Riding between the lines

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The snow is gone, no longer lingering in piles in the shadows; the trails are mostly wet, closed as a general rule until June 1st; and the pavement is dry, if a little dull.  But if we go looking, there are more than enough places to ride.

This week, Lael and I discovered a 3/4 mile section of gasline singletrack along the Alaska RR, following Fish Creek down to the Coastal Trail from Northern Lights Blvd.  After passing through a break in the fence– and a Posted sign– we connect to the paved Coastal Trail.  From there, a web of natural dirt tracks wander through the lowland forest near the coast at Earthquake Park, the result of many decades of dog walkers, bike riders, and homeless camps.

Moving towards my own concept of a dream bike, I pass the Surly ECR to Josh Spice, a friend from Fairbanks.  Josh is an avid fatbiker who thinks that rigid 29+ is the best thing ever for all kinds of riding (isn’t that right, Josh?).  As a Salsa-sponsored rider, he also owns a new carbon Beargrease and a Ti Fargo.  In the past, he has also spent time on a steel Fargo and an aluminum Mukluk, which alternated seasonally between full-fat and 29+ wheels.  His girlfriend Jen owns a Krampus and a Beargrease.  The ECR is set to become the everyday grunt, in contrast to the svelte Salsas in his stable.

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It its final iteration the ECR is dressed with Supernova dynamo lighting, powered by a Shimano dynamo hub; full 29×3.0″ Knard tires and Rabbit Holes rims, which make the most of the 29+ concept; a Surly OD crank ensures chain-to-tire clearance, even with a full range of mountain touring gears; Velo Orange thumb shifters power an 8sp Shimano drivetrain; BB7 brakes, Velo Orange Sabot platform pedals, Ergon grips, and a comfortable handlebar round out the build.  Josh immediately set about to improve the bike by adding a short-travel Thudbuster seat post, a rear rack, a King Cage top-cap water bottle mount, and a carbon Origin8 Space Bar OR.

In it’s final iteration, this bike is stable, solid, and surely Surly.  Most of what I said back in December is still true.  I’m looking for something a little more playful.

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Josh and Jen are in town for the weekend to pick up the bike, and visit friends.  Their visit coincides with a picnic I organized at The Bicycle Shop.

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Josh and Dan Bailey talk about cameras and Fargos all night.  Josh loves his Fargos, and Dan is buying one this week.  Dan knows cameras better than the rest of us, and is working on publishing a book on adventure photography before setting off on some long-term bicycle travel.  Everyone has something to share, and everyone has something to learn.

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Local rider Kevin Murphy has excelled in several winter races this past season, despite a background in DH riding.  He and I have been talking tubeless, 29+, suspension forks, carbon rims, and fatbikes all winter long.  Come summer, I should have a bike as a result of our discussions.

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The group gathers for a ride.

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We shoot for the dirt track near the RR.  It is some of the only dry dirt in town.

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Eventually, it ends near the Coastal Trail.  A little fence-hopping keeps things moving.

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In search of more dirt.

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Kevin is riding his new All-City Macho Man Disc, a drop-bar disc road bike with big tires, set-up tubeless of course.

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The ECR seems to be a good fit.  I am amazed at the Thudbuster.  I’ve test ridden a few on Fargos, and they never impressed me, but on an upright bicycle it remains very active for a plush perch.

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We race out to the bluffs at Pt. Woronozof, just in time to catch the sunset over Susitna.

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The next morning, we ride over to Dan’s house to inspect the Fuji X-T1 camera.  Hot scones are waiting, but only a couple of blocks away, we run into this alternative Alaskan school bus.  Eric Parsons is riding his son Finn to school on his Pugsley!  Finn’s Yepp seat even has a Mountain Feed Bag attached.  They have just returned from a short overnighter at Eklutna Lake.  Recently, they spent several weeks riding and traveling in Guatemala.

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Check out the Revelate Designs blog for some of the most heartwarming bikepacking photos ever.  See Finn wave at horses, see Finn ride singletrack, see Finn fist pump proudly after a long day and a big descent back to town.  (Photo: Eric Parsons)

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Earlier in the week I also ran into Eric and got the chance to test ride his new Salsa Warbird Ti.  The combination of titanium, carbon, and 35mm tires makes for a supremely comfortable road bike.  This may be the perfect Alaska road bike.

