Winter Reviews Round Up

Grab some coffee, this is a big one!

I’m built for winter: fuzzy, large, and literally so physically warm, I’ve been dubbed The Human Furnace. Basically, I don’t mind the snowy months, provided there is snow on which to play. This was not one of those years. We had a few notable storms, those were fun, but the sun and rain quickly rid us of those crystalline gains. Instead of pow to pack in and ride atop our fat bicycles, we were contending with ice, and a lot of it. Watching fresh snow cover wilt and fade under the heavy drops of rain was demoralizing. It was the third wettest winter ever up here. That’s not how winter is supposed to be measured, for those wondering. 

The rain ruined the riding for about a solid month – longer for those of us who hadn’t invested in studded tires yet. At $500 a set, it’s hard to imagine the need for such expensive tread – but, then I remembered that therapy is inside and not particularly exciting; studded tires seemed less expensive suddenly. And I’m glad I bought them, considering I had a brand-new fork mounted up that had not seen a single inch of trail due to the very specifically shitty conditions. More money to use the thing you spent more money on so you’d ride more because riding is better when there’s suspension… etc etc global warming made me poor this year, that’s my tag line for this winter.

I was salty about it at first…

The window for shredding was always narrow, like an old school XC tire, so I made sure to capitalize on the time when I was able to ride. Every ride became an effort to ekk out as many miles as my legs would manage, the maximum amount of vert my lungs could gasp for, the most… well, you get it – I wasn’t fucking around out there. And while this manner of riding wasn’t ideal for reviewing or testing some of the new bits and bobs I’ve acquired for the winter, it was at least decently sufficient. Fatbiking isn’t really about durability anyway (for which longer test periods are most helpful), as the snow doesn’t wear tires down, ice generally isn’t wearing carbide studs down, and soft goods don’t see a lot of hard conditions either. What is more important is function and fit, which is what I can briefly touch upon in the following mini reviews:

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USWE Patriot 9

Hydration packs, some people swear by them, others are happy taping bananas to their frames and hoping they only need one water bottle; I am somewhere in the middle of the two. My main gripe with hydration packs is the fit – or rather, how they don’t fit me in particular. I am broad of shoulder and chest, my torso is super long, and I’m generally just not built like the average 150lbs cyclist… I look like a rugby player/strongman competitor more than a endurance-based athlete. (5’10”, 215-220lbs)

I wanted to start riding longer distances, more than just what a single water bottle could sustain, but I genuinely disliked my pack at the time [note: it was one of the Evoc’s, a perfectly fine pack which is well-constructed and such, it just didn’t fit me comfortably with the way the straps interacted with my shoulders and chest]. I reached out to USWE, the interesting Swedish brand, after reading up on their packs and asking around. It’s an atypical design, but the way the “X” harness works, it removes the awkward waist strap which I can’t stand on typical packs, and the manner in which it suspends off the upper back looked like it might work better for someone sporting some extra mass like myself. 

The first ride out with the pack was over 20 miles of fat tire XC, which did have some fun descents, but also a lot of up-and-down-and-up-and-down, interconnected with long stretches of flat connectors. So, the pack was given the opportunity to be super annoying many times over… but guess what? It was sublime, never once making me question my choice in buying it. I wish this pack had been in my life starting a long time ago. It has since made me happy to bring extra things out on the trail, adding water for longer distances, stashing tools because I know better, and also making myself known in the woods to others around with its very notable red color. Another nice touch is the reflective stips found around the bag, an appreciatble feature for those who ride at/into the night or commute.

I am planning on getting the 15L version of this pack for when I’m planning on a ride that’s over 4 hours a.k.a. and all-day haul and/or riding to work – I’m a fan of extra room for noms and a small camera or something. Big guys can ride far, we just need more snacks! If you hate the waist strap, how most shoulder straps aren’t wide enough, or having a pack that dances on your back, then I can highly recommend the offerings from USWE*.

*One point of contention that I feel does need to be pointed out: these packs may not fit all women. The way the pack secures might create a fit challenge for those with a more significant bust. The return policy on the packs is sound, so trying one isn’t super risky, but if you have the option to try-before-you-buy, that would be suggestable, and I’m happy to offer mine if up for those who will be up visiting the Kingdom Trails this summer.

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Manitou Mastodon Pro

(120mm, EXT, 26”)

“Sick shocks! Luckyyyy!”

