Tuesday, September 16, 2014


I am speaking directly to you.

Stop.  Get up.  Look out the nearest window.


Fall is right now upon you.  

Blue skies, warm days, cool nights, the deliciously overpowering stench of decaying organic matter in the woods.

Hadn't noticed?  

Might want to check for a pulse.

Go.  Get out there, rub your own nose in it.

Soon it will be gone.  

Now is the time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Snowbike geometry.

A few weeks back I shared some pics and minutia relevant to my new snowbike.

For years I've been meaning to write out the pertinent numbers explaining what I like for snowbike geometry, and more importantly how and why I've arrived there.

I finally took an ~hour a few nights ago and did it.

Disclaimer: Below I've shared a bit about the journey I've taken with respect to riding fat tired bicycles on snow.  I do not purport that any action I've taken or design I've settled on is the only, one, true, undeniable way forward.  The world is big, conditions vary drastically from region to region and even hour to hour, and I am just one person with limited finances and time, doing what I can to notice things, think about them, improve upon them.  A lot of the conclusions I've drawn and solutions I've found were based on extensive trial and error on a series of ever-improving bikes, tested in extremely variable conditions.  I've verified that the changes I detail below are indeed substantive improvements by hopping onto most of the commonly available fatbikes and taking them out on the same trails, in the same conditions, to compare.  Still, I'm just one rider with my own set of experiences and biases, and I don't expect anyone to take these tests or conclusions as indisputable proof of anything.  Rather, I hope that the ideas give you reason to thinker on and experiment with your own setup, in your own conditions, and to draw your own conclusions.  

* * * * * * *

Snow.  Kabloona say that eskimos have a hundred (a thousand?) words for it, but that's sort of inaccurate because what they really have are a heap of descriptors for the different ways that snow manifests itself in their daily lives: round and styrofoamy snow skittering across the ice, heavy snow that's wet from overflow, wind-driven snow that gets up into your eyes, snow that bends then breaks branches, snow that snowmachines get stuck in.

Of these, the one that I am most interested in is that light, dry, airy, almost moistureless snow that falls in the early winter in my backyard--the mountains of Colorado.  This snow falls in decent quantities--a foot or two at a time--and then the skies clear for a day or a week, or even two, and the dry, cold air above sucks what little moisture there is in the snowpack right *out* of the snowpack.  Skiers refer to what's left as 'sugar' or 'rotten'.  Drop a ball bearing into it and that BB will keep moving downward until it hits bedrock, as there is absolutely nothing to slow it down--no crust, no moisture, no layers of thicker and thinner.  

Run over it with a snowmachine or even a snowcat, and it packs down somewhat, but it does not stick together.  Try to make a snowball out of it and you'll soon find yourself either frustrated or laughing, because unless you add water this snow will simply not adhere to itself.

Why belabor this point?

Because if I'm riding a bike, on snow, these are the conditions I get ~90% of the time.  This kind of snow is difficult to ride, at best, and more often difficult to wade through while smacking your shins on the useless bike you're dragging next to you.  And of this moistureless snow my backyard mountain gets copious quantities: 33 feet a year, on average.  Riders trying to learn this medium need to think about it three dimensionally, for they will be within it more often than atop it.  

To be clear, when I speak of snow I'm not referring to that moist, packable stuff that you lucky bastiges get in Anchorage or Minneapolis (aka the twin centers of the fatbike diaspora) or coastal BC--the kind that quickly sets up into white concrete and that you could ride a MTB or even a CX bike on.  That simply doesn't happen here.

Not coincidentally, the snowpack of my backyard is also somewhat common in...

(wait for it...)

...Interior Alaska.  They don't get as much of it up there as we get down here, but the end result is the same: snow that doesn't pack well, blows around often, and has little to no base beneath. 

I've spent a good portion of my adult life fanatically (not too strong a word) obsessed with finding ways to be efficient when riding on and in this medium.  Specifically, I set as a goal over 20 years ago, before I'd ever been to Alaska, that I wanted to ride every inch of the Iditarod Trail.  To date I've ridden roughly 6500 miles on that single trail, including 4 complete Knik to Nome traverses, all in winter conditions.  With each passing year I delved deeper into learning how to be safer, faster, and (most importantly) more efficient so that I could go still further, with less of a safety net, and still feel confident that I'd emerge out the other side.  

The net result of that fanaticism is an acute awareness that what works to keep a rider upright and pedaling through this kind of snow is very different from what the major players are pushing right now.

