Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Testing one, two: Done.

Last week our backyard mountain received another 37" atop it's already 400" of snowpack.  Finding rideable conditions has been challenging of late.  Perusing weather websites and webcams I guessed that we'd have a bit of a window on Monday afternoon, so I took a good friend and snowbike newb up for a spin.

Honey light came and went through the day, appearing just often enough, and for just long enough, to make you really appreciate it both when it was there and as soon as it departed.

Jeny is out of town thus I loaned her bike to Skippy, figuring he'd be able to ride more on a known-to-be-amazing snowbike.  This also gave me yet another opportunity to observe the Terrene Johnny 5 tires, and to compare them to my Vee 2XL's.

A recent wind event meant that not everything was rideable, and also that we'd have occasion to do some pushing and very, very low pressure riding.

"When I was 49, it was a very good year..."  Sinatra fans might get that one.

A lack of traffic since that recent wind event meant that we got to do a lot of trailbreaking.  Riding packed track is fun and fast, but the silky silence when rolling over inches of fresh snow is a treat to be savored.

Early on I turned Skippy's steering damper off, explaining that since he'd never ridden snow before, and since there were so many other sensations involved that would be new and potentially confusing to him, that having the damper on might just be too much, too odd, too different from what he was used to feeling.  Too un-bike-like.  He didn't protest.  Very shortly into the ride, he caught up to me at an intersection after having augured in, tipped over into waist deep snow, then taken some time to extract himself.  When finally he'd put himself back on top of the trail surface and caught his breath, he cranked the steering damper down tight for the rest of the ride.  I actually saw him check it a few times later on, to see if there might be yet more damping on offer.

They are nifty little units, and for this kind of riding they are invaluable.

The most notable thing, with respect to the tires we're riding and their attendant differences, came near the end of the ride where there is a short, steep, punchy and not always makable climb.  In summer it taxes you but in winter, with the added weight of the bike, added resistance from so much clothing, added drag from massive tires run at unthinkably low pressures, and a distinct lack of hard riding since months ago, this climb is savage.  

Fortunately it's also pretty short.

As it slowly unfolded in front of us I commented to Skippy that, "We ain't leaving until this thing goes clean."  I didn't actually know if that was possible given current conditions, but I like to set lofty goals.  Skippy went first, making it to a bulge near the middle of the hill where his rear tire spun and he dabbed.  Then I gave it a shot, not waiting long enough for him to clear the trail before trying, because when I got to where he was I couldn't get past him and had to dab.  Back to the bottom for both of us.

On my second try my wheel lightly spun at the aforementioned bulge, but I was able to hunker down and scrabble for traction, and made it past there, and then past the off camber crux, and then rolled over the top, gasping.  I leaned over the top tube and caught breath while watching Skippy give it another go.  He spun out at the same bulge that got him the first time.  After a moment of catching his breath he turned and descended for another crack.  And on that third try his rear tire spun at the same mid-hill bulge.  Curious now how much difference the tires were making, I rolled back down to the bottom and swapped bikes with him.

This time, riding my bike with the Vee 2XL tires, he ripped right up, over the bulge, past the crux, all the way to the top.  I followed on Jeny's bike with the J5's, slipping and spinning and barely, just barely making it over the bulge, then continuing to slip and spin and scramble for traction at the crux, then gasping I made it up over the top.  When finally I'd caught breath enough to speak, we agreed wholeheartedly that the 2XL gave much, much better traction than the J5.

Although we have lots of winter left and (hopefully) hundreds more inches of snow to come, there isn't a lot more to say about these two tires, at least in terms of the conditions that we generally ride them in.  If I need a big tire with studs I'll gladly choose the Johnny 5.  For anything that can be done in the alpine, in winter, without studs, the Vee 2XL has proven to be the superior tire across a range of conditions and riding pressures.

Don't hesitate with questions.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Paria River.

An indescribably beautiful mess.

I've been actively trying to float this gem for over 2 years.  It isn't super easy to get to -- almost 8 hours of driving, one-way -- but the main limiter is that the flows are so ephemeral. If you're not standing on the bank, boat rigged and dressed to paddle as the flood pulse comes by, then you probably missed it.

We launched on ~120cfs and dropping, while praying that it'd rain like hell all day.  That didn't happen: We had broken clouds, a few sprinkles, and not enough sun to mobilize headwaters snowpack.  Amazingly the first ~22 miles channelized well enough that although we scraped paddles on every other stroke, we never had to get out and walk.

A thunderstorm lit up the canyon as we crashed in camp at darkthirty.  All had brought packs in case we needed to hike out, and all were secretly hoping it wouldn't come to that.

