First Look: Tumbleweed Prospector

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Photos by Tumbleweed Bike Co. 

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Designing bikes for fat tires is a still an evolving science. As fat tires moved from 3.8 to more than 5 inches, the corresponding hub and bottom bracket widths are growing to accommodate all that rubber. Wider bottom brackets mean a wider Q-factor. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Q-factor is the distance between pedals. Some riders (this author included) find the wider pedal stance of most fat bikes to be uncomfortable on longer rides—not an ideal situation for a long tour. That’s why the Prospector stands out in the fat-bike crowd: It uses a standard 73 mm bottom bracket shell.

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There is more to the Prospector than a standard bottom bracket, but being able to run 26×4 inch tires with a low q-factor is pretty big news. There is also an very nice Phil Wood eccentric bottom bracket for tensioning the chain when using an internally-geared hub or single speed drivetrain. The eccentric can also be used to adjust bottom bracket height when using other tire sizes. The Prospector can fit 29×3 and 27.5×3.25 tires as well.

There are some drivetrain limitations, as there is no free lunch, even with the sweet chainstay yoke that makes this whole bike work. Fat bike tires (26×4) will only work with a singlespeed or internally-geared hubs. Single-ring drivetrains will function fine with most plus tires, but multi-ring cranks will need to be Boost offset to work.

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Both front and rear wheels are 135 mm with standard quick releases, making for an easy swap if something goes wrong with a cassette body or IGH.

Here are the bullet points from Tumbleweed on the bike specs:

  • Tumbleweed hollow cast BB yoke (Designed by Anna Schwinn) for maximum tire and mud clearance. Compatible with most Shimano mountain cranksets
  • 73 mm Tumbleweed exclusive Phil Wood Eccentric Bottom Bracket.
  • Double butted, heat treated chromoly tubing.
  • Tumbleweed vertical dropouts (Designed by Anna Schwinn) with Rohloff OEM slot and chainstay mounted disc brake. M6 and M5 Rack and Fender mounts.
  • Replaceable derailleur hanger (Wheels Manufacturing number 6)
  • Braze ons: Front and rear rack and fender mounts, three water bottle mounts on frame, triple water bottle mounts on fork
  • 135mm symmetrical QR rear hub spacing
  • 135mm fork spacing for rear disc spaced hubs, allows front and rear wheel interchangeability. Unicrown, 100mm suspension corrected
  • Tire clearance for 26×4 on 65mm rim (Rohloff SPEEDHUB or singlespeed only), 29×3 on 50mm rim, or 27.5×3.25 on 50mm rim
  • Chainring clearance: 24-38 Mountain Double, or 24-32-42 Mountain Triple. Chainring clearance is only limited when the Eccentric BB is in the far rearward position. Larger chainring combinations may be used if this rear position is avoided. In order to use a 3 inch tire with derailleurs, a 1x or offset 2x crankset must be used.
  • 31.6mm seatpost, 35mm seat clamp
  • Available Colors: New Mexico Turquoise and Desert Sandglow

MSRP is $1,450, but there are discounts for early orders. Bikes should ship in February. There is a “module” option as well, which will include a Rohloff Speedhub, shifter, cables/housing and disc rotor for $2,650.00

Check out the video for a full explanation of with the development of this bike.

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Review: Surly Wednesday

Surley Wednesday

Tester: Katherine Fuller
Price: $1,500
Weight: 35.6 pounds
Sizes: XS, S (tested), M, L
More info: Surly Wednesday (now in a new color!)

P.J. O’Rourke opined in a 2010 issue of Car and Driver about why he chose a Jeep Wrangler as his daily vehicle. He described the utilitarian machine as “three things not easily found these days: straight, square and forthright.” O’Rourke wrote of irrational love, acknowledging he would rarely use the Wrangler off road and explained that cars are largely outward manifestations of our inner selves.

All of that essentially sums up how I feel about the Surly Wednesday: It’s a bicycle that is “straight, square and forthright” and deserving of your irrational love no matter how you intend to use it.

Surley Wednesday

Building on a decade of fat bike design experience, the affectionately cantankerous Minnesota company cross-pollinated its lineup to create a bike equally capable of crushing your local trails as it is wandering off for loaded touring. Not as shreddy as the aggressive Ice Cream Truck but more singletrack-curious than the old-school Pugsley, the Wednesday carries on the “Addams Family” nomenclature and offers four-season ride capabilities.

