Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My fat bike history

I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't ridden the Fatback in several months. Since I'm planning to take this bike to Alaska and ride it many miles to far-away places, I figured I should go for at least a couple of shakedown rides to see what might need replacing or adjusting. The verdict: Definitely must replace the rear Endomorph tire (I feel bad removing a relic when Surly is discontinuing production, but it's as bald as a bowling ball.) Also, new brake pads. The shifter cables could use some adjustment, too.

As I pedaled up Montebello Road toward the ridge, a friendly vineyard farmer (viticulturist?) pulled up beside me in his truck. "What kind of tires are those?" he asked. "Is that one of those fat-tired bikes?"

"It is," I replied. "They're made in Alaska for riding on snow."

"I've heard about them," he said enthusiastically. "But I never thought I'd see one up here. Those bikes must be all over the place now."

I nodded, "Yeah, even in California."

The farmer's comment got me thinking about the growing presence of fat bikes in the Lower 48, and the way many cyclists around here view these bikes as a kind of fad. They started showing up in magazines, they seem quirky and possibly fun, but not really practical. And when you live in a region with little to no proximity to sand or snow, it's true they're not practical. There's no denying I haven't ridden the Fatback for months and hardly missed it. But I'm still a big proponent of fat bikes. If I was forced to use only one bike for all for the riding I do for the rest of my life, I would choose a fat bike. To me, fat bikes have never been trendy or stylish. They're awkward and heavy, but incredibly useful. And I should know, because I was a slow adopter myself.

Now here's something that would be almost unthinkable in the modern era of fat biking — showing up for a hundred-mile winter race in Alaska with a 26" full-suspension mountain bike. This is my set-up on a Gary Fisher Sugar mere minutes before I set out to race the 2006 Susitna 100. I like to go back to this picture from time to time and laugh at myself. Yes, that is a seatpost rack loaded with what must be at least fifteen pounds of cheap synthetic sleeping bag, pad, stove, and a liter of water that I never touched. And yes, those are studded tires — totally useful on soft snow, those are. Strapped to the rear shock is a K-mart handlebar bag filled with Clif Bars and, get this, open hand warmers to keep them "thawed." I don't even remember what the handlebar sack holds, only that it wasn't the dry clothing I badly needed when I became soaked through during a rainstorm that hit near mile 65 of my race. The resulting ankle-deep slush on the trail and chill from being soaking wet at 37 degrees were ... intense. I struggled and shivered and hiked and hiked. Shortly after we met, Beat asked me if I had ever run an ultramarathon. At first I replied no, but later I thought about it and said, "Well I did push my bike for most of the last 35 miles during the 2006 Susitna 100." Totally counts as a first ultramarathon in my book. If I'd had a fat bike, I may have gotten off the river before the rain came.

Problem was, I couldn't really afford a fat bike. But I wanted to race the Susitna 100 again, so in late 2006 I cobbled together the parts for a semi-fat mountain bike — an old Raleigh steel frame, a Surly (One-One?) fork, 40mm Snowcat rims, and 2.7" Timberwolf tires. I had to carve off the knobs with a box cutter in order to fit the rear tire in the frame. It was a faux snow bike, so I called it "Snaux Bike." Snaux Bike was marginally better than the full-suspension mountain bike. I shaved five hours off my Susitna 100 finishing time in 2007, but wrecked my knee in the process. To this day I still wonder if the fit of the bike was partly to blame for my injury.

After my knee healed, I got the bug to race the 350-mile version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and decided Snaux Bike wasn't going to cut it for that daunting expedition. After two years of dedicated snow biking, it was finally time to buy a real fat bike. In late 2007, there were only a handful of options — Vicious Cycles, the now-gone Wildfire Designs, and the new and exciting Surly Pugsley. In order to keep it within my limited budget, I purchased a set of used Large Marge rims and Endomorph tires on eBay, and scavenged most of the components from Snaux Bike. The frame I bought new, battleship gray and beautiful. It was love at first sight.

Pugsley and I shared many happy miles (and not a small number of not-so-happy miles) as we navigated a whole new world together. The addition of a fat bike in my life opened my eyes to what was possible after two years of riding sub-optimal bikes in all kinds of conditions. Pugsley made all the difference — suddenly I could pedal all kinds of trail conditions I had long accepted as unridable. As they say, once you go fat, you never go back.

In summer 2010, after I'd moved to Missoula, I met Beat. Shortly after he convinced me to run my first non-bike-pushing ultramarathon (although still unofficial, since I was pacing him at the Bear 100), I convinced him to sign up for a fat bike race — the 2011 White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks. If he was going to ride a snow bike race, he reasoned, he would definitely need a snow bike. He bought an aluminum Fatback with a carbon fork that weighed in a full seven pounds lighter than my steel Pugsley. There were many aspects of Beat I found endearing ... sexy, funny, brilliant, crazy ultra-athlete ... but I have to admit that the Fatback purchase really sealed the deal. Any man who's willing to ride fat bikes with me is a keeper. We had a great time training through the winter in Montana. He did go on to opt out of biking the White Mountains 100 so he could run it instead (reasoning that he needed the gear testing session for the Iditarod 350 the following year.) I was perfectly okay with that decision, because it meant I could ride his Fatback in the race.

The Fatback (which we unimaginatively named Fatty) proved to be a wonderful bike. It was light and swift and handled like a mountain bike, rather than the tractor-like handling I'd become accustomed to with Pugsley. My loyalty to Pugsley began to fade when I realized the Fatback was just that much more fun to ride. After I moved away from Montana, and Beat and I no longer had a close-by venue to ride fat bikes together, I adopted Fatty as my own. Truth is, Fatty is still Beat's bike. But I love it as though it's mine.

By early 2012, I started to feel genuine guilt about never riding Pugsley anymore. He just hung from a wall in my apartment in California, which is no life for a bike like Pugsley. As much as I still clung to my sentimentality about this bike, I couldn't relegate it to a wall decoration. I put up a small post on bikepacking.net that the bike was for sale, all but implying that I was hoping for a good home even more than a good offer. I received an e-mail from a guy in Palmer, Alaska, who mentioned in his inquiry that he wanted a fat bike for overnight bike-rafting and beach riding. So Pugsley returned to the region where he belongs, and these are the adventures Pugsley has now. I'm a happy former owner.

Although I've taken Fatty to Alaska twice for the White Mountains 100, this will be his first trip to the place where it all started for me — the Susitna River Valley. I'm hoping to embark on a three-day tour up the Yentna River during the quiet week between the start of the ITI and the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. Hoping it will be a fine start to a wonderful month of Alaska adventures for Fatty and me.