These thoughts were penned while riding a Surly Pugsley from Patagonia to Cuzco, Peru – it’s only now that I’ve got round to posting them. During this last trip in Ecuador I’ve been aboard a Surly Krampus. Thoughts on the relative merits of fatbikes v 29+ are in the pipeline…
First things first. I should point out that I didn’t set out to tour on a fatbike. The opportunity arose – in that I bought/swapped/borrowed/stole the Surly Pugsley my friend Daniel had painstakingly built to ride the Carretera Austral, sending back my Ogre in exchange. Having hung out with Joe, Nicolas and Kurt, I’d long thirsted to try out a monster-tyred bike, and seeing his in action on the deep gravel and washboard roads of Patagonia merely served to seal my fat biking fate.
Because of this impromptu decision, the bike isn’t built up exactly how I’d have done it myself – but it’s close enough. Also, the thoughts below are based on the experience of riding the Pugsley as a touring bike, rather than any investigation into its character come the midst of an Alaskan winter, or as a mountain bike. Certainly, I’ve spent more time than I’d have liked pushing its gargantuan wheels across windswept, Patagonian paving. After all, despite my steadfast aspirations to ride dirt roads whenever I can, the reality of a long distance, cross continental tour means that long stretches of pavement are inevitable, particularly when crossing the likes of the Argentinian pampa.
And with ten thousand kilometres or so to my name since we made the swap, I can certainly vouch that the long slogs have been… long. I won’t deny that at such times, my mind hasn’t obsessed over the merits of skinnier and lighter tyres: a Pugsley is not a bike to tour on if you’re motivated most by efficiency or speed. For the most part, I’d say it makes you work harder. But crossing these vast expanses has also proved eminently do-able. After all, a bike is a bike, and generally speaking, there are more similarities than differences. Pumped up to a mighty (by fat bike standards) 20psi, Knards roll surprisingly well on pavement, even if it sounds like you’re carrying a beehive in your bags.
But it’s not until pavement gives way to dirt that the penance of carrying such heavy rubber really pays dividends. This is where I’m going to wax lyrical. On rocky climbs, grip is nothing short of phenomenal, as it is on baby-head strewen descents. There’s a sure-footedness that feels incredibly confidence inspiring, let alone smile inducing. Over corrugated ripio – the roughcut gravel roads typical to Patagonia – the Pugsley is simply in a league of its own. Even when conditions are at their most jarring, the ride quality feels never less than tolerable. On anything else it’s velvety, perhaps better even than suspension at smoothing out the likes of Ecuadorian cobblestones. I’m sure it’s largely due to this that I never suffered from backache, even after days of bodily abuse.
Then, there’s the backcounty of the Bolivian altiplano… a land of endless corrugation and sand. I can’t imagine a better bike for such a journey, and I doubt I’d have enjoyed myself half as much on any other set of wheels, bar perhaps the likes of a mid-fat, like 29+. All the other tourer I met were aboard relatively skinny-tyred traditional tourers, and whilst there’s no denying they were still out there, doing it, smiles were certainly in short supply. Later, Mike and I tackled a 200km stretch of train line running through Peru. Again, it was not just eminently rideable, even directly over railway sleepers, but incredibly fun too. More saliently, I’m not sure the notion of tackling such a route would have even entered my imagination otherwise. The bottom line? Fatbikes are the perfect excuse to take the road less travelled. And when there’s no road left, to keep riding.
Indeed, it’s when you leave such limitations behind that the world begins to really open up, exponentially. Beaches become both traversable and incredibly enjoyable. Tyres leave barely a trace in sand. In Patagonia, the Pugsley trounced across a coastal stretch of pebble and stones with panache. Before long, I found myself pouring over satellite imagery on Google Earth, and weaving all manner of terrain into the patchwork of my tour. Stretches of road that may previously have conjured dread could now be tackled with relish. How much of this kind of terrain you aspire to ride, and whether the idea fills you with wanderlust, may well help decide whether you’ll love touring on a fatbike or not.
