As high as possible: Anchorage, AK

NicholasCarman1 1083

A day off work leaves nearly eight hours of daylight that I usually don’t experience.  Normal weekday rides are limited to commutes around town and late night escapades in the nearby Campbell Tract.  These nighttime rides lace familiar trails in fresh permutations, and in combination with changing conditions, a sense of discovery is alive.  Access to such great winter singletrack out the front door is special.  But with extra time, and extra daylight, I embrace the chance to go further.

NicholasCarman1 1101

From the house, the ride begins with about a mile of neighborhood streets and sidewalks to connect with the Campbell Creek Trail, a major greenway artery in town.  From the trail, the mountains are visible, and play their first hand.  Today, at sunrise, they offer sunshine and shadows.

NicholasCarman1 1109

Now that much of the city is glazed with ice, and much of the romantic side of winter has melted, the trails are much less busy than they were last month.  The moose have taken advantage of wide open trails, although they seem to be on alert.  Perhaps they are aware, as we are, that the bears will eventually wake up if this weather continues.

NicholasCarman1 1108

From the Campbell Creek Trail, I turn onto the groomed Tour of Anchorage Trail, which signals the beginning of BLM land and access to the network of singletrack from which we compose our nightly rides.  Finally, the Blue Dot trail appears amidst birch and aspen.  Turn right, and turn up the tunes.  I never ride with music, but I finally found a pair of earbuds at the house that fit my ears, barely.  I must readjust them every ten minutes, but the elation of riding trails with music (on my day off from work!) is just short of ecstasy.  The occasion requires a lot of standing sprints, hard cornering, and a few round-the-bend Repack-style powerslides.

NicholasCarman1 1105

Thank you bridge elves!

NicholasCarman1 1110

On this day, temperatures above 35, 40, 45 degrees continue the melting trend.  Clear skies let the sun do some work.

NicholasCarman1 1112

There are swamps and shallows I’ve never seen, as I’ve only ridden here in the winter, in real winter.

NicholasCarman1 1067

NicholasCarman1 1115

I am really enjoying the new Mukluk.  The bike is responsive, and handles like a real mountain bike, not an upright snow cruiser in the style of the old Mukluk (blue model, 2012).  I am hoping to build some 29″ or 29+ wheels for the Mukluk, to provide contrast to the ride of the ECR.  The Mukluk shares more with the Krampus than with the ECR, including a 60mm BB drop, longer TT, short chainstays, and modern trail geometry.  With a tapered headtube and a 100mm suspension correct fork, it might be perfect.

The perfect 29″ build: I am thinking about 45mm wide Velocity Dually rims with 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent Tires (tubeless, of course), and a suspension fork with adequate clearance.  Schwalbe’s Hans Dampf tires are still on the list, as are Knards, and the new Surly Dirt Wizard tires, if they ever materialize.  Fox forks seem to have more clearance than the 29″ forks form Rock Shox.  There are a few dedicated fatbike forks available, and a few more on the horizon, including a rumored Rock Shox fat fork.  The “one bike for all seasons” project is now exactly two years old.

NicholasCarman1 1113

The Campbell Tract is crossed with XC ski trails, groomed multi-use trails, and singeletrack hiking and biking tracks.  Some trails originate as survey boundary lines, like this one, and are straight as an arrow.  Most others cut natural lines into the land, making the most of the lowland topography.

NicholasCarman1 1117

Riding up towards the Hillside Ski area marks a high point for most of our nighttime rides in the Campbell Tract.  Little snow is left on the ski trails.

NicholasCarman1 1070

I continue further.

The Gasline Trail goes up, straight up.  This is what utility trails do, whether Alaska or Arizona or elsewhere.  The first push is a push, then it slackens and is rideable up towards the Prospect Heights Trailhead and the mountains.

NicholasCarman1 1095

The Upper Hillside trails receive little bike traffic in the winter.  Although lightly potholed from walkers, the base is solidly frozen, and rideable.  No bike tracks are present.

NicholasCarman1 1129

NicholasCarman1 1072

Up The Hive trail, back to the Gasline– I leave some fresh Nate tracks.  The tires stay afloat, while each tall rubber know punches through the crust for traction.

NicholasCarman1 1069

Passing into Chugach State Park and above 1000ft, the mountains are near.

NicholasCarman1 1075

Higher up, more ice is present, the result of daily inversions and warm winds on the hillside.  Daily, cool moist air settles in the Anchorage Bowl.

