…This time, Skyler forges on with the opinions on a subject worthy of his opinion – his own bicycle…
In the previous instalment of this Tech Talk business (which I guess is becoming a ‘thing’ now), I wrote about a few of the good people that have inspired me to forgo the old cycle touring staples, and enter a brave new world of pedal-powered exploration.
Panthea’s previous bike, a mid-’90s Rocky Mountain Soul, was built by me to emulate the touring “uniform” from a variety of used and discounted parts. Most choices were dictated by price, since she didn’t offer any clear performance desires at that time.
Her first tours involved only paved roads, and the bike performed reliably. Before heading to Patagonia, I convinced her to mount a front suspension fork. I bought her an old 100mm travel, 2002 Marzocchi MXR and had it rebuilt. For me, it ticked a few important boxed: it was coil sprung, so that even if it blew its seals and was emptied of oil, it would ride high (and perform like a pogo-stick), it was compatible with her 9mm quick-release front hub and her rim brakes, and it was dirt cheap.
I’m grateful to this old Bomber. Though the old-school open-bath coil forks of that time lacked much tunability, or any sophistication at all, they performed reliably. There are worse things than reliable mediocrity. I’m also grateful that, in combination with some 2.2″ knobby tires, it offered Panthea enough comfort that she didn’t detest rough roads, as so many other cyclists do. With Panthea’s burgeoning addiction to mountain biking, I was given the mandate to build a better bike. After more than two weeks on the road, finding off-road riding across BC, my thoughts on these new bike builds are maturing:
Panthea’s Soma B-Side
The bike centers around a Soma B-Side frame, a Manitou Magnum Pro (100mm) suspensions fork, a Rohloff internal gear hub, and wide (30mm internal width) Easton 27.5″ (650B) rims. The frame allows clearance up to a 2.8″ rear tire and there is space for up to 3.4″ up front. The dropout also splits to allow the use of a belt drive. People are calling this 27+ or B+ or 27Plus.
The whole concept of a mid-fat, mid-sized wheels emerged from a desire to have a fatter wheelset to fit in a 29er, or a skinny wheelset to fit in a fat bike. But, I don’t get that. Who wants to own two wheelsets for their mountain bike? Especially when that wheelset involves a Rohloff. Wouldn’t it be better to switch between mid-fat and “regular” tires with a mere change of tires? So simple!
The way to do that is either with a bike like the Krampus in the world of wide-clearance 29ers, or with a 650B bike like the B-Side. The key is to have a bottom bracket height suitable for conventional tire widths, so that big tires only lift your pedals farther from the ground. My experience bikepacking on a Surly ECR taught me that while common BB heights are great on an empty bike, it becomes harder to avoid pedal strikes, harder to keep momentum and roll through chunky ground, with a bikepacking load. A seemingly unusually high BB keeps me slowly churning though rough stuff. Besides, the effect of tire width on BB height is often exaggerated. Big tires mean lower pressures, and low pressures mean the tire squishes under a rider’s weight.
Speaking of the Krampus, Skyler’s has undergone a serious make-over. Only the Rohloff and the brake levers remain from his original ECR build. More on that later…
We opted for 27+ rather than 29+ for Panthea’s bike, because at 5’7″, she can barely straddle a 29+ wheel. It’s too much bike for smaller riders. This has proven an excellent choice. Her overall speed has increased dramatically in technical and non-technical (i.e. dirt road) riding. Nothing speaks louder than that. It’s not a simple wheel size increase, but that combined with highly tunable, modern suspension, a sweet 68° head angle, and the wide tires, that explain her increased speed and confidence. “Confidence inspiring” is how she describes the bike.
If you’re paying attention to most cycling media, you’ll know about the constant stream of new technology being announced each month. The Mountain Bike is still a work in progress. Our bikes are no different. While almost everything about them is carefully chosen, the choices are often imperfect.