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Thanks to all for a great weekend!  I am also glad to find such a good home for the ECR.  Anyone looking for a Mukluk?

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Back in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunrise.

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Group rides.

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Night rides.  Lots of night rides.

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Sidewalks.

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Wildlife.  Moose are a common sight around town.

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

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Sunset.

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Night rides, again.

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Busy boulevards– lots of those too.

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Icy, rutted roads.

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

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

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Snowy singletrack.  Miles and miles of singletrack.

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And much more to explore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farewell Arizona: Tucson to Phoenix, via AZT

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Our many-month ramble across counties and countries and continents always had an end.  A seasonal end to our travel is an inevitability from the start, much like the few months that we spend working each year will eventually end with the beginning of another round of travel.  By now, we’re both back in Alaska, working towards our next trip, next summer.  

After a few days in Tucson– before and after the marathon– we point towards Phoenix to prepare for our flight north to Alaska.  With a few days between here and there, we take the advice of Scott Morris and connect a premier section of the AZT near the GIla River en route to Phoenix.  The route prescribed should take only a few days–connecting us to our flight in time– but features some of the best that Arizona has to offer.  Being so close to Phoenix, this ride makes a perfect getaway during winter months, especially when ridden as a loop, as defined in Scott’s Gila River Ramble route.  However, do your best to avoid a week of rain as Cass, Gary, and Joe found earlier this year.

There has already been some discussion about passing the winter in Tucson next year.  The weather, the trail access, and the Mexican food can’t be beat.  Alternating winters between the Southwest and Alaska– between full-suspension big bikes and fatbikes– would be satisfying.  

The ride out of town retraces a familiar stretch of pavement– this is the way we rode into town, and this way I traveled out and back to watch Lael run her marathon.  I’m becoming quite familiar with Oracle Road.

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About 35 miles from the center of Tucson, we connect with the Willow Springs Rd near the town of Oracle.

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A brief section of singletrack breaks up what we expect to be a full day of dirt road riding towards Kelvin.  This piece of trail is part of the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course.

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A cool, cloudy day in southern Arizona surprises us, as we bundle up in down jackets for much of the day.  Rural signage keeps our interest.

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While we disobey a few warnings to shortcut a large private tract.

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Eventually, we find the sign we are looking for.  The trail begins as a scenic ‘green-circle’ section of trail.  Tailwinds help to move us along.

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The entire region is characterized by decomposed granite, resulting in the granular ‘kitty litter’ soil common in the southwest.  The smaller knobs on the 29×3.0″ Knards don’t bite as well as the taller knobs on Lael’s On-One tires.  With a more aggressive tire like the upcoming Surly Dirt Wizard, 29+ could be the perfect rigid touring platform.  The experience reminds me of riding the Surly Endomorph tire on my Pugsley for the first half of the winter season in 2011-2012.  I was grateful that it got me around town, but once I tasted the traction of the Nate tire, I couldn’t go back.  

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The trail alternates between singletrack and derelict doubletrack, as the sun begins to fall.  A few jeep tracks are seen in the distance, but otherwise, there’s nothing out here.  A few ranch houses likely inhabit distant drainages.  Cattle munch of woody desert vegetation.

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Looking back towards Oracle, and Tucson beyond.

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Looking forward towards the town of Kelvin, and the Gila River.  This is wide open Arizona.

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he setting sun filters through cholla cactus.  One of the last Arizonan sunsets of the season.

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Certainly one of the last featuring the spires of saguaros, which are soon to be replaced by the spires of scraggly black spruce, capped in snow.

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Reaching towards the Gila River near Kelvin on the Ripsey Segment of the AZT, the trail descends several thousand feet, before rising again to elevation, then finally descending to the river..

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Descend in the evening.

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Ascend in the morning.  Life on the AZT is easy, even if it challenges our legs.  

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The quality of trail being built for the AZT is some of the best anywhere, and is designed for bicycles as much as hikers and horse.  The trail surface is most often broad and durable, carving switchbacks up relatively shallow grades.  Not that it is always easy…

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At the top, the trail follows a ridge, before diving down towards the Gila River.

