Does it work?

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Update: Check out my updated Tubeless Fatbike Guide for information on the non-split tube tubeless method.  The method used here is still relevant, and may be more reliable in situations where bead retention is of greatest concern, such as on rough rocky trails.  The non-split tube method described in the guide mentioned above is a little lighter.  For the most reliable tubeless system, consider adhering the split-tube to the tire bead to create an airtight unit, much like a tubular tire. (2/16/2014)

Does our home-brew tubeless fatbike system work, as on this tubeless Moonlander? These are goatheads.  These are tubeless fatbike tires: 4.7″ Surly Big Fat Larry tires to 100mm Clownshoe rims.  These two wheels are entirely cluttered with spiny goathead thorns– perhaps 500 in total.  This is no match for a tubeless system and some Stan’s liquid sealant.  Ride on.

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Thanks to Two Wheel Drive for the demo Moonlander for the weekend.  Live near ABQ and want to ride a fatbike?  Come find me at TWD on Tuesdays.

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Pugsmorphology

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The bike has been through a series of changes since it was purchased from a Craigslist seller in Seattle last December. It came with a narrow upright handlebar, heavy Large Marge rims, and a worn Endomorph tire. It had been ridden without regular maintenance. As a result of neglect and preference, I have replaced almost everything on the bike at least once. The Pugsmorphology includes no fewer than:

8 different tire models; Endomorph, Larry, Nate, WTB Nano (29×2.1″), Schwalbe Big Apple (29×2.35″), Maxxis Holy Roller (26×2.4″), Schwalbe Big Apple (26×2.35″) and Surly Larry 120tpi ultralight

4 handlebars; narrow steel bar, Salsa Bend 2, Salsa Cowbell 3, Surly 1×1 Torsion bar

3 rim models; from Large Marge to Marge Lite, and one Salsa Semi-Disc 29er

2 forks; standard Pugsley 135mm offset and 100mm symmetrical for a dynamo hub

all on 1 purple frame.

December, 2011: Ride the 594 bus to Seattle, walk up Capitol Hill and hand over $1150, cash. I have just closed the riding season in New Mexico and am on my way to Alaska for the winter. I am carrying all of my camping gear and install it on the bike before heading out into the rain. Some bags and a Brooks saddle make the unfamiliar bike, mine.

(Many images link to related articles.)

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Winter in Alaska. This is not my daily commute, but riding around Anchorage is never less than spectacular. Riding to the Knik Glacier is the highlight of my life on a bike, thus far.

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Following a winter of record snowfall and wrenching on Mukluks at The Bicycle Shop, I begin to plot my exit strategy. For the immediate road ahead, 29″ wheels are calling. I begin by building a SRAM 506 hub to a Salsa Semi-Disc 29er rim. I first mounted a WTB Nano, and later, a 29×2.35″ Big Apple.

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Lael’s Revelate Vischasa leads me toward a full complement of modern bikepacking bags, while I explore the Pugsley as a 29er, partly.

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29×2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple.

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I call the Carradice Camper into service. For the first time on a longer trip I plan to carry a camera and a laptop computer, along with the necessary bundle of chargers. The saddlebag eases the strain and creates a safe harbor for the netbook.

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Half-fat is a half-finished experiment. I intend to build a 29″ front wheel to turn my Pugsley into the Salsa Fargo that I have avoided buying all winter. The Fargo would be a great bike, and like my Stumpjumper and my High Sierra, it is a sensible option. Senseless– the Pugsley promises unknown opportunity and fun, although I cannot imagine riding several thousand miles of pavement on fat tires. The most important factor in selecting the Pugsley for travel is that I already own it.

If I am to ride 29″ wheels out of town, I expect to send 26″ wheels and fat tires to myself later in the summer. The complication and expense of the idea keeps me awake at night. There must be a better way. How can I enjoy paved roads, dirt roads and dirt trails all on the same set of wheels? Surely, pedaling the first 3000 miles on 4″ tires is a waste of rubber, and money; and building two sets of wheels and tires is wasteful and complicated.

The solution is closer than I expect. 26″ mountain bike tires in the 2.3-2.5″ range fit nicely onto 65mm rims. Voila! It’s that easy. I have been working on fatbikes all winter and this concept has never arisen– it’s always considered that a 700c/29″ wheel is required for alternative uses. I reach for the biggest 26″ tires available– 2.4″ Maxxis Holy Rollers– which bridge the gap between my needs on dirt roads and on pavement, for much less weight and expense than a true fatbike tire. When the time comes, I can simply refit fat tires to the bike. One set of wheels, two pair of tires– easy.

With my bike still set up half-fat, Lael tests the “baby-fat” concept of a smaller tire on a 65mm rim. She is a wearing a Surly Marge Lite rim over her shoulder, yet to be laced into my dynamo hub. A 2.3-2.5″ tire would not work on a larger rim such as the Surly Rolling Darryl, which is 82mm. As well, other fatbikes such as the current (2011) Salsa Mukluk feature a lower bottom bracket than the Pugsley, and would be compromised by this rim/tire combination. The Pugsley is lowered by over an inch, although the effective bottom bracket height is about the same as on Lael’s Surly LHT.

