So, for whatever reason I haven’t gotten a ski pass yet this year. Not sure why. I’ve been doing an alternate-recreation winter: snowshoeing, some XC, lots of photography down in Squamish. My aging dog likes it there and the gas is 5 cents a litre cheaper. I digress.
Mid-winter and we needed something new around the shop, so I ordered up a shiny Surly Pugsley. These fat-tire bikes have been around for a while now, but we’ve seen zero demand – I think everyone assumed there’s just too much snow here for them to actually work, myself included. The recent cold dry spell provided some perfect conditions for testing the Pugsley in prime winter snow.
First, the bike itself. Ordered on a whim, NRG – Surly’s Canadian distributor – had it in the shop the next day. The
hardtail fully rigid 4130 steel frame and fork (made in Taiwan) is built around the huge 3.8 tires, with funky bends in the rear triangle, an 80mm bottom bracket, special front derailleur bracket and a custom 135mm spaced front fork (the Pug runs a rear hub up front, so the front and rear wheels can be swapped if the freehub cacks out). There’s a touch of Rube Goldberg, but it’s all functional and executed superbly. Assembling the bike with the stock parts kit was smooth, fabrication-free event. The final bike, with it’s bright yellow paint and huge black tires is beautiful.
During my first spin around the parking lot I was somewhat surprised to find that despite the Salvador Dali inspired seatstays and fork, the Pugsley rides just like… a bike. I was expecting a ton of rolling resistance from the massive tires, running at just 7 psi, and a lot of general squishyness. Instead, the Pugsley rode like any other bike – until I got to the end of the lot, and went up and over the snowbank. Hmm, maybe there’s something to this.
Next day I headed to the Whistler Interpretive Forest, to tackle the Cheakamus Lake road. I thought I’d start with a road well traveled – and packed – by skiers, snowshoers and the occasional snowmobile. (Side note: don’t get a Pugsley if you don’t like talking to people – everyone wants to know what this thing is. I hadn’t even left the parking lot and people were taking pictures of it leaning against my truck.) Once I started up the road I tried to ride into untracked snow, and my suspicions were confirmed: the Pugsley may be a ‘snow bike’ but it’s no powder bike. A foot of fresh stops you dead, just like any other bike. But, if I stayed in the centre of the track, where the most traffic had been I could ride – slowly, gently – up the road. Pedal circles, grasshopper!
I made it a couple of klicks up the road, just past the entrance to the Farside trail where a lot of the snowshoers branch off. The less compacted snow and a slightly steeper pitch defeated the Pugsley, so I turned my attention to the Farside. Dropping in the the ‘singletrack’ I discovered one of the drawbacks to riding in deep snow: my less-than-agile old dog got in the way and I dropped the front wheel off the packed trail and stopped dead. I instinctively put down my foot, immediately post-holed up to my thigh and slammed my other knee into the top tube. So, don’t do that.
Once I was rolling on the trail, the sore knee was forgotten. Going down on the Pugsley is an entirely different ballgame. Smooth and steady is still the name of the game, but once the bike gets rolling it starts to feel a bit like it’s planing. It was fun and controllable, and with firmly packed snow I even rode up all the small climbs. It was fun enough that I turned at the bottom and rode up the Westside Main. This road sees heavier use so uphill traction was less of a problem, and the ride back down the Riverside trail was a ton of fun.
The next day I just rode around Pemberton, and went to the winter festival – I found a picture of myself on Flickr:
For my second real ride I headed up the Duffey Lake Road, to check out the old logging road into Cayoosh Mt. Traction on this well traveled road wasn’t too bad, but I still found the tires prone to breaking through the cold compacted snow and into what felt like ball bearings.
A couple of times I had to push, but I think that’s par-for-the-course with this style of riding. It’s all slow and steady. Walk, ride, you’ll get there.
The ride back down was, again, a blast; once the bike gets up to speed all the sliding around disappears and the bike feels smooth and controllable.
So, what’s the verdict? Honestly, I don’t think I’ve spent enough time on the Pugsley to really rate it. For certain types of snow, namely hard, well packed snow it works really well. If you’re thinking of ripping trails like you do in summer, it’s not going to happen, at least here in the Coast Range. Even if you can find a trail that’s not blocked by bent-double trees, you just can’t ride through snow that deep on a bike. Now, if you had a crew of guys with fat-tire bikes keeping a trail clear and packed, that might work…
For now, I’ll be sticking to groomed tracks and well compacted logging roads. I’m going to try the Lillooet FSR up past the Hurley and the Sea to Sky trail, but I think the Pugsley will really come into its own a little later in the winter when we start seeing some melt/freeze cycles.