The use of 4130 chromoly steel and voluminous rubber mean you can have a lot of fun plowing over rough stuff. That is really the only way to ride the Wednesday since its 100 mm wide bottom bracket means you’re not likely threading through rock gardens. You might be pedal striking more than usual on your favorite 12 inch singletrack until you get used to the Q-factor girth.

Surley Wednesday

The Wednesday won’t respond to dainty, last-minute wrist flicks like a svelte carbon bike, but that’s actually part of the fun. Handle it aggressively and see how big of a smile it puts on your face. Whenever the trail turned playful, its front end was more than willing to rear up and launch over rollers on fast descents. Yep, this is a pudgy rigid hardtail that wants to go airborne.

The seat tube and head tube angles are each one degree in the slacker direction than the venerable Surly Pugsley, a bike I have owned for a few years. The Wednesday’s top tube is also a full inch longer. The difference is noticeable on long, steady climbs and hour-long grinds over flat ground where I found the more laid-back, stretched-out ride of the Wednesday to be slightly less comfortable for the job. A simple parts swap to a more upright cockpit, and ditching the stock seatpost for one with no setback should help make it more suitable for cruising. Leave her as-is should you plan to tour on on rowdier routes.

Front hub spacing is 150 mm and rear is 177 mm (symmetric) and—hooray!— the bottom bracket is threaded. Thanks to track dropouts with 20 mm of fore-aft adjustment, you can move the rear wheel (depending to the wheel/tire combo you are running) to achieve a rear chainstay length of 17 to 18 inches. With the rear wheel fully aft in the dropouts, it fits up to a 4.6 inch tire on an 80 mm rim. With the wheel slammed full-forward, you’re looking at 3.8 inch tires on the same rims. You can take advantage of that adjustability based on how you want this bike to ride.

Surley Wednesday

You can endlessly mold the loveable Wednesday to your whims thanks to its versatile frame design that accepts an internally-routed dropper, has room for 29plus tires and features numerous braze-ons. The SRAM X5 build kit, tubelessready rims, 3.8-inch Surly Nate tires and Hayes MX Comp mechanical disc brakes all make sense for keeping the price down and offered a reliable ride experience. With the right pressure, the Nates’ aggressive traction is phenomenal on wet trails and climbing on snow, but they are painfully sluggish rolling on smooth, dry ground.

“So, what can a person of modest means do to get a life?” O’Rourke asked at the end of his Jeep Wrangler story. He was writing about cars but if you feel that way about your bikes, try a Surly Wednesday—you just might like how “square, straight and forthright” it is. Ride it on snow or sand; ride it on singletrack; take it on tour: it’s one of the most fun, versatile fat bikes out there.

 

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Salsa debuts updated Mukluk fat bike

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The Salsa Mukluk is all-new for 2017. We admittedly almost overlooked this beast. One does not really think about five-inch fatties when it’s 80 degrees and sunny on the site of a mountain bike park. Well, maybe you do.

The all-new Mukluk is available in both carbon (pictured) and aluminum. The stiffness of the carbon version was adjusted, but in the direction often not taken. Because the Salsa Beargrease is the company’s speed-focused fatty, the new Mukluk frame was actually tuned to be more comfortable and more compliant for longer days in the saddle. The chainstays shrunk to 430 mm, making them the shortest on the market on a fat bike. So you end up with something rather playful, but look at all that room inside the frame! Plenty of space for a frame bag.

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Both frames have the Alternator Dropouts 2.0, allowing room for up to 4.7-inch tires (paired with 70 mm rims) on the carbon version with a chainstay length of 432 mm. You can still use Salsa’s Alternator 190 Rack with this setup. The aluminum version gets Alternator Dropouts 1.0 for 440 mm chainstays. By moving the wheel back for bigger tires, the chainstay lengthens to 450 mm.

Set this bike up with a 1x or 2x drivetrain—it will indeed take a front derailleur. The top tube got a bit longer to play well with 60/70 mm stems alongside the 69-degree headtube angle, 73-degree seat tube angle, 63 mm bottom bracket height and 100 mm threaded bottom bracket. The rear dropout grew to 197 x 12 mm.

