Sidewalk Singletrack

20120112 175059

Reminisces, words by Lael Wilcox.  This story was originally written for the Dirt Rag Literature Contest.

Under the dull orange glow of sodium lights the urban snowscape is flat and calm. In the dark season, only the clock indicates morning. I feather the brakes all the way down the neighborhood hill– the kind of hill a four year old learns to ride a bike on. It’s January and I’ve been doing this for a month. A fresh layer of snow covers slick ice. Focused, I anticipate falling. I’ve already taken a couple of spills this year as my back tire loses traction and slides out, or I turn too quickly or a pile of snow redirects my front tire. Just around the corner from the house, I’m already five minutes late. Subtle brake control is beyond the ability of my mittened claw hands, but this time I come to a stop at the bottom of the hill before turning left. Made it.

Exiting the neighborhood, I pedal toward a narrow gap in the fence, a natural corridor created by alternating snowfall and pedestrian use. Fresh snow blankets a month of frozen accumulation, and my daily passage ensures that this path remains rideable. On four-inch tires I can casually ride through some fresh snow, but six heavy inches are hard to ride. Fortunately, the walkers travel no matter how much it snows and some boots have shuffled through already. I nose my tire over loose piles and try to stay afloat. In these conditions the hazards of falling are laughable– the entire world is padded– although a faceful of snow isn’t welcome at 7 AM. The front tire washes, the rear tires spins and I punch a boot through the adjacent bank to remain upright. Today, more pedestrians and cyclists will groom this route and by dinner is will be a perfectly rideable single-track. Connecting the sleepy neighborhood to Midtown Anchorage, this is my portal between worlds. Still straddling the toptube, I shuffle the bike through to the other side.

I cross the boulevard and ride onto the sidewalk, the zone for misfits. Each passing windshield provides a glimpse of the driver. Those whose windows are still painted with frost, except for the requisite peephole, are like me– always late. Fully defrosted windows with operable wipers signal a prudent character, a complete breakfast, and some kind of fantastic job, most likely. I’m a math tutor and I pounded some dry wheat toast on my way out the door. A herd of traffic ambles past, each driver cradling a steaming cup of coffee, and each vehicle sharing its voice. Conservative talk radio wanders out of a rusty Ford; somewhere, Gotye is on repeat and Adele is “Rolling in the Deep” really early in the morning. Some of them check me out as we wait at the stoplight. People in cars feel entitled to stare. If you meet their gaze, they abruptly look ahead and pretend like you don’t exist. This is a really long light and we ignore each other for another two minutes. The signal turns green.

The crosswalk is a mess. I loft the front wheel over and over; every lane of traffic that I cross features a pair of icy ruts, like a giant washboard, and the orange display flashes “Don’t Walk” even before I start. Riding on a tightrope, my right knee draws outward to compensate for momentary imbalance. Looking back across six lanes, I lift my bike over an encrusted berm and am back onto the sidewalk– misfit but safe.

Every road loses a lane in the winter. Snow and ice obscure traffic paint and four lanes are reduced to three, three to two, two to one, and narrow roads nearly become tunnels. Drivers closely follow each other’s rutted tracks, afraid to change lanes. Winter lasts for six months and people have places to be every day. They don’t slow down for the weather and the city doesn’t do much to make the roads safe, even in a winter of record snowfall. Everyone has studded tires, if not also a big truck. With an average speed of 5 mph, I can’t expect to ride with this crowd in these conditions. Winter in Anchorage is the only place I routinely ride the sidewalk.

For several blocks I lay down first tracks on the sidewalk, running against traffic on Benson Boulevard. Secret shortcuts across boot-packed singletrack and empty parking lots speed up the trip. I bump across the lawn of a giant oil company on a path that leads over a snow pile and drops me into a plowed parking lot. A well-worn trail passes the busy exit of the McDonald’s drive-thru window as moose feed on the trees outside the restaurant– just passing-thru like the rest of us. In winter, Anchorage becomes a maze and commuting is a game of connecting the dots, requiring deliberate route planning based upon changing conditions. Every morning, I dial 844 for automated local weather conditions before leaving home. Every morning is different.