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I like riding drops. The Salsa Bend 2 bar served me well all winter, but I decide to leave town on a 44cm Salsa Cowbell 3 handlebar with Ergon grips. The drops are minimally flared, much like the randonneur-style bars that I’ve ridden in the past.

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The recycled pink tape cushions the hands. I finish the bars with a durable black, cotton tape. The Ergon grips require cutting and filing, shortening and enlarging the inner diameter from 22.2mm to 23.8mm. Other modifications include three rivnuts to the underside of the downtube to fit a Salsa Anything Cage, which cradles a 64 oz. Klean Kanteen.

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With drops and 2.4″ tires the bike rides well and is proof of concept. I think I will ride this: a hybridized purple fatbike with dirt jumping tires. This is a touring bike.

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Considering the amount of pavement I expect, this is even better. Several days after purchasing the Holy Rollers, I seek trade for a Schwalbe Fat Frank or Big Apple. Nate, a local rider with a garage full of hyperpractical bikes, comes through with some lightly used 26×2.35″ Big Apples. He is happy to have some brand new Holy Rollers for one of his own FrankenSurlys. How did I meet Nate? He responded to my Craigslist ad for a Surly Nate tire. One fender installed, one more to go…

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Fenders, generator lighting, 2.35″ slicks, drop bars with Ergon grips, and a peanut butter jar mounted to the fork– this is an Alaskan road bike. On my third day out I encounter snow at less than 2000ft, in June. Smooth tires– briefly– are regrettable.

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The Big Apples cushion the ride on dirt roads at lower pressures, but cornering at speed on loose gravel is scary. Traction is excellent on sealed surfaces. Compromises are the nature of such a bike.

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From Alaska to Banff, the route covers nearly 75% pavement, even though I seek off-pavement routes when possible. Despite additional wheel weight (in comparison to a typical touring bike), the Pugsley passes road miles with ease, including a handful of hundred mile days through Canada. With endless sun and mosquitoes, riding is an ideal means to multiple ends, including the lower States and the mosquito-free mountains. Comfortably perched, I ride south at a rapid rate and reconnect with the Divide in Banff. Several weeks later in Bozeman, Montana, I rebuild my rear wheel with a Marge Light rim, losing a pound of aluminum in the process. Refit fat tires.

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For a period, drop bars and fat tires coexist. This is a fine combination when riding open roads, such as on the Divide. The big tires (re-)extend the abilities of the bike, while the drop bars allow me to efficiently and comfortably ride longer distances. Lael and I plan to ride some of the Colorado Trail when we reunite in August, and I begin to (re-)consider an upright bar. I enjoyed the Salsa Bend 2 bar all winter. Something similar will do just fine.

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A Surly 1×1 Torsion bar arrives, taken off the used bike that Lael will soon be riding. Her Raleigh XXIX is sourced from Craigslist and comes with the Surly bar, although an On-One Mary is quickly on order. She may never ride a bike with another handlebar– to her, the Mary is perfect. I am happy to gain the added control of a wide bar and an upright position, especially with the monster traction provided by fat tires at low pressure. A week or two of singletrack in Colorado assure me that the new bar is the right choice.

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It’s not an aggressive position, which suits much of our riding. The bike rides like a Cleland– slowly and assuredly, it travels onward overland. As such, it is not a dedicated trail bike, but a “trail tourer”. Much like a fine automobile, it offers comfort and safety along with performance.

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Short of a climate control system and a stereo, it is fully-equipped. The stereo is on the to-do list (wouldn’t that be great!), while the lights are always on.

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As my fat-year closes, I’ll share more personal thoughts regarding life on a fatbike, including explicit disclosures and dissatisfactions. Mostly, it’s sweet remembrance through rose-colored glasses.

Moonrise on the Colorado Trail.

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DIY fatbike fenders

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In an afternoon, some donated corruplast signage from Bike wRider, fender hardware spanning several decades from Off The Chain bike co-op in Anchorage, and several dollars of aluminum door threshold sourced from the hardware store become a fatbike fender.  The whole thing was assembled with a Crank Brothers multitool, some standard M5 nuts and bolts, and the leather punch on a Swiss-Army knife.  The aluminum threshold material is extremely lightweight and bends easily, while retaining enough rigidity in use.  The corruplast has proven its durability all summer, despite a variety of abuse.  It is best to align the corruplast “with the grain”, as it will bend and crimp in the opposite direction.  The modified Nitto M18 rack is integrated into the design, and the steel tang shown below was eventually removed as the aluminum fender rib served the same purpose.  I did not expect the fenders to last through the entire summer, but they show no signs of letting up.  Eventually, I made a front mudflap from duct tape and reflective ribbon, and the rear mudflap was sourced from a broken Planet Bike fender.  DIY fatbike fenders– Take America Back!

First, bend the aluminum and locate the holes.  Drill, and install to the frame.  It is nice that the Surly Pugsley has proper threaded fender mounts on the inside of the seatstay and chainstay bridges, despite few commercially available fenders in this size.

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At first, the flat steel rack mount was used, but was later removed as it was redundant.