At first, we had Panaracer Fat B Nimble (27.5 x 3.5) tires mounted front and back on the B-Side. Don’t worry, they come nowhere near 3.5″ wide. On wide rims, call them 3.0″, and on 30mm rims, 2.82″. Most tire manufacturers are either incapable of making basic measurements, or lying. Given their ability to make tires that seal reliably without tubes, I doubt it’s the former. They’re lying shits. Still, these are excellent tires.
The Fat B Nimble fits in the B-Side, but with very little clearance unless the dropouts are slammed all the way back. With the chain tensioned for Rohloff (34t x16t rings) it meant very little clearance. All was well until we encountered super sticky mud in the Camelsfoot Range. We’ve since swapped to a WTB Trailblazer 2.8 outback, which is an excellent tire in all regards except that it measures 2.55″ on an Easton Arc 30. As many more 27+ tires hit the market, the perfect 2.7″ tire will present itself. It would be so much easier if tire companies stopped using lies a marketing tactic, however.
The B-Side could obviously use more tire clearance too. And they should be able to do it without lengthening the chain stay or going to a wider hub, too. One of my biggest complains of this frame is that it uses a 68mm BB shell. Of course, and 73mm mountain bike crankset will mount with spacers (included with most new BBs), but why not just make the shell 73mm, stiffer, and less prone to loosening or creaking? Who would ever run road bike cranks on this bike?
The other complaint is that it came in a full pound heavier than advertised at 5.6lbs. Beefy. But, it is by far the most affordable frame out there with this sort of versatility and 27+ compatibility. It falls squarely into the sphere of affordable excellence. The geometry, sliding dropouts, and assortment of braze-ons make it a winner.
Sliding dropouts mate perfectly with a QR Rohloff and a Monkey Bone brake adapter..
The open track ends of Surly frames allow a certain versatility, but are a pain. My brake often requires adjustment after I move or remove my wheel. The TRP Spyke brakes help this situation, as they’re much easier to set-up and adjust than Avid BB7s, but as a dual piston mechanical brake, they give up some braking power. I’ve switched to 180mm rear, 203mm front rotors to add some more power. The brake must also be unbolted and swung out of the way to remove the wheel.
Up front we’ve now both got Manitou Magnum Pro suspension…
…27+ for her, 29+ for him.
The Magnum is a stiff, wonderful, buttery suspension fork. I am super happy that Manitou made a plus-sized specific fork, and then went so far as to give it high and low speed compression damping, rebound damping, an adjustable air spring volume for ramp control, 34mm sanctions, and over-all high end performance. But it looks nothing like my dream suspension fork.
Boost Hub ‘Standard’
Boost is the name of a new hub width first introduced by Trek a year ago. It “boosts” the rear through-axle hubs from 142mm to 148mm, and front 15mm through-axles from 100mm to 110mm. The marketing promises stiffer wheels, from wider spoke bracing, and better tire clearance by moving the chain-line 3mm outboard.
If you desire to increase tire clearance while maintaining the use of 73mm bottom brackets, I think Boost makes sense. Those 3mm are all there is to give by moving chainrings outboard on a conventional crankset. There is a ral physical limitation to how much they could widen the rear hub spacing, and I think it a worthy endeavor to win more tire space without widening the pedals. So, I take no issue with the widening of the rear hub. Sure, if the bike industry would recognize the merit of Pinion gear boxes, it would save engineers and consumers all this trouble, but Sram and Shimano aren’t ready to have you stop buying cassettes and derailleurs.
If the widening of the rear hub was limited by conventional cranksets, the widening of the front was completely arbitrary. I guess they chose to add 10mm because everyone likes round numbers. In doing so, however, those Trek engineers have done the world a great disservice. Rather than taking this chance to perfect the front hub, since we’d all need to build new wheels to use Boost forks anyway, they went for an arbitrary, incremental improvement.
So what is the perfect front hub?
It is symmetrical.
Whatever bracing angle you want, it’s much better if both sides of the wheel have the same spoke angle, length, and tension. This is the reason why my previous Rohloff rear wheel had the rim trashed, but remained true. I ripped a hole through the aluminum wall of my Velocity Dually on a sharp rock, but did not loosen or break spokes.