Past the public library, I turn onto the C Street sidewalk. Several years ago the city put up signs to indicate a bicycle route. This morning it is a frozen sculpture of a dried-out creek bed, strewn with the jetsom and flotsam of a recently plowed roadway. I scan for tire prints hoping to piggy-back another rider’s route, but there aren’t any. The walkway is peppered with frozen cobbles and boulders and even as I try to pick a rideable path, a firm-looking mound melts under my weight. Guessing my way through, I give some gas and hope. The front tire pushes through like a sled. I lean back and weight the rear tire, but it still spins. I put a foot down.

Alongside the ironic white snow bike I unscrew plastic valve caps and dab the stem with my mitten. Even in the cold air, the tube’s exhalations smell like canned tuna. The tire sidewalls nearly fold over themselves with my weight. I tighten my core and propel the bike forward, grinding until I pick up speed. It works! I roll up to the next red light, grinning. This three mile stretch, a signed bicycle route, is stunted with seven major lights. Even so, I’m getting somewhere, and I have somewhere to be.

Unzipping several inches of my parka, moist air steams in front of my frozen face and a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. I pull my Buff up to my eyes and suck frozen air through its fibers. Within several minutes, each inhalation is joined by water, condensation formed as my breath meets the cold air. Soon, the wool is frozen and a white beard grows around my face– the Buff holds its shape. If I was planning to be out much longer I’d be more careful not to sweat so much, but mittened children march along on sidewalks, which means I’m close.

Other teachers are running the short distance from their cars to the school doors like desperate urbanites in a rainstorm with newpapers over their head. Casually rolling my bike into the school, warm with energy, I smile at them. The bell rings and millions of squeaky boots storm the hallways for another day of cat and mouse. It is my job to be a diligent math cat to dozens of remedial math mice.

At the last bell of the day, the streets are dark once again. I zip into my fur-lined sledding boots and knee-length parka, pull the Buff over my head, buckle my snowboarding helmet and decorate the ensemble with a reflective construction vest. I mop up the puddle of water under my bike and roll out the door, emerging on the streets like a neon hobo power ranger. Riding out of the parking lot, a teacher rolls down his window and asks if I am training for that big race that they do with these bikes. No, I’m just riding home I tell him. I have somewhere to be. 

20120112 174933

A year ago, Lael and I were riding through a winter of record snowfall in Anchorage, AK on our Pugsleys.  The title to this story was inspired by this post, and our daily travels through the organic urban snowscape.

20111213 134918

 

Much better

WP 7 40

Lots of old bikes can be easily improved.  Older road bikes are often best suited to casual riding around town, rather then the fast riding suggested by drop bars.  WIth bigger tires and wide-range gearing, older mountain bikes make even better town bikes and touring bikes, but narrow straight bars aren’t the most comfortable way to see the city.  In either case, an upright bar with some rise and sweep can help.

For bikes like this Bridgestone MB-5, the VO Tourist handlebar helps.  Many similar bars are available these days.  Comfort is close at hand.

The Tourist is 57cm wide, with 75mm of rise and a 60° sweep.

Before:

WP 7 41

After:

WP 7 42

This classy grey bike on the VO blog depicting a Tourist handlebar is mounted to a 1984 Univega Alpina, purchased off Craigslist for about $100.  I built this bike for Katie, a friend and co-worker.

One bike for all seasons

20120204-222432.jpg

Twenty years ago, modern fatbikes were a vision manifest as a few crude bikes in a few faraway garages. As I understand, at least one was in the valley at Wildfire Designs, in Mark Gronewald’s workshop in Palmer, AK; while the other was in rural New Mexico, in the garage of Ray “El Remolino” Molina. One design was born from snow and Iditasport racing, while the other from sand-crawling and desert riding. For the most complete “recollections” of fatbike history, this thread describes a lot of failed attempts and semi-successes on the path to the modern fatbike standard. Other fatbikes were being developed simultaneously in Alaska and the sand dunes of the Oregon Coast.

