Surly Pugsley First Ride Impressions

So back in October of last year I officially put in an order for a Surly Necromancer Puglsey. Having wanted one for years, I’d finally managed to save up the scratch to get one. My goal was to bomb it around all winter, but also to hopefully commute through most of the winter up here on it. I’ve commuted winters past on my Cross Check, running studded tires, but once the snow really flies and the old railbed-now-trail that I usually commute on is covered with 2 feet of snow, I was forced to slice and dice with the cars and logging trucks on the backroads. Quite frankly, after a few years of near misses – and a few not misses at all – I decided I’d had enough. But I didn’t want to give up commuting in the winter.

That left me with the trail that I ride most of the time, which is great 3 seasons of the year. Nice, relatively flat gravel-covered double-track, with little-to-no traffic (specifically the motorized kind), nice scenery, and plenty of great vibe. In the winter-time it’s taken over by the snowmobilers who pack it down pretty good. I’ve tried riding it with an MTB and the skinny-tired cross bike, and though the MTB can get through, it’s a painfully slow go, and for the most part, even larger MTB tires don’t pack the float needed to keep it from being an overall miserable experience. Many years back I’d seen the introduction of the Pugsley by Surly and followed fatbike tech development. It was clear to me that this was a perfect niche for just such a steed.

Being that I live in the remote hinterlands of Canada, there wasn’t a shop with one readily available on the floor for me to try, so I basically measured up my fave MTB frame and ordered based on that. A couple of months later (around 4) I gota FB message from my man Josh at The Radical Edge. The Pug was in.

I picked it up on a Saturday and took it home. And it sat. A full docket of honey-dos and kid engagements conspired to keep me from riding.

Finally, one day during the work week, I had to run home to let the dog out. It was a nice, clear winter day and I thought, “Hey, I can take that thing out for a spin!”

I got home and jumped on – in my work clothes – and headed out the back door with the dog. I’ve got a little loop in my backyard woods that’s sort-of single track in the summer time – though VERY technical and rocky. It’s difficult to even walk in spots. There was about a foot of packed snow base and maybe 2-3 inches of fresh snow on the top.

I was amazed at the way the Pugsley rode over this stuff. Right through and over everything. To my surprise, it even climbed pretty well too. You could drop it into the low gears, get some weight over the back tire and actually go uphill.  The big 3.8″ tires made it really stable in rough conditions and I could understand now why I’d seen guys running big 3+ inch tires on the front of conventional mountain bikes in the summer. The big ballon tires offer some great suspension, roll over anything, and the front end tracked really solid. I was psyched. It was a fun 20 minute ride and a great intro to fatbike ‘feel’.

Few days later and they’re calling for a blizzard pretty much up and down the entire east coast of North America. Ok, I says. It’s gonna be on a weekend – it’s ON.

So I suit up for cold weather proper, this time, with intentions of taking a bit of a longer spin on the Pugsley. When I finally got around to getting out the door, it was -15C, snowing like mad, gusting up to 30-35km/h and there was about a foot of fresh powder on top of the base.

Things went a little differently.

First off, trying to hop on and get going was an adventure. I’d jump up on the pedals to get started and the combination of the snow in front of the tires and the fact that I’d unweighted the rear meant that I pretty much went nowhere – rear wheel spinout. I chuckled at myself and hoofed the 15 yards to the backyard trailhead, which starts at the top of the hill.

So I managed to point the thing downhill and get in the saddle and off we went. What a total blast. Barely feathering the brakes, the resistance of the almost 12″ of snow in front was enough to keep the speed just right. The fat tires made it easier to stay upright at slower speeds. At a couple of off-camber spots, the front wheel wanted to slip out a bit – to be expected in these conditions – but a small correction and weight shift would get things righted.

Going downhill was all well and good, but once things started to level out, it got interesting. Trying to pedal in that much snow with any kind of bike would be a challenge – I knew that going in – so for the most part, I was happy to experiment and just ride along.

My backyard loop empties out at one point to a chip-sealed logging road that’s nice and flat, so I bottomed out there. I made some decent progress along the flat road, but it’s a pretty good workout. With that much snow as well, if you didn’t keep enough forward momentum and/or shifted the bars the littlest bit, the front wheel would start to get squirrely to the point that sometimes you’d have to step off. Then getting started again was tricky.

I wondered at the time if a more aggressive or studded tire would have made a difference, but I’m inclined to think not. Really, there was just a silly amount of snow to be riding a bike in – and it was the light/fluffy kind that gets really slippery when it’s rubbin’ together. No matter it was still fun.

So after noodling around the flats for awhile I decided it was time to head back – which was uphill. THAT wasn’t happenin – especially off-road. It might have been partially due to rider fatigue/too many weeks off the bike, but I simply couldn’t get the rear wheel to hook up in that much loose snow. I couldn’t get out of the saddle to get any sort of momentum going either, so hike-a-bike home it was.

All in all, a good time and a learning experience. I wanted see what the Pugsley was made of and I got a good idea. I suspected it would be great for hard packed – to semi-packed trails, so taking it out in fresh axle deep snow, I knew I was pushing it. A rider with Hincapieesque thighs and/or lungs might have been able to hammer back up hill in the singletrack sections, but I still kinda doubt it. It wasn’t just wattage that posed a problem, it was balance and inertia as well.

Still good times though, and I look forward to tons more – especially the commutes!

Awhile back on Google+ a bunch of commuters were sharing their foul-weather kit photos and manifests. For the bike/gear geeks that care about such things, here’s what I was kitted up in for the ride, which would be pretty close to what I’d probably wear to commute:

  • Outer shell: MEC Derecho Jacket and Pants
  • Performance Thermal Jersey – I have 2 of these I really dig, mostly because they feature a built in Lycra hood, which is just enough to keep the cold off your ears and the back of your neck and not too bulky to be uncomfortable – think wetsuit hood, only a little thinner.
  • Performance Thermal tights
  • Run of the mill Performance lycra shorts and Under Armour Cold long sleeve shirt
  • Pearl Izumi AmFib Gloves
  • Smartwool socks/Sorel Boots
  • Bern Baker Helmet – After many years of cold weather commuting and trying various combinations of bike helmets, hats, hoods, beanies and sizing, I finally just picked up this ski/snowboard helmet when I got the Pugsley. Verdict? Awesome. It’s got no vents (stays warm), goggle clip, and toasty removable ear covers. WIN.

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