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Locate the holes to bolt the rack to the frame of the fender.  The Nitto rack is made of tubular Cro-Mo, while the struts are solid aluminum with steel hardware.  I removed the backstop support of the rack, simply by bending and breaking it  The sharp fragments of brass filler are covered by the red electrical tape.  In the future I might do all of this differently, although with the knowledge that it has lasted all summer I cannot complain.  This was my final project before leaving Anchorage this spring.  While a but crude, I wasn’t going to let the planning phase encroach on the ride.

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Clearance is a little tight with the modern top-pull front derailleur.  A little bending will do.

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In addition to the Nitto Rack stays, a chromed steel fender stay from an old ballon-tire bike was used.  Made of low-grade steel, it was easy to widen and bend to shape.

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After installing the aluminum and mounting all the bolts, I removed all the parts and reinstalled with the corruplast.  There is excessive clearance for the 60mm tire, but the design is intended to fit a full-sized fat tire.

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A Carradice saddlebag typically mounts to the seatpost, but with a bag support I find I can fit several drybags between the the bag and the seatpost.  Aside from extra capacity, this method reduces swaying common with saddlebags, and provides some cushion to my MacBook which is stored vertically in the Carradice Camper.  A basic nylon gear strap holds thing in place.

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Ideally, the corruplast is used in the other direction, “with the grain”.  It does work in this orientation, but it tends to bend into a ridged shape like corrugated cardboard.

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This direction gives a clean bend and holds a nice shape.

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60mm Schwalbe Big Apple tires on 65mm rims roll well on pavement, allowing a handful of hundred mile days.  On dirt and gravel roads, traction is a bit scant.  I might select something with a little more tread next time, even if only the Schwalbe Fat Frank tire.  For a more aggressive tread in this tire size, there is the Maxxis Holy Roller 2.4″, Kenda K-Rad 2.5″ and the Kenda Slant Six 2.5″.  There are other options with considerably more aggressive tread patterns for downhill use, but they also approach the weight of a proper 4″ fat tire.  The Big Apple is a little lighter than the smooth Black Floyd tires available from Surly, and as I expected, are quite durable and puncture-resistant.  I didn’t have a single flat from Anchorage all the way to Bozeman, Montana.  When I fit fat tires, I sent the Big Apples back to Anchorage where Bike wRider intends to finish them off.

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I like a bike with fenders and powerful dynamo lighting.  The Pugsley has been my daily transportation for almost a year, and these features make it comfortable and safe in all conditions.  I have little time on the Pusgley without the fender, except in a frozen Alaskan winter when it is unnecessary, but one of Joe’s considerations after touring on the Pugsley in the summer of 2010 was that a fender would combat the “unusual amount of spray in the wet”.  I still experience some overspray onto my feet while riding fast in extremely wet conditions, such as on pavement.  Overall, I remain clean and dry.

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The Take America Back slogan was part of Joe Miller’s unsuccessful bid for Senate in 2010.  He was a vocal Tea Party candidate, but lost to Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski, a write-in candidate in the race.

Schofield Pass: Marble to Crested Butte

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From Carbondale, there are several ways to reach Crested Butte– none of them are paved the entire way.  Several routes from Aspen to CB are enticing, including the famed Pearl Pass route, but snow above 10,700 ft excludes them this time of year.  Pearl Pass is over 12,700 ft, and Star and Taylor passes are nearly as high, and include some singletrack.  McClure Pass is paved, but connecting Kebler Pass to Crested Butte is technically unpaved, although improved and in great condition.  The paved road from Carbondale to Marble connects to a dirt route through the town of Crystal and over Schofield Pass.  At 10,705 ft, Schofield was clear of snow.  On the other side of the pass awaits the famous Trailriders 401 trail down to the town of Gothic.  The ride over Schofield is the most direct, and holds the allure of the “401”.

The road from Marble begins with Daniel’s Climb, a lung-busting grade to Crystal.  Thereafter, the aspen are electric, and the road turns to a rough 4×4 track which is unrideable at times.  The Devil’s Punchbowl is a steep, narrow feature that is largely unrideable, but is a fun challenge on fat tires.  The Pugsley is a stellar slow speed rock crawler, but even a momentary loss of momentum is enough unseat me.  Cresting Schofield Pass, pockets of snow lurk in the shadows.

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The mill in Crystal is one of the most photographed sites in Colorado, drawing leaf-peepers from all over.

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Downtown Crystal.

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Turn left to complete the Lead King Loop back to Marble; stay right to Crested Butte.

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The road turns up, and degrades to a narrow 4×4 track.  Unimaginable, this was once a wagon route.  The other riders are friends of Joe Cruz.  In fact, Joe was Anna’s professor and they share a love of cycling.  She is now entrenched in a 6-year philosophy program, but has found time for some winter endurance racing including the Susitna 100 and the White Mountains 100.  That’s 100 miles, in the snow.  I’m working hard towards a PhD in bicycle touring.  Push.

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Wet feet.

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Rocky road.

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Finally.  Another world awaits on the other side.  From the top of the pass, turn up onto the 401 Trail to climb above 11,000 ft.  An epic descent awaits.