I met Ray Molina in the Copper Canyon last spring at the 7th Copper Canyon Ultramarathon. He was excited to meet us and talk about bikes, and was the only person in town unsurprised that we had actually ridden there. The conversation quickly diverged to his distaste for Surly bicycles, for they had “ripped off his design” (paraphrase). Lael’s Long Haul Trucker prompted the discussion, although he didn’t recognize the bike in it’s refinements and without it’s decals. I was hearing about the difficulties of manufacturing wide rims in Mexico in the 80’s and the joys of riding sand dunes on a homemade bike in Chihuahua– most of what I and was hearing was too far off to comprehend, or to believe. Not until six months later when I was inspecting the wide rims on Mike Curiak’s Iditasport snowbike displayed at Absolute Bikes in Salida, CO, did I realize that Ray was not entirely crazy– they were labeled “Remolino”. Indeed, some of his history was accurate and in fact, his 80mm rim was an essential step in offering a lightweight flotation bicycle. The tires displayed on Curiak’s bike appeared to be 3″ DH style tires, splayed by the wide rims to a respectable footprint capable of riding over loose surfaces.

Ray has been mountain biking in the Copper Canyon region for decades, and was crafting huaraches on the sidewalk in town with the Tarahumara in the days leading up to the ultramarathon. A few dozen Americans and an assortment of international runners had descended– over 5000 ft– to Urique. Ray had brought a load of premium materials to the Raramuri (Tarahumara) for the soles of their sandals from the States– worn out automobile tires. The following day Ray participated in the race wearing his custom cushioned huarache sandals, despite claiming to be “not much of a runner”. It’s a good thing it’s not much of a run, but a 50 mile hike through the desert heat and canyon terrain, with over 9000ft of climbing. Apparently, Ray thinks he can do anything, and whether it is riding a bike in sand or running 50 miles on dirt, he’ll make his own “shoes” for the task.

The viability of the modern fatbike as an all-season adventurer is becoming well known partly due to the dearth of snow in the lower 48 this winter, and through the remaining three seasons. Mostly, many fatbike owners are finding the bike too fun to let alone the rest of the year. The availability of wide doublewall rims and even wider singlewall rims– Ray’s quest– is also supporting the growing market. Production frames and complete bicycles are available from Surly, Salsa, Fatback, 9zero7, with more from Origin8 and On-One in the near future. Custom and semi-custom fatbikes are avaialble from Vicious, Moots and others, as new fat tires are rolling out from a new QBP brand 45North, with another tire due from J&B Importers. This new rubber joins the five Innova tires from Surly and the Spider from J&B, also manufactured by Innova. Beaches, abandoned railroad trails, loose-dirt ATV trails and barely-there cobbled Incan roads are some of the places fatbikes go when it’s not snowing. In my dreams a fatbike with the new smooth Black Floyd tire makes the best casual summer town and trail bike; more comfort than a Schwinn balloon tire bike and the capability to go more places than many mountain bikes. It’ll roll 15 mph on pavement as well.

But what if you don’t have time for Hope to Homer and bashing your chainring on beach boulders or grinding up and over the Andes with half-a-dozen water bottles sounds like hell? The non-offset frames available with 170mm spacing from Salsa, Fatback and 9zero7 lend themselves well to strong symmetrical wheels, and a 29er wheelset could transform a snowbike into a summer bike of a more typical breed, one that could be fit with suspension and knobby tires for trail riding, or a rigid fork and fast rolling Nanos for dirt road touring, or Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires for mixed terrain touring with plenty of pavement, or studded tires for winter hardpack. Consider the Salsa Mukluk, designed for 4″ tires: transformations could be made to replace the need for three other Salsa models, with some mild compromises– the Fargo, the Vaya, and the El Mariachi. It’s not likely that a single owner would need to replicate all possible permutations in the span of four seasons, but a fatbike in the winter and a rigid dirt road tourer, a la Fargo, would satisfy me. Others may wish to be riding a Mariachi-like suspension 29er through the sunny season, and still others may prefer a faster riding Vaya-type commuter or tourer with medium width tires and racks. A bike with tires to fit exact clearances has a smart appearance, but a fatbike frame with seasonal personality is brilliant. Imagine, lessening the number of bikes in the house allows you to splurge on the titanium model. Now, you have a titanium snowbike, tourer, and mountain bike.