My fatbike was supposed to be a one-time investment, no upgrades needed… I’ll wait for the laughter to die down. All good? OK. That’s obviously not how this sport works, especially in my case – I think I was just being willfully optimistic, a first for me. Well, as these things go, I realized that riding a rigid bike was le suck and my MOG build makes it considerably less tolerable by the minute on choppy trail [who knew snow trails could be so rough?!]. So, in order to maintain my sanity and fondness for winter riding, I sought a solution: adding a dope bouncer to the front of Fatty. It took a minute, but I was finally able to procure a very generously priced Mastodon Pro fork from Manitou (Thanks Eric!). If you’ll remember back to the opening paragraph, you’ll recall that I said, “global warming made me poor this year” – I’d add, “aging joints” to that list, as the need for some forgiveness i.e. suspension became notable in my wrists, elbows, and shoulders this year.

It wasn’t a hard decision picking out the Mastodon, partially because there are not a plethora of options out there for fat-tire-forks, but mostly because it’s a proper fork. It’s fucking stiff and is legitimately tunable. A friend with a real job had bought one pre-season, and he let be give it the classic Parking Lot Test. In a single huck off a 2-foot rock I was convinced this piece of equipment needed to be in my life, my credit score be damned. I remember the day it arrived, like a ray of hope in the dark… Happiness crept into my life for a minute before the sun quickly set at 4pm that day. Out of the box, it looks ready to get serious, as serious as you can get riding on groomed snow. It’s hefty, but who cares, plus it looks slick. Installation was easy af, because bikes aren’t hard to put together these days – if they are, you’re doing it wrong, probably.

Recall again from earlier, this fresh set up sat idle for an embarrassingly long time before I wheeled it out the door for a shakedown. Once it saw the light of day though, all bets were off. Honestly, this fork was always going to be sick, because Manitou kept it simple and strong. Their cold-weather testing seems to have been very legit, as I had my dropper post quit on me a couple times, but the fork always felt great. The thing just works. This isn’t race equipment per se, but it’s no 2×4 with a wheel either. It has the small-bumps covered; I hucked it, that was dope (and less jarring); it corners well because it’s stiff, and generally, it improved my life because it made riding enjoyable/comfortable again, which is all I could really ask from it. Winter is a long time here in NH, and having some comfort and control goes a long way on those cold and choppy rides. And when the trails are in prime condition, it just makes it even better. From 30-minute blasts at the local, to intrepid hauls up at The Kingdom Trails, this fork is worth every penny for those who choose riding in the winter as their main activity or anyone who just wants their fatbike to ride well and be as fun as possible.

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45NRTH Dillinger 5s

(Studded, 26 x 4.6, 120 TPI)

It better be icy out there, otherwise, this is money wasted. I bought these straight up off a website and they just happened to be running a slight sale. But it was still an insane amount of money for two tires… with that said, there is immense security in riding super unpredictable/variable conditions with little carbide spikes poking out of your tires. When I first bought my fatmobile, I said I’d never buy studded tires, because who the fuck wants to ride when it’s icy out? Well, jokes on me because A) I ate shit that winter riding on ice a couple times and 2) I bought them this year and it turns out that they are pretty much standard issue in New England or anywhere that has a freeze/thaw cycle in the winter. If you’re cheap and think you don’t need these, you’re wrong – I was you, and now look where I am.

The real conundrum when buying these tires was actually which brand, what tread pattern, and what width. I can tell you this: 45NRTH has the only option you should consider if you’re from ‘round here. The two options are the Wrathchilds with XL studs (not a porn joke) and the Dillinger 5s with just the normal concave studs – GET CONCAVE STUDS if you’re studding your own tires: They bite better and have a better wear life, get the XLs too if you can (still talking 45NRTH).

Back to tires: I went with the D5s because the Wraths were out of stock until next year. The Wraths are humongous and chucky, great if you break trail a lot or just want a really bitey tire, but they are very slow, that is plain to see and hear if you have friends who ride them. For me, a lot of my winter rides are about adventure and distance, so having a big and slow tire wasn’t really desirable. I also wanted the biggest footprint possible i.e. wide tire because I’m heavy. Basically, even though I originally wanted the Wraths, I’m glad I ended up with D5s because it turns out they are a wonderfully round-profile tire, studded right to the edge of the tread, and super fast-rolling. They perform exceptionally well on groomed and loose-over-hardpack snow. The lean-angle is fantastic, holding edge way past where you’d expect, much more like a Moto GP or MX tire than something in MTB. The 120 TPI makes them super comfy to ride, something I didn’t understand until I had them underneath me, but they are still stiff, so they won’t wallow under you unless you really air them down.

