A Series Until It isn’t: The 2013 @surlybikes Pugsley Neck Romancer – in one version of ‘winter mode’.
Acquired brand spankin new from @radicaledgebikeski – The Rundown: 2013 Pugsley Neck Romancer Frame and Fork in Burned Nougat. @canecreekusa 40 headset. Bontrager parts bin stem clamping @giantbicycles Connect riser bars with @esigrips Chunky grips to block the cold. @rideshimano 9spd LX shifter clicking an SLX rear deraileur around an 11/34 cassette, spinning a @srammtb chain around a set of X5 GXP cranks that were a take-off of another bike and donated to this project by @shawnthamilton. They’re currently wobbly in the frame, I can’t get them to tighten and they’re probably doing bad things to my BB, but I’ll get to it when I can. @blackspire_components Snaggletooth 32T ring because Canada. I stomp the whole business through jerky squares via @45nrth Heiruspecs pedals. Avid FR5 levers pull BB7 brakes on the original rotors. The stock Kalloy seat post clamped by a Surly clamp capped by a @selleanatomica (NSX?) Saddle. Stock Surly Rolling Darryl rims mated to a Shimano Deore Rear Hub and Surly Ultra New front hub. @ridebontrager Gnarwhal studded tires. OG @porcelainrocket ‘2 section’ frame bag from back when Scott would actually take your frame measurements to make ‘em. I even had him add in some mesh pockets on the non-drive side of mine because #deepcustom . An @oldmanmountainracks Fat Sherpa rear rack holds my Anylander Panniers (also made by Porcelain Rocket) and @parts.and.labor . A couple of other choice bits of this current incarnation are some @revelatedesigns Expedition Pogies – something I waited forever to get, but shouldn’t have because they are a game changer in the cold – and a Tarik Saleh Bike Club Bartender Bag by @randijofab for positive mojo and transportage of little things. Bontrager plastic bottle cages on the forks for bottles. Of course now that I finally got around to making this post – just yesterday I swapped out the wheels for the 29+ set because spring is coming. At some point. I guess I’ll do another post – whenever.
Greazy. Some years ago I stumbled into @radicaledgebikeski to find one of these @45nrth Greazy caps sitting on a rack. It being the only one, and me being, at the time, a total 45NRTH fanboy, I snatched it up, ignoring the fact that I had an overflowing drawer full of headwear at home. It came home and went in the drawer. I had another winter cap with flaps that was my go-to and I wasn’t changing things up. A couple of times I brought this one out to get ready for a ride, only to decide at the last minute that it was too warm that day and went with a regular cap. Back in the drawer. Until today. Today it got the call up. I was heading out for a nasty road ride in nasty weather and it seemed this would fit the bill. The temp was hovering around 0º C and the winds were kickin’. Wind that kind of blows right through you. I got kitted up and immediately remembered why I liked this cap the moment I picked it up. It had some WEIGHT. The merino wool had substance. That worked out well, because that weight meant that the earflaps stayed down over your ears nice and cozy no matter what. The cap fits pretty much skin tight, which is great, because it felt like it wasn’t even there under a helmet, other than the whole toasty warm bit. The brim is a good size and construction and the earflaps, in addition to staying put, worked great and didn’t cause problems with helmet straps or sunglass arms. It’s not the sexiest cap out there when you take your helmet off, so if you’re looking to score at the cafe on your ride, you might be out of luck. I have some other caps that are more stylish off the bike. However, if you’re looking for a practical, solid and well performing winter lid to keep your cranium and listening bits warm, you owe it to yourself to check one out.
After holding out on dropping the mad dollars for some studded fat bike tires for a few years, I finally caved. Here’s what I found out.
When I first got my Surly Pugsley, I was an instant believer in the platform. I picked it up in February took it home and bombed around in the snow in my back yard. All the hype about the fat tires in snow was the real deal. And fun? Forget about it.
As I continued to ride through the winter, both for fun and commuting, one thing became clear: though the platform was great for the snow, ice still held it’s own challenges and in some extreme cases of ice, even the fatter tires were no improvement over a conventional sized tire. You simply couldn’t ride in some instances without studs of some kind. I started to research a bit.
To the best of my recollection, that same year, 45NRTH were the first to come out with a production studded fat bike tire, the Dillinger. I wanted some instantly. Then I saw the price. Around $250 PER TIRE. I was floored, but I also thought that this was a new market, and over time, prices would come down. I resigned myself to wait. Winter ended, summer passed. Fall began. I started to think about the fatbike again and the struggles I’d had on ice. I decided to bite the bullet and order some Dillingers. Problem was, this was when the winter fat bike boom was really starting to take off. Couldn’t get ’em in my neck of the woods. I had an order in but the distributor had already sold out for the season and wasn’t expecting more stock. I gave up on getting any that winter early on.
Late in the winter after spending too much time in internet rabbit holes, I decided to have a go with some DIY chains. I don’t want to detail the whole process I used here – maybe that’s for another post. Suffice to say, they only worked so-so, I had some problems with frame rub/contact, and one eventually broke mid-ride so I said screw it and took ’em off.
