Dissecting the Surly ECR

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

Introducing the Surly ECR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frame highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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Gearing for 29+:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tires and suspension:

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

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

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ECR Geometry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flagstaff-Sedona-Flagstaff (-Sedona)

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Daily, we focus on moving forward.  Not that we are working hard toward an end destination, nor are we riding particularly fast or far in a single day, but we are always going somewhere, eventually.  On this occasion, with the opportunity to ride for a few days with our friend Jeremy, from Santa Fe, NM, we opt for something a little less directionally purposeful.  Rather, we set out to enjoy riding and camping for a few days, even if we return to same place from which we are to begin.  As is often said, “it’s the journey”.  

He head out of Flagstaff with a loose sense of tracks and trails in the area.  The AZT immediately shuttles us south of town.

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Alternating soft and rocky conditions are no match for Jeremy’s well-used Surly Pugsley.  I chase his tracks– a pair of Surly Nate treads, one of which I passed on to him last spring.  He’s thinking about a more trail specific 29er, or 29+; most likely rigid, ideally with a truss-style fork; definitely steel.  He’s nearly got all the details of his dream bike dialed, now how to get his hands on it, exactly?  A custom frame, a stock Jones frame with truss fork, a Surly?  Inevitably, many of our conversations lead back to ‘the frame”. 

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The ten miles of AZT south of Flagstaff is dreamy.  Sculpted from the land, the riding is easy, and surefooted– and fun.

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The trail rises onto a rocky mesa for the next few miles, before descending down to Lake Mary Road.  

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Beautiful views from up here.  Aside from some crumbly volcanic rock, the trail is also well-travelled by cattle in the summer.  The riding is not bad, but a bit bumpy.

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The San Francisco Peaks slowly disappear behind us.  Including the tallest peaks in the state, they remain visible from a long way off.

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Crossing Lake Mary Road, we return to forested singletrack, similar to the trail south of town.  Pine needles soften the ride.  

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We find camp for the night in an open meadow, and set up our tents in anticipation of a cold night, and the morning sun.  Jeremy procures a large piece of deadfall to burn.

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We enjoy a dinner of root vegetables, including beets, turnips, and potatoes– Jeremy’s usual trail food.

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By morning, the tent is glazed with frost from the inside– frozen exhalations of two people from a long fall night.  Nights are getting even longer.  By the time we arrive in Alaska, the days will be gaining light, nearly.

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The fire restarts with some stirring of last night’s coals.  We misjudged the sun by a few degrees, so are thankful for a fire in the morning.  

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Packed up by 9:30 or 10AM, typical of this time of year.  

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The AZT follows an old section of railroad (c.1923), tasked with hauling timber from the area.  

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We encounter a long-distance hiker, out to enjoy a few weeks of the trail.  We offer a couple of fresh apples.  We know what it is like to be on the other side of someone’s questions.  If you ever catch yourself grilling a hiker or cyclist about their travels, offer some food or hospitality in trade.  We all wear a look that says, “Will trade stories for food”.

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Digressing from the AZT, we connect a series of forest service roads towards Sedona.  I plug the Coconino Loop into the GPS to navigate this section of our route.  Mostly, we’re following routes and tracks from Bikepacking.net.  Thanks to Scott Morris for the tracks, and for making the resource available to all of us.

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Under I-17.

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On our way to Sedona.  Schnebly Hill Road is a rough route near town, on;y 12 miles from here.  For less capable vehicles, some alternates are suggested– good news for us.

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It begins rather innocuously.

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Changing, as we near Sedona, and a 2000ft descent.

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In lieu of the rough descent down Schnebly Hill Road, we drop into the Munds Wagon Trail for an even more challenging singletrack descent towards town. 

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The trail parallels the road, and offers a few chances to get on or off the trail, and to lose Jeremy along the way.

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In town, we shoot for the healthy foods store.  There are more than a few choices in Sedona.

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We head for the trails, and for the hills, for a place to lay our heads for the night.  Technically, there is no camping anywhere in or near town.  However, there is lots of open space about town, amidst the city’s hundreds of miles of multi-use trails.  

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By morning, we decide on an approximate plan for the next few days.  We’ll make some loops around Sedona, then will head back towards Flagstaff.  Without a map, we begin by connecting back to the Coconino Loop Route, beginning the day with a hike-a-bike on a section of the Lime Kiln Trail.

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Eventually, the trail mellows, and we cross through Red Rock State Park.

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Connecting trail down to Oak Creek for a refreshing dip in its clear waters.  Cool clear surface water is unusual in Arizona.

