Rode my bike to work today – a paltry 12k – in honour of my man Mr. @toniklund who yesterday started his second ITI Ride of 1,000 MILES across Alaska. Go get em Toni, teet suomesta ylpeän! 🇫🇮
Finally, after many years of winter riding, sprung for some Revelate Designs Expedition Pogies. Waited to long. Totally worth it.
Visited the UNB Woodlot for a nice 15km spin before the pending storm. -16°C but sunny. Trails were spectacular. Well beaten double track thanks to snowmobiles and fantastic single track thanks to snowshoers and other riders. Harmonic convergence.
Since the beginning of the year, for a myriad of reasons, most days I’ve been trudging out to my unheated garage and pounding through an hour on the bike trainer. It’s been a good experience, I’m learning a lot about myself and making progress. It ain’t riding outside though.
Yesterday after watching yet another internet video of people riding bikes in all manner of conditions, the realization struck. I used to do all that kind of crap too, in fact I was sorta known for it at some point. What happened? I vowed to get out that day.
Not afraid to say I got a little soft. I love winter and I love getting out in winter, but I’ve realized this year that the amount of love I have for it is directly proportional to how much I get out into it. It’s real easy to start making excuses, and it gets even easier when you can’t even remember the last time you got out. Guilty as charged. Cold, dark, motivation, time. All these things become reasons you can’t do something. But they are all things over which we have some control.
Often getting out the door is the hardest part. I admit to being a little bit of a gear junkie and obsessive planner. Even if I’m going for a 2 hour ride, I’ve gotta think about what I’m gonna wear, what I’m gonna bring with me, where I’m going to go, and why. While there’s something to be said for making sure you’re prepared – especially in less-than-hospitable conditions – it can also become a roadblock.
On the drive home yesterday, I started planning in my head. “The temperature and conditions are this, so I think I’ll wear this – no – maybe that, yeah that, but I’ll BRING this too, and that other thing. In case.”
Got home. Got dressed. Changed shoes. Get the bike and throw stuff in the bags. Remove the extra pair of gloves still in there from last ride. “Won’t need these – SUPER WARM out today!” Put the Garmin on the bike and it won’t start. Battery’s dead or something. The internal argument starts. “This shouldn’t matter. I should be able to ride a bike without keeping track of how far or fast I ride it. But then why did I spend a chunk of change on the Garmin? Maybe I should just get rid of it?” Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the ride window is closing.
I remember I have the GPS on my Garmin watch – ok, use that. Being a gear junkie sometimes has it’s benefits. Half way down the driveway and I can’t keep my feet on the pedals. The shoes are slipping off constantly. I wore my winter cycling shoes for warmth, but they’ve got cleats on the bottom and hard, Vibram soles that are getting no love from the platform pedals. Back to the garage. Change shoes. Running shoes with wool socks. These’ll be fine.
I still had no idea where I was going or what trails would be passable in the snow, so I just went.
It was fantastic to get out. The sun was shining, it was mild, not much wind – and the kicker – I’d dressed perfectly for the conditions. I commended myself. Luckily I had the Garmin to tell me just how ponderously slow I was going, oy, only checked that once.
Got to my turnaround point and started to head home. “Hmm, lookit that, clouding up a bit. Not so much sun.” Pedal faster means stay warmer, I said. Half hour from home and things have cooled down considerably. Sun setting. Hands we kinda cold. “Nice one ditching the extra gloves,” I chided myself. Well, at least I’d managed to keep my feet warm and dry. 10 minutes later and the front wheel washes out on the snowmobile track, the bike goes down, I eject and end up running off trail into the thigh deep snow. In my sneakers. AND shorts. Yeah, shorts, it was MILD out remember? So much for the dry warm feet.
Back on the bike, grumbling. Cold. Muttering about what a dumbass I was. “Lucky you’re only 20 minutes from home or you’d be losing fingers and toes out here tonight. Some freaking polar explorer you are…” But then I realized, I WAS really only 20 minutes from home. I wasn’t blazing an unmarked trail across an uncharted section of continent looking for someplace to camp for the night. Spirits brightened, even if the weather didn’t.
Then I had another realization. The reality is, 99% of the time we’re only a cell phone call away from a pickup. I didn’t feel as dumb as I was initially accusing myself of being. I’d made a few mistakes, but nothing that was a big deal and nothing, I decided, that should spoil the great time I was having. I wasn’t one of my YouTube heroes trekking across and Andalusian pass with nothing but what was attached to him and the bike for survival. At most I was a 20 minute WALK from an Ultramar.
So yeah, I could have made some better choices heading out – I should have known better, but I shouldn’t let my mistakes this time keep me from going out next time. I’m glad I got out. And super glad I didn’t end up having to call the Mrs. for a pickup, cause that stings a lot worse than the cold.
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.
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.