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The 401.  With a light cover of wet snow, the Pugsley has come full circle.  From snow to snow, this bike has been everywhere between an Anchorage winter and high mountain passes in Colorado.  The tread on my Larry tires is worn, and doesn’t hold well in soft terrain.  I’m dreaming of the Nate tire at times.  Lael’s Maxxis Ardent holds the trail well.

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Before cresting the ridge, an alpine park has views in all directions.  In the distance, the backside of the Maroon Bells.

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Going down.  Bundle up.  The soil on the other side is rich with organic matter, making for a lot of mud.  A gorgeous, but not so epic descent.

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Walking, to reduce our impact on this heavily trafficked trail.  A fine coagulation of cow shit and mud temporarily clogs our wheels.  Cass would be in heaven.  Raised on English mud, he loves this stuff.  Grateful to have a fender, I came out looking a lot like a human, rather than the mud-encrusted primates seen in cyclocross and gravel races.  Platform pedals always do their job, even clogged in mud.

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Rideable.  Coated in mud, the chains operate smoothly and silently.  Deore: +1.

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As promised (finally), a rideable descent and some memorable trail at the end of the day.

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No need to filter this water.  It comes directly from the heavens.  At least, it comes from a cow-free wilderness above.

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Camp.  Awake to clear skies, the frozen morning rapidly thaws into a t-shirt day.  The spoils of a frozen night are ideal lighting and a heavy layer of frost.  If only Lael had a camera, she could document me running around the frosty meadow in my long underwear with my camera.

Breaking the seal of our small frosty tent, I’m always excited to see how the world has changed.

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One of the nicest campsites of the entire summer.  Heat some water for tea, and ride into town.  Crested Butte is one historic home of mountain biking, and claims the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum.

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Gothic, seemingly named for the gothic arches encased in the mountainside.

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And a bike path into town.  Mt. Crested Butte looms overhead.

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Colorado Trail: Copper Mountain to Leadville

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Just another day or two on the Colorado Trail.  Still, there’s nothing not to like.  Pushing the final few hundred feet up to Searle Pass, the sun sets in amber brilliance.  Sleeping above treeline ensures an immediately warming morning sun; sleeping in the trees is cool and moist, and the most enticing campsites near water seem to be shaded until noon.  At just over 12,000 ft, we erect the tent as a shield from a cool breeze and frosty, mountain dew.  By morning, only a light layer of ice has fallen.  The early sunlight treats our tent like a greenhouse; growing, glowing, warming until slowly awake.  The final half hour of sleep, cradled in warmth, is the most restful.  We like biking and hiking and eating and sleeping, but this time of year the sleeping is best.  Golden aspen and light snow on high are signs of the season’s change.  We love fall weather, but winter is soon to follow.

A short section of trail from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain climbs and descends at extreme grades, and is said to involve much hiking and pushing.  Theres is a paved 16 mile bike path around the Tenmile Range, which we took in search of the next rideable segment of trail.  Climbing across ski slopes and away from Copper Mountain, Searle Pass finally comes into view.  A final push over the pass leads to our camp, in top-of-the-world brilliance.  Just before cresting the pass, not a single road or building can be seen.  On the other side: a mine, a paved highway, and a few forest service roads are visible, and in the morning several bow hunters crest the ridge.  We’re far away, but not that far.  This is what I like about Colorado.  Alaska allows you to get away, but only through a gauntlet of muskeg, moose and mosquitos, with very few trails and roads for access.  The constant threat of grizzlies adds to the sense of the wild, and lessens my level of comfort.  Alaska is a beautiful idea, but not ideal for comfortable outdoor living.  While we tackle immense challenges, hardship is not part of the design.  Colorado is easy living.

Lael’s bike has seen some improvements recently, including a new tire.  The fast-rolling Maxxis CrossMark was great for smooth hard packed trails and dirt roads, but was short of traction and volume on much of the trail.  Her XXIX has some monster tire clearances, and a 29 x 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent hooks up well.  Descending, the suspension fork and the large tires allow her to pick her way through rocky sections without steering around every pebble.  The bike is finally becoming a familiar extension for her, despite a few mishaps.  No matter how well equipped, a rider must become intimately aware of their bike.  This is why we choose to own and ride only one bike at a time.  Equipment or skill is no match for familiarity.

Lael’s Hooligan has broken the one bike rule, but it is exceedingly fun and practical, and has a future with us.  For anything but real trail riding, including urban riding and touring, she demands to have “Hooli”.  With a 2″ tire, it would be fine on mild unpaved surfaces.  While 4″ tires and 29″ wheels provide much benefit, there is a lot to say of a highly maneuverable, and lightweight bike.  26″ and 20″ wheels have their place.

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Searle Pass is the saddle left of center.  Many trails become quite rocky above treeline.  Gaining the ridge:

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Camp at 12,050 ft.  Over the pass, a large mining operation and a few roads are visible.

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Warming light.  Yoga atop mountains is Lael’s favorite, in lieu of yoga in the park, on the sidewalk, in the backyard, on the beach, in the woods, or inside.  She has done yoga almost everywhere.  Dressed for the cool morning, she practices “Yoga for Ninjas”.