They've got the unenviable task of trying to please all the people, all the time.  Think about that for a second: They have to compete on price first and foremost, now that everyone's vying for a piece of the pie.  And they don't want to alienate a potential customer, so right off the bat they're convinced that they need to make their bike fit 6 different racks and 12 different bags and 7 different front derailleur standards, plus have 13 different bottle cage mounts as well as remain compatible with every crank and chainring and q-factor option.  Plus fenders!  In trying to please everyone they're making too many compromises, chief among them is that in order to fit 3 chainrings *and* a 5" tire, they have to lengthen the rear center by over an inch.  An inch is a significant number when it comes to bike geometry, and in this case it means that the rider's center of gravity is another inch removed from the rear axle.  That arrangement works fine on hardpack and singletrack.  But this is a fatbike, in my case a snowbike, and how it handles on hardpacked singletrack is of little interest.  You can ride *any* bike on a hardpacked surface, but if you take just any bike to the above-described soft surfaces you will be disappointed.  And you won't ride much.

I'm grossly overgeneralizing on this next sentence, simply to make a point.  What the manufacturers are doing is making average bikes for average people.  That is, the bike that doesn't offend anyone's sensibilities while still remaining somewhat attractive and reasonably affordable.  

There's nothing inherently wrong with that.  In fact from their perspective it's just good business to make a product that appeals to the masses, not a teeny, tiny niche.

They're also gambling to a large extent that few buying these bikes will ever ride them on snow and discover that:
1. Snow riding is difficult, slow, and unexciting, and,
2. The geometry they just sold you sucks frozen monkey ass.

And while length (chainstay, wheelbase, cockpit) is not the only consideration, the amalgamated blend of those big three is the top of the heap.  (For those of you speed-reading through this in hopes that I'm going to come right out and say "X head angle with Y BB drop and Z chainstay length is *the* magic ticket, just stop.  It's not ever that simple.)  

When I wrote the initial post introducing this bike, I stated that:

'I had a custom frame built because although everyone seems to make a fatbike these days, none of them come anywhere close to geometry that really, truly works on snow.  99.9% of the people buying and riding fatbikes these days don't know any better, and 90% of them don't care.  Most are simply happy looking down on their gee-whiz bulbous tires, thinking that the tires are the most important thing.

No way.' 

In that statement I was referring to the fact that few people are riding these bikes on snow to begin with.  And of those very few that are, almost all of them assume that tire size and pressure are 'the whole deal' when it comes to being able to ride instead of push your bike.  It's becoming more understood that pressure *is* hugely important ("when in doubt, let air out") but what happens when you're struggling along at 2psi, virtually riding on the rims, and that's still not low enough?

In the last two decades I've been in that scenario countless times, and each time I've asked myself 'what can I do to make the conditions underfoot rideable, given current rim and tire technology'?

To the end of finding answers to that question, I've designed, paid to have built, and extensively ridden 8 different snowbikes.  By extensively I mean tens of thousands of miles in the last 18 years, mostly in the above described conditions.  With each new bike I had to go in knowing that no matter how much we tweaked the design, what we would arrive at this time was still going to be a compromise in some way.  Every bike is.

The first custom had 18.9" chainstays.  If you ever want to know if a certain change in geometry will make a difference, exaggerate it.  The next one had 17.2" stays, and although the rims and tires were identical between the two, on the shorter bike I could maintain traction effortlessly by comparison.  Soon rims got fatter and tires got more volume, yet not until almost a decade later did tires get fat and have reasonable tread.  In that interminable "Remolino/Endo/Larry/BFL" vortex it was a given that while your tires would have some float, they'd have zero effective traction at any pressure.  My succinct way to describe the handling of a bike with Remo's or Endo's on snow was, "It goes sideways almost as fast as it goes forward".  So I did everything I could within those constraints to make my bikes float, dig, and track better.

Wider rims helped a lot, by squaring off the profile of the tire. You still didn't have actual edge knobs with which to lean and/or dig, but by removing the round profile you could at least gain a measure of consistency.  Wider rims meant that in sugary or wind-affected snow, your wheels were less likely to squirt out from beneath you.