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With our sights set on some trails south of town, we ride back into the afternoon sun.

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On a cliff next to Cathedral Rock is one of several locations where energetic, spiritual vortexes are claimed near Sedona.  Some weird people hang in around this town.  Spend a few hours at the healthy food store to see what I mean.  

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The only vortices we encounter are the snaking and circling singletrack trails.  Sedona’s system of trails is one of the best anywhere.

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The trails are incredibly well built, making rideable terrain out of the undulating, rocky desert.  Features such as armored gullies ensure a durable surface under the tires of thousands of riders to come.

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Slickrock trails are reminiscent of Moab’s famed routes.  

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WIth two days of local exploration under our belts, we turn back up Schnebly Hill Road, to retrace our steps back to Flagstaff.  On pavement, the two towns are less than thirty miles apart.  This route is more like 40-45mi.

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Atop Schnebly, we catch our final glimpse of Sedona.  Memories of red rocks are caked around our hubs and rims.  

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Now told as stories around the campfire.  Sedona has left a strong impression.

One last camp, and one final campfire with Jeremy before the short ride back to Flagstaff.

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Jeremy will surely be back to Sedona, and the AZT.  We’ll be back in Sedona sooner than later.

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Back within close range of the San Francisco Peaks, nearing Flagstaff.

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Sandstone canyons, just south of town.

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And the beautiful wastewater effluent pond, under the interstate, that marks the connection of the city’s Urban Trail System to the AZT.  Flagstaff is a great place to spend another day.  We’re glad to be back.

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Flagstaff notes:

Cheap gear repair is available on San Francisco St., including basic stitching and zipper repair.  Look for the sign below.

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Amtrak runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and many places in between.  Tickets aren’t as cheap, as they used to be, but it is still an easy way to travel with a bike.  Jeremy took the train from ABQ to Flagstaff for about $60, and a few extra dollars for the bike.  Tickets increased for his return trip home, so after a few hours on the roadside, he caught a ride home.

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I’ve been using these Velo Orange Grand Cru Sabot pedals for about a year, on a variety of bikes.  The platform is huge, with a slight concavity that improves grip and comfort.  On the Raleigh, with a high bottom bracket, pedal strike is rarely an issue, as I’ve experienced on other bikes.  However, I managed to bash the pedals in Sedona more than a few times, and the pedal body has held up well  The bearings still spin smooth, with very little play.  I dripped some lightweight lube into the bearings of one pedal several months ago to silence a slight creak.  After a reluctant start a year ago, I’ve grown quite fond of them.

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We’re headed back to Sedona for another few days of riding.  Incidentally, a certain Alaskan framebag maker will also be there for a few days, so I hope to catch up with him for a ride.    

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Red trails in Poland (to Ukraine)

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My primary purpose, our purpose, when traveling by bike is to make a life on the road– to spend time, discover, and to enjoy ourselves in each place that we visit.  The main function of choosing to ride in Europe was to discover the network of walking trails found across the continent.  We arrived, asking, “Do the trails really exist?  Are they legal, and rideable?  Are there sufficient places to camp?  Are they fun?”.  The answers to all of these questions have been overwhelmingly positive.  Finally, we arrived in Amsterdam with the intention to eventually visit Ukraine.  Growing up in a thriving east coast Ukrainian community has left me wanting to see this place for myself.  At the time of writing, I am already in Ukraine.  This is how we got there.

Przemek plans to return by train.  We have spent several days riding together recently, before parting ways.  I had some business to tend to.  Przemek continued riding and pushing over southern Poland’s higher mountains. After the first week of his tour, he made a quick trip home to re-evaluate his bicycle and luggage.  He left on a Surly Pugsley with 26×4.0″ Knard tires.  He returns with something different.

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Przemek and I first met through the internet, as we discovered that we were building the exact same 29″ wheels for a Surly Pugsley within weeks of each other.  We swapped ideas from across the globe.  Now, for a few days, we ride and camp together, and marvel at how amazing the internet can be.  His route is composed of other riders’ trials and errors in these same mountains, shared via blogs and forums.  I hope that these words and images will inspire others to ride in these mountains.  The internet is an amazing place.

We meet in Chabowka at 6AM.  By 8, we are riding uphill on a red walking trail.  I am beginning to love these red trails in Poland, which signify scenic, long-distance walking routes.  They can be heartbreakingly difficult, but they can be supremely rideable for great distances as well.  Interspersed with mountain huts (like hostels), the experience is as cultural as it is bike-centric.