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Riding, pushing over Elk Ridge and descending down to Kokomo Pass near 12,000ft.  Descending, descending, down to 9,000ft feet over several miles of trail.  Brakes, kick up dirt, pedal and lean, fly; brake, skid, stop.  Snack.  Soon, 10, 9 thousand feet again and climbing.  Up, to Tennessee.

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We both appreciate the value of a lightly packed bike.  I was carrying a small cooking system and a two-person tent all summer, so Lael only had to show up in Denver with a sleeping bag and pad, as well as some clothing.  She’s packed into a Revelate Vischasa seat bag, Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag, Revelate Mountain Feed Bag, and an eVent Sea-to-Summit compression sack.   A spare tube and tire are strapped to the down tube, out of the way. She’s not carrying a shelter at the moment, but overall, her bike is optimal for this kind of riding.  It is simple, quiet, and light.  The bike rides like a bike.

Every day, I enjoy Lael’s combination of socks and shoes.  Other trail riders must think we are lost, or from another decade.

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I am carrying quite a bit more equipment, but this is exactly what I was carrying all summer.  We carry our own gear in favor of trying to match our paces by re-distributing the load.  Releasing ourselves from the idea of matching paces and necessarily riding together, we are relieved of stress.  It’s simply too much mental work, and is likely to slow one of us down or push the other along.  For such a fun, simple endeavor as walking or riding, there’s no need to complicate the joy of being on the trail.  Sometimes I ride ahead and wait at junctions.  Often, I ride behind allowing Lael to see the trail first, and we talk all day.  Other times, Lael rides ahead, descending with abandon as I stop to take photographs.  We’ve had too many fights about nothing by trying to match paces, so we don’t.

Tightly packed away is MacBook Air and an Olympus E-PM1, as well as a gaggle of accessories, chargers and cables.  Maps, a water filter, tools, a tent, and a cook system are stowed away along with food, clothing and shelter.  It’s tidy and it rides well, if a little heavy.  A framebag is a key component of any lightweight touring system and is the single greatest step to leaving racks and panniers at home, unless you are Lael and don’t even need a framebag.  In many cases, more important than the weight of equipment, is the ride.  My bike is quiet and comfortable, and the tires cloud the rocky disturbances of the trail.  I’m finally finding the optimal tire pressure for these trails, and it is much lower than I initially estimated.

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Up and over Tennessee Pass, and on to Leadville.  We heart Leadville.  Good living at 10,200ft.  Without a ski resort, Colorado towns such as Salida and Leadville avoid the glut of condos and t-shirt shops that plague other mountain towns.  Leadville and Salida are both beautiful communities in the mountains.  Fourteen thousand foot peaks, everywhere.

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The beauty of this part of the state is that it’s not a simple destination for tourists, but finding transportation out of town has been a challenge.  We’ve finally secured a ride to Interbike.  Some writing obligations and planning will take some time away from riding this week, but we’ll be back at it in a few days.  Thereafter we will transport to a galaxy far away from the CT, awash in the glitz of Las Vegas.  Whatever it brings, Interbike and Vegas will be an experience.

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”.

Riding cross: Bannack, MT to Idaho

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My first few days back on fat tires wear the nubs off the knobs, riding on pavement.  Thereafter, I huff and puff up Fleecer Ridge, barreling down the other side.  Being able to descend with abandon is fantastic, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the ability to climb with vigor for some cheap thrills– I require a bike that can do it all, fast.  After a few days of dreaming about normal sized wheels and tires, something happened.  Finally, I can ride the Pugsley the way I want.  It has taken some acclimatization, literal and figurative, and some muscle development.

Leaving Anchorage, I labored up small hills and wondered if I would regret riding a fatbike through the other three seasons.  Over Denali’s passes and the Top of the World Highway, my body responded with strengthened legs.  Reaching the Great Divide Route, brutish climbs reawakened those climbing muscles.  At every major junction in the process of touring on a fatbike, I’ve labored under new challenges and wondered if my heavy go-anywhere bike was a good idea.  And finally, after fitting fat tires this week in Bozeman, I’ve had to grow a new pair of legs to keep up with myself.  I’m realizing the perceived limitations are in the rider, not the bike.  Even now, there’s more to this motor than has already been realized.

To propel a bike with as much utility and versatility as the Pugsley requires a strong motor, and following a few nights of sore muscles I can now ride the Pugsley like a cross bike, like I want.  Gravel grinding– climbing fast and descending faster– is now fun and familiar.  Doing it on 4 inch tires at 15 psi is new, but it is intoxicating and childishly fun.  I barely ever scrub speed while descending; while climbing, it’s good to keep the wheels turning and the momentum up, but traction is never the weak link.  And yesterday, across mild terrain, I pedaled and floated over 80 miles of gravel, culminating in a blistering sunset effort to Red Rock Pass.  Laying down to sleep amidst tall grasses and sage, I smile and reflect that riding the Pugsley does not limit my riding style.  I smile and laugh that I’ve spent the day riding it like a cross bike.  I laugh, for there’s a lot more to riding fat tires than floating over gravel at 20 mph, but it’s just one of many things that can be done on a fatbike.  Six months ago I was riding in the dark, in the snow.  Now I’m sleeping at over 7000 ft on the Montana/Idaho border, thanks to a particular purple bike.