Shortening the rear center was big.  Think about it this way--the medium on which you are riding is dynamic: Shifting, changing, moving beneath your tires.  You, as a human, are pathetic and weak, able to put out a whopping average of one horsepower on a warm, sunny, scantily-clad June day.  But in January, entombed as you are in layer upon layer of Windshopper, Poor-Tex, and Primacost, and with subzero air on offer to your torched lungs, no way you're putting out even that much.  So you have to maximize what you can put out, and you do that by bringing the rear wheel up under your center of gravity, the better to keep it from slipping and spinning when the snow can barely hold itself together.  Put differently, by bringing the rear wheel more underneath your body weight, you minimize the amount of body english needed to maintain forward momentum in marginal conditions, which means you move forward more, using less energy.   

The thing about shortening the rear center is that while it gains you massive amounts of traction out back, it also changes the handling of the front end of the bike.  Now (all else equal) there's not much weight over the front, so the front wheel wants to wander and wash.  No free lunch.  What to do?

You do two things.  

First, drop the BB.  This brings more weight forward over the front wheel, without having to resort to long/low stems, or excessively short front center measurements.  Snow is quite tolerant of a low BB, with the ancillary benefit that a low BB means added standover.  Next time you're riding in soft snow, and you're forced to dab, and your foot goes more than ankle deep, and keeps going...

...then you'll probably realize how important a healthy amount of standover really is.    

Next, pick your favorite blend of HTA and offset to net yourself a LOT more trail than you're used to.  I like a trail number of about 100mm on my snowbikes.  That amount is a compromise like any other number picked out of thin air, but it's a compromise that allows the bike to track straight on flats, carve corners when properly weighted, and remain neutral in ruts and off camber.  At the risk of redundancy, we're talking strictly about soft, baseless, marginally-rideable-at-3psi snow.

Once we'd experimented with these three big changes and saw the general direction we wanted to go, it was time to do further experimentation to determine how far to go.  To that end we experimented with seat tube angles to mimic the effect of shortening the rear end--and learned that getting weight directly over the rear axle is probably the Most Important Thing.  How you achieve it (slack STA with straight post?  medium STA with a setback post?  steep STA with super setback?!?!) is debatable, and probably always will be. 

This is getting long winded and there are probably all of 3 people left reading, so I should wrap it up.  How much to shorten the rear end, how low to go on the BB, how slack to make the front end--these are all questions to be answered by individuals and smaller builders, the people that actually see the value in faffing about with bikes, and then going out to see what their faffing has achieved.  Leave those questions (and answers) up to the bigger players and you'll continue to get average bikes that struggle where the hardpack ends.  Beaten men follow beaten paths, and all that.

For my part, I have yet to find the point of diminishing returns with respect to a short rear center.  The bike pictured here has a chainstay length of just a hair over 17".  That was as short as we could go while still maintaining clearance for a 5" tire on a 100mm rim, as well as a 29+ tire and rim.  Someone should go shorter still.  

Eventually, I'm sure I will.

* * * * *

Oh--I've shared the info above in a place where, in theory, intelligent discussion could happen.  Hey--I can be optimistic.  If you have questions on specifics, or would like clarification, please ask the questions there so that they'll all end up in one place.  Thanks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A ride, recently.

Getting out into high lonesome country while the getting is good.  Taking the fatbikes to increase our options once out.  

Making conscious decisions as a result, always opting for the path less traveled.  Surprising ourselves with new trails found, old trails connected, still older trails resurrected.

Surprising ourselves even more with how frequently we see wildlife relative to our 'normal' rides.

Enjoying those pleasant surprises.

If they insist...

Thanks for checking in.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Month of summer.

As long as you aren't too careful about the finer date details, the video below represents roughly a month of outdoor adventure this summer.

And since *you* can't see the date stamps on the video clips, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Besides--who the hell can keep track of what happened when, at this pace, and with this level of sleep deprivation?

Not me.

Boating locations include Taylor Canyon, Gunny WW park, Upper Animas river, Chetco river, Slaughterhouse Falls, The Numbers, Gunny Gorge, and 29 Rd waves @ GJ.

Trails include Free Lunch, Pucker Up, Mack Ridge, Vitamin B, Upper Upper, Too Long, and Tabeguache.

Hope that your summer has been equally chaotic, unpredictable, educational, and rewarding.
Thanks for checkin' in.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cross Mountain Gorge.

Around about this time of year the last of the water 'dries up', meaning that free-run rivers drop too low to float, and dam releases get curtailed for umpteen reasons.

If it weren't for an upcoming Grand Canyon trip for which I feel ill-prepared, I'd be OK with letting boating season end and riding season begin.

But because of said looming trip, I badgered Stevie and Greg into paddling on Tuesday, despite the fact that flows were tanking all over the state.  Ultimately Stevie had to bail but Greg pressed for Cross Mountain Gorge of the Yampa, which turned out to be a great call.

