One of television's newest breakout stars hails from Fresno and is gaining a loyal following.
Marketed from a small warehouse in northwest Fresno, an elliptical cross trainer called StreetStrider has gained a prominent role on NBC's The Biggest Loser. Participants use the workout device -- which resembles a treadmill on wheels -- to help lose weight and become more physically fit.
The Biggest Loser tested StreetStrider behind the scenes for two seasons until it made its debut this year. In season nine, which starts Tuesday, the mobile exercise device gains a higher profile.
"A fleet of StreetStriders is being used," said Garrett Watkins, a Fresno native who returned to the Valley to build the StreetStrider brand, which is now licensed by The Biggest Loser.
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A University of Alabama physiologist with bad knees invented StreetStrider, but the effort didn't gain traction until after he hooked up with Watkins on another proposed project.
The professor, David Kraus, was a consultant for Walmart when he met Watkins, then director of real estate for a chain of indoor playgrounds. Kraus' idea to put playgrounds in department stores never took flight, but Watkins took notice when Kraus mentioned his other idea, StreetStrider.
"This entrepreneurial idea had legs," said Watkins, who was based in San Jose. "I quit my job in June 2005 and formed StreetStrider International with Dave."
It wasn't particularly smooth going. The designers went through 13 prototypes and thousands of dollars in design costs. "It is hard to make a machine that mimics an indoor machine, but works outdoors," Watkins said.
It wasn't until Kraus came up with a new frame and pipeline manufacturer Dean Maro modified a steering mechanism used in go-karts that StreetStrider hit its stride in 2007.
To cut costs and gain expansion space, Watkins and Kraus moved to Fresno in May 2008.
"We started building StreetStriders in my garage and worked night and day trying to manufacture over 100 custom parts," Watkins said.
Sales took off after the inventors delivered prototypes to The Biggest Loser and persuaded production officials to test them.
The timing was perfect. The producers had been looking for a way to keep their reality stars from getting bored during their cardio workouts.
"This is outside, low-impact and a lot of fun," said David Norton, sponsor producer for The Biggest Loser.
He said the show's largest-ever contestant -- Shay Sorrells, a social worker from Newport Beach -- rides her StreetStrider 14 miles per day. "She just fell in love with it," Norton said.
Sorrells came on the show at 476 pounds and weighed 304 at the season finale. Now she's a commercial spokeswoman for StreetStrider.
Watkins said sales surged after StreetStrider debuted on The Biggest Loser, but he declines to reveal figures.
"If we continue on our path, fourth-quarter sales will triple the third quarter," he said.
The Biggest Loser edition retails for about $1,500. Today, they are manufactured in Taiwan by one of the leading bicycle-manufacturers in the world, and are sold from a nondescript warehouse and showroom on Fig Garden Loop.
Clovis residents Mike Soltau and his wife, Bonnie, bought two StreetStriders after Soltau spotted demonstrator riders near Lake Van Ness. He had been looking for a way to jazz up his workouts.
"I was bored on the treadmill and bored in the gym," he said. "This is not stationary. It gives you a full-body workout."
Soltau and his wife ride their StreetStriders three times per week. "People freak out when they see you on them," he said. "You have to pull over and talk to them."
"They are pricey," he said, "But if you can afford it, it is the right thing to do. It is the best investment I've made."