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My breakfast of choice, of late, has been Cream of Wheat.  It cooks quickly and sticks with me better than oatmeal.  I add brown sugar and fruit in the morning, or for a savory evening snack, garlic and vegetables do the trick.  Surely my mother will laugh, as I grew up hating oatmeal and tolerating Cream of Wheat.  Now, I love both.  On this occasion, peaches, bananas and brown sugar give me fuel.

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Of course, that’s a Scott Montana overhead.  This wilderness lodge near Polaris, MT welcomes cyclists, although I only stopped to admire this nice vintage ATB.

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Some southern hospitality can even be found up north.

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Bannack is a ghost town and the first territorial capital of Montana.  A hearty thank you to my hosts at the Bannack Campground, Paul and Jamie, who are full of life in this deserted valley.  We shared an evening together, and they shared their dinner and cold silver cans of beer with blue (lavender) mountains.  Since retirement, they’ve discovered that working as campground hosts satisfies their love for travel, and their desire to meet people in a more relaxed, conversational setting.  In exchange for their time and effort, they have free rent all summer in a spectacular corner of Montana with a steady stream of visitors.  Two main bicycle routes, the Trans-Am and the Great Divide Route, pass near Bannack.  It sure beats Texan Gulf Coast summers, they say.

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The ride up and over Medecine Lodge Pass into the Big Sheep drainage challenges me; the sustained climb on the Pugsley strengthens me.  I’m finding that the more I do it, the easier it becomes.  Descending, my rear tire begins to slowly go soft.  I don’t mind fixing the occasional flat, although I hope it’s not something I encounter daily.  The big tires require well over three hundred pumps with my little Lezyne road pump and the older dropout design of the purple Pugsley requires me to loosen the rear brake caliper, which feels like one step to many.  The process is a bother.  I will be searching for a system to minimize flats, especially in the thorny southwest.  Sealant applied to tubes, or a pure tubeless setup are considerations.  A pump with a bigger chamber would be nice.

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On this night, I encountered a group of adventure motorbike riders.  All were on the de facto “ultimate adventure bike”, the BMW GS-1200.  They were riding a variant of the Great Divide Route from Albuquerque to Helena, in a ten day period.  Some of them laughed at my pedal-powered efforts.  Secretly, I laughed at the imminence of Monday morning, a pot of Folgers, and a desk job.  I will still be here in a week.

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And in a push to the Idaho border, a dotted line of classic gravel roads lead the way.  All I have to do is pedal.

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Voracity, and veracity

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Wheel built, tube patched, tires mounted and a hundred miles of pavement out of Bozeman.  Crest the Continental Divide, and turn left onto USFS route 84 near Butte.  I’m back on dirt, back on the Divide, and back on fat tires.

Big hungry tires eat dirt and climb without tractional hiccups as pressures are dialed for optimal suspension and maximal traction.  Mostly, as this winter in the snow, I keep draining air from the tire for a better and better ride.  A new rear Marge Lite rim is technically one pound lighter than the old Large Marge, but fat tires add some heft back to the system.  The bike is not heavier, but it is not lighter or faster.  It rides very differently.  The Pugsley had become an all-road bike with the Schwalbe Big Apple tires, capable of 100 mile days on pavement.  At times, the 60mm smooth tires were capable of riding dirt roads and more.  The fat tires do other things.

It’s ironic that Montanans enjoying fat tire off-road vehicles ask, insistently, if my big tires are slower.  I sass: “slower than what?”  Are not the big tires of a Ford truck or an ATV slower than a theoretical skinny slick racing tire?  Big breath of diplomacy: “Fat tires afford a contemplative pace and a sure-footedness that permit my thoughts, even as the trail turns upward and the ‘road’ disintegrates.  Fat tires go almost anywhere.  Fat tires are fun.”

If you insist, “sometimes fat tires are slower”.  I insist, with fat tires I can descend with my eyes closed.

I ride slowly and studiously, engaged in something other than human traction control or anti-lock braking.  This is easy.  Relaxed, song lyrics and upcoming articles saturate my brain and old memories nearly lost, resurface.  Last year on the Divide, I was riding a 47mm Schwalbe Marathon and proud of the transition from pavement to dirt on the same set of rubber.  But the Marathon was a dull scalpel, requiring my attention.  This time is different– the 94mm Surly Larry is a big fucking tire and a lot of fun.  After only a day, I pass dirt miles in blissful oblivion.  As long as F-250’s and cattle aren’t between me and Colorado, I’m barely conscious.  In my youth, I spent a decade in a swimming pool counting laps, conversing with myself in French, and calculating.  Riding fat tires allows me to get lost in my thoughts.  In the physical realm, I’m hoping the fat tires afford the same luxury of exploration.  That’s the future, and most of what I dreamed about today atop Fleecer Ridge.

