February is for fatbiking??

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February, for me at least, is for fatbiking……unless you’re in the middle of a weirdly warm February. Taking it to the roads is what I was doing this weekend. I used the word “weird” to describe our weather on my blog post from Saturday, two days ago. I’m not the only one using this word. I’ve read it on the FB, on other blogs, and on NPR this morning. A meteorologist on the radio used the word “weird” to describe the weather in Minnesota over the past week. He said 197 record high temperatures were broken over the weekend in Minnesota. Here in Duluth we missed record highs by a degree or two Friday and Saturday. Despite not setting a new record, nobody can seem to remember experiencing 50 degrees temps in Duluth in February. It’s just, well, weird.

I’m not saying it’s climate change, or that winters are warmer then they used to be. perhaps they are. But I do remember that just three years ago we had one of the coldest winters on record. With something like 52 or 53 days with below zero temps. I remember it because bike commuted everyday that winter.

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This graphic I came across shows we still have cold winters. It shows 91.8% of Lake Superior covered in ice three years ago yesterday. This year only 8.2% is covered in ice. So maybe we aren’t having warmer winters overall, but we are having more wild, weird swings in weather patterns and temperatures.

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What this years warm winter means for me can be illustrated with the above. The local mtb trailheads were posted with this sign yesterday. It should be prime snowbiking weather, but instead I was riding the roads as the snow was quickly disappearing.

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I’m not complaining. I enjoy being on a bike whether it’s on snow or not. Maybe winter will make another appearance, or maybe I’ll have to wait until next winter.

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Either way I’ll be out riding a bike no matter what.

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The weird weather continues.

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On Skyline Parkway along Keene Creek.

It was only three days ago I posted about going for a fatbike ride with super snow conditions. Since then, we’ve started another big thaw. With near record temps yesterday around 50F degrees. And then this today:

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This warm of weather doesn’t normally happen until late April. Riding today felt like late April. Feeling the warmth, the snow quickly…very quickly….melting. People out everywhere. People out on their Harley’s. It didn’t feel like a February day that’s for sure. I’m not saying winter is over. You never know here. I’ve ridden snow on the Pugsley well into April a few years. I can also remember 2012 when we had a thaw in mid-February. One of the warmest March and April months ever seen here followed that. March is typically the snowiest month. So we will have to wait and see which we get this year.

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The Annual Polar Plunge fundraiser was today. They are usually jumping into a hole cut in the ice. Not today. They had open water. Really weird.

Sooo, on a February day when I would typically head out in the bitter cold to ride some snowy trails on my Surly Pugsley, I instead rode some roads on my A-train.

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I feel for the businesses that make a living off of winter sports, winter activities, and snow. Winter is becoming unpredictable in a place where winter was nearly always guaranteed.

Super-crunchy, super-fun fatbiking.

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Another slow Wednesday at work. So I had the day off. I’ve been feeling sad about winter….or lack thereof. The previous five days have been another winter thaw. Lots of sunshine and temps in the 40’s.  Lots of snow melting. Subzero temps are usually the norm the first few weeks of February. Not temps in the 40’s. I expected the trail conditions to be bad. But then last night we had a drop in temps. All the way down to 10F degrees this morning. Good enough to firm things up a bit. Or at least firm up what was left of the snow.

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Once again I opted for the snomo trails over the singeltrack mtb trails. It was the right choice. I rode for two hours and never saw another person, let alone any snow machines. After 11 years of fatbiking I’ve learned some of the best riding conditions can occur in the early Spring when the temps still drop below freezing at night. That usually means late March/early April for us. Not February 15th. The benefit of riding the snomo trails over single track trails is the ability to dodge icy spots on the wide trails. Plus the snow machine’s tracks tend to chew up icy spots enough to give the fatbike tires something to grab onto.

img_2485I mentioned “super-crunchy” in the title. The snow today was super-crunchy. With the thaw and direct sunshine the past several days, the snow had become very wet. With the sudden drop in temps, everything froze in place. All the loose snow churned up from the snow machines froze. So when I rode over it today it made an insanely loud crunching noise as I broke up all the frozen snow. The temp today was at 26F degrees with overcast skies, and no wind. Had the sun had been out it would have softened up all the snow.