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Hiking signs indicate the time (usually not the distance) to the nearest resource or junction.  Above, we rest about 45min from the hut at the top.  Below, singletrack 5 minutes from the top.

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This is one of the larger mountain huts we have seen, originally constructed in 1924.  All trails lead to cold beer and hot food around here.  Homestyle dishes are served inside, and basic rooms are available.  The Polish hiking organization PTTK is responsible for all the trails, signage, and huts.  Members receive additional benefits, although all the facilities are inclusive of non-members and visitors.

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Inside, the building is a treasure of old maps and photographs.  Pope John Paul II was an avid hiker in his youth, and once walked many of these trails.  Newer papal routes are now marked in his honor.  Our red route is shown below on the ridge.

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Below, our route is not shown, but it traverses the area between Rabka on the left, and Rytro on the right.  In two days, riding at a mellow pace, we encounter only one paved road crossing.  We top out near 1300m, or about 4000ft.

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At the top of the mountain, this is a great place to wait out some weather.  Looking out the front door, Lael keeps an eye on the High Tatra.

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Inside, a plate of potatoes and cold beer is only a few dollars.  Kefir, soup, warm beer cocktails, and other Polish comfort foods are available.

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As the skies clear, we embark into the cool evening air– a spectacular time to ride.

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We descend, and briefly ascend back to the next minor peak.  From there, it is a long way down.

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Most of the descent is rideable.  As Lael and I incorporate more trail riding into our touring repertoire, I keep my eyes on more capable bikes.  I am considering something with a more descent-specific geometry, such as a Surly Krampus or a Kona Honzo, without giving up the positive climbing features of a hardtail.  I’m also thinking a full-suspension 29er may be in my future, something like the Salsa Horsethief.  Incidentally, I’m thinking of a full-suspension bike more for its ability to climb chunky stuff– and to maintain traction– than for the high-speed descents.  After a few over-the-handlebar experiences on the Pugsley, I’m a bit chicken when riding downhill.  I value my health greatly.  Sometimes walking wins.

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Lael, however, rides with her eyes wide open.  She descends with abandon.  Here, she lands in a muddy hillside while trying to ride some off-camber trail composed of clay, post-rainstorm.

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The following morning, we cross the paved road and ride back up, following the red trail and an assortment of bicycle routes.  Przemek’s Pugsley now features a Manitou Tower suspension fork and 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires.  The rear wheel is built with a Velocity Synergy O/C rim, while the symmetrical front wheel uses a Stan’s Flow EX rim.  He is using a SP dynamo hub and Supernova E3 Pro light.

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Berries by the trail give us reason to stop.  We compose a handful of berries and a small bouquet to celebrate Przemek’s birthday.  This is the first of many gifts, one for each year.

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Passing a small community in the mountains, a group of women congregate the roadside.  A white van appears.  Groceries can be purchased from the van; prices are competitive with the small stores in the valley.  What a convenience and a luxury for us to buy fruit, milk, and fresh baked goods at 1000m at 9AM.

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We continue along the ridge to the next peak, above 1200ft.  Here we find a small shelter offering food, as well as tents for the evening.

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The red trail traverses the green forested section, having crossed the road just off the left side of the map.

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Where are we?  Usually, everyone else has made it obvious on the map.  Thousands of fingers have grazed this signboard.

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While Luban is only a single shack with a wood-fired stove to prepare simple meals, wifi is advertised.  Tents are offered for the night, and a spring provides fresh water nearby.  Polish hiking culture is really fun, and inexpensive.

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Naleśniki with mak.

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We push and sweat to make it up here, yet we meet another rider on a 25 year old ATB that arrives without a drop of sweat.  On top of that, he is collecting rocks, and is slowly filling his pack– an example of Polish grit and enthusiasm.  For all the time we spend optimizing our bikes and our gear, other riders remind us of the simplicity that we pursue.

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His favorite rock was shaped like the #1.

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From the top, it is all downhill.  I like how succinct each riding section is around here, requiring relatively little planning, and less than a day of food or water.  One could traverse many of these beskid, the Polish word for a lesser mountain range, with no more than a framebag or small backpack, especially as food and lodging are frequently available in the mountain huts.  As we aren’t rushing to the next supply point, there is plenty of time to explore.

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Dropping into town at dusk, we explore the Dunajec Gorge which forms the border between Poland and Slovakia,  a popular spot where tourists pile into rectangular wooden boats, piloted by traditionally costumed men.  The boats navigate through the shallow water with long poles, and two operators.