It rained as we set up tents, rained as we slopped together dinner, then nuked so hard it sent us to our tents early.  And then it was a full-on deluge most of the night.  I heard two separate rockfall events that seemed scarily close, and in the morning the others confirmed that said rocks landed between two of our tents.

By morning the precip had dwindled to sprinkles and the river was up 2 feet.  Something like a 900cfs peak.  We launched early, very close to the crest, and found some full-on whitewater with lots of scouts and a few legit portages.

It was like two different rivers, really: Day one was a scenic float through a slot canyon amidst unspeakable beauty.  Day two was challenging whitewater where it was often hard to appreciate the surroundings, so focused were you on the task at hand.  

Through all of it ran the filthiest water i've ever experienced.  My previous benchmarks for that title were LCR and Dirty Devil.

Having seen Jeff Creamer's vid of Paria at ~120 I expected some manageable drops with a few quick scouts -- as per Jeff's beta.  Nope.  There were a few stomping class V drops that were easy decisions to portage.  And easily portaged.  Plus a bunch of engaging III+/IV- read and run.

I'd go back for 200 - 300: A manageable, mostly read-and-run flow.  But I'm not sure I need to do that to my gear again.  Like an idiot I loaned out a boat and a drysuit to help others make the trip happen.  So now I have 2 drysuits with silt-fucked zippers and 2 boats with the same.  Plus my camera bag zipper.  And my bow bag zipper.  And my camera...

I'd have taken a lot more photos except for the fact that there was no way to keep your hands clean.  Thus very early on my camera body looked like a toddler had gotten into cake frosting -- and, errrm, their own soiled diaper -- and had been playing with it.

I opted to take a self-bailing Gnarwhal, reasoning that I was going to want to take a lot of photos and knowing that it would be easier to get in and out of the boat without a skirt to deal with.  And that was true.

The level of shmeck that ended up in the boat was borderline unbelievable.

There was one portage that might have been ~1/8 of a mile in total.  When I shouldered my boat to start hiking I was surprised at how heavy it felt, given that I wasn't carrying much gear.  I rooted around beneath the seat and foot pad and removed ~7 *pounds* of sand, silt and rocks.  

~12 miles later, at the takeout, there was another ~7# wedged in there again.

Did I mention the water, uh, quality?

Half of the group could have eaten green curry the night before, run a rough, jarring marathon that finished at river's edge, then collectively squatted and defecated into one boat -- and said boat wouldn't have been measurably filthier than with just the river water in it.  Gnarly.

For those contemplating future missions, the basin was completely saturated when we put on, and yet it still drained out in ~half a day.  Of that 900 cfs we had at launch on day 2, we still had 500cfs at the Lees Ferry gauge when we took out.  ~90 minutes later when we got back to the put in it was at ~35cfs.

Last detail?  I think this would be an incredible fatbike overnighter, during the ~250 days per year that it's dry.  You could get there on a reasonable schedule, stop and plant feet and look around at will, even walk back upstream if needed or wanted.  Alas it is currently managed as no bikes and probably not likely to change.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Testing one, two: Three and a half.

Serendipity struck this week, gifting us 3 deep-snow alpine rides that allowed us to firmly cement the testing process, and the conclusions we drew from it.

After the last ride we were lightly encouraged that the B Fat Cake Eater held promise in float and straight-line performance, but we had concerns about how it did on off-cambers, because it, um, didn't do so well on off-cambers.

In the interim since the last ride overnight temps had dropped to single digits, which had the effect of sucking some moisture out of the snowpack.  The ephemeral crust upon which we float became a bit less consistent, such that we found ourselves punching through a bit more often.  To be clear, both of us weren't punching through more often: Only the person riding the Cake Eater's was.

On top of that, it hadn't snowed since the last ride but there *had* been a little wind that had deposited a fine flour of 1 to 2" on the trail surface.  Great conditions for sussing out what works and what doesn't.

Pretty quickly the wheat was separated from the chaff -- the CE's were more likely to punch through the ephemeral crust, requiring you to be much more "on" in placing your tires in the center of the packed track.  If focus wavered for even a moment and either tire wandered near the edge, said tire would punch through and you (I) would have to dab, re-center, and restart.  4 or 5 times said dab would result in my foot going deep, my body slowly rotating around that pivot point, and then my body ending up off the bike, off the trail, in deep.  Body plant.  On one awkward fall I ended up in a tree well, and had to use the bike (I basically crawled over it while pushing it down deeper into the snow) to extricate myself.  From the relative packed surface of the trail I was then able to stretch out and pull the bike up to join me.  Exhausting.  And not very fast...

Some of this can be blamed on the go-fast (pretty slippery in these conditions) Cake Eater tread, and the rest on the fact that its low knobs add up to a fairly round tire profile even on the widest rims made for 27.5" fat tires.  Round casing + fast tread = fast tire.  But it doesn't amount to a good floater, digger, or steerer when the crust is thin or the snow is unconsolidated.

