Back in Alaska

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We are back in Alaska.  Lael grew up in Anchorage, and I’ve lived here twice before, seasonally.  The first time, we lived in a late 60’s camping trailer on a bluff above the Nenana River while working at a restaurant outside Denali National Park in the summer of 2009.  In 2011, we returned to spend the winter in Anchorage, discovering winter riding, fatbikes, and snowy singletrack in a season of record snowfall.  Last winter we lived in Albuquerque, NM.  We are back in Anchorage for the season.

Much is the same as before: it is cold and snowy, the roads are rutted and icy, vehicles are monstrous and drivers are aggressive, days are short, the city is huge (second largest by area in the US) and getting outdoors is essential to enjoying the long, dark season.  However, much has changed: fatbikes are more prevalent around town, and better equipment is available; more trails have been built or packed into the snow; studded tires are available in every wheel and tire size for bicycles, including fatbikes; and, we are much better prepared for the winter riding season.  Note how the latter are all solutions to the former– for us, fatbikes are the reason that life is possible in Anchorage in the winter.

The last time I was near sea level was in Ukraine along the Black Sea.  Before that, Holland.

Just beyond sunrise and the Garmin already reads, “Sunset in 5hr 13min”.  Our arrival in Anchorage is well timed, as the season is already gaining daylight towards June.

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Winter riding is much of the reason we have come this far north for the winter.  The urban-based riding in Anchorage is some of the best anywhere.  Links lead to old posts from winter 2011-12, our first winter in Anchorage.

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Sunrise.

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Group rides.

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Night rides.  Lots of night rides.

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Sidewalks.

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Wildlife.  Moose are a common sight around town.

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In the winter, nobody misses the bugs or the bears, or soggy trails.

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Sunset.

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Night rides, again.

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Busy boulevards– lots of those too.

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Icy, rutted roads.

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Ice beards.  Everyone grows a beard in the winter in Alaska– everyone.

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New trail facilities, bypassing a previously necessary hike-a-bike along a frozen stream under the highway.

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Snowy singletrack.  Miles and miles of singletrack.

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And much more to explore.

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Fatbikes are loads of fun, and Anchorage is the center of the fatbike universe.  While many people are excited simply to see a fatbike in person at their local shop, in Anchorage, it is possible to view and test ride fatbikes from every manufacturer.  Already, I’ve spotted bikes from Salsa, Surly, 9zero7, Fatback, Specialized, Trek, Kona, 616, and Borealis.  Lael– lucky as always– has already been treated to a brand new Salsa Mukluk 3 in her first week in town.  I am still shopping for a bike.  Many base model bikes are now specced with aggressive Surly Nate tires and practical 2x drivetrains.  This year, the Salsa Mukluk borrows from last year’s Beargrease, with an all aluminum frame and fork to save weight.  With Lael’s bike, I plan to drill the rims, set-up the tires tubeless, mount a wide carbon handlebar, and source a framebag and pogies.  She plans to ride it a lot.

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Fatbiking has a long history in Alaska.  This 90’s-era Specialized downhill tire was notable for a large-volume casing, aggressive tread pattern, and lightweight construction.  Likely due to a lightweight casing, it was not a reliable tire under extreme DH condition, and quickly disappeared from the market.  Only a few prescient winter riders snagged them before they disappeared.  Mounted on 80+mm Remolino rims– designed by Ray Molina in southern New Mexico– these Big Hits were serious equipment back in the day.

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I’ve had a taste of a similar tire size recently, riding 29×3.0″ Knards in the snow.  I am waiting on some hubs to build a set of wheels with 50mm wide Surly Rabbit Hole rims.  While I still intend to buy a proper fatbike, the ECR will remain as the ‘fast bike’ for when trail conditions are firm and well-frozen.  Hopefully, one of the bikes will receive some studs.

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Singlewall rims with cutouts are standard equipment these days, while heavier doublewall designs like the Large Marge rims we pushed around two years ago are almost nonexistent from the scene.  These gold anodized rims were made in a limited run.  Naturally, Lael has her eye on some gold Rolling Darryl rims.  These are 65mm Marge Lite rims, weighing in at less than 700g.