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Another plus riding today was super-traction. I was able to almost double the psi I have been running in my tires. I was able to run them at a much higher pressure, higher then I ever run on snow. I did the same loop I did one week ago. That day I had freshly fallen snow that had just been groomed that hadn’t firmed up yet. I was running extremely low pressures  and still had to walk quite a few of the uphills. Today I rode everything. That was the super-fun part. Having amazing traction on snow is fun.

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The thing is, I can’t take pictures to show you the snow conditions. It doesn’t show up in pictures. Even with all my experience riding in different types of snow, I can’t look at the pictures I took today and tell how super-fantastic the conditions really were. In all honesty it looks like it would be somewhat slow conditions. But trust me. All the ingredients came together today. Firm, frozen base and no direct sun to soften it allowed me to run very high tire pressure and still have great traction. A fatbikers dream.

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I had no idea what to expect when I left the house today. I thought I might find icy trails. Without studded tires on my fatbike I would have had to turn around and head home. What I found was some of the best fatbiking of the season. I’m glad I made it out. With a forecast for more warm weather the next seven days, our snow cover may soon disappear.

Mid-week fatbike ride.

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Today is Wednesday. My place of employment sent me home after a half day of work. Things got slow. It was perfect timing for me. Yesterday we had a snowstorm that dropped 4-6 inches of fresh snow on us. It was followed by temps dropping below zero last night. That’s a recipe for good fatbiking.

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This is what a freshly groomed snowmobile trail looks like.

The local mountain bike club did did some grooming of their trails this morning. Normally I’d head for those. But I wasn’t convinced those would be firmed up yet. Since it was a Wednesday afternoon I didn’t expect there’d be many snowmobiles out. So I opted to ride the local snowmobiles trails instead. They too were freshly groomed. And by the looks of it I just missed seeing the groomer. I ended up riding for 3 hours. The sunshine, the fresh snow, and the promise of another warm-up by Friday. I took full advantage of my afternoon off.

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I just can’t ride past this overlook on Bardons Peak without taking a picture. I apologize if you’ve seen this shot many times before.

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Crossing the Magney-Snively Cross Country Ski Trails. Also groomed today.

I’ve been a cross-country skier for 38 years. But the last 11 winters I’ve averaged one ski day a year. Why? That’s how long I’ve had my Pugsley. All my outdoor time playing in the snow is now done on a fatbike. These freshly groomed cross country ski trails were calling to me, but I was on my Pugsley.

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By the time I got home the sun was setting and I was exhausted. It was a good day on the fatbike.

A weekend with two different types of fatbike rides.

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Smoke and steam from the stacks below show the lack of wind.

I had high hopes for getting in some good fatbiking rides this weekend. After the two week long January thaw there was nothing but ice everywhere. Earlier in the week we got a 3 inch snowfall. That was just enough to cover the ice. A dip in temperatures down around zero, and below, insured it would compact nicely onto the ice. Mid-week the local mtb club posted they had done some grooming. Things were looking up for getting back out onto the trails without having to worry about ice. The loop in Brewer Park was one of the sections that was groomed. Saturday I left the house and rode the one mile to the trailhead to access the Brewer Park trails.

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This is along the road on the way to the trail head.

It was quite pleasant with warm temps, 20F degrees, and no wind. Dense cloud cover made for low light conditions. It was hard to take photos. I was somewhat disappointed with the conditions. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The trail was covered in frozen footprints. If you’ve ever ridden over frozen footprints, you’ll know it’s not fun. Even fat tires don’t smooth those out. The fatbikers that use the local trails are good about not using the trails when they’re too soft. The walkers and runners don’t seem to be aware they’re leaving depressions. If you’re leaving depressions runners and walker’s you need to use snowshoes or stay off the groomed trails. I felt pretty beat up by the time I was finished with the loop. Here’s some more pictures from the day:

I didn’t feel like repeating the beating I took on Saturday, but I still wanted to get in a ride on snow. The first 9 years of owning my fatbike I rode the local snomo trails. Two years ago is when I switched to riding mostly mtb trails. That’s when the building of mtb trails came to my neighborhood. Plus, as the popularity of fatbikes exploded the Minnesota DNR strongly suggested fatbikes should not use snomo trails for safety reasons. Today being Superbowl Sunday, I figured many people would be at pre-game gatherings rather then out on their snow machines. I was correct. In two hours on the trails only 12 snomo machines passed me. I ALWAYS yield to them by stopping and stepping completely off the trail to let them pass.

