Falling for Fat Biking on the Front Range: Josh’s 2014 Surly Moonlander

The first time I laid eyes on a fat bike was in 2011. I was picking up my race bib for the American Birkebeiner 50K, the famed cross-country ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin. Surly had an expo booth outside with their demo fleet of fat bikes prominently positioned so they’d be the first thing you saw. You couldn’t miss the line-up of jumbo-rubbered Pugsleys kitted out with 26 x 3.8″ tires, ready for a test ride. I made my way to the booth and asked about these foreign looking monster bikes. I was promptly told that I should ride one and find out for myself. As I looked down the row, I saw one with much larger tires than all the rest. It was a Moonlander, there to show off Surly’s recently announced expedition fat bike.

Something about the Moonlander made me think, “I want to ride that one,” and the folks at the Surly booth consented, so I tossed a leg over and began pedaling around, a smile on my face as I left a ribbon of fat tread marks in the snow behind me. Then, I immediately crashed into a snowbank. As I walked the bike back to the booth, I was enamored with the possibilities of such a vehicle. This was long before I developed a deep love for cycling, long before I ever learned about bikepacking, or ultra-racing on two wheels. And yet, this moment on a Surly Moonlander stuck with me.

These days, I live in Boulder Colorado. I’m still enamored with the possibilities and capabilities of the bicycle. A seasoned cyclist now, I’ve grown to recognize riding my bike as a craft and as a medium for artistic expression. As a result I’ve never been one to leap towards industry trends. I’ve always liked to build my bikes through the lens of personal aesthetic and style.

I learned to mountain bike on a rigid singlespeed and, before that, riding fixed gears in Chicago. These early experiences on a bike have contributed deeply to my bike builds and riding style. A couple years ago, with winter looming, I was feeling low at the prospect of not being able to ride my bike as much in the coming months. I had spent the previous few seasons, with some degree of enjoyment, Nordic and backcountry skiing but just never found either forms of travel as fulfilling as riding my bike (not to mention, backcountry skiing on the Front Range can be pretty dangerous with our unstable snowpack). I began searching for a fat bike on craigslist, toying with the idea of dumping skiing and going steady with winter riding for a season. During this search I remembered my first experience; I remembered the Moonlander.

I immediately began scouring the internet for information and combing the local classifieds for a used Moonlander. There were plenty of previously-owned Pugsleys on the market and, as the first production fat bike released in 2004, it still would have been a great choice over a decade later. However the Moonlander had improved upon and amplified what the Pugsley started. The more I learned about the Moonlander, the more I wanted one. I began fantasizing about riding the Arrowhead 135 and onward to the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Then one day, a medium Moonlander popped up for sale just 10 miles from my house. I immediately messaged and got a quick response; “Yes it’s still available, I can meet you tomorrow morning.” The next day, after 10 years, I swung my leg over a Moonlander once again. After handing over the cash, I was ecstatic.

That season, I committed to riding all winter and not just around the gravel roads down low, but up high in the mountains, in the snow. The first lesson I learned was that fat biking is hard, really hard. On the Front Range, we don’t have grooming for fat biking, and we don’t have a Nordic center that allows for fat biking either. So, I started going to my regular summer haunts only to post-hole my way 300 yards up a trail, then retreat back to my car. Exploring different areas became a learning process about the importance of conditions and trail/road selection. I developed a sense of what areas would deliver good conditions based on recent snowfall, wind, and temperature. And, the most important factor of all: traffic. Riding fat bikes here is dependent on snowshoers and skiers packing the trail down into a track that’s actually rideable. Luckily, near Boulder there are a lot of people recreating throughout the winter. Once you learn the hot spots, you can start getting in some good rides.

The winter of 2021/22 was mediocre; snowfall was sporadic and the trail conditions never really got good. But after a season of post-holing with frozen hands and feet, I was somehow still itching for more. So, here we are now: winter of 2023. I rode my first season on the stock 2 x 10 drivetrain with Surly Bud/Lou tires. The tires worked fine and the 2 x 10 provided a great range of gearing. A well thought out setup for sure. However, I was keen to make some changes.

