Sometimes I think that it is worth pausing just to remind ourselves why we so often invest relatively large sums of money so that we might pump, skid, slide, jump and rail bikes through the woods. What are we all trying to achieve? For me, with my spare time limited by a full-time job and a young family, I want to escape to a place where I’m not thinking about paying the mortgage, getting the car serviced or preparing for that presentation on Monday morning. A place where I am nowhere else but the here and now. Where I’m flirting with the edges of my abilities and may even end up on the wrong side of my comfort zone a few times, whilst still finding a rhythm and flow to the lines I’m tracing. All at the same time as reminding myself not to take things so seriously that I can’t find the time and humility to laugh at myself for, once again, not being able to clear that section without a dab. A place where I’m immersed in nature, with all of its changing sights, sounds and smells, that also represents an ever-evolving challenge on the trail. Where I can be caked in mud or dust and nearly always with the gentle hum from the brush of a stinging nettle. Time is irrelevant. In fact, speed is irrelevant – merely a potential by-product of everything else. This is about as far away from a competition as you can get. Strava will probably be on and there’s a decent chance that I’ll be riding with a friend, but there is no such thing as ‘first place’ because there is no way to select a winner.
This is why I ride my mountain bike, and this is how I like to think mountain biking was originally conceived. By a bunch of fun-loving, outdoor-types who thought that it might be a laugh to ride some pretty inappropriate bikes down the side of a hill whilst wearing some pretty inappropriate clothing. As Charlie Kelly states in Fat-Tyre Flyer, they “explored every trail in the backcountry of Marin County”.
However, even for those laid back Klunker riders, this fledgling sport was soon looking to the stopwatch for approval. As Charlie Kelly goes on to say, there was “one nagging question: Who among us was actually the fastest downhill rider”. Pioneers of mountain biking, such as Gary Fisher, Keith Bontrager and Tom Ritchey, had all come from road racing backgrounds, where the post-race satisfaction of a podium finish trumps the in-the-moment delight of getting loose and messing about with your mates. Mountain biking was still wet behind the ears, and yet the seemingly inescapable dominance of the racing scene in all that would follow had already started to take hold. And no sooner had the first beach cruisers been repurposed than riders were starting to improve their machines.
Now, these improvements were understandable and even essential given the weight, reliability and performance of the equipment that they originally had at their disposal. It’s no-wonder that people tried to create lighter frames, better brakes and a wider spread of gears. What’s more interesting to me is wondering where they wanted to take this simple pass-time. It’s easiest to suggest that they weren’t ever thinking this far ahead, that they were just living in the moment. But the bikes that quickly emerged would suggest otherwise. It didn’t take long for these machines to start getting racier. In just a few years stems grew in length, handlebars dropped as seat tubes rotated forwards, all in an effort to create more efficient bikes. These changes came about in parallel with a growing cross-country race scene, this being the competition of choice in these early days, with the growing number of mountain bike manufacturers quick to sell their bikes to the public based on their racing credentials. These days, the type of competition may have changed, Enduro is the latest show in town, but the sales strategy is the same – race it on the Sunday, sell it on the Monday.
For those who want to race, or even for those who simply want to tell the world that they own the fastest bike, this is all very well and good. But what does this mean for those of us that might want something that’s a little closer to the experiences of those first mountain bike pioneers. For those of us who want to scare ourselves just a little bit by hurtling down the side of a hill, but for whom the stop watch is a poor barometer of a good time. There’s a chance that, like me, you don’t want to hide behind a long travel suspension fork made necessary, at least in part, by a geometry that pushes the rider forwards on to their hands as a result of ever steeper seat tube angles and longer top tubes. While this might result in longer, more stable bikes that can achieve ever greater velocities, the joy of feeling like an integral part of the process of navigating a bike down a challenging trail seems to have been diluted for an ever-increasing number of non-elite riders as body positions actually become less stable.