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Thirty-one years old on this day, Przemek is still a kid at heart.

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Nearly dark, we roll up a dirt road out of the gorge to find camping.  We prepare a feast in honor of Przemek’s birthday.  We all wake up with food poisoning.

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Sixteen hours later, we summon enough energy to roll up our tents and roll back into town.  We are without any surplus energy.  I may never eat buckwheat again.

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Tomato juice, Coca-Cola, and water is on the limited menu today.

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We push towards the east to find a campsite for the night.  Laughing at ourselves, and our misfortune– there is something hilarious about being violently ill and drained of energy.

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Przemek’s home and his horse– a disguised 29″-wheeled Surly Pugsley and a Tarptent Double Rainbow.

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Feeling better the next morning, we find just enough energy to ride uphill.  This is our last day together.

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We discuss bikes and gear, and decide on an approximate bikepacking standard for loading one’s bike.  Throw grams and kgs out the window– the bike must be light enough for the rider to lift it cleanly over the shoulders.  There are many instances where the bike must be carried.  There are many steep uphill grades in the world.  There are many fun descents.

Przemek’s Surly Pugsley with 29″ wheels and suspension fork.  Welsh-made Wildcat framebag and Revelate packs elsewhere– more organized than it looks.

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Lael’s Raleigh XXIX, originally a single speed model, customized with gears and suspension fork.  Revelate framebag and Viscacha seatpack, Oveja Negra Lunchbox up front.  Low gears, big tires, and her favorite gold-anodized On-One Mary handlebar.

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My Raleigh XXIX+G with suspension fork, custom wheels and frame attachments for mini-rack and extra bottles.  Porcelain Rocket framebag and handlebar bag, Carradice Camper saddlebag, and Revelate Gas Tank.  29x 2.35″ and 2.4″ tires, tubeless.  Between the three of us and six wheels, there are four Maxxis Ardent tires.  For all around dirt touring, I love the large volume of the 2.4″ Ardent and the durable rubber compound.  For dedicated trail touring, I’m coming to appreciate the 2.35″  Schwalbe Hans Dampf.

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Przemek and his Pugsley pass the test.

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A typical Polish descent ends our ride, landing in a small town, and a rustic restaurant serving pyrohy and piwo.

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Once in the valley, there are myriad discoveries to be made, including the FART store.

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A local art exhibition, adjacent to the tourist office where I purchase hiking maps for the Ukrainian Karpaty.

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With phallic paintings of bread sculptures.

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And familiar scenery.

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A handsome public square.

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And jovial Belgians on Dahon folding bikes.

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Parting ways with Przemek for the last time, we shoot for the train station.  There, we encounter two riders on older mountain bikes with backpacks and camping gear.  They help us navigate the train schedule.

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On board the train, two, three other riders join us.  The bicycle car is typically the last car in sequence, with only a few folding seats along the wall with plenty of open space.  In total, there are six bikes and riders on board this train, all returning from multi-day trips in the mountains.  All but one are on a mountain bike.

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We ride to the bigger city to connect with another train towards the Ukrainian border.  Much like the German train that deposited us near the Czech border, we will deboard at midnight in search of a campsite.  I load local maps of our destination onto the Nexus 7, with a few good ideas for a campsite about 5km out of town.

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A seatful of stories: Lael is reading in French, riding in Poland, beginning to study some Ukrainian, and interested in everything.  Her change purse is from Mexico, a gift received in Temoris en route to the Copper Canyon.  Her favorite thin wool Surly socks are almost entirely worn through.  We are thinking about riding fatbikes again this winter.

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11:36 PM.

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5km to a great campsite up a dirt road out of town.  Only 15km to the Ukrainian border in the morning, and our official exit of the EU.  In two days, we leave our bikes for a period to meet my parents and travel around Ukraine by more conventional means.

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E-mail me for more details about routes in Poland.  I may compile them here in the future, but I do have a series of GPS files to share.  As well, a series of Compass brand laminated maps is available for each mountain section in southern Poland.  These maps along with on-trail signage would be sufficient to navigate the region.  I can also help put you in contact with more experienced Polish cyclists.