We rode our own shuttle over the course of ~an hour, following a straightforward route of doubletracks and dirt roads, and saw not one other person from the time we pedaled away from my car until we floated back down to it many hours hence.

BLM administers the public lands in this area, and has this to say:

Cross Mountain itself is an oblong, flat-topped land mass that rises over 2,200 feet above the floodplain of the Yampa River and the Little Snake River. The mountain trends north-south and forms an easily-identifiable landmark in the region.

The Yampa River cut a 1,000-foot-deep gorge, the Cross Mountain Canyon, through the mountain, forming a classic example of a superimposed river gorge with spectacular geologic history. Erosion of the mountain's east and west flanks has exposed colorful, rocky rims, side canyons and rock outcrops.

Riverbrain describes the water thusly:

Cross Mountain Gorge is a fun run through a beautiful desert canyon in northeastern Colorado.  This run often attracts the attention of antsy Colorado and Utah boaters since it is one of the first decent sections in Colorado to start running in the early season, often as early as March.  At low water expect mostly easy class II and III with a couple rapids in the IV- range and a stretch of flatwater on ingress and egress to the gorge.

After the mandatory faffing about that takes place at every put-in, we launched into ominous but startlingly calm skies.  Before rounding the first bend the blow began, and soon we were hunched forward and digging hard, putting our backs into overcoming the wind-pushed waves rolling upstream.  A mile or so later we entered the gorge proper, and while I don't think the wind died, other considerations presented themselves.

The first rapid of note, Osterizer, is rather kittenish (Greg's term) at these flows.  Boat scout from the small left eddy directly above (and pictured above) or shore scout from the right--where I'm standing to shoot the shot below.

Lots of IIIish action interspersed with bunches of boogie will occupy you for the next ~mile, before a few consecutive blind (but boat-scoutable) moves and then a horizon line encourage you to step out and up to have a look.

This is Snake Pit, probably the hardest line on the river this day.  My inexperience will probably show through here, but I'll stick my neck out and call it a III+ move with V- consequences.  Meaning if you blow the line you're in for a hole chundering and/or a really high speed, really shitty swim.  After much deliberation (in the midst of which Greg reminded me that his last SWR 'refresher' was in junior high) I chose to sneak it on the creeky line river right.  The main line had plenty of flow and looked relatively straightforward, but the fast runout into not-much-water with heaps of F-U rocks had me unmotivated to participate.  The creek line was fun.

Snake Pit from far below, at river level.

It was Greg's turn to lead when we arrived at this wall shot/pillow redirect.  I (think I) bluffed him into believing it was an inconsequential move, largely because I could see his blood pressure spiking the longer he looked at it.  I knew he could see the line and we both knew he could execute, so I waded/swam out to a better vantage point for photos while he battened down the hatches.

Lots of II+/III- read and run from here on out.

Some moving pixels from the day:

In the end we had a grand mini adventure, continued our education at the hands of water, and saw a lot of new-to-us country.  Win, win, win.

Thanks to Greg for the still shots appended above.

Thanks to you for checkin' in.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Flashback: 2002.

In the 2002 Iditarod Trail Invitational I was racing, ravenous, and had just left the native coastal village of Shaktoolik with a fresh resupply.  We use the post offices as our checkpoints in that race, meaning that we ship whatever we think we might need a few weeks in advance.  Back then you never knew if the villages would have stores, if/when you’d arrive, if/when they’d be open, what they’d have (or not) on the shelves, etc.  One year I arrived at the village store in Koyuk to find a pallet of Nutter Butter cookies (one of my all-time favorites) front and center by the door.  A quick glance revealed that they were six years past their expiration date, yet proved just as delicious as the day they were born.  And a bargain at only $9/pack! 

I share this story as entertainment, but also to illustrate that you make a best guess on what you’ll need from a few weeks and several thousand miles away, then ship it.  And pray. 

Among the goodies in each of the boxes I'd shipped out were headlamp batteries, dry socks, spare inner tubes, Bag Balm for my, um, bag, maps for the next section of trail, and lots of food. Salient edibles that year were Velveeta-and-bacon-filled tortillas, heaps of gummi worms (they’re excellent when frozen), and a quart-sized baggie full of chocolate-dipped dried apple rings. I looked forward to these more than anything else as I approached each village. 