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More likely, we’ll simply have her unholy 82mm Rolling Darryls drilled at Paramount Cycles here in Anchorage.  The process is said to shave over 200g per wheel, and allows for a custom rim strip.  A tubeless set-up should shave some more weight from the wheels, at little cost.  A lighter weight downhill tube (26×2.3-3.0″) is another simple trick to shed some grams from the wheels, but is not advisable in thorn country.  Tubeless is still a foreign concept to many cyclists in Alaska, as in other parts of the country.

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Gigantic rims and tires are all the rage in the fatbike market this year.  Several manufacturers have moved to a 190mm rear dropout spacing (compared to 170mm or offset 135mm), which makes room for the widest rims and tires on the market, and retains compatibility with a full MTB drivetrain.  There are some great new tires in limited distribution from Fatback, Vee Rubber, and Specialized, but most of the talk is about Surly’s Bud and Lou tires, the pair of shred-your-face-off front and rear specific tires, measuring almost 5 inches.  Mounted to 100mm Surly Clownshoe rims, this is the best you can do when the snow piles up.  Note, this 9zero7 frame is also sculpted out of carbon fiber, something that has become more common and highly coveted in in the last few months.  Recent releases from Salsa, 9zero7, and Borealis have excited riders, although Fatback will be bringing their expertise to a carbon frame in the next few months.

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In the 90’s, a custom bike like this John Evingson frame from Anchorage, AK was the best equipment available for riding on snow.  Surely, it is a beautiful frame, and a highly capable bike.

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But the current off-the-shelf offerings show several decades of development.  The last eight years– since the introduction of the Surly Pugsley– have been particularly fruitful for fatbiking equipment.

Since test-riding this carbon fiber Salsa Beargrease, I am tempted by the qualities of a rigid carbon bike, especially when riding bootpacked and bumpy trails.  The Beargrease is a lively machine.

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However, if I had my pick of bikes (cost, no object), I might go home with a Borealis frame.  I haven’t ridden one yet, but the shape of the tubes and the silhouette of the frame from afar indicates a sense of style, even beyond the function it exudes.  On such bikes, SRAM XX1 1 x 11speed drivetrains are common.

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Part-time residency also gives us time to enjoy the holidays and spend time with family.  As we work our way towards next summer, our plans will reveal themselves.  Until then, we’ll just enjoy the luxuries of living in town and having a soup pot larger than 1L to prepare meals.

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I first spotted the new 2014 Adventure Cycling calendar this week.  Lael took this photo of me outside Del Norte, CO on the Great Divide Route, aboard my Surly Pugsley.  I take it as a sign that we should be out riding by June.

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This little guy is the reason we first discovered fatbikes two seasons ago.  His little sister is the reason we are back.

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I’ve spent a few days on a borrowed Mukluk 2, which shaves a few pounds off the Muk 3, featuring an upgraded parts spec and lighter wheels.  I enjoyed the bike, but the experience of riding the Beargrease has me wondering if it might be worth it for the winter.  I’ve hardly ever had a new bike in the last decade.  A $3500 canon fiber fatbike is a big leap, but why not?

Realistically, I am most likely to buy a base model bike as soon as it snows more than a fees inches again, to avoid fishtailing around town on skinny tires.  Almost a week since the last snowfall, the Surly ECR has been a practical machine, capable of some snowy trail riding at extreme low pressures.  Fresh Knard tires hook up well with frozen hardpacked snow, and once I build wheels with wider Rabbit Hole rims, they should be even better.  But, a fatbike is necessary to ride absolutely every day, and to explore the trails.

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22 thoughts on “Back in Alaska

    • I forsee this bike being a fun winter commuter, trail rider, and part-time racer, so the need for Rivnuts may never arise. However, I think I could figure out a way to safely attach things to the frame with a combination of duct tape and used bike tube shims.

  1. Carbon-fibre? Egads! :-) Looks like you’re set to have a fun season. Almost makes me wish for a snowy climate. Almost.

    Congrats on getting into the ACA calendar. Any definitive summer plans yet? Did the USPS get my letter delivered a-ok?