Meanwhile, Jeny -- out ahead as usual -- just seemed to be riding blithely along as though conditions were consistent.  Plodding along behind and analyzing her tracks I could see that even when her tires neared the edge of the trail she could easily/subconsciously correct and suffer no consequences.  Where I was working hard, focused intently on the trail and still flailing, she was toodling along looking at the scenery and listening to the birds.  Without a care in the world, essentially.  

At a spur she waited and we swapped bikes.  Almost immediately I could feel how the J5's rolled more slowly, but their aggressive tread easily allowed me to keep them to where the track was most consistently packed.  Just as quickly she was having trouble keeping the bike on the straight and narrow, dabbing as necessary and frustratedly exclaiming about the difference between the two tires in these conditions.  Happy wife, happy life, right?  I quickly put her back on her own bike...

As the ride progressed and we found more and more wind affected and deposited snow, I fell further and further behind Jeny even as I worked harder to keep up.  The pattern seemed to be that I'd go fairly fast in the straights and then flail in the corners -- sometimes so significantly that I'd crash, or at least dab as described above -- and then lose yet more time.  Even when I finally tamped my pace down ("go slow to go fast") entering each corner I still couldn't gain back any time on her.  She was putting out less effort and still pulling away.  I was gassing myself repeatedly and getting gapped at the same time.

If you drift back to the very start of this series -- to where I said that I wanted to be able to ride more feet per mile, and was going to test a small handful of tires and rims side by side to the end of determining which would allow me to do that -- it's pretty easy to see that the Cake Eater's weren't getting me there.

I can't really fault the tires as they were designed and intended for speed on groomed trails.  Because they also happen to be the biggest B Fat tire made, I'd pinned my hopes on them.  Expectations lead to disappointment, or so some wise woman once said.

The only upshot we could find to the Cake Eater's is that they are indeed very fast on hardpack.  But then almost every other tire out there can say the same compared to the 2XL and J5 we've come to love.  We aren't after speed -- antithetical as that sounds these days -- we just want to ride more.

A peek at the forecast for our backyard mountains:

If you live anywhere near these parts, or at least recognize what the above forecast represents when the snow is at ~5% moisture content, then you "get" why we need float + dig above all else.  And remember that that forecast represents what's about to fall on top of the 370" that has already fallen this season.

Based on my experience going from 26" mtb wheels/tires to 29" back in '99, I'm still convinced there can be a benefit to the 27.5" fat genre -- to a taller tire with an elongated footprint.  And I think the width of these ENVE rims is damn close to what we need.  I don't have an "in" there, but I can guess (hope) that they made a rim this wide (and appropriately deep) because they know that better tires are in the pipeline.

My $.02 is that where we're currently coming up short is not so much in the tire size -- as these CE's are pretty big -- but in the casing shape and tread pattern.

To the end of verifying that hypothesis Jeny and I executed a third ride this week -- and for this ride I installed a pair of Bontrager Gnarwhal 4.5" tires on the M685 rims.

I'd previously proven to myself (on several occasions) that the Gnarwhals don't have enough air volume to be a legit contender in the softest conditions we ride.  What I wanted to do was to ride them on these wider M685 rims, at their lowest possible pressures, to ascertain subjectively whether a tire with a square profile and adequate knobbage could conceivably contend against the 2XL and J5.  Basically to ride them as-is, and then extrapolate out to what could happen if they had appropriate tread *and* air volume at least equivalent to J5.

The short answer is that I think B Fat is the future -- both for on and off-piste fat riding.  During this ride we had a variety of conditions from sun-baked April-esque hardpack to wind drifts covering the trail in the trees.  Lots of punchy sections.  Even 1/4 mile of postholes from a shitbagger that thought they could walk on water -- or at least float on snow -- but instead went shin deep on every step. 

Once aired down appropriately the Gnarwhal's had impressive float, impressive dig, and could be predictably controlled on off-cambers and when adjusting a line through a soft decreasing radius corner.  They had to be run ~.2 psi lower than Jeny's J5's to compete.  Keep in mind that when running 2psi on average, a .2psi difference is substantial.  In essence the Gnarwhals did everything well, we feel they just need to be upsized to compete with 2XL and J5.

I think our biggest hope to getting such a tire is from Bontrager, whom seems to be staffed not by marketing types concerned largely with new colorways, but by actual riders intensely focused on delivering the next level in performance.  Or maybe by Terrene, if they could be convinced to create -- for example -- a 27.5 x 4.8" tire with a J5 like tread pattern.  Tubeless ready and studdable, natch.

