A Great Divide Thanksgiving (ABQ to AZ)

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Above: A BNSF freight train crossing the Continental Divide along I-40, on our way back to Arizona.

A few days in Albuquerque to wait out the weather, quickly turns to a week, nearly.  In that time, we enjoy an indoor picnic of homemade tamales with both green and red chile (the combination, called Christmas, by New Mexicans); some salad at Vinaigrette, where we both used to work; a few days hanging out at bike shops, swapping parts to the Surly ECR frame at Two Wheel Drive and talking with the crew over at Bikeworks, over a pint of La Cumbre beer from the keg in the back; and, a few rides in the Bosque and down several of Albuquerque’s 18mph Bicycle Boulevard’s, both of which we consider our old stomping grounds.

When charged with the task of getting back to Arizona to resume our ride, we post an ad on Craigslist for a rideshare, and tentatively plan to hitch if nothing comes up.  Luckily, friends Rusty and Melissa are looking for something to do over the long holiday weekend.  For the last few years, the’ve gone camping, in place of the sometimes stressful Thanksgiving gatherings we’ve all attended.  We spend much of the year camping, and when some discussion of riding bikes enters the conversation, we make a plan to ride and camp together for a few days for Thanksgiving, en route to Flagstaff, AZ.  The result of our efforts is a memorable holiday on a brief, scenic section of the Great Divide Route near Grants, NM.  We find cold nights and some muddy roads, up and over 8200ft.  We cook fresh cranberries and other vegetarian delights over a campfire, scouting the Milky Way by midnight.  And I hope, we plant a seed that will someday amount to a few weeks or months on the Great Divide for Rusty and Melissa.  For good measure, I left my well-used Raleigh XXIX frame for her to ride.  As far as I can tell, the deal is nearly done.

First, a few days in ABQ.  Good New Mexican food is only found at diners and dives, plentiful along the Route 66 corridor.

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The desert, at 5000ft, still claims some winter.  The rain and snow we ran away from in Arizona makes it over the state line to NM, dumping loads of snow on Santa Fe, and a few wet inches in ABQ.  Jeremy’s Pugsley hides behind Rusty’s vintage Trek 650B conversion.

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A quick visit to my favorite bike shops in town uncover some fun surprises.  This Surly Pugsley is built with a now-unavailable Maverick SC32 fork.  The ride is a revelation, compared to that of a rigid fatbike– less bouncing, more shredding.  The fork is no longer available, since Maverick has folded, but they are available used, for a price.

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Seen at Two Wheel Drive, new Surly tires all carry secret phrases, mostly nonsense, molded along the tire’s bead.  This one reads “FIREFLIES OWL HOOTS AND A CANDLE AND A CURSE IN THE DARKNESS”.  Weird.  Surly.

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Of course, a ride or two along the Bosque, on the banks of the Rio Grande River is necessary.  Rusty rides his rigid Kona Unit 29er, with 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires and Velocity Blunt35 rims.  This is one of the top 29″ rim/tire combinations for trail riding and tubeless trail touring.  Faster rolling models might be optimal for dirt road riding.

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He’s working towards a full framebag, most likely one of the new Revelate bags offered in stock sizes.  A Carradice saddlebag is employed for overnight affairs.  Years ago, I began with one of these handy Jandd Frame Packs.

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Running out of town on Thanksgiving Day, we land in Grants, NM, the crossroads of I-40, and both the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the Continental Divide Trail.  Late in the afternoon, we take off up Zuni Canyon.  This is a but a small slice of the Divide, but it stands as a good example of what the other 2,725 miles are like.  This is Rusty’s first look at Divide maps while on the route.  These full-featured maps are a delight, full of reassuring information including distances, elevation, food and water resources, and touristic asides.  There’s even more to them, and they are worth the money.  More importantly, the Divide is worth a look.  What are you doing next summer?

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Up the canyon, the walls grow taller.  Snow lingers on north facing slopes, even though the sun soon has us in t-shirts.  The road is mostly dry, but spongy.  Slowly climbing, 29×3.0″ tires have some advantage on the soft stuff.  They also feel a bit hefty.  Thinking, riding, thinking– the perfect bike is out there somewhere.

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Rusty’s Kona Unit has evolved from the single speed that he brought when moving from the midwest last year, to a fully geared mountain bike with wide bars.  A suspension fork is coming soon, although it is not necessary for this kind of riding.  This section of road, much like the rest of the Divide, is high quality dirt.

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Lael has no question about which bike she likes best– her own!  She’s talking about full-suspension for next summer, that is, after she lays down some money for a lightweight fatbike this winter.  She likes the looks of Surly Clownshoe rims (100mm) and Bud and Lou tires (5″).  Set-up tubeless, on a lightweight frame and fork, and she’ll be on her way.

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We cross the geographic and hydrologic Continental Divide near 8200ft, at sunset.  An easy 1600ft climb is a nice way to prepare for a Thanksgiving fête.

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I’m discovering new features on the simple Garmin eTrex 20– 8224ft and 8 minutes to sunset, moving at 0 mph.  A good time to reflect and be thankful.  A good time to ride downhill to dinner.

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Melissa awaits with a campsite and an aperitif, including cold beer and a cheese plate.  On the fire, we roast potatoes, cranberries and a vegetarian stuffing dish.