NicholasCarman1 1076

A balmy winter breeze passes between trees.  T-shirt and pogies are an unusual combination, not unlike the combination of skirts and Xtra Tuff rubber boots, common around urban Anchorage.  I prefer blue jeans and gaiters.

NicholasCarman1 1078

Beyond the Prospect Heights trailhead, the snow disappears almost entirely, and the trail turns to ice.  Views improve, even as clouds enter the scene.

NicholasCarman1 1136

Lael offers her studded Nates in the morning, which I refuse.  I should have swapped wheels.  It is possible to ride the trail’s edge, between ice and grass.

I miss climbing thousands of feet at a time.  I’ll save some of that energy for summer and give the legs a rest.  Finally, approaching the Glen Alps Trailhead, at about 2000ft.

NicholasCarman1 1084

When ice fails to cover the trail, mud is present.

NicholasCarman1 1086

Eventually, the trail becomes more ice than rideable.  Time to turn back down.  A few drops of rain fall from above.

Off in the distance, over a hundred miles away, are Denali and the Alaska Range.  Surely, it is winter up there, above 20,000ft.

NicholasCarman1 1130

Down the Powerline Trail, sometimes straddling the top tube with two feet on the ground.  Sometimes, riding the white-ish decomposing ice along the edge, which allows just enough traction.

NicholasCarman1 1090

Down, past the Hillside Ski area, closed for now, possibly for the remainder of the season.

NicholasCarman1 1092

Down, to the lower Hillside Trails.

NicholasCarman1 1093

Down, and across Campbell Creek.

NicholasCarman1 1096

NicholasCarman1 1077

Down, into birch meadow and swamps.  The goal was to ride as high as possible, including all the singletrack I can find on the way up and down.  As a result, I add a few new trails to the quiver.

NicholasCarman1 1099

Down from the mountains, and back home, all within a day, barely.

NicholasCarman1 1068

From sunrise, to sunset, a good day on the bike.

NicholasCarman1 1135

In the other direction, check out Lael’s post “Out on the Coastal Trail” for a diverse range of winter activities along the forested waterfront trail.  Her amazing photo set includes fly-fishing and a fat-tire hand cycle,  amusing and inspiring.

Melt!

NicholasCarman1 1120

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.

NicholasCarman1 1118

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.

NicholasCarman1 1119

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.

NicholasCarman1 1121

NicholasCarman1 1055

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.

NicholasCarman1 1126

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.

NicholasCarman1 1056

NicholasCarman1 1061

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.

NicholasCarman1 1111

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?

NicholasCarman1 1060

Shogun Prairie Breaker 2

NicholasCarman1 1033

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.

NicholasCarman1 979

NicholasCarman1 981

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

NicholasCarman1 1031

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.

NicholasCarman1 1032

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.

NicholasCarman1 980

NicholasCarman1 985

NicholasCarman1 971

NicholasCarman1 1034

Studded Nate (Grip Studs)

NicholasCarman1 964

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.

NicholasCarman1 965

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.

NicholasCarman1 956

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

NicholasCarman1 957

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.

NicholasCarman1 958

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.

NicholasCarman1 959

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

NicholasCarman1 960

NicholasCarman1 950

NicholasCarman1 945

NicholasCarman1 966

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.

NicholasCarman1 973

NicholasCarman1 975

NicholasCarman1 974

Gomez and the (9zero7) Whiteout

NicholasCarman1 859

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! 

NicholasCarman1 858

NicholasCarman1 867

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.

 NicholasCarman1 902

NicholasCarman1 861

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.

NicholasCarman1 866

NicholasCarman1 907

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

NicholasCarman1 865

NicholasCarman1 854

NicholasCarman1 904

NicholasCarman1 868

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.

NicholasCarman1 869

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.

NicholasCarman1 871

NicholasCarman1 872

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

NicholasCarman1 873

NicholasCarman1 874

Thanks for the ride, Gomez!

NicholasCarman1 908

Two Mukluks

NicholasCarman1 898

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.

NicholasCarman1 888

NicholasCarman1 886

NicholasCarman1 782

NicholasCarman1 889

NicholasCarman1 891

NicholasCarman1 901

NicholasCarman1 892

NicholasCarman1 900

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.

NicholasCarman1 890

Ride from home: Kincaid STA trails

NicholasCarman1 845

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.

NicholasCarman1 840

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.

NicholasCarman1 841

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.

NicholasCarman1 776

Moose are common on every outing.

NicholasCarman1 842

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

NicholasCarman1 843

To greater views of Cook Inslet and Mt. Susitna.