    • I hope my interest in carbon fiber doesn’t shake anyone’s foundations too greatly. I find it challenging to be surrounded by so many new bikes and materials and ideas without exploring my own fascinations. I’d rather tell stories about ‘that one time when my carbon fiber frame failed’, than spread hearsay about the properties of materials that I have never studied, except in use. Well, I have studied the properties of steel in use, and it works good, but that says nothing about carbon fiber, necessarily. As far as I can tell, aluminum is a good material for many components, and frames. Carbon fiber seems to be an excellent material for some applications as well, including frames. In a year or two or three, we’ll all know a lot more. And then, steel will still be a fine material, but we’ll know more.

      Oh yes, we both enjoyed the letter, especially the efficient envelope format (c. 1982). Your current address is the return address on the envelope? Check your mailbox soon.

  2. Nick.

    I’m living in Anchorage and have have drilled few hoops out myself, ive got all the tools ya need and space if you guys wanna save a few bucks and do it yourselves.

    • Carp, Thanks for the offer. I’ll shoot you an e-mail to arrange a time. As I am now working at The Bicycle Shop, there is a chance that I may be able to do it myself down at Paramount for just a few bucks, as they are one of our sister stores in town. Either way, it would be great to meet for a ride or a beer at some point.

  3. Carbon Fiber? Well, you’re the boss. $3500 ain’t much for yer main ride, although it is more than twice what I paid for my (steel) pickup truck. Carbon Fiber…whatever. You go first…

    Steely Dan

      • Well, obviously my meaning was misconstrued. Let me apologize for that. Sometimes I am so obscure that even I don’t get it. I wasn’t denigrating carbon fiber, much. It is just a bit of a sea change for GBT and (like when Dylan went electric) the audience might take a couple beats to get it. Your response to Shawn was very enlightening and now I hope you DO get a full squish carbon fiber monster truck fat bike and either prove it’s merits or mercilessly thrash it to pieces.

        And while my old pickup was very inexpensive to buy (about the price of a new Ogre) it takes daily injections of money to feed and maintain, big injections of money. Sadly, I earn those injections doing work that would be romantic and admirable if I were pedaling about with my half ton of tools strapped to my Big Dummy (that I don’t have) but my current commute is sixty miles each way and while my physical condition has improved of late, to do it by bicycle is still a bit of a reach.

        So to answer your question, no, of course you shouldn’t purchase a pickup truck. Yes, you should spend whatever it takes (including endorsement/product review deals) to obtain whatever bicycle catches your eye. You are one of this planet’s preeminent adventure cyclists, you adorn the covers of magazines and appear in calenders and whatever accolades or glory comes your way is well earned and I, for one, am glad to see it happen.

        OK

        tj

        • Alright, TJ. You had me at the Dylan reference. I grew up on Dylan, among others, and I never knew the difference between electric Dylan and the pure, unplugged poetic Dylan, at least not until the whole thing was explained to me when I was about 11 years old. To me, they were all much more the same, than different. Aluminum, titanium and composite bicycles were also developed before my time, as was steel. At some point, I learned from certain individuals on the internet that steel was the only worthwhile bicycle material. At least one of these people also quote Bob Dylan with some frequency, most commonly the younger Dylan.

          But I like most of Dylan’s later music too. I like a little rock and roll. I do not ride with a basket of Dylan Thomas or Robert Zimmerman poems, and sometimes I do like to ride fast and far, and I always like to have fun. Aluminum, and carbon fiber, and titanium and bamboo, and bicycles made of helium balloons and toothpicks might be just the thing to let me do that better. If not, then we’ll all know better in the future.

          As always, thanks for the support. Some kind of monster-truck bike is forthcoming, for sure. It’ll snow again in a few days and I’ll really need it to get around.

          nicholas

    • I suspect the sealant would freeze, not right at 32F, but it would probably freeze at some point. In snowy climates, the sources of punctures are rarer. The tire will hold air as the initial coating of sealant has made the tire airtight from the inside. If there was a puncture and the sealant did not flow enough to seal it, a tube would have also have gone flat. So, the solution is to install or repair a tube in either case.

      But then, maybe the sealant remains fluid down to 20F, or 15, or 10. That covers most of the year, in most places. I’ve been tubeless these past few weeks in Anchorage, down to about 6psi on the 29×3.0″ Knard, and haven’t had any issues yet. Hoping to set-up some fat tires tubeless to Rolling Darryl rims soon.

  4. Ha, I saw Lael’s bike and thought, hang on… Where’s the gold?!? At least a bit of gold tinsel… So it brought a smile to see those rims… Not least as I also have a penchant for gold.

