By John Herron
Arctic indigenous peoples are famous for having hundreds of different words for “snow”. Or at least they used to. Now I imagine they’re too busy trying to keep the swimming polar bears from tipping their kayaks. As a New Englander, when I heard last fall that I’d be getting a Surly Moonlander for the winter, I couldn’t wait for the “snow bike” and the snow to arrive. Sadly, nary a flake of snow has fallen since the bike arrived in January.
Fortunately, I’ve come to understand that the Moonlander is a “fat bike” not just a “snow bike”. And that Roger Rabbit cartoon tires are just as silly and fun on sand, ice, and slime, as they are in snow.
If you haven’t seen the Moonlander before, then whatever you thought a “fat bike” was, you were wrong. Surly had been setting the bar with the Pugsley and 3.8-inch tires, but are now in an arms race (with themselves), having upped the ante with the Moonlander and 4.5-inch Big Fat Larry tires.
To fit the cartoonish 4.5-inch Big Fat Larry tires, the Moonlander sports 100mm wide Clown Shoe rims, and a slightly disturbing bent rear frame (28mm offset), which allows one to run either single speed, internal geared, or 2×9 drivetrain. The rear wheel is laced offset to the 135mm rear hub (front hub is also 135mm), and to reach the outboard chainline, the M.W.O.D. (Mr. Whirly Offset Double) crank system pushes the granny and middle rings outward, with a bashguard replacing the big ring.
I did get on actual snow a few times so far. My first ride was on groomed cross country ski trails in northern New Hampshire, and was a blast. Presumably intended for skiers only, I avoided contact with the handful of heel flappers I caught up to, rather than start a new trail access war. On groomed hard-pack snow, the bike was fast and pleasantly efficient, leaving barely any track for Nordic traditionalists to fret about. The huge tires floated pretty well over the soft, 6-plus inch snow, for as long as long as I could maintain speed. Traction in the deep stuff wasn’t as good as I imagined it might be, but this was my first time riding fat tires in snow, and I still have some learning to do about proper tire pressure. An anonymous source at Surly reports new tire options are coming, so I have to think gnarlier knobs will be available soon.
Without snow, my Plan B has been the miles of beaches and sandy trails in my area. I’m pretty sure the endangered piping plovers have all gone south for the winter (possibly just out of habit). With surfboard and winter suit in tow, thanks to my friend Rick’s converted baby jogger, I can explore some potential surf spots I’ve always wanted to try. The bike traverses the sand just fine, but those huge tires absolutely heap the stuff onto the drivetrain. On the first trip to the beach I neglected to strip off the Vaseline-brand lube that comes with new chains, and the encrusted grit was impressive. With some experimenting I hope to find something that sheds the sand, but likely drivetrain lifespan will be limited.
Like all Surly’s, the frame is made of economic 4130 chromoly steel. It has a tall (near 13-inch) bottom bracket and sloping top tube for good standover clearance. Obviously the ride characteristics are dominated by the huge wheels (effectively 29er). Floating and rolling over almost any surface, the Moonlander lives up to the bouncing slow-mo images its name evokes. More steering, and less leaning, but overall I was pleasantly surprised with the handling. The folks at Surly point out that it’s all about proper tire pressure, and I intend to keep playing with that. More to follow in the full review.
This super-sized fat bike is a ton of fun, with actual weight on my home scale of 37lbs. I expected the weight to be up there, but it felt smoother and lighter than I anticipated. On hard surfaces the big tires make a whirring racket, which only added to the its attention grabbing looks. Retail price is near $2,350 fully built.