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Today was completely different. The sun shine was bright and fantastic. The February sun is warm enough to stay comfortable when stopped out of the wind. The temp was 15F degrees and the wind was light. It was just about perfect conditions to be out on the trails. It felt great to be out on the trails I spent 9 years on. It’s where I did all my training for the two Arrowhead Ultra 135’s I started. Over the years I put in over 7,000 miles of fatbiking on snow on these trails. It was glorious to be back out on these trails once again.

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Over all it was a great weekend on the Pugsley.

Weather dictates what bike I ride. 

It’s January and I should be spending all my bike time on groomed bike trails through the north woods. After a incredibly late start to winter things were finally settling into normal winter riding conditions two weeks ago. That weekend was spent hiking and winter camping instead of taking advantage of the nicely groomed trails. 

And then the weather changed again. We had nearly two weeks of above normal temperatures and rain. Rain in January is extremely rare here. We had a record high, or two, with the temps running 30 degrees above normal. It felt like April. 

The groomed trails disappeared or became covered in ice. I hear many of them were still rideable, but studded tires were required. I’ve been riding my Surly Pugsley on snow for 11 winters and have never felt the need to spend money on studded fat tires. In normal years it gets cold enough we don’t get a lot of freeze/thaw cycles that cause icy trails except in the late Spring. I would estimate I have felt the need for studded tires on off-roads trails less then 1% of of the time over the 10,000 miles I’ve ridden on snow with my fatbike. But the past few weeks that would have been the only way to ride and stay upright. I might reconsider the need for studded tires on my fatbike if our winters become milder like this year. 

With icy trails I pulled out the all-weather A-train this weekend and rode the streets of Duluth. Ironically this bike has studded tires. No need for the studs because the roads were clear and dry. 

Winter Cycling Tips: Part 4, Those lists of winter bicycle commuting tips are wrong!

This is a series of posts aimed at the beginning winter rider. More seasoned riders may also pick up a few tips along the way. It contains tips and strategies for staying safe and warm when enjoying the outdoors during the most beautiful season…winter.

So you’re new to this bicycle commuting thing. You started riding in May when the weather was nice. Over the summer you increased the number of days commuting by bike, per week, from one or two days to five days a week. Congratulations! That’s a big accomplishment and it’s makes you feel amazing. You feel like you can now ride through anything. You enter the Fall months. It’s gets colder and wetter and less fun. But over time you figure it out. You’re still feeling good about it but you know winter is coming. You’d like to try riding through the winter, but how do you do it? To try and get more information you do an internet search for winter bicycling commuting tips. And a picture like this comes up:

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Is this how a typical winter bicycle commuter looks?

Now take all of this with a grain of salt. Dressing for winter is a very individual task. The clothing and equipment that works varies from person to person. The money you can spend on clothing and equipment can be astronomical. Or you can use other outdoor gear you have laying around. I cringe at the picture you see above. I have been commuting in harsh winter conditions for many years and I can honestly say I have never, ever, looked like the picture above. I wore a balaclava (an item every list mentions) once…..I repeat….once on a bike commute and swore never to wear one again. I felt like I was suffocating inside the thing. My nose runs in cold weather and there was no easy way to to blow my nose with it on. It filled with my own snot….yuck! I wear a neck gaitor I can easily pull down to vent or take care of a runny nose. Balaclavas are not easy to get on and off if you are getting to warm.

My head runs very hot, even in sub-zero weather. If I wore a balaclava, ski goggles and a hood over it all, my head would be soaked with sweat by time I reached the top of the first hill.

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The most bundled you’ll ever see me. This was at -28F degrees. I have on a neck gaiter, a headband under a wool cycling cap, and my helmet. That’s it.