Below, a Salsa Mukluk 2 with Nokian Extreme 294 studded tires on a Salsa Gordo 29er rim, and red Salsa hubs. The fork is suspension corrected, and exhibits greater vertical clearance

20120205-002559.jpg

20120205-002621.jpg

20120205-003529.jpg
Aside from the financial benefit of owning a single versatile bike over a stable of specialized breeds and the satisfying minimalism of making a lot out of a little, riding a single bicycle with two sets of wheels through the year may benefit that which is most important, the rider. A rider accustomed to a single bicycle may develop a familiarity with the machine and develop skills specific to riding that bicycle– it’s fit, its geometry and steering– in all conditions. The feeling of being on a new bicycle is exciting to most people with new features whose powers can be harnessed, but riding a new bike most often reminds me of my High Sierra, whose level of familiarity is unparalleled in anything I have ridden. Rather, I have never spent as much time with anything. As a result, I feel that I can do anything on it, short of floating over loose sand and snow. I’ll match paces with roadies and mountain bikers in the same day on my High Sierra, but with a “fatbike for all seasons”, I could add the Susitna or White Mountains 100 to that list. On the same bike, one could ride snowmobile trails in Alaska, tour the paved AlCan Highway south, the dirt tracks of the 2700 mile Great Divide Route, and continue west along the ACA’s paved Southern Tier Route to Florida as fall approaches. With fat tires once again, one could ride the beaches of Daytona or St. Augustine, scoping the surf or the hotel swimming pools.

A few caveats of riding a fatbike all year:

The 100mm bottom bracket width spaces the cranks further apart than on typical road and mountain bikes. I haven’t noticed any discomforts as a result, and am questioning the wisdom that insist narrow cranks are kinematically more kind to one’s body and more efficient to pedal. It may just be another antiquated French obsession.

The 170mm rear hub is not widely stocked by bicycle shops.. The current offerings are mostly high quaility hubs with common sealed cartridge bearing sizes and standard freehub bodies. As a result, short of hub body failure, parts are all standard. At the moment, most 170mm hubs are more expensive than even an XT quality hub, which is laughably cheap in a work of two thousand dollar wheelsets. Internal gear hubs are suited to offset frame designs if desired, as they maintain 135mm spacing. Salsa makes a spacer for the rear end of the Mukluk to accommodate internal gear hubs or owners with existing offset wheels (from a Pugsley, for example).

A 26″ (559mm) fatbike tire almost exactly shares an outside tire diameter with common 29er tires, preserving most handling characteristics in the wheel swap. Theoretically, a smaller tires would lower the bottom bracket height, and quicken the steering as geometric trail decreases, assuming a smaller outside wheel diameter. Twenty-niner tires (622mm)– smaller in volume (as opposed to 4″ fat tires)– would also lessen the experience of pneumatic trail, in which a tire operating at lower pressures resists a change in course, mimicking the experience of geometric trail and thus similarly named. I have ridden 40mm-622 Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires on a Mukluk and was pleased with the result. Tires less than 40 may begin to negatively affect the steering of the bike, although pedal clearance still may not be an issue due to the higher bottom bracket on most fatbikes. Get in on the ground floor as next year’s bike craze is certain to be some combination of low-trail steering geometry, rigid 29ers, and fatbikes.

Finally, with a variety of rigid and suspension forks available, steering geometry could even be honed to specific needs.

Other notable links:

Not my first wheel size experiment, check this 26″ to 650b conversion on the Velo Orange Blog.

The now-famous beach ride from Hope to Homer on a first generation purple Pugsley and Lil Ray, the only bike built by Ray Molina on the internet.

John Evingson of Anchorage has built one of the nicest fatbikes I’ve seen, before 4″ tires were available. Nice racks.

An interesting history of Snowcat rims, the original 44mm wide, lightweight singlewall snow rim, which can extend the range of any mountain bike.

The Salsa Enabler fork features the appropriate dimensions to run a fat tire on the front of a suspension corrected 29er, which is gaining strength, and the moniker “half-fat”. This steel fork would also be a worthy 29er fork for touring with it’s multiplicitous mounting locations.

20120204-223323.jpg

A custom flat black powdercoated Mukluk, showing parts compatability from a Specialized Hard Rock commuter with rigid Surly 1×1 fork. A new rear wheel, bottom bracket and seatpost were required. With Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires, this bike will complete this season as pictured, and will get a new pair of shoes next fall– Surly Clownshoe rims. Note: kickstand, rack, dynamo and upright bars– a solid winter commuter.

20120205-020449.jpg

20120205-020511.jpg

For further discussion of alternative fatbike setups, continue to “A bike for all seasons, Part   2″.