 In order to get a box to any of these villages, the postal service has to use increasingly smaller aircraft to get from the hubs to the dots at the end of the line, and as such the boxes get handled many, many times — tossed into and out of the bellies of many small planes along the way.  Often the boxes simply never arrived at their destination; whether they were lost, stolen, or destroyed is anyone’s guess. 

When they did somehow arrive they looked like they’d been dragged most of the way from Colorado to bush Alaska.  The box that I picked up in Shaktoolik was ripped, scuffed, had been wet and dry several times, and had two gaping holes in the bottom.  It was obvious some stuff had fallen out and been shoved back in, and it was clear that not everything had made it back in.  From the general heft of it I assumed there was enough food to make it a few more days to the next store, so I signed for it and hustled out the door. 

Outside the PO I haphazardly tore everything out of the box and stashed it wherever I could on the bike — inside of pogies, inside the frame pack, in pockets in my jacket, etc.  Just a quick and dirty pack job for the moment, as I was leading the race and wanted to get out of town (and out of sight!) before any other racers arrived.  That done, I hightailed it back onto the trail and headed for the sea ice of Norton Sound. 

 A few hours later, hungry from the exertion of flight and able to see about 10 miles behind along the empty trail, I stopped for a snack. I sussed out the apple rings and was surprised to see a hole in the side of the bag. “No matter,” I thought, “at least they’re all still in there.” 

What I hadn’t noticed was that there was also a hole in the side of the Bag Balm ziploc, and that greasy, nasty stuff had gotten everywhere -- including all over the apples.  They still looked oh-so-delicious but the balm had rendered them completely, terribly inedible.  I carried them the next two days, occasionally trying to clean them with snow or to just tolerate the flavor, but each time I got instant gag reflex at the taste of the petroleum-jelly-based balm.  I ended up leaving the brim-full bag on a table inside of a shelter cabin near the Kwik River, figuring that someone might be in a survival situation and need to choke them down.  Or, better, maybe they could use them to start a fire! 

 Three days go by.  I’m back in Anchorage after successfully completing the race.  The guys that finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are flying back from the finish, and I’m thrilled to meet them at the airport to hear all about their rides.  Over the next few hours, in the course of much eating and storytelling, one of the three (a Brit) mentions how they'd found this indescribably delicious concoction some trail angel had left in a cabin.  He went on to re-imagine the ethereal flavor, something intangible but very familiar, of apples dipped in chocolate, with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ tying it all together.  He confessed that he and his mate (another Brit) ate the whole bag while their traveling partner slept nearby.  They admitted they felt guilty for not sharing, but were too overcome with the unique flavor to even consider stopping until there was nothing left to eat...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Things don't always have to be so black and white.

Except when it, uh, makes sense for them to.

New bike time.  Most important thing to remember is that any fatbike, for me, is always going to be meant for snow ~90% of the time.  

I may get a wild hair to do something requiring added float in the non-snow months, but those trips are the exception, and pretty much any geometry will work on soft, unfrozen surfaces.

Key word above = geometry.  I had a custom frame built because although everyone seems to make a fatbike these days, none of them come anywhere close to geometry that really, truly works on snow.  99.9% of the people buying and riding fatbikes these days don't know any better, and 90% of them don't care.  Most are simply happy looking down on their gee-whiz bulbous tires, thinking that the tires are the most important thing.

No way. 

Pictured here with summer kit (fork, post, grips) and wheels.

Heirloom stem.  Single pinch bolt for ease of turning the bars sideways--when strapping the bike onto a packraft, or stuffing the whole thing into a bush plane.

Heirloom bars.  They hold ~12oz of liquid, most often denatured alcohol.

Horizontal strut for ease of portage.  Fatbikes can be ridden lots of places that normal bikes cannot, but they still have their limits.  And since I usually ride with a framebag in place, that strut becomes my suitcase handle.

Proto?  Hopefully not for long.  Running 'em tubeless at ~13psi on Derby rims.

26t ring is plenty for where/how I ride it.

It's the little things.

Love the clean functionality of this cockpit.

Rack TBD.

Honestly, I do not and will not ride this bike much for 10 months of the year.  But I cannot imagine being entirely without a floaty chassis.  Those other ~2 months it'll get used enough to justify it's existence many times over.

EDIT: I'm getting lots of inquiries about the geometry that I used on this chassis, and how I arrived there.  I've posted a micro-treatise on exactly this subject in a place where intelligent discussion could happen, but probably won't.  Check it out, and feel free to ask questions there.

Thanks for checkin' in.