Googles? I’ve  worn them twice in blizzard conditions. I find it quite un-nerving the way they block my peripheral vision. Specially when riding in traffic.  I felt like I was in a fishbowl. In the winter I rarely wear eye protection because of my hot head. I can fog any lens in any temp below 50F degrees. Yet, I have never frozen my eyeballs. Not even when I’ve been out in sub-zero temps for 10 or 12 hours during some winter ultra races. On rare occasions I will wear eye protection. Usually when there is sleet coming down. Or I’ll put them on for longer downhills if there is any type of precipitation falling from the sky. Also for winds over 30 mph (we get those a lot in the shoulder seasons living next to Lake Superior). I wear these:

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Stanley Safety Glasses from my local home center. They cost $7.

These wrap around safety glasses offer as much protection as goggles without blocking any of my field of vision. And they only cost 7 bucks.

Another tip I’ve noticed on multiple winter cycling lists is: Don’t bring your bike inside where it’s warm. Keep it outside so that any ice or snow doesn’t melt. Bringing it back and forth between cold and warm air causes condensation inside your frame. My response is, “Yeah, so what”!! If that’s a problem then you should also add to the list: Never ride your bike in the rain. What happens when you ride in the rain? Water gets inside the frame. That’s a non-issue. Of course it helps if you have your steel frame properly treated with Frame Saver or some other rust inhibitor. But even if you don’t, it would take 15 or 20 years before a frame would fail due to damage from condensation.

If you never bring your bike inside, then you’re probably not cleaning it. The one single thing that will help your bike survive winter more then anything else is frequent cleanings. Any day that you ride in wet conditions, winter or summer, your bike needs to have the chain cleaned, dried and lubed. If you are using rim brakes, your rim sidewalls and the brake pads need to be cleaned as well. If you leave your bike outside and never clean it, components will start to work less and less efficient each day. In harsh winter conditions they will begin to not work at all. Derailleurs will fail to shift and brakes will not stop you. To properly take care of your bike in the winter, bring it inside.

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Bring it inside. My daily winter routine is to let it thaw in the bike stand and then wipe it all down with hot soapy water. I start each morning with a clean, properly working bicycle.

Another one from those lists: Buy a beater for riding in the winter. This one can be good advise, but it’s not the only way to do it. A beater can be good for many reasons. If you lock up in a high theft area, or you have a short commute. If you live where winter is short.

I tried a beater for some years. The idea is not to expose your expensive summer bikes with expensive components to winter conditions. Many locales use salt and/or sand on the roads. This can destroy components. But guess what kind of components it destroys the quickest. Cheap stuff. I learned you can extend the life of components if you clean them properly. It takes a whole different level of commitment though. Of course my definition of beater and your definition of beater may be different. My beater was a 1987 Specialized Rock Hopper. An old mountain bike. After many years of winter riding, it is still in use. But I’ve replaced it with a different bike for winter.

I define the length of winter based on when the first snowfall happens and lasting until they clean the streets of all the sand and salt in the Spring. Where I live winter can start as early as the last week of October and stretch until the last week of April or first week of May.  That means winter can be six months of the year in Northeastern Minnesota. I got tired of riding a beater daily for six months out of the year. I wanted to ride a bike that rode nicer then a beater. Over the years I learned to build up bikes with components and drivetrains that were impervious to the salt and grit. I ended up designing a bike and having it custom built specifically for use in the winter. When it was all done, my winter commuting bike became my most expensive bike I ride. The exact opposite of a beater.

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My custom A-train Ultimate Commuter bike.

This bike can run all winter without having to be cleaned thanks to an internally geared hub, a belt drive, disc brakes, sealed BB, sealed bearing headset and a corrosion resistant frame made from aircraft quality stainless steel tubing.  Yes it’s over the top. And yes, I want to make sure I have a secure spot to lock it up wherever I go. But it’s an extreme example to show you that you have other options other than riding a beater around all winter.

Can you tell I’m not a fan of “lists”? I suggest you use the lists as a starting point. And then find out what works for you.

 

 

Weekend Report: First camping trip of 2017.

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I know this blog is called Four Season Cycling. It turns out my first camping trip of 2017 was not on a bike. But I thought it might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog anyway.

One year ago my friend Jeff and I were planning to go on an overnight camping trip. It would have been his first winter camping trip. For me it would have been my first winter camping trip in 8 or 9 years. I used to try to go once or twice each winter. The trip ended up getting postponed. I described why we postponed it in a post on this blog. We were never able to re-schedule it before an early Spring took over.

