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How I chose the bike for my tour from the Arctic Ocean to the Panama Canal

Learning to love the bike you live with

Photo by: Tom Perlmutter

I’m in Inuvik, about 200 km north of the Arctic circle, at the edge of the tree line. I’ve been to the Arctic a number of times  and each time I am seized by its allure that is at once strange and familiar, familiar in the way of an old memory that haunts one at the edge of consciousness. This is the first time I am coming with the intention of traversing this land of myriad lakes and rivers on a bicycle. The prospect of being up close and personal in this way is thrilling and daunting.

The north

I had planned on getting a lighter, faster bike for this expedition than the ones I’d become used to. Supply chains being what they are, that bike didn’t materialize until I was about to hop on the plane. My Plan B had always been my Surly Bridge Club, which I got when they first came out in 2018. I had been swayed by the marketing: an all-road touring bike that could handle paved and dirt. I was immediately convinced that’s what I needed for Africa, it having dawned on me that we would be riding some rough roads. (Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.)  I didn’t end up taking it to Africa because I got into a tizzy about not having enough time on it before my departure date.  I stuck with my Salsa Marrakesh, which I grew to love because that’s what happens when you spend a lot of time on a beast, living or mechanical.  Once I returned home I got to spend a lot more time with my Surly.

I’m not a gear head. I don’t know much about the technical aspects of bike geometry, gearing, dropouts, q-factor and so on. Not that I haven’t made the effort. I’ve read innumerable articles and blogs, listened to podcasts, took mechanic courses, all to little avail.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve scoured Sheldon Brown’s site for technical illumination. It eludes me. (Hmm, now that I think of it my meditation teacher looked at me sadly as she ushered me out of her studio at my first and final session saying softly, “some are not meant for enlightenment.”)

Back to my Surly, which I’ve also grown to love, having done a lot of my training on it. It’s a sturdy bike (translate: it’s very heavy). My local bike store recommended Teravail Rutland tires (27.5 x 2.1” tubeless) which they assured me would give me a ride as smooth as silk on the gravel. I hope so. Our first nine days are dirt with intermittent washboard, ruts, corrugations and stretches of sand. In training I was riding WTB Byway 47’s and I’ve brought them along for the tarmac.

Road to Tuk

The Surly comes with a WTB Volt saddle but I’d been using a Brooks B17,  which had taken me FOREVER to break in. Then the Brooks developed a nasty habit of fraying my shorts. I think it was its revenge for the beating I gave it on a couple of my falls. (Incidentally, they were not my fault, but that’s another story.) I switched to a Selle Italia Max Flite Boost.  There’s something about the Italian language that sways you in and of itself.

I really like the Surly’s Salsa Bend bar with its 17 degree sweep and 710 mm length. I put on Ergon GP5 bar ends, great for diversifying hand positions.  On the other hand, I found the Promax DSK-300 mechanical disk brakes can get quite squeaky, which some of the reviews I read also noted.

Set up and ready to roll

With the rig and weight I have (before I slap on my Ortlieb handlebar bag stuffed with all the things I think I might need on the road and hardly ever do) I’ll never be fast. But I can go the distance on it and in the end that’s what counts.