Friday, September 16, 2016

Footsteps of Giants: The bike.

My main goal in choosing a bike for this trip was to find something modular.  Sure, it needed to fit me well, fit big tires, and have decent soft-surface geometry.  But before all of that it had to be able to accept a geared, derailleur based shifting system, and then in the event that something happened to that shifting system, this chassis needed to be convertible to singlespeed without major shenanigans.  In other words, it needed sliding or horizontal dropouts.

I spent a week searching the 'net in my spare time, and if you discount custom frames you pretty quickly end up looking at Surly's frames, or the Trek Farley.

I've owned and loved a Pugsley and Moonlander and wasn't averse to leaning in that direction.  The only real downside I could find to the Surly frames is that they're made of steel, and steel + salt water immersion is eventually going to be a bad thing.  

The fact that the Farley (at least the one I was willing to spring for) is aluminum ever so slightly pushed me in that direction.  The fact that the Farley's use on-center laced wheels pushed me over the edge.  For daily use an offset-laced wheel works out just fine, but will never compare to the lateral rigidity and ultimate durability of an on-center build.  When I'm going deep I really don't want to give any second thoughts to my equipment once underway.  In short, the bomber run-em-over-with-a-truck-and-they'll-still-be-fine reliability of on-center wheels was the decider in this case: I ordered a Farley frame and fork.

While waiting for them to arrive I laced myself a set of wheels using Bontrager Jackalope 27.5 x 80mm rims, DT Swiss Big Ride hubs, DT Swiss SuperComp triple butted spokes, and DT Prolock brass nipples.  I chose this diameter of rim because I've had a fair bit of experience with it over the last ~9 months.  The easiest way to explain what I like about it is to point the wayback machine to 1999, when I got my first 29" wheeled bike.  Remember your first ride on a 29 incher, and how effortless it seemed to keep those tall wheels rolling over pretty much everything, at least relative to the 26" bikes that were still in favor at the time?  Then as now, a taller wheel will roll over obstacles with less effort.  So if you've got a fat enough tire to float across soft beach sand, then why not make it a bit taller so that it can erase holes, roots, beach cobbles, rain ruts, and other momentum sucking obstacles?

Why not indeed.  Ever since trying "B Fat" late last winter, I've been smitten and can't really see a benefit to 26 x 4 or even 4.8.  I still prefer a 26 x 5.2" setup for pure snow riding, as nothing yet available floats as well when the snow is bottomless the way it is in our backyard.  But for three-season use on beaches, down washes, or off-piste entirely, I have converted to B Fat and I ain't goin' back.

Why the Jackalope rims?  In a word, rotating mass.  "But Mike!" you say, "There are lighter rims out there!"  And this is true, to a point: There are lighter rims available.  But, I retort, most of those rims are doublewall -- which means that every time we ride through a slough, or push our bikes through a too-deep-to-ride river, or play chicken (and lose) with the dumping breakers, some of that water gets between the walls of the rim.  And stays there.  Thus very quickly your gucci light rims are ounces if not pounds heavier than they were when you built them.  No bueno.

The solution is to use a singlewall rim to start with.  And because I have stacks and stacks of these in the shop, and have been building with every iteration available (and some that never made it to market) for the past 15 years, I've developed favorites.  The Jackalope has the easiest, most intuitive, and most reliable tubeless interface of any singlewall rim I've used to date.  I can install tires by hand, no tools needed.  I can, should the need arise, also remove tires with no tools needed.  Perhaps most importantly, I can inflate a tire, tubeless, with a mini hand pump -- no compressor, floor pump, or even frame pump required.  And that last bit is what pushed me over the edge on rim choice: If I were to cut a tire on, say, mussels or barnacles at some point of this ride, I could peel it off, stitch it back together (yes, I carry a needle and nylon carpet thread), then reinstall the tire and reinflate it tubeless on the spot.

There are other singlewall rims out there to choose from.  They are either hideously expensive when you consider how I was about to treat them, or famously fragile, or they have tire fit issues that make the tubeless interface or field repair of a flat somewhere between difficult and diabolical.  

Choosing the Jackalopes was, as they say, a no brainer.

Tire choices are still somewhat limited for B Fat.  I use the B Fat Hodag's on my full suspension fatbike, but they didn't seem quite big enough once I started throwing gear into a pile for the Lost Coast.  The added mass of a boat, paddle, PFD, camera gear, repair kit, tent, sleep kit, and many days of food meant that very quickly I chose the biggest B Fat tire available to date: The Bontrager Barbegazi 27.5 x 4.5".  These treads have decent grip but more importantly they have surprisingly little rolling resistance -- especially given how much float they afford.  I used them on a desert traverse this spring and really couldn't find fault with them there.  Tall, fat, light, durable, and tubeless ready -- check.