The very first Dirt 100 and the Commencal Meta 4X - all about the fun
There was a time when I thought things might change. Where, for example, a couple of bike manufacturers might start to offer two parallel lines of bikes – those for racing and those for ragging. It was November 2008 and the very first Dirt 100 had just landed through my door. Tucked away in its pages was a bike that caught my imagination like few others. It was a Commencal Meta 4X – woefully ill-equipped to be ridden for any distance in comfort, but it (and others of this breed) seemed to capture the collective imagination of both the press and the public alike for the briefest of moments. Suddenly, we had discovered a bike that put fun way before being fast on most trails. Just enough suspension to take the edge off big hits, a small, chuck-able frame, and built to withstand a beating. It was the Scrappy-Do of bike genres, always up for some mischief, and they just couldn’t be ridden without a big smile on the rider’s face. However, partly as a result of the demise of 4x (it was temporarily no-longer held in tandem with UCI downhill events in 2014 and 2015, taking a lot of the wind out of its sails), the bikes disappeared just as quickly as these wonderful machines had been re-imagined beyond their original design brief. Everyone seemed to instantly forget about them and we all moved on to the next big thing, which inevitably had links back to being the fastest once again.
Mountain biking, for its entire history, has so far appeared incapable of escaping the allure of the stop watch. Regardless of the sort of riding that we might do, I would argue that almost all of our bikes have been optimised towards outright speed at the expense of simple fun. Even though, for most of us, I would argue that this is a poor compromise. Will we ever get back to riding bikes that actually encourage us to attack a trail like those original pioneers of the sport: foot-out, flat-out in a shirt and jeans just for the sheer hell of it? I hope so!
The Bicycle Academy have written a short piece about The Full-Moto on Instagram - they obviously weren't too embarrassed by my efforts! Have a look here.
Stripped down and cleaned up
After 22 months, well over fifteen thousand kilometres and zero love, the modified Sturmey Archer hub on my commuter bike finally decided that enough was enough. I first wrote about the bike when I’d finished building it back in April 2016 and then provided a bit of an updated on how everything had been performing in May 2017. I wanted to see just how far the hub could go, and after the last two weeks of some terrible noises I got my answer. For someone who considers themselves to normally be a pretty mechanically sympathetic person, this was an unpleasant experience.
In the end it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the driveside axle cartridge bearing that proved to be the weakest link. In fact, it was the weakest link by quite some margin as the other two bearings are rotating as smoothly as the day I fitted them, while the rest of the hub was functioning well. All that was needed now was to replace the one cartridge bearing followed by a good clean and re-build.
The hardest part of stripping the hub down was trying to unscrew the ball ring from the hub shell, which had seized after nearly two years of being covered in salt and muck – I ended up soaking it in GT85 and providing the necessary encouragement with a hammer and blunt punch. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a subtler way of doing it (I’ve bought the Sturmey Archer tool, supposedly designed for the job, but I find it hopelessly inadequate).
The hub internals greased up and ready to get pressed back into service
Once inside the hub I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. As I mentioned, the other two cartridge bearings are still spinning smoothly and so these have gone straight back into the hub for some more punishment, while the grease at the non-driveside end of the hub shell still looked like new. After the liberal application of some degreaser followed by some fresh grease, the hub has been rebuilt and is as good as new. The driverside cartridge bearing has been replaced. The original was a budget, non-branded item, so this time I’ve splashed out on an SKF number to see what sort of difference this might make. This way I’ll hopefully get even longer service out of the hub before it requires its next overhaul.
All back together again and ready for the commute
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.
After so long thinking, planning, designing, discussing and building the bike, it’s actually a little bit weird that it’s now finished. In fact, I can’t stop looking at it – just standing and staring. While I’m incredibly excited to find out how it rides, I’m also pretty anxious. I should know more in a couple of months, but for now I’m just really pleased with how it’s turned out.