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The morning is frosty, but the sun is warm.

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We continue along the Divide towards Pie Town, NM, which I last visited in 2011 while riding the 1985 Schwinn High Sierra.

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Passing crumbly lava flows within El Malpais National Monument.  From afar, lava rock and snow look like dirt-worm pudding, the homestyle dessert made of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreo cookies.

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Volcanics all around.

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And mud, not too sticky, but messy.

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Messy enough that we don’t move very quickly.  Messy enough to turn around.  The entrance to this section of road might have warned about being “Impassable When Wet!”, but we had to see for ourselves.  This section of the Divide Route also offers a paved detour.

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Frozen is better, but not by much.

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My homemade offset double crank– built from mismatched crankarms and an inexpensive square taper BB– is holding up well, and offers more chain-to-tire clearance than my previous bike, despite much larger tires.  Why don’t more 29ers have this kind of clearance?  Between the Pugsley, the Raleigh 29er, and the 29+ ECR, I’m honing in on perfection.

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Instead, we shoot back down Zuni Canyon Road, the way we came, with views of Mount Taylor to the north, towering above the high desert at 11,306ft.  The moisture than ran us out of Arizona deposited the first major snowfall is much of the region.

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Just a few miles of hard packed snow, but my mind is already wandering back towards fatbaikes.  I’ll be shopping for a full fatbike on Dec. 16th in Anchorage.  The ECR frame will eventually get properly wide 50mm Rabbit Hole rims.  I plan to install some studs in a fresh set of 29×3.0″ Knards.

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Down, down, down, breezing along the old railroad grade.  The Zuni Mountains were once extensively logged, with several railroad lines serving the area.

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We load up the bikes to complete the journey to Flagstaff.  Arriving by night, we stop for a pint at the Mother Road Brewery, named in honor of Route 66, and pick a campsite in the nearby Coconino National Forest.  By morning, we realize there might not be much riding left up at this elevation.  Lael and I plan to ride some pavement south towards Payson, we we expect to find more dry dirt.  Oops– between our escapades with Jeremy, lost in Sedona, and our ride on the Black Canyon Trail, we miss the end of the season up on the plateau of Northern Arizona.  Summer persists further south.

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Gear updates:

Zippers are still undermining the reliability of a lot of good gear.  Zippers, like chains and cassettes, eventually wear out.  Small zippers, like 11sp chains, are more prone to failure.  Mismanagement and abuse, like an ill-timed shift under load, can lead to failure.

The zipper on my framebag, since being repaired in Flagstaff several weeks ago, has since failed to operate.  The bag was also poorly fit to the new frame, as the ECR features a more compact triangle.  Luckily, Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution has a framebag in stock sized to a L Salsa Mukluk, close enough to work in my frame.  It is a bit small, but it might just fit one of our fatbikes this winter, or I can sell it when I find the time to replace the entire zipper on the Porcelain Rocket bag.  I’m hoping to make more repairs to my own gear in the future.

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Further, the zipper on the rainfly of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 has broken.  As opposed to wearing out, like most other zippers, the chain of wound nylon that comprises the “teeth” actually broke while Lael was opening the fly.  More robust zippers are found on the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 model which we’ve used for years.  Big Agnes makes a zipperless tent called the Fishhook, although the design is more spacious, and would be a bit larger and heavier to pack.  A simple shelter such as the Seedhouse or Fly Creek without zippers would be ideal.  Such a tent would be the ultimate for our lightweight nomadic lifestyle, as it would be for other thru-hikers and long-distance cyclists.  Then again, if the Fishhook was durable, it could be worth the weight.  I resolve to go ‘zipper-lite’ in 2014.

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29+?  I’ve got a pair of well-worn 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires mounted to my wheels, built with comparatively narrow 29.1mm Stan’s Flow EX rims.  It works for now– no time for new wheels, no one stocks the right parts– but I look forward to some proper wide rims when I land in Alaska.  Until then, I’ve bought a set of fresh 27tpi Knards to be shipped to rural AZ to improve traction.  I’ll mount them in a few days.

These are first impressions only: I am into bigger tires, and I like 29″ wheels.  The 29+ platform has merit, but still lacks an aggressive tire, like the Hans Dampfs and Ardents I am accustomed to (Dirt Wizard should be out sometime…).  A suspension fork with true 3.0″ clearance is still unavailable.  Big tires are not a replacement for the evolved features of modern suspension.  Naturally, a rigid fork is maintenance free, with low risk of failure.  That’s good.  I’m just not sure if I am a tourist or a mountain biker.  It is starting to seem like the latter is true.

29×3.0″ Surly Knard on the left; 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf on the right.  The Knard measures about 75mm wide on various rims, while the Hans Dampf measures about 61mm.  The outside diameter differs by about an inch.  There’s a difference, for sure, but what about an aggressive 2.5-2.75″ tire, a largely unavailable range of tires (check our the 29×2.5″ Maxxis Minion DHF).  With a suspension fork, this might be ideal.  More ride time is required, as well as some fresh tires and wider rims.

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Riding south: A day or two of pavement riding should put us out of the snow, and more importantly, out of the mud that results from slowly melting snow during the days.  Back to dirt soon.

Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling

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Divide-style riding– the open dirt roads that are influencing a new generation of cyclecampers– has provided me with a home for the summer.  Daily challenges and joys come from climbing and descending the skeleton of the American west, while every evening is topped with delightful campsites, for free.  The Great Divide Route is the Trans-Am Route of the modern day, as Fargos and Trolls are the equivalents of old Trek and Fuji touring frames.  The Divide is the fusion of our American cycletouring heritage and several decades of mountain biking– it’s a way of connecting the dots and getting away from it all.

Most road maps facilitate travel along the paths of least resistance, though river valleys and along interstate highways.  Lesser known routes encounter greater resistance– in route planning and topography– but uncover the uncommon character that is hidden in the folds of the land.  The Great Divide Route is changing the way American cyclists look at cycletouring and is both ready-made and quite rideable, lessening the resistance to “getting away”.  While a single day’s ride on the Divide might be challenging, the open road ahead is an inviting yellow brick road of logistic simplicity.  Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps, in addition to elevation profiles.  Concerns that the Divide reaches deep into the wilderness, days away from food and resources are unnecessary.  Every few days the rider encounters a proper grocery, and water is not an issue in most places; when it is less plentiful one simply carries a little more for the duration described in the maps.  If the Divide calls to you, I’m telling you that you can!  You still have to ride your bike up and over mountains, but it couldn’t be any easier.

The Great Divide Route is the realization of an idea with roots in the original Bikecentennial route (renamed Trans-Am), which was meant to uncover America’s backroads.  As originally designed, the cross-country route included miles of gravel farm roads inspired by terrain encountered on the Siples’ Hemistour ride.   Overwhelmingly, the first wave of Bikecentennial riders complained about the hardship of riding dirt on the typical 27×1 1/4 (630 x 32mm) tires of the time.  The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.  Edit: I’m currently researching the tires used on Hemistour, as they are simultaneously and incongruously referred to as 650B (584mm) and 26 x 1 3/8 (590mm).  June Siple has a record of equipment used, and may soon shed some light.  Ten years later as ATBs exploded onto the market. riders finally had the appropriate equipment to explore these dirt routes, especially the more challenging rides into the mountains.  Meeting over margaritas and Mexican food in 1994, as legend has it, Michael McCoy conspired with ACA staff to design a dirt route along the spine of the country. Within the year the Great Divide Route was born, and the rest is (recent) history.

Today, more people are touring on mountain bike tires and mountain bikes, in the mountains.  Riders are discovering the value of lightweight packing as backpackers have known for years.  The combination opens up the opportunity to ride high mountain roads and singletrack for multiple days at a time.  My own evolution as a rider mirrors the history of American cycletouring, and after a few long years the final and most contemporary piece to the puzzle will fall into place on the Colorado Trail, and beyond.  They call it mountain biking or bikepacking, but it’s still just a bike ride.

Connecting the dots from Rawlins, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO:

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I sleep atop mountains and passes whenever the weather is clear and calm, with only my sleeping pad and bag on a nylon groundcloth.  Since entering Montana, most nights have been spent en plain air.  I keep most of my gear packed away, but will remove my cookset for some dinner or tea in the evening.  Now out of grizzly country, I gave my bear deterrent spray to some CDT hikers and I can leave the stove set up for the morning.  When I’m feeling especially organized and indulgent, I’ll prepare the pot with clean water so that it can be heated as soon as I awake for coffee or tea, like the auto-brew setting on your home system.  The Penny Stove that I use was built almost a year ago while in Steamboat Springs, and has seen about 150 days of use.  The steel Klean Kanteen is versatile in that I can defrost frozen water from a cold night, or sterilize stream water right in the bottle.  An enameled steel camping mug isn’t much heavier than popular Lexan or plastic models, and can similarly be used for cooking or heating water.  While I technically only carry one 0.8L cookpot, these versatile vessels allow more creative meals and hot drinks.  A 1L plastic drink bottle contains fuel, of which I’ve mostly been sourcing the yellow bottles of Heet (automotive antifreeze, methanol).  In bigger cities I can buy a full liter of ethanol, or denatured alcohol at paint and hardware stores.  In France, corner stores sold a 95% concentration of ethanol as a household cleaner, always in an inspiring floral or citrus fragrance for two euro.  In Mexico, “alcohol industrial” can be had at some paint stores, which wasn’t an entirely reliable source.  I finally realized that the rubbing alcohol sold in Mexican pharmacies was a 70-90% concentration of ethanol, whereas rubbing alcohol in the US is almost exclusively isopropyl alcohol.   Isopropyl burns incompletely and leaves a sooty mess on your pots.  Inevitably, it makes a sooty mess on other things until you look like a coal miner on a bicycle.  For reference, higher concentrations of isopropyl alcohol burn just fine, if necessary.

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With tired legs from several weeks of riding without a rest, I find cover during the heat of the day along the Little Snake River.  Of course, this was a fine swimming spot, if a little shallow.  My transition into Colorado signals a more temperate climate– surface water and shade quickly reappear after a few scorching days in central and southern Wyoming.  Aspens provide wonderfully cool shade while climbing, and a stark contrast to western skies.

