Monday, January 1, 2018

Wild hair.

I was born, raised, and went to college in Michigan.  Spent heaps of time riding and racing bikes when I lived there, including commuting to class all/every winter at MSU.

I've also lived in Minnesota and spent a lot of time riding in Wisconsin and da UP.

But I hadn't ridden any of these in ~10 years.

As the holidays approached and pressure to be home for them increased, I sidestepped my typical "I spent the first 21 years of my life there and that was enough!" response, and started to see this as an opportunity.


The last few years have seen a blizzard of innovation in trail grooming equipment, concurrent with an avalanche of fatbike related accoutrements like tires and studs and shoes and clothes and lights.  I spent ~20 years designing, sometimes making, and constantly refining all of the above for myself, and what I have works brilliantly in Colorado and Alaska.  

But Colorado and Alaska (at least the parts that I spend time in) lack grooming and population centers -- two things that the midwest has in spades.  As such the riding there is different.  Understanding how and why were of interest, for many reasons.

Thus I got a wild hair of an idea: Why not throw a heap of modern off-the-shelf winter riding kit into Clifford, make tracks for the upper midwest, then spend a week riding as many trails as possible, using equipment made by and for the people that live there?

Why not indeed.

Jeny and I borrowed two Trek carbon fatbikes, then swapped wheels, tires, gearing, frame bags, and cockpits to suit our preferences.  Although we both own ne plus ultra fatbikes already, our custom Meriwethers were designed for deep, dry, unconsolidated snow, and that's just not what you get back in Minnesconschigan.  Our bikes would still roll, but they wouldn't be ideal.  

We (well, I) chose the Treks because that company is located in Wisconsin and they're at the forefront of emerging fatbike (and associated accoutrements) development.  We opted for one hardtail and one FS bike because we were expecting a range of trails and conditions that would never completely favor one over the other.  We're close enough in size that we can (and did) swap bikes for a bit of every ride.

While researching the bikes I came across a handful of accessories that seemed worth looking into -- like winter shoes, and pants, and pogies, and lights.  The more I looked the more I liked what I saw, and eventually I got bowled over by the cresting wave of the trip we were about to embark on: I bought a pile of knicknacks just days before we headed out.

We're back home now, digesting the trip while getting caught up on life.

We managed to ride 8 days straight, starting with Cuyuna and finishing with Island Lake.

Temps were brisk: the highest we saw was +15* f, with most of the rides hovering between -5 and +5.  These are ideal riding temperatures -- assuming you're after snow, and assuming you're prepared for them.  Much warmer and perspiration becomes difficult to manage.  Much colder, and, well, we become difficult to manage...

We rode a variety of conditions ranging from corduroy at Cuyuna to 6" of fresh at Maasto Hiihto, tracked but not quite packed styrofoam at Underdown, and summer-fast hardpack at Marquette.  Daily we were witness to the difference between snowbiking and mountain biking on snow.  More on that distinction later.

We experimented heavily with all of our new kit: learning what range of pressures made the tires shine, finding out how long the lights lasted in subzero temps, fiddling with chainstay length to determine what effect it had on traction and float, flirting with that fine line between carving and drifting, at speed, on off-camber snow, and not always with a happy ending...

There were very few times when the snow was so deep, or soft, or unconsolidated that we couldn't ride.  This was welcome.  On any given ride at home we'll walk 5 to 10 minutes of every hour, if not (much) more.  The existence of good grooming equipment in combination with a dense enough population and easy access to good riding gear seems to have made the upper midwest a mecca of sorts, where the trails are plentiful, information about them (including grooming reports) is readily available, and above all else the riders are out riding them.  

I'm going to break our trip into a handful of posts over the next week+, so that I can properly share the things we saw, did, and learned in digestible bites.

Stay tuned...


  1. Hi MC
    How'd you find the 4.5 Gnwhls in the softer conditions?

    1. Hey Paul-

      I thought they were excellent. Truly, really good. We ran a range of pressures from 1.5 up to about 10 or maybe even 11. I’ll talk more about that in a later post.