I should probably briefly describe the thinking behind the bike, which is explained in more detail on the website here as well as in a number of my previous blog posts. Essentially, the geometry of the bike deviates from the norm for two key reasons. The first, and least exciting, is because of my lanky proportions. With a saddle height of approximately 825mm, both the saddle and handle bars are around 80mm higher than they would be for someone of the same height (I'm 184cm / 6'1'' tall), but with average proportions.
Once you’ve seen past that you get to the second and more interesting part of the bikes geometry – a desire to achieve greater rider stability to create a bike that maximises rider involvement, control and, ultimately, fun. This thinking has led to a frame that has gone in the opposite direction to the current trend for ever longer front ends and steeper seat angles, tipping a rider forwards onto their hands. Instead it places the riders weight squarely through their feet in something akin to an Athletic Stance. As I say, there’s loads more on this topic to be found elsewhere on the website, so I won’t repeat myself any further here.
The upshot of this geometry is that the relationship between the bottom bracket and the handlebars is almost identical to that of a Motocross bikes between the pegs and handlebars (hence the Full-Moto name). Knowing this, I was originally searching for a set of mountain bike handlebars with similar geometry to a Motocross 'bar. Having scoured the internet, I came up with nothing until it dawned on me to just simply use a set of 7/8'' Renthals. At the other end of the bike I'm running an existing belt drive set-up that I've robbed from another of my bikes. This turns a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub which has been modified to accept cartridge bearings in place of the standard cup and cone ball bearings for added durability.
Following on from the course at The Bicycle Academy, the first job was to get the frame painted. I decided to leave the frame just as it was, with the only exception being an obligatory sand blasting. So the brass fillets have been left exactly as I laid them. As Tom Sturdy mentioned during the course, if a custom framebuilder sanded down their TIG welds then it would beg the question ‘what are you trying to hide?’ For reasons mainly of aesthetics, brazing seems to be viewed a bit differently, but I think that there’s an honesty to leaving the fillets as they are. This extends to a rather large blob of silver on the down tube, which I could have sanded away to nothing and it would have disappeared forever. But, instead, this will be a little reminder of the rush that I was in while trying to get the cable-guides finished late on the last Friday of the course, getting the middle guide too hot and applying too much silver. All part of the bikes story and a lesson learnt for future frames (hopefully!).
I had always planned to get the bike powder coated at Armourtex in London as they had done a decent job with another of my frames several years ago. But a friend asked why I wanted to drag the frame, forks and stem all the way into London when there are plenty of places locally that can do powder coating. This seemed logical, so I found someone based just a couple of miles away who appeared to know his stuff. He said that he’d done a number bike frames in the past and his prices seemed reasonable. However, when I picked the frame up it was clear that, although I don’t doubt that he’d painted frames in the past, he didn’t understand bikes. It looked suspiciously like a Victorian radiator, mainly because this is what I suspect he is used to doing. The masking on the rear dropout sliders is far from perfect while a couple of the bottle bosses and a cable guide haven't been properly coated.
Being very British about the whole thing, I simply collected the frame, paid my money and said thank you. I spent the next couple of days being incredibly grumpy thinking that I’d effectively wasted a whole bunch of money and a load of time, but, most importantly, I was angry with myself for not sticking with my Plan A. I was all set to get the frame repainted, but the owner of my local bike shop doubled as my shrink, listened to me moan for 15 minutes and talked some sense into me. His advice was to ride the bike for six months as it is and if I was still unhappy then I could always get it repainted. Sage and timely advice that I’ve chosen to follow.
The truth is, now that the bike is fully built up, the paint job isn’t half as bad as I first thought. There are bits that are far from perfect, which always seem to grab my attention, but really the paint is more than adequate for my needs. Because the paint is also pretty thick in places, it's caused a few problems. For example, the seat clamp was meant to be 32.0mm in diameter, but now measures 33.4mm. No one makes a clamp in this size, so the bike has ended up with a 35.0mm clamp together with a home-made shim. Again, if I’d taken it to a painter who understood bikes then this would have been avoided. You live and learn.
