I Made a Fatbike



With flu season swiftly approaching, I find myself suffering from a different kind of fever: FATBIKE FEVER.  For those of you unaware, fatbikes are a new trend in the cycling world, catching the attention of mountain bikers, winter commutersadventure cyclists, and outdoorsmen.  Fatbikes, such as those offered by Surly and Salsa, are regular bikes with massive tires ranging from 3 to 5 inches wide.  They’re like the Hummers of bikes, rolling over almost any terrain: sand, snow, tree roots, gravel, cinderblocks, and probably even small children.  I’ve had the privilege of poking fun of my good friend for commuting on his hog of a bike, Ugbeast, before I started realizing how much more fun he was having with his fatbike.  Wanting to ride off the pavement and into the woods, I pulled the trigger-shifter.  I got me a fatbike.

Being a bicycle mechanic with access to plenty of tools and resources, I decided to build the bike frame-up.  After a fair amount of research, including test rides and extensive discussion with fatbike nerds at Revolution Cycles, I decided on the Surly Pugsley.  I knew that I wanted the versatility of having “traditional” 135mm hub spacing, allowing me to build wheels using more common hub sizes instead of extra-wide fatbike-specific ones.  The Pugsley allows for this with its offset frame, which basically bends all wonky in one direction to allow room for a ginormous tire. Furthermore, I was attracted to Surly’s offset fork, allowing me two rear wheels to run on my bike at the same time, ostensibly having two bikes in one.  (In other words, I can easily switch between a geared bike and, in my case, a single speed without having to rebuild or re-dish my wheels. This can come in handy if my freehub body freezes up when I’m in the middle of nowhere; my backup wheel is on the front of my bike!)  Finally, I’ve had great experiences with Surly products and wanted to support a solid company that builds solid steel frames.  With friends and fatbike fellows urging on the Pugsley, it seemed like the best choice for my price range.

Without further ado, let’s get into the build!  I enjoy documenting various projects of mine, and so here’s a foray into bike-building for the curious:

Step 1: Frame Saver that sucker!  If you’re building a steel bike, it’s always a good idea to apply a protective coating of rust inhibitor inside of the frame before adding components.  Surly recommends this with all of their bikes, as it prolongs the life of your investment.  Frame Saver is an excellent product for such things, and there are several similar products out there.  Over the course of 48 hours, I applied two coats by spraying it in all of the frame and fork’s openings, plugging up the holes, and rotating the frame with the liquid inside to spread it evenly.  When it dries, it reminds me of a thick layer of ear wax.  Yup, gross.

WP_20141008_002As my frame was being Frame-Saved, I built up my two wheels.  It’s been a couple of years since I built a wheel from scratch, so I needed to reacquaint myself with the process via Sheldon Brown’s fantastic tutorial.  Having never built fatbike wheels, I had to do some learnin’ on that as well, finding useful resources via Surly’s website.  Using Quality Bicycle Product‘s Surly corrections chart for offset wheel building, as well as their spoke calculator, I determined the spoke lengths needed for both wheels.  Here’s what the spoke-cutting device looks like:


I used DT Champion spokes, which are double-butted.  Double-butted means that spoke gauge is thicker at the ends and thinner in the middle, allowing more strength at stress points, more elasticity in the middle to disperse to neighboring spokes, and a little bit of weight saved.  I used a 3-cross lacing pattern, which is generally considered the strongest with the least amount of stress.  My REAR rear wheel was built with a 9-speed Shimano XT hub, my FRONT rear wheel a Surly single-speed New Hub.


Surly’s Pugsley frame comes with a special adapter to use when dishing the wheel (i.e., centering the rim within the frame).  You can see the red cylindrical adapter pictured above (not my water bottle).  The adapter is attached to the non-drive side of the hub when the wheel’s in the truing stand or being measured with a dishing tool.  Note the red adapter in the picture below, as well.


Another peculiar thing about fatbike rims (in my case, the 65mm-wide Surly Marge Lites) is that they have 64 spoke holes drilled into them.  Most hubs have 32 holes.  Half of the spoke holes on these rims are not used!  When building rear wheels for an offset frame, you use only one of two lines of spoke holes, as the rim is pretty off-center compared to the hub.  You can visualize this here as you can’t quite see it in the picture above.  If you were building a symmetrical rim for a front wheel (which I did not), you would alternate between the two lines of spoke holes.  Next time you’re near a fatbike, check out the wheels.  Mind-blowing!  (At least it was for me when I learned about offset stuff….)

