Last week I took the reader on a detailed journey about my personal Huntsman build. This was an account of not only the “what” behind a build, but more importantly the WHY behind the choices I made from geometry, to set up and component selection. Seems this was well received so I’ve decided to do a second installment. This one is about my personal mountain bike (pictured above). Before I take you through the entire build piece by piece, let’s first talk about terrain and setting. This is the foundation from which I build literally from the ground up. This is also the discussion I have with each and every client. Here goes…
Terrain. This is the stuff bikes are built on and from. The terrain I ride completely shapes not only the way my mountain bikes ride, but it also shapes the way the bikes look. New England is known for it’s rocky, root strewn singletrack. Switchbacks can be tight. Climbs can be punchy. The tech is some of the best. New Hampshire, known as the Granite State, is no exception. The trails in my neck of the woods are a literal mine field of obstructions. A majority of the state was clear cut in it’s previous life (and is still heavily managed – that’s a slick word for “logging the heck out of the conservation areas”). Sheep farms were prominent in and around the towns I reside. This means there is a giant maze of rock walls strewn throughout the thick woods I call home here in Lyndeborough, NH as well as large patches of new, thick growth. On any given loop, I’d say I have to cross at least 10 walls. Many trails go up and over these walls. Some even traverse them. The fresh growth can often loom over the trail. Rock gardens abound. Roots are at your every step. Trails are ever in flux and changing. Some trails open up to the forests vastness, while others create a density that has you hoping your bars will fit! The soil is loamy as we have many hemlocks mixed in with the hardwoods of our deciduous forests. We do have stretches of buffed out singletrack, but I won’t mix words here: if you ride in New England, you’re riding tech and you will ride it constantly. Me? I love me some hardtail. I love feeling the trail, I love having to check my speed, time my pedal strokes, finesse the bike, get up “in the stirrups”, pick my line piece by piece as it comes at me. I love stomping on the pedals and finding obstacles to bunny hop. Body english abounds. What is really humbling is that any stretch of trail you have mastered and totally dialed can bite you in the ass and force you to put a foot down. The challenge of consistent, smooth flow of line choice is something that I find relaxing. Get into that zone and it clears the head. All this means the bike needs to be tight. It needs to be an extension of the rider and not something “between” you and the terrain. You react, the bike follows. Point it at a line and it holds to THAT line. Stand-over is paramount. Components need to be bomber and they need to work. And you can’t fuss over something getting scratched. The trail breaths on your components here and they’re getting thrashed.
Editor’s Note: I’ve left the bike dirty for the shoot. I do frequently clean my bikes to keep them running smoothly and nothing really makes a bike perform better than when it’s actually clean (especially the drivetrain), but I wanted the reader to see the bike in it’s natural state: Ridden.
Let’s start with what I call the “core” of the bike. This is the bottom bracket. With all the tech, you need clearances. Between you and the bike and the bike and the ground. Low slung top tubes give you that extra bit of room should you have to put a foot down. Up and over obstacles often have you over the front of the bike, then WAY off the back of the bike. You need room to move. This is where this seat tube extension comes into play. That’s an extra 3.5″ of clearance. Bottom bracket height is tricky. Too high and you’re up and over the bike. Too low and you’re striking your pedals, or REALLY having to time your pedal strokes. I’ve found there’s a small window that balances performance, handling and quickness along with “just enough” clearance. That’s somewhere between 12″-12.375″. That’s a sagged number with tire pressure taken into account too.. This also lowers the riders center of gravity. Lowering the riders center of gravity (which on a male, is slightly higher than that of a female) helps to ground the bike and quicken steering. You’re “IN” the bike and balanced between the wheels – “centered”. Water bottles are as close to this center point as possible to help centralize the mass of the bike. You’ll also note that I’ve given a radius to the seat tube. This helps to pack the rear wheel (in this case a 29″ wheel) under the rider. Now we’ve all heard about that Great Chainstay Debate. My own opinion is it is important, but it is only one factor in combination with a bunch of other key aspects of a bike that dictates it’s handling characteristics.