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Steamboat Springs is a tourist town, a ski town, and a little hard to crack at first.  Local businesses are busy crafting and creating, and a visit to the Moots factory is inspiring (10 AM on M-W-F).  Kent Erickson, who started Moots in the 80′s, now crafts fine titanium bikes in a space shared with Orange Peel Bikes, a must-see building and a fine shop.  Smartwool offices are in Steamboat as well, and my host for the night offered some socks and a lightweight merino sweater– he’s a quality control agent for the company, and is full of socks that didn’t make the cut.  Finally, I contacted Big Agnes in advance for some tent repairs after four years of hard use.  I’m constantly seeking better solutions to equipment, but my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is hard to beat and while I’ve looked for other options with curiosity, nothing improves upon the blend of durability and light weight.  It sleeps two, but is light enough to carry for solo adventures.  It is conveniently freestanding, which is great during the buggy season and the rainfly can be used without the mesh tent body for good ventilation during a summer rain shower.  In more extreme weather, a total of 13 guy lines ensure a solid stance against the wind and rain.  While in town last year they repaired a large tear in my rainfly due to a zipper mishap; this year, some sections of my tent poles needed replacement and a finicky zipper was repaired.  It’s nice to have contact with real people, with real skills and expertise to help sort out technical issues.  If I had gone to REI, they would have shrugged and replaced the entire product.  Repairs are a much better solution, and the cost to get me back under cover was only $10.

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The ride from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling is pleasant and familiar as I’ve now ridden the route over Lynx Pass three times.  It was part of my path from Boulder to Steamboat last fall to meet Cass and Nancy in early October for some Divide riding.  Check out Nancy’s first day of bicycle touring, climbing at 8000ft over Lynx Pass on dirt roads in the snow!  At the same time I ran into Greg Mu on the road, riding a look-alike Surly Troll to what Cass was riding.  Whose Troll was born first?  Greg insists it was his.  We all rode together for a period and had a great time, despite cold nights and some early season snow.

I overheated and perspired through my first freezing night, even though I was sleeping without a tent  After buying and returning a half-dozen sleeping bags to REI over the last few years, I finally found my ideal bag at The Trailside in Missoula, MT last fall.  The Mont-Bell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger 3 is filled with high-quality down and is rated to 30, which is an accurate description of it’s warmth.  The bag is constructed in a spiral stitch pattern with elastic stitching which ensures that the down is close to the body while sleeping, but that nighttime movements are not constricted by a narrow bag.  The advertised weight of the bag is 1 lb. 6 oz., and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe or smaller.  An Etowah vapor barrier liner (VBL) from Rivendell keeps me warm down to 10 deg, with a lightweight down jacket and a blend of Ibex and Smartwool long underwear.  I have not been carrying the VBL or down jacket through the summer months.

Connecting the dots from Steamboat to Kremmling:

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My host in Kremmling is a recent Pugsley owner, with a glowing enthusiasm for fat tires.  Without saying, we got along just fine.  In a few weeks, he’ll set off for the Divide with my maps on his new fat tires.  There are great camping and riding opportunities north of town, most of which is BLM property.  Camping along Muddy Creek is recommended.

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The promise of fat tires

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Pneumatic tires and large volume rubber had been in use for almost a century when in the late 70′s a strong lightweight frame with adequate brakes and gears turned an average balloon bike– a klunker capable of country lanes– into a performance machine capable of climbing and descending off-pavement.  These were all-terrain bikes, later dubbed “mountain bikes”.  As sales of fat tires grew in the 80′s, bicycling magazines published forward-thinking expeditions to Everest Base Camp on Specialized Stumpjumpers, out the abandoned Canol Road on Ritchey frames in the Northwest Territory of Canada, and along the flanks and spines of local mountains everywhere.  Never before had bikes been able to ride these routes and riders were willing to dream new places to ride; as well, riders quickly found the limits of the new bikes.  The Canol Road, for example, is unrideable for much of the distance due to washouts, overgrowth and avalanche– and thus, the term hike-a-bike was born.  Still, prices for these new machines fell and consumers bought up “mountain bikes” by the millions, finding varied uses.  Many bikes became daily commuters on urban streets, cycletourists found larger tires and strong frames to be ideal for long distance travel on unknown roads, and some riders actually rode singletrack trails as pictured in magazines.  But many (or most) mountain bikes, like Jeeps and Ford Explorers, spend very little time in the Tolkein environment pictured in sales catalogs and magazines.   Consumers buy mountain bikes because they promise the ability to go places, simply because they can– it’s the promise of fat tires.

Winter endurance racing and sand-crawling cyclists birthed fatbikes over the past twenty years, and out of a slow stew of development the Surly Pugsley was born in 2006 as a mass-market option.  The purple Pugsley that I ride is the analogue of the 1981 Stumpjumper, a ready-made option to those curious about riding large-volume rubber.  In 2011, Salsa introduced a complete Mukluk build and Surly followed suit with a complete Pugsley– 2011-2012 has seen the explosion of fat tires as a result.  Being able to enter a shop, point at a bike and ride out the door is a boon to sales and to curious consumers.  A dismal snowfall in the lower 48 has done nothing to lessen interest in fatbikes this past winter, as curious and creative riders are finding new ways to ride big rubber.  That’s the promise of fat tires– new places to ride, and new ways to ride.  It’s more than just a snow bike.