Why the DT hubs?  I've used DT's star ratchet hubs (240s, 340, 350, 440, and 540) for decades on my own personal bikes, and on the bikes of every customer that will let me lace them.  Down the spine of the continent on the GDR, across Alaska on the Iditarod, plus countless alpine and desert tours in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.  We're talking literally hundreds of thousands of miles with *zero* failures or even hiccups.  They are among the lightest hubs on the market, they can go thousands of miles without service, they are unbelievably easy to maintain (a rag, a dab of grease, and ~3 minutes are about it) and yet they very rarely need maintenance.  I continually experiment with new and interesting hubs on rides close to home, but when I'm going deep I never, ever have to wonder or worry about the DT.  All that and, somehow, they are among the least expensive hubs available today.

I learned from Eric and Dylan that brakes in a coastal environment are largely superfluous.  You use them more when schwacking than when riding -- to keep the bike in place as you find footing or hoist yourself forward.  As such there's really no need for *two* brakes.  Given a choice between front or rear, I choose front simply because there's less hose out there to get caught on brush, plus it's easier to stuff your gear back under the bars with only the front loop of hose to deal with.  I had a single Hayes Prime Comp brake sitting on the shelf, orphaned after some previous project.  I've had great success with these brakes over the past 4+ years, and so if only to keep from spending yet more money on a bike that was going to get thrashed in short order, I shortened the hose and bolted it on.

Comfort is important on a beach ride: Since the terrain is relatively uniform you don't move around on the bike as much as you would on an engaging trail.  The best you can hope for is firm sand to keep the pace high -- and failing that you're either groveling along at stupid low pressures, or you're walking.  If you get your wish and the sand is firm, you sit and spin not unlike a road ride -- which is great for average speed but not awesome for contact points that would prefer to not always be in contact.  I spent a few hours fine tuning the bar height so that I had a good balance of weight on both hands and butt, then raised the bars another inch for good measure, knowing that I could always lower them, but also that I was unlikely to do so.  

I had an old set of no-name take off bars sitting on the shelf in a ~680mm width.  Too narrow by modern standards, but when it comes to schwacking through brush with a bike, every extra millimeter of bar width matters.  I was happy to take something narrow, and thrilled that they were being recycled instead of buying something new.  I screwed a clapped-out set of ergo grips on and called the cockpit good.

I experimented last winter with a Bodyfloat isolation seatpost on my snowbike.  I freaking loved it, despite how ugly it is.  In a previous life I'd used the Thudbuster suspension post and both Moots and Eriksen ti posts.  One ride on the Bodyfloat convinced me that rigid posts on hardtails are stupid, no matter what they're made from.  By the second ride the stictionless suppleness of the coil-sprung Bodyfloat had me wondering whom I could give my Thudbuster to.  I was thrilled to have the Bodyfloat on the bike for this trip.  It squeaked a bit after 3 solid days of rain, grit, and seawater, so I dug out my chain lube and put the tiniest dot of lube at the base of one of the pivots, and it was silent the rest of the trip.  As a group we swapped bikes a few times and I always immediately missed the Bodyfloat, while whomever was on my bike immediately commented on how good the post felt.

Drivetrain: I got creative here, for several reasons.  Primary driver was not wanting to spend a pile of money on something that was just going to get treated like dirt for 2 weeks straight.  I dug into my drivetrain drawer and found a thumbshifter, a clutched derailleur, a used-but-not-used-up chain, and a shoebox full of loose cogs.  Knowing that our trip started with ~17 miles of hard-surfaced road gradually descending to the Copper, I knew I'd need a go-fast gear to keep from flapping feebly in the breeze.  But then once we left that road and hit the delta, the lagoons, and the beaches, I knew I'd need a few go-slow gears to choose from.  From the Lost Coast North trip I knew that SE AK has some really bad brush through which we might have to schwack, so I wanted to keep the drivetrain as simple and clean as possible -- to minimize the potential for breakage.  I also wanted to be able to go to a singlespeed if I bent my der hanger or tore the der clean off the bike.

Thus I decided on a 6 speed setup -- largely because the gears I'd be likely to need in a singlespeed situation were the 5th and 6th cogs, and these had the best chainline.  The spread was 11 to 26t, and I just filled in the gaps between with even jumps.  

For cranks I picked Surly Mr. Whirly's simply because I knew I could remove the spider and bolt a titanium 20 tooth Action Tec ring straight into the 58mm bolt circle of the crank.  Remembering Eric's epic chainring failure of '08, I basted the chainring bolts liberally with blue loctite.