For example (and this is with regards to a 29er), if you like short, fast quick rides that are playful, 16-16.25″ chainstays are where it’s at. If you want an all day kind of bike but still has that fast, quick, playful feel, 16.5″ is where it’s at. If you’re into the endurance thing, 16.75-17″ is really where you want to be. 16″ will beat the living heck out of you coming into the 2-3 hour mark. 16.5″, IMO on a 29er, seems to be that perfect balance of comfort and quickness over a long period of time in the saddle. My own pictured here sport 16.5″ chainstays. How do I know this? Well, I built a 29″ prototype with Paragon Machine Work’s hooded sliders that could handle a 2.5″ wide tire at 16-16.8″ of adjustment. Then over the course of a summer, rode it in every condition possible beginning at 16″, and in .25″ increments repeated rides for weeks all the way through it’s adjustable range. What I found, or what I could discern from all this feedback if everything else on the bike were the same, is that certain lengths have certain attributes which are agreeable in some conditions, but perhaps not the best in others. This also played out in the length of rides I was taking and what I was feeling as my body was tiring through the length of the ride (short or long in length). So when a client comes to me and wants X, Y and Z, I know what ingredients to begin with when we start the recipe of how the bike will ride and handle.
With the core of the bike explained, let’s talk about drivetrain. For my rides and my terrain, 1×10 or 1×11 just makes sense. The endless toil of keeping a front derailleur working is gone. Honestly, I have no bones to pick with front derailleurs, but for me, I was finding myself constantly tending to them. Sticks would get in them, they’d be pulled out of alignment, muck would gunk them up… They’re just fussy. And I do like to fuss with my bikes, but I also like to set things up and then ride the bike too. 1x setups simplify and lighten the overall drivetrain (and bike!). That’s one less thing to maintain too. Way back when, I ran pretty much only Shimano, but after trying some Sram kit, I really liked the snappiness and “push-push” click of their shifters. At the time, Shimano was a “push-pull” setup – which has since changed. Shimano and Sram provide great kit IMO. I also used to be a Race Face Crank ONLY guy. That changed with X-Type… But recently they have delivered the Cinch cranks and now have come out with the Turbine crank in their Cinch Platform. This effectively ELIMINATES the spider. This is something i’ve been waiting a LONG time for. To give you some perspective: I took my front derailleur off in 1995 and there has not been one on a single mountain bike I have owned or built for myself since then. So I know a little something about 1x setups. Cranks, spiders, chainrings and chainring bolts tend to get dusty when the middle of the summer is dry, and that creates a few places where creaks can develop. A complete tear down, cleaning and light greasing of all mating parts needs to be performed. Eliminating the spider, you eliminate 4 chainring bolts. That’s 4 less spots to creak. That’s 4 less parts to break. That’s 4 less bolts to check. That’s a more than 8 interfaces to lightly grease. Now between crank and chainring, you have ONE splined interface. Combine that with the “thick-thin” chainring concept which grabs and holds the chain, and you’ve got one smooth, relatively easy component to maintain. Finally they got that one right! But that wasn’t present when I purchased my e13 cranks. These sport a 30mm spindle and I’m using RWC’s Enduro bottom bracket hop up. These cranks are light, stiff and relatively trouble free. Wolftooth Cycling Components 32t Dropstop chainring keeps my chain ON. I have not dropped a chain once and that ring is going on it’s 3rd season. The kitchen sink has been thrown at this system. Hands down: It works.
Cassette is a 10spd 12-36t cogset. 9 speed always felt a little clunky. When I first went and upgraded to 10spd, it feels like the cog transitions are “just so”. They finally got that right. I look down and I always seem to have a few gears left in the quiver. Most new chains use a “quick link” or Sram calls it their “Power Link”. These go together with an audible “snap”. You used to be able to remove them by hand. If you have one of these chains, be sure to get yourself a Park MLP-1.2 Master Link tool. If you need to remove the chain, no problem with that set of pliers. I own one. It gets used and my life is a heck of a lot easier because of it. You’ll note that 10 and 11 speed chains sport the same inner diameter. What changed was the outer plate’s thickness. So Wolftooth’s chainrings work on both 10 and 11 speed setups (and 9spd too!). Rear derailleur is a Sram X9 Type 2. This complete’s the circle that is a guideless setup. The return spring is quite stronger, like Shimano’s “clutch” style rear derailleurs. This helps to reduce chainslap, and keeps the chain running ON the chain too. That style rear derailleur in combination with a thick thin chainring (available down to a 26t chainring I believe) is what you need to go guideless and 1x. Only run one of the two and you’re only running half of the system needed.