The Build

This bike was designed around running 135-millimeter QR-hubs, front and rear, similar to the Pugsley. Surly chose 135 mm spacing because of its availability worldwide, making it more affordable and reliable to work on or replace. The original Pugsley cleared 26 x 3.8″ tires. Surly achieved this clearance by offsetting the frame by 17.5 mm and lacing the wheel with that same offset. Without this offset, the chain and cranks would just hit the big fat wheel and tire. With the Moonlander, Surly launched their 100-millimeter-wide Clown Shoe rims and beefy 4.7” tires to match. To fit such large rims and tires, they upped the Moonlander frame offset to 21 mm. This makes the bike alignment look kind of odd from certain angles. But the design alone had me swooning over this bike; Surly used a hub standard that was already widely available to make something totally new. How cool is that?! Not to mention by today’s standards, it’s quite weird—I like weird.

After that first season, I took my stock build and dropped the gears altogether. In lieu of gears, I put on a Wolf Tooth 94 BCD 5-bolt 28T chainring up front and an Endless Bike Co. Kick Ass 25t Cog in the back—spin, spin, spin! I found some Schwalbe Jumbo Jim 26 x 4.8” tires, which are much lighter than the stock Surlys. Those went on with lightweight fat-bike tubes with Orange Seal in the tubes. The Clown Shoe Rims are not (obviously) tubeless compatible, thus the tubes. I’ve thought about trying the gorilla tape method, but opted not to after hearing mixed results. Overall though, I figured the weight and rolling resistance wouldn’t change much either way, and I’d rather deal with another tube over wet sealant when it’s below freezing.

I swapped the Cane Creek headset for a Chris King, and added my own Thomson seat post and stem. The original XT rear hub was at the end of its life when I got the bike so that got upgraded to a DT Swiss 240. One of my favorite changes was adding my titanium Moonmen Moonriser handlebar. The bar came off of another bike of mine and I think the namesake alone makes this it right at home, along with some Wolf Tooth mega Fat Paw grips and a Speed dial 7 lever with some insulation on it.

While modifying the build, I also dropped the front brake altogether. Why? Because every time I’d pull the front brake in the snow, the front would lock up and I’d crash. Also skids are fun and I dig the monster BMX bike look. Plus when I run with the 45NRTH pogies, there is extra room in the left one for snacks! The single BB7 and 160-millimeter rotor in the back slows me to a stop eventually. Overall speed is quite low out on the snow covered trails—I’m usually staying well below 10 mph—especially since my chosen gearing spins me up to only 9.5 mph at 90 rpm. Still, this setup has proven to be a bit spicy on certain sections of trail. The occasional steep descent pitch will have my rear wheel locked up and me fishtailing the back end of the bike to encourage less speed.

The icing on the cake for me is that XL Oveja Negra frame bag. I typically ride a size small frame and my other bikes don’t have much space in the triangle for things. I’ve always been envious of folks who get to ride XL frames because of all that space. But the geo on this bike lends itself to a big triangle and it somehow fits (with a little encouragement) an XL bag—that’s eight liters of carrying capacity!

The Ride

My mountain bike is a small ti Chumba Stella that I have set up in a similar style: riser bars, a short stem and singlespeed, of course. I like my bikes short and snappy with a high bottom bracket. Despite the giant tires, the Moonlander rides like that. It’s easy to bring the back end around. I don’t feel stretched out and I don’t have to yank as hard as I possibly can on the bars to get the bike off the ground. With a 70.5° head-tube angle there is little-to-no wheel flop, which I really appreciate when I’m trying to get more layers out of a bag because I’m freezing. The head-tube angle also keeps the front end more planted in the fluffy stuff. It’s no coincidence that the geo numbers are not all that different between my Stella and Moonlander. Beach cruiser vibes with a BMX look and ultra-endurance comfort makes for an odd mashup, but for me and my riding, it works oh so well.

Winter riding has always been a “grin and bear it” activity for me. I love riding so much, but motivating myself to ride slushy dirt roads this time of year has never been easy. Fat biking has offered me an opportunity to ride year round and in a season that typically had me yearning for spring. Now I’m motivated to get up early and find those crispy ribbons of trail. Not to mention my dog, Dharma, loves snow more than any other terrain out there—she rips! Fat bikes are weird, capable and fun bikes. I’m hooked on this oddball corner of cycling, so I’ll be seeing you out on the trail!