Over the past few months I’ve explored the capacity of my Pugsley in reverse, finding that it can ride pavement and the graded dirt roads of the Great Divide and the Top of the World Highway on 2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires.  I refit “ultralight” 120 tpi Surly Larry tires to the 65mm Marge Lite rims a few weeks ago and have been riding the varied terrain of the Great Divide Route through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Skeptical onlookers point out that I’m still not putting fat tires to full use– much of what I’ve ridden can be ridden on a normal mountain bike– but the sandy soils of the Western Idaho Trail and the intermittent washboard of the Divide are minimized under large-volume rubber.  There are more instances where I am happy to have big tires than I curse the disadvantages– there’s more to gain than to lose.

We’re easily convinced that 29″ tires make obstacles “smaller” (despite statistically significant evidence to prove their efficiency), but many riders are calling fat tires a fad, and even worse, sacrilege.  Admitting the obvious penalties of weight and rolling resistance on pavement, fat tires improve upon all three features of the pneumatic tire: traction, suspension and flotation.  If you don’t need it, you don’t need it; but if you are curious and can dream up new ways to ride then it’s available through your local bike shop.  It’s 1984 all over again, and in addition to the refined custom options, Surlys and Salsas are filling the floors of shops all over the country like Stumpjumpers and High Sierras.  With the assurance and insurance of big rubber, I can plan a trip of unknown routes through the mountains and deserts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona.  I’ve passed-by and turned away from enough rough-stuff riding opportunities in the past to know that I need a bike with some teeth.  With new riding opportunities ahead I can point and shoot without limits, as my fatbike has teeth.

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The direct comparison of fatbikes to “normal” bikes is often unfair.  First, the riding conditions in which they are compared is necessarily biased towards a typical mountain bike, unless you’d previously included a lot of loose sandy hike-a-bike in your rides, snowy commutes, muddy trails or deeply rutted roads.  Secondly, comparing bike weights of a refined mountain bike to a base model fatbike is also unfair, even at the same price point.  Comparing bikes based on cost benefits the mass market offerings with “normal” 26″ and 29″ wheels; much of the additional cost and weight of a fatbike comes from specialized componentry, mainly rims and tires, which are expensive due to limited production.  Rim weights have been cut in half in the last half-decade of fatbike development and the new Surly Marge Lite rim is only 690g (the 50mm Jeff Jones rim is 660g), both of which approach the weight of standard-duty XC rims.   The weight and price of fatbike equipment is only coming down.  Within the year, I suspect the Surly Pugsley will lose the 1150g DH Large Marge rim from the stock build; another tire manufacturer will enter the game, undercutting the weight of Innova tires and reducing rolling resistance with more advanced casings; and non-utilitarian offerings such as the new Salsa Beargrease (28.5 lb XC and race-oriented model) will change the way we think about these modern day klunkers.  A studded fat tire, no matter the price, will be a panacea for dedicated winter commuters in Alaska and other consistently wintry climes, where a single commute can include fresh snow over hardpack, glare ice and icy rutted lanes.

Looking ahead even further, the leap to 3.7-4.5″ tires has left a huge gap, and the Surly Krampus arrives soon to fill it.  Large volume tires in more practical everyday sizes and weights will continue to roll in, as will the frames that can handle them.  Expect to see more lightweight (non-DH) 2.5-3.5″ tires in the future.  The Krampus is betting on a lightweight 3.0″ tire on a 50mm-wide 29″ (622mm) rim, and I’m all in.

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In Kremmling, CO a local raft guide rides a new Surly Pugsley with 45North Husker Du tires.  He’s owned full-suspension mountain bikes in the past, but never enjoyed rebuilding suspension parts and linkages after a season of hard use.  On a whim, he hopped on a fatbike.  Of course, he bought it!  He’s devoted several upcoming months between the rafting season and the ski season to play, and his first-ever cycling trip will be on a the new white Pugsley somewhere in the west.  I’ve lent my Great Divide maps and assorted state highway maps, which I’m hopeful will get some use.

On another note, my Schwalbe Big Apples tires have made their way to Anchorage via USPS where they have again found a home on the Surly Man’s Big Donkey.  A modern proverb states, “it takes more than one man to wear through a Schwalbe”.   Below, mountainous snowbanks persist though late March in Anchorage, conquered only by the mighty Mukluks.  The snowbanks would not disappear until sometime in May.

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The “promise of fat tires” was realized late at night as an indirect rebuttal to a recent article on Mike Varley’s Black Mountain Cycles blog.   A favorite cycle-centric digest, Mike reflects expertly on old bikes, new technology and practical tire sizes.  Check out the BMC Cross frame, which features the largest tire clearance of any non-suspension corrected steel 700c/29″ bike available.  With a fast-rolling 1.9-2.1″ tire, this frame would make a real dirt road scorcher!

Twelve-second timer; Middlewood Hill, WY

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Near the top of Middlewood Hill, 7965 ft; about 30 miles south of Rawlins, WY on the Great Divide Route.