Next up: Hubs. According To My Opinion, Industry 9 makes THE VERY BEST hubs on the market today. Combine that quality of craftsmanship with really great customer support, and a pawl system that delivers 3 degree’s of engagement and you’ve got a hub set that is meant for New England tech. There is no lag in engagement. If you are in tech, and need to back pedal to get the pedals “set”, you don’t want a pause before engagement happens at slow speed. First ride out on these hubs I was actually messing up lines because I was not used to the quick engagement (that’s something I quickly remedied). Basically, I was not intuitively ready for the bike to engage when I thought it would – I was too used to accounting for that pause in engagement. Pause and lag no more. I stomp on the pedals or get my pedals set, and my drivetrain is poised to make a move. It’s literally “champing at the bit” to go. It’s ready when you are. These are laced to a set of 32 hole, DE-STICKERED, Stan’s ARCH EX rims. Light. Strong. Tubeless compatible.
Take a look at those chainstays too. That swaged middle section adds lateral stiffness. Combined with ample tire clearance and you’ve got a room for 2.5″ tires, 16.5″ chainstays in a stiff, resilient package. The low slung top tube gets a little flair as the seat stays meet those Paragon Wright Drop out’s in a gentle curve. Seat stays are bent in two planes for tire, heel and added mud clearance. Added radius at the dropout keeps the stays running in that consistent line from head tube to dropout. Triangulated. You’ll also note there’s some seat post extension too. This really helps to add some passive suspension into the mix on longer rides. Seat tube length is “just long enough” in this case.
Tire choice is Schwalbe’s Hans Dampf 2.4 up front with their Nobby Nic 2.3 out back. IMO: this is the perfect combination of size and volume front and rear in a tire. A little wider up front keeps the bike hooked up and tracking through hard carves into turns while a 2.3 out back is aggressive but still narrow enough to be fast. The nobs on both of these tires are aggressive. They really bite into those loamy trails. The compound grabs slippery rocks and roots. In a tubeless setup, you’re running slightly lower pressures too so you can dial in the feel of the bike as well as the traction. You can really dial in a bikes performance with a slight change in tire pressure.
For the fork I’ve chosen Fox’s 32mm Talas 29″, 120mm FIT CTD with Trail Adjust fork. Honestly, this is a great fork but if I had to do it all over again, I’d easily choose the Float 120 version over the Talas. At it’s low setting, 90mm is pretty much useless and for our steep punchy climbs, 90mm actually feels like it slows the bike down in climbs. On a 29er at my height, I’d say a sweet spot for suspension travel is somewhere around 100-120mm of travel. Not too much, not too little. Note this is a 44mm tapered 15mm thru axle fork. You’ll also note if you pull out your dial calipers that my top tube is 1.375″ O.D. and my down tube is 1.50″ O.D. These are big, True Temper OX Plat tubes. Light enough, stiff enough and strong enough, packaged into a resilient ride (and made in the USA). Add all those those elements together (fork steerer, thru axle, top and down tube diameters) and you’ve got a front end that is tracking at speed through tech and hard turns. The Float forks (IMO) have more usable adjustment for lockout, trail and descent modes along with more control in firmness. The Float platform is a little more dialed, but at the time of purchase, the Float only was available in a 100mm fork. Hence the 120 Talas. But… we can always upgrade right?
Up above is my business end of the bike. The cockpit. ENVE’s Mountain Riser bars are wide at 740mm in length. This I like and I’ve kept them uncut. Matches my wide shoulders and I feel I can really muscle the bike through turns as well as a bit of added leverage when rocking the bike back and forth up and through climbs. Carbon is also an ideal candidate for handlebars and seat posts. Light, stiff but has a knack for reducing “chatter”. I was having problems after about an hour with my wrists and palms with aluminum bars. Swapped for a set of carbon bars: pain was gone and has not returned. Stem is a 90mm Thomson Elite. (Made in the USA). Brakes are XTR Trail’s with a 180mm rotor up front and a 160mm rotor out back. These are pretty much the best brakes on the market (my own humble opinion). They’re light. They are easy to maintain and do not require to be bled when shortening and initially installing them. Out of the box the just work effortlessly with a lot of power and incredible modulation. Grips? My personal favorites are ODI Lock-on YETI Speed Grips. Soft and grippy. I love these grips. And there’s no throttle grip (Next time you have a set of ODI’s in hand, read the fine print on them… “Made in the USA”). Bar ends are actually a set of MASH road bar end caps. Very low profile, work with an expanding wedge design and are very light. They protect the ends of my bars should I happen to lay the bike down (which happens). Seat post is an ENVE 27.2mm set back. The head uses a single wedge style adjustment. Leveling the saddle is a snap. Saddle of course again is Selle Italia’s SLR Ti. It fits. It’s light. My butt seems to be happy. One thing to note though: Get a leather saddle. Those natural fibers prevent hot spots on long rides. “Pleather” seems to heat up easily and retain heat and if a hot spot starts on a long ride… forget about it. It’s hidden but I’m also using a Problem Solvers i-Spec adapter so there is only one clamp between shifter and lever. That cleans up the cockpit a bit.
