Review: Salsa Muluk Deore 11 (2020)

A couple years ago I finally got myself a fat bike so that I could keep pedaling through the winter, as well as do some off-road singletrack type riding. I wasn’t sure what to get at the time, so I picked up something used off Facebook Marketplace (Framed Wolftrax) and ran it through a couple seasons.

How Jamison buys a bike… again…

The Framed was a nice solid bike, but there were a couple things that drove me to want to upgrade. First, it was just slightly too big for me. Last year I picked up a shorter stem, and that helped, but it still didn’t fix the overall stack/reach problem. I always struggled to feel fully in control of the bike because of this size issue, and I knew that my next bike had to be focused on a better fit for me.

Secondly, I wanted some better components than what the Framed came with. I could have easily upgraded the Wolftrax, but that wouldn’t have fixed the size issue. Therefore, it was time for an upgrade. I decided to focus on two other Minnesota brands that I really like, Salsa and Surly. I spent some time testing some bikes last winter before the season ended, and really found myself enjoying the Surly Ice Cream Truck. Last year’s color was a really bright pink, and I just wasn’t in to it. Nothing against pink (or bright colors), but it just didn’t fit me. I also tested out the Salsa Mukluk and Beargrease, and between the two, I liked the more relaxed feel of the Mukluk.

Fast-forward a few months and the pandemic hits. The entire bike industry is thrown for a loop as more people take up biking to avoid public transportation, and spend more time outdoors. On top of this, the production lines were hit hard and manufactures simply couldn’t produce enough product to keep up with demand. Suddenly, my plan to upgrade this fall hit some major snags.

In mid-August Salsa released their 2020 lineup of fat bikes, and immediately the new Salsa Mukluk Deore 11 caught my attention. I’ve never been a fan of the feel of SRAM shifters, and seeing a basic Shimano set on a mid-range fat bike had me intrigued. Add to this, the color was a beautiful forest green, which when paired with the 5” tan sidewall tires looks incredibly sharp. The problem was that I still wanted to see what Surly was going to drop for their Ice Cream Truck refresh, so I decided to wait.

In the meantime I headed out and did some test rides of the Mukluk, a Beargrease, and a Surly Wednesday. The Beargrease I tested has Shimano SLX and was a dream to shift, but I knew I wasn’t going to drop $3200 on a fat bike. The Wednesday was OK, and about on par with the Mukluk. However, the Mukluk came with Dillinger 5’s (60tpi) stock, which was a big plus for the $1600 price tag. Even though Deore doesn’t feel quite as nice as SLX, I knew I could be satisfied with the Mukluk.

Then, in early September, the news dropped that Surly wouldn’t be releasing their new Ice Cream Truck until mid-December. That pretty much killed any hope for me to be able to compare it side by side with anything else, since bikes were flying off the racks. After spending some time talking with some trusted bike friends, I decided to grab the Mukluk now, and if I want to evaluate the ICT later, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

Wow those sidewalls look good

This was only the first part of the purchasing adventure though. I picked up a Mukluk in a size medium, after being convinced by the bike shop folks that it was the best size for me. I’m right on the edge of Salsa’s sizing between medium and small, at 172.7cm. The small goes to 175cm, and the medium starts at 173. I brought home the medium and went for a couple small rides around the neighborhood with my wife. Within a couple of miles I knew the medium was a mistake. It felt just like the Wolftrax and I knew I needed to go back and exchange for the small.

Testing out the Mukluk

After my sizing dilemma adventure I took an afternoon off of work to do the exchange, and then went right from the bike shop to hit some trails. First up was the Luce Line crushed limestone trail that heads west out of Plymouth, MN. The Mukluk Deore 11 comes with 5” tires, and I knew that it would have no problem with the very buffed out rail-trail. I wanted to open it up on a straight path and get a good feel for the bike, and watch the large tires eat up the ground.

