Melt!

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For more than two weeks, unseasonably warm weather has unearthed the city from under several feet of snow.  My decision to come north for the winter was largely based upon the assumption that reliable snowfall and cold temperatures would ensure good winter riding.  Growing up “back east”, I know as much about winter storms as I do about the January thaw.

For several weeks, the opposite of my assumptions has been true.  While urban riding here in Anchorage has become hazardous without studs, the trails have been fun through nearly every phase of springtime conditions.  Between out-of-town visitors and in-town obligations, we’ve not ridden the singletrack trails in town as much as usual.  But, a loop around the Campbell Tract reminds me that even in changing conditions, the riding here is great fun.  While the trails are in great shape, as Lael can attest– thanks to several hundred Grip Studs in her tires– more than just rubber is needed to get to and from the trails.

I’ve been riding the Shogun Prairie Breaker around town with 26×2.3″ studded tires.  However, I long to get back on the Surly ECR.  Since I’ve finally built a proper front wheel for that bike, I’d like to mount a set of studded tires to the 50mm wide Rabbit Hole rims.  The width of the Rabbit Holes is not unlike Snowcat rims, at 44mm, which for many years, were the best equipment available for riding on snow and ice (note: Rabbit Holes are now available for 26″wheels as well).  I’m hoping to mount either a 29×2.35″ 45NRTH Nicotine tire or a 29×2.25″ Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro.  The former is wider (2.35″ vs. 2.25″) while the latter is more aggressively studded (402 vs. 222).

This is what the city usually looks like in April, or May.  Daily thaws lead to swollen streams and plentiful puddles.  Nightly freezes leave the city like a skating rink.

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Harpacked, frozen snow is rideable on a normal mountain bike for the first half of the day.  By mid-afternoon, fatbikes are king, once again.  It is easy to see how studded fatbike tires are valuable.

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Without studs in my tires, I balance precariously atop my Mukluk.  Lael rides casually across this icy trailhead parking lot, although a few more studs would be helpful.  She’s got 164 studs between the two wheels, and about 36 studs in her running shoes.  I think about 120 Grip studs in each Surly Nate tire would be ideal.  Compared to popular studded tires– which claim 240 studs or more– this doesn’t sound like much, but Grip Studs bite better than normal studs as they reach further away from the tire, and deeper into snow and ice.  The hardened carbide tip promises to last for several seasons.

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T-shirts in Anchorage, in January?  Elsewhere, it is snowing in Georgia, and well below freezing in northern Minnesota.  I enjoyed following the Arrowhead 135 race yesterday, including the usual performances from Jay and Tracey Petervary (1st and 1st).  Congrats to fourth place finisher Dave Gray, one of the surly co-captains of a popular bike company that happens to sell a few fatbikes each year.

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The benefit of the freeze-thaw cycle in the woods is that the sides of the trial are partly rideable.  Winter singletrack is usually like riding on a balance beam, for fear of being swallowed by powdery snowbanks.  Now, it is more like bumper bowling.

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Eventually, if the pattern doesn’t reverse itself, we’ll be riding on dead grass and dirt.  More likely, winter will return.  This is not spring, yet.  That is not possible.

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Until then, we’ll enjoy the changing conditions, and celebrate the capacity of fat tires, no matter how much the forecast looks like it was borrowed from the lower 48.  Alabama, can we have our weather back?

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Shogun Prairie Breaker 2

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The Craigslist ad reads, “Draire Breaken 2: $100”.  Even through twisted English and a low-res cell phone photo, I know what I’m looking at.  Just to clarify, I inquire: “I am very interested in your mountain bike.  Do you know what the model name is?”  


Hi Nicholas,

The Model Name is Draire Breaken 2. It has Shamano Deore XT Derailer, Shifters & Tarney XT Crank. Cr-mo Steel Tange M+B Forks. I have had many people interested so, first come first served. I’m sorry.  Thanks.

 

Armed with $100, we arrange to meet at the seller’s house near the Tacoma Mall.  When I arrive, he is attempting to remove a square taper crank from a Trek hybrid bicycle with a blowtorch and a hammer.  I inform him that a simple $10 tool will easily remove the crankarm.  Bang.  Bang.  Bang.  “This damned thing is on her good”, he explains.  I nod in agreement, and refuse whichever service he has just offered to the bicycle I am hoping to buy.  “No, that’s ok.  I’ll manage”.  