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There are very few water sources out here.  Near the trailhead in Kelvin, a water cache is offered to passing thru-hikers.  Local residents– one variety of a diverse breed of trail angels– refill 1 gallon jugs to keep up with the trickle of demand for water out here.  We found a spigot at the ADOT yard in Kelvin to fill our bottles and bladders.  The Gila RIver flows all year and is another reliable source in the area.  Otherwise, local intel is essential, as is a large water bladder.  The GPS marks a few springs or tanks in the area, but these aren’t always reliable sources.  More frequently, as I’ve learned, they are only possible water sources.  The search for water is another reason that GPS is an invaluable resource in Arizona.  

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With the capacity to carry 14 liters of water– at maximum capacity between the two of us– we can make it through a day and a half this time of year.  Much more water would be necessary spring through fall.  It is December 11th already, and clear skies relieve us of wearing our down jackets on this day.

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Leaving Kelvin, the AZT rambles up and down along the banks of the Gila River for nearly ten miles.  This section of trail is the keystone to Scott Morris’ Gila River Ramble route.

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Singletrack trails hanging above cliffs.

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Long sightlines in the desert allow the eye to follow trail up, and down.

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Of course, I went for a swim.

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The trail meanders in the lowlands along the river, green from recent rains.  Lael particularly liked this section as it varied greatly from the Sonoran deserts capes we’ve enjoyed for the past few weeks.  

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Decomposing granite.

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As the sun begins to fall again, we climb away from the river for the last time.  The map shows several thousand feet of climbing ahead.  We hope to bite a chunk out of the climb before dark.

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Our final night is warm and clear.  We make a fire of dry ocotillo twigs to warm quesadillas.  Our food supplies are low, but our bodies are now efficient machines after a full summer of riding.  We are happy with smaller meals than we required at the beginning of the summer.  The first few weeks of touring are usually marked by ravenous appetites.  After weeks and months on the road, our bodies decide on moderate meals, yet they are capable of more and more.  Lael is thinking about racing fatbikes this winter.

Awake to Arizona for one last time.

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Awake to the AZT for the last time, until next year.

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The sun breaks the cool morning, as jackets come off.

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We continue ascending.  The river sits at 1600ft; we climb up towards 4000ft.  See if you can follow the trail, etched out of the mountainsides.  The first major push:

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Over the top, another world presents itself.  The trail continues to cut the mountainside, all around this basin, stabilizing around 3600ft before climbing over the top.

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Finally, the trail turns down.  Running tight on time, we hope to connect with a dirt road– the Telegraph Canyon Road– into the town of Superior.  There, we will pick up some food and hit the pavement into Phoenix.

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Down, down, down– this is a great piece of trail.  Although, descending the trail back down to the Gila would be even better.  The ascent from the river stands as one of the most incredible climbs of the summer.  Fare well Arizona, we’ll be back.

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Back on doubletrack, we are quickly on our way to town.  

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Quickly, kind of, as the road traverses the stream bed more than a few times, and climbs and descends several stair-step sections.

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Finally, within view of Superior, a classic Arizonan mining town.  

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Superior is home to mountains and mining, and meth.  In some towns, it is hard to ignore.  

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These 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires are wearing thin, but a new pair await in Anchorage to replace them.  With a set of Rabbit Hole rims and fresh tires, I am hoping that the ECR will shuttle me around the city of Anchorage for part the winter until I save enough money to buy a fatbike.  While I think that 29+ would be enough to get around on the roads most days, to access the snowy multi-use paths and singletrack trails, a proper fatbike will be necessary.  A real fatbike will also make commuting safer and easier on many days, even on roads.  Anchorage is a messy city in winter. 

These tires have been set-up tubeless to Stan’s Flow EX rims for three weeks without issue, although the rim profile is not nearly wide enough for my taste.

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As you may expect, Knards also roll nicely on pavement.  But at $90 per tire, even for the less-expensive 27tpi version, designing a long-distance tour around this tire isn’t ideal.  Replace it with a normal 29″ tire if needed?  Sure, it is possible, but the BB will be much lower, as on a traditional road touring bike.  In this configuration, the ECR is not quite a mountain bike anymore.  More tire options between 29×2.5-3.0″  would be nice.

The ride into Phoenix is much more pleasant than our last experience riding out of town, back in 2009.  The city is nearly 60 miles across, but with some patience, a route composed almost entirely of canal paths and bike lanes is possible.

