Riding the Salsa Blackborow on the Iditarod Trail
I want to explain why the Blackborow and my set-up worked so well. I think my discoveries of the Blackborow could/should change the way people look at what bike to use for the Iditarod Trail Invitational moving forward, especially the trip to Nome (1000 miles). It could even work for the trip to McGrath (350 miles).
Side note: Even though my finish was in Nome I was second to McGrath, four hours behind the winner, Neil Beltchenko. I got 12 hours of sleep on my way to McGrath and Neil, I think, got about three. Neil was racing to McGrath. I was racing to Nome. Having done both I have different approaches / strategies depending on my finish line. My Nome kit was probably 15lbs heavier than a McGrath set-up. I bring this up not to toot my horn but because it makes me very curious what it would be like to truly race to McGrath on the Blackborow compared to traditional geometry bikes. I guess I'm not done pushing/testing the capability of it.
First, a little history and context of my experience of riding the Iditarod Trail. I have done the ITI ten times now with five attempts at the 1000 mile race to Nome and four successful finishes in Nome. The other five attempts were 350 miles to the race finish of McGrath. I have won both distances multiple times. There isn't another event / trail in the world that will test your winter skills and set-up as much as the ITI does, with its variable conditions, weather, other competition and terrain.
I choose the Blackborow by accident this year while riding some junk trail in Idaho during a camp I was hosting. Salsa did not ask me or suggest the idea of taking the Blackborow. I approached them about it. I was just very curious and with so much experience on the ITI, I knew this bike would make my life easier on the trail. And now that it is over that would be an understatement!
This year I spent 17 days on the trail, which is actually a new south route record. Although we encountered all trail conditions in general I would say it was a soft year, meaning the trail was soft and it snowed often. That made for slow speed, technical, riding that is a bit more demanding and takes a lot of concentration. There was also plenty of walking.
So, why did the Salsa Cycles Blackborow work so well?
The obvious stand out thing with the Blackborow is its length. It is roughly 8.5" longer than its cousin the Salsa Mukluk. The classification of the bike is not a 'cargo' bike (which is even longer), it is a 'mid-tail' bike. What do you get out of length? You get stability! At slow speed you need a stable bike not a 'performance' oriented bike. We rarely go any faster than 10 MPH, and when you are riding 3 or 7 MPH, what does a performance geometry bike get you over the Blackborow? Nothing! It actually hinders your riding and it will take more energy to ride a straight line, especially in junk snow conditions. Struggling to hold that line causes fatigue. Stability also meant less dabbing, less dabbing meant more riding. Lastly, I'm not sure in engineering terms how a longer wheelbase effects tire loads but with my practical experience in the end I feel I can ride deeper, softer, shittier snow conditions then I can on my Mukluk, with a higher tire pressure. It also means when I do run a very low pressure I can ride even worse snow conditions when I would otherwise be forced to walk.
Kit Weight Distribution
The additional length of the bike allowed me to pack very differently this year, which made a huge difference. I basically had no weight on the front end of the bike. No weight on the front end made controlling the front end of the bike much easier. It tracks better and is easier to maneuver around when not pedaling the bike. Being a mid-tail it is more difficult to english your weight (move back) on the rear tire compared to a traditional bike but with the way I had the weight of my kit loaded over the rear axle it was perfect for any traction I needed going uphill. Quote from fellow competitor – "I couldn’t believe how you cleaned those Shageluk Hills and rode on soft stuff in a straight line!"
Think of a boat. It kind of planes out of the water with nose up and rear down. The Blackborow works with the same concept. I have had many set-ups that would just auger into the snow from being front end heavy. No bueno. When I packed with weight on the front end the bike would actually throw me around. When there is weight on the front end, it is just high enough that the leverage increases and takes even more to control or puts you more out of control. I think of how many hundreds of snow angels I have made in the past. This year, I fell only a handful of times. That alone says something.
The kit distribution went hand in hand with the organization I had. I had more storage space with separate bags isolating different categories of kit:
- Clothes are in one pannier.
- Food and cook pot is in another pannier.
- Sleeping system on top of the rack.
- Stove system, stove maintenance kit and fire building behind the seat tube.
- Personal care, medical, notes, glasses, goggles and electronics (two plugs and a burner phone for village use) in the trunk bag behind the seatpost.
- Synthetic puffy jacket, tubes and all fixit items including tools in the frame bag.
- Most frequently used tools (pump, Gerber multi-tool, headlamp) in flat pocket of frame bag.
- Spare socks, expedition gloves and all spare head wear on the fork legs.
Everything was very easy to access. Nothing was 'stuffed' or hard to get at. When things are easy to access you are more apt to do the work you need to do. I’ve never before done my maintenance and work so often, which resulted in me feeling the best I ever had on the trail. This makes me smile writing this! What is maintenance and work? It is putting on a jacket when you are cold or the wind picks up, it’s constantly changing your air pressure, it’s making trail side meals, it’s reaching back to refill your access food, it’s mixing up electrolyte drinks, it’s thinking about how to always be most efficient and concentrating on moving briskly…there is so much to do and when it’s easier to do it is a pleasure to do.