Wanting to keep cable runs to a minimum -- both for concerns about saltwater intrusion and to minimize the possibility of snagging one while schwacking -- I bolted the thumbshifter onto the seatstay rack mount, which gave me a massive 8" long cable run to the rear der.  I couldn't easily reach that shifter from the saddle, which meant I approached this ride from the perspective of a singlespeeder, always reading the lay of the land and ramping up in advance when necessary.  Over the course of the trip I think I averaged 2 shifts a day -- and of those probably only one was necessary.

Alas my desire to go the extra mile to keep things simple ended up biting me in the ass -- and I'm still not sure why.  I broke my chain 4 different times, all of them apropos of nothing that was happening. Grit may have been a factor, but then why weren't the others breaking theirs?  Same with saltwater -- why only me?  I wasn't shifting enough to speak of and I was diligent about cleaning and lubing the chain a few times a day -- more than the others as far as I could see.  4 broken chains might equal every other chain break I've ever had in 40+ years of riding bicycles.  Never did figure this out, but somehow when I'd used up all of my quicklinks and spare links, and learned that no one else had brought any, the breakages stopped.

Shifter placement visible above.  

I got creative with pedals.  On many previous trips I'd learned the importance of removing pedals for long periods of pushing or carrying the bike.  Once removed, not only do you not bang your shins on them when walking, but they can't catch on willow or alder and come swinging around to hit your shins or calves even harder.  But carrying and keeping track of an extra tool is sort of a bummer, so I went looking for a solution.  I found these on eBay and ran them on my commuter for 3 solid seasons, expecting them to somehow crater.  But they never did.  So I ordered a second set and when they arrived I compared the bearing feel and tried to find any difference in interface slop from the 3-year-old set to the new set.  And I really couldn't tell a difference.  So I bolted 'em on for the trip and ultimately used 'em throughout.  It was really, really convenient to be able to to just pop a pedal off and stick it in a pocket during the big boat crossings, or while schwacking our way up to the glacier.  I'd always make a point of rinsing the spindle in some ~fresh water before snapping the pedal back into place for the next fetch.  Really tickled with these.

Seat was an old WTB Vigo that just plain fits.  I think it's my last one -- may need to start scouring eBay this winter...

Bags: I used a Revelate Gas Tank to keep an iPhone close at hand for navs.  We used Gaia to locate ourselves, mark daily progress, and a few times to "see" what was over the bluff and help determine fine route choices when things got really bad.

I chose a stock Revelate frame bag because it fit the frame really well and because I was able to swing into Revelate and just grab it when I got to Anchorage.  Inside I kept most of my lunches, some water, bike tools and repair kit, and a spare tube.

I used the Revelate Terrapin under the seat, as I've done for many previous trips.  This is my all-time favorite seat bag, largely because of it's modularity and waterproofness.  Easy to just toss the whole thing into the tent at night, then repack it from within the comfort of the tent in the AM, and then quickly slip it in place and away you go.  I had this thing stuffed with all of my dinners, all of my breakfasts, the bug net for the mid, a fuel canister for the stove, and any overflow that I didn't want on my back.

The Farley frame came with a QR seat binder, which I used frequently when it came time to schlep the bike on the boat.  Open the binder, spin the post 180* and drop it completely, and the seat bag was instantly both out of the way of my body inside the boat and my paddle blades outside.  Handy.

All I can think of.  Don't hesitate with questions.


  1. Chain breaks due to "a used-but-not-used-up chain"?

  2. Could the chain breaks potentially due to extreme small size of chainring/cogs? Small cogs/chainrings are less efficient due to the added friction caused the additional flexing of the chain due to get around the smaller diameter ring. The additional friction is also accompanied by an increase in chain load..combine those things with a sand?

    1. If I hadn't used a 20t small ring on every ride and race for a decade+, with no breakage, no noise, no problems whatsoever, I'd give this line of thinking a chance.

  3. Replies

  4. Aluminum doesn't react with fresh water, but it does with salt water. I've had oxidation of aluminum rims (leading to premature failure at the spoke-holes) and other non-anodized aluminum surfaces (threads of crank arm pinch bolts) on salted roads in winter. You notice any evidence aluminum oxidation on your trip? Any equipment worn beyond repair after the trip (other than the chain!)? Thanks for sharing the story of your trip.

    1. Some discoloration was visible in a few places (like where spokes leave hub) but that is more likely to be the steel spokes oxidizing and bleeding out onto the alu hubshells. I tossed the chain and the brake pads, and cleaned/regreased all bearings. Pretty much it.

  5. I really enjoy write-ups like this where we get the benefit of your experience.
    I have had a couple of chains that have had breaks for no apparent reason. I also don't generally break chains and I always assumed I didn't really have enough torque to break them. I generally chalk it up to a bad manufacture. I typically carry spares too.

  6. I can't tell you how much this post tickled my inner gear geak. Great details and the rear shifter placement is hilarious. Also like the Wellgo pedals and I may get a set if they can switch SPDs to Flats as I use flats for casual kids rides.