    I wonder when Salsa will join the 29+ platform… More future orientated than Surly, I’m thinking tapered fork from the start, modern (m)axles, maybe a carbon fork option… etc
    I do kind of think frame bag potential should be a key design clause too with all these sorts of bikes. Likewise I do think a Jones fork and some custom Jones-specific bags would be nifty. Shame no dynamo hubs fit Jones though. Or so I believe.
    PS
    Why not a carbon donation potential? I’m a poor PhD student but 10 dollars wouldn’t hurt and be far less than the pleasure reading all your posts has brought, and if all your readers… = Carbonbear by mid-Jan…!
    Have a running total on the side or something…

    • This bike is not likely to receive any gold, as the stock build already included a few nice red ano touches, such as the Salsa seatpost clamp, and a stripe on the top of the frame. We added red plastic pedals (check out the Redline Monster pedals, sealed cartridge bearings for $25!: http://store.redlinebicycles.com/Redline-Monster-Pedals.html), and Revelate gear with red detailing. Drilling the rims will be inexpensive, and while red rim tape would be nice, I’m inclined to add some reflective tape to the cutouts for the dark season. A friend at The Bicycle Shop has introduced a concept where a large red light is mounted under the left chain stay, towards the ground and the white 82mm rim, creating a large red glow on the street and around the bicycle (USB rechargeable: https://www.serfas.com/products/view/669/referer:products|index|lights|usb-lights|page:2. Reflective tape in the rim would add to the safety features– and style– of this system. Style is never far behind safety, right?

      I am hoping that Salsa will provide the next 29+ offering, if not others, in the coming season. While I’ve enjoyed 29+ tires. I also love the extra clearance for knobby 2.3-2.5″ tires and some mud. I’m moving towards the tapered/thru-axle standards, in theory, especially on the front end of the bike, especially on a suspension fork. A Krampus, or something similar might be my ideal bike, for off-the-shel offerings. We’ll see what comes in the new year.

      As for 135mm dynamo options, there is now a SON offering for fatbikes. Also, the SP (Shutter Precision) PD-8X hub is offers an inexpensive 15mm thru-axle option for 10mm front, but a conversion kit is available to convert to 135mm. I assume this is 135mm/9mm QR, not the new thru-axle 135mm on some carbon frames, but it wouldn’t be hard for manufacturers to keep up with these changes now that most hubs are adopting oversize internal dimensions, with interchangeable end-caps. Check out the SP hubs here: http://www.intelligentdesigncycles.com/product/shutter-precision-pd-8x-qr15-hub-dynamo. The hubs are only available from e-bay right now, from Taiwan or the Netherlands, which will limit some buyers. However, I’ve heard good things thus far, and some sellers are offering free shipping, which helps keep the cost under the price of a SON or Supernova. For the price, and more immediate availability, I’ve just ordered a Shimano DH-3D80, but an SP hub is most likely in my future.

      I’ll think about the carbon piggy bank, but I don’t think it will fly with this crowd. Since I am working at a shop that sells Salsas, I could get a good price on a bike and sell it at the end of the season for most of what I paid. This is part of the incentive to enjoy a Beargrease over Muk, because both bikes will cost me relatively little by the time I sell it in like-new condition at the end of the winter. Even last time, Lael’s Pugsley sold for $300 less than full retail price, which amounts to an inexpensive rental for 6 months of transportation and recreation.

      But yes, I do hope to turn the blog into a small stream of cash somehow, but I am not sure direct donations are the way, even though I know it would “work”, technically. I’d rather ask favorite manufacturers and retailers for sponsorship via sidebar ads, or something similar. We– consumers– are the reason the industry exists. If we create a forum that discusses and celebrates their products, I figure they should help out with the expenses. So, don’t be surprised if the site changes shape over the winter.

      But, I’ll still take your $10, if it needs a home.

    • David, I am not an expert on winter gear. Mostly, I’ve pieced together a workable winter ensemble from available parts. My system serves me well for rides up to 4 hours, and temps down to -10F. I don’t often spend more than 3-4 hours out riding in the winter without stopping inside somewhere. Anchorage may see temps as low as -30 each winter, although typically, temps range between 0-20F. A normal cold snap will be -10-0F.

