Go!– Fatbikes in New Mexico

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Published in the Albuquerque Journal this morning, in the business section on the Go! page.  Article by Mark Smith.  Images by Jim Thompson and Nicholas Carman.

Update: The ABQ Journal now has the full article online, with a web video feature.

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I got the local paper to say “fatbike touring“.  This is a small victory.

Charlie Ervin, owner of Two Wheel Drive had the pleasure of saying “fatbike” on TV yesterday.  Check out the full video on the morning program NM Style.

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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Kit List: The Surly Pugsley

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Frame: Surly Pugsley; 1st generation purple, 18″

Fork: Surly, symmetrical 100mm spacing for generator hub, with bottle mounts

Handlebar: Surly 1×1 Torsion; 4130 Cro-Mo made by Nitto, 15deg sweep, 666mm wide

Stem: RaceFace Deus XC

Headset: Chris King NoThreadset

Brake Levers: Avid FR-5

Brakes: Avid BB7 with metallic pads; 203mm rotor (front), 160m rotor (rear)

Shifters: Shimano Ultegra bar-end levers to Velo Orange thumb-shifter mount

Front derailleur: Shimano Deore XT, e-type mount

Crank: FSA Alpha Drive; 44x32x22, 175mm

Bottom bracket: FSA Platinum, 100x148mm ISIS

Chainring: Surly 32T stainless steel

Pedals: Suntour XC-II platform

Rear derailleur:  Shimano Deore, SGS

Cassette: 8 speed 11-32, various

Chain: 8sp, usually SRAM

Front wheel: Shimano 3D72 generator hub for centerlock disc, to Surly Marge Lite rim with DT spokes

Rear wheel:  Shimano M475 hub to Surly Marge Lite rim with DT spokes

Tires: Surly Larry 26×3.8″, 120 tpi ultralight model

Tubes: 26×2.5-3.0″, for downhill with presta valve

Rim strips: Surly, for 65mm rim

Cables and housing: generic stainless, with Avid Rollamajig to rear derailleur

Sealant: TrueGoo, Stan’s

Grips: Velo Orange cork/foam blend

Water bottle cages: Profile Design Kage (2), Salsa Anything Cage, and generic cage on King Cage top cap mount

Pump: Lezyne Pressure Drive

Cyclecoputer (removed): Cateye Enduro

Lights: Supernova E3, front; B&M Toplight Line Plus, rear

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Rack and fenders, modified: see here

Luggage: see here

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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.

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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The Taylor and the Top of the World

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Tok to Tetlin, the Taylor Highway and the Top of the World Highway to Chicken and Eagle and Boundary and Dawson City.  Nonsense are the names of things around here, but there are only two roads into Alaska and this is the one to take.

The Taylor Highway was built to access the rural mining communities at Chicken and Eagle, and to connect them to Tok and the rest of the world.  The Top of the World Highway, once called Ridge Road, connects these and other mines to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory across the border.  Both roads are spectacular.

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The road from the Tetlin Junction on the Alaska Highway to Chicken is roughly paved, and features some good climbing some long fast descents– it’s a great road ride.  Chicken to Dawson is about a hundred miles along ridgetops and as you approach the border surface water becomes scarce, save for some melting snow.  The road rolls relentlessly atop mountains and is mostly dirt, despite some failing efforts at sealing the surface.  Grunt climb, fast descent to the next climb, BMW motorcycles everywhere and fuel trucks at 90 miles an hour.  A motorcycle rally in Dawson flooded the roads with two-wheelers and friendly motorcycle-style waves: two fingers casually down to the left to an oncoming rider, or skyward with the left hand like a turn signal when passing (or being passed).  Lael loves giving the “motorcycle wave”.

Leaving the bustling Alaska Highway behind for the road to Chicken, the Taylor Highway begin by climbing from the Tenana River valley.  No services for 67 miles.  Perfect.

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Chicken is quite an attraction for summer motorists, although the real story in Chicken is gold.  Mining activity is found up and down every creek, and generators can be heard humming in the bushes to operate equipment.  A real life miner makes his own jewelry for sale as a way to maximize profits.  Even on a bad day of mining, he’ll end with about $500 in flakes.  Maybe gold mining in Chicken is in my future?

