The Dummy Days of Summer

Life with my Surly Big Fat Dummy after two years of ownership, and a summer of exploring the boundaries of the kind of journeys that are reasonable on a big-tyred pedal-powered pickup truck.

This month marks two years of ownership of my Big Fat Dummy cargo bike. It took almost the same amount of time prior to that to make the buying decision. Life on bicycles has been a journey, both figuratively and literally, from childhood bouncing across fields and tracks on a singlespeed Raleigh, through a road racing and timetrialling ‘career’, touring and exploring, and then realising the potential of cargo bikes. Having made the progression from lightweight road and mountain bikes into bikes as a means for having adventures, both at home and away, and reducing car dependence, I was for a long time still full of doubt about how much I would actually use such a machine; would I find myself hauling enough stuff to make ownership worthwhile in a financial sense.. would there actually be much pleasure in riding around on a bike with big, draggy tyres and that weighed some 60lbs ’empty’, and just how far would I be prepared to travel on such a machine?

the genius (to my mind) of the design is that it’s really just a mountain bike, albeit one with a very long wheelbase, and that means you can ride it anywhere (almost) you would a regular mountain bike, with the added benefit of being able to carry an awful lot of crap

At the time, the few stories online around the Big Fat Dummy were very much oriented towards the sort of wild backcountry that blesses large swathes of North America, and the kind of people that need to haul around chainsaws, axes, fenceposts and so on while wearing flannel shirts; that flavour of “brochure backcountry living” that just doesn’t exist in this part of the world. In the end, after much procrastination, I ordered one anyway – there are some things in life that require a leap of faith beyond that which logic alone can provide. It’s been something of a slow-burning revelation.

Surly Big Fat Dummy on a dirt track with a large cardboard box strapped to the side
Hauling stuff… the Surly bags are complicated but very versatile. They can be used as a regular, albeit extra-long, pannier of variable capacity, or they can be unrolled fully and used as a sling, as here.

Most folk are familiar with the kind of cargo bikes that either have a large flat-bed area or cargo box, generally seen carting bulky loads (and children) around towns and cities. The Dummy won’t carry quite so much, although with ingenuity it can come close, but the genius (to my mind) of the design is that it’s really just a mountain bike, albeit one with a very long wheelbase, and that means you can ride it anywhere (almost) you would a regular mountain bike, with the added benefit of being able to carry an awful lot of crap. It makes hauling a whole heap of fun no matter how big the load, or the kind of journey at hand. That realisation has been key this summer as I explored the boundaries of the kind of journeys I would be prepared to make, to the point where thinking that I might ‘have’ to use a car in any given situation feels like a real failure and a deeply undesirable prospect given just what a miserable experience driving can be, particularly in the summer time in Cornwall. It has also brought the realisation that the obstacles many people face in making a shift away from motorised transport are as much about what other people say or think, as about their own self-belief. Folk will often say to me, in a Dummy context, “you’re not going to do that are you?” or “that’s crazy, you can’t do that...”.

I now think that 100 mile hauling trips on the Dummy are not too ridiculous a proposal, provided one carries enough snacks. A good progression from those early pre-purchase doubts.

Recently on the King Harry Ferry across the Fal, aboard the Dummy, I got talking to a group of cyclists… questions started with “what’s that for?“, through “what are you doing?” to “why don’t you just drive?” and “I couldn’t ride that” to expressing sentiments that indicated they thought I was some kind of dangerous lunatic once I’d mentioned I was on my way to collect a large Afghan carpet I’d been offered; a hilly round trip of 75 miles mixing scenic backroads and trails. Still in the mindset of cycling as thing to do on a Sunday morning, the idea that a Sunday ride could also replace a motorised chore, and still be a brilliant, and deeply satisfying day out was a leap too far. Interestingly the only chap I met that morning who “got it” was on a motorcycle, also on the ferry. He was a super chap, bit of a rebel. Everyone else just stared.

climbing hills is a surprisingly relaxed experience; an experience that very much confirms that the weight of a bike is not as important as folk think, and certainly not as important as the industry likes folk to think.