"Man, that seems big and heavy." That was a common comment. I would just smile. The reality is the bike weighed 28 lbs. It was 60 lbs when loaded with bags, rack and kit, but no liquid or food. With a full fuel bottle, thermos and a lot of food I’d say it gained another 15 or so lbs. The 60lb dry weight was the same exact weight as when I rode to Nome on a ti Mukluk. And I bet it was lighter than most others going to Nome. Big and bulky, kind of. Heavier, no. My sleep kit is big because I don’t stuff it or compress it. When I bivy I want the set-up and break-down to be quick and easy. I also want my sleeping bag to be lofty. If you are hanging out trying to stuff your bag in a small stuff sac in -20 degrees, your hands will get cold, risking frostbite. You’ll spend the next hour trying to get your hands warm again, and you will just get frustrated trying to stuff it. I do pay attention to the weight of my kit but I do not obsess nor do I have the lightest kit. I have learned and I don't even question anymore if I can make a task easier and the weight penalty is reasonable I am all for it. That only took me about 20 years to learn.
Tire & Rim
I find it funny how people get trained. "Jay, no studded tires?" Another common question. In my ten years of being on the trail there were two years you had to have studded tires. Those two years made the 45NRTH studded Dillinger tires the go-to tire for the ITI, not just for those two years but every year after. I think back and remember when Surly Endomorphs were awesome! In reality, you almost never need studded tires. They are heavier and have more rolling resistance. There are larger volume tires that will serve as a better choice. Whenever you can fatten up your insurance policy on the trail I highly suggest it. This year I ran the 45NRTH Husker Du 4.8’s. They were absolutely amazing and the right choice! Glancing at the weather in AK throughout the winter I noticed it was a snowy year in general. The week before the ITI started I followed the Iron Dog snowmobile race, which also follows the Iditarod Trail, and I didn't hear or see anything about overflow or ice, which is when I decided on my tire choice. I had zero tire issues and I ran a lot of crinkled tire pressure, 3 PSI. With the tires mounted on HED 100mm rims you not only get the biggest footprint but you also end up with the lightest rotational weight. I also started using Industry 9 hubs a couple years ago and I can't express enough how sweet it is to have such engagement (120 points, every 3 degrees) when you’re moving at low speeds with an inconsistent cadence.
Walking vs Pushing
Walking your bike is a part of doing a winter bike expedition. If you don't get that in your head you will have a hard time. This year with the soft trail conditions there was a fair amount of walking. I walked a couple extended sections of 20+ miles, a lot of mile or two or three here and there, and a ton of on/off for 20, 50 and 100 yards at a time. I started to call it walking next to my bike and not pushing because there was no weight on the front end of the bike. Above I mentioned how a heavy front end can auger into the snow. Well, sometimes when having to get through deeper snow you also have to unweight the front end of the bike and pick it up to push through it. I never felt I had to lift the front end up. I can also remember in the past how much effort it would take to push up steeper pitches but with the Blackborow’s weight distribution, it was just easier. It makes me think about a vehicle pulling a trailer or have you ever tried pushing a rope. In all other scenarios when moving a load we pull it, we don't push it.
I can also recall while walking next to your bike how the bags and panniers can get in the way hit your legs or rub on your side. I cannot stand for or put up with those little nuances. With the load so far back I had a clean stride with no interference. Again, easier walking next to the bike equals less fatigue and also a faster speed at which you can walk.
Easier Not Faster…but Faster
With the above things being explained when trying to describe what the overall experience is with the Blackborow I settled in on saying the bike is not faster, and it’s not slower. When you’re averaging 4 MPH, speed is not necessarily the main ingredient to be the first to the finish line BUT the Blackborow absolutely made my Iditarod ride EASIER. When we talk about making things easier, it accumulates over a long period of time and distance, and that does add up to be faster.
The Cane Creek Viscoset headset was another high card in the deck that added to my successful hand. It’s priceless to have a front end that doesn't flop around when walking with the bike or stopping. The headset gives a little help with maintaining riding a straight line and not walking the tight rope with constant corrections, which is also invaluable. The cost of this extra help probably is a few extra grams.
My friend made me a grab handle off the back of the rack. It's another one of those little things that are big when you are on the trail. It did not assist in walking the bike but when stopping, moving the bike around camp or in the villages, etc., it was huge. It actually bent at one point and my heart dropped. FYI, I suggest not lifting a loaded bike from the saddle.
I was often riding, with not a ton of effort, at 2.5-3 MPH. I never spent so much time or even thought it was possible to be riding in a gear of 28×50.
- I ate a lot of butter.
- A long handled spoon is such a luxury.
- I had zero issues with the bike or any piece of my kit.
- I ran ISSI pedals that were clipless on one side and flat on the other.
Loved them and used the flat side a lot with all the marginal on/off riding.
All these things added up to amazing experience and if you were to ask me right now what bike would I take to Nome again or recommend to somebody else I would not hesitate to say the Blackborow, unless of course you don't like to make things easier.
I am honestly still thinking about and blown away by how the Blackborow performed and had such a positive effect on my experience.