The bike is, in fact,  a Shogun Prairie Breaker, c. 1984-86.  It is equipped with Shimano derailleurs and shifters, Takagi Tourney XT crank, and Tange MTB tubing.  He drives a hard sale, and takes my entire stack of twenties.  No deals today.  As he says, many others have been interested in this vintage Draire Breaken 2.  They must all be aware of the essential improvements over the original Draire Breaken.  Still, $100 is a good price for a bike that rides.   

I am giddy to have found such a neat old bicycle, and such a large frame, with mostly original components.  I am building a bike for Lael’s brother, who is well above 6 feet tall, so an inexpensive frame that fits his stature and a large tire is mandatory.  I also love old mountain bikes, and at the time, I hunted these things on regional Craigslist forums like a bloodhound.  These days, I have refocused my energy.  

I roll the bike over to 2nd Cycle, Tacoma’s local bike co-op.  After a few hours of Tri-Flow and tinkering, the bikes rides superbly, with only a few modifications.  A newer Deore LX rear derailleur replaces an old steel Suntour model, which was not original to the bike.  Sweeping Wald handlebars fit the ‘slingshot’ style stem, and make a comfortable vantage for city riding.  I find a suitable saddle out of the parts bin at the co-op.  Finally, a modern chain improves shifting and the overall efficiency of the drivetrain.  The bike retains all of the bearings, cables, and brake pads with which I received it.  Bikes like this are best given attention only when needed.  Preempting necessary maintenance usually results in more work than expected, with the possibility of only incremental improvements.  A complete overhaul or restoration would be another story; in this case, Tri-Flow and elbow grease are the best medicine.

The next day, I join a couple friends on the first leg of their bike tour, which allows me to transport the bike to Lael’s brother in Portland.  Over the next two days, I verify what a wonderful bicycle I have made, and as my legs warm, I discover that the bike presents a strong pedaling platform for me.  Stretching my legs, I push the pace for 10, 15, 20 miles.  Coming into town on Hwy 30, I catch a racing team, out for a weekend ride.  I leapfrog the team car several times, emblazoned with the SRAM logo.  This bike, by the age-old measure of quality, is fast!

Arriving in Portland, I deposit the bike with its new owner and board the train back to Tacoma.  Four years later, the bike is now in Alaska, and is wearing the only studded tires in the house.  As the city turns to ice, I put my other bikes aside to revisit this old friend.

Below: These old Deore XT cantilevers are some of my favorite.  I poached a pair off an ’84 Schwinn High Sierra to replace the Dia-Compe brakes on my ’85 High Sierra.  When set-up properly, with quality brake pads, braking power and modulation is exceptional.  Kenda Klondike studded tires are far from the best, but they are far better than tires without studs right now.

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Six in the back, three in the front.  The tall steel teeth on older freewheels last forever.

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The Takagi Tourney XT crank is more beautiful than most similar cranks of the era from Sugino and Shimano.  180mm crank arms are suitable for a 6’4″ rider.

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For mild freezing weather, these vintage pogies work well. Made of basic nylon (in the USA), they exhibit how simply one could make something similar.  I found these at the Bikeworks co-op in Silver City, NM while riding the Divide a few years ago.

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Studded Nate (Grip Studs)

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A single ride across Anchorage in winter encompasses a greater variety of surface conditions than an entire summer or riding between Holland and Ukraine.  Riding conditions change over time with the weather and with the impact of other road and trail users.  Conditions also change across town, from road, to sidewalk, to trail.  Sidewalks are a necessary part of winter commuting routes in Anchorage.  

Five days after a fresh snowfall with stable freezing temperatures, trails are firm, sidewalks are cleared but feature a light crust of snow, and roads are icy.  Two days after snow, trails are criss-crossed with tracks and mostly soft-packed, sidewalks are covered in layers of road slop with the texture of brown sugar, and roads are smeared with layers of snow over sheer ice.  The day of a fresh snowfall, everything is blanketed in snow.  This pattern repeats itself throughout the winter.  Often, a layer of fresh snow makes much of the urban riding more predictable.  In a way, it is easier.  