Looking pretty on the Luce Line

With a 30t crank in the front, paired with an 11-51t in the back, I wasn’t going to set any land speed records (the Beargrease comes with a 10t in the back as the smallest cog by comparison). However, the mid-range of the 11-51t was smooth and comfortable, and I found myself able to accelerate to cruising speed smoothly and efficiently. I managed some solid speed on the straightaways (14-15mph pretty easily), and the tires absorbed every bump and imperfection in the crushed limestone. First test… success.

11-51t in the back

Once I got back to the trailhead (after 10 miles or so), I packed up the bike and went to find some food before heading to the Elm Creek Singletrack for the second adventure of the day. I’m a complete noob when it comes to singletrack so I wanted to get there in the middle of the afternoon before it got crowded and my self-confidence got crushed by constantly having to step aside and let the experienced riders pass me.

I was running out of time for the day, so I opt’d for the 6-7 mile loop. The Elm Creek Singletrack hits you with some challenging hills and terrain right from the start, but by mile 2, you get a nice break and can try opening up a bit on some flowy prairie sections. It was while riding on this trail that I realized how much of a difference the size small bike made in my confidence level. I no longer felt like the bike was pushing me. I was in total control and even got myself out of some sticky spots without a single foot touch. It was a huge confidence boost.

One of the most noticeable differences in between the small and medium Mukluk is the bar size. The medium is where the bars jump from 760mm to 800mm, which is the largest they get throughout the entire line. If I had decided to keep the medium I would have certainly needed to cut those 800mm bars down to something more reasonable for my wingspan. I honestly don’t even know how I would have gotten those bars through some of the tight singletrack areas.

Out on the singletrack

With the size dialed in I managed to push through the rest of the singletrack with little issue. The Dillinger 5’s were amazing, and I found myself able to trackstand in tricky situations without much effort at all. I was able to slide through the lower gears with ease, and never found a situation where I had to hit the 51t, all the way the bottom. However, some of the harder parts of the course were after I turned off to head back, so I’m sure I’ll find a use for it sometime.

The Mukluk isn’t going to win any singletrack races (at least not with me piloting it), but it felt incredibly capable, and when I got to the final roller coaster section of trail I was having some of the most fun of my life. The alternator dropout allows me to extend the chainstay from 440 up to 457, which I might try for some winter trails, but the 440 felt great and responsive on the flowing trail.

The hydraulic brakes never let me down and felt smooth and clean on every turn. I know some people rag on the Tektro line, but until my skill level allows me to go a heck of a lot faster, these brakes are rock solid. This is actually my first hydraulic brake set, so I now get to learn how to do bleed’s and fun stuff like that. Another skill to add to my toolset.

What are the things I’d want to change on the Mukluk Deore 11? I could certainly see myself upgrading to Shimano SLX at some point. The smoothness of SLX just can’t be matched at the Deore price point, but for now it serves its purpose. The Volt saddle is adequate, and comfortable enough. I’m not terribly picky about my saddles though. One thing I might change sooner is the grips. I’m trying to get used to the Salsa File Tread Lock-On grips, but of all the components, these might be the first to go. I’m going to give then a few more weeks, but they feel a bit harsh on the hands if I don’t wear gloves. Of course the simpler solution might be to actually wear gloves…

Green on green in the woods works for me…

The Mukluk has a bunch of mounting points, including a 3-pack on the fork, and 3 different frame/bottle mounts. There are no rear rack mounts so you’ll need to use a seat post clamp if you want to go that route. All the cables are internally routed which is a nice touch, and they even include routing channels for a front derailleur and a dropper post. The Dillenger 5’s come ready to be studded and go tubeless, but you’ll need to do that yourself or get your LBS to do that for you.

Am I happy with my purchase? Yes. The Mukluk is a very capable fat bike, with a nice relaxed geometry, decent drivetrain, solid brakes, and great tires. I’ve got about 40 miles on the bike now, and am enjoying every ride I take. Sure, I might check out the Ice Cream Truck when it drops, but for the money, the Salsa Mukluk Deore 11 is a great bike. I’m incredibly happy, and can’t wait to get more opportunity to get it out on the trails both before and after the snow flies.