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The routing for derailleurs and rear brake housing are internal through the toptube, and external down the inside of the seatstays. Customizable rubber grommets for the cable ports allow different drivetrain and brake setups. Stealth routing for dropper posts is also provided. Finally, the bike will also accept a 100 or 120 mm fork.

The Salsa Mukluk will be offered in five builds. Expect to see it in your local shop in October/November.

  • Mukluk Carbon XO1 – $4,500
  • Mukluk Carbon X1 – $3,500
  • Mukluk Carbon GX1 – $2,700
  • Mukluk ALU NX1 SUS – $2,500
  • Mukluk ALU NX1 – $1,800

Salsa Beargrease

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The go-fast-oriented Beargrease remains unchanged for 2017, but did get some rad new paint jobs across the four different models (three carbon and one aluminum). Beargrease photos courtesy of Salsa Cycles.

 

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First Impression: Lauf Carbonara fat bike fork

Let me tell you, few things make quite an impression as seeing one of these in person. The Carbonara fat bike fork is the second major product release from Lauf, after the Trail Racer mountain bike fork, first for 29ers and then for 27.5. Hailing from Iceland, Lauf is a small company dedicated to bringing its radical design to market, and so far these suspension forks are its only product.

The very sight of the Lauf design usually results in the peanut gallery unloading in the comments section of its favorite social media network or making jokes about the brand’s name.* Mountain biking wouldn’t exist without experimentation, so hat’s off to Lauf for trying something new.

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My first impression after taking it out of the (exceptionally nice) packaging is that it resembles something Ripley blasted out of the airlock at the end of “Alien.” The fork weighs 1,144 grams with the included, bolt-on axle and tapered steerer tube. It has a 494 mm axle-to-crown measurement and uses a 150 mm hub. It retails for $990 and is available stock in white or matte carbon (pictured). For $100 extra, you can order one custom painted in one of eight Pantone colors.

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It works by using a dozen S2 glassfiber plates that flex to allow the axle to move vertically. The Carbonara has 60 mm of travel, and there are bumpstops integrated into the design so you can’t overdo it. I haven’t been able to bottom it out in normal riding. Lauf says the resistance is progressive, meaning it moves more easily through the first third of its travel than the last third. The springs slot into the carbon fiber chassis and are bonded in place, and Lauf says it took thousands of trial-and-error samples until they got the desired flex just right.

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The Carbonara is available in two stiffness tunes for the leaf springs: one for riders under 187 pounds and one for riders over 175 pounds. Yes, they overlap. It’s not a weight limit, but more of a guide for how you want the fork to perform. The benefit of such a design? Zero maintenance for one, and no performance degradation from the cold. I’m led to believe it gets cold in Iceland.

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I’ve mounted it up to my trusty Salsa Mukluk (which has had approximately 258 different build setups at this point) and we’re headed out to see what it can do.

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*If you’re still making puns substituting this brand’s name for “laugh,” please stop. That joke is over. It’s the bike industry equivalent of people making “Seinfeld” references in regards to my last name.

 

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Field Tested: Fyxation Blackhawk

It comes as no surprise that carbon fiber has found its way into fat bike frames. It does come as a surprise that a company like Fyxation—better known for practical steel frames and urban accessories— would be one of the early adopters of carbon frames.

Fyxation Blackhawk

I asked Ben Ginster, Fyxation’s co-founder, about the decision to go with carbon for a fat bike: “A big driver behind carbon for the Blackhawk was our goal of a producing a true four-season bike. While steel fat bikes are a great entry to the fat biking world, a carbon build allows you to build a sub 30-pound winter rig that’s quick when the snow is flying, but can also be a capable trail bike year round. We’ve done builds down to 23 pounds, which is feathery even for bikes that never touch snow.” Seems legit to me.

The Blackhawk isn’t a Fyxation exclusive design, but it hit all the targets of a four season bike: modern axle standards (197/150), clearance for five-inch tires, suspension corrected, and capable of running 29plus tires on a second wheelset in the summer. Shift cables are internally routed through the top tube, and the 31.6 mm seatpost diameter is ready for a dropper post, but you are on your own for cable routing.