In a final twist, the month of January often brings Chinook patterns– warm, wet wind from the sea, further influenced by adiabatic heating as air descends over mountains.  Light rain and 33°F today, leads to an even glaze of ice tomorrow.  Yes, it is raining in Anchorage, with above-freezing temperatures are expected all week.

From past experiences as a daily commuter in Anchorage, I’ve learned that the right tool for reliable transport in such diverse conditions with regular snowfall is a big, aggressive tire.  The first time I replaced a worn Surly Endomorph tire with a Nate, my eyes were wide.  Still, I rode an entire season without studs on that bike.  I promised myself that next time I ride though an Anchorage winter, I’ll have fat tires and studs.  

45NRTH does manufacture a studded fat tire, called the Dillinger, but the tire is currently out of stock from distributors (there may be some online, or in shops elsewhere).  While made to a very high quality, the Dillinger is expensive (about $225), and features a less aggressive tread pattern than the Nate.  The two most difficult conditions on the streets of Anchorage are deep, greasy reconstituted road snow (the brown stuff below, often called brown sugar, which is always plowed onto sidewalks), and ice-glazed streets.  Adding studs to an existing Surly Nate tire offers the best solution.  

Grip-Studs are a tungsten carbide stud with an auger-like base, designed in many sizes as an aftermarket solution for footwear, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars and trucks.  I picked up one package of Grip-Studs (#GST-1000) at The Bicycle Shop, along with a manual installation tool (#4000M), and set out to experiment with the installation procedure and stud patterns on the Nate.  The result, just in time for glazed roadways, is a studded Nate.

Below: Four inches of fresh white snow makes for predictable riding, as fat tires dig into the hardpack beneath.  The reconstituted high-density brown snow is plowed from the roadways; fat tires ride high on this concoction, smearing across the top.  The streets are glazed with ice from the passing of thousands of cars daily.  This road is divided by a median, and cars travel at 35-45mph.  Like most roads in Anchorage, it loses a lane or two in the winter.  Riding here in the winter is interesting, to say the least.  A cyclist was recently killed only a few blocks away, and the local TV station solicited me for some comments about commuting in Anchorage.  

For more insight into winter commuting in Anchorage, check out Lael’s story Sidewalk Singletrack, describing her experience riding through record snowfall in the winter of 2011-2012.

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Nate is a heavy-hitter even without studs.  I’m glad to see this tire on stock fatbikes from Surly and Salsa.  When conditions are tough, either in the city or in the backcountry, it helps.  Still having trouble?  Bud and Lou might be your new friends.

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A package of 100 Grip Studs is much lighter than expected.  In a reversal of my usual grams to dollars ratio, these are more than a dollar per gram.  Still, even at 100 studs per wheel, this is a cheaper solution than buying a new set of 45NRTH Dillingers, even if they were available.  The Dillingers might be a better choice if you lose sleep over rolling resistance, or plan to jump into a few fatbike races and don’t plan to swap tires.  Dillingers and light and fast.  Nates are chunky, for sure

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The 6mm tall knobs on the Nate are enough to fully engage the threaded base of the Grip Stud, without penetrating the casing and puncturing the tube.  The siping on the knobs doesn’t seem to affect installation.

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Even pressure, and about two to three full turns is enough to install the stud.  A little drop of water on the knob helps lubricate the threads, reducing friction and twisting.

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Thus far, the front tire has about 76 studs.  I intend another round of studs up front, and a full complement in the rear.   

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Update: Temperatures have risen above freezing for several consecutive days, and dropped below freezing at night, resulting in a city-wide ice rink.  Studded tires are necessary, while fat tires still have a place on deteriorating snow-covered trails and sidewalks.  Lael reports that Grip Studs– finally– have made her fatbike a reliable everyday winter commuter.

