Julia Vallera and her Surly Pugsley (AKA, Big Gurl)
Yesterday, Julia Vallera shared her artwork and illustrated photography from her bikepacking trip along Mexico’s Baja Divide. Today we find out more about Big Gurl, the mud-dodging Surly Pugsley she modified for the ride, her favourite Nairo Quintana baseball cap, and how she ended up with those trippy sunglasses…
Words by Julia Vallera (@lovedrawings) and photos by Cass Gilbert
I live in Vermont and mostly ride singletrack and dirt roads – something like 60% of the roads in Vermont are dirt, so there are plenty of options. In addition to micro-touring and mountain bike trips, I try and head out on one, month-long tour a year. I’ve toured on the Carretera Austral in Chile, through central Colombia, around Puerto Rico, and most recently, I rode part of the Baja Divide in Mexico.
In the summer I like to stay local and do 3-4 day tours and ride mountain bike trails in Vermont and Quebec. I also like to explore the growing selection of MTB networks across North America and will make road trips or visit friends in those areas. As a teacher and freelancer, my work schedule varies throughout the year so my riding adventures depend on that.
I bought my Surly Pugsley on super sale in 2015/16 ish, when Surly was clearing out backstock. I usually ride it on snow in Vermont’s winter, with 4″ fat tires. But I decided to swap out the wheels for Baja, so it was more in keeping with what the rest of the group I was riding with, as they all had ‘plus’ tires. Besides, I like the idea of having two wheelsets for the same bike that I can swap out as needed.
My talented friend Wil Blanchard, who also makes custom bike frames, built me up the second wheelset. We specced it with WTB’s asymmetric rims, given the Pugsley’s quirky rear triangle, and treated it to DT 350 hubs, as they’re so reliable. The Pugsley has a wide q-factor but I don’t really notice it when I’m touring. Although I missed out on its 4in tires during the sandier stretches of the Baja Divide, swapping wheels did give me absolutely massive tire clearances in the frame. Before the ride, I didn’t appreciate what an advantage this would prove to be.
It turns out that the weather in the north section of the route can be really mixed, which can wreak havoc on bikes and their drivetrains. During one especially peanut-buttery section of the route, I was able to ride on pretty much oblivious to the muddy challenges, whilst my companions came to a standstill behind me, their frames packed with muck! Big clearances aside, the chain line runs so far away from the tire that it doesn’t pick up any mud, which tends to be especially bad in the lowest gear of a 1x drivetrain. This meant my bike was almost completely clean most of the time and the derailleur remained free from damage. As for tires, I ended up running Nobby Nic tires because the WTB Rangers I’d intended to use were on backorder…and was happy I had them, as they’re great in sand.
I’ve been on a number of bike tours before and in the past. Often, I’ve built up bikes at my local non-profit bike shop, Old Spokes Home in Burlington, and given them away at the end of my trips.
Given that my travel plans came together at the last minute for this trip, I borrowed a lot of stuff for Big Gurl – some of which is now discontinued – from a friend. This includes Jones H-bars, a Porcelain Rocket H-bar bag that sits inside the bars, Porcelain Rocket Everything Cage fork bags, and a Salsa Anything Cradle set up up front. I didn’t have a framebag and there’s very little room for a seatpack, so decided to go for a rear rack and my large Ortlieb panniers I use for commuting… which was, well, interesting!
I ran an Axiom Streamliner Fatliner but had to use a spacer to center it over the Pugsley’s offset rear triangle. This ended up putting too much stress on the eyelet… and it snapped off early in the tour, during a particularly rough descent. We had to use Voile straps and bungee cords to keep the rack in place, until we found an autobody shop in the next town, where a mechanic drilled a completely new hole in the dropout that I could attach the rack to. I still had to use a spacer to position the rack, but it was shorter in length and somehow it lasted for the rest of the trip.
In hindsight, a more streamlined bikepacking setup would have been better for the trip, as the panniers clattered around on the bumpy descents and threw me off balance. But whilst it wasn’t ideal, it was what I had to hand and added a unique challenge that kept me on my toes!
I also used my favourite Hold Fast pedal straps on a set of Chester mtb pedals. I took the pins out of the pedals on one side in order to use the straps. I’ve taken these same straps with me on previous tours and appreciate them during long climbs. If I get sick of them I just flip the pedal over to the flat side. They came in handy on some of the long rocky sections in Baja – I was able to plow over those egg-shaped rocks with more speed. I didn’t use them in the sandy sections or on some of the technical descents.
Elsewhere, I ran my favorite saddle – a magenta and suede Terry, complete with silver stripes. I’m not sure where to find a saddle like that nowadays as I got it at a bike shop closeout – so you’re out of luck if you want the same. The trucker’s cap goes everywhere with me too… I picked it up on a bike tour in Colombia in Nairo Quintana’s hometown, Boyacá. In case you don’t know, he is a cycling legend and his family sells shirts and hats out of their store. It’s a long story, but I met his dad and extended family when I bought the hat, so it feels extra special to me.
I’m happy I rode my Pugsley on this trip. Big Gurl is definitely an unconventional bike to look at… but she’s got character, that’s for sure!
And lastly… If you’re wondering about the crazy sunglasses I’m wearing in some of these pictures, there’s a story there too! I swapped out my own sunnies with an old timer I met in the beachside village, just before my trip ended. Initially, I thought we were just trying each other’s sunglasses on for fun. But the old guy walked off with mine… so I was left with these psychedelic numbers for my last day of the tour!
Total upgrade, if you ask me!
- Frame/Fork Surly Pugsley Size Small
- Rims WTB Asymmetric i35
- Hubs DT 350
- Tires Schwalbe Nobby Nic 27.5 x 2.8in
- Handlebars Jones H-Bar Loop 710mm
- Headset Cane Creek
- Crankset Sram x5, Wolftooth 30T
- Cassette Sun Race 11-46T Wide Range 10 speed
- Rear derailleur Deore
- Brakes Avid BB7
- Shifter Microshift
- Saddle Terry
- Seatpost 2 Bolt 27.2
- Stem Vision 90mm
- Front Bag(s) Salsa Anything Cradle
- Rear Bag(s) Orlielb
- Accessory Bag(s) Porcelain Rocket Anything Cage bags, Porcelain Rocket Jones handlebar bag, Apidura top tube bag
- Other Accessories Salsa Anything Cages