A Fat Year: Touring on a Surly Pugsley

November 29, 2012

The following is a guest post from Nicholas Carman, who was mentioned in Josh Tack's column, Fine Tuned in the December/January issue of Adventure Cyclist. Read more of Nicholas' stories on his blog,  gypsybytrade.wordpress.com.
As leaves fall, I typically point my wheels south for the winter. Last year, I flew north. I had just wrapped up a full season of touring, including the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), and boarded a plane to Alaska from New Mexico. Considering what I knew about the requisite equipment for winter bike travel, I purchased a used purple Surly Pugsley from a Craigslist seller in Seattle while visiting friends on a two-week layover. The Pugsley is one of a new breed of all-terrain bikes, called fatbikes, with 4” tires and wide rims. With nothing but my camping equipment and the spare tire included in the sale, I installed my Brooks saddle and pedaled across town at dark, in the rain. 
Touring the Great Divide, Wyoming

Now, reflecting on a full year of fatbiking, I am eager to share the joy and utility of big tires. Lael and I both relied on our Pugsleys this winter while commuting through a record snowfall in Anchorage. On many days there would have been no other way. As the snow melted, I left town and toured all summer through Canada and the Rocky Mountain states, connecting with dirt roads and trails when possible. At length, I can describe the capacity of large tires to benefit traction, suspension, and flotation over varied terrain. I can describe all the incredible places I've been on my fat tires, and we can laugh at the long paved stretches I've ridden on my purple snow bike with drop bars. But what I've really learned over four seasons and many thousand miles is that the greatest feature of any fatbike is the “can do” attitude it brings to the trail. When touring on a capable steed like the Pugsley, the bike is as willing as the rider. I've encountered many interesting dirt tracks on previous tours that seemed beyond the scope of my equipment. With the Pugsley, the bike is almost never the limitation and always agrees to new experiences. Here are some memorable moments from my revelatory fat year:

Lael and I ride amidst monstrous iceforms at the foot of the Knik Glacier, 50 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska.
A record of 133.6 inches of snow fell on the city of Anchorage this winter and was preserved for the entire season by consistently cold temperatures. Four-inch tires at 5psi allow for flotation over soft surfaces. Crossing Westchester Lagoon, this is a typical winter commute. 
Leaving Anchorage in late May, I expected to find a lot of pavement on my route south, so I installed a set of smooth touring tires on my wide rims. Along the way I snuck some delectable dirt detours. Even in “road bike” mode with 60mm Schwalbe slicks (Schwalbe Big Apple 26x2.35”), the ride is well-cushioned on rough roads. This is the 90-mile Denali Park Road, which prohibits private motor vehicle traffic and offers spectacularly wild camping.

Evening on the Cassiar Highway, B.C. Necessarily, I pass thousands of paved miles through Canada in an endless escape from mosquitoes.


Upon reaching the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Banff, Alberta, I turn onto dirt roads and trails for the remainder of the summer. I refit fat tires in Montana and follow the GDMBR through Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.


In Colorado, I reconnect with my girlfriend Lael who has been riding a 20-inch-wheeled Cannondale Hooligan in Europe all summer. We head off together on the Colorado Trail (CT). The dirt roads of the Divide are a great leap from traditional paved touring; likewise, touring the mountainous singletrack of the Colorado Trail is another giant leap. Lightweight mountain-bike touring is often called “bikepacking”, but it's really just bike touring in the mountains. The rewards are worth the challenges, as seen here above 12,000 feet near Kokomo Pass on the CT.


From snow to red clay -- this is one bike for all seasons. Coming full circle, I stand on Mushroom Rock as snow falls on Mt. Sopris in the background near Carbondale, Colorado.


Connecting southern sections of the GDMBR and other roads into New Mexico, Lael and I eventually find a place to hang our hats for the winter in Albuquerque. Welcoming us to New Mexico, friends Cass and Joe meet for a five-day ride out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Don't be afraid of touring on bigger tires, whether 38 or 94mm. From my experiences on the Great Divide, the Colorado Trail, and beyond, a big tire and an open mind can go a long way.

Photos by Nicholas Carman.


NICHOLAS CARMAN left on a bike trip in 2008, and hasn't stopped riding. He shares stories, photographs and ideas at gypsybytrade.wordpress.com.


gypsybytrade November 30, 2012, 3:33 PM

Great idea Tom. I often receive lots of questions about the Great Divide Route. I'm happy to share that is actually quite accessible.

Thanks, G Mu.

G Mu November 30, 2012, 3:30 AM

Fine debut, sir.

Tom Mrotek November 30, 2012, 12:19 AM

Nice post! You did the GDMBR twice right? Maybe you could next write about what you learned from trip #1 and adopted for trip #2 and thusly to what you would do if you were going for a third.

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