Purple first-generation Surly Pugsley frame with Marge Lite rims and Larry tires; Shimano dynamo and Supernova E3 Pro headlight, B&M Toplight Line Plus taillight; Salsa Cowbell 3 Handlebars with modified Ergon grips, Shimano bar-end shifters and Cane Creek V-brake road levers to Avid BB-7 brakes; homemade coruplast fenders of “Joe Miller For Senate 2010″ (Tea Party) signage, modified Nitto M-18 rack as bag support, and Salsa Anything Cage under the downtube to hold a 64 oz. Klean Kanteen.  Luggage includes a Carradice Camper saddlebag; Revelate framebag, front Pocket and Gas Tank; Sea-to-Summit drybags and compression e-Vent drybag fill the gaps.  It’s a bike and even with three days of food, an Olympus E-PM1 camera, MacBook Air, and a spacious Seedhouse SL2 tent, it rides like a bike.

Anymore, the oldest part on the bike is a pair of vintage Suntour XC-II beartrap pedals, purchased used from Pacific Coast Cycles in Carlsbad, CA before riding into Mexico.  Footloose, I enjoy a good platform pedal and a real pair of shoes.

I’m almost nine months into my “One bike for all seasons” experiment– to date, I have ridden over four months and 2000 miles on fat tires through a snowy Anchorage winter; 3500 miles on Schwalbe Big Apple tires while touring paved and dirt roads from Alaska to Montana, and about 1000 miles on Surly Larry tires on the Great Divide Route from Bozeman, MT to Steamboat Springs, CO.

Questions?

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A reader, Dylan, has generously shared a PDF of Ian Hibell’s Into the Remote Places.  If anyone is interested in this out-of-print classic, email me at nicholas.carman@gmail.com.

Tents and teepees; the Great Divide Basin

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Leaving the Winds and the woods behind and riding on with a conglomerate ball of day-old donuts from the Pinedale supermarket, I shoot for the Great Divide Basin.  I’m to be in Denver in just over ten days and I’ve found a peaceful groove of riding and resting and reading and eating and riding; the pace is not challenging and the rhythm is intoxicating.  I’d rather put time in the saddle now and relax upon reaching my target, and the mountains of Colorado are a better place to spend some lazy days with ready access to shade and water.  The Great Basin is topographic and hydrologic fantasy where water neither drains to the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans, instead contained by an enclosed basin.  In this dry climate at 7000 ft, most of what what falls from the sky eventually evaporates.  It’s fantastically beautiful, but it’s not really a place to hang out, especially by oneself.

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Spending a restless night in a teepee in Atlantic CIty, WY, I depart in the cool morning and shoot for the Sweetwater River– this will be my last swim for a while.  Ten miles further is Diagnus Well, a constantly gurgling pipe designed to create a wetland in the desert to sustain livestock.  It smells a pungent saline swamp, and two lambs are tied to sagebrush, bleating for reprieve from heat and hunger.  An empty, but lived-in trailer stands nearby.  I give the lambs some water.  While cooking grains in the shade of a fencepost, a vaquero arrives on horseback with a white dog with a prominent ribcage.  He comes close, and licks the remaining grains and salt from my pot without asking, kicking sand.  “Go away”, I demand half-heartedly.  He’s hungry, and I’m tired from the heat.  For a moment, I’m taken back to Mexico and the emaciated cattle of Baja.  Ranching in the sage desert at 7,000 ft isn’t easy.

I briefly debated with a man in Atlantic City who complained about ” the people from south of the border” that were ruining the economy of his home state of Colorado.  In the desert, a lone vaquero starves with his dog and two lambs.  Is this what he refers to, or is the the hardworking men and women doing the other jobs we’re too disgusted and too lazy to do?  This same discrimination has plagued this country for centuries, and has no doubt affected your family.  Willfull outsourcing of labor and consumers unwilling to buy local goods are more at fault than hardworking Mexicans, regarding the current state of things.  We raised our voices talking about wild horses and wolves, but discrimination disguised as patriotism is most enraging to me.  This is pretty typical Wyoming politics as I understand.  I find it powerful to retort, “where did your family come from?”.

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WIth just under three liters of water, I ride onward from the gurgling pipe in the desert.  For a time, I am enchanted with the vast moonscape of the Basin, but soon enough I am thinking about water and shade, with no relief save for a snow fence and my warm bottles of water  I drape my groundcloth over the fence slats, providing shade, but it also blocks the cooling west wind.  I savor warm salty sips until within ten miles of the A&M Reservoir, then I open my throat and empty the end of the bottle, throttling onward.  I’m not dying of thirst, but I imagine bringing my lips to damp sand in the desert in search of relief, or as Ed Abbey suggests, biting on a small pebble to instigate salivation and to relieve thirst.  Luckily, my map shows a state managed reservoir which provides cool, clean water and a place to calm my sunburnt skin.  Only 55 miles, that was a long time without a swim.

Cooled and cleansed and full of water I make quick friends with CDT hikers, and then make a break for it.  Racing downhill away from lightning bolts, I relieve pressure from my tires to smooth the terrain at 24 miles an hour, and lean into a sidewind– like a sail, the framebag sends me sliding into the thick thundercloud air.  This is the first thunderstorm of the entire trip and I reach Lamont quickly, taking refuge in the Annalope Cafe.  That night, I sleep in another teepee, this time provided by a woman I would never meet– a devout Christian– who has helped passing cyclists for years.  The Divide Route passes within a few miles of Lamont and the popular Trans-Am bicycle route.  Wells in the desert and relief from rainclouds– Wyoming provides.

