All Mountain Hardtail
Price: $3,300 (base price frame only), $3,630 (as tested, frame only)
Weight: 3.4 lbs. (frame only), 22.8 lbs. (complete)
There’s a segment on one of my favorite local trails that involves a 10-foot, dropping-gap jump over a granite crevice. It’s a natural feature, so the landing is subpar and the move is committing enough, and in all the years living here I never hit it until I got on board a Santa Cruz Nomad. So one day last fall I’m riding with my friend, Matt Steinwand, and I launch it. I’m thinking I’m pretty cool until I look back to find that Matt, grinning like a lunatic, has cleared it on his 29er hardtail. The point being that half of what makes those trail bikes ride so well is the geometry, stance and components (and the rider). Oftentimes the suspension just gives you more bravado. You can do a lot more on a hardtail than you think.
With that lesson in my back pocket, I envisioned a bike with a hidden agenda. A bike that would make me honest, expose my weaknesses, exploit my mistakes, but reward skillfulness with unrepentant pleasure. It would be built to deliver fast turns, smooth transitions and a wildly predictable response to whatever I asked of it. Its abilities would be, at times, surprising but, at the same time, expected. It would be stable, reliable, simple and tough.
I speak of the estranged all-mountain hardtail. An oxymoron to some, it’s a bike many of us have been bastardizing for years; sticking a 130 mm fork on our XC steed, which was built for an 80 mm fork, slipping on wider tires (barely clearing the chainstays) and wider bars and calling it good. It worked. Mostly. The handling, while it required some getting used to, was OK. Well, that’s not true; the handling sucked. But I still preferred the ride to the death-grip riding experience of the old 26-inch XC racing hardtails with their twitchy steep angles and spindly, feeble, inadequate … everything.
I decided the bike I wanted was something like the old bastard but way better: purpose-built with the right geometry and trail-oriented components. I wanted titanium because nothing is tougher. I wanted 650B wheels and geometry adjusted for a 120-130mm fork and plenty of tire clearance. I wanted a 12 mm x 142 mm thru axle, press fit BB30 bottom bracket (because I wanted the 30 mm spindle), slider dropouts (’cause I have a singlespeed problem), cable routing for a dropper post, and 40 mm headtube to accommodate a tapered steerer. Tapered steerer tubes are now the norm on longer travel forks and for good reason. Wider diameter bearings on the bottom of the headset cup provide a stronger interface at a highly stressed juncture where you do not want any flex. In addition, the 40 mm headtube provides a larger surface area to weld the toptube and downtube to the headtube, creating a stronger and better looking joint; 1 1/8 inch headtubes look disproportionate to me now. With my wants/needs list in hand, I went to framebuilder Kent Eriksen with the concept.
In talking with Kent when we began the process of designing the frame, it quickly became apparent that he knows more about what you really want than you think you know about what you might want. First thing he did was talk me out of a few things. First to go was the BB30 bottom bracket. “A traditional 68 mm English threaded bottom bracket will be much stiffer and more versatile,” Kent informed. Press fit BB30 shells are too narrow, he says, and make it difficult to weld the 1-inch chainstays while providing for ample tire clearance. Plus, if you go with Rotor’s 3d cranks and BSA 30 bottom bracket, you still get the 30 mm spindle, a wider platform for the cranks and a very strong and stiff setup. In addition, a threaded bottom bracket will be more serviceable at home. That’s good advice.
Next to go was the 12 mm x 142 mm thru axle and slider dropouts. According to Kent, If you want a really strong, stiff, tight rear triangle with a solid mount for the brake caliper (yes, yes I do), go with standard dropouts, a chain tensioner if you want singlespeed (“until you come to your senses,” Kent quipped) and a 10 mm x 135 mm DT Swiss RWS skewer. The 10 mm axle is plenty, and the rear triangle will be strong and stiff built around the standard dropouts.
The rest of the frame came together beautifully with the 40 mm headtube, straight gauge 1 3/4 inch down tube, 1 inch top tube, sexy 1 inch chainstays, 3/4 inch seatstays, and 30.9 mm seat tube (allowing for more dropper post options). With a 120-mm fork, the head angle is 69.7 degrees. A 130 mm fork would bring it closer to 69 degrees. With a 620 mm stack and 400 mm reach, the stance is close to that of my favorite trail bikes.
Spec’ing it out didn’t involve many difficult decisions. I chose 720 mm Easton Haven bars, Syntace Megaforce 2 stem (added post photo shoot), Magura MT8 brakes, Rotor 3d cranks and the BSA 30 bottom bracket for the bike-to-body connections and Enve AM wheels and Maxxis Ardents for the bike-to-ground connection. The Enve wheels are beautiful and bombproof, and the Ardents are my current fave.
The dropper post is a key element, and thankfully there are few nice options out there now. For this bike, the Fox DOSS made a lot of sense. Although the lever itself seems a little too big at first, I like the easy two-position handlebar mount control: Hit the longer silver lever on its own and the post drops the full 5 inches, hit the silver and black lever simultaneously and it drops only halfway. Perfect for technical rolling terrain.
While the big fork manufacturers are all offering 650B models now, most are in the 150-160mm travel range, and availability is still spotty. White Brothers is still the go-to for 650B forks. The LOOP is a great fork, we reviewed it in issue number 22 and give it a solid thumbs up. Its unique magnetically controlled compression adjustment makes it a nice option for the singlespeed since it can be set to be essentially locked out but still break free and provide full travel when needed.
Yes, despite Kent’s poke, I still went for the singlespeed setup. On the terrain I ride most, one speed is all I need. When riding downhill on a mountain bike, I’m never concerned with how large my gears are. I’m more concerned with how large my brakes are. Since we went with standard dropouts, I used Soulcraft’s convert for a tensioner. What I like most about the convert is you can choose to have it either push up or down on the chain. When the tensioner is pushing up on the chain, it wraps the chain around the rear cog slightly and has a tendency to hold the chain in place like a chainguide, allowing the chain to run with a little more slack. It also has a nice release switch for removing the rear wheel.
The final result was a perfectly adjusted and wellequipped all mountain hardtail. It’s a functional version of the old bastard bike. The handling is perfect. Every aspect is more than adequate. Every ride delivers smiles and a little more confidence in what I can do on a hardtail. Working with Kent was a key factor. He’s both brilliant and humble. He once said to me, “Over 30 years building bikes and it still takes a little English…” But his English is fluent. His knowledge and common sense are evident in every decision. He’ll listen to what you say you need and glean from it the bike you really want.
Now I just need to go hit that drop. –B. Riepe