For quite awhile, 45NRTH were the only ones out there making a studded fat bike tire so they had the market cornered. The last year or so has seen a ridiculous boom in fat bike popularity, last year pretty much every major manufacturer added at least one model to the product line up. Major players Trek/Bontrager jumped into the game with both feet – adding not only bikes, but several fat bike tires to the catalog including the studded Gnarwhal. My LBS where I work part time is a Trek dealer, so I was hoping this would make it easier for me to get a set, and it did.
So, the lowdown. The Gnarwhal is a 26″x3.8 tire available with or without studs. The studded version includes 160 installed Tungsten carbide studs. The Gnarwhal is (TLR) tubeless-ready (I run ’em with tubes) and according to Trek’s site the “Inner Strength casing is lightweight sidewall protection that’s supple and strong.” There’s a bit of discrepancy on the web about whether these tires are 60 or 120 tpi. Apparently Trek’s dealer site says 120, while the consumer site doesn’t say anything. Some people on the web have posted photos of packaging labeled 60 tpi. I didn’t check mine before I threw it away, so I’m out of luck. I’m not really the type of rider who could tell the difference between a 60 and 120 tpi tire, so if that matters to you, you’ll have to dig around on the web some more or check directly with Trek.
I mounted these up on my 82mm Rolling Darryl rims and though I didn’t measure them, they look to be a solid 3.8″ – in line with my Nates. In fact they look a little bigger, but it could just be the tread/knob pattern and/or my Nates are pretty worn. The knobs are uniformly distributed and though the tires are directional, they are not front/rear specific. I’ve never been one to care much about bike/component weights – at least not on a steel fat bike – but if you must know the Gnarwhals tip the scales at 1360grams.
Ok, so after getting ’em home and finding the time to mount them up – as it typically goes for me – I had zero time to actually get out and ride ’em for at least a week or two. Sigh.
But the time finally came. The freeze/thaw cycle of a few days here set up the snowmobile trails around my area as a perfect testing ground for theses suckers. Days of thawing/melting and nights of well below freezing temps meant the trails were pretty much ready for ice skating – or studded fat bike tires.
Plowing through the packed snow on the way to the trails, the Gnarwhals performed as expected, and just as well as my Nates. No surprise there. They hooked up well in the snow and inspired confidence. Once I hit the ice, things ratcheted up a notch.
First thing you notice is the reassuring crunch of the studs on the ice. I had my tires a bit over inflated, but even still the Gnarwhals grabbed on and didn’t let go. I felt like things were a little squirrelly in some off-camber ruts. I stopped and let some air out of the tires to get some more float and increase the footprint, and hopefully increase engagement of the studs. Note: I usually go by the ‘feel’ method for inflation, but since I planned on writing this up and figured people would want to know, I checked when I got home. For the majority of the ride it would seem I was running around 5psi front/7psi rear.
On straight up ice, the tires performed fantastic. The more time I spent on them the more used to them I became. I’ve never been in a situation like those super-extreme explorer guys who’s gear means the ‘difference between life and death’ – I’ve never had to trust my life to an ice axe. However, I was placing a lot of faith in these tires, hauling along at pretty good speeds on straight ice. Taking a digger in these conditions could – at the very least – hurt real good, or worse, break something.
The Gnarwhals didn’t fail me. Only once or twice did I get a ‘whoa’ moment of slippage. Usually in instances of off-camber ice ruts/bumps or water on top of ice, and even then they caught after slipping and I corrected. It did make me wonder though, why there wasn’t more studs in the tire. As one person on the web in a review I read pointed out, “I never found myself saying, gee, I wish there wasn’t so many studs in the tire.” I’m left to wonder why Bontrager didn’t opt to stud more of the knobs – particularly on the outside, for turning and such. I guess it’s conceivable that at some point, even with studs, if you’re that much on the outside edges of the tire, nothing is going to hold on given the forces at work. One might assume it was also a cost/weight issue, but I’d have taken more of each for this kind of tire to potentially get increased performance and security.
By point of comparison, 45NRTH’s Dillingers offer 250 and 258 studs per tire for the Dillinger 4 and 5 respectively, and at only a moderate price increase depending on where you shop.
The Down Lo
So straight up – am I happy with them? Yes. They are definitely spendy, but if you’re going to be doing this specific type of riding, I think it somewhat justifies the cost of specific equipment. The security and performance they offer is certainly worth the cost. After going without and trying the chains, I’d definitely say there’s no substitute for a proper studded tire – there’s just no comparison. By removing them each season and trying to minimize riding them on pavement, one would hope they offer good value (hold up over time/several seasons), but only time will tell.
I honestly don’t remember when I first saw a fatbike. I know it was a Surly Pugsley. It may have been a prototype floating around the interwebs. I do remember when they first put a production one in the catalog. I remember thinking that it was awesome. And I knew instantly a lot of people weren’t going to get it. Not right away anyway. I was excited about it.
