Why I'm riding a steel, hardtail, plus bike.
Yes, you're eyes are lying to you. That picture above looks like an old classic steel hardtail, straight out of 1990. Classic lines, real paint, racy geometry, ready for the NORBA circuit... Well, look closer because this bike is almost the polar opposite of that! It's really a plus bike, a fast one at that. Have I piqued your curiosity yet? Good! Grab a coffee (or beer) and settle in. I'll walk you through this whip and why you need one.
Let's get this out of the way first. This bike was built as a display bike for NEMBA fest. I wanted to show folks that steel hardtails are alive and well. Being a custom bike builder, it's not like I have stock bikes laying around to take and display so I needed to build something for the fest. So, what better customer to build a bike for than myself! Yes, that bike is built and spec'd out for me and my riding style.
One of my favorite moments of NEMBA fest occurred on an early morning ride. I needed to get some miles in before the festival opened so I grabbed this bike and shot out on the trails. For those of you not familiar with NEMBA, its situated at the Kingdom Tails in northern Vermont. The trails flow well and roll nicely. I won't go as far as to call this place mountainous but you're certainly either going up or down the majority of the time. Many of the climbs incorporate switchbacks, I'm not sure if it's to keep the incline gentle or to keep the trail system compact. Regardless, as I rolled up to a longer climb I see someone two or three switchbacks above me pushing their bike up the hill. I figured they must have had a mechanical problem as this hill certainly wasn't too steep for a modern bike. As I rode I decided I'd earn some good trail karma and help whoever this poor soul with the mechanical. When I was maybe 100 or so feet away, the pusher turned, looked at me and said “Man, an old steel hardtail. That thing has to weigh a ton, I can't believe you're riding that here!”. I chuckled a little, made some joke about being an old retrogrouch and dismissed his statement. I was curious though, why was this dude walking his bike uphill... I mean it was obviously a modern bike. I looked closer and noticed it was a demo bike from one of the vendors. All carbon, at least 6” of suspension front and back, a new Sram Eagle drivetrain, carbon and bling everywhere. So now I'm curious...
“Hey, you ok? It's a beautiful morning for a ride let's get you fixed and riding”...
He looks a bit taken back and says
“Fixed? I'm not broken, this bike is too heavy to ride uphill”.
Now I'm uncomfortable... This guy just made fun of me for riding a steel hardtail in the hills because it's heavy and he's pushing his uber cool carbon bling bling totally awesome machine. On top of that, he then starts in on some diatribe about how awesome the new panty dropper 8005mm, penta link, zirconium coated, hyper, uber cool rear suspension was. I mean, I've been in the bike industry for a long, long time but he was spewing technobabble that I'd never heard of! Worse, it was evident his verbal barfing of made up tech wasn't going to end anytime soon... Then I realized... Koolaid. He drank the marketing Koolaid. The marketers told him that this bike not only is the best bike to ride but will make him handsome and simultaneously get him laid... And he believed. As he was explaining to me how the flux capacitor modulated the muffler bearing I interrupted telling him I had to meet a friend at the top of the climb in 6 minutes and had to roll. Not wanting to be too rude (but already knowing what the outcome would be) I offered him join up with me to the top and to continue the ride. He looked at me strangely, declined and started pushing his bike up the hill again.
Yeah, had to be the coolaid... Throughout the weekend, I saw lots of folks pushing this same brand of super bike around. All smiling, all speaking the same technobabble, with a crazy hypnotized look, almost never riding. Have we lost our way? I hope not.
Back to that “heavy steel hardtail”... It seems that when people see this bike one of the first things they asked was how much it weighs. I usually shrug and tell them that I have no idea. Well, I got sick of everyone asking and finally weighed it. 23.8 lbs (10.79 Kg for the portion of the world who uses the correct measuring system). So, that qualifies it as pretty light in my book. Especially when considering it has 2.6” tires on it! Anyway, back to the bike (and why you should ride one).
Now, the second most asked question is “What size wheels are those (and are they carbon)”? Well, for those of you who don't personally know me I'm vertically challenged... Since I knew I'd be building a plus sized bike I chose to utilize 27.5” tires. This particular build was optimized for what I'm considering “plus lite”. Optimized??? Yeah, I intended it for tires in the 2.4-2.8” range. This particular spec is a 27.5 x 2.6”. Now you're probably wondering what I mean by optimized. Let me explain. I've done lots of riding on 27.5 x 3” tires and don't get me wrong, they're awesome. Lot's of traction, lot's of cush, the ability to run nice low pressures to “tune” the ride. What I don't like about 3” tires is that when I decrease the pressure to maximize traction and grip the handling gets “wanky”. As in the bike starts to self steer and I get an uneasy feeling of the tire going one way and the wheel another. Add to that an uncontrolled rebound after compression and you've got the perfect recipe for weird! The fix is easy, more pressure. Unfortunately, though you fixed the wanky handling you broke the awesome float and traction. Through some experimentation I've come to realize that the 2.6” width seems to be that sweet spot. I'm personally running 16 psi in the front and 17 psi in the rear and at those pressures I've got totally solid handling (no tire flexy wankyness), great cushion and incredible traction. The rebound of the 2.6” tire seems more controllable than the 3”. Why? This is a guess but I think it's just because there's less travel (compression) in the tire in the first place. What's more is the 2.6” tire at 17 psi seems to balance the 100 mm travel fork seamlessly! Meaning this bike actually feels like a short travel dually! Score! Oh and yes, they are carbon hoops... Carbon rims are all I'll ride and I suggest you try a set...
Let's talk quick about the ride. It's fun. Like big bmx bike fun. How so? Well let's start with how quick it is. First off, no rear suspension to sap the feeling of acceleration! Now don't get me wrong, not having a rear suspension can be a detriment on long ride or super technical sections but remember that big tire... It makes up for 99% of it. Second, and I hate to say this, weight. Being a relatively light bike this bike surges forward. What's more, that low weight is apparent when you sling this bike through corners and have to man (or chick) handle this. Less weight just makes it easier. Which brings me to the handling... I often read reviews that speak of very specific geometries, like 430mm chainstays or 67 degree head tube angles... Let me tell you, as a custom builder, a lot of that is smoke in mirrors. I'm not saying that heat tube angle doesn't affect handling, it does. What I am saying is that there's a ton that goes into how a bike handles. To me, one of the most important issues is weight distribution. Though this topic is way beyond the scope of this blog, let me glaze over it by saying that if you really want to have an incredible handling bike, work with spot on bike fitter (Noel Bonk at Bonkwerks is great) and a knowledgeable builder, tell them what you like, and let them design a rocket... (and don't get caught up in the numbers, that's their job). Once you do that, I believe you'll have a bike that is exactly what you want! You'll find yourself taking lines you normally wouldn't, railing corners like an enduro pro and enjoying your riding experience more than ever (oh and not walking up hills with a 30 lb bike).
I know that this was long winded but I want the take away to be the following: Buck market trends. Unless you live out west or on a big mountain, you most likely don't need a 6+” travel bike. Take a good hard look at the trails you actually ride and make your bike choice based on that. For me and 99% of my riding a short travel hardtail with big(ish) tires fits the bill.
If you have any questions about this blog be sure to comment below!
Oh and if you're interested in buying this bike or one like it: Bicycles
David is either found riding his bike or in his workshop working on them!