Updates and broken things:

Aside from being very busy in Ukraine, I have also experienced some major hard drive issues with the MacBook Air.  In Kyiv, I purchased an additional external drive to back-up files. and successfully reinstalled OS X onto the MBA.  A day later, the internal HD no longer appeared, and I assume fatal damage to the physical drive.  I am limping along by operating OS X from an external drive, a valuable workaround that I hope will get me through the next month when I return to the US for proper diagnosis and repairs.  Yesterday, Lael and I purchased two cheap plane tickets from Simferapol, Ukraine to NYC, flying through Moscow on the Russian airline Aeroflot.  There is no charge to transport our bicycles if they are packed in a box.  Post NYC plans are in flux, but may include some riding in the west in October/November.  Our leading idea for the winter?  Return to Alaska to ride fatbikes.  I have a lot of unfinished business up there, and the bikes are only getting better.

Next…a tour of Ukraine by more conventional means– overnight Russian sleeper trains, crowded buses, overcrowded hired cars, and some walking.  Ukraine is a rich and colorful place, here is a preview.

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Some time in Poland

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Leaving Przemek and his Pugsley in the high country, Lael and I spend a few days writing and planning.  First, the next issue of Bunyan Velo is to be released in the upcoming month, and some time near a power outlet and wireless internet is in order to record some ideas that have been gestating all summer.  Second, my parents and my brother will soon arrive in Ukraine, where we will meet them to make a brief cultural tour around the country.  Our prime focus will be to visit the two villages where each my maternal grandparents were born nearly 95 years ago.  Finally, after a few more days on the trail without us, Przemek’s yellow Pugsley makes a quick trip home to return to the mountains as a hardtail 29er, where we will rejoin him for a few days of riding.  This leaves us with a week to go nowhere and anywhere.  We direct ourselves with our sense for great campsites, by our internal clinometers (up, always up); we shoot for small towns and trails in Poland and Slovakia, guided by an occasional glance at Google or a public map; and we do what (cycle)tourists might have always expected of their summer vacation– we spend some time.

Without a map or trail to follow, some real (micro)adventuring is in order.  The day is spent indoors writing; we mainly seek a campsite for the night, so we ride up.  Past a ski lift, one of hundreds that line the local hillsides, past ripening fruit and farms, to the low ridge that composes the border between Poland and Slovakia.

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Either side of this monument reads S and P, for Slovakia and Poland.  We have been following similar markers since the Czech/Poland border.

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This will do for a campsite.  Lael prepares a fungal watercraft dubbed the ‘Yankee Doodle’ to float down the stream.  This is how we spend at least some of our time.

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The following evening, following thundershowers and some writing, we go searching for a campsite.  We ride into some nearby forested lowlands, presented as a narrow green swathe on the map.  We enter via farm roads from the pavement, without a map or guide of any kind.  After a half an hour of winding routes, a small stream crossing, and a few dead-ends, we cross a small shelter perfect for a rainy night.

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No Polish shelter is complete without a shot glass.

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Lael was hiding something in her framebag to taste.  Sweet, but herbal.

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Public maps serve us well in many regions.  We habitually stop to see what kind of new information we can gain.  Much of this information could easily be learned from a detailed map or gps file, although the experience of piecing things together is interesting, if not always the most efficient method.  I’ve long considered a GPS on board the bike, although a cumbersome interface is uninviting.  And, I don’t already own an iPhone.  We use Lael’s Google Nexus 7 tablet to navigate some cities, or to find camping, although it is impractically large for full time use.  Solutions?

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The following day leads us toward the Tatra, a succinct range of the highest peaks in the Carpathian Mountains, straddling the Slovakian/Polish border.  Near or far, these mountains are stunning.  The peaks are clear — we compare to the Tetons.

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While looking for a market to pick up some food for dinner, we pass this red trail.  The church is alive with the sounds of mass.  Poland is a strongly Catholic country, and papal hiking routes in honor of John Paul II are ubiquitous in this part of the country.  A public map shows that the red route connects to Zakopane, 15km away.  Zakopane is a major international tourist destination, and a good place to replace our dying cookpot, we think.  It will also afford closer inspection of the mountains.

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Summer in Poland ends the same way as in Alaska.

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We settle on this hillside facing the High Tatra for the evening.  Not the flattest ground, but some of the best scenery of the trip.

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This local red route, unlike some of the sections in the high country, proves to be perfectly rideable with only a few steep pitches.  With my new 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tire, climbing incredibly steep pitches has become a part-time hobby.

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Over the last hill to Zakopane.

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We meet hordes of tourists.  Mostly, it is an innocuous crowded mountain town where local smoked cheese is sold in incredible numbers.  There may be more than 100 individual vendors in town with displays such as this.  Low-moisture smoked cheese makes for great bikepacking fuel, even in the heat.  About 3 zloty to the dollar, so prices are quite good.