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For the record: offset Pugsley wheels aren’t that weird, the Profile Design Kage is highly versatile, and riding fast and far is not the point.  Bicycles are overwhelmingly fun these days.

Sean has come up against some unexpected scheduling constraints and has bravely charted a new route towards Tacoma.  What awaits him, in place of the Divide, is his own adventure.  I am solo once again.

FreeSpoke; Surly Marge Lite to Shimano FH-M475, for Pugsley

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The rim and tires came in the mail from Surly and the hub was sourced from The Garage in Helena, MT; the spokes were cut at the Summit Bike Shop in Bozeman and a truing stand was arranged via Craigslist.  FreeSpoke provides the spoke length calculation and the graphic assurance that I have put all my pluses and minuses in the right place.

Rim: Surly Marge Lite

ERD: 543.5mm

Spoke bed offset: -6mm, +6mm

Hub: Shimano FH-M475

Center-to-flange: L 33.5mm, R 20.5mm

Flange circle diameter: 61mm, both sides

Spoke hole diameter: 2.5mm

Hub offset: 17.5mm

Spokes: 32

Lacing pattern: 3 cross

Left Right
Spoke length 261.3mm 262.3mm
Bracing angle 4.8°
Tension distribution 100% 69%
Spoke head clearance 2.61 mm 2.61 mm

FreeSpoke is my preferred spoke calculator.  The graphic description helps ensure you’ve input all the proper dimensions, especially when offset hubs and rims are involved such as with the Pugsley.  The above calculation is for a Surly Marge Lite rim built to a Shimano FH-M475 rear hub, for Surly Pugsley.  The dimensions of the Deore and XT high-flange models appear to be the same as the M475.

For this build I used 262mm spokes all around.  Some Rock-n-Roll Nipple Cream was applied to the threads, while the spoke holes and nipples were generously greased to prevent corrosion in use and to reduce friction during tensioning.  This is the first time I’ve used a commercial spoke prep. Linseed oil is messy, and does too little to minimize friction and wind-up during tensioning in my experience.  The Rock-N-Roll prep is less messy than linseed oil and was easier to work with during the build.  I’ve had success building wheels with standard bearing grease, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  With proper spoke tension, I’ve never had any spokes loosen in use.

In a day, I sourced all the necessary parts, laced the spokes, tensioned and dished the wheel, and installed a new pair of lightweight Surly Larry 120tpi tires.  In a day, the metamorphosis is complete– my wheels are lighter, yet more voluminous than they were yesterday.

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My rear Schwalbe Big Apple developed a slow leak in the last two days of use, and a shred of steel was found when the tire change took place.  Technically, I managed to ride from Anchorage, AK to Bozeman, MT without a flat, a distance of over 3200 miles.  To dish the new wheel properly, I installed it in the frame several times and used my fingers to estimate the distance from the chain stays.  About 2000 miles since Whitehorse, my second chain on this cassette is worn.  The time has come to return to 8 speed equipment, easier shifting and cheaper parts.  Check the manufacture date on the Marge Lite rim– it’s Cinqo de Mayo.

Image, calculated figures and format courtesy of FreeSpoke.

Having my cake with the Pugsley

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I’m a long way from Alaska, a long way from dry-cracked knuckles working at The Bicycle Shop, a long way from riding amidst the cavernous iceforms of the Knik Glacier or the rutted singletrack of icy Anchorage sidewalks.  And finally, it’s not so far to Missoula.  I’ve got my sights set on a new Marge Lite rim to lighten my rear wheel and some Surly Larry tires– they’ll be waiting in Missoula and I’ll be riding a full-fat setup for the rest of the summer.  It’s been over seven months since I first acquired the purple Surly Pugsley in Seattle and I never imagined it would have taken me here.  I needed a “snow bike” at the time.  I needed something that would take me places in January at 61 deg N latitude and 13 deg below zero.  Now I’m riding it though four seasons, through climate and time zones and across continents.  I’m starting to think it’s not just a snow bike.

Having purchased the bike used, much has been repaired or replaced.  I’ve also optimized the ride to my unique needs with the switch to drop bars and Ergon grips, with the Shimano dynamo hub and a mix of Supernova and B&M lighting, and with the 2.35″ (60mm) Schwalbe Big Apple tires.  As a result, the bike has been almost perfectly free of maintenance save for a new chain in Whitehorse, some chain cleaning and lubication and an occasional turn of the dial on the Avid BB7 brakes.  Since leaving Anchorage over six weeks and 3000 miles ago, I’ve only put air in my tires twice and once was to account for having relieved pressure on the Dawson Overland Trail.  Bigger tires just don’t require as much care, as I recall checking tire pressure almost every day to avoid pinch flats while riding 700c x 28mm tires.  It’s been several years since I’ve bothered with such things as 28mm tires.  I’ve managed not to pick up any flats so far, which is credit to larger tire volumes at lower pressures and Schwalbe construction.  Perhaps, I’m just lucky.  In addition to large volume Schwalbe tires, I recommend luck.