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At Chicken the surface turns to dirt.  Hopscotching drainages, up and down, the road finally turns up toward the US-Canada border to Dawson City.  Superlative, as they say– the views, the road, and the riding.

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Close your eyes and hold your breath when these things are comin’ down the mountain.  These fuel trucks travel even faster than the motorcyclists as they drive this road every day.

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I had come from Chicken and at the Jack Wade Junction, a left turn leads to the end of the Taylor Highway in Eagle.  I stay the course to the Top of the World:

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Just a small dot on the map, there’s not much more to Boundary than an airstrip and this cabin.  Extensive mining can be seen in the valley below.

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Sunburnt shoulders are evidence that summer has finally arrived.  In my favorite touring shirt, a cutoff cotton Velo Orange t-shirt depicting a 50.4 bcd crank, I grunt and groan up to the Canadian border into headwinds and marble sized raindrops.  Despite their size, thunderstorms developed all around but I managed to stay dry once again.  The Canadian customs agents ask the usual questions.  Dressed in my Sunday best, or my “dirtbag jersey” as I call it,  I give the usual answers:

Anchorage, Alaska.

New York, Washington, Florida, Maryland, Alaska.

To Montana.

Yes, really.

No, I don’t have family or a job in Montana.

Actually, I’m going to Arizona.

Yes.  Really.

It’s a snow bike.

Yes, really.  All winter.

Oh yes, the Germans have lots of stuff.  I swear it’s all here.

This is the tent.

Thirty-nine dollars American, but a couple thousand in the bank.  Well, more than a couple.

Bank statements?  No.  Sorry.

Last time…I entered at the Thousand Islands Bridge and exited Ontario at Sioux St. Marie.  Then again at Wild Horse and Rooseville.

Hmmm, I just like the Canadian countryside.

Ok, bring a bank statement or ATM receipt next time?  Thank you, sir.

Next time I’ll be sure to bring bank statements and Ortlieb panniers full of stuff to facilitate passage.  Maybe some sleeves will help too.

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Looking back.  They say the Alaska Range is visible on a clear day.  The road reaches a maximum elevation of 4127 ft, which is higher than Maclaren Pass on the Denali Highway.  In fact, this is the second highest road in Alaska.

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And on the night before the solstice, I camped on Top of the World.  This is all the darkness you get these days, which is a dream on a bike trip.

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I’m becoming quite attached to some of the new Revelate gear.  The Gas Tank is quite handy on the bike and the “Pocket”, which I use in conjunction with a waterproof compression sack, is easily detached.  For a quick trip away from the bike the shoulder strap helps keep all my essentials close at hand– Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez, a fully-charged can of bear spray and my camera.

The Surly Pugsley hybrid rolls well on dirt roads at about 20psi, although the Big Apples are a bit unsure on pea gravel.  However, the smooth tire rolls like a dream on pavement.  I’m hoping to procure a Marge Lite rim to build a lighter rear wheel.  Absurd wheel weights are killing me and fat-lite is the way to go.  There’s no reason to be riding a forty pound bike with thirty pounds of gear.  I’m not sure of the actual figures, but I can assure you the bike weighs more than my kit.  I’ve sent home three pounds of cold-weather clothing and rain gear from Dawson and I’m tuning the bike for a full summer of lightweight travel.   As much as I’m enjoying Alaska, I’m looking ahead to some of the more challenging riding ahead– I’ve still got the Colorado Trail on my mind and am planning to fit 45North Husker Du tires in Montana.  Is a 65mm singlewall rim such as the Marge Lite suitable for touring on rough surfaces?  Nobody seems to know, but given the quality construction and the doublewall sections in the corners, I think it’s up to the task.  I’ve become obsessed with tire volumes and the weights of things, specifically fatbike wheels.  A 690 gram Surly Marge Lite sounds a treat to my knees.  I like climbing, but I’d like it much more with the Marge Lite.