The Surly Marge Lite rims that I built up were pretty beefy, and the welds were a bit sloppy.  I am used to building up more precision rims, but the internet told me not to fear; fatbike wheels need not be precise.  I brought the wheels up to tension while dishing and truing them, although the perfectionist in me was a bit peeved at the condition of my radial truing with respect to sloppy welds.  As far as tension goes, without a tensionometer at hand, I did ’em by “feel,” which I double-checked with an expert wheel-builder the following day.  I was in good shape.

Then came the Moment of Truth: testing the wheel in the offset fork, making sure the rim was centered.  *holding breath*  …  It worked!  I did it!  My first fatbike wheelset build!


Now for the rest of the build!  I set aside an entire day for the project, feverishly building, forcing myself to take food breaks amid the mania.  (It’s more difficult than you think when you’re in the zone.)  After cleaning spilled Frame-Saver-ear-wax off the frame, my first step was fork installation.  I don’t get to do these too often, and they use neat specialty tools, so it was a lovely start to the day.

Installing a fork means installing a headset with it.  The headset contains the bearings by which the steering works.  First, I had to install onto my fork the crown race, a smooth, curved ring upon which the bearings sit.  This is my favorite to install, as it involves a lot of banging to force the little ring on.  Here’s a pic of the tool with its various attachments for various crown race sizes:


Next, you install similarly curved ring bits to the frame.  These are called headset cups.  A clamping tool called a headset press is used to force these suckers in nice and level.  The teens I used to work with called this tool “The Helicopter”:


Loosely assembling all components, I measured where I wanted to trim the fork’s steerer tube so that I didn’t have to use inches of extra spacers with my headset installation.  In other words, the fork’s “handle” was way too long for my small frame, and I wanted to make it shorter.  Some people hold off on cutting until after they’ve ridden the bike several times.  I had a good idea of where I wanted things based on my current commuter mountain bike, so I decided to cut the tube down first, with a few inches of wiggle room.  I used a special clamp, a vice, a hack saw, and a lot of cutting oil:


After filing down the freshly cut steerer tube, I installed the fork, the stem (where the handlebars attach), and the rest of the headset components, tightening it all down just right.  And, in the stem’s case, to spec using a torque wrench set to 5nm.


I moved next to the bottom bracket area.  The bottom bracket contains another set of bearings, this time allowing the pedal arms (crankset) to swing around.  I installed a cartridge-style square-taper bottom bracket I purchased from Rev.  The Pugsley frame takes a longer-than-normal 110mm bottom bracket.  To the bottom bracket, I attached a set of used Bontrager mountain cranks that fit the 104 BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter) chainring I purchased.

Let me tell you about that chainring!  Another interesting thing I learned when selecting my componentry is that, for mountainbikers who want a single chainring up front (instead of multiple gears), several companies manufacture special chainrings designed to hold onto chains over rough riding and abrupt rear gear-changing.  These “narrow wide” chainrings alternate between narrow and wide teeth throughout the ring, which grasp stronger via small differences in inner- and outer-plate linkages on the chain.  Some of these rings alternate a slight tilt in and out, as well, like stereotypical British dental profiles.  I decided on a RaceFace narrow wide chainring, not because of its “aerospace grade strength,” but because it came in orange.  A girl’s gotta have some vanity.

WP_20141011_006I needed to see the chainline once the rest of the drivetrain (cassette, derailleur, and chain) was installed before settling on where exactly the chainring ended up.  I ended up swapped the chainring to the inside of the crankarm, not the outside as pictured above.  After adding the handlebars, though, my Pugsley started to look like a bike!


On to wheel installation!  Before adding the wheels, however, I needed to install the disc brake rotors.  These brakes operate via pads clamping down to a disc, unlike most street bikes which slow via pads grabbing hold of the rim itself.  Rotor bolts need to be tightened down in a star pattern (instead of, say, counterclockwise) to set the rotor firmly in the center of the wheel.  I learned this the hard way.


I did this for both of my wheels, installed the cassette (rear gear cluster) onto my 9-speed rear hub, and stuck them round bits on the triangular bits!  Those are 3.8″ Surly Knard tires, by the way.

WP_20141011_010 (2)Next was brake setup.  I installed both Avid BB7 disc brake calipers onto the frame and fork, which have special attachments for disc brakes.  I ended up needing to tweak these a fair amount after some test rides.  The rear brake required extra washers to space the disc brake calipers where they needed to be.  Not pictured are the brake levers I installed on the handlebars, and the cable and housing betwixt the two.