After consulting the Blackhawk’s sizing recommendations, I chose a medium (17”) frame, and was comfortable from the get-go, but riders with long legs might need something longer than the stock 375 mm seatpost, as I was almost maxed out with my 32-inch inseam. The rest of the bike fit very well, a good thing since my first real ride was over six hours long.

Extras

The build kit is a smart blend of affordable and sturdy. Some standouts are the aggressive Surly nate 3.8 tires, Sun mulefüt rims, and Hayes prime brakes. I rode quite often in single digit temps, and the prime brakes seemed completely unaffected. My tester was set up with a 1×10 drivetrain and 28 tooth ring.

If you aren’t happy with one of the multiple stock builds, Fyxation offers a custom build program through its dealer network. From mild to wild, you can get almost anything you can dream up, from racerboy builds to super-fat trail bikes with suspension forks, Fyxation can scratch your carbon itch.

Geometry is a happy medium between cross country and trail, and it’s easy to set up with a riding position that is efficient and all-day comfortable but ready to rip. I was surprised by the playful nature of the Blackhawk, some of that might be attributed to the bouncy nature of the fat tires, which can be timed to spring off and over trail features.

There is plenty of room to run 29 or 29plus tires in this frame. I was concerned the taller 29plus tires would raise the bottom bracket to an undesirable level, but even another inch taller wouldn’t drive things into the tippy range, and may actually improve things in tight, technical terrain.

Parting Thoughts

The stable geometry is well suited to icy conditions and long rides, making this a strong contender for wintertime endurance racers or long haul winter riders. The lack of rack mounts and a second bottle cage may limit the touring and commuting aspects of this bike, but frame bags and hydration packs aren’t bad options. All in all, I had a smashing good time on this bike, and would have no problem recommending it to riders looking for a lighter weight way to get fat.

  • More info from Fyxation
  • Price: $2,795 (complete); $1,795 (frame + fork)
  • Weight: 29.8 pounds
  • Sizes: 15”, 17” (tested), 19”
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Feature: Fatpacking Bolivia

From Bicycle Times Issue #34

Word and photos: Cass Gilbert

bolivia 1In the dusty village of Vichaya, on the doorstep to La Paz, a fiesta builds in momentum as drunken revelry charges the air. Hired in from the capital, a sharp-looking band plays tirelessly, trumpets and tubas glinting in the midday sun. Bowler-hatted women swirl their skirts and petticoats in perfect synchronicity. Their masked husbands, dressed in the shimmering Morenada costumes of the Bolivian Andes, launch into an elaborate dance inspired by the suffering of African slaves, brought to work in the silver mines of Potosí.

The mood is generous and upbeat; luckily, full inebriation has yet to be reached. Plastic cups of beer are pressed into our hands. I make the mistake of sipping mine without first offering due thanks to Pachamama—Mother Earth. “We must respect Pachamama and give back to her,” reprimands an elderly campesina with intensity. “Pachamama is the earth on which we walk,” I’m told. She looks over at our grubby, battle-scarred fatbikes, fresh from crossing the country’s beautiful and solitary altiplano.

“She’s the earth along which you ride your bikes,” she adds for the sake of clarity. Her drunken husband, hair matted and eyes glassy, nods in solemn agreement. I try again, this time dutifully waving my cup skyward, sploshing beer onto the ground as custom dictates, before taking a generous swig. They smile, appeased.

Russian dolls and smoke signals

They’re right, of course. Pachamama has treated me better than I could have expected, for Bolivia is an incredible and extreme land. One where an intense sun beats down, cracking dry everything beneath it. Where strong winds blast restlessly across the open plateaux. Where simple, everyday living is hard.

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At over 13,000 feet in altitude, breathing is often labored. Hands darken and crease. In a few short weeks, the lines around my eyes have collected, and my nose has reddened and peeled. Water stops have been few and far between.

What liquids we have found have often been ladled out of dubious, icy vats in remote, windswept settlements. And where there have been faucets to fill our water bottles, pipes are always frozen solid come morning. At night, I’ve slept in everything I own, bundled up in multicolored layers like a Russian doll, my sleeping bag pulled snug around me, my warm breath wafting out like a smoke signal into the icy, star-clustered air.