NicholasCarman1 780

NicholasCarman1 844

NicholasCarman1 846

NicholasCarman1 847

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.

NicholasCarman1 781

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

NicholasCarman1 848

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

Back in Alaska

NicholasCarman1 581

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.

NicholasCarman1 772

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.

NicholasCarman1 595

Sunrise.

NicholasCarman1 768

Group rides.

NicholasCarman1 593

Night rides.  Lots of night rides.

NicholasCarman1 737

Sidewalks.

NicholasCarman1 771

Wildlife.  Moose are a common sight around town.

NicholasCarman1 758

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

NicholasCarman1 591

Sunset.

NicholasCarman1 751

Night rides, again.

NicholasCarman1 764

Busy boulevards— lots of those too.

NicholasCarman1 585

Icy, rutted roads.

NicholasCarman1 736

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

NicholasCarman1 766

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

NicholasCarman1 746

Snowy singletrack.  Miles and miles of singletrack.

NicholasCarman1 589

And much more to explore.

NicholasCarman1 745

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.

NicholasCarman1 582

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.

NicholasCarman1 739

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.

NicholasCarman1 749

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.

NicholasCarman1 735

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.

NicholasCarman1 754

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.

NicholasCarman1 770

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.

NicholasCarman1 733

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.

NicholasCarman1 734

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.

NicholasCarman1 774

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.

NicholasCarman1 730

NicholasCarman1 726

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.

NicholasCarman1 773

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

NicholasCarman1 702

NicholasCarman1 583

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.

NicholasCarman1 747

NicholasCarman1 753

NicholasCarman1 731

NicholasCarman1 750

Sidewalk Singletrack

20120112 175059

Reminisces, words by Lael Wilcox.  This story was originally written for the Dirt Rag Literature Contest.

Under the dull orange glow of sodium lights the urban snowscape is flat and calm. In the dark season, only the clock indicates morning. I feather the brakes all the way down the neighborhood hill– the kind of hill a four year old learns to ride a bike on. It’s January and I’ve been doing this for a month. A fresh layer of snow covers slick ice. Focused, I anticipate falling. I’ve already taken a couple of spills this year as my back tire loses traction and slides out, or I turn too quickly or a pile of snow redirects my front tire. Just around the corner from the house, I’m already five minutes late. Subtle brake control is beyond the ability of my mittened claw hands, but this time I come to a stop at the bottom of the hill before turning left. Made it.

Exiting the neighborhood, I pedal toward a narrow gap in the fence, a natural corridor created by alternating snowfall and pedestrian use. Fresh snow blankets a month of frozen accumulation, and my daily passage ensures that this path remains rideable. On four-inch tires I can casually ride through some fresh snow, but six heavy inches are hard to ride. Fortunately, the walkers travel no matter how much it snows and some boots have shuffled through already. I nose my tire over loose piles and try to stay afloat. In these conditions the hazards of falling are laughable– the entire world is padded– although a faceful of snow isn’t welcome at 7 AM. The front tire washes, the rear tires spins and I punch a boot through the adjacent bank to remain upright. Today, more pedestrians and cyclists will groom this route and by dinner is will be a perfectly rideable single-track. Connecting the sleepy neighborhood to Midtown Anchorage, this is my portal between worlds. Still straddling the toptube, I shuffle the bike through to the other side.

I cross the boulevard and ride onto the sidewalk, the zone for misfits. Each passing windshield provides a glimpse of the driver. Those whose windows are still painted with frost, except for the requisite peephole, are like me– always late. Fully defrosted windows with operable wipers signal a prudent character, a complete breakfast, and some kind of fantastic job, most likely. I’m a math tutor and I pounded some dry wheat toast on my way out the door. A herd of traffic ambles past, each driver cradling a steaming cup of coffee, and each vehicle sharing its voice. Conservative talk radio wanders out of a rusty Ford; somewhere, Gotye is on repeat and Adele is “Rolling in the Deep” really early in the morning. Some of them check me out as we wait at the stoplight. People in cars feel entitled to stare. If you meet their gaze, they abruptly look ahead and pretend like you don’t exist. This is a really long light and we ignore each other for another two minutes. The signal turns green.

The crosswalk is a mess. I loft the front wheel over and over; every lane of traffic that I cross features a pair of icy ruts, like a giant washboard, and the orange display flashes “Don’t Walk” even before I start. Riding on a tightrope, my right knee draws outward to compensate for momentary imbalance. Looking back across six lanes, I lift my bike over an encrusted berm and am back onto the sidewalk– misfit but safe.