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Here’s where I’ve been with the Pugsley (most links lead to old posts about how I got here, and life with the Pugsley):

After buying the bike used last December in Seattle I spent three days riding around the city, then back to Tacoma via ferry and Vashon Island.  An overnight trip the following night out to Kopachuck State Park with Alex’s 1989 Trek 520 and Josh’s 1983 Univega Gran Turismo assured me that this beastly thing could roll.  With legs fresh from the Divide I had a small advantage, but the Endomorph tires rolled well and I waited atop hills for my friends.

I flew to Anchorage in early December, assembled the bike at the airport and rode to my new home over icy roads at night.  On the first significant snowfall since my arrival, I slipped around in 8-10 inches of new snow at 7AM, making fresh tracks.  I was learning a lot about the importance of tire pressure and ultimately, the limitations of fatbikes.  I was quickly wishing for wider and wider rims and tires in these conditions, and a snowy month had me convinced that wider rims were nearly necessary for winter riding.  An almost record cold January convinced me otherwise.  Clear skies and hardpacked conditions made for fast riding and floatation was never again a serious problem on 65mm rims.

While searching local groomed multi-use trails, I discovered winter singletrack.  It had been there all along, and others were riding it as seen by multiplicitous tire tracks. What great fun!.  Lael and I rode singletrack almost every night for a full week.  Late February and early March were a great time for us and we’d never ridden so much in a non-touring setting.  We were riding a mile to the multi-use trail, four more miles to the singletrack, and then a 10 mile loop before headed back home.  We would often race home just as the warmth was running out of our hands and toes.    The Campbell Tract is known as the coldest place in Anchorage, and we put in more than a few rides at ten below.

I caught up on repairs: a new FSA ISIS bottom bracket replaced a crunchy Truvativ; the rear XT hub got a new cone, bearings and grease; T9 (as a rust retardant inside the frame) and lube on all major moving parts, lots of deep cleaning and new cables and housing really perked things up.  I also opted for a wider bar with a little more sweep.  The Salsa Bend 2 bar gave a lot of control in challenging conditions, but was almost always comfortable.  The 17 deg bend was nice, but I’d have liked a little more.  A Surly Nate tire improved my traction in urban winter conditions, especially compared to a worn Endomorph.  The Nate dug deeper into snow, bit harder into crusty ice, and prevented much of the sideways slipping that the Endomorph was prone to.  On busy rutted icy streets, the Nate was essential.  Those of us that commute on fat tires are calling for a studded fat tire, while those that only ride the trails for fun don’t seem to understand the need for studded fat tires.  On some days, you needs studs and floatation.

Enough of the city life!  I decide that working at a bike shop isn’t quite as great as riding bikes.  While tossing around the idea of a fatbike trip across Europe, I eventually decide to ride south toward some unfinished business.  A year ago in Colorado, I had my eye on the Colorado Trail, Kokopelli Trail, southern UT routes, and the Arizona Trail.  Instead, I continued south on the Great Divide Route, pushing over Indiana Pass in late October.  This year, I return to Colorado to pursue the other route.  A bike more capable than my trusty Schwinn High Sierra would be necessary, or at least I would need to fit 2.1-2.3″ tires.  With the Surly Pugsley at hand, I didn’t have to reach far to make my decision.  As well, the High Sierra was in Tacoma with a friend that was in need of a bike so I didn’t really have anything that was ready for an extended tour.   Excitement and trepidation fueled several mad concoctions of 29″ wheels, lighter-weight Marge Lite rims, and half-fat setups.  My “problem” was that I wanted the bike to excel on pavement, on dirt roads, and on rugged mountain singletrack.  Finally, the simplest solution arose.  On 65mm rims with 2.3-2.5″ tires, the bike would handle paved and dirt roads well.  With fat tires, I would enjoy dirt roads and more rugged singletrack trails.  A second 29″ wheelset was not necessary, and the bike wouldn’t be a burden on long paved stretches.  The Pugsley is much more than a snow bike.

For the last six weeks I’ve had intimate experiences with the Pugsley, from Anchorage to Banff, in a variety of conditions.  Much of the my route has been on paved or sealed gravel roads, but almost 600 miles have been on dirt roads and trails.  I’ve ridden six days over a hundred miles each; I pedaled and carried the bike through beaver ponds and streams on the Dawson Overland Trail; and have ridden up and over mountain passes in places such as Denali National Park, on the Top of the World Highway, and along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper and Banff National Parks.  There are some compromises to having a bike that can ride through an Anchorage winter and on every conceivable road or trail surface (such as heavy wheels, but the Marge Lite is a huge improvement), but when the will is present, the bike can push well over a hundred paved miles too.  When asked how the bike is “for touring”, as if touring is a singular activity, I smile and say “quite good”.  The Pugsley is not just a snow bike but it’s also not your average touring bike.  It’s been great and is a touring bike of the broadest definition for everywhere, and eveything– I’m having and eating my cake simultaneously.

A brief history of the phrase “have one’s cake and eat it too” is enlightening.  The list of similar expressions in other languages is priceless; my favorite is nadar y guardar la ropa – swimming and keeping an eye on the removed clothes.  WIthout further context, I fail to understand the Persian expression “to have donkey and God as well”.

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