As is often the case in such fringe environments, the scenery has been without parallel. Here, volcanoes tower high, scratching the atmosphere at 20,000 feet or more. Minerals saturate and stain mountains, lending the open panoramas a definitive Mars-like hue, while bandy-legged, pink flamingos pick their way through pungent sulphur deposits. A bleached winter light instills a sense of otherworldliness, especially when crossing the salar—the country’s fabled salt flats—that scrunch under tire, handlebars free to turn in any one of the 360 surrounding degrees.

It’s an environment that’s shaped those who live here, both physically and emotionally: Bolivians are inevitably short, squat and strong. And while not always as naturally quick to engage as their effervescent Argentinian neighbors, it’s not long before a genuine warmness emerges, along with gummy and gold-toothed smiles.

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Looking back on our five-week traverse of this rugged, landlocked country, it was clear that our high altitude adventures had been their toil. We’d ridden from the Chilean border all the way to the capital, on barely a stretch of pavement. We’d camped under skies crammed with constellations, shielded from the wind by ancient burial chambers. We’d dined on llama, the camelid so perfectly adapted to the region, in all its culinary forms—stewed, fried and even dried. We carbo-loaded on chuño, a traditional speciality of potatoes blackened by days of freeze-thaw, befitting frigid night time temperatures that dropped below -5 degrees.

As for the altiplano’s “roads”… Well, more often than not, the lines that look so permanent on our maps had proved little more than a series of interlocking, ever-shifting sandy tracks, shaped into brain-rattling corrugation by the jeeps that barreled across them. In fact, it was for this reason that I’d chosen to ride the bike I had—a Surly Pugsley, its meaty tires providing incredible traction, flotation and stability.

Everyone I’d talked to said that: among the volcanic landscapes of the Andes, road conditions were horrendous. I’d read countless tales of poor souls dragging juggernaut touring bikes for hours through deep sand, only to be maddened by miles of corrugation. And it was true. Fat bikes may hail from Alaska, but Bolivia is surely their surrogate home.

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Mad Max and the Rio Grande

Certainly, they looked the part. Ingrained with a thick film of dust, our fat bikes blended effortlessly into the Mad Maxian, cinematic setting that encapsulates much of southwest Bolivia. The ride from San Juan de Rosario to Uyuni certainly felt post-apocalyptic in character.

First we followed an old mining company railway line built in the 19th century—when Bolivia still bordered the Pacific—its hardened strips of shiny metal scything across the plateaux. Under a cloudless expanse, we chased the faintest hint of a jeep track across sparse, crunchy salt flats. Then we balanced our way across railway sleepers to cross the frigid waters of the Rio Grande, swirling in icy slow-motion.

We weaved through powdery borax mines that painted our tire tracks a sugary white, and traced a singletrack that flanked daisy chains of stenciled railway carriages; empty, quiet and still. Our ride even skirted an abandoned train cemetery, sprawling out beyond the sandy fringes of Uyuni, where hollowed out locomotives lie dull and corroded by the restless, salty winds of the Andean altiplano.

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Uyuni proved to be a dusty, unsightly town we soon warmed to, thanks to the chance to fill our boots with the best pizza this side of the Andes, and an all-you-can-eat breakfast, manned by a relocated Bostonian. There, we eeked out our time, stuffing ourselves with pancakes, maple syrup, granola, hash browns, toast, fruit and more—a blur of movement from table to buffet, a blur of shoveling, the typical actions of cycle tourists and starved men.

It was there too that I and my riding companion Miguel had arranged to meet up with Andi from Germany, who’d be joining us for the rest of the ride, his fat-tired Pugsley drawing as many admiring glances as my own.

Together, the three of us set out on a broad loop around the Sur Lípez towards Volcan Uturuncu, its reputation preceding it. We’d heard talk of a rideable jeep track that curled almost up to its summit, where an abandoned sulphur mine lay a rarefied 18,950 feet—making it among the highest roads in the world, and a temptation too strong to resist. As expected, the journey proved to be both beautiful and challenging.

A day out of town, we branched off the main road to Topiza, leaving kidney-jarring corrugation for the delights of a barely travelled jeep track. Striking deeper into the Bolivian backcountry, we forded rivers, lugged our bikes across deep gouges in the road, pedaled through sand and camped in llama pens, shielding us from a cold and biting wind.