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Bike boxes, fresh from the dumpster, are hauled to our temporary home over the shoulder.  A few extra gear straps make a functional over-the-shoulder sling.  

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Thanks to Steve for the limo ride to the airport.  

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Off to Alaska for the winter!

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That’s it!– thanks for coming along this summer.  

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Dissecting the Surly ECR

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Above: An off-color Surly ECR on the AZT near the town of Pine.  The ECR continues in the tradition of Surly’s adventure touring bikes, including the Troll and Ogre, each of which fulfill some of the promise of early mountain bikes, once clad with useful features since forgotten on many modern machines.  This frame is a different shade than those being released this week, also shown with 29×3.0″ Knard tires mounted to ‘skinny’ rims, a temporary situation.

Introducing the Surly ECR

The Surly ECR is an off-the-beaten-path touring bike designed for 29×3.0″ tires, dubbed 29+, a platform first released on the Surly Krampus last year.  The frame features attachment points for racks, fenders, water bottles, and lights.  The geometry is characterized by a low bottom bracket and long chainstays, for a supremely stable ride, with or without a load.  A short top tube affords a comfortable upright position for long days in the saddle, a touristic vantage, and a good climbing position.  Versatile rear dropouts allow a conventional derailleur system, an internal gear hub (including a unique mounting point for the torque arm of a Rohloff Speedhub), and singlespeed or fixed gear systems.  The frame accepts normal hubs, bottom bracket, and headset.  Three-inch tires– the main feature of the bike– provide an assured, lightly suspended ride, offering traction and flotation on a variety of surfaces.

However, with some sweat and imagination, the ECR could be: a personal escape vehicle for overnight rides into the mountains; a comfortable long-distance Great Divide tourer; a cast iron and case of beer hauler for you and your friends; a sorta-fatbike for those few winter days where you live, when things pile up more than an inch; a sorta-fatbike, for the BLM ‘road’ that spends more time in the arroyo, than out of it;  the bike that puts your other bikes out of work; the reason you don’t need suspension on tour; or, the reason you absolutely need to go somewhere you’ve always dreamed.  On paper, it’s a practical rig with a promising host of features.  In person, it simply asks to go somewhere.  The ECR is an exploration camping rig, nonpareil.

The ECR is designed to go almost anywhere.  However, there are a few technical caveats for the would-be ECR owner to consider, including:

-3.0″ wide tires, which require some special equipment to engage a full range of mountain touring gears

-a low bottom bracket, which promotes stability at all speeds in all conditions, but limits the capacity to fit ‘normal’ sized 29″/700c tires, without challenging pedal-to-ground clearance

-traditional headtube dimensions, which abide by the longstanding 1 1/8th inch standard.  But, future suspension forks with 3.0″ tire clearance will likely feature tapered steerer tubes, and will not fit.

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Frame highlights:

The ECR frame features larger-than-normal 3.0″ tires.  Normal mountain bike and touring components can be used throughout the bike– unlike most fatbikes– with a few exceptions.  The crown jewel of the frame construction is a one-piece chainstay yoke that provides clearance for a 3.0″ tire and a full mountain bike crankset.  That is, the parts technically fit onto the frame.  But in use, modern double or triple cranks will force the chain to rub against the tire in the easiest gear combinations (no clearance issues exist when using standard sized 29″ tires in the frame).  Several solutions exist to avoid conflict, such as using a 1x drivetrain, an offset double, or an internal gear hub.

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Cro-moly steel tubing is used throughout the frame and fork, with more attachment points than is common on even the most full-featured tourers.  The frame is ED coated to resist corrosion.

Eyelets at the top of the fork blades allow the use of a top-mount rack up front.  Mid-fork eyelets support a low-rider rack, while triple water bottle mounts behind the fork blades are meant for normal bottle cages, or the Salsa Anything Cage and its descendants.  The main triangle features three water bottle mounts, including one on the underside of the downtube.  Of course, a framebag is the best use of space inside the frame.  Look for Revelate bags in stock sizes for the ECR soon.

