Thursday, January 18, 2018

Wild Hair: Island Lake.

Waking up this morning we were both tired.  The kind of worn-down feeling where, were you at home, you'd go back to sleep for another hour, then either cancel the ride outright or maybe bump it back a few more hours and severely shorten the loop.

Being on the road and having family commitments to keep, neither of those were really options.  Looking more closely at all that we had left to do and see before hitting the long road for home, it became obvious that this was it -- the last ride of the trip.

We were bummed and happy at the same time: we needed a day off, but wanted neither the trip nor the consecutive days of good riding to be over.

I grew up a stone's throw from here and knew that we'd have options for where to ride.  Pontiac Lake, Potowatomi, and Highland Rec were at the top of my list.  But Josh, an out-west riding partner and recent Michitucky transplant, was convinced that we should head for either DTE (new to me) or Island Lake.

Ultimately we heard that DTE had minimal trails open while Island Lake was riding primo, so that choice was easy.

I outweigh Josh by at least 70#, and I usually have ~20# of tube, tool, pump, water, puffy jacket and camera gear in the framebag.  As such I'm prepared for most anything and I can sometimes manage to snag some quality pics along the way.  Still -- heavy.  

Josh showed up with no framebag, a full-carbon race-rocket, and by way of a pack it looked like he'd borrowed his pre-teen daughter's, with at most a single gummy bear in it.  Light.  This is a guy that once deleted half of the playlist from his iPod to shave weight before a race...

Lean like a greyhound, Josh is fast by almost any metric.  I knew going in that I was going to have to work hard just to not embarrass myself.  With 7 days straight in the legs (and almost zero recovery given our travel schedule) I knew I was probably going to embarrass myself regardless.  C'est la vie.

Mercifully, Josh took it out at a sane pace and we even had a bit of back and forth conversation going in the early miles.  I didn't catch the names of the trails, but there seemed to be spurs heading off everywhere.  I'd ridden here once before, in high summer, and positively nothing felt familiar this time.  Nor could I reliably keep my bearings -- denuded hardwoods under a slate-grey low ceiling completely blotting out the sun have that effect.  So basically we just followed his wheel and didn't think too much about where we were.

Having someone else do the navigating allowed me to flash back to my realization at Cadillac the day before -- where I came to understand that frame geometry was more or less irrelevant on these types of packed snow trails.  Not being one that can just ride and not think about optimizing the bike for the trails, the realization that geo was irrelevant brought my attention and focus back to the tires.  Jeny had 27.5 x 3.8" Gnarwhals, and I had the 27.5 x 4.5" variant of the same.

Where at home we'd be on 26" wheels because the biggest, floatiest tires available are still made in 26", for this trip to this place we'd chosen to be on 27.5".  The theory was simply that we wouldn't need all the float, and we'd benefit from more height.  Que?

Remember when you hopped onto your first 29" bike, coming from 26"?  Remember how fast the bike seemed relative to what you were used to?  In a similar vein, ever notice how almost every XC racer worth their salt is now on at least 27.5" and probably 29" these days?  

Ever wondered why that is?

Efficiency, plain and simple.  A taller wheel smooths out irregularities in the terrain, and carries more momentum, requiring less output on the part of the rider to maintain the same speed.  Put differently: Work harder and go yet faster, or work less hard to go the same speed.  On every ride yet -- even the softest conditions at Maasto Hiihto and Gaylord -- this theory had been proven out: We didn't need wider tires nor lower pressures to float, but we really liked having taller wheels and tires to maintain speed.

Some of the Island Lake trails had been packed by snowmachine, but many (most?) seemed to have been ridden in -- or maybe hiked/snowshoed first, by the local hardcores?  Dunno, other than to say that the trails rode great -- fast -- and we ran borderline pavement pressures the whole day.

The riding was made technical only by our speeds.  Josh gradually ramped up the pace to where conversation (at least from me) was over with, and I was on the rivet for minutes at a time.  There were certain sections where he'd throttle it up til I was right on the edge, then hold it there for a few minutes, and then back off a bit to recover and chat.  I think he was slowing down to check on me, because he knew if I cratered he'd have a helluva time dragging my carcass back.