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In the dusty tracks of Butch and Sundance

The settlement of San Vincente was marked by a roadside sign—the town lays claim to being the final resting place of outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, allegedly slain in 1908 in a gun battle with the Pinkerton Agency—precursors to the FBI. True or other- wise, the surrounding hills of this bustling mountain community are now scarred with modern mining activity, probably of more importance to locals these days than American gunslinging folklore. Certainly, spirits were high.

The comedor in which we refueled was run by a jovial lady; her “llama bolognese” was the tastiest meal I’d enjoyed in Bolivia and filled a gaping hole in my stomach. When the miners we shared our table with had all returned to work, she sidled over for a chat. “How can you cycle with legs like those?” she asked Andi, with a smile. “You need ones like these,” she laughed, pointing to her own more ample thighs.

The characterful encounters continued between steep Andean passes and endless ribbons of dirt. In San Pablo, a man on a brakeless singlespeed accosted us, shepherding us towards a cheap hospedaje. The schoolgirls who ran the adjoining restaurant served us up a mean plate of cold rice and tepid, chewy llama steak for dinner.

It was the prelude to Bolivia Day—celebrating the country’s independence in August 1825—and all the village drunks were out in force. Their tipple? Coca Cola, blended with a local brew so potent we used it to light our stoves. Little surprise that when we ordered breakfast the next morning for 7 a.m., it finally appeared in the form of a plate of cold rice, greasy eggs and translucent coffee over two hours later.

Dancing the zombie shuffle

Outside, the party limped on. In the plaza, the Bolivian flag was being raised lopsidedly and anthems were being sung with suit- able pomp and circumstance. An elderly lady sold asado out of a wheelbarrow—a chunk of llama meat, dished out with her hands, served with potatoes and a tomato salad. It was delicious, and we washed it down with a refresco called linasa—more than making up for our meager first breakfast.

Bolivia bikepacking

Thirty dusty miles down the road, we stopped in San Antonio de Lipez, home to more Bolivian flags fluttering in the afternoon wind, and another contingent of glassy-eyed drunks pirouetting from one wall to the next. When they saw us, they chased us in a slow, zombie-like shuffle, accosting us with good natured but drunken heavy-handedness.

An endless loop of dirge-like marches resonated from the village square, a small crumbly quadrangle where two rattly speakers were stacked atop one another, surrounded by a ring of empty beer cans. As ever, our Pugsleys drew enthused attention. Kids squeezed tires, pointed at disc brakes and talked in hushed tones. “Like motorbikes,” said everyone admiringly.

From here, the dirt road we’d followed morphed into far worse a state—pitted with teeth-rattling corrugation and sandy in parts, mostly due to the tourist jeeps using it as a cut through. Those within wound down their windows and screamed enthusiastically at us as they sped past, blissfully unaware of the dust they coated us in, or the havoc they wrought on the roads. I tried hard not to think dark thoughts as we jarringly bounced around in their wake.

Bolivia bikepacking

By the time we made it to Uturuncu, sunshine was usurped by clouds and the weather took a turn for the worse. Santiago, the guard at the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, suggested we make an offering to the mountains and appease the various forces at play. Following local tradition, Andi—the only smoker among us—exhaled his German tobacco towards the seven anointed points, including Papa Uturuncu, volcanic kingpin of the Sur Lípez, purported by Incans to be a portal of communication with the metaphysical.

Due respect offered, we pedaled onwards, only to discover that our ceremony had fallen on deaf ears, as snow smothered the land the following morning. We waited out the day sipping llama soup until conditions cleared, then rode all the way to a thousand feet shy of its summit, reaching almost 19,000 feet by pedal power alone.

At the top, I crumbled one of my favorite cookies into the blustery wind: a thanks to Papa Uturuncu and an offering for safe passage back down the volcano. And Papa complied. The descent turned out to be one of the best of the trip so far, a rip roaring ride over rock, snow and sand—one that had me laughing out aloud, beaming in heady, high altitude, fat bike happiness.

Eyes wide shut

But really, it was the largest salt flats in the world that drew us like a cyclist’s pilgrimage to Bolivia, as so many others had done before us. Indeed, riding atop the salt crust of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni—and the more petite but perfectly formed Salar de Coipasa—is an undisputed highlight of many a South American odyssey, including my own ride across the continent.