A few weeks ago we worked it out to go this weekend. The plan: finish what we started last year. Last year’s plan was to head up the North Shore of Lake Superior about 60 miles to Finland, Minnesota. It is about 5 miles inland from the big lake. We’d access the Superior Hiking Trail from a trail head at the Finland Rec Center. Head “North” on the trail to either the first or second lake depending on how we were feeling and how far we wanted to go. The weather was about as perfect as it gets for winter camping. Highs in the 20’s on Saturday, low’s in the single digits at night, and warmer for the second day. A high near the freezing mark. Winds were expected to be light and variable. Abundant sunshine. Clear skies at night with a nearly full moon. Wow! Completely different then the harsh weather the previous year.

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We set out from the trail head sign above in the first picture. There were some snowshoe tracks to follow as we started down the short spur trail towards the main trail. We were thinking this would be great if we didn’t have to break trail. Well, when we reached the main trail the snowshoe tracks turned right. We happened to be turning left. No sign of the trail in the snow other then a slight depression left from some old footprints or snowshoe tracks that had since been buried by at least a foot of snow. We turned left and continued on knowing our task at hand just got much harder. We now had to break trail in the snow. Snow deep enough that our 30 inch long expedition snowshoes were sinking at least a foot into it. We also had to try and always be careful we were still on the trail.

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Thankfully Susan and I had blue blazed through here back in 2007 when we were hired as contractors to paint trail blazes on trees for over 200 miles of the trail. You can see a fading blue blaze on a tree in the above picture. It was very reassuring to see a blaze whenever we were starting to wonder if we were still on the trail. However, if we had to blaze this section again I would tighten up the distance between the blazes just a bit in some areas.

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Jeff and I tried to switch the lead fairly often to give each other a rest from breaking trail. It was slow going and draining. But the day was so gorgeous it was a pleasure to be out in the woods despite the about of energy we were exerting.

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Snow depth ranged from 1 foot to 2 1/2 feet. It depended on which side of a ridge we were on and the amount of drifted snow. There was winter beauty every where we looked. This section of trail takes you up a low ridge. At the top you can see a ridge that sits between the ridge we were on and Lake Superior. It almost looked mountainous at times. After we came off the ridge there were several small creek crossings with some ups and downs in between.

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This creek crossing doesn’t look as menacing as it did in person. You can see Jeff has taken off his hip belt and had it in his hand. That was as a precaution in case the snow broke loose on the bridge and the sled slid off with the snow. If we had our hip belts still on we would have been pulled over the side with the sled. It was an 8 or 10 foot drop off this bridge and there was flowing water under it.

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We struggled to pull our sleds up and out of the steep ravine from the last creek. That’s when we spotted our destination for the night. Egge Lake. We had worked hard for four and a half hours to get there. The distance traveled? 2.6 miles! And we were exhausted. One mile of snowy travel like this equals 3 or 4 miles of normal summer travel. Any thoughts of traveling an additional 3 miles to the next lake disappeared. It could have taken us 5 hours to travel another 3 miles….if we had had the energy to keep going. We were done for the day.

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We arrived at an established back country backpacking campsite…..or we thought we did. All the campsites on the Superior Hiking Trail have a fire ring and benches. We found what looked to be the opening of where the campsite should be but could see no signs of benches or a fire ring. But we did find a deep snow drift running through the campsite. We theorized the benches and fire ring were in there somewhere. The lake is long and narrow. I think the lake creates a wind tunnel effect. There were signs of drifting all along the lake and snow drifts on the lake. The campsite juts out into the lake and the wind comes right across it.

We went about setting up camp. Picking our sleeping spots, unpacking, collecting firewood, and digging out a cooking area in the snow drift. The winds were blowing a little harder then predicted. I think it was because of that wind tunnel effect. They never did die down at night.

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Here’s Jeff in the morning heating water and preparing his breakfast in our snow drift cooking area. We have our pulk sleds propped up for additional wind breaks. The winds were higher then we were expecting, but really not bad in our protected area. It didn’t take long to dig out the area since we both packed in lightweight collapsible avalanche shovels. You can see I even dug out a shelf to do my cooking on.

