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.
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”.