      I prefer a modular system, including a pair of boots that can be useful the rest of the year– usually a mid height waterproof light-hiker– and a Gore-Tex gaiter. This year, I purchased a pair of Keen Bryce mid-height boots one size too large. The extra room will give room for blood to flow, and for an extra pair of socks. Any larger or warmer, and many boots become intolerably warm while indoors, and are designed with more support around the ankles, restricting the pedals stroke. More dedicated extreme cold temp solutions exist, but these are not my needs.

      I have used OR gaiters for several years, and really enjoy the fit, quality, and look. There are some $39 REI gaiters available that look alright, for almost half the price.

      Keen Bryce Mid WP: http://www.keenfootwear.com/us/en/product/shoes/men/outdoor/bryce%20mid%20wp

      OR Crocodile: http://www.outdoorresearch.com/en/or-gear/gaiters/mens-crocodiles-b76dbcdb50233a9ac2503749fd0037a5.html

  5. Hey Nick

    A bit off topic and I’m sure you’ve answered this in the past. How did you space out the dynamo hub to fit the 135mm spacing of the pugsley fork?

    Thanks for all the help!

    Sincerely

    -Landon
    Boston, Ma

    • Landon,

      I ordered a symmetrical 100mm fork for the Pugsley, which fits a 65mm rim and a fat tire between the fork ends when installing the wheel. An 80mm rim and/or 5″ tire is a little tight in this fork, with the brake caliper in place

      However, there is a new 135mm SON dynamo hub, and a SP (Shutter Precision) hub for 15mm thru-axle, that can be converted to 135mm. It seems the conversion is done with custom end caps, from a small supplier.

  6. Nicholas,
    What do you think about a Pugsley fork mounted on an ECR? You could run both 26×3.8 and 29+ on the same fork. Just was daydreaming about selling my Mukluk and what I would replace it with. Trying to create the most versatile bike I can.
    Hope all is well up in AK. We haven’t seen snow in Flag in about 3 weeks.
    Stefan

    • Stefan, The ‘everything’ bike is a familiar daydream for me. Assuming you already have an ECR (or expect to have one soon), adding a fat fork would certainly increase the versatility of the bike. In fact, I have a purple offset Pugsley fork and a wheel waiting to be mounted to my ECR the next time any significant snow falls. I will be buying a proper fatbike this week as well.

      However, considering you already own a fatbike, it might be better to go the other direction and fit 29/29+ wheels on the Muk. I recall you have a blue 2012 frame, which lacks the Alternator dropouts that allow a full 29+ wheel in the rear. But, I suspect a Rabbit Hole or Dually rim and a 2.4/2.5″ tire would fit in the rear, with a full 29+ wheel up front. The Muk features all the braze-on of the ECR, with a similar geometry (including a low-ish BB that year, but it has since been raised a bit; in either case it is higher than the ECR, which I like).

      Of course, another option is to replace the current Muk with another 170mm fatbike frame that will take 29+ in the rear, but that might be expensive for only small gain. There might be some good deals on 170mm frame this year as others move to 190mm frames.

      Not much snow here in the last few weeks either. Hopefully, more snow is forthcoming.

      • Thanks for the reply Nicholas.
        I actually have a 2013 Mukluk 3 with the alternator dropouts. I’ve considered having a set of wheels built up for it and calling it good. The ECR still has some advantages in my opinion, namely the rear dropout compatibility with fenders and racks (i.e. the burley rack I have to use to attach the burley piccolo to tow Leyla), and it’s steel. Another consideration for me is how to pay for it all. Selling the Muk and then scavenging parts off of the karate monkey would enable me to build the ECR without paying anything out of pocket.
        I was looking at the Pugsley fork versus the ECR fork and the ECR’s axle to crown height is 19mm taller. All things worth considering…
        Life isn’t too shabby when these are the problems we face. Guess I’ll ride the Mukluk to work today and see how it feels.
        All the best

        • The “sell the Muk and cannibalize the KM” payment plan sounds solid. Since you’ve got a solid full-sus mountain bike already, this bike would serve a different function for you than it does for me.

          A friend just linked me to a new Nashbar 170mm-spaced steel fatbike frame, which looks curiously like a Pugsley. Might be a good, inexpensive option for fat and 29/29+.

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