Several of my favorite memories of the entire trip happened during these high-speed bursts.  Josh would goose it over the top of the climb and be gone, which was my clue that something fun was coming.  I'd barrel over the top of said roller, keeping the throttle on as the grade tilted down, thereby carrying a head of steam into the inevtiable long sweeper.  And then lay the bike over without touching the brakes, feathering the line between a drift and a carve for 60, 70, 80 feet at a stretch.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've intentionally drifted any bike over my entire riding career.  Some combination of snow conditions, speed, and confidence in my tires allowed me to double that number in a single ride.  The grin wasn't plastered to my face -- it was stapled.

At one point Josh and I swapped bikes, partially because I wanted to see what a full-gucci race rocket feels like, but also because Josh is a quick-study, super-perceptive type, and I knew he'd offer a candid opinion of my ride given half a chance.  Our setups were pretty similar in fit and feel, with the biggest difference being the tires: Josh was on Jumbo Jim's in 4.8", running reasonable-for-the-day pressures.

And it was really the tires that we both noticed, notwithstanding Josh's predictable crack about my bike's weight.  I think when you're ~120# soaking wet with a pocket full of quarters, *every* bike feels heavy...

The difference in the tires was pretty much what you'd expect: His JJ's rolled faster on the zipped-tight hardpack and didn't have enough bite in the corners to maintain all the speed they were able to carry.  They were very vague on high speed flat sections.  I think this vagueness is the only reason I was able to keep Josh in sight most of the day: He was fighting his tires to keep the bike on the trail.  The Gnarwhals rolled a bit slower but were *right there* whenever you needed them: When standing to burst up a short stinger of a climb, laying them into a corner at speed, and especially when making a thousand unconscious micro-corrections to keep to the center of the packed track. 

Toward the end of our bike swap Josh punched it over the top of a roller and the lightbulb went on over my head: "Hey!  Something fun's coming!"  Hoping for another protracted drift I powered over the top, laid Josh's bike over and...

...promptly blew right off the trail.

Later, when I'd latched back on, Josh's observations matched my own: the JJ's were fast in a straight line, but not nearly as much fun as having all that control with the Gnarwhals.

Two days later, while straightlining across the heartland, I had time to process all that we'd done, seen, and learned on this roadtrip.  All the different trail types, snow types, and grooming types.  So much variety -- I hadn't really expected that.  One of my main reasons for leaving the midwest 25 years ago was a lack of vertical and deep, light snow through which to ski it all winter.  The evolution of the fatbike, the development of grooming equipment, and above all else the presence of a devoted (and growing) core of riders has changed that.  Winters used to seem so long -- now I'm betting many find them to be too short.

Was it good enough that I'd consider moving back?

It was really, really good.  But let's not get crazy...

If I've inadvertently left any questions unanswered, and you're *sure* you've read every post and still don't see what you're looking for, don't hesitate to ask below and I'll answer as time permits.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Simply awesome. I've really enjoyed your trip and observations about tires, geo and well, everything!


  2. Mike,
    I have been reading your blog for a few years now and was surprised to hear you were a fellow Spartan from Michigan. Thanks for the time and effort you put into your blog posts, it always provides inspiration to get out riding, paddling and camping. I have always put the bikes aside in favor of a quiver of XC and Alpine skis when there is snow on the ground, but I may have to rethink my approach to winter after reading how much fun you had biking in Michigan. I’m glad to hear you had such a great time riding my home trail Island Lake that sits just a few miles from my house.
    Mike, New Hudson MI

  3. Glad to see that the 27.5 x 3.8 Gnarwhals are finally leaking out into the world.

    I ordered one through my LBS back in October and it's still not in yet. I am running the 27.5 x 4.5 Gnarwhal (studded) on the front with the Manitou Mastodon, and it's a big help with the icy New England trails. I can't really comment yet on how it compares to (non-fat) Nokians on ice, since I'm still tiptoeing around without a studded rear fat tire...

    Any hints on how to get on Bontrager's "friends" list? ;^)

  4. It seems as though for 2019 the Gnarwhals are only offering the studded version in a 26inch tire

    1. No. They still exist in mass quantities in 27.5 x 4 and 4.5". I think someone at Trek just messed up the website.