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Tubeless Knard/Rabbit Hole Explorations

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One of two wheels is built for my Surly ECR, composed of a SRAM X7 hub and a Surly Rabbit Hole rim.  The 50mm wide Rabbit Hole rim is one of several options in the 29+ genre, alongside several conventional doublewall rims in excess of 30mm.  Choices include two Velocity rims, the Blunt 35 (35mm) and the Dually (45mm), both of which claim to be ‘tubeless ready’, but some have called Velocity’s tubeless claims into question.  The 47mm Northpaw rim is a true singlewall rim (with cutouts), and is available from Schlick Cycles.  A 52mm Stan’s rim is rumoured to be coming this season, bringing Stan’s surefire tubeless features to bike with big tires.  Currently, the Rabbit Hole is the widest 29+ rim available, engineered like other Surly fatbike rims as a combined singlewall and doublewall extrusion with cutouts in the center singlewall section.  For winter riding, wider is better.  

Considering that my ECR is doing work alongside real fatbikes here in Anchorage, it is important to give myself the widest footprint possible, to ensure the best flotation and traction in tough and changing conditions.  For this winter, at least, there will be two bikes in the stable– the Salsa Mukluk 3 and the Surly ECR.  Come spring and summer, the bikes will dual for my attention as we set off traveling.  Until then, the bikes will remain as two distinct concepts, with unique specialties.

From past experiences, a tubeless system promises less rolling weight and a more supple tire system, in addition to eliminating flats.  I hoped to install the Knard tire onto the Rabbit Hole rim, tubeless, with no more than a few layers of duct tape to seal the rim and build up the rim bed.  The tire fit nicely on the rim with only the Surly tape installed (it was not loose, like some older Surly fatbike tires), and when inflated with a tube, I sensed a strong bead lock.  It would be easy, I figured.  

The SRAM X7 hub is my new favorite inexpensive quality hub.  For $50 or less (I grabbed this one for $33 online at Tree Fork Bikes), the hub features sealed cartridge bearings, a nice machined finish, and a quality three-pawl freehub system which is visibly packed with grease when new.  Lael and I used these hubs all summer and they never missed a beat.  The bearings in both hubs feel almost new.  The closest competitors are Shimano’s Deore and XT loose ball bearing hubs.  While the manufacturing quality is good, the design of these Shimano disc hubs has proven to loosen prematurely, resulting in an unnecessary amount of hub maintenance and a premature death.  With a sealed cartridge bearing, no matter how much the bearing surfaces are ruined by neglect and harsh conditions, the hub body is never compromised.  I really do wish Surly would stop speccing all of their bikes with Deore disc hubs; SRAM X7 hubs please!

Surly Rabbit Hole rim and SRAM X7 hub, laced with straight gauge spokes on the drive side and butted spokes on the disc side, due to a limited availability of butted spokes.

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Install a layer of hi-visibility reflective ribbon inside the rim cutouts, backed with a layer of clear packing tape.  The flexible nature of duct tape may work better as a backing to conform to the rim and create an airtight seal in the first layer of tape.  With a blast of air from a small compressor, the tire does not seat, but it seems close.

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The valve has begged for attention for some time.  I forced the knurled nut off the stem and cleared a blockage of Stan’s latex sealant.  It is best to remove the core from the valve when seating a tubeless tire that requires a lot of air (but not the brass stem).  The larger passageway allows more air to enter the tire at once.   

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With two layers of duct tape, in addition to the reflective ribbon and one layer of clear packing tape, the tire easily pops into place,  Without sealant in the system, the tire loses air in less than a minute, not entirely uncommon when seating tubeless tires.  However, some tires hold air overnight without liquid sealant.  

Hoping that sealant will coagulate in the zones of air leakage, I inject 2 oz. of Stan’s into the tire.  The system sputters from the junction of the tire bead and rim.  Two more ounces of Stan’s helps to seal the tire.  However, any additional handling unsettles the system, and the sidewall begins to spit again.  Adding air to the system breaks the seal, removing air breaks the seal, and I predict that low pressure riding on soft snow will certainly break the seal.

This is my first tubeless horror story.  

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Refinements to the system may be possible.  Building up the rim with more material may create a tighter bead lock and a more reliable system, but engineering a patchwork inside of a rim to be run tubeless at low pressures in freezing temperatures is a greater risk than I am willing to accept, especially as a surefire solution is so close at hand.  The full-insurance approach is the split tube method, historically referred to as “ghetto tubeless”.  With a small weight gain, I know the system will seal.   

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Repurposing a well-loved 26″ tube from Lael’s Surly LHT, I mount the tube to the rim and cut it along the outside seam.  Anyone interested in a a nicely appointed 50cm Long Haul Trucker?  