If you’re looking for a great midrange fat bike, and can find one in your area, this is a great choice to get you out there and riding the dirt.

Fat Bike, meet Bike Rack

UPDATE: I will be writing a new post soon, but for anyone stumbling on this now, I’ve decided to return my Thule T2 Classic. It’s a functional rack, but the stiffness of the mechanisms makes it too unpleasant to work with. More to come…

One of the things that I discovered very quickly after getting my fat bike was that my old Yakima Holdup bike rack wouldn’t work anymore. The wheel trays were just too small for a fat bike tire, and all of the modifications I saw online, to make it work, were larger than I wanted to tackle. They also looked like something that wasn’t very stable, and I don’t want my bike falling off my car… ever.

Thus began the process for trying to find a new rack that would work with fat tires. First though I had to sell the old one to help fund this new rack. It took over a month to sell the old Holdup, but eventually I found a buyer. Now I just had to decide on what rack to purchase next. I did a ton of research, but decided to go with the default upgrade, the Yakima Holdup Evo. We had some gift cards at REI and decided to go ahead and purchase the rack there. I brought it home and started assembly.

img_4058It was very familiar to the old Holdup, and everything made sense, except for one small thing. The anti-rattle mechanism was no longer a simple bolt in the receiver, it was a weird mechanism that involved a long threaded screw and a piece of metal that was supposed to lock the rack to the receiver. However, I just couldn’t get it to work right. I managed to secure it once, but after that I wasn’t able to get it to reliably fasten anymore. The piece of metal that serves as the brace kept sliding into the casing of the hitch mount, and I couldn’t get it to stick.

img_4057I know some people like this mount style, but I think the one I had was just plain defective. I just didn’t like the complexity of it, and decided I didn’t want to have to deal with it. So I brought the rack back to the store, and decided to try out a Thule, specifically the T2 Classic. Years ago the Thule line was on my radar, along with the Yakima, and so I was familiar with the brand, and it seemed like just as solid of a rack.

img_4063My only qualm was that the T2 Classic didn’t come with all of the locking mechanisms. Initially, it looked like I would have to spend another $60-$80 to get locks that would secure the bike AND the hitch. However, after doing some research, I discovered that all I actually needed to do was spend $20 to get two additional key cores that were identical to the keys that came with the rack. This ended up making the T2 Classic cheaper than the Holdup Evo, which is a solid win in my book. Plus, the race used a simple anti-rattle bolt, instead of a fancy locking mechanism.

img_4065I brought home the Thule and got it assembled. Frankly, it was a lot easier than the Yakima. I was able to assemble it in a fraction of the time, and I didn’t have to do any weird balancing acts to attach certain parts. Within an hour I had everything locked and loaded on the car and I tested to make sure the bike fit like it should. Everything looked good, and the next morning it got it’s first workout, as I got a ride back from my wife’s choir gig. I’m pleased to report that my bike made it home just fine.

The Thule also has the great feature of being able to tilt backwards, giving access to the trunk of my vehicle without having to remove the bikes. The construction felt sturdy, although some of the mechanisms felt stiff. I’m assuming that will soften up more in time. The arm locks felt solid and clicked into place without any issues, and the ratchet straps worked as advertised. I did have to follow the instructions to make the ratchet strap work for my fat tire, but that took no more than 1 minute to adjust.

Needless to say, I’m very pleased with my purchase, and I’m looking forward to getting out more often with the fat bike now. In fact, we’re getting a ton more snow this weekend, so perhaps Sunday will be another adventure ride!

