The Chainlink

Trading Four Wheels for Two

At Tour de Fat, a Ravenswood Family Pledges to Live Car-Free for a Year

By Nikolas Wright

Wearing matching yellow T-shirts, green shorts and white kneesocks, Mary and Adam Arents took “Prancer,” their green 1999 Toyota Camry with 175,000 miles, for its swan song. After parking it at Chicago’s Palmer Square Park, they walked onstage at Tour de Fat holding their infant son, Luke, as a guitar-strumming emcee announced to a costumed crowd that the Arents family is trading in its car for a new bike.

“Are you ready to make a tunnel of love for these guys?” emcee Matt Kowal asked, prompting the Arentses to run off stage and through a tunnel the crowd formed.

Tour de Fat is a bicycle-and beer-themed carnival — with live music, game shows and plenty of costumes — that travels to nine U.S. cities each summer. It’s produced by Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Co., which picks someone to trade his or her vehicle for a bicycle and pledge to live car-free for a year. Saturday, July 9, was the ninth time Chicago has hosted Tour de Fat. According to organizers, this year's event drew around 10,000 people to Chicago's Palmer Square.

“I offered to drive the car off a cliff, but [New Belgium] thought it’d be better auctioned-off for charity,” joked Adam Arents, 31, an e-learning supervisor at Rotary International. He and his wife, who live in Ravenswood, described a desire to simplify their lives.

“We’ve biked a lot, but being car-free as a family is a leap for us,” said Mary Arents, 32, who works in nonprofit management.

Entrants typically apply with a two-minute YouTube video. But after hearing about the trade-in, the Arentses sent a last-minute email to Tour de Fat’s organizers outlining their case.


Kowal, Tour de Fat’s impresario, said New Belgium usually decides by consensus of its partners in each city. For Chicago, that’s Jason Dempsey, the partnerships director at CHIRP Radio, and West Town Bikes’ founder Alex Wilson. They all gave a “thumbs up, and we went for Mary,” said Kowal. Proceeds from auctioning the Arents’ Camry will go to CHIRP and WTB.


In the past, New Belgium gave traders a bike from Black Sheep Bikes, a fabricator in Ft. Collins, Colorado. But New Belgium changed gears five years ago.


“The whole point of getting a handmade bike is you get measured and you get fitted,” Kowal said. The lead time for a handmade bike can be months for bikes that might not fit everyone.


Now, New Belgium works with the trader’s bike shop of choice to get a bike and accessories with an allowance of $2,250. “It’s been a good idea to help local bike shops some get skin in the game,” Kowal said.


Last year, New Belgium selected Christine Holden, 56, of Logan Square to trade in her 1994 Nissan pickup truck. She bought a purple Surly Straggler (named “Roxy”) through Ciclo Urbano, a division of West Town Bikes which offers new bikes and bike parts (vs. refurbished machines). “Prince made me love purple,” said Holden.


She said she’s saved about $8,000 in gas, insurance and parking tickets. When she gets on her bike to ride to her job as a physician assistant at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, “I sigh, and my whole body relaxes,” she said.


Kowal said most of the entrants stick to their one-year pledge. “I don’t hire hit men, but I have had crucial conversations with people where I say, ‘Hey, you were one of two, three or five people that would’ve done this. Step it up.’”


As of Tuesday, Prancer is awaiting pickup from Denver-based Arc Thrift Stores, which will auction the car, said Mary Arents. She and her husband, Adam, haven’t yet picked a bike shop.


Follow the Arentses during their car-free year:

About the Author:

Nikolas Wright has been a writer and editor for six years, most recently as the editor of FFJournal Magazine, a metal fabrication trade publication. He's wrenched at bike shops in Cleveland, Chicago and Seattle, and has logged thousands of touring miles around the U.S. "Nick" is a member of Half Acre Cycling, and is currently studying media innovation at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.


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