I find myself adjusting the tyre pressures on my Pugsley considerably more than I have on any other bike I’ve owned. Tyre pressure is surely the fat biker’s obsession. Just a psi or two makes can make a noticeable difference. Too low, and self steer becomes an issue. Too high, and the tyres bounce rather than absorb. I’d recommend a pump with a relatively large barrel for quick and easy adjustments. My lightweight Lezyne Micro Floor Drive mini floor pump (the High Volume version) has been excellent.
Tyres and Rims
Tyre wear certainly needs considering, as is the cost and ease of sourcing replacement rubber. I was fortunate enough to have had a set of folding 120 tpis sent to me by Surly – otherwise, I’d definitely stick with the more affordable 27 tpis, or other brands (Vee Rubber Missions are cheap). But if your trip is 5,000km or less, I wouldn’t worry about bringing a spare – after all, fat bike tyres are 1.2-1.6kg a piece, and take up a lot of space. And if it’s longer, I’d make use of South America’s excellent encomienda service. For a nominal fee, boxes can be shipped on by bus, and often stored in an office for up to a month.
As for rims, I wouldn’t go wider than Marge Lites or Large Marges. At 65mm, they’ll fit a 2.5in downhill tyre, which are cheap and in plentiful supply in South America, effectively meaning there’s generally a bail option relatively close to hand.
Given the recent massive fatbike explosion – almost every brand now makes a least a model – fatbike tyres may well become easier and easier to source. At the time of writing (March 2015), they’re available at Cikla in Quito (Surly Nate $90), or at their sister shop in Cuenca. And budget tyres (for as little as $30) can now be bought in Chile, via Jaime – see his Facebook page Fatbikes en Chile. Strategically speaking, this should cover you for a trans continental journey. Email ahead to check they’re in stock – most bike shops will happily send parts by bus if you can find a means to pay them.
Offset frames and Rohloffs
The nature of an offset frame means running a Rohloff in a Pugsley will never make the most of one of the internal hub’s advantages – the ability to build up a strong, symmetrical wheel. Additionally, the angle of exit as the spoke leaves the rim is especially tight, thanks to the large body of the hub, which in turn can cause stress below the nipple. So make sure you do a good job building your wheel.
It’s only recently that the Rohloff XL has been announced – if I was starting afresh and hankered for a Rohloff with a non-custom fat bike frame, it would definitely be an avenue I’d explore. Or, if I had the budget, I’d be looking seriously into something like this.
There’s no denying the Pugsley is a hefty bike. Which makes all the more reason to pack as light as possible. Indeed, the two go hand in hand. If you aspire to tackle the kind of terrain this bike is crying out to ride, you’ll want to keep your possessions to a minimum.
A few niggles
Particular to an offset frame, the pads on my rear BB7 brake caliper are be hard to adjust – this is best done by feel, as you can’t see exactly how they line up. Removing the rear wheel on a Pugsley, when run with a Rohloff and a Monkey Bone, is a little more time consuming, as one caliper bolt needs to be removed, and another loosened. Even more reason for going tubeless – fat tyres can be a pain to mount. I often needed to soap the bead to ensure a straight fit. The frame has Anything Cage eyelet on the fork, and plenty of braze ons for racks. But come on Surly, where’s that water bottle mount underneath the downtube?
I’m not going to say I wish my Pugsley was lighter, because Surly frames are both affordable and extremely tough. This is a bike I’d happily load in the trunk of a South American bus. It’s a bike I’ve flown with unboxed. It’s a bike I can count on.
Don’t ride a fatbike if the thought of fielding a barrage of repetitive enquiries is irksome. Rather, understand that everyone will want to touch it, feel it, talk about it. Even grannies will squeeze fat tyres as they would a small child. Accept that fascination will follow you at every turn. Ride it instead because a fatbike is a great conversation starter; somehow, it even transcends cultural divides. Riding the Pugs has opened untold numbers of doors; on more than a few occasions, it’s earned me an invite to camp in a yard, or even a meal.