Some fat bike adventuring

My wife has a side gig as a section leader in a church choir up in Anoka, and sometimes when she’s doing a solo, I’ll go up there to listen to her. Today I decided to make an adventure out of it by riding my fat bike the ~12 miles to get there. Normally, this is a nice easy route that passes through Coon Rapids Dam park, on some beautiful paved paths. However, it’s February in Minnesota, do that means snow.

img_4068Things went really well right from the start when I discovered that the trail that I use to get out of the neighborhood has a nice solid packing down. I was able to ride the entire trail section without issue before dumping out on to roads. The next part of the trip takes me on a bunch of streets until I get back onto a bike path that leads under Highway 610 and into Coon Rapids Dam park. However, this section of the trail was NOT plowed at all.

img_4070There was a small rut that I tried to ride, but after fishtailing off into the deep snow on the side, I decided it was better to just hike-a-bike and walk until the cleared section began again. This section was slow and painful, having to climb over snowbanks at certain points. I really wish they’d clear this section as it’s a really nice area and it would be awesome to ride through in the winter.

I might have been able to make a lot more progress in this section if I had stopped and lowered my tire pressure. I was running at 6psi, and if I had dropped down to 3-4 it may have helped me plow through. However, at the end of this section I was going to be on cleared bike path again, before dumping on to roads. I didn’t want to spend 4-5 miles on flat asphalt running at 3psi, as that would make things a lot harder than I wanted it to be. So, hiking the bike ended up being the better option.

Once I got through this area I ended up dumped onto some groomed cross country trail This wasn’t where I wanted to be, but there were no other paths. I very carefully threaded myself in-between the classic ruts and got out of that as soon as I could. Once I was back on pavement I was able to pick it back up again and keep moving. I found one other groomed trail on the other side of the park that was about two car widths wide, with classic track on one side. The other side was covered in footprints so I decided to just bike through this instead of getting back on roads right away. Probably not the choice I should have made, but I don’t think I did any damage to the trail.

After this it was a lot of bike paths and city streets. The city of Coon Rapids made an attempt at clearing the bike path along Coon Rapids Blvd. but it was still pretty blown over with snow. It was in this section that I really learned what it was like to have a fat bike. I was able to handle a few inches of snow just fine until decided I was ready to battle traffic on the shoulder of the road.

Overall, it was a mostly uneventful ride. I learned a lot about riding in winter, and I’m slowly dialing in my gear. I got some Bar Mitts, and holy crap those things are nice. I can’t imagine riding in winter without them ever again. I still need to work on my footwear. I think for days like today just a solid winter, insulated, boot will work fine. I’ll need something more for sub-artic temps, but a 20 degree day like today is just fine. My core has been staying warm, and I have a nice pair of Marmot windproof pants that keep my legs comfortable (with a layer underneath).

img_4069One area of improvement though is that I need to figure out a better fitting helmet. The one I have keeps me safe, but it rides way too high on my head. This isn’t just a winter problem either. My head is shaped in such a way that it doesn’t ride right even in the summer. I’ll need to do some experimenting.

The ride today was tough, and my heart-rate stayed in the 140’s which is high for biking. There was a lot of challenging terrain to navigate, but I had an awesome time doing it. Once church was done my wife needed to get her run in, so I headed back out again and did a 6 mile run. Needless to say I’m completely wasted as I type this. It’s time for some beer and relaxing before tackling some house things that need to get done tonight.

I’m loving learning to bike in the winter. It feels freeing and I’m excited to do more of it!

Arrowhead 135

This week I’ve been spending my time at the Arrowhead 135 winter ultramarathon. This is the iconic winter ultra in Minnesota, and it is known for being one of the most brutal and harsh races around. Participants much traverse (on foot, bike, or ski) from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the 135 mile long Arrowhead Trail. They have to be prepared to survive in any conditions, and therefore must carry mandatory gear including -20 degree sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and stoves with which to boil water and heat food. It’s a grueling event, and made even more difficult by this year’s extreme temperatures.

On the Sunday before the race, air temps hit -40 degrees F (well, and C at that point). Thankfully, by the time the race launched on Monday things had moderated to -10. Monday ended up being a good day overall with temps getting above zero for a large part of the day. I even managed to get out for a 4 mile run on the trail, and the conditions were amazing and perfect for a run. However, with nightfall came brutal cold.