We ate dinner after dark. Jeff got a fire going. A fire in these conditions is a lot of work to keep going. I was getting colder faster then the fire was warming me. We decided to call it a night at 7:30 and retired to our sleeping bags. The moon was not up yet when we went to bed. A head lamp was required to see. But once the nearly full moon came up it was so bright on the white snow a head lamp was not necessary to see. It was so incredibly bright.

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First light. Winter camping means long nights in a sleeping bag (unless you’re really good at keeping fires going with wood you gather yourself). The mornings are very welcome. I often spend 12 to 13 hours in the sleeping bag. For me it’s the hardest part of winter camping. The flip side is I sleep really well in a sleeping bag in the woods.  Mornings consists of heating water for breakfast and packing up. The packing up part always warms me up while I wait for my water to boil. Jeff and I both used either a tarp or tarp tent to sleep in this trip. In the past I have always used just a bivy, no tent or tarp. The bivy makes me a bit claustrophobic. So I opted for a tarp tent this trip. Here’s our set-ups:

Jeff’s on the left, mine on the right.

After breakfast we finished packing up. We were looking forward to following the trail we broke the previous day back to the trail head. We could simply snowshoe along without worrying about whether we were still on the trail or not. Not having to break trail saved us an hour and half on the trip back. We were exhausted none the less. The temp warmed into the low 30’s. We could feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We were able to stay very comfortable with one or two light layers. Here’s some of the pictures from the hike on Day 2:

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I love winter. Whether I’m on a fatbike, commuter bike, snowshoes, X-country skis, or camping, I love being outdoors in the most beautiful season.

Weekend report: First full weekend of 2017

The first full weekend of 2017 included more of this:

Saturday

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Sunday

Sunday was much more overcast but just as fun.

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If things go as planned, next weekend report should be a bit different. Winter camping is being planned. No bikes, we’ll be using snowshoes and pulks. It’s been 6 or 7 years since I’ve had a friend interested in trying winter camping. This trip is one we planned almost one year ago. I ended up cancelling that one at the last minute due to windy conditions with temps in the -20F degree range. Not the best conditions to take a first time winter camper on. I’m really looking forward to this one.

Velo Duluth’s New Year’s Day ride 2017.

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I can’t remember how long I’ve been attending this New Year’s Day Ride. I reckon I started going around 2004 or 2005. I’ve gone every year since, with one exception. I missed 2009 because I was recovering from surgery for a shattered humerus bone in my right arm.  The ride dates back 35 or 40 years. Originally being a road ride. This year they added the option of a road ride or a fat tire ride on the local mtb trails due to the growing popularity of fat tire bikes. Since I spent the previous two days on my fatbike and was feeling the efforts, I opted for the traditional road ride.

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Velo Duluth is a bicycling club that has gone mostly dormant. I still pay my membership fee every year. It gets me an in-store 15% discount off parts purchased at Twin Ports Cyclery. This years ride attracted a modest group of around 12 or 14 riders. The temperature was a balmy 30F degrees. Unusually high. I started the ride with a small group of six. The plan was to head towards Canal Park and then out to Park Point. A nice 15 mile round trip. I ended up bailing on the group in Canal Park and heading home. My gut hasn’t felt right since the middle of last week. I was enjoying being out on the bike, but needed to be setting my own pace.

I was joking with Susan the day before. I was mentioning I was going to the ride. These days it is often the only group ride I do all year long. As an introvert, I joked, I try to get that group ride thing checked off the list on the first day of the year. Then I can say I’ve done my group ride for the year. It helps lower my social anxiety for the next 364 days.

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Canal Park, Duluth, Minnesota.

It was a beautiful day to be out on a bike. Sunshine and “warm” temps. The street conditions were exactly what my A-train Super Commuter was designed for. Lots of sloppy slush, salt and sand with patches of ice.

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Duluth side streets.

The side streets are mostly covered in an inch of ice from the Christmas Day rain/snow/sleet storm. On top of the ice is a nasty mixture sand, salt, and slush. The A-train’s belt drive, Rohloff IGH hub, disc brakes, and stainless steel frame are impervious to this bicycle-eating concoction. It’s a dream to ride in these conditions.

Happy New Year to all the reader’s of this blog.