Bolivia bikepacking

My prevailing memories: squinting into the blinding, sparkly midday light. Feeling crispy skin crinkle ever so dry. Pitching camp on a bleached white canvas. Seasoning dinner with the ground I slept on. Awakening in the morning to a glow of lavender light. And above all, just closing my eyes, and riding…

It was a journey that took four beguiling days, segmented with the cacophony of a typically spirited and drunken festival in the midway settlement of Llica. Such is the dichotomy of Bolivia. Empty desert silence one night. Rambunctious partying the next. In the case of Llica, no one even seemed to know when it started, or indeed how long it might go on for. Three days, five days, even two weeks were all time frames bandied around with habitual Latin American ambiguity. “It will end tomorrow,” said one lady. “It has to. We need to sleep…”

If traveling teaches you one life lesson, it’s to embrace the changes around you, and accept them for what they are. Arriving after our surreal glide across the salt flats, we trawled through streets thick with vendors, in search of a place to stay. We dodged the brass band that circled the town discordantly. Then we settled on the best we could find: a barebones room on the main square, right beside the very heartbeat of the action. Outside, drunks supported each other, or brawled a moment later. Kids in traditional costumes danced. Elderly women gossiped, unflinching and impervious to the cold. And the music blasted on.

Bolivia bikepacking

Come nightfall, a crescendo of thunderous beats emitted from the nearby spots. The acoustics resonated through the very fabric of the town, thanks to a sound system that would put a stadium to shame: a set of speakers stacked, literally, two stories high. Music permeated our room like it was playing next door. 3 a.m. 4 a.m. 5 a.m. It was still going strong well into the early hours, as was the emcee who showed no signs of losing either voice or enthusiasm. Come morning we pedaled on, tires scrunching over beer tops, chicaning through the last men standing—back towards the peace and inner calm that prevailed in the Salar de Coipasa.

Past Sabaya, whose deserted streets appeared to be frequented by more llama than people, we spent a night amongst the Chullpas Policromas, a set of monolithic, pre-Incan adobe burial chambers. Pocked, chipped and gnawed by the elements, these mud brick funeral towers stood over 13 feet high. Set to a backdrop of volcanoes and lakes, atop hills and amongst brush, they provided as atmospheric a campsite as anywhere—even if the wind that whipped through the valley flapped our tents relentlessly, like sails in a wild storm.

Then, grudgingly, it was time to set our sights the capital, La Paz, criss crossing the Chilean border once more. One aspect remained constant though, whichever country we were in. Our fat bikes were forever the source of scrutiny and boundless fascination, opening doors to conversations and encounters like no other bike I’ve traveled on before.

Bolivia bikepacking

The owner of our guesthouse in Charaña—a lady of Bolivian squat stature, attired in the same typical bowler hat, shawl, heavy skirt and petticoat as those in Vichaya—seemed especially taken by the Pugsleys. “Que bonitas bicis,” she repeated, studying their lines and squeezing their tires, as if contemplating the pedigree of a particularly fine animal at market.

What beautiful bikes indeed. Bikes that had taken us over a thousand miles through the Andean altiplano. Bikes almost as perfectly suited to Bolivia… as the llama themselves.

Make sure to pick up Bicycle Times Issue #38, on newsstands next month, for another bikepacking feature from Cass Gilbert. 

Touring on a fat bike

Fat bikes are all the rage right now. Whilst there’s arguments to using them for everyday mountain biking, there’s no doubt they’re especially adept in more extreme conditions. A fat tire’s flotation and ability to iron out bone-jarring corrugation has to be experienced to be appreciated. The difference between my Surly Pugsley and Miguel’s Surly Ogre, shod with the widest 29er tires he could find, was noticeable; while he fought nobly to ride each and every sandy section we encountered, the Pugsleys simply cruised through with an air of nonchalance.

Bolivia bikepacking

If you’re considering embarking on a fat bike tour, issues to consider are tire wear, which is faster than traditional touring rubber, and the lack of spare tires and tubes (DIY tubeless works well). For touring overseas, I’d recommend keeping to 65 mm rims—such as Surly Large Marges or Marge Lites. In an emergency, these offer the possibility of running a 26-inch downhill tire, which are plenti- ful across South America. Expect to make regular changes to tire pressure, depending on terrain—Lezyne’s Micro Floor Drive HV is a lightweight, durable, high volume pump.