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It fits nicely over the rim, although a 24″ tube would be even easier to work with, and would result in a slightly lighter system.

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Mount the tire and pull it into position as best as possible.

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Air from a floor pump is nearly enough to seat the tire.  A compressor quickly does the job, and with an extra puff of air, it snaps into place and is seated roundly onto the rim.

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Before installing sealant into the system, spin the wheel to verify there aren’t any high or low spots in the tire.  Now is the time to rectify any issues.  Finally, trim the excess rubber.  I’ve seen some people leave some of the excess tube to assist in reseating the tire in the future.  In my experience, this system is so reliable that I hope not to be reseating the tire for a long time.  I will, however, carry a tube as a precaution.

So far, in one week of riding, the system hasn’t lost any air, and has been reliable down to about 8psi.  Past experiences with tubeless Knard tires on Marge Lite rims have also been reliable.

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Knard dimensions

The 3.0″ Knard tires take on a different profile when mounted to Rabbit Hole rims.  On the left, a fresh Knard is shown on a 29.1mm Stan’s Flow EX rim.  On the right, the tire is mated to a Rabbit Hole, as it is intended.  Not only does the tire become wider, but a flatter profile puts more knobs to the ground, and it gains a larger internal volume.  On narrow rims, the bike looks and feels like a big-boned 29er.  On Rabbit Holes, it is more like a lightweight fatbike.  In the snow, the Rabbit Holes make a difference.

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Casing diameter of Knard on Stan’s Flow EX: 70.0mm.

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Outer knob diameter of Knard on Stan’s Flow EX: 75.5mm.

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Casing diameter of Knard on Rabbit Hole: 75.8mm.

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Outer knob diameter of Knard on Rabbit Hole: 77.1mm.  

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Note: These dimensions are measured on a worn 27tpi Knard, and a new 120tpi folding Knard.  

Gomez and the (9zero7) Whiteout

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At the after-party and awards ceremony of the Frosty Bottom race, I bumped into Gomez, head correspondent at Fat-Bike.com, the premier forum for fatbike information.  Visiting from Wisconsin, Gomez was lucky to find mild weather in Anchorage, while the Midwest and the rest of the country was frozen under an Arctic chill.  His aim, while visiting Anchorage, is to catch a glimpse of the Anchorage winter riding scene and to visit local retailers and manufacturers of winter cycling equipment, including Fatback, 9zero7, and Revelate Designs.

At the party, I suggested a ride.  The next morning, I jumped aboard Lael’s Mukluk to ride the Coastal Trail to meet at the Kincaid Park.  I defogged my memory of some of the older bike trails in the park, and connected a short loop highlighting some of the best-developed winter singletrack in the country.  I’ve said it before, but Anchorage really is the fatbike center of the universe.  These trails are great! 

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Gomez was riding the new 9zero7 Whiteout carbon fatbike frame, equipped with SRAM’s XX1 11-speed drivetrain.  This frame features clearance for 5″ tires on 100mm rims– the largest combination currently available– but would be equally comfortable in a fatbike paceline on a superlight carbon wheelset.  The 9zero7 Whiteout , along with the Borealis Yampa and the upcoming Fatback Corvus, marks a new benchmark in design.  Fast, light, and fat is not easy to achieve, but it is happening.

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We enjoyed a ride as the sun made a low dance across the horizon.  The treetops were drenched in orange sunlight, as the trail under out tires remained crisp from the overnight freeze.  Traction was good, underneath a light glaze.

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Gomez preaches the gospel of fatbikes.  It’s all fatbikes, all the time.  

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I took a quick spin on the new 9zero7 Whiteout frame.  I raced a Salsa Beargrease in the Frosty Bottom this past weekend, for reference.

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Huge tire clearance are possible due to 190mm rear dropout spacing.  A 1×11 drivetrain and thru-axle hub attachments are becoming standard on top-end fatbikes.

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Surly Bud and Lou tires will fit the frame on 100mm Surly Clownshoe rims, both front and rear.

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Thanks for the ride, Gomez!

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Two Mukluks

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Two “MukThrees”, as we call them.  Eventually, there may be other names, but for now, they are just two off-the-shelf fatbikes with home-made holy Rolling Darryl rims. some luggage, and Lael’s new carbon bar.