WP_20141011_012The last components I installed were the chain, rear derailleur, and trigger shifter.  I purchased more basic 9-speed Shimano parts for these, as I realize that rear derailleurs may very well get banged around on trails and snow.  I didn’t think of taking a photo of the under-appreciated chain tool, as I use it daily.  Thank you, chain tool, and sorry I don’t acknowledge you more often.


Let me take a moment to talk about the Surly fatbike rims and accompanying rim strips, as the photo above features such things quite prominently.  To make the massive rims lighter, Surly’s punched large holes out of the center of the rim, between those two lines of spoke holes I mentioned earlier.  This also serves a Coolness Factor, as then you can install brightly colored rim strips that pop out like little Emergency Buttons when the tire is inflated.

I accessorized my bike with more orange, go figure!  Orange grips, orange brake housing, and even some lovely orange bottle cages!  Here’s a peek at my “dashboard,” where all the action happens:


And finally, a bike!  A FATBIKE!  My fatbike, named Dreadnoughtus!  Yes, after the recently discovered ginormous dinosaur.

bike_stuff08Now I get to ride her all over town, through woods, along streams, and down deer paths.  I’m learning to bike all over again, as singletrack is very different from asphalt.  I’m excited to get involved with the Madison’s fatbike community and get out in any weather, on any terrain!  I’ve already explored gravel on railroad tracks, banked curves on wooded trails, and sandy construction sites.  Next, the world!





On Being the “Bike Lady”



I embraced the title of “Bike Lady” as soon as the words left the 10-year-old’s mouth.  He pedaled to the community shop looking for help with his brakes.  “Hey, Bike Lady!”  Most of the kids never really bothered to learn my name, but that’s cool, ’cause I could never remembered their names, either.

Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth about all those other gendered descriptors forced upon me.  Never quite felt right about “woman,” and “girl” is a bit of a stretch for this 29-year-old.  Titles of Ms. versus Miss, and the dreaded “girlfriend”?  Don’t get me started.  (They all give me the heebie-jeebies.)  But “Bike Lady”?  That’s something I can get behind.

I am currently the only “woman” working as a mechanic in my [rather large] local shop.  And I’m one of … three? … four? professional lady techs that I know of in Madison, versus at least 100 dudes.  We generally hear about each other because of the novelty of such a thing; news spreads through the cycling community almost as fast as wheels can fly.  It was kind of funny when I first met a fellow lady mechanic new to town: “So YOU’RE Sarah Tops!  The only girl mechanic in Madison!”  I soon discovered a third lady tech also associated with my shop.  Suffice it to say: It’s nice to find more ladies wrenching on bikes for a living.

Being a female-bodied bike mechanic can be challenging at times.  Although Madison is a pretty progressive town, I still get the patriarchs who don’t realize that they’re being kind of offensive. In my experience, the icky comments almost always come from customers.  Just two weeks ago, I had an older gentleman come in, innocently aghast to see a woman behind the service counter.  “Wow!  A woman bike mechanic!”  I get this a lot, and some days I love it, some days I hate it, and the difference is all in the unspoken body languages.  The customer offered me his bent wheel.  When I broke the bad news to him that his wheel was “totaled” and that he’d need to replace it, he looked me in the eye and asked me, “How long have you been a mechanic?”  Uhhh… five years professionally, dude, so I friggin’ know when a wheel needs replacing, thankyouverymuch.  My coworker that night, a male sales associate, was watching the exchange and stepped in to agree with me that the wheel indeed needed replacing.

I don’t get too bummed out, because it’s usually older men that say this kind of stupid shit, and I don’t blame them personally for having grown up in a very different era with mentors who reinforced degrading gender stereotypes.  I’m kind of proud that I can amaze them with my greasy, estrogen-fueled presence.  Plus, I get the benefit of adding their behaviors to my growing list of stories.  I get a little more irritated when the comments come from women.  In fact, if my memory serves me right, I think it was a lady who insisted on working with a male mechanic one day at the non-profit shop I managed.  Part of my job duties at that shop was to train our young coworkers in mechanics, so I was constantly helping them do bike repairs and answering their questions.  When the customer went to our newest hire for help “from a man,” the teen kinda shrugged and said, “I don’t know; you’ll have to talk to Sarah — she’s the mechanic.”