When making a trip by car then usually the only point of the trip is the destination. The journey itself is usually something to be endured, and preferably to be dealt with as quickly as possible, one possible reason for the shitty driving frequently in evidence during busy times. When making the same trip by bicycle, the act of travelling can become as meaningful as the destination itself. Embracing that can a difficult adjustment to make, but once made there’s no looking back. Daily life is just better.

Surly Big Fat Dummy with a large afghan carpet, folded up and strapped to the rear deck
Carpet duties. The day was showery, hence the black plastic wrap (returned to regular garbage sack duty afterwards – it takes me a month or more to make a dent in a garbage sack so I don’t feel too bad at the use of plastic in this instance)

The outing itself was a super day out, winding my way through all the tiny, picturesque lanes that make no sense in the context of an A to B car journey, and hence that are mostly traffic free, even in the height of summer. The return journey with some 18kg of carpet bundled up tightly and strapped to the rear deck was just as much fun, and once back across the Fal I was able to make use of the network of old mining trails to get almost all the way home. Having a carpet on the back made the trails no less fun, and in a sense more fun thanks to the “rabbit in headlamps” stares of other trail users. I like the idea that perhaps one or two lightbulbs might have flickered to life during those kind of encounters. The round trip took about 6hrs, was absolutely not a chore, and the relaxed nature of the bike, and abundance of gears, meant that I wasn’t feeling particularly tired, so I now think that 100 mile hauling trips on the Dummy are not too ridiculous a proposal, provided one carries enough snacks. A solid progression from those early pre-purchase doubts. In retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s little different to riding a fully loaded dirt touring bike; the only difference is the context, or ‘head-space’. It’s probably also worth saying that I find a quick trip up the road for DiY supplies just as much as fun as everything else.

Side image of a Surly Big Fat Dummy with a large cardboard box strapped to the side
On this occasion delivering a pair of 27.5+ wheels I’d built up for a mate.

Tyre choice is important for the kind of mixed terrain riding I’m doing; with the right tyres the Dummy is not as sluggish as people might think. Of course at the relatively higher speeds riding on the flat it can’t compete with a proper road bike – too much tyre and aerodynamic drag. I can push it past 20mph but holding it there for any length of time requires time-trial levels of effort; there isn’t any point. Uphill however, where speeds are low, drag losses are significantly lower, and by letting go of the idea of always having to cover ground as quickly as possible, climbing hills is a surprisingly relaxed experience; an experience that very much confirms that the weight of a bike is not as important as folk think, and certainly not as important as the industry likes folk to think.

whether or not hauling on a cargo bike feels like a chore very much depends on the mental approach, and that actually it can be really very fun (and funny) indeed.

Case in point, and slightly embarrassing yesterday as I try not to be a dick when I’m out riding.. but sometimes it just can’t be helped. Riding out of town to deliver a set of 27.5+ bikepacking wheels I’d built for a mate, large box strapped to the side, and on my way to pick up the trails, I caught a pair of thirty-something road cyclists on the first climb. I tried not to pass as experience says that some cyclists find the Dummy to be offensive, or upsetting, so I slowed down in an effort to not find myself in such a situation… but still passed them; it couldn’t be helped. Somewhat embarrassed and trying to be friendly and perhaps hoping to be able to share some cargo bike interest, I said ‘hello’ but received nothing in return but a slightly chilly stare.. so rode away before hearing a shouted “that thing electric?” from behind. “no!” I yelled in return. A few minutes later, trundling along at the foot of the descent and just prior to the commencement of the next, steeper climb rider comes past without saying a word, and clearly giving it the beans.

people seem to fall into 3 camps when it comes to this bike: there are those who instantly ‘get it’, then there are those who just seem to ‘hang’ in the way a piece of software might.. kind of the human version of the MacOS ‘spinning beachball of death’, and then there are those who, for whatever reason, just find the whole thing slightly offensive.