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Lael has written a race report and memoir of her first bike race this past weekend, the Frosty Bottom 50.  The course is set on trails that she has been riding and running and skiing for decades.  Check out her story, “The Frosty Bottom”, on her blog Lael’s Globe of Adventure.

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Ride from home: Kincaid STA trails

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Kincaid Park is a 1500 acre forest park at the apex of the Anchorage Peninsula, where the Turnagain Arm and the Knik Arm of the Cook Inslet meet.  The park is situated on a decommissioned military site, along a zone of coastal bluffs, slumps, and glacial topography.  It has hosted groomed, lighted, and well-used cross-country ski trails for years, one of Anchorage’s breeding grounds for competitive skiers, including one of the winningest American XC skiers of all time, Kikkan Randall.  In recent years, dedicated bicycle singletrack has been built, including named and mapped trails.  This past year, several new phases of trail construction have given us many more miles of singletrack to explore.  Elsewhere in the park, there are facilities for sledding, a biathlon shooting, a motocross course, soccer fields,  a multi-purpose stadium, a disc golf course and trails of all kinds for skiing, running, snowshoeing, and both summer and winter cycling.  

While the city is laced with wide, groomed multi-use trails in winter, the only other dedicated winter singletrack system is found in, and adjacent to, the Campbell Tract, a BLM property on the hillside.  Some new winter trails are beginning to arise near APU.

Several days ago, Lael and I set out to explore some of the new Kincaid trails.  Riding the Surly ECR, I quickly found the limitations of 29×3.0″ tires on softer snow.  Riding was fast and assured on the heavily trafficked Coastal Trail, but the ECR slithered along the softer singletrack.  I still managed to ride a few miles, while Lael gracefully rode ahead on her new Salsa Mukluk 3.  A real fatbike is a necessity.

Riding out the Coastal Trail.  From our current location, we are about 6.5 miles to this network of singletrack trails, all along the famed 9-mile Coastal Trail.  On clear days, Mount Susitna– “the Sleeping Lady”– graces the horizon.

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The sun makes a slow dance across the horizon, in a period of about five and a half hours.  The main trails in town are well travelled by skiers, runners, and bikers, mostly on fatbikes.  A classic ski track is also imprinted on the right side of the trail.

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Middle Earth is the backbone of the new system of trails at Kincaid.  These trails were designed and built by the STA, or the Singletrack Advocates of Anchorage.

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Moose are common on every outing.

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Topography and fatbiking don’t always mix well, for lack of traction, but these trails gently asked the hillsides.

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To greater views of Cook Inslet and Mt. Susitna.

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Winter riding is as good, or better than summer singletrack riding in Anchorage.  All which is boggy, and buggy and swarming with bears in the summer, is silently put to sleep by a blanket of snow.  the urban-based riding in Anchorage is some of the best anywhere.

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After a quick tour of the trails, we return home along the Coastal Trail as dusk.  

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More rides and trails soon.  There is much more to explore in town, with some excellent backcountry opportunities nearby.

Super-holy Rolling Darryls

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How to make a nice pair of 82mm wide fatbike rims even better?  Drill a lot of holes.

Thirty holes per rim, not on the welded seam and not on the valve hole.  Except, that one rim in which Lael accidentally drilled the valve hole and I drilled a new valve hole at the seam, opposite the old valve hole.  Holes are 1 1/2″ in diameter.  Smaller holes are common, while bigger holes might compromise the structure of the rim– 1 1/4″ to 1 1/2″ holes are recommended.  Tools include a spring-loaded punch and template, a drill bit for a preliminary series of pilot holes, and a 1 1/2″ hole saw for the final cutout, drilled by hand with a battery and/or a cord powered drill.  Finish with a deburring tool and a touch of sandpaper.  The final pile of aluminum discs weigh 186 grams, which does not include the handful of aluminum shavings on the floor.  This is more than the claimed weight difference between the un-holy (solid) and the factory-supplied holy Rolling Darryls

Above, Lael’s subtle black, red and white theme continues with a new pair of Revelate Williwaw pogies.

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Thanks to Eric Carpenter for the tools, the expertise, and the rustic lodge-style workspace, right in the middle of downtown Anchorage.

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