The Pedal and the Metal
Cheata Bikes hopes Milwaukee will be famous for another motorized two-wheeled vehicle
In a bland three-story building in South Milwaukee, up an elevator and down a dark hall, Cheata Bikes is building what might be the finest motorized bicycles in the country. Inside, a half-dozen employees, including head engineer Bill Rankin, make every Cheata Bike by hand. With curving lines, two-tone paint jobs, and names like Apollo, Goliath and Varuna, they look as if they materialized out of a 13-year-old’s dreams.
Rankin points out that the central engine is separated from the frame by rubber mounts and tricks, reducing the vibrations that are a major problem with motorized bicycles. Cheata Bikes also use a proprietary hub design for the rear wheel, which can be turned by pedaling, cranking the throttle or both.
Ravi Bhagat, a Milwaukee-area real estate investor and former technician at an aerospace company in Illinois, built the first Cheata Bike for his son, who needed a means to travel back and forth from a Downtown apartment to Milwaukee Area Technical College. It didn’t last long, however, as it was stolen off the street by a thief wielding some serious cutting equipment. “Someone wanted it that bad,” he says.
Cheata bikes, as Bhagat likes to point out, are legal to drive in both the bike and regular car lanes, as they’re wired to go no faster than 30 mph. With the larger Goliath model weighing in at about 70 pounds, they have something of a motorcycle feel.
Bhagat claims that his bikes are both more robust than high-end “e-bikes,” which are powered by a large battery, and cheaper to maintain. But as with the most expensive e-bikes, the initial price of entry is pretty steep, ranging from $1,795 to $3,995 for the Apollo model.
Cheata sold about 100 bikes in 2017 and hopes to sell twice that many this year as the bikes wiggle their way into more motorsports dealerships. Rankin modifies the engines – small, four-stroke models not much larger than a weed whacker’s – to pack more punch on the way up to 30 mph, without falling below 150 miles per gallon. As for range, Bhagat once rode 50 miles to a meet a friend, and 50 miles back, the farthest he’s gone to date.
The head-turning bikes have created their own buzz, both around town and online, and “revenue has been nice,” Bhagat says. He’s gotten them put on display at several Milwaukee hotels, where out-of-town visitors see them as exactly what they expected from a city that was once called the Machine Shop of the World.