Where I think we're hamstrung is in a lack of sheer numbers of people demanding such a tire.  And by "demanding" I mean with open wallets, not social media whining.  While we'd like to think there are lots of people like us, the reality is that we probably have the critical mass of those that embrace monoskis, scorchers, or squirt boats.  We are passionate about what we do and how best to get to the next level of that niche, there just might not be enough of us to compel manufacturers to serve our quixotic desires.

Given all that, I feel fortunate to have the rim options we do, and will -- this afternoon -- happily reinstall the 2XL's onto my Meriwether for the remainder of March, or at least til the snow machine turns off and the trails begin to get firm again.

TL:DR version of this entire series?
-Vee 2XL's float better than anything else currently made for fatbikes.
-Vee 2XL's also happen to be a bit more efficient, at a range of pressures, on hardpack, compared to their next closest competitor.
-Terrene Johnny 5 is that next closest competitor.  It is a great tire, with a great tubeless ready casing, and predictable performance.  It bests the 2XL only in the ability to run studs.
-Terrene's Johnny 5 floats, digs, and grips better than anything else made to date -- other than Vee 2XL.
-Terrene's Cake Eater 27.5 x 4.5" can't hang with either of the above when things are deep and soft.  It is a great hardpack tire.
-27.5 x fat tires have promise, for both on and off-piste applications.  They need to get a bit bigger and grow more aggressive treads to pull even with where 26 x fat currently sits.  If they do both they will surpass 26 x fat for soft conditions riding.

Thanks for reading.  Don't hesitate with questions.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Testing one, two: Three.

We've shifted gears -- as it were -- and have begun comparing the 26 x 5" Terrene Johnny 5's (still on Jeny's bike) to the 27.5 x 4.5" Terrene Cake Eater's, installed on my bike and mounted on ENVE M685 rims.  Quite a coup for Terrene to have both of these tires competing for the perhaps dubious distinction of being our favorite all-around snow tires.

Two things worth mentioning at this point: All tires were purchased by me for this test -- none of them were provided -- and neither of the manufacturers has had any contact with me before or since the testing began.

Second thing: Once we've finished comparing the Cake Eater's to the Johnny 5's, we will, if necessary, compare the Cake Eater's directly to the Vee 2XL's. 

Had we a third identical bike and a willing pilot with no scheduling constraints we'd *love* to be comparing all three on the same trails, same conditions, at the same time.


First real ride on the CE's was a few days ago, and immediately following a week+ of storms that dumped over 4 feet of snow on our backyard mountain.  Said mountain has now received over 350" this winter, 97" of that in February, and at the two reporting stations there is an average of 91" of settled snow on the ground.  This is a bit above average for this time of year, but not unheard of.

Simply put: It's deep up there.  

Nearest the trailhead was packed pretty well, but once you got out a bit -- past where the bulk of folks are willing to go -- things got soft and continued to get softer the further we went.  Very quickly we were down below 2psi, and probably not much above 1psi.

A subtle but important note here: Pay attention to how much snow has accumulated on each rim in the pics immediately above and below.  Think about the effect of that added mass over the course of a long day or even multi-day ride.  For those of us that live in deep snow country, rim shape matters.

No gauged pressure measurements were taken on this ride -- we just adjusted as necessary and then continued riding.  Jeny knows where she needs to be with pressures with the 105/J5 combo.  I'm early in the process of figuring out what the CE's like and where their limits are.

Cause for minor celebration: A ~nipple-high gate that we usually need to dismount for and then shimmy and squeak to get past is finally buried to the extent that we can simply roll over it.  

We are indebted to those poor saps whom find snowshoeing enjoyable -- or whom simply don't know any better: Without them we'd be home playing dominoes.

As noted ad nauseam, the snow upon which we rode was deep and soft -- it had only stopped falling ~36 hours earlier.  We attributed our ability to ride on a combination of lots of snowshoe traffic, modern bike geometry, modern tubeless tire and rim capability, and a heap of solar radiation at ~10,000', helping to condense the snow into a rideable surface.

As far as conclusions on the Cake Eater tires after this one day of riding, I can say subjectively that I was surprised by the amount of float they offered: Jeny and I swapped bikes for one stretch and neither of us could detect a meaningful difference between the tires being compared.

As far as speed, we both agreed that the CE's seemed to roll faster, with less effort or input needed to keep them rolling.

As far as control, we both noted that the CE's had difficulty handling off-camber sections of trail -- they'd simply slide toward the low points, where the J5's would hold their line without need for the rider to react.

Other nuances presented themselves, but so subtly that I need more time on the CE's to ascertain what was real, and why it might have been happening.

Toward the end as the light got low, soft, and creamy, we slowed down a bit to remember where we were, and how lucky we are to live in a place with so many diverse outdoor opportunities.

More in a bit.  Thanks for checkin' in.