It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but after a first ride that consisted of four hours and over 44 miles in the Surrey Hills and North Downs I thought that I would note down my first impressions. Up until this point I had only ridden the bike around the block twice. So, considering that I built the frame and wheels myself, had the hub modified, bled the brakes and screwed the whole lot together, I was slightly amazed that the whole thing didn’t just fall apart like a clown car. The truth is the bike didn’t miss a beat the whole ride. The only thing that needed some adjustment was the belt tension after it started to ratchet over the rear sprocket on the first steep climb. But seeing as I had purposefully set this up to be relatively loose (at least in belt-terms) to minimise the load on the bottom bracket and hub bearings, this was entirely expected. With the belt tweaked the bike simply got on with the job.
With any concerns about the relatively fundamental issue of the bike falling apart allayed, I was left to concentrate on judging whether all of my past thoughts about geometry had been inspired or a waste of time. But honestly, the bike was simply fantastic. It just did everything that I wanted it to. My position on the bike felt incredibly natural, to the point where getting on to my dropped handlebar commuter bike the following morning (the bike that I easily spend the most time on) suddenly felt incredibly contrived and contorted.
I wasn’t sure that it was necessarily going to work-out this way, and I had a number of doubts before this first ride. None of them materialised, but I thought that it would be interesting to discuss them below. The first of these was the handlebar. Despite it being an obvious visual departure from the norm, I was actually halfway through the ride before I had to consciously think to myself ‘what do I think of it’. It had gone completely unnoticed, feeling perfectly natural. I suppose this should hardly come as a surprise given that my position on the bike closely resembles that of a Motocross bike, but their shape, in combination with the bikes geometry, was spot-on.
Another concern I had with the handlebar was that I might end up hitting my knees on it when climbing out of the saddle, due to the bikes short reach (on other bikes I can brush them a couple of times during a ride). But with the extra stack height this was never an issue. In general, climbing felt surprisingly efficient, despite the bikes relatively short reach and slack seat angle. I suspect that the longer than average chainstays play their part in this, but so must the 3.0 inch tyres, which always seemed to find traction. In fact, the relatively slack seat angle didn’t seem to have any negative side effects, certainly nothing that worried my knees.
For about the last eight years I have used Ergon grips on all of my mountain bikes, as this has been the only way to stop may hands from tingling or going numb after a couple of hours of riding. Despite forgoing these in favour of a set of ODI Longnecks, there was no such problem with this bike. I put this down to the reduced load on my hands as a result of the more upright geometry.
The saddle was another area of concern before riding the bike – with less weight through my hands it could only mean more weight through my backside and I was worried that the saddle might end up slicing me in two! But the Charge Scoop went perfectly unnoticed, as any good saddle should.
The only real issue I had with the bike was its weight. At 14.5kg (32lb) it could definitely do with going on a diet. There are a few obvious culprits that are mainly a result of my limited funds. The chromoly Identiti fork is a prime example – weighing in at just over 1.6kg, a switch to something like a carbon Kinesis Maxlight would instantly drop 0.9kg.
The wheels are another area where weight could be lost. At 1.2kg each, the 3.0 inch WTB Bridger tyres could be swapped for a set of the latest crop of ‘in-between’ 2.6 inch tyres that are now starting to appear. These could then be fitted to narrower rims, such as Stan’s Sentry MK3 (521kg each) instead of the Easton Arc 45 rims (650g each). But the really big saving would be the loss of the inner tubes that I am currently running. I know that it’s incredibly unfashionable not to have gone tubeless, but with a young family I often can’t get out on my bike as much as I’d like and could do without the need to be topping up sealant every 3 months (when there’s an outside chance that I might only get out on the bike 3 times). This is hopefully something that will change in the future and would help towards saving a couple of kilograms in total from the wheelset.
But despite the cuddly physique, the bike was awesome. It definitely has limits - in the really rough and rocky stuff you are left in no doubt that this is still a rigid mountain bike, but everywhere else it was a joy. I set-out to build a bike that maximised the number of visceral, exciting moments where you have that feeling of being up on your toes and dancing between the trees. I wanted a bike that helped me to earn my speed, extracting it from the trail by drifting, accelerating, pumping and getting loose, totally immersed in the experience. This bike does that. The higher handlebars and shorter reach mean that I’m far more stable on the bike. Perhaps counterintuitively, this actually makes weighting the front wheel easier, because my arms aren’t also having to fight to support my own weight – I am able to respond more quickly and with more purpose to what is coming towards me. On flowing singletrack, such as the lower sections of Summer Lightning, the bike (and rider!) was in its element.
I suppose you could argue that there was always a good chance that the bike would work-out this way as that’s the way I’d designed it. I’ve been fortunate enough to start with a blank sheet of paper in order to create a bike that fits my proportions perfectly and handles the way I wanted. Plus, given that I’ve sunk a not-insignificant amount of time, effort and money into the bike, it would be difficult to admit to myself, let alone anyone else, that it had been a folly. But this simply isn’t the case, and I’m both incredibly relieved and excited to be able to say that! So now I can look forward to a summer of getting to know the bike even better, full of flowing singletrack, fun and big smiles.