Every road loses a lane in the winter. Snow and ice obscure traffic paint and four lanes are reduced to three, three to two, two to one, and narrow roads nearly become tunnels. Drivers closely follow each other’s rutted tracks, afraid to change lanes. Winter lasts for six months and people have places to be every day. They don’t slow down for the weather and the city doesn’t do much to make the roads safe, even in a winter of record snowfall. Everyone has studded tires, if not also a big truck. With an average speed of 5 mph, I can’t expect to ride with this crowd in these conditions. Winter in Anchorage is the only place I routinely ride the sidewalk.

For several blocks I lay down first tracks on the sidewalk, running against traffic on Benson Boulevard. Secret shortcuts across boot-packed singletrack and empty parking lots speed up the trip. I bump across the lawn of a giant oil company on a path that leads over a snow pile and drops me into a plowed parking lot. A well-worn trail passes the busy exit of the McDonald’s drive-thru window as moose feed on the trees outside the restaurant– just passing-thru like the rest of us. In winter, Anchorage becomes a maze and commuting is a game of connecting the dots, requiring deliberate route planning based upon changing conditions. Every morning, I dial 844 for automated local weather conditions before leaving home. Every morning is different.

Past the public library, I turn onto the C Street sidewalk. Several years ago the city put up signs to indicate a bicycle route. This morning it is a frozen sculpture of a dried-out creek bed, strewn with the jetsom and flotsam of a recently plowed roadway. I scan for tire prints hoping to piggy-back another rider’s route, but there aren’t any. The walkway is peppered with frozen cobbles and boulders and even as I try to pick a rideable path, a firm-looking mound melts under my weight. Guessing my way through, I give some gas and hope. The front tire pushes through like a sled. I lean back and weight the rear tire, but it still spins. I put a foot down.

Alongside the ironic white snow bike I unscrew plastic valve caps and dab the stem with my mitten. Even in the cold air, the tube’s exhalations smell like canned tuna. The tire sidewalls nearly fold over themselves with my weight. I tighten my core and propel the bike forward, grinding until I pick up speed. It works! I roll up to the next red light, grinning. This three mile stretch, a signed bicycle route, is stunted with seven major lights. Even so, I’m getting somewhere, and I have somewhere to be.

Unzipping several inches of my parka, moist air steams in front of my frozen face and a trickle of sweat runs down my spine. I pull my Buff up to my eyes and suck frozen air through its fibers. Within several minutes, each inhalation is joined by water, condensation formed as my breath meets the cold air. Soon, the wool is frozen and a white beard grows around my face– the Buff holds its shape. If I was planning to be out much longer I’d be more careful not to sweat so much, but mittened children march along on sidewalks, which means I’m close.

Other teachers are running the short distance from their cars to the school doors like desperate urbanites in a rainstorm with newpapers over their head. Casually rolling my bike into the school, warm with energy, I smile at them. The bell rings and millions of squeaky boots storm the hallways for another day of cat and mouse. It is my job to be a diligent math cat to dozens of remedial math mice.

At the last bell of the day, the streets are dark once again. I zip into my fur-lined sledding boots and knee-length parka, pull the Buff over my head, buckle my snowboarding helmet and decorate the ensemble with a reflective construction vest. I mop up the puddle of water under my bike and roll out the door, emerging on the streets like a neon hobo power ranger. Riding out of the parking lot, a teacher rolls down his window and asks if I am training for that big race that they do with these bikes. No, I’m just riding home I tell him. I have somewhere to be. 

20120112 174933

A year ago, Lael and I were riding through a winter of record snowfall in Anchorage, AK on our Pugsleys.  The title to this story was inspired by this post, and our daily travels through the organic urban snowscape.

20111213 134918

 

Alaska bikes

Fatbikes are the S-10s, 350s and Rams of the bike world and it’s no wonder that Alaskans love them.  Ride them all winter on snowmachine trails, then float over gravel along the Susitna River and venture into the thick on unsigned, unmarked and unmapped ATV trails.  These are Alaska bikes.  Mine is an Alaskan road bike.

Jeremy’s Salsa Mukluk 3 receives it’s first mudbath while creek-crossing near the Susitna.  It endos and wheelies like a bike should, and passes the rigorous testing of an ex-BMX rider.  A Revelate framebag has permanently converted him from his usual habits of riding with a backpack.  A rack will serve as overflow capacity; never again a backpack.