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Awake to clearing skies, I stop into the Annalope Cafe for some fuel for the ride to Rawlins.  Indeed, the desert is constantly changing, but what’s for dessert?

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A great thanks to “LB”, who I never did meet.  The teepee was much appreciated as my tent is currently in partial disrepair.  It will be back in full service after a visit to the red house on Oak Street, Big Agnes headquarters and repair shop in Steamboat Springs, CO.

Riding high: Idaho

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It is not every day that I can boast the benefits of the Surly Pugsley or fatbikes in general, although I try.  I am often forced to concede to admonishing onlookers that “yes, the tires are heavy” and “no, there isn’t a motor hidden within”.  I’m more inclined to speak with those that are interested in what it can do, rather than what it can’t.  In fact, I haven’t found anything it can’t do, but there are some people that can’t be convinced.  “All the way from Alaska? Really?  Honey, did you see that?”.   I’m forced to stand and smile for pictures.  Italians want to know “what kind of bike it is?”, and before I can say Surly Pugsley they clarify, “is it a mountain bike?”.  I’m resting in the shade atop Togwotee Pass above 9658 ft.  Call it anything.

But when the trail turns to sand, described by the Great Divide narrative as “extremely soft volcanic soil”, I’m grinning ear to ear.  If only those sedentary naysayers could see this, or the Anchorage winter, or the miles of washboard I’ve ridden.  Now in Wyoming, I met an awesome guy on an old Schwinn Sierra that fell in love with the concept of framebags, and completely understood the concept of fat tires despite his first encounter.  Two of the same breed– the Pugsley is a little like the Sierra would have been in 1984.  What are the big tires for?  Aren’t they slower?  The simple fact is that some people want to go places on bikes, and some do not.  This old Sierra carried him cross-country in the 80′s, and he’s been in Wyoming ever since.  Bikes take people places.

The thrifty mile abandoned rail corridor, once called the Oregon Short Line, shuttled tourists to Yellowstone National Park; anymore is it signed and managed as an Idaho state multi-use trail.  It’s an ATV and snowmobile trail for sure, and it’s not suited to the casual bike ride as many improved rail-trails are.  Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are rich with similar trails whose main function is winter snowmobile use.  I’ve just met Trey and neither of us have met another Divide rider in over a week.  We are barely through the ritualistic questions about the big tires when their volume and low-pressure speak for themselves, and we part ways.  Sinking, spinning tires on his secondhand Kona mountain bike Trey opts for the alternate route which is 17 miles longer and half paved.

Evening is my time to ride and accounts for about half of all time in the saddle.  Swimming accounts for the remaining daylight hours.  Following side trails for fun, I lose my way and find myself at a gas station on the main highway.  I pick up a cold tall beer and ask directions back to the abandoned rail corridor.  Riding sand on a fatbike, swimming, and sipping a cold can of beer– I’m riding high in Idaho.

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I’ve regularly begun filling the 64 oz. Kleen Kanteen as surface water become less plentiful.  Refilling my drink bottle and cook pot, the supply of water within is never-ending.  Sick of peanut butter for the time being, I’ve got an extra bottle cage on the fork for another liter of water which may be useful through the Great Basin.  And as the days become shorter, I’m finding myself riding into the night.  Cool evenings and distant national forest boundaries tempt me; at least, a half-hour of riding in the dark to reach free camping is better than packing into a national park campground for $8 a person.  An impromptu group of four cyclists can share a piece of dirt for $32, although I opt to ride to the Teton National Forest boundary.

Miles Davis performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 in front of a rock audience of over 500,000.  When asked the name of the tune, or the kind of music, he replied, “call it anything”.

Hitchin’ to Helena

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Our fortune is that we are young and able, riding bicycles through the mountains.  Peeling ourselves from Missoula’s caring grasp and an incidental free lunch at ACA, Sean and I finally pushed out of town.  Our first day was pleasant, our first night quietly spent by a river, and our first flat only a small misfortune.  Ironically, I’ve made it this far and have only used my pump twice, but Sean’s voluminous fresh rubber must have been a magnet for roadside shrapnel.

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When Sean awoke with digestive disagreements the next morning, it concerned me how similar his symptoms were to my own up on the Cassiar.  It was not quite a cold or the flu, but a sort of anxious, dehydrated nausea that likes to ruin every meal.  We pushed on after a swim and some coffee, finally turning off pavement onto the Divide.  Approaching the top of our first pass, it became apparent we weren’t riding any further.  At best, we could roll back downhill and camp by a creek before deciding upon our next recuperative movements.

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Early morning brought a fiery sky, but wildfire digestion was going to keep us from riding for a few days.  In time, we staggered back to the main highway and stuck out a thumb– at least in Helena they’d have orange juice and air conditioning, and chicken noodle soup.  Against Montana’s bluebird backdrop, a rich mustard mirage arrived to whisk us to Helena.  A deep waxy shine preserves the exterior, but the interior shares it’s history with rusted floorboards and old-time country chirping from dusty cones.  A 1978 Ford F-250 is living history in this land– there is no better ride in all of Montana than this yellow truck.

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From here we’re hopscotching to Bozeman to receive my fat tires and Marge Lite rim; by the end of the day I’ll be rolling on fat tires again.  WIth several days of rest, we’ll shoot back towards Helena or Butte to intersect the Divide.  A pile of maps await me in Butte, sent priority from Alaska.  Thanks Dawn!