Be assured that the off-grid scope that fat bikes offer more than makes up for their extra weight and added rolling resistance on pavement. With this in mind, we packed as light as possible, knowing that fat tire or no fat tire, riding at altitude is always going to be a challenge.

The numbers

The best time to ride is Bolivia’s winter (May-October), as it’s the dry season on the Altiplano. But be prepared for temperatures to plummet to as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit. We kept to dirt roads where possible, looping around the Sur Lipez from Uyuni, before crossing the Salar de Ayuni to Sabaya and Sajama, and detouring into Chile through its beautiful Quebrada Allane to curl back into La Paz. Winds on the Altiplano can be ferocious in the afternoon; they seemed mostly in our favor in the direction we rode in. Total distance was around a thousand miles, spread over five weeks.

As this was part of a longer trip, we crossed into Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, on the Lagunas Route. If you’re focusing your time in Bolivia, La Paz is home to Christian’s Casa de Ciclistas, which makes a good base to organize a trip. Contact me via my website if you’d like the GPX file. Andesbybike.com is an excellent source of route information for the area.

Favorite gear

  • bolivia gear 1Andi and I used Tarptent Contrails, a well priced and roomy ultralight tent—just be sure to clean zippers, as Bolivian dust destroys gear.
  • When it comes to night time comfort, Therm-a-Rest’s featherweight NeoAir Xlite is hard to beat.
  • Around camp, we all favored denatured alcohol stoves, like the Clickstand; fuel is cheap and readily available in the markets.
  • In order to stow gear efficiently, we used a mixture of homemade, Revelate and Porcelain Rocket bikepacking gear—including the awesomely stable Mr Fusion seat pack—as well as more traditional Carradice saddlebags.
  • bolivia gear 2Jones Loop bars were popular too, offering a comfortable, all day riding position, and allowing Andi to line up a variety of gizmos, like his GPS and dynamo light.
  • SON dynamo hubs provided juice via a Sinewave Cycles Revolution USB charger, amply powering a Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp, an iPhone for navigation (using the excellent Gaia app), and my SteriPEN Freedom.
  • All three of us ran Rohloff internally geared hubs, which performed faultlessly in every condition we threw at them.
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First Impression: Framed Minnesota 2.0 Fat Bike

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Editor’s note: Here at Bicycle Times we are as mindful of price as you are. So we gathered together a group of six very diverse bikes to showcase what you can find right now at the $1,000 price point. See our introduction here.


I’m pretty stoked to be testing the Minnesota 2.0 fat bike from Framed Bikes this winter. I have ridden a few fat bikes, and a bunch of my riding buddies rock them throughout the year, but I haven’t had the chance to really get into the whole scene until now.

The Minnesota 2.0 features an aluminum frame and fork, big 26×4 120 tpi tires, 2×9 SRAM drivetrain, and Avid BB5s among other bits and pieces. Retailing for $900, it’s really targeted towards the price-conscious fat biker.

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Taking the bike out for its maiden voyage, the first thing that was most apparent was the tight cockpit. Framed chose to go with an effective top tube that is noticeably shorter than other similarly sized fat bikes. The 18-inch Minnesota 2.0’s top tube has an effective length of 22.5 inches.

Framed is trying to create a bike that rides smaller than it is and provides a more aggressive feel on the trail. It also places more of the rider’s weight in the rear center, allowing for better rear wheel traction. Initially the “short” top tube felt really odd to me, but about halfway into my first ride the bike did start to give me a bit of a playful vibe.

At around 34.5lbs the bike isn’t light by any measure, but does fall in line with similarly spec’d models around the industry. Coming off a light mountain bike, there is definitely a bit more umph required to get through some of the more techy uphill sections and rolling around familiar trails feels a bit more arduous.

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With on-trail tire pressure adjustments made in accordance with some more seasoned fat bike riders’ suggestions, things felt a bit better. A lot of the small, harsh trail features seemed less apparent when rolled over with so much squishy rubber.

So far my take away is it rolls over stuff, it’s fun, and I can’t wait to ride it some more. Check back to see how things progressed and my thoughts on this fat bike thing.

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Keep reading

You can see all the bikes in the Bicycle Times $1,000 group test here.

Watch for my long-term review in Bicycle Times Issue #33, due on newsstands and in mailboxes in early February.

 

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