Many years later, after following along on the development of fat, I finally landed a Pugsley. It was winter of 2013. All along I had been drawn by the snow capabilities of it. After all, that was what was being touted too. I planned to try and commute with it through the winter along the snowmobile trails in my region of the world. Though it proved to be – and still is – plenty snow-capable, my commute just turned out to be too long geographically to make it work – for the time being. Having to get kids out of bed, moving and on buses in the am didn’t leave me enough time to get to work through the snow. I resigned myself to the evening and weekend blasts through snowshoe and footpacked trails in the woods, still good times.
Even before the snow melted, I started to get curious. I had suspicions. “I wonder how this thing would handle on dry singletrack? How would it feel on the trails?“
Turns out – as many people now know – that answer was pretty damn fantastic. The big tires suck up the bumps, provide a smoother and more enjoyable ride and give beginners and more advanced riders alike a much bigger margin of error. After a few rides in the spring through the woods, I was sold. My conventional MTB hung in the garage all summer. I had a new #1.
Many of the local XC/race cats all poopoo’d it. “It’s slow. It’s heavy. There’s no front shock.” I wasn’t concerned too much with going fast. I was just concerned with going. Even then, having had a taste of how the bike handled the trails, I told ’em, “you wait. The tech will catch up. They’ll get lighter, faster. People will be racing ’em.“
Even more than that, I saw fatbikes as a primo beginner mtb. They offered some of the benefits of a full-sus bike, but still provided some rigidity and had less moving parts. Initially they were cost-prohibitive, but again, I told people who came into the shop – “you wait, the price will come down. More people will be making ’em.”
I still maintain that anyone looking for an entry level MTB hardtail now should at least give a fatbike a try. Especially considering that the cost of fatbikes has come down and many can be had at the same or lower pricepoint than an almost equally appointed hardtail. I know several people now who have started mountain biking on one and now have no intention of going to a conventional MTB. And as a bonus, they’ve got way more riding season.
Around this time too, I started commuting on mine as well. Being that I could ride to and from work almost entirely on crushed rock trails, I wasn’t worried about being speedy on the pave. I was worried about carrying stuff from time to time though. Groceries from the farmers market. Clothes for work. Stuff. Never been much a fan of backpacks on the bike though.
I started checking around for gear. Racks, bags etc. There wasn’t much initially. People still thought fatbikes were a fad. They were gonna go away.
Then 2 things happened – and I don’t remember what order they happened in, but they did. I stumbled on an article whereby someone had built up a set of 29″ wheels for their Pugsley and I started noticing lots of blog posts about guys strapping all kinds of junk on their bikes and going camping. These were holy shit moments for me.
Eventually, as I kept slogging along in my commutes and reading the internet all day, guys started putting bigger than usual mtb tires on these 29″ rims and also started making custom bags to carry stuff into the woods as it was easier handle the bikes in tight spaces with the gear secured closer to the bike vs. hanging about on racks a la more conventional touring.
These guys were camping, and mountain biking in between camping spots. Hnnnnng. Count. Me. In.
So eventually the formal monikers of ‘bikepacking’ and ’29+’ eventually became lexicon. During this time it dawned on me that the Pugsley would be an excellent platform to launch a sort of ‘multi-purpose adventure bike’. I could set it up with different wheels and tires, as well as different cargo configurations to suit all kinds of different terrain and trips and still maintain relatively the same feel and cockpit.
So that’s what I did.
There’s no argument that there are other bikes out there that will excel in some conditions where this one will be only ok, but there’s no one perfect bike. I wanted to try and create a jack-of-all-trades, knowing it would be a master-of-none.
So I had the stock 26″ wheels with 3.8″ tires. I built me up some 29″ rims to run 3″ tires. I got some racks and panniers for hauling the kitchen sink on trips to the market, or say, with the kids where I might have to carry gear for 2 or 3, but also got some fast and light bikepacking bags for solo adventures. If I really want to pack some shit, I can combine the two.
So thats what we’ve come to. What I’ve dubbed the Pugsley Adventure Bike. Snow? It’ll do it. Sand? Yep. Singletrack? Loves it. Long gravel grinds? Sho’ nuff. I’ve yet to christen it with an overnighter, but I will. That’s the only thing left to do.
Components Headset:Cane Creek 40 Brakes: Avid BB7, 160 mm rotors front and rear Brake Levers: Avid BB7 Shifter: Shimano XT 9-speed Stem: Bontrager RL Handlebar: Jones 710 mm Loop Bar, Aluminum Grips: ESI Jones, Extra Chunky Saddle: Brooks, Cambium C17 Seatpost: Kalloy
Wheels – 26″ Fat Setup Front Hub: Surly Ultra New, 135 w/ bolts Rear Hub: Shimano Deore Rims: Surly Rolling Darryl Spokes: DT Swiss Champion, 12mm brass nipples Tires: Surly Nate, 26″ x 3.8″, 60 tpi rear, 120tpi front