Wednesday, May 7, 2014

New 29er Wheels for the Salsa Mukluk

While life, in it's manifold manifestations, has kept me from these pages lately, gentle reader, it has not -- I repeat, not -- kept me from fun on the bike. 

You all know I spent the winter sneaking out for fat bike adventures on the new Mukluk (and, if not, go to the links in the right-hand column of this page to catch up). As the weather warmed, I got to thinking about how Salsa built the Muks so they could take 29-inch mountain bike wheels as well as the monstrous ones that come stock.

Since I'd originally planned on buying a mountain bike before I fell in love with the Muk, the idea really appealed to me. Friend Will Sytsma, over at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst,  put his mind to it and eventually found me a great deal on a sexy pair of Sunringle Inferno rims. He also nabbed a Salsa 2 rear hub and a Salsa 3 front, and began lacing them up for me. In no time, I had a pair of all-jet-black Systma Originals, and they looked pistol-hot.

Sytsma originals...
As is my wont, I did endless research online regarding the best tire solution. My needs were well-defined: I wanted the best tread and rubber compound for New England's rooty, rocky, hard-pack mix, and I wanted to go tubeless to add extra cush on what was to be a fully-rigid mountain bike. Even with the 3.8" Surly Nates, the Muk puts my wrists through the wringer on anything but the smoothest snow.

I settled on what seems to be the hot new tire on the block, the Maxxis Ardent, 2.4" up front and 2.25" in back. When I finally got hold of a pair last Friday (which was no mean feat) I ran over the the Bike Exchange and watched mechanic Alex mount them up.

Mmmm… new tiiiiiires...
The 2.25 hopped on the rim like it was eager to go out and rip the trails. The 2.4, however, was more truculent. After much failed experimentation and frantic pumping, I exhorted Alex to mount the thing with a tube, which I'll use until Will can get a Stan's tubeless rim strip in stock. The thinner Stan's rim tape was just not getting the job done.

Bubbles aren't good when you're testing the seal on a tubeless set-up
Alex puts the finishing touches on what amounts to a hot new mountain bike
On Saturday, as soon as I could fake finishing household chores and convince the tolerant Mrs. V to let me go, I threw the bike on the rack and headed for Earl's Trails in Amherst, my local playground at the foot of the Holyoke moutains. (Did you know they're the only East-West-oriented mountain range in the Eastern United States?)

New wheel and a favorite trailhead on a Saturday morn… Life is good.
The first thing I noticed was how ridiculously light the bike felt. Just lifting it off the car rack was a different experience. Yet the tires, while much smaller than the 3.8s, provided a surprising amount of impact absorption. The Sytsma wheels are wonderfully stiff, and, along with the aluminum frame on the Muk, ensure that every watt I apply to the pedals translates into forward motion.

On flat-to-rolling terrain, this means that I want to stand up and hammer, because the response is so quick. On climbs, the benefits of the lighter rig are tangible. To be honest, there is a slight cost in losing the huge rubber of the Nates, because the latter simply roll right over the rooty, rocky inclines of Western Mass without a moment's thought. I'm going to have to learn a lot about picking climbing lines. All told, though, the 29er Muk will almost certainly out-climb the fat version by a mile, because of the weight difference. I laughed aloud when I picked up a Nate-equipped Surly wheel in one hand, and one of the new Sunringles shod with an Ardent in the other. Rock versus feather.

The new set-up at a picturesque spot near the high point of the day
Of course, there's a real price to pay for lightness of the bike. One reason it's so light is the lack of suspension fork, which means that my wrists felt mighty abused at the end of a mere 1.5 hour ride. However, I have a number of fixes in mind for that: 1) learn to pick better lines on descents, 2) keep elbows and arms looser, 3) perhaps a shorter stem to keep a little more weight off the hands on descents, and 4) get slightly more absorbent handlebar grips, 5) and new gloves with fresh cushioning in the palms. Finally, perhaps most important of all: 6) go tubeless in the front. Five or so fewer pounds of pressure in the 2.4 should significantly ease things for the wrists, and increase traction.

In the meantime, I had the biggest blast Saturday I've had on a bike since I first climbed on the Muk for my fateful test-ride. I climbed way higher than I have before, descended more nimbly, and flicked on the afterburners on nearly every flat section, just to feel the acceleration. More good things to come from this package, without a doubt!

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