And there is NO DROPPER. I have nothing against dropper posts. But when I’m riding, a line is not “officially” cleaned unless it’s JRA. What do I mean by this “Just riding along” scenario? This means I’m clipped in. My seat post is NOT lowered. AND I have not taken the time to scope the line. That’s a key component for my own personal rule of cleaning a line. No scoping. Pausing is acceptable as you approach the obstacle, but you gotta be clipped in and you gotta have that post up. It’s the cycling equivalent to a climbers “on-sight”. This just adds a layer of fun and challenge to my ride. It also allows me to be intuitive, make decisions on the fly and “react” to the trail without any preconceived notions. I’m leaning on my experience. There’s also an element of letting it all hang out too which I like. But just know that running a dropper isn’t a bad thing nor does it mean you’re not leaning on experience. Much respect to all the riders out there powering down HUGE lines with them. This is just one of those nonsensical personal rules of thumb each of us have. That’s just one of my own I try and adhere to…
Internal cable routing keeps that top tube nice and clean. Picking the bike up to shoulder it is a pleasure. Last season I switched to water bottles and I have to say, this was a return of something old. I loved when Hydration packs first hit the market, and I still will use one on longer rides. But for the average length ride I can get out for (say 1-2 hours, maybe 10-15 miles, but most nights after work it’s in the 5-7 mile sprint) riding with a bottle is just simple. It also really takes the weight off the back. I’ve gone to using a saddle roll too (this one I made myself from some leftover ACU ripstop material). I have my spare tube should a puncture occur that sealant won’t seal, I have my extra derailleur hanger, a mult-tool, tire boot and patch kit along with one tire lever and dollar bill for emergencies of all kinds. Pump is carried on the bike, food is in my jersey pockets. Light. Simple. Happy back too. King Cage because there’s no other cage that’s better. Cane Creek 110 headset. Light. Simple and it works. Crank Brothers Candy’s. Again – light and simple. (But I have been considering switching back over to Shimano… we’ll see – that’s a lot of pedals to replace across 4 bikes at once). Bike’s powdered in a satin black powder coat. Durable. “Hot rod” appeal. Gloss black decals keeps this one low profile. Not too much color overall – just little hints and splashes here and there of blue on the top caps, and pedals. Lean and mean. Head tube angle sits at about 70.5* (25% sagged number) and seat tube angle is at 73* for a little extra clearance. My rider compartment is long enough but perhaps more compact – I like to be slightly more upright on my mountain bike: poised, centered and “IN” the bike. And those are the key elements with a frame: Rider compartment (handlebars to saddle measurement), head tube angle, bottom bracket height, chainstay length and seat tube angle. In that order I believe. You take particular note that I have not mentioned a thing about front center, trail OR wheelbase. These, I believe, are resultant figures based on the short list above. You are never static on a mountain bike. You’re constantly in motion as is the bicycle. Those numbers are constantly in motion as well. Head tube angle is too – but this sets up how the bike will begin to handle: Steeper numbers make for a quicker, and sometimes “touchy” ride. Slacker numbers make for a slower, more stable handling ride. The longer the wheelbase, the slower the turning but again, more stability (I’ll get into this one a touch more when I detail my Fat Bike). But for a “Cross Country” or trail setup, I’ve found putting more emphasis on the parts I’ve mentioned above dials in the feel for the rider more accurately and greatly impacts how that bike rides.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Hopefully this is a good break down of what it is I’m building in a mountain bike, and WHY I’m building the bikes the way I am. Really an extension of the techy singletrack we have here in my backyard and the component choice (which can be in flux sometimes) is based on that style and type of terrain. So again: How will your mountain bike be built? What components best match your style of riding and terrain? Give me a shout and I’ll be happy to discuss the proposition! One thing I can guarantee though and that it will be Made to Shred.