The gradient slowed them dramatically, and based on what had just happened I thought “f**k it, I’m just going to ride”. Like a dumb puppy I tried once more to be friendly, drawing level however I was gifted with a somewhat hostile sounding “are you kidding me?!“. A few additional words were exchanged but ultimately just minding my own business and riding away seemed best. The point being I suppose, in an effort not to sound like a dick, that whether or not hauling on a cargo bike feels like a chore very much depends on the mental approach, and that actually it can be really very fun (and funny) indeed.  I’ve noticed that people (including cyclists) fall into 3 camps when it comes to this bike: there are those who instantly ‘get it’, they think it’s a brilliant concept; then there are those who just seem to ‘hang’ in the way a piece of software might.. kind of the human version of the MacOS ‘spinning beachball of death’, and then there are those who, for whatever reason, just find the whole thing slightly offensive… although I concede that in part that may also be due to the individual riding it. I have hope that more and more folk will ‘get it’; any shift, no matter how small, away from car dependency, has benefits on so many levels from physical and mental health, to environmental and societal benefits.

Surly Big Fat Dummy on a dirt track with a large cardboard box strapped to the side
That was a lovely ride, it’s about an hour by road, or a bit more than two hours by trail.. so I never take the road. The light was softly autumnal, the trails quiet in the early morning, and with the heather still in bloom it was all rather lovely, with the added bonus of coffee, cake, and a good chinwag (the price of a wheel-build) at the turn.

 

As for the rest of the summer, well there hasn’t been the opportunity for those thoughtful, chilled rides that were to be enjoyed so much prior to July. The tourist season this year was ‘challenging’ – a sentiment shared by just about everyone I know; very much a different demographic of visitor in evidence this year. I feel a deep connection to Cornwall, heck it’s been home since I drew my first breath, so to watch so much of it, places and people, being trampled and abused by so many was a deeply upsetting experience. I found no value in the kind of rides to be enjoyed earlier in the year – roaming far and wide, constantly coming across scenes of fly camping, discarded gear, garbage, burned areas, an abundance of toilet waste, and vans parked up in the most inappropriate of spots, and narrowly avoiding, at best, hospitalisation thanks to some really shitty driving. As such riding mostly became something just to be done by way of just needing to get out from time to time. While there are plenty of spots less-frequented, less known, actually setting out in search of a good ride required a degree of mental effort, and leap of faith, to which I am unaccustomed when it comes to just wanting to go riding. There were however some highlights when I did manage to make the effort, and to save them from languishing on a hard drive unseen until the end of time, here are some snaps.

cycling on singletrack through colourful heather blossoms on the west penwith moors
The heather on the moors in the west was breathtaking for a time during August. I dragged a riding buddy along for some off-road skinny-tyred fixed wheel fun.
bicycle lying in the heather on top of Gwennap Head
Enjoyment of even the quieter spots around the coast was often tainted by a payload of discarded face-masks and wet-wipes. Bit depressing.. but still worth the effort to reach.
Friend fishing off the rocks in Falmouth Bay
It’s not been a particularly productive summer for spinning off the rocks. Catches are noticeably less predictable than during childhood, and some days the ocean just feels like a fished-out desert.
camping stove making tea with a bicycle and fishing rod in the background
Still a great excuse to spend time in some more inaccessible spots, and enjoy a brew-up.
cyclist on a coastal dirt track with thunderstorms out to sea
Thunderstorms incoming.
Surly ECR lying on the sand in front of breaking surf on a wet evening
Feeling nostalgic for life on the road last year, I took my ECR for the short trip round the coast to a BBQ with my local “support bubble” one misty evening.
Surly ECR leaning against a lifeguard hut
I liked the atmosphere that evening, crossing damp, chilly beaches
Surly ECR on coastal singletrack
The weather early the following morning was markedly different..
a handful of blackberries with bicycle and wildflowers in the background.
The blackberries felt early this year…

With that then dear readers, I hope you’ve been able to stay well and find some enjoyment during the ongoing situation.