Don’t be fooled, the frame is not built with Reynolds tubing.  This sticker advertises the Bikeworks shop in Albuquerque, NM, in the (505) area code–  a brilliant shop sticker design.  The clutter of extra wires connects a Shimano dynamo hub to a Supernova headlight and taillight, and a B&M USB-Werk, which supplies USB power to a Garmin e-Trex 20, and other devices.

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Rear dropouts– a precise clusterfuck– to serve all drivetrain needs.  This configuration allows the rear axle to be adjusted horizontally for a custom effective chainstay length, or for tensioning the chain when using an internal gear hub, or singlespeed drivetrain.  The long slotted attachments in use below, are to adjust the disc brake caliper, in concert with the hub.  The lower slotted attachment is for the torque arm of a Rohloff hub.  The largest threaded hole, with the array of pinholes surrounding, is designed specifically for the Surly Bill and Ted trailers.  I’ve installed Surly Monkey Nuts into the dropouts, to fix the axle location 14mm rearwards.  These lightweight machined dropout spacers are helpful when using Surly’s rearward facing dropouts with disc brakes, when you choose not to install the wheel in the extreme forward position.  For help tensioning an IGH hub or singlespeed system, look for the Surly Tuggnut.

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Gearing for 29+:

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Accommodating a wide range of gears and a 3.0″ tire is not always as simple as swapping parts from an existing mountain bike.  Several solutions include:

1.  A 1x system, which utilizes the middle position of a standard mountain bike triple, allowing a ring down to 32t (30t is technically available, but uncommon).  If a 32t chainring and a 12-36t cassette suffices, this is the simplest solution.  Using a smaller single ring, such as a 22t ring in the inside position, may result in a chainline that runs very close to the tire, or may even contact the tire.

2.  An offset double crank is available from Surly in two models.  A new two-piece Surly Offset Double (OD) crank affords the use of the 64mm inner BCD and the 104mm outer BCD, the two common bolt patterns found on most mountain bike cranks.  The crank comes stock with 22-36t rings, a useful combination.  The Surly Mr. Whirly crank has been available for several years, and is designed to be fully customizable from single to triple ring set-ups, with custom spindles for both 68/73mm and 100mm, for fatbikes.  An offset double spider is available for this application, the same that has been used on the Moonlander and Black Ops Pugsley for several years. Note: some riders report success using dedicated mountain double cranks, such as a Shimano XT model, without interference, although tires may not have been mounted to 50mm Rabbit Hole rims.

3.  An internal gear hub (IGH) uses a single chainline, which does not interfere with the tire.  The Rohloff Speedhub is the most durable and reliable IGH available for extended, off-pavement applications.

4.  Singlespeed and fixed gear drivetrains will work just fine, although beware that using the inside position of a double or triple crank may cause similar interference, as described above.

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In a pinch, I constructed a custom offset-double crank out of a pile of used parts, sourced from Two Wheel Drive in Albuquerque, NM.  The Frankencrank features mismatched crank arms, a 68mm square taper cartridge BB in a 73mm BB shell with a stack of spacers on the drive-side to create additional chain-to-tire clearance.  A bottom bracket mounted e-type front derailleur is used for front shifting, as a normal front derailleur would not reach when mounted to the seat tube.  The system is working for now, but is not officially recommended.  A long spindle 73mm square taper BB could be a viable solution for the adventurous home mechanic.  Best of all, buy an offset crank from Surly, or choose to use a 1x system or an IGH.

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Tires and suspension:

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Adjusting tire pressures to changing terrain is essential to getting the most out of the 29+ platform.  Lower tire pressures conform to the trail, providing comfort, traction, and flotation.  Tubeless wheel systems allow lower pressures, without the risk of pinching a tube; wider rims support tires at lower pressures.  The ECR is offered with 50mm wide Rabbit Hole rims. While Surly rims and tires can be set-up tubeless, some old-fashioned tricks may be required, including building up the rim bed to help ‘seat’ the tire, or using the “split-tube” method (also called ghetto tubeless).  For this reason, rims designed to be used tubeless may be preferred, such as the Velocity Blunt 35 (35mm wide, formerly the P35) or the new Velocity Dually (45mm).  Surly recommends a rim no smaller than 35mm for 3.0″ tires; as I’ve shoehorned my tires onto 29.1mm Stan’s Flow EX rims, I can attest that a wider rim would better support the tire, allowing lower operating pressures without risk of rolling the tire, especially when trail riding with a load.  As a final tubeless note, the 27tpi tires available from Surly should be more resistant to sidewall cuts, a hazard known to tubeless users in rocky country.  Thankfully, the 27tpi tires are also cheaper than their lightweight 120tpi counterparts.