Some build details:
Drivetrain: Rohloff Speedhub, Surly 36T Chainring, Rohloff 16T sprocket, Surly OD Cranks.
Wheels: Marge Lites, Son 135mm front hub and 27tpi Knards, with 8oz of Slime per tube. 180mm rotor at the back, 200m rotor at the front.
Other: AMPierce ti handlebar, XT levers, Ergon GP1 BioKork grips, Thomson seat post, Ritchey stem, WTB Pure V saddle (all time favourite), offset specific Old Man Mountain Sherpa rack (one bolt sheared), Nitto M18 front rack (perfect for supporting my Carradice saddlebag).
Changes I’d have made:
Setting my tyres up tubeless (which I’ve done since writing this review – ghetto style).
175mm cranks, for more ground clearance.
180mm rotors front and rear (200mm is overkill for me).
I’d probably have specced the rear wheel with a heavier Large Marge XC, for long distance touring. As it is, the Marge Lites held up absolutely fine. I guess that big tyre volume of air provides a nice cushion.
A different colour. I like Pugsley blue!
Flying with a fatbike:
I’ve only flown with the Pugsley once, back from Peru. To my surprise, my XL frame fit easily into a Specialized bike box, designed for a large, full suspension bike (I noticed they come in bigger, wider boxes than the hardtails). I just had to remove the front tyre, as well as the usual dismembering.
Other long distance fatbike tours in South America:
Aside from Joe and Kurt, who are linked above, there’s Mike Howarth, Dan and Gina and Matt Kerner. All riding Pugsleys, as it happens. Their burly frames certainly suit the vagaries of long distance travel. Within Ecuador, the Dammers gets up to all kinds of incredible páramo adventures on their Krampus and Pugsley.
Touring with mid-fat/29+:
The 29+ wheel size – effectively a wide, 29er rim, shod with 3in tyres – definitely makes a worthy alternative to full fat tyres for touring. Perhaps it’s even a more sensible all rounder for long and adventurous transcontinental trips. The tyres roll that bit faster, especially on pavement, yet still handle rough terrain with assurance and comfort, whilst offering some weight saving too. 29er tyres are becoming ever more available in South America, so emergency spares are less of an issue. I can see Surly’s ECR and Genesis’ Longitude being great steeds for backcountry travel across the continent, with the same fatbike caveats – ‘mid-fats’ are also on the heavy side, so pack light.
But I still maintain there’s distinct advantages to full fat too: incredible flotation, a far wider and cheaper tyre choice, the intrinsic strength of a 26in rim, and the option of running wide volume 26in tyres, which are easy to find, everywhere. As off-grid exploration bikes, they rule.
Before leaving for this particular leg of the trip, I’d deliberated endlessly about bringing my Surly ECR (29+), but settled finally on my trusty Ogre. I’d come to the conclusion that a 2.4in tyre was the sweet spot for the kind of touring I enjoy most; the perfect balance of speed and off road prowess. Since then, I’ve evolved my view. I still think the Ogre is a supremely capable and versatile bike. But I now can’t see myself wanting to run a tyre narrower than 3in, given the places I like to ride most. Above all, I love how fat tyres shift the emphasis from speed to that of exploration.
When it boils down to it, there’s enough overlap between touring on a fat bike and a large volume 29er that both will do just fine, for the vast majority of the time. But it’s the minority of time – that small percentage where I’ve really needed a fatbike – that I remember most.
Simply put, travelling on a Pugsley has rarely failed to dish out the smiles. It’s a bike with character; one that’s easy to get attached to, foibles and all. It’s introduced me to off-grid travel, in its truest form, and opened up my mind to a more creative style of bicycle touring. I’ve begun to look at maps with new eyes, and see adventures that might otherwise have gone overlooked.
Fatbikes are dream-weavers, and above all, plain old-fashioned fun.