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Sliwki is also in season, although most country people probably already have a glut of plums at home.  Fruit trees are found everywhere in Poland.

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Giant sunflowers and dill perfume Polish markets, and roadsides.

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The usual collage of tourists, pamiatki, and high-end retail merge in Zakopane.

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Lucky for me, Lael is cheap and settles for a 1 zloty strand of dyed wooden beads, and some colored leather laces that will eventually replace the broken laces on her shoes.  Between her weathered Clark’s boots and new adornments, she has developed an eclectic mountain aesthetic.  Bulging calves round out the look.

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We also spent some time looking for another skirt– something a little more like this.  Maybe in Ukraine.

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The main function of our trip to Zakopane was to find a new cookpot, which had recently revolted by souring a meal with the taste of aluminum.  Once coated with a hard anodized finish, the pot is now barely holding together.  We browsed dozens of high-end hiking shops stocked with footwear and outerwear, but little camping equipment.  Looking for a 1L stainless steel cookpot…

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Eventually, we find what we are looking for in a large cookset at InterSport, a large European sporting goods chain.  For about $40, we poach the smallest pot from a nice looking set of large, but packable kitchenware.  Unsure of what to do with the remains, we leave the box and its contents outside the store.  Hopefully some hungry backpacker will discover the prize.

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Quickly, to meet Przemek early the next morning at a distant train station, we exit Zakopane with fresh legs and lunch in our bags.  We will not have anything to do with this.

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But if we have to, we will do this.  Back through the countryside to rejoin Przemek.

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Out Somewhere in the Vosges


We’ve just descended the Vosges Mountains for the last time, having enjoyed just over a week on the Traversée du Massif Vosgien.  The TMV is a newer route in the east of France– in Alsace, upland of the Rhine river– with over 400km of mapped and signed dirt riding.   We shared the route for a few days with Andi, a new friend and a Surly Pugsley rider from southern Germany.  More soon, but some great representative images can be found on his blog Out Somewhere.



Thanks for a great time Andi!

Fly by Cycle

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Above: 13,588ft Cottonwood Peak at sunrise.

A $150 plane ticket from Albuquerque to Denver is a relative bargain, considering that I purchased it last minute and that it allowed me to keep my schedule at work and to be in Denver in the morning for NAHBS.  Still, I was determined to make the most of the expense and a little reconnaissance from the air is always inspiring.  Incidentally, I was almost always within sight of something I recognized on the ground and something I have ridden by bike, including some local routes in the Jemez Mountains, the Great Divide Route, and the Colorado Trail.

Flying above the Jemez Mountains and the Valles Caldera near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Cochiti Canyon is at the bottom of the frame.  About a month ago, I stole away for a multi-day trip out of town on the Pugsley.  Riding into the night, I awoke above Cochiti on FR 289.  I had previously ridden this road with friends.

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On that same 5-day trek with Cass, Joe and Lael, we also linked singletrack leaving from the Pajarito Ski Area, encircling Los Alamos, and descending Guaje Ridge.

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Nearby, the 31 Mile Road (FR 144) climbs over 5,000 ft from Espanola to connect with the Great Divide Route above Abiqui and Polvadera Mesa.  The road is seen as the prominent white squiggle in the bottom right quarter of the frame.  Jeremy and I left out of Santa Fe for a few days of riding in the mountains, and soaking in hot springs.

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Zoom.  Within proximity of our campsite for the night, before cresting the ridge to connect with the Divide.

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This blank canvas is the southern end of the snow-covered San Luis Valley.  This fall, Lael and I rode some pavement south from Del Norte, CO to meet Joe and Cass in Santa Fe.  We rode this section in the dark, and camped in a super secret spot in Antonito, CO.

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And a bit further north, Monte Vista, CO, I believe.

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Here, the Rio Grande cuts across the San Luis Valley above 7000ft between Del Norte and Alamosa.  It is easy to see here why the river runs dry along the Mexican border– irrigation.

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To the right, the northern peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, south of Salida, CO.  Cottonwood Peak is sunlit at the bottom, and featured at the top of the page.

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Descending towards Denver and over the Front Range, this is the start of the Colorado Trail at Waterton Canyon.

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Chatfield Reservoir– geometric picnic and camping facilities are the work of the US Army Corps of engineers, most likely.  Lael and I got lost in this maze of roads and trails on our ride to the trailhead of the Colorado Trail.

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Denver.  The city swallows almost everything, except for the natural curves of this river.

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Arriving in Denver, I reassembled the Hooligan and rode to NAHBS.

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