Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Wild Hair: Cadillac.

In our pre-trip planning we'd done some digging to compile ride options, such that as the wind blew and the snow fell, and depending on when grooming happened, we'd always (in theory) be able to find something worth riding.  We'd had the Black Hills, Duluth, the Chequamegon area, WinMan, Raven Trail, and Houghton Tech Trails as our 'alternates' every day thus far, but hadn't as yet needed to revert to a plan B.

All along our objective for this day had been the Big M trails near Manistee.  I'd ridden that area as part of a hundred mile race a ~decade ago, and remembered the trails there being roller coasters through the trees.  And Jeny loves those.  But as the day arrived it wasn't at all clear that those trails were in shape for tires due to incessant lake-effect snowfall.  The harder we looked the less certain we became, and with a 2.5 hour drive to get there, then a much longer drive to get to our family gathering that evening, it didn't seem worth the risk.  Bummer. 

Plan B: The Cadillac Pathway.

Temps were the coldest yet and still fine flakes sifted down through the trees, creating an atmosphere not unlike the snow globe sitting on your childhood dresser.  Riding in the negative teens is easy once you're warmed up, but getting going takes some doing.  We started slowly, faces burrowed inside layers against the chill of the morning, pushing a too-hard gear at low RPM's in an effort to generate some internal heat.

A narrow stripe of corduroy beckoned us ever onward through the trees, and diffuse winter light highlighted the many shades of brown and gold.

Riding skinny corduroy is new to us.  Although I've ridden this type of midwestern singletrack for literal decades, seeing it at this time of year with these new-to-us conditions is a novelty.  Riding snow in our little corner of Colorado means massive wide tires with big honkin' tread blocks, run at silly low pressures, such that "speeds" (if that is the correct term) rarely exceed 4mph.  Usually we're pretty psyched to be able to ride, period, and any concept of average "speed" is measured against walking pace.

Simply put: When we ride snow at home it's slow, a lot of work, and although it's beautiful and peaceful, contemplative and restorative, you'd almost never associate it with the type-one-fun of a real mountain bike ride.

Why belabor this point?

(warning: massive what-works-for-riding-snow nerd-out incoming...)

I've designed and had built a number of snowbikes (as we used to call them) dating back to 1998.  The conditions in which I've ridden them haven't really changed but the rims and tires have been in a constant state of improvement and enlargement.  Each time I had a new chassis built it was spurred on by the newest round of girthier rims and tires that would no longer fit my current bike.  This wasn't planned obsolescence: I could never have imagined back in 1997 that the Nokian Gazzaloddi would come to exist, but when it did I knew it was better than anything that came before for floating atop a gossamer thin crust of snow.  Ditto the Surly Endomorph, and then the Surly BFL, and then Surly's Bud and Lou.  Now I ride the Vee 2XL tires and will probably soon be on a 3XL version.

Even the 2XL's are an order of magnitude larger than anything else currently available, and yet very few have adopted them for over-snow travel.

I've kinda always wondered why that is, knowing that nothing floats as well as they do.  I figured it had a little to do with weight weenies being who they are, and the 2XL's not being light.  And I suspected that it was partially due to the fact that there aren't many bikes that can even fit the 2XL -- you have to really want to run them.

As it turns out both of those theories hold some merit, but the rest of the answer is that in North America where the markets for ridden-on-snow fatbikes (upper Midwest, Northeast, Anchorage) are largest, the snow comes down and is used and tended to in such a way that massive float just isn't often necessary.  Speed is way more important than float.

Put differently, Jeny and I live and ride in a bubble that is utterly unlike the one that most of these bikes are being designed for and ridden in.

This isn't too surprising.  In fact a few years ago when I laid out my preferences for snowbike geometry (for a bike that has since been sold because it couldn't fit the 2XL's) I said exactly this, albeit speaking from a slightly different perspective.

On this trip we've experienced a wide range of conditions -- one might even say the gamut of what one sees in an average Midwestern winter.  We had variations on slow and grindy at Cuyuna and Underdown, kinda fast (but with lots of effort) at Churning Rapids, super fast and borderline effortless at Marquette, then back to slow, soft, and effortful outside of Gaylord.  

And then today?  Sort of a blend of all the above.  Hardpacked, smooth, and fast, but with cold temps that brought hoar up out of the snowpack to slow things down a bit.

If anything, the main conclusion here should be that snow is a highly variable surface on which to ride.  Shocker, I know.  But even the worst conditions we've seen here are still better (faster, easier, more rideable) than our average conditions back home.  Put differently, we've been going "fast" here more often than not.  And every day we've found that tire pressure and rider attentiveness are more important than bike geo or tread type. You can make almost anything work, within reason.  This couldn't be more different from what we've come to know as "typical" snow riding.

It's been fascinating to observe this: I finally understand why tires like Husker Du's, Jumbo Jims, and Dillingers have gotten popular, and why bikes with geo that would ensure walking on our trails work just fine here.  It comes down to the type of snow, how it falls, and the fact that there is so much grooming and/or traffic, or both, packing the snow quickly after each storm.

I love learning things like this -- realizing that the rules I've yearned so hard to understand are utterly irrelevant in some other place.  All of my decades of experimentation and fiddling with geometry effectively amount to pissing in the breeze in these trail conditions: They simply don't matter.

Which means that we can go back to arguing about steel vs. alu, or carbon, or titanium.  In other words, we can disagree on preference instead of performance, at least in these sorts of conditions.

So there's that.

A few hours of gliding silently, contemplatively through the woods brought us back near the end of the loop deliciously tired.  I was so tired, or at least lulled to sleep by the smooth, featureless trail, that I failed to register a kicker looming larger and larger as I barreled toward it.  There was no other feature anything like it anywhere in this trail system, giving me no precedent to expect it.  I boosted it with the speed I had, but that wasn't satisfying enough so I rode back up, waaaaaaaaay back up, and brought as much speed as I could carry in on the second lap.  Cleared the knuckle, cleared the step-down transition, then landed in the flat beyond it with a clack of the Mastodon.  First time I'd really noticed having suspension on the whole trip!  

On tap for the afternoon: A few hours of driving to get down to the big bad city.

One more day of riding -- and a wrap-up to the gear geekery -- to go.  Stay tuned.

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