Review: Surly Moonlander
Editor's note: This review originally appeared in Issue #164 of our sister magazine, Dirt Rag, but because it generated so much interest, we decided to share it here, too. Enjoy!
By John Herron
When I heard I would be getting a Surly Moonlander for the winter, I couldn’t wait for the “snow bike” (and the snow) to arrive. Sadly, we had an eerily snowless winter in 2011-2012. Fortunately, I’ve come to understand that the Moonlander is a “fatbike” not just a “snow bike.” And that Roger Rabbit cartoon tires are just as fun on sand, ice, and slime as they are in snow.
If you haven’t seen the Moonlander before, then whatever you thought a “fatbike” was, you were wrong. Surly had been setting the bar with the Pugsley and 3.8” tires, but they are now in an arms race (with themselves), having upped the ante with the Moonlander and its massive 4.7” tires. To fit the cartoonishly huge Big Fat Larry tires, the Moonlander sports 100mm-wide Clown Shoe rims and an offset rear end, which stretches around the overgrown rear tire and offset rear hub.
The lopsided design still allows a rider to set up the Moonlander as a singlespeed or with a geared drivetrain. The rear wheel is laced offset to a 135mm-wide rear hub. To reach this 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.
The rear rim’s offset lacing looks a bit disconcerting (like the first time you saw a Cannondale Lefty fork), but seems to have strength to spare. Like the Pugsley, the fork is also spaced at 135mm. Having 135mm spacing for both front and rear hubs opens up some interesting, if impractical, options. A “regular” 26-inch or 29-inch rear wheel with disc brakes will fit either the front or back of the Moonlander. I ran the bike with two standard 26-inch rear wheels around the yard, but beyond the novelty, I’m not sure there’s much benefit to running skinny tires in a fatbike frame such as this one.
Editor's note: There are two 135mm "front" hub standards. The Moonlander uses a standard mountain bike rear hub in the front. There is also a 135mm "front-only" design that will not work with the Moonlander.
The Moonlander has a tall bottom bracket and sloping top tube for good standover clearance. The straight-blade fork is suspension-corrected, should you choose to run smaller tires and a suspension fork. And like all of Surly’s frames, the Moonlander is made of 4130 chromoly steel.
Floating over almost any surface, the Moonlander lives up to the bouncing slow-mo images its moon buggy namesake evokes. With the right tire pressure I was pleasantly surprised by the handling.
Despite the mild winter, I did get on actual snow a few times, and it was a blast. My first ride was on groomed cross-country ski trails, intended, presumably, for skiers only. I avoided contact with the heel- flappers I caught up to. On groomed, hard-packed snow the bike felt fast and pleasantly efficient and left barely any track for Nordic traditionalists to fret about. Where I hit soft spots of deeper snow, the huge tires floated well for as long as I could maintain my speed. However, traction in the deep stuff wasn’t as good as I imagined it would be.
The folks at Surly advised me to use even lower pressure than the roughly 10psi I had been running. They likened it to the XC skiers I was hiding from and their need to use the right wax. With only one type of air to worry about, I just kept letting out pressure until the front tire started to get foldy in hard turns. I’m guessing around 6-7psi, but my pump gauge is suspect at such low pressure.
I had a backup plan since snowfall was in such short supply: my plan B was to ride the miles of beaches and sandy trails in my area. With surfboard in tow—thanks to my friend Rick’s converted Baby Jogger—I explored some new surf spots. The bike traverses the beach well, but the soft sand is a grind and turning gets squirrelly. Also, those huge tires heap the dry sand onto the drivetrain.
Having tried snow and sand, good old-fashioned dirt was next, and I was surprised how fast I could ride my favorite loop. Not having to pick a line turns out to be a real time-saver. Just keep the bike roughly on trail and pedal like heck. Rooty and rocky downhills get a bit crazy, bouncing in unexpected directions, but all that rubber supplies endless amounts of stability. The bouncy bike equivalent to the Weeble: “Moonlanders wobble (and slide), but they don’t fall down.”
Everyone wants to try the Moonlander, so swapping bikes was an unavoidable and fun experiment. After a few miles on those fat tires, switching back to regular wheels was just plain unnerving, feeling very twitchy and tippy. But it didn’t take long to get back in the groove, and after a few drop-offs or a fast descent, I would be reminded of the benefits of full suspension. In the right mix of conditions I could keep up on the Moonlander, but traditional mountain bike tires and suspension are faster on everyday trails.
With such heavy wheels, the Avid mechanical 160mm disc brakes seemed a bit underpowered on dirt. Bigger rotors would likely have allowed for the one-finger braking I’m accustomed to, but for use on snow or sand it’s not an issue. Moving to dirt trails also brought on some thorn-induced flats. A fatbike shopping list should include a frame pump, extra tubes and a digital pressure gauge.
This supersized fatbike is a ton of fun—with the actual weight reading 37lbs. on my scale. I expected it to be a heavy bike, but it rode smoother and lighter than anticipated. I won’t be trading in my full suspension rig, but nothing beats the Moonlander’s potential for new adventures. A recent ride was to be a short spin on the neighborhood trail before dinner, but at the top of the climb I looked down toward the beach, about six miles farther away. Before I knew it, I had crossed a huge mud pit, a large swath of marsh, and was riding on the beach, looking back to the woods near my house wondering how much trouble I would be in for missing dinner.
This “winter” was much too short, and I’m not ready to send back the Moonlander. Turns out it can be just as much fun in warm weather, too. So if I can find the cash and a bike hook big enough, this fatbike might have a new home.
- Wheelbase: 43.8”, 111.4cm
- Head Angle: 70.5 degrees
- Seat Tube Angle: 73 degrees
- Bottom Bracket height: 12.6”, 321mm
- Chainstay Length: 17.7", 450mm
- Weight: 37lbs., 16.8kg
- Sizes 16", 18", 20" (tested), 22"
- Specs based on size tested
- Price $2,350
- Made in Taiwan
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