooligans ripping through Spanish, Italian and French mountain passes, the canyon boys in California play much of the same role as the wide tire crew does back East: they’re in it to be seen only.

Wide tire sportsbikes have had a difficult time breaking through in the West, and a lot of that boils down to the West coast’s purist attitude. The movement has been slowly building steam, and surprisingly it’s the chopper builders that have recognized the allure (and profit) of wide-tyred custom sportsbikes. Presently there aren’t many of the wilder rides to be found out West, but change takes time and nobody can ignore these rolling works of art for long.

“Right now the movement is headed backwards to smaller sizes and more useable bikes,” says Nick Anglada. “People want to look bad-ass but they also want a bike that is rideable. But the crazy thing is that some traditional chopper builders are now looking to the custom sportsbike scene for inspiration. It’s gone full-circle. I hear that even Arlen Ness is building a Hayabusa at the moment, and the look is headed out to the UK as well. I’ve sold two bikes to you guys, and more are on the way.”

Fatties - coming here? Goodness gracious, can’t see the Thames Valley Police liking that at all. “Excuse me sir, but are you aware that your rear wheel protrudes at least 2 feet from the rear bodywork of your bike, thereby contravening Traffic Act 1822A...” You can just see it. But it’s a fact that what happens in the US invariably ends up in the UK a couple of years later, and while the sheer expense linked to the sportsbike custom scene will keep it limited to well-heeled hands only, the British custom-biking scene needs a good kick up the arse to get it out of its ghastly streetfighters roots. And unlikely as they may be, perhaps the Fatties are the very bikes to do it.

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