My First Fat Bike

Hey All! Gary from Pugsley on Patrol has joined the crew and will be regaling us with stories and experiences from that fatbike paradise, Scotland! – Sven

There was a time when I had never even heard of the term “fat bike”, let alone actually seen one in the flesh or lifted my leg across the saddle and ridden one. It was only while looking for something interesting to occupy my time that I stumbled upon this amazing, yet rare in these parts, unique species of bicycle. That was over two years ago. Now I have two of them, both Surly Pugsleys and I love them to bits. This is the story of how I became rather keen, nay addicted, nay obsessed, with fat bikes.

Once upon a time, as the story goes, I was looking for something to occupy my non-working hours. I initially considered purchasing a lightweight ex-military spec Landrover for use on an off-road club course not far from home. However, my dearest wife and Financial Controller, Cathryn, was not happy with the idea. Okay, then I thought about motorcycles. How about buying an old BMW R1150R to restore? Even less smiles on the matrimonial front! Better look for something else then.

So it was off to the PC to surf the Inter-web. And to be fair, it did not take long to come across fatbikes and, at first, I was interested. Then I discovered the cost of buying one (a lot!) or building one (even more a lot!), and the difficulties in obtaining parts, many from overseas, did not help. That kind off put me off. I had also bought a Dawes Ultra Galaxy touring bike and a Genesis iOiD mountain bike recently and was not all that enthused by cycling. At that point, I left it at that, for the time being anyway.

My Eureka moment came while birding at Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve, a half-hours drive along the coast. After observing a lone Asio flammeus, a short-eared owl (but you knew that anyway), I came across some rather strange tyre tracks in the sand. To be honest I initially thought that some “b*st*rd” was riding a motorcycle on the beach, shame on them! However, putting my highly-honed tracking skills in good use – I’ve read “The Complete Guide to Tracking” by Bob Carss many times, and watched Ray Mears on the telly – I followed the tracks and caught sight of the culprit.

I was amazed, and excited. Through the binoculars I could see it was a bicycle, a bicycle with great big fat tyres. I could not believe it, there was someone riding a bicycle “up” the dunes! I was speechless, not that there was anyone to speak too anyway. Unfortunately, he was too far away for me to attract his attention, but that was me hooked, in fact, hooked, lined and sinkered. I had to have one. I just had to. But who was he? Did he live locally and could I track him down? I called Ray Mears for advice but got no reply (I jest!), so resorted to the Inter-web again.

A evenings detective work online produced a few thin threads of information that brought me closer to this god-like individual was actually owned and rode a fat-bike up sand dunes. My first clue was a name, Coastkid, and the good news obtained from reading his Blog was that he lived near-by, almost definitely in East Lothian, the region just next door. Further digging revealed a name, Bruce Mathieson and an address. Finally, I was able to contact him via Facebook and he agreed to meet.

Bruce was very open and welcoming and after coffee was prepared, it was straight through to the garage, also known as “the man-cave” in these parts. And there it was, resting against a pillar and surrounded by countless other bicycles, a real, in-the-flesh, Surly Pugsley! And the tyres! Oh my god, the tyres! Absolutely humongous! I had to touch them to check they were really real and not a hologram or something. We then spent the next two hours or so talking about bikes and cycling, but mostly about the Surly Pugsley.

I say “we” cautiously, since it was mostly Bruce who talked. Man, Bruce could talk for Scotland in the Olympics. Not that I was complaining, no sir. I was in heaven. Here I was standing next to a real-live fat bike talking to a real-live fat-biker*. That was it; I was going to have one. I must have one. The fate of Planet Earth depended on me having one. Okay, okay, I know. Only one thing stood in my way, the cost, and how to persuade Cathryn that spending upwards of £2000 building a bicycle was a sensible thing to do.

I need not have worried. After carefully constructing my build plans, checking and double-checking costs and specifications, finding, and often not finding, suppliers with less than 6 month delivery times, worrying what parts will fit and which will not, and having nightmares about bottom bracket sizes, I humbly approached my wife. Yes, she said. No problem. If it makes you happy and helps you keep fit, fine by me. Just like the “Man from Delmonte”, she said yes! Let the fat-build begin.

The build was far from straight forward, starting with the frame. “Sorry, best we can do is June (4 months away)”, “No, none available. You cannot even get them in the States” and even, during a visit to a local bike shop, “What’s a Surly Pugsley?” In the end I bought one from Jensen USA, a bike shop in the US. Placed the order on the Monday and had it in my hands by Wednesday, the same week! Mind you, I did get hit for customs fees, etc, but, well, you only live once.

All other components were eventually sourced, tyres and rims being the most difficult. Did most of the assembly myself, other than fitting the headset and the wheel builds, which the local bike shop managed after some careful fore-thought, emailing and head scratching due to the Large Marge rims and Shimano Alfine 8-speed rear hub I’d chosen from the build. It took a couple of months overall but finally; Pugsley was complete and ready to ride. Complete details of the build are on my web site, Pugsley on Patrol.

The Big Ride Day was a Saturday. I loaded Pugsley into the back of the car, and after checking he had his seat-belt on, headed off to a location that has become legend in UK fat-bike culture, Aberlady Bay and the Midget Submarine wrecks.

I must jump straight in and say I was not disappointed. The Surly Pugsley is a joy to ride. It’s incredibly comfortable – well, it was after a steep learning curve about tyre pressures – and seems to simply float across everything. Soft loose sand, wet sticky sand, loose gravel, muddy root-infested single-track, you name it, the Pugsley overcomes them all. After heading out onto the sand flats to visit the submarine wrecks, I rode that day from Aberlady, along the coast to North Berwick and returned, as the tide had turned, slightly inland along the John Muir Way, a way-marked trail. Not a huge distance in cycling terms but undoubtedly the most enjoyable time I’ve ever spent on a bicycle.

That was over two years ago and I’m still mad-keen in fat-bikes. Indeed, now I own two, both Surly Pugsleys. My first Pugsley has mudguards (fenders, for those who do not speak the Queens Scottish) and Old Man Mountain racks front and rear, and gets used mostly on flattish ground when carrying lots of kit – usually too much kit! Pugsley No. 2, Son of Pugsley, is kept minimal for those awkward locations where much walking, copious carrying, persistent pushing and simply shoving are involved. Namely, cliff-top paths along the Lothian Coast and track-less mountain routes in the Southern Uplands.

In addition, I’ve taken countless thousands of photographs, posted about 90 Pugsley on Patrol videos on Youtube and try to get out and about every weekend and in-between if possible. My first Pugsley is presently undergoing a complete overhaul. After two years riding, coastal conditions have taken their toll on bearings and the like, so I’m busy in my own “man-cave” working away and hope to unveil a new, re-vitalised Pugsley very soon.

On that first ride on the Surly Pugsley I learned the big secret of fat-biking. Okay, they are that little bit heaver and they can be that little bit slower to ride. Some people will laugh at you and scoff, although many more will rush across to speak to you, to ask questions and take your photograph. The secret of fat-biking is one small, three-letter word. That word is Fun.

Gary Buckham

* The bike, not Bruce.


One Response to My First Fat Bike

  1. D.J. Phillips April 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    I’ve been following both Gary and Bruce in their Scottish beach-and-borders adventures for over a year now, and they both really communicate the fun and adventure of fatbiking through their YouTube videos and blogs. Gary has become an excellent filmmaker, eschewing the usual view-from-the-handlebar and using elaborate and time-consuming set-ups to give a better idea of what it’s like to ride a Pug in his particular environment.

Leave a Reply