While 3.0″ tires offer some suspension from the trail, the undampened effects of a big tire on rocky trails will have some riders looking for a suitable suspension fork, to avoid bouncing from obstacle to obstacle.  Modern suspension offers adjustments that cannot be matched by a simple balloon tire.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any suspension forks currently manufactured to clear a 3.0″ tire, officially.  Internet research may lead you to some models which barely clear the tire (some Fox forks, esp. thru-axle models, for instance), while others have modified their forks by shaving material from the underside of the arch.  As for a fork that officially clears a bigger tire?  There are rumors of a release, but most likely, it will feature modern dimensions including a 15mm thru-axle and a tapered steerer tube.  The straight 1 1/8th head tube on the ECR will not accept a tapered steerer.  The Krampus, however, will take a tapered tube.  The 80mm suspension-corrected steel fork on your ECR may never have a worthy hydraulic successor, at least not without some unofficial fork mods.

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ECR Geometry:

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The ECR is not “just a Krampus with holes”.  The geometry of the ECR is much like the Surly Ogre (or even the Salsa Fargo), adjusted for larger tires.  As a result of larger tires, the ECR features longer chain stays, and a greater nominal BB drop, which is the measurement from the BB to the imaginary line between the bike’s front and rear axle.  The Ogre claims a 68mm BB drop (Fargo, 70mm), while the ECR claims 80mm.  Comparing these numbers in relation to the intended tire sizes for these bikes, this puts the BB in almost the exact same place above the ground on both models– this relative measurement from the ground is called the BB height.  Thus, while you can put smaller 29″ tires on the ECR, the BB height (the measurement from the ground), will be about 10-15mm lower than with the 3.0″ tires, exactly 12mm lower than with the exact same tires on the Ogre.

Running ‘normal’ 29″ tires on the ECR: Even with relatively large-volume tires such as the 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent, the ECR will suffer from such a low bottom bracket to exclude any real trail riding, without risk of frequent pedal strike.  On paved and smooth dirt roads, a lower bottom bracket may not be a major hindrance.  But if trail riding is in your future, and choosing from the vast range of 29″ tires is appealing to you, consider the Krampus, which claims a 60mm bottom bracket drop.  Even with 29×2.3″ tires, the Krampus still offers generous clearance on rough roads and trails.  Of course, pedal clearance is also dependent on the type of pedals used.

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With so many adventure touring bikes available, it can be hard to decide which to choose.  For additional perspectives, consider the following resources regarding the aforementioned Surly frames:

Pedaling Nowhere- Logan has recently built an ECR for an extended tour in Africa.  Read his first impressions from the build process, and follow along for updates from the road.

While Out Riding-  Cass has ridden the entire line of adventure touring bikes from Surly, including the exact ECR frame that I am now pedaling.  Troll or Ogre?, Ogre or Krampus?, ECR?– he’s surely got a few days and miles on these bikes.  It only makes sense that a Pugsley is next!

VikApproved-  Vik has been riding a Krampus for nearly a year, mostly around BritishColumbia, and has past experience with fatbikes and IGHs.

Big Dummy Daddy-  Andy has written one of the most thoughtful reckonings of the ECR, and 29+, anywhere on the web.  His experience with fatbikes, and nearly 30 years of mountain bikes, plays well with some foresightful theoretical perspectives about the future of the 29+ genre.

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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.

From one handsome mess

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One well-used piecemeal Raleigh XXIX+G steel 29er; one dusty proto 29+ frame with well-used tires; one day of madness making things work that ain’t supposed to work– one handsome mess.

We’ll talk some more tomorrow.  Thanks to Cass for the frame– it fits me just fine.  Thanks to Charlie for letting me make a mess at Two Wheel Drive in ABQ.  Thanks to Rusty for a week of consultation, of the most obscure kind– it isn’t easy to fit big tires and a wide range of gears onto a bike, for less than $30.  We successfully turned a load of used parts into a 29+ touring shredder.  Thanks all!

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