By Jon Sharp
There are many signs that point to cycling as having "arrived" as a sport. That isn't to say it's mainstream like basketball is in the US, or football (soccer) is in Brazil. However, cycling has hit the big time; as evidenced by all the sub-genres within the sport. Not more than a few decades ago, there was hardly anything but road, track, and 'cross. Then along came mountain bikes. These days, I'm not sure I could even name all the varieties of bicycle that are being sold. A couple of these--single speeds and 29ers--were embraced early on by Surly. Then one day, the folks at Surly decided to do something...different.
From a distance, the Pugsley is just a mountain bike with big tires. However, looking closer you may notice a lot of changes had to happen to embiggen those tires. To start with, the tires are Surly's Endomorphs. They're labeled 3.7 and are around 4" wide. You don't want to stick tires this wide on normal rims, which is why Surly makes the Large Marge rim--65mm wide. Of course, fitting all this in a frame that still allowed for derailleurs and such meant longer chainstays and a wider bottom bracket. The bottom bracket on the Pugsley is a DH-type bottom bracket with a 100mm width. With a bottom bracket that wide, though, Surly had to do something to move the front derailleur out toward the crank. By using an oft-overlooked e-type front derailleur, Surly can accommodate a triple chainring setup in the front with only the addition of a small tab on the bottom bracket shell.
But wait, the tweaking continues ...
One of the more interesting design off-shoots was with the hubs. You see, a standard front hub is 100mm. Yet, the tire is just over that, at 102mm. Surly decided to run two rear hubs--one in back and one up front. So, the Pugsley fork is spaced for 135mm hub. (Optionally, Surly does offer a standard 100mm front hub, though my test bike came with the wider one.) This means that if you run disc brakes, you'll need two rear brakes as well. What really makes it interesting, though, is the option to have different gears on your bike. To further help this out, the Pugsley had horizontal drop-outs in the rear--but with a rear-derailleur mount. So, you can have a wheel with a complete 9-speed cassette in back and a wheel with a single-speed cog in front--and the ability to swap them if needed, or desired. Or, you could run a wheel with a fixed cog and a wheel with a single freewheeled cog. The Pugsley has two rear wheels that are totally interchangeable. Why hasn't someone done this before? As Surly points out on their website, this also makes it easier to carry spare spokes: fewer sizes.
Okay, that's a lot of details to absorb about the bike. Feel free go to back and read over that section while looking at the photos.
Now let me explain why Surly did what they did. I mean, that's a ton of customization just to use big, fat tires, right? So: WHY? First off, fat tires means more tread on the ground and greater traction. Why? Because you can run much lower pressure. MUCH lower. Lower pressure + fatter tires = huge tire contact patch. It also means that the Pugsley can "float" on top of the type of ground/soil/medium that would suck in and grab on to skinnier tires.
What is the Pugsley good for, then? Extreme trail conditions. Snow. Sand. Ice. The Pugsley gives you a huge contact patch and lots of bump absorption. Remember how I mentioned low pressure? Think low, then go lower. I've been running the Endomorphs at around 5psi most of the winter. That's much lower than I run my tubeless mountain bike tires--and the Endomorphs aren't tubeless. Of course, they can be run higher as well if conditions aren't as loose or slick. Because of the tire volume, a slight change in pressure makes a large difference in how the bike rides. In the same vein, different pressures will work for riders of different weights. (Remember, that much contact patch makes for a sluggish ride--fine for when you need it, but terrible if you don't.) Because you'll be riding in extreme conditions, you might be really glad you have a fixed (or single-speed) cog in front when your rear derailleur seizes. Just make sure you have a good multi-tool with a chain-breaker as well so you can swap wheels and pedal your way out of the wilderness.
In order to put the Pugsley through its paces, I rode over the winter in lots of snow. Sometimes it was deep. Sometimes it was icy. At times, it packed up well, and at other times, I was doomed to the famous Utah powder. When the snow wasn't very deep, I ran about 10psi in the tires. Most of the time, though, I wanted all the traction I could get so I kept them around 5-7psi. I was amazed by how well I could ride on glare ice. After riding a bit over some nasty icy roads and sidewalks, I started to think it wasn't as slick as I had imagined. Once I got off the bike--and almost fell down--I realized just how stable the Pugsley is. Ironically, just to compare similar conditions, I rode my full suspension mountain bike over the same deep single-track trail as the Pugsley. Not only did I manage to flat out my tubeless tire (at a much higher pressure), but I ended up pushing my bike much more often. That isn't to say you can't swamp a Pugsley. I found out the hard way that 3 feet of fresh power is enough to kill any bike--and it's hard to walk through, too.
When riding on gravel or dirt, I found the side-to-side traction phenomenal. The Pugsley corners exceptionally well--again because of that gargantuan contact patch. Though the bike is fully rigid, you won't miss suspension with these huge tires. 4" tires run at low pressure really soak up the bumps. Though definitely more sluggish, the Pugsley was fun to ride in the dirt as well. In snow, however, it felt right at home. In fact, in many cases, the Pugsley in snow felt like a normal mountain bike feels on dirt.
What about the rest of the components? Well, the Pugsley is sold as a frame and, of course, Surly makes the tires, rims, and inner-tubes as well. The rest is up to you. You'll need a DH bottom bracket, as I mentioned and two rear hubs and two rear disc brakes (or, you can use cantilever brakes, also). As of the time of this writing, Surly is about to release their own crankset which will, of course, work with the wide bottom bracket of the Pugsley: Mr. Whirly. For my test bike, Surly went with SRAM Grip Shifters. Though these are my least favorite shifters in normal conditions, I realized what a good choice it was when my hands were bundled in gloves--it is very difficult to use trigger shifters in bulky gloves (or mittens)! Also, it's a good idea to run full cable-housing with this bike and, indeed, the cable guides on the Pugsley are designed for this. Again, this bike is made to take you into remote places and bring you back again through the harshest conditions--full cable housing means less contamination and longer life--for you and your bike. Similarly, mechanical (cable) disc brakes are easier to deal with and less likely to have a catastrophic failure out in the wild. Also, if you're really into going out of the way in the world, a spare cable is easier to carry than brake fluid and a bleed kit.
Summary: Surly has successfully brought to market a bike for a very niche category. There aren't many people who would really need to use this bike. However, once you've spent a winter outside playing on your bike in the snow, rollers won't even seem like an alternative anymore for staying in shape over the winter months. The 4130 CrMo frame and fork retail for around US$575. However, due to the cost of the tires (around US$100 each) and rims (also around US$100 each), the bike will set you back around US$2000 fully built up. What does that get you? Well, it gets you a bike that will take you were none of your other bikes will. It gets you the gawking (and jealous!) stares of friends and strangers alike. It is a true exploration bike...and (for me, this part is really key) it is so much fun to ride!
The current color is Metallic Thunderhead Grey (pictured in the frame-only picture above). My test bike was in the older, more purple-like color: purple (all the other pictures).
Jon Sharp is a contributing editor for GearReview.com. No animals were harmed as Jon plowed over anything in his path with the large tires on the Pugsley, for none got in his way. Read his blog.
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