There’s also the times I’ve been hit on at the shop, which is generally a nuisance, and even more a nuisance when you see older male customers hitting on the teenaged employees.  That’s just gross.  However, the time I was hit on because a man was admiring my leg hair was an even mixture of gross and HILARIOUS, especially because he offered to drive me around in his expensive vintage Cadillac.

The good news is that I’ve had a blast working with a lot of the dudes at the shops I’ve been involved with.  Most men are actively supportive of women in the bike industry, and I feel as though I’ve been treated fairly as a fellow collective member, employee, coworker, and manager.  The non-profit shop I worked at was MAJORITY female (although the tech department was almost wholly male), and I thrived in that environment. Many men have taken the time to train and mentor me in bike repair, customer service, parts-buying, managing, and community organizing.  I wonder what it would have been like to have learned this stuff from non-dudes, which is why I’m working hard on becoming that role-model for the next crop of lady and trans* bike mechanics and shop owners.

Working in a male-dominated space, the parts that make me wince is the off-handed comments or distasteful jokes that affect me not as a mechanic, but as a female-bodied person.  It’s the kind of crap you hear from dude-bros everywhere: fat-phobia, obsessing over women and sex, the occasional gay joke, and, yes, a fair amount of cock jokes.  (Okay, I will admit that I like a good cock joke … when appropriate.  Which is admittedly tricky.)  These comments are not all that common in the cycling circles I’ve been involved with, but they do persist.  Sometimes they catch me out of nowhere, like last night, which may have spurred me to get off my ass and finally write this blog post.  Two coworkers and I were getting ready to close up shop, casually discussing female mechanics.  “We used to have two full-woman mechanics.”  I asked what he meant by “full-woman,” thinking it had something to do with weight and gesturing to my belly.  He answered by gesturing to his invisible breasts, making a comment that a trans-woman tech was not “full” woman, as if erasing her existence and her struggles!  I exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh!” and stuttered something in defense, but we were all distracted with closing, and I was confused because I really like the guy who just spewed utter SHIT out of his mouth.  Twenty hours later, I am still kicking myself for not making it more a point to call out this trans-phobic, sexist bullcrap.  As I edit this post a week later, I feel like I missed my chance.  But I’m SO prepared for that next comment that comes up, and I’m going to kick some metaphorical ass.

Which brings me to my next point within the scope of “Being a Bike Lady:” Being One of the Guys.  It’s a skill that I’ve grown quite good at, I think.  I spent most of my life hanging out with dudes, except for that awkward-makeup-and-padded-bras stage in junior high.  A tom-boy, you could say.  Perhaps my close relationships with boys and men have allowed me the privileges and abilities to comfortably take up space in male-dominated places, … and have allowed men to occasionally feel comfortable enough to make stupid sexist remarks around me.  I tend to be pretty confident and straightforward, which helps me put up with a lot of shit.

If you look at mass media and dominant culture, there are a million reasons why we don’t see more women in the bike industry.  First off, Park Tools don’t come in pink!  Okay, so that was a joke, but, honestly, toys marketed to girls are never toolsets; they’re play kitchens and baby dolls.  When you google-image-search “woman mechanic,” half the hits you get are soft-core porn.  And do you know how fucking hard it is to find a decent pair of women’s work pants?  Like, actual work pants, not the kind you wear as a waitress at Applebee’s.

I guess what I’m trying to say that bike shops are still full of testosterone and the occasional machismo that shines through, which is why there aren’t many of us Bike Ladies out there.  We’re headed on a good trajectory, though, as more and more women step forward as leaders in the bike world.  And I have crushes on all of them.

To end, let me explain why I like “Bike Lady,” because I know you’re all dying to know.  First off, the term is a collision of macho and femme: the greasy, gritty, uncontrollable bicycle; and the delicate, playful, prim-and-proper female.  If you know me, you know I like collisions.  Secondly, “lady,” to my complex brain, is a word I associate with gender play.  The term “lady” is often thrown around in burlesque and drag scenes and used by feisty feminists, playing up femininity and the power of choosing femininity to express oneself.  Every day, I feel like I’m playing out gender, and so “lady” seems a better fit than “woman” and the myth of some kind of shared “sisterhood.”  Thirdly, “Bike Lady” reminds me of all those sweetly mischievous kids who wanted to learn how to fix their bikes, and they’re a part of strong memories that I carry with me as inspiration and guidance.