As I already had all of the components (except for the aforementioned seat clamp) the rest of the build has simply meant a couple of nights with the Allen keys whilst listening to early nineties dance music in my shed. I can think of worse ways to spend my time! Putting my grumbles about the paint to one side, I’m really pleased with how the bike has turned out. Sitting on it in the shed, it seems to put me in exactly the position that I was after and one that I’ve never been able to achieve with stock frames. Holding on to those handlebars is simply awesome!
Something else that I'm pleased with is how 'right' the bike looks. This is definitely not something that I've been able to say about many of my previous bikes once they've been adapted to fit me. I don't know if it's just because I've been staring at it for so long that I've just got used to it, but, considering the bike has some pretty unconventional geometry (resulting in a 190mm headtube!), I don't think that it jars or looks too ungainly.
With the first glimpses of Spring starting to appear and the clocks having just gone forwards for some extra daylight in the evenings, I’m hoping for a long and enjoyable few months of putting the bike through its paces. And once I’ve gathered my thoughts I’ll be back with an update on how the bike rides.
As a bit of an aside, if you’ve stuck with the blog since the early days, then I just wanted to say thank you. This feels like a bit of a watershed moment and a timely point at which to show my appreciation. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the journey so far?
What an amazing place – somewhere dedicated to helping people create bicycles of all shapes and sizes. It feels so incredibly immersive, almost glutinous, as I’ve never been able to chat so much about bicycles and riding. And the real clincher is the calibre of the people that you are talking with. When Robin Mather casually walked over and asked how I was getting on I honestly had to tell myself not to hug him immediately. You’ve got Paul Burford from BTR Fabrications ambling through the building with his Springer Spaniel, on his way to their workshop next door. While Tom Sturdy orders the next batch of tubing to maintain the healthy stock levels. And just the general air of quiet, considered knowledge is palpable. But, and this is the trick, it’s all so humble. We all eat lunch together, which the staff take in turns to make, and we eat it while chatting about everyday stuff. But there is always this under-lying collective appreciation and desire for knowledge associated with the humble bicycle.
The next thing to strike me is just the sheer quality of what’s being taught. Not just because of the experience and clarity of those teaching it, but also the thought that has gone into how you get a novice like me to absorb all of this information. I’m in the fortunate position to have done another frame building course at another venue about eight years ago. But the difference in what and how I’m learning is like night and day. The Bicycle Academy seems like a very appropriate name.
If I’m honest, I was incredibly disappointed with that first frame building course I did – it all felt way too rushed, I’m truly embarrassed to show people the frame that I built, and I certainly didn’t leave with the knowledge to build another one. So, I then decided to sign myself on to a night-course in welding at Hammersmith and Fulham College in the hope of gaining a better understanding of brazing. But this was primarily aimed at people from the automotive industry and didn’t really help a great deal. Finally, I bought a Jiggernaught (an MDF frame jig) in the hope that if I could at least get some tubes mitred and held in the correct position then I would be heading in the right direction. But I ended up just sort of running out of steam and eventually gave up on the idea in about 2014. However, the itch has slowly returned, this time with the added impetus of wanting to put my thinking on mountain bike geometry into practice. And so, I now find myself at The Bicycle Academy on their seven-day frame building course.
Day one and we spent the morning going through some theory on bike geometry as well as some structural considerations. Then, after lunch, we finalised the geometry of the frames that we will build, and I began to work out how I might get my chainstays to work. These are probably the most complicated part of my frame, having to accommodate a three-inch tyre, clearance for the front sprocket, a relatively wide belt, tensioning of the aforementioned belt as well as a 180mm disc rotor.
I’m on the course with two others. I know that I’m a bit weird to have spent the best part of the last two-years developing my thoughts about what I wanted to make. But one student’s only criteria was that he wanted a 27.5+ mountain bike while the other, when asked what he might want to make, literally said ‘I don’t really know’. Clearly, I’m even more of an oddball than I had thought!