The one unspoken truth about this segment of the sport, is that any tire is going to be hard to manage in fresh snow, especially any amount over 3+ inches/the height of the tire. But, with that in mind, the D5s were a dream all around, and I was amazed with the studs when traversing ice flows on spring-fed fire roads and sections of trail were it would transition from snow to ice and back, especially when the corners were icy – it was amazing that I could just hammer into these sections and ride through without issue; the drift point of these tires, both in snow and on ice, is really predictable and easy to feel. The D5s feel like race equipment, and are actually billed as such on the 45NRTH website. I’m a huge fan, you will be too.

While I still groan thinking about how much I paid for the tires, I am thankful I did. They are a huge improvement in the ride quality of my set up, plus they are also a safety item, keeping me upright in places I would have been downright on the ground otherwise. MTB is a fickle sport, in that some upgrades are more for flash than function, though the price would have you believe otherwise. In this case, I’d even say it’s worth over-paying. Provided you’re not riding these tires in dirt (heresy!), they will last for years. A stud or two might stay behind on the trail, but if you ride the tires out-of-the-box and straight to pavement for a couple miles as suggested, I don’t think you’ll see studs go missing any time soon. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – don’t be an idiot when riding on pavement with these tires, they will slide… it’s metal on pavement, unless there is a layer of black ice or whatever. Pavement is obvious a good way to prematurely wear the studs, but riding out from the shop, up the road from the parking lot, or traversing trailheads should really dull them. Gentle warning aside, buy a set of studded tires if you haven’t already, they’ll keep you riding through it all and at least remove an excuse from your list of reasons to stay inside and watch Netflix.

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Flylow Rainbreaker and Cash Shorts

A Colorado-based, skier owned brand, Flylow is the brain child of two friends who think they can do it better. The reached out to see if I’d be interested in using some of their clothes, as they are trying to establish themselves among the summer crowd, namely mountain bikers. I was pumped to give ’em a whirl, as I am always curious to see what small brands are cooking up in an attempt to out-perform some of the entrenched giants.

[In their words]

The story goes, that the name comes from a funny slope-side interaction: A French girl on the mountain observed them skiing and said, “You don’t ski fast—you fly low.” That resonates with me. My first impressions of the two items were strong. They are indeed VERY orange, but as someone who lives in the North East and rides during hunting season, I’m totally ok with that. The fit seems true to form, with good mobility and tailoring for both pieces. Seams are tidy, construction is sensible in terms of fabric paneling and placement, and they are both super light, a particular plus for the Rainbreaker, as it fits in any pack and potentially a pocket if you’re really SOL. A particular point of note with the shorts before diving into the tech: the buttons are intensely secure – if you really need to get the shorts open quick (pee break!), be mindful that you don’t accidentally rip the very stretchy fabric, I can imagine someone doing this on day one – let the buttons wear in a little before you hulk-off your shorts.

With that said, the Cash short is a new item for 2019, so it’s not on their site yet. But it’s described as, “Simple and sturdy, the Cash Short is a fly, all-around mountain bike short to wear over a chamois.”

Features include: 40+ UPF, 11.5″ off-set inseam, inner waist cinch system, body mapped paneling, zippered thigh pocket, and a secure inner media pocket. The material is from Intuitive Fabrics, it’s 89% polyester, 11% spandex so it’s quick drying and moister-wicking, plus it’s super stretchy.

I do apologize for the not-the-best photos of the shorts and jacket up close – I like to shoot stuff like that outside, but the snow/mud/water/ice mess outside is inhibiting the nature-based-up-front shots. I will get some better ones for the wrap up piece, as I’ll be doing a long-term review of these over the summer, so keep an eye out for thoughts and opinions down the line!

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Burgtec Penthouse MK4

This isn’t a review, these pedals have been around long enough to have a pedigree where by they need no introduction or further analysis, but this is more of a piece of insight regarding their application in fatbiking: I think they are the ideal pedal due to their right-next-to-the-crank design. Ironically, I stopped riding these pedals for that reason; the revision from the MK2 and MK3 slimmed the pedal down and opened up the middle (good), but it also tightened up the tolerance of the pedal body to the crank arm (not good), as I ride pretty duck-footed and would basically have my foot/ankle in constant contact with the crank, often painfully (really not good). However, with the super-wide Q-factor of fatbike cranks, regular pedals with a long spindle end up making my knees hurt by opening up my stance on the bike beyond a comfortable plane. But the Burgtec’s “narrow” profile, tall pins, and open body design means that my knees are saved, my shoes can find traction, and there is next-to-no surface area for snow to clog up or ice to form. So, if you’re picky about pedals and/or are looking to improve the pedaling performance of your winter rig, give the Penthouse pedals a look.

That’s all for now! Thanks for dropping in and having a gander. If you have any questions or comments about the above items, drop me a line, I’m happy to field some Qs and Cs!

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