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The bike, the gear, the wheels, the packing, and the food–it’s all getting sorted out after a few weeks on the road.  The legs are coming along too, although not where they were last November.  My kitchen on the road and the Alaskan pantry: raisins, peanuts, oat meal, coffee, lentils, pasta, peanut butter, honey, salt, pepper, garlic and curry powder.  Add fruits and vegetables when available, and cheeseburgers and ice cream in town.  The plastic water bottle is filled with alcohol to fuel the “Penny Stove”.  Fabricated out of beer cans, stainless steel bicycle spokes and aluminum ducting, I’ve been using this design for almost three years.  I’ve built a handful for others, but have only required two for my travels.  The first one was made from the Heineken keg-shaped cans, which are no longer available.  The current stove was made in Steamboat Springs, CO last fall on the Divide.  Trailside, it was made with a small Swiss-army knife.  The blue enameled steel camping mug has been with me since the summer of 2009, and is a personal luxury.  I’ve also begun to fill the 64 oz. Klean Kanteen when surface water is less plentiful or spoiled by mining activities.  Cradled in the Salsa Anything Cage it is held securely even on the most rattling washboarded descents.  Just be sure to tighten those straps!

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A final push to Dawson on the third day is rewarded with a long descent to the Yukon River and cold beer in town.  The river is crossed by the free George Black ferry and Yukon Gold brew from Whitehorse flows like water in this real-life frontier town.  This is also the start of the Dempster Highway up to Inuvik.  Some other time.

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One bike for all seasons, Part 2

Schwalbe Big Apple 26×2.35″ on a Surly Marge Lite, a 65mm singlewall rim with cutouts at a featherweight 690g.

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You might have noticed I’m riding a snow bike with smooth tires and drop bars.  The purple Surly Pugsley that got me through a snowy Anchorage winter is now a road bike with really big tires, or a mountain bike with a drop bar and smooth rubber, or a really burly touring bike without, “what are those things called?”.

“Saddlebags?  Oh yes, panniers.”

Is it a mountain bike?  Yup.  A road bike?  Yes.  A touring bike?  Definitely.

These are the questions that will follow me around this summer.

I’m aware that’s it’s a lot to ask of one bike, but I’m asking.  The response so far has been positive.

Schwalbe Big Apple 26×2.35″ on Surly Large Marge.  This is a 36 hole, asymmetrical rim in the double wall DH version, weighing in at 1150g.

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I decided to ride the Pugsley as an experiment.  It is an experiment in multi-functional bike design, but also in the bicycle lifestyle where one “bike” can transport me through a snowy winter, a season of exploration around the continent, and then through the challenges of riding bikes in rural southwestern US and Mexico, on rough tracks and trails.  I’d like to ride this thing in the Sierra Madre and the Copper Canyon, or perhaps the playas and arroyos of Baja.  Perhaps a Baja fatbike and packrafting trip is in the cards.  I want only one bike, but I want to travel without limitation.

It’s hard to leave behind my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, which I’ve ridden over the last two years of bike touring.  It passes paved miles casually, and excels on most dirt roads.  More rough terrain challenges the bike and rider, but I was riding 1.75″ tires and slightly bigger rubber could have extended the range of the bike, at the expense of the the paved experience.  When I arrived in Alaska this past December, I came prepared with a secondhand Pugsley purchased in Seattle.  A 1985 Specialized Stumpjumper also awaited with a pair of studded tires for icy conditions.  Thus, I had two bikes: a snow bike and an ice bike.  Come summer, and the touring season, I looked for a one-bike solution.  The problem was, I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the capacity for 4″ tires behind, but riding fat bike tires on the road down to the lower 48 didn’t sound like fun either.  I could ride the Stumpjumper, as I had the High Sierra?  Rather, I thought it would be fun to ride the Pugsley on singletrack later in the summer, in places like Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.  In the Pugsley, I had found a rigid frame that would allow me to explore new places.  But what about the transport phases where miles of paved roads are necessary?  I enjoy riding pavement at times, and a long day in the saddle can easily land you 100 miles closer to a destination, or an interesting trailhead.  Sometimes you just have to get somewhere.

I considered several solutions to “generalize” the functionality of the Pugsley.  Alternatively, I was looking to “optimize” it towards multiple different riding conditions, including: paved road touring, dirt road touring, and eventually, single track or sandy rides on 4″ fat tires.  And if I returned to AK for the winter?  I considered, in theory or in practice, the following modifications and judged their merits especially based on price, convenience and performance:

1) Build 29″ wheels front and rear for an all-road tourer such as the Salsa Fargo.  While 29×2.1-2.3″ tires would take me far, I would build, ship, or buy fat tire wheels later in the summer when I desire the extra suspension and floatation.  I would also have to ship or source fat tires at that time. 

