Paul twisted my arm last weekend and got me to go with him and his fellow Gilbertite Tod to the Camp Ingawanis mountain bike race. I've done very little mountain biking outside the immediate Story and Boone county trails so it wasn't too hard to get me to go. I had to make a decision on which bike to take though. The Gary Fisher isn't in race condition right now. A bent derailleur hanger and a jury rigged front derailler make it iffy until I take some time to fix it properly. The 1x1 is a de facto fixed gear right now. The freewheel is completely frozen from last winter's road salt. The best option was to take the recently assembled Pugsley. Besides being in the best condition the Pug needed a good shakedown ride. How would 3.7" tires fare on a mountain bike course? How comfortable would it be? Would the heavy wheels be a liability or would the extra traction make it a great climber?
The Pugsley is not a subtle bike. The 3.7" tires, an inch and a half wider than your typical fat mountain bike tire, along with the offset wheels (for better chainline) and 135mm front hub (same as the rear) make sure of that. The bike turned a few heads, but really, how many times can you stand to hear "Those're fat tires." and respond "Yep." I really bought the bike for winter riding and racing along with the occasional summer trip down a sandy creekbed or along a river. It's not a cross-country race bike and it was totally inappropriate for going fast on hard packed dirt.
The sport class race (that'd be me) was three laps of the 4.5 mile twisty wooded course. There were a few hills, steep but short, and a few rocky (for Iowa) parts and some sandy corners, but nothing too technical or demanding. It's a pretty good course for Iowa, but I still prefer Seven Oaks tough climbs and tight switchbacks. Swerving around trees doesn't excite me much.
From the start I was at the back. I couldn't accelerate with the group, my heavy wheels and tires held me back, but neither did I want to be at the front. I am more of a slow and steady guy rather than a sprinter who can make good time on a course like this. The fewer people who have to pass me at the start the better. I hoped to catch a few people who had blown up sprinting too hard at the start. The first part of the course turned out to be very rough. The trails were newly cut through the woods and hadn't been smoothed out with constant riding. After the first half lap where I did try to keep up, the course smoothed out into older trail and I started to sit back, relax, and have fun on the course. With fewer people around I could pay attention to the trail and carry more momentum which was becoming essential with the Pug. Most of the short hills on the course were ridable with little more than a few standing pedal strokes,but a few were too long and steep or didn't allow me to carry momentum into the climb. On these I was lucky on the first lap and had someone who knew the course just ahead of me. When he geared down I did the same and on one particular hill I was able to pass two folks who were caught by surprise and walking it. With extremely fat tires and low gearing I could spin up loose steep slopes I would never have been able to climb so sloppily on a conventional bike. The same logic held for rocks. Just run 'em over. Why pick a line when the tires can roll over anything? Sandy corners? Sure, these tires won't bog down. Logs? Just a little loft of the front wheel and stand up. It really suited my sloppy xc style.
For the second two laps I rode alone. I just concentrated on maintaining my momentum through corners and on down/up gully crossings. As I rode the bike I was able to relax a bit and figure out when I needed to stand and when to stay seated. It may have fat tires, but it is no plush full suspension bike. It rides like the rigid frame that it is. Rough ground is still miserable in the saddle, but out of the saddle it doesn't really slow the bike down. For the first lap my hands were getting tired holding onto the bars, but as I settled in and relaxed this went away. The last lap was really enjoyable. I finished a respectable third...to last. The race felt too short, I was just getting warmed up and then it was over. I'm still an endurance guy.
Overall I'm happy with how the Pugsley rode. I have some tweaking to do on the bike, but none of it is Surly's fault. I installed the zip-ties that hold the brake/derailleur cables/housing wrong so that they occasionally scraped my legs. Speaking of cables and housing, I would prefer that frame had cable stops as well as or rather than the zip-tie anchorages. I don't particularly care for full length housing, I'd rather be able to keep the cables clean and lubed through maintainance than just hoping that no water will get into the housing. The seatpost and saddle are old used bits I found around the shop and they really aren't suitable. In particular the seapost is a little too short. The Titec/Jones H-Bar handle bar is okay. Single-speeders love them and I can see why, they don't have enough room for shifters! I installed my Suntour XC Pro shifters on the bar-end section which is a little far from where I would really like them to be and takes up a lot of the space where my hands ought to be on the bar-ends. The bar-ends were useless during the race, too much turning and braking, but are nice on more open road/trail. The vintage Suntour shifters work marginally with current Shimano derailleurs and cassettes. Well enough for what I normally plan for the bike, but not precise enough for XC racing. And the big tires? They're no substitute for suspension on bumps or drops, but in loose gravel and sand (no snow yet) the float is amazing. There's no digging in or squirming around that you get with narrower tires. On very steep loose climbs it is great to be able to sit down and spin without worrying about lines or loosing traction. On the other hand they are heavy, though not bad considering the size, and I really needed the low gears to get the bike moving. I can't wait to get a legitimate adventure underway on this "adventure bike."