IMG_0024As the temps dropped overnight, they stayed there. Ever since late Monday the temp hasn’t been above -15, and the mornings are closer to -32. Going out to start our car for 10 minutes every few hours has become a part of our regular routine. Thankfully, we have a nice warm hotel to sleep in, and when we’re working at the finish line we have a beautiful hot tent to keep us warm. Because it can sometimes be hours between finishers, we often get to relax in the tent and enjoy beer and whiskey and pizza cooked on a wood stove.

In terms of participants, this year looks like a very low finishing rate. The bikers are doing OK at 51%, but many of them were able to make solid progress all day on Monday and even finish the race before the temps got too brutal. On the foot participant side it’s looking like only 18% of participants will succeed. Most have (rightly) decided to end their race early, instead of putting themselves in danger. This year, not a single skier managed to complete the entire course, which was not ideal for skiing at all.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to have been able to work remotely for our jobs for a couple of days while we volunteered in the evenings. It’s been great to be around so many amazing people and see them achieve great things. It’s also marked with a bit of sadness, because one of our trail tribe lost his battle with cancer while we were here at the event. He was a frequent participant in this event, and his loss is keenly felt among the people participating. There’s a certain poignancy to his passing during an event that meant so much to him.

Tomorrow we head back to life in the cities, but for now, it’s nice to have been able to be a part of this amazing event, and the incredible people who are testaments to the power of human beings to survive no matter what.

2018 Biking Year In Review

Although not quite as big as my running year, 2018 saw me biking a lot more than I ever have in the past. I’ve really come to love the idea of two wheeled transport, and wish that my job was close enough for me to actually do it as a commuting option. I did commute a couple times this year, but not nearly as much as I would like to. My wife and I also didn’t get out quite as much as I had hoped together, but I did get her a new bike seat, so hopefully that will help encourage some additional adventures next year.

IMG_2248.JPGAt the beginning of the year I picked up some studded tires for my hybrid bike, and gave a little bit of winter riding a try. I only got out a couple of times, but it was a lot of fun, and showed me that you can actually do this year round. Once the snow cleared I was able to start getting out a bit more regularly.

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PC: Michael Tangen

One of the most consistent times that I ride is on Wednesday nights with our Beer & Bikes crew. My friend Michael started this years ago and it’s been a great way to keep consistently riding each week. Our little group grew a bit this year and we’ve added a few new regulars. It’s been fun getting to know more people through the biking community, as it’s still a group that I’m not quite as connected to.

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PC: Abe McEtheron

I also managed some nice weekend rides, including a trip down to Saint Paul to cheer on the Twin Cities Marathon. I had a ton of fun on this ride and might make it a tradition. I also did my third annual Fall Fifty+Five ride. This is a 50 mile bike ride that include stops at 5 different breweries. This year we had a ton of people join us, and from the sounds of it almost everyone had a great time.

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PC: Michael Tangen

One of the other joys of biking this year is learning more and more about how to maintain and fix bikes. I spent a lot of time learning about how to tune up my ride and even make some slightly more in-depth repairs, such as shifters and disc brakes. I then got to practice my skills with the wonderful organization Free Bikes 4 Kidz. They take donated bikes and fix them up to give away to kids who don’t have bikes. It’s a great thing to be a part of, and I’m super happy that our Beer & Bikes group did this activity again this year.

DSC08967Finally, this fall I took the plunge and purchased a fat bike. I’ve only managed a handful of rides so far this winter, but simply knowing that I have the option is awesome. Plus, I feel like I’m much more likely to connect with the adventure/off-road biking community than the typical road bikers. Similar to how I’m more of a trail runner than road runner. Maybe it has to do with the beer and beards?

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 12.09.07 PMAt the end of it all I had a new high mileage year of 735 miles, which is not too shabby for someone who also ran 1602 miles throughout the year. I’m hoping to break 1000 next year with my ability to get on wheels in the winter time now. The biggest challenge I’m currently facing is trying to sell my old bike rack so that I can buy one that will fit my fat tire bike. Hopefully, I’ll have that squared away soon.

Cheers to all my fellow beer loving bikers, and can’t wait to do more rides in 2019!