This requires the cost of a new set of wheels, which are not prohibitively expensive on the Pugsley as it uses 135mm hubs all around, unlike the more expensive 170mm hubs on other fat bikes.  Wheels would need to be built or shipped later in the trip, which is complicated and a little costly, especially if the expense comes when I am not working.

Below, as far as I got with 29″ wheels before the obvious complication (and cost) had me looking for other solutions.  The rear wheel used a SRAM 506 hub, which is a quality loose-ball bearing hub with a taller non-drive side flange, which is optimal for dealing with the 17.5mm offset of the Pugsley as it reduces the spoke angle and tension on that side.  I rode this half-fat setup for several weeks with a Schwalbe 29×2.35″ tire in the rear.

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2) Ride fat tires (4″) all summer and avoid pavement.  It’s not impossible to ride pavement on fat tires, but it’s not optimal for long stretches.

Twenty five psi in the Surly Larry or Endomorph tires, or the 45North Husker Du tire make for a better ride on pavement than you’d expect.  It’s a little heavy, but it rolls well.  Still, for the cost of the tires, it’s absurd to wear them out in almost exclusively paved conditions.  It was tempting to retain full fat bike capacity, but I wouldn’t have experienced days of good “road” riding, pushing twenty or thirty miles at a time to roll over a hundred miles in a day, and by the time I reached Montana, my tires would be toast.  Elsewhere, fat tires would be a great excuse to stick to dirt, but 2000 highway miles stand between me and the dirt tracks of the lower 48.

3) RIde fat bike wheels all summer (wide rims, such as 65mm Surly Large Marge or Marge Lite), with a smooth 2.25-2.5″ tire for mixed road riding, including many paved miles on the AlCan Highway.  Buy some fat tires later in the summer, and mount them to the existing wheels.   Sounds simple, but does it ride well?

This solution was a revelation, as most discussions of retrofitting a fat bike for alternative uses focus on 29″ wheels and the available rubber, such as smooth touring tires and 2.1″ knobbies.  For the Surly Pugsley, which has a higher bottom bracket than most fatbikes, the smaller tire does not lower the bike enough to create any issues in use.  Actually, the BB height of a Surly LHT (26 x 2.0″ Schwalbe Big Apple) and a Surly Pugsley with 26×2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires (on 65mm rims) is almost exactly the same.  The Big Apple rides well on pavement and is relatively long-wearing (with a reflective sidewall!); it features enough volume to be capable and comfortable on dirt roads, and opens up some more challenging riding as well.  With these tires, I could ride every place I’ve ever toured before.  The trick: when I decide to ride some Coloradan singletrack or the beaches of Baja, I only need a pair of 4″ fat tires to be riding fully fat again.

A pair of Maxxis 26 x 2.4″ Holy Rollers mounted to Surly Large Marge rims got the ball rolling on this project.  I prefer the Schwalbe Big Apple for mixed terrain which includes pavement.  Medium-wide singlewall rims with cutouts such as the Surly Marge Lite can lighten the bike and make “road” riding on a fatbike more tolerable.

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There is no harm in riding a bike with unused tire clearance– better to have it, than to wish for it.  A large volume tire serves multiple functions: with higher pressures, it rolls well on smooth terrain, but with lower pressure it suspends, and floats and provides traction.  An undersized tire may roll fast on smooth surfaces, but will quiver as the road turns rough.  It is often stated that a narrower tire is a “faster” tire.  This does not hold true when the road turns rough, where a large tire may be faster.

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I’d realized how versatile fatbikes could be earlier this winter.  At the time, my discoveries were focused on the Salsa Mukluk which is better suited to a 29er conversion than smaller 26″ tires for summer trail riding or touring.  It also readily accepts a suspension fork.  See “One bike for all seasons” for my previous thoughts on riding fatbikes all year.

My experience nearly plagiarizes Joe’s decision to ride his Pugsley in South America, despite a perfectly good Surly Long Haul Trucker in waiting.  Discussions of function aside, fatbikes are fun and we’d both hate to travel somewhere fun without them.