So, the Boost hub is a huge wasted opportunity to perfect the front hub, to make it wide enough that we can have stiffer wheels, from the wider spoke bracing, and also have it symmetrical.
My Fork is Upside-down
I know it’s not actually upside-down. The Magnum is a conventional rightsideup fork, unlike the Dorado or Maverick fork of yore. But it should be upside down, and it’s not, which makes it upside-down. You follow?
Inverted suspension forks are inherently better because gravity keeps the bushings and seals lubricated. Rather than loosing that new-fork butter feel after 100hrs without service, like my Magnum, it could be butter all day err’ day.
For long-distance bikepacking, reliability take a higher importance than small weight savings. Maverick proved that a dual crown, inverted fork could be made light, for XC and trail riding applications. That fork was way ahead of its time, even if its damping lacked some of today’s sophistication. A dual-crown fork would also provide a very solid location for strapping a front handlebar roll, as well as a suspended location for water bottles on the fork legs. You’ll notice that we don’t have bottle on our fork lowers any more. Adding 2kg of water to the lowers of an upright fork adds 2kg of unsprung weight and confuses the damping. On an inverted for, weight added to the uppers would be suspended. I imagine this dream fork with molded-in triple braze-ons fork water or anything cages.
Rightsideup forks could benefit from more focus on reliability than weight too. The addition of 10mL of oil to semi-bath forks like the Magnum could more than double service intervals. But those 8 grams mean everything in the marketing world.
Without fork space for water bottles, we’ve resorted to using a pair of Randi Jo Fabrications bartender bags beside the stem. The one on the right is custom-ordered to be deeper and have a better one-handed closure. The cockpit is busy, but it works brilliantly. A long ESI Chunky grip on the left, matched with my Rohloff shifter on the right provides a lot of room to move hands around, while keeping the brakes accessible on the widest point for technical descending. I’ve somehow got my front dry bag so small that it barely works with my disintegrating Cleaveland Mountaineering handlebar harness. I’ve worn through the centre strap, and the pocket is really the only thing holding it on. I’ll replace it when that no longer works.
Out back, we’re both using PorcelainRocket Mr Fusion V2 seat packs. These are as good as it comes. Stable when overloaded, and fully waterproof. I managed to get another of the old straight rack stays so that we could mount the clamp below Panthea’s seat clamp, like mine. This means the seat height is widely adjustable. Her 150g lady-Croc-fancy-flats keep things classy.
I’m now travelling with a small laptop, such is my commitment to blogging, and this lives in the seat pack. I’ve turned my waterproof insert sideways, because the 11″ Microsoft Surface 3 fits best this way. To bring things to a happy, round shape, my mangled Crocs and our Tyvek groundsheet live between under the dry bag. I could not be happier.
Oh, and by the way, I’ve been using some new tires: Gravity Vidars, made by Innova (who makes all the Surly tires). They have the same reliable casing as the 27tpi Knards, with a more aggressive tread. and they’re $35 each from amazon.com. Mine weigh 960g each So far, great value.
I’ve also taken a hack-saw to a Salsa Anything Cage HD, to make it more of a minimalist “belly tank” cage, paired with G3 ski straps. This works well, and the straps ensure very little of the weight is on the riv-nutted bottle mount. My pump gets strapped to the fork, for quick access. It’s not much unsprung weight.
Our equipment is ever evolving toward what we see as our ideal. But that is an evolving baseline. It’s important to remember that any mountain bike can be a bikepacking bike, and the best touring bike is the one you tour on. I love my high-tech machine, but it by no means necessary. It is only (barely) justifiable that we have such ridiculously fancy bikes because we live on them, and plan to live on them for most of the foreseeable future. Two weeks into our ride, I’m finally starting to accept that this is not another bikepacking trip, but rather a life on the road. I’m worrying less about where we’re going, and trying to just let the wheels roll.
For those on social media, I’ve recently become quite fond of the Instagram format. You can find me at https://instagram.com/skylerdesroches/. I makes regular mini updates, with more thoughts on gear, of a variety you won’t find on the blog there and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/offroute.ca.