Night and day, on the Divide

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The expanses of road up north are a memory.  The rest of the summer will have a distinctly different flavor than the previous months, dominated in the next few weeks by the Great Divide Route and the web of forest service access roads of southern Canada and the lower 48.  Cross the Bow River, turn off Main St. Banff toward the historic Banff Springs Hotel, continue past the statue of a long-ago baron and roll onto dirt.  Your summer is ahead of you and it looks like this.  Leaving Banff behind; leave RV’s and national park concessionaires and ants crawling north and south along paved routes; I’m a spider on a web and for as much as I leave behind, there’s more to gain than to lose.  Leaving Banff at sunset, I pierce darkness and camp along Goat Creek.  By day, I awake to a sniffing, sniffling creature.  A black bear is inches away trying to decide if a snoring green cocoon is worth further investigation.  As I’ve prepared for this, I turn to meet his eyes with my own and speak sternly, reach for my camera and then my bear spray.  Nothing but a scared black bear and my calm fifty-five beats per minute.  Six miles from Banff, this is what day brings.  This is a 7AM wake-up call on the Divide.

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Spray Lakes is exactly how I left it eleven months ago and I am at home.  I meet riders on their first and second day, and smile at the enthusiasm and the coming weeks in their lives.  I depart, knowingly wishing them luck that they don’t need and fun that is already in the cards.  This is likely to be the best part of the year for these riders– it is for me.  Evening is again falling as I encounter a self-contained ACA trip with a dozen riders.  We talk bikes, share experiences and e-mail, and a giant pot of cheesy rice.  The are camped for the night but a full belly and a setting sun beckon me over Elk Pass to the Tobermory Cabin on the other side, and I wish to spend the night.

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If you insert Anchorage, AK to Missoula, MT into Google Maps, it routes you through Jasper and south along the Icefields Parkway.  It then follows main highways west of Banff and south to Montana, but I knew a better way.  The Divide route travels directly south from Banff on the Goat Creek Trail, along the Smith-Dorrien Road (Spray Lakes Trail), and over Elk Pass into Elkford, B.C.  From there it’s a straight shot to Fernie, the US border, Whitefish and Missoula.  The Divide is more than just a fun bike ride, it’s real transport!  Welcome home.

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Evening awe at Elk Pass

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Sometimes this is my life.  Elk Pass is the first crossing of the Continental Divide on the Great Divide Route, about 70 miles south of Banff.  I took my time to chat with lots of cyclists on this day, and dined with a dozen men and women on an ACA-led tour of the route from Banff to Whitefish.  Coincidentally, one of the trip leaders was from my hometown of Cortland, NY.  No one is from Cortland.

After dinner, the evening light beckoned me to strike out on my own and ride over the pass.  Five miles down the other side is a B.C. Forest Service cabin for public use, which I’d hoped to return to someday after visiting last fall.  The light was right and the air was nice– overwhelmingly, the skies were silky smoky grey.  I engaged the ride with vigor and blazed down the other side as night arrived.  This is a night on the Divide.

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Lael’s globe of adventure

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She carries a globe of adventure and has taught me more than anyone how to let go, give up, and go!  She’s the one that gives away clothing and books like she never cared about them; and in a moment, they’re of so little importance that they never existed.  It’s smart not to clutter your mind with such trivialities.  She likes strong simple bikes that don’t fuss, and she rides them.  She rides more than you or any of your friends, and wore out both of the rims on her Surly Long Haul Trucker this past year.  She rebuilt her front wheel just as the old Rhyno Lite rim bulged outward with 45 psi.

She’s the same age as I, for a month.  Yesterday was her birthday and I remembered on the 17th, forgot on the 18th, and remembered in the middle of the night– technically, it was the 19th already and I was sleeping by a river without internet or a way to connect with Corsica.  I presume she’s cycling and hiking along Corsica’s mountainous spine, or lazing along it’s azure coastline and having a good time of it.

She will drink more water than any other human and will pee on every road shoulder– on top of Boreas Pass, on the Knik Glacier, or in a snowbank on the Coastal Trail.  When the weather gets bad, she burrows deeper in a sleeping bag leaving me to sweat the details that don’t need sweating.  She never gets tired or sore on the bike and she never rides beyond her limits.  If you don’t call it “mountain biking” she loves it, and riding to work through six inches of snow at 7 AM is just another day.  And then she rides home, and runs to yoga in six inches of snow, and runs home from there.  And with nothing to prove she will out-run, out-ride and outlive most of us.  That’s Lael.

Happy birthday!  See you in a month for the Colorado Trail.

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Kick, kick, and the Colorado Trail.  Below is Lael’s second day of “mountain biking” on the Monarch Crest Trail, a diversion from the dirt roads of the Great Divide Route.

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Consider this a virtual birthday party by leaving a comment celebrating Lael and wishing her a happy birthday, even if you don’t know her in person.  In a month, we’ll be lucky to see photos of Lael riding her bike above treeline on the Colorado Trail.  In a month, I’ll be lucky to be riding with her.  Here’s to another year of acting like kids and riding bikes.

Globes of adventure, like “globes of boredom” from John Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez.

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