16 thoughts on “The Dummy Days of Summer

    • hahaha, cheers and yeah, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that’s not going to happen…. well, potential future physiological issues not withstanding…

  • Fantastic. Such a shame the Lycra-ed and Logo-ed brigade don’t get it. Any true bike nut would love it – I mean, it’s a bike isn’t it!

    • ha, yes. I think it’s like anything that represents something of a paradigm shift, it takes time for some folk to assimilate it.

  • I meant to add that turning a chore into a good day out has got to be the best way to guarantee (mostly) a happy and relaxed life.

    • oh it is, i’d been using my bike for running errands and chores for a long time, but the Dummy takes it to a whole new level. A friend saw me on it recently and commented afterwards “every time I see you on that thing you’re wearing a big smile”.. pretty good endorsement I think.

    • :-D hahaha, oh that’s funny! Imagine how it would be if you could also just keep your acclimatisation after all those months, well years in your case, at high altitude ;-)

  • Great piece, and I totally “get” the Big Dummy.
    It’s a bike which caught my imagination the moment I saw it.
    It’s very easy for life to become a series of chores, just, “crap you’ve got to do”, interspersed with all too short bursts of enjoyment.
    The Dummy in particular, and the bicycle in general is a tool for adding joy to those chores.
    I look forward to one day owning one too!

    • hey Phil, cheers for taking the time to write! You’re spot on about the ‘chores’ thing.. and perhaps perhaps even more relevant now, during a pandemic, when people perhaps have more limited access to pleasurable activities, days out and holidays and so on… making the day to day less soul-crushing is a great way to feel happier about life in general, and reduce stress levels.
      Hopefully it won’t be long before one can join your family.

  • F the “new normals!” A lovely read, truly enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing. It is sometimes a struggle to stay in the good mental space with so many on the road angry or distracted, cycling especially if done with odd equipment just seems to bring one challenges. I find dragging children along seems to dramatically change the mood. I get a lot more smiles and less fingers with one of my kids in tow.
    I currently own too many bikes, but am considering trading in of my Surly Wednesday for a Big Fat Dummy. I ride in Denver, CO and the winter with all the traffic brings snow and tons of rock hard ice globs. I have 45NRTH Dillinger 4 studded tires on it. It’s totally overkill, but I’d rather pedal harder and listen to my boom 3 than worry if I’m going to crash on ice. Prior to the studs the big fat low pressure tires of the Wednesday put me on the asphalt too many times. I’d like to take my son, 7 and stuff around town and never have to skip a commute ride due to weather. I ended up on your site due to the fender post you did a while back. Those are amazing! Do you sell sets of them or know someone who does? I have a lot of projects going already and should really not take on another. Also I’m think of building up the BFD to take the 45NRTH Dillinger 4 studded tires and a Rohloff A12, have you run into anyone trying that combo on?
    Keep riding, Brian.

    • hey Brian, thanks for taking the time to write a super comment. I like the point about children.. here too many folk seem to regard carrying, or towing a child on a bike as some sort of child abuse… there’s a long way to go but things are changing. Having odd equipment, like a dummy, makes the mundane so much more interesting… especially here in Cornwall where the trail networks are limited, but I try to have fun on them in different ways each time.

      Is too many bikes really a thing ? ;-)

      A dummy with the studded tyres would be an awesome beast! I haven’t come across anyone running a rohloff on a BFD, though I’m sure someone will be, somewhere; for winter use it would be terrific I imagine. I lived in Montreal for a number of years so have some sense of how proper winter riding can be…. On the fenders, I haven’t tried to sell any, they were a lot of work so I feel they’d probably be kind of too expensive if making to order (£250+ I imagine), plus the problem of shipping and so on. They’re a great project if you have the time however. I have seen a business in the US making laminated wooden fenders for fat-bikes but I can’t remember the name, probably a google search would be the way to go. Good luck with it and do drop me a line if do get a BFD setup that way, would love to see it!
      Cheero
      Mike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: