When it comes to the topic of which type of cycling is best, most of us can readily agree that as long as we’re outside and having fun, it shouldn’t matter. Where this agreement ends, however, is with the outliers—the people who defy the norm and do things with their bikes that most people wouldn’t do. Like a rogue cop who just can’t leave a case alone, I feel the need to drive everyone else away with my weird cycling ways. “You’re on the edge, man! You’re gonna burn yourself out and end up hurting those who love you the most!” …Is what my captain would say before he asks for my gun and badge.
Alas, I am not a cop. I don’t have a captain to listen to, and my life is not an action movie. Will I continue to alienate other riders with my flippant refusal to wear lycra (not a good look on me) and ride road bikes on any surface? Yes. Yes, I will.
I like to ride my bike where most people would ride a more appropriate bike. For example, the route I chose in the Santa Barbara front country is a typical one that many on a mountain bike would ride. Up Romero Canyon Trail and down Gibraltar Road. However, I wanted to see what that route would be like in reverse on a drop-bar bike. It did not disappoint. It was also not painless.
There is a very long ascent up Gibraltar Road to East Camino Cielo which includes some pretty tough sections for climbing. The bike I punished myself with on this ride is my All-City Super Professional. It is a steel, all-road bike with a single 38-tooth chainring that drives an 11-40-tooth cassette. It climbed slowly.
There are a few Cat 4 sections before the Gibraltar Road meets East Camino Cielo. ECC, as the cool kids call it, slowly ascends and rolls up and down. It is an enjoyable ride with vistas on both sides. It goes like that for a few miles until it reaches a dirt parking area. On one side is an OHV (off-highway vehicle) trail. On the other is the top of Old Romero Canyon “Road.” There is a cistern in front of which one can prepare for the bike and body punishment to ensue. Also, I deflated my tires a little. I have 700 x 42 Teravail Cannonball tires (tubeless) inflated to 50 psi for the road, 25 psi for the dirt.
The trail starts off with some flowy sections and hard-packed dirt with the occasional rock cobble just chilling in the middle of the path. Eventually, the course becomes more unpredictable with slippery areas of sandstone, loose rocks, and occasional loose dirt. It is only towards the split towards the singletrack that the ride becomes too much to stay in the saddle full time. There are areas where getting off the bike and walking are safer. Sometimes, giant boulders are blocking the path.
The best plan for a bike like mine is to avoid the singletrack and head towards the fire road. Once there, it is just a matter of avoiding the rocks and ruts. My bike handles speed in this terrain well. My body, however, does not. I begin to see why I had to turn in my badge and gun. I guess I might be getting too old for this.
Since I was on a road bike, I forded the creek on foot—the bridge was washed out in 2018 by the 1/9 Debris Flow—I then dodged some families on my way towards the trailhead.
The bonus descent down Romero Canyon Road towards the 192 was next after I re-inflated my tires. I carry a Lezyne Floor Drive for this. It comes in handy from time to time. After a bone-shaking experience, a quick road descent is always a great reward.
To sum up, no matter what, bikes can be ridden anywhere. Is it a good idea? Not really. But that is my jam. It is how I roll. The lesson is, you don’t have to wear lycra and put down watts to be a cyclist. It is simply a matter of being on two wheels, enjoying the fresh air.
We all knew the pandemic was coming earlier this year. I had always thought it would play out as it does in the movies, where an unsuspecting public has no time to react. In reality, the government did not try to mitigate the spread by taking action early on, there was no search for Patient Zero (if there ever was one), and there was no large-scale effort of locking down points of entry before it was too late. Twelve weeks in, we know that the reactions of local communities are the ones that have had the most impact. We have learned during this time that people do not do what we expect them to do. The only way to survive this disaster is to manage and mitigate, rather than try and stop it.
The way the virus affected the population in California was very uneven. The Bay Area, those counties in the San Francisco economic sphere, were the hardest hit. These counties were locked down first by their respective health departments, about two weeks before governor Gavin Newsom issued the statewide order. In effect, it was an experiment that would ultimately lay the groundwork for the rest of the state. Which businesses that could stay open were, in fact, one of the primary takeaways from these initial orders.
I manage a bike shop in Santa Barbara, California. When faced with a looming lockdown, the shop owner and the management team got together and reasoned out how — and more importantly — why we should stay open. We weighed the pros and cons. We did our critical thinking. We took into account everything we could think of regarding the safety of our customers and employees.
The decision by many bike shops in the country that they were essential services drew both praise and criticism. The governor’s statewide stay-at-home order did not specifically mention bike shops in the essential transportation guidelines. To be clear, neither did those of the county nor the city of Santa Barbara. The earlier Bay Area county lockdown orders initially did not mention them either. However, after a day or two into those lockdowns, the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with the Santa Clara County Health Department declared that bike shops were indeed, essential.
Governor Newsom’s order also specified that people needed to exercise to maintain their health and happiness. I admit that was confusing at the time: why would we get a stay-at-home order, only to be told it was okay to go outside? As we know very well now, that when faced with a crisis, the desire for everything to be normal is powerful. Psychologically, we all have a need to be outside. We are social animals, and it is in our nature to resist confinement.
There was some initial push-back within our circles. A very few but very vocal people opined that we were trying to profit from the crisis. As a kneejerk reaction, this seems logical simply because of the optics. However, choosing to run a bike shop, especially during a crisis, is a commitment to bikes, not pure profit. For the uninformed, most local bike shops run on a shallow profit margin. To assume that any gains brought by a pandemic will go solely to the owner rather than back into the shop itself is incorrect. Our detractors made it seem like the management was celebrating in top hats and monocles, spilling champagne on our tuxedos, doing the Charleston. At the same time, our workers toiled in a coronavirus-infested retail space. That visual is wrong. Period. Full stop.
We cannot control people’s perceptions. What we could do was be transparent. Our reasons for remaining open were a) to provide jobs for people who needed to work, b) to provide essential transportation services, and c) to ensure that the members of our community could get the bikes and equipment they needed to get outside and exercise.
The rush on bikes was another story. At first, I thought that that we would see a marked decrease in customer activity. Maybe people would trickle in on their way to essential activities like grocery shopping. Maybe we would get to repair a few essential workers’ bikes. I was naïve enough to believe, wrongly as it turned out, that most people would try and isolate themselves at home.
Quite the opposite. Foot traffic increased, by orders of magnitude. Both sales and service were seeing huge numbers. Tune-ups and repairs were soon weeks in backlog. It became evident that the majority of the people coming to the shop were not essential workers. Instead, it was the work-from-home crowd, the newly unemployed and furloughed, and their families that were dying to get outside. It still blows my mind.
Entering into spring, a period which traditionally sees increased bike sales and service needs, denying these requests would only have exacerbated the problems of dealing with such significant customer demand. For instance, if we closed, the customers would possibly (but not probably) wait for us to reopen. More likely, other bike shops would have to take on the extra load of customers that we did not help. That would only serve to increase the chances that more people would be visiting the same areas at the same time. It seemed to us that staying open would help prevent that.
The first few weeks were difficult. We were continually experimenting with how many people we could let in at one time. Our sales floor and service department were not designed for social distancing. We adjusted by allowing only one or two people into the shop. Lines began to form. Some blamed us for making their lives hard. Most people still hadn’t accepted masks as an everyday thing. There was a lot of friction on the customer service front. “Inconvenience” was a word repeated many times (among other words).
Eventually, we hit our stride and developed a system that works. We ended up closing the sales floor and service department to customers. We purchased some handheld point-of-sale equipment and began helping people outside. Because we were quickly depleting our new bike inventory, and we needed to store the backlog service bikes somewhere, closing the sales floor helped to solve that problem. We are fortunate enough to have a front patio with plenty of bike racks. We placed a cross-section of the types of bikes we carry outside so we could begin a conversation without letting customers inside. We also brought bikes out for test rides. We erected a tent in our parking lot, so our mechanics could inspect bikes and check in repairs.
Early on in the crisis, we were also able to launch our e-commerce website. We were fortunate to have it nearly complete before the pandemic hit. It was just a matter of getting our inventory system and the site to sync. After 12 weeks of lockdown, we have developed a system whereby we can effectively help customers, stay safe and clean, and continue getting the community the bikes and accessories they want.
There is a bright side. People are now used to all of this. Customers know what to expect when they come to a shop that won’t let them inside. For most of them, they wait patiently and wear a mask when asked to do so. We don’t hear “inconvenience” (or the other words) nearly as often. Most importantly, none of us have tested positive for COVID-19. Our staff is well educated and will isolate themselves if they think they are putting the rest of us in danger.
Since the lockdown started on March 19 of this year, many bike shops have sold more bikes than ever before. At our shop, we are selling them as fast as we can build them. Fortunately, most bike companies, especially those we deal with, are still on track to release the next year’s models. Some of them have been arriving already.
The question of whether bike shops are essential services or not is moot. If, by some rare occurrence of mutual agreement, all the bike shops in the country agreed to close at the beginning of the pandemic, people would have found other ways to enjoy their time outside. Sure, there are risks of getting infected, even while in motion. But with the local trails crowded with hikers, people jogging in the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians, you just cannot fight human nature. As for the question: did we put our business ahead of people’s safety? Absolutely not. There are closer interactions between people at the grocery store and in their own homes than there are at our shop. If anything, we believe that we contributed to our customers’ ability to better cope with this crisis.
Riding a bike is awesome. But there is still a lot more to be done before this is over. We know it is difficult to do as we are not the authority on the pandemic, but please take our advice: Please think of others when you hear the latest pandemic numbers. Avoid riding or exercising in groups, wear a mask whenever you can, and sanitize whenever possible. This crisis will end, but not without these minor inconveniences to our daily lives.
I was at Frostbike earlier this year in Denver, CO. We were walking towards the expo floor to meet our QBP rep when I spied the All-City Cycles booth from outside the door. Up on one of the stands was the glittery offering from the venerable steel-is-real company: the 2020 Super Professional. When viewed from afar, it looked like a typical steel road bike. Close up, like a Monet, it was an entirely different viewing experience (only instead of being a big ol’ mess, it came together beautifully).
All-City describes, in a few words, what the Super Professional is: an “urban cross machine,” and a “super commuter.” Yes. That’s affirmative. It’s essentially what you would get if you invited a gravel racer, a steel-road-bike nerd, an alley-cat-crit-fixie-spoke-card artist, a cross-country-touring lady, and a dude who commutes to work everyday to a product development meeting.
This bike is as close as a company can get to a does-everything-you-want-short-of-singletrack implement without adding suspension. All-City went a step further and came up with a master dropout system that allows the rider to switch from a single-speed to a multi-geared bike and still have a thru axle.
Getting back to Frostbike for a second: I saw the SP (that’s how the cool kids refer to it) on the elevated stand at the expo. I’m usually not one for flowery language, but I was so moved by its appearance that I…
<flowerylanguage> …stood fast and stared agape at the hummingbird-like iridescent glow emanating from the myriad flakes in that paint that I was awash in a color gamut that set my hair on end and imbued my psyche with such ardor that the entire concourse gathered thence felt my catharsis. </flowerylanguage>
Our QBP rep snapped me out of my bliss by making a comment that the bike would look totally sick with some Whisky bars and Paul Klampers.
My mission was clear. I would acquire the frame and strip my beloved Kona Sutra of most of its parts to feed my desire to someday ride this bike.
As a touring cyclist, gravel enthusiast, and Cat 6 commuter, I did just that. I built up this amazing bike with the drivetrain and brakes from my Sutra. I acquired some OEM wheels from a friend’s Santa Cruz Stigmata (those DT 350s, don’t even get me started), and I was deep into the build.
The only thing that gave me pause was the flat-mount road disc lugs. I really wanted to use my I-S Paul Klampers so badly that I had to special order some Shimano adapters to be able to use them. That was the only hangup in the build.
After it was complete, I took a ride to the state-mandated-lockdown wasteland that is the Santa Barbara Funk Zone. Comprised of old industry building that house breweries, wineries, and restaurants, it was completely empty. Not a soul for blocks. There were so many walls I could use to to get a shot of the bike that I began to think I have a thing for walls. You get the idea. I took a bunch of pictures (below, after the build list).
Frame: 2020 All-City Super Professional with Goldust colorway and multi-speed master dropout.
Drivetrain: Shimano Ultegra R8000 shifters to XTR M9000 SGS 11-speed derailleur via Wolftooth Tanpan and Goatlink; XT M8000 crankset with Wolftooth Dropstop 38t chainring; 11-42t XT M8000 cassette.
Paul Klamper mechanical disc brakes with Shimano flat-mount adapters (F160 P/D, and R160 P/D).
In another article, I covered the 1981 Stumpjumper and how, in the most hipster of fashions, I acquired one of the first 500 units ever made and restored it to a near-original riding condition. I decided not to revel in its irony, as hipsters are wont to do. I wanted to actually ride it: to take it out on the trails and see how it performed. I was willing to sacrifice my knees, wrists, and any unwanted hipster cred, to find out. Even though I have access to myriad modern human-powered trail-riding vehicles, I didn’t want my Stumpy, as important as it is to mountain biking history, to just hang on the wall (really, though, it looks awesome on the wall of the bike shop, but I cannot help thinking that it is lonely up there).
<rant> I am in no way a suspension hater. I do not, in any way, consider myself a cycling purist. I would never think that the awesome, modern, technology placed on mountain bikes today is not pure cycling. I just happen to be weird enough to be considered somewhat of a bike technology Luddite. If you want to ride a full-squish bike and get rad, then, by all means, don’t let me stop you. Maybe I like making things hard on myself, I don’t know. I can only compare my slight aversion to cycling technology to liquid soap: there’s no reason for it…yet it exists.
I love rigid bikes for their simplicity. There are no lower leg services, no air cans, recharges, dampers, seals, and fewer bearings to wear out. I have endured the discomfort that seems to be purposely built into these bikes just for the sake of being outside on the simpler machines. I believe that this bike represents mountain biking at its purest: kind of like hiking with wheels. Sure, I have to fistfight rocks and inhale trail dirt whilst pushing the bike through creeks and up steep sections of fire roads filled with angry hikers and dogs. It is all worth it. </rant>
Romero Canyon Trail in the Santa Barbara front country is a great trail to test a mountain bike. It begins with a steep fire road that is transected by a few rocky creek crossings, leading to a loop that includes single track, and some flatter, flowier parts. The trail features sand and loose rocks, patches of flat, slippery sandstone, and harder dirt with water ruts. The conditions were mostly dry with the exception of the creek crossings and occasional shady mud patch.
The Stumpy, at least with my legs, had a hard time climbing the steep fire road portion. The 26-inch wheels and the slack head tube angle were no help at all. It took a lot of concentration, oscillating my body back and forth over the rear wheel for traction and the handlebars to keep the front wheel on the ground. I never got the hang of popping wheelies in my life, and starting a bicycle circus act on a steep incline was not my idea of a good time.
The gearing, being a traditional triple-chainring setup, was not quite enough to make it over some of the steeper parts of the incline. The ratio of the lowest gear (0.91 in this case) just isn’t low enough when compared to bikes equipped with super-large sprockets. I found myself having to stop periodically to push the bike uphill. This didn’t bother me as I was intent on photographing the bike anyway.
ON THE FLAT AND FLOWY
After getting to the top of the fire road, I took the left fork towards East Camino Cielo. In the sections that weren’t covered by giant boulders from the 2017 Debris Flow, the bike handled well. It was a little twitchy due to the head tube angle. That was quickly overcome by the fact that it cornered like a boss. I found that I could maneuver the squiggly parts with ease. However, the more technical sections, when attacked at slower speeds also tested my handling skills, with moderate success.
I believe that there is a reason rigid mountain bikes also double as commuters. Those of us who compete in the revered and exclusive Cat 6 racing every morning would agree that this geometry is very comfortable for riding in the saddle for longer distances on flat surfaces. On the flat parts of the trails, I only needed getting out of the saddle once I needed to avoid an obstacle like a rut or a heap of rocks.
After reaching East Camino Cielo and resting for a while, I headed back down. I was hesitant, at first, to do this. This bike is almost 40 years old, has no suspension, and uses a threaded headset (the original, in this case). I was afraid the bike would rattle apart. Since I was running tubes deflated to 25 psi, I was also afraid that I would flatten the tires and destroy the original wheels right away.
Because the frame geometry was so slack, I didn’t really need to lower the saddle at all. When it seemed like the wheels and headset would hold up, I braved faster speeds. I was able to make it down the single-track portion of Romero, stopping a few times to navigate the rockier sections on foot. In retrospect, with my ass still sore while I write this, not lowering the saddle for the descent was a bad idea.
The original Mafac cantilever tandem brakes are no match for today’s hydraulic disc brakes. Many canti-haters would tell agree. However, in combination with the massive leverage offered by the Tomiselli motorcycle brake levers, they weren’t all that bad. They were enough to make me confident that I could slow my descent safely.
CONCLUSION AND PICTURES
I will probably ride this bike on the trails again, but not anytime soon. There are just too many modern rigid mountain bikes options that are built better, use stronger materials and parts, and have more comfortable geometry. Bikes like the Surly Karate Monkey, Salsa Fargo, Velo Orange Piolet, and the Kona Unit X come to mind. So if I were to shun suspension altogether, as I am wont to do, I would definitely keep the old Stumpy on the wall for the time being. It would be much more satisfying to beat up a bike that isn’t considered an icon. But for the sake of the Stumpy itself, I am compelled to ride it in the dirt every now and then.
I work with a bunch of people that ride mountain bikes and take every opportunity to do so. Because we live in Santa Barbara, we have the benefit of year-round riding conditions. Mountain bikers of all stripes are on the trails every day. This also means that there are hikers of all kinds out there as well. All too often, in my dealings with customers and co-workers, I hear about confrontations between hikers and mountain bikers that leave me stunned. There is certainly an us-versus-them dynamic happening on our beloved trails.
Mountain biking is a permanent part of the cycling world, enjoying a $6 billion market share of the US Economy. In 2016, that was 24 percent of total bicycle sales in the US that year. Mountain bike usage is on the rise. Now that e-MTBs (pedal-assist mountain bikes) are a thing, trails once thought too remote or too steep for traditional mountain bikes are suddenly accessible.
According to the pro-hiking set, mountain bikes and eMTBs are responsible for causing terror on the trails. Shock and awe. To them, there are legions of mountain-bikers flying down the trails at top speed, terrorizing innocent hikers and their families. Threatening their way of life. Curtailing their civil rights. Frightening them, the innocent locals, who are only out on the trail to find peace and enjoy nature. “Make the trails great again!” they scream (not really, just paraphrasing).
However, if you were to hear some of the conversations that mountain bikers have about hikers, you would think that they, too, are being denied the freedom to ride where they want. According to the pro-biking set, the trails are full of elite, crabby traditionalists that have nothing better to do than to complain about the frivolities of cycling with hatred and vitriol. They stand in the mountain biker’s paths and brandish their walking sticks. “Rid the trails of the walking dead!” the bikers exclaim (also not really, but you get the idea).
Conflicts and the development of trail management to accommodate bikers are well documented. When viewed through an anecdotal lens, it sounds like a fucking war zone up there.
There is also the question of conservation. A nature conservationist who is against mountain biking may cite the 1977 ban of bicycles by the US Forest Service in response to the growing number of people riding bikes on trails in federal wilderness areas as a good reason for bikers to stay off the trails. This was an addition and a re-interpretation of the Federal Wilderness Act passed in 1964, the core thesis of which was to leave the wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Fortunately for mountain bikers, this does not cover our local front country trails. To be sure, a lot of our trails are in the Los Padres National Forest, which does contain ten federal wilderness areas. However, our front country is not designated as such, and the federal wilderness laws do not apply. At the time of this writing, mountain biking is permitted on all trails in the Santa Barbara front country.
Even armed with that information, trying to reason with an upset hiker is near impossible. Some people take the perceived ruination of their personal serenity and communion with nature with an almost religious fervor. This type of emotional response to others having fun is, of course, not the fault of every mountain biker. But this potential of conflict is enough to make some bikers believe that every hiker is a pretentious douchebag who thinks he owns the whole trail just because he lives close by.
I am reminded of an interaction with a customer who came in looking to learn more about pedal-assist bikes. I showed him the road-specific models first since they were closest. However, this gentleman was more interested in e-MTBs because he was used to riding and commuting on a mountain bike. While I went over the features of the bikes, their motors, batteries, speed and such, I began talking about their performance on the trails. It was then that the conversation turned weirdly conflicting. The following is a reenactment of how the conversation went:
<highclassaccents> Customer: “So, my good man, how fast do these contraptions go? What’s the top speed?”
Me: “Good sir, I am glad you asked. The top speed is 20 mph. It is at that point the motor ceases to assist. However, the rider can still coast downhill faster than that without any hindrance from the motor.”
Customer: “Twenty! My word, that is certainly too fast for a mountain bike.”
Me: “Do remember, sir, that is the top speed the motor will go if pressed to do so—”
Customer: “Blazes! Why, would anyone want to go tearing around that fast through creation? Why it boggles the mind!”
Me: “For one to take full advantage of the power assist, the motor must have that much power for getting up hills and such. Most people will probably not by flying up hills at 20 mph—”
Customer: “Exactly my point! These beasts have the potential to be extremely perilous to hikers. Imagine being struck by one whilst out enjoying all that God gave us? Their use must be prohibited from the trails at once!”
Me: “That would certainly be terrible. However, good sir, there are currently no restrictions on the use of pedal-assist bikes on the trails. E-mountain bikes are certainly here to stay.”
Customer: “Please do not take this as an attack upon your station, for you are a mere bicycle salesman. But there goes the decline of civilization, good sir, right into the sewer! Good day!”
Customer: “I say good day to you!” </highclassaccents>
I came away from that conversation wondering if I was going to have nightmares. I sell mountain bikes for a living. I am in that sphere. I personally have never had a conflict with a hiker on the trails as I usually ride slowly, with a bell as a responsible rider is wont to do. The objects of my outings are not to see how fast I can go, it’s to be outside, stay fit and enjoy myself. But that is only my experience. Others to be sure, like some of the mountain bikers that I work with, prefer to go fast. That is their leisure. It just so happens that the only place they can recreate is on the same trails that everyone else uses. The result being, hikers and mountain bikers are going to end up in the same place at the same time, like it or not.
In a perfect world, mountain bikers should always yield to hikers. There is a responsibility that comes with wheels and speed when there are pedestrians about. However, when a bike is descending, it is much easier for the hiker to yield. It takes a lot of energy for a person and their bike to decelerate quickly enough to avoid a collision. Even when a biker is struggling up an incline, a hiker could, if they felt like being a decent human being, take a second to step aside to let the biker pass. If a biker is not able to stop or is being reckless and shredding too close for comfort, shouting at them, or even worse, intentionally blocking their path to make a point, is just irresponsible. That’s how crashes happen. That’s how fights start. What does that accomplish? Did you wake up one morning with the mantle of trail king thrust upon you?
Negative. That just makes you an asshole.
The same goes for the bikers. Use a trail bell. Control your speed. The trails are not exclusively yours and we do live in a community with thousands of other people. Going fast is fun but realize that you may not be alone. Just because there is no one to enforce any speed limits doesn’t mean you can use the trail to your abandon. If you choose not to care about the well-being of others around you, that makes you an equally devil-may-care idiot. Also, you and your bike are likely to be broken if a collision with a hiker is imminent.
Our trails and access roads are certainly something to take advantage of. We should never take them for granted. However, this enjoyment of our natural resources comes at a price. With more people out in nature, we must all keep in mind that we live in a society. No one person or group can claim the exclusive enjoyment of our trails. All of us need to go out into nature with the expectation that we will cross paths with another person eventually. Etiquette must be learned and practiced. Bikers, remember that hikers are not out there to yell at you and get in your way. Hikers, keep in mind that mountain bikers are not out there to deliberately ruin your audience with nature. Getting angry will only lessen your harmony and bum you out.
A lot of people have this vision of bike shop employees swimming in a sea of free bikes and parts. Bike swag for days: trucker hats, t-shirts, stickers, mugs…the occasional branded spork. While we are certainly in closer proximity than most to get all that nifty bike graft, free bikes are still pretty rare. Even when we do get a bike gratis, it’s usually some clapped out, broken down, bicycle-like thing that is not worth fixing. I’d rather get loads of sporks from some lube company, rather than deal with some old, crummy bike.
This past spring, however, some dude came into the shop and donated his old bike after learning how much it would cost to repair. Not knowing what to do with it, the employees spirited it to me during my lunch hour. I reluctantly took it off their hands, thinking that I was going to have to make the trip to Bici Centro to donate it. Nevertheless, it was a free bike and it looked really cool. I decided to take a closer look at it. It was made from Japanese Tange Chromoly steel, and had, what looked like motorcycle brake levers and friction shifters on the handlebars. It was, to my delight, a very old and beat up Specialized Stumpjumper.
I didn’t really know it was special until I started researching it. I always thought the first Stumpys had lugged frames. Most of the people who claimed to have the first-year bikes usually showed up with a lugged frame. This one did not — it was TIG welded. But it had the ridiculously huge Tomaselli brake levers, a TA Specialties crankset from France, Suntour drivetrain and Wheelsmith Wheels. I figured it must have been a frankenbike that was pieced together over the years. It wasn’t until I started reading more articles about the first Stumpjumpers that I realized I had one of the first 500 ever built. Somebody slap me.
<namedropping> A free Specialized Stumpjumper from the first batch of 500 ever ordered by Mike Sinyard and Tim Neenan and designed by the latter. Mr. Neenan’s signature is on the chainstay, and the design had come from his own Lighthouse Chapparal from 1979. I was feeling the weight of having this mountain-biking icon, this symbol, this…closest thing I have ever come to possessing a holy relic. The first production mountain bike. I stopped short of slapping myself. </namedropping>
Realistically, though, it is a bicycle. A special one, to be sure. But it was in rough condition and it needed work.
Though it sported most of the original parts, the previous owner rode the crap out of this bike for the past 38 years. It was a survivor of the dirt, not the enthusiast’s collection. The last thing I wanted out of this was a collector’s item. I decided that I would make it rideable, replacing the broken and worn parts here and there in the spirit of keeping it a living bike. Potential pretension aside, I wouldn’t mind showing to as many people as possible. In deference to Indiana Jones, I say that this beautiful relic does not belong in a museum. It belongs back in the hands of somebody who would enjoy riding it. Namely, yours truly.
Problems: one of the open-bearing bottom bracket cups was rusted into place, the chainrings were worn into shark tooth-like pointiness, the large moto housing for the moto brake cables (a defining feature of the early Stumpys) was cracked and splitting, the rear derailleur was totally shot, and the rear wheel bearing cartridges were also producing a nice grainy noise when spun. Many of the parts on this bike, though original, needed a lot of work, or replacing.
My first task was to get all the working parts shiny again. I spent quite a bit of time getting to know steel wool and metal polish. The Mafac brakes were particularly bad, as was the headset and seat post quick release. Overall it took me a month, becoming very familiar with steel wool and metal polish, to get all the parts derusted.
That was the easy part. The biggest problem was the bottom bracket. Before we got to that, we had to remove the cranks. TA Specialties uses very weird (read French) threading on the outside of the cranks: 23 mm, a bit larger than the more common square-taper crank threads common today. However, getting the correct crank puller was not as hard as pulling the crank itself. The top lip of the threads had been bashed in over the years making it difficult to get purchase on them. Retapping the threads was the only option if I wanted to make them serviceable in the future. While I searched for the correct tap, I used a blow torch and a rubber mallet to remove the cranks.
The drive side bottom bracket cup, being completely seized, required the use of some serious heavy metal. We tried everything: a pin spanner, a lead pipe attached to the pin spanner for leverage, various solvents and stinky fluids, but to no avail. Alas, we had to cease in fear of breaking the wrench and damaging the bottom bracket shell. We then used a drill and cutting fluid to enlarge the spindle hole wide enough to insert a special removal tool. It was a frustrating and sweaty experience, colored by many expletives and crying in the corner of the service area. Once it was out, we chased the threads and refaced the shell. I ordered a replacement cup, and after I lubed the crap out of it, we had a serviceable bottom bracket once again.
After sourcing the proper tap from China, I was able to get the cranks into shape and installed with replacement TA Specialties chainrings. A new-old-stock Suntour aRX rear derailleur and a new chain got the drivetrain going. It was only a small matter of replacing the original Mafac tandem brake pads with Kool Stop clones and routing the housing and cables. Good times.
The bike is finished! It looks great and is super close to the original spec. I certainly hope that anyone who owned one of these or was involved in the original project to create them would agree with me: I must take it up Romero Canyon (and back down) so I can get the full feeling of nostalgia. Besides, my joints haven’t taken enough of a beating lately anyways. I can’t wait.
I did manage to gather some deeper wisdom after all was said and done. Bikes are made to be ridden. If they hang on the wall too long or rust out in the garage, you are doing yourself, and the bike, a disservice. Not only will you become weak and out of shape, having a beautifully restored museum piece in your collection only increases your pretension. Besides, who cares that it is not a hundred percent restored? I really don’t need to hear about how I haven’t sourced the proper headset bearings that were only made for three months in 1980 and can only be found by engaging in a Romancing-the-Stone-type adventure. Hang on, let me go find a cartel boss to take me into the Colombian wilderness in a souped-up Jeep to locate the last cache of bearings, whilst being chased by Danny DeVito and a bunch of pretentious hipsters, only to shell out a whole bike’s worth of money for a measly part I won’t see. Get out of here.
Facts are facts. There are already bikes in museums. I don’t need to go that far with a restoration. I just want to ride every bike ever. It’s a goal I have. I will follow up with another article reviewing how the bike rides on dirt. While you wait for that, check out these cool pictures of the Stumpjumper in question and tell me you wouldn’t ride it.
There is a story. It is a story about a dark, intimidating, scary chasm. A dark, moldy, unkind gap that split and schismed cyclists in twain. On one side, there were cyclists devoted to wearing super tight clothing and riding weight-weenie crabon bikes across miles of asphalt. On the other, thrill-seekers who, only recently donning ridiculously tight clothing, prefer squishy bikes with bendy frames, riding through nature and kicking up dust and dirt, ofttimes wearing goggles.
is the way cycling was after mountain bikes hit the market in the late 1970s
and early 1980s. In this manner, through an eon-like continuum, vast and long, cycling
would…well…continue. Until the gap was spanned. Made crossable by a whole new
category of bicycle. The tale of the gravel bike is an epilogue to the storied
past of cycling. That past where you decided what kind of cyclist you were and acquired
the type of bicycle from the limited choices available.
realize that my stream of consciousness seems to be going nowhere. But I
promise, there is a point. That point is innovation.
Dear Reader, is how marketing is made.
<rant> Or it could be the other way around. Whatever. Marketing as an impetus for creating new products sometimes leads to good results. We have smartphones, incompatible outerwear, and liquid soap even though we were adamant that we would never need to buy them. However, wider tires, on road bikes, it turns out, are both useful and really cool. Because gravel bikes are so awesome, we shall obediently squeeze asses into Lycra®, don some single-lens sunglasses and embrocate ourselves across road and valley on the latest and greatest that bicycle marketing has to offer. </rant>
Is it, though? Is the gravel bike an innovation that the bicycle companies have created to sell us more bikes? As I sit here in the coffee shop, amongst people meeting their life coaches, wearing Patagonia, and staring at their smartphones, I am having a real Bobos in Paradise moment. Gravel bikes are not smartphones or liquid soap. It so happens, after doing a little research, that they evolved out of necessity. They did not just spring forth like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, leaving Hera to wonder what the hell just happened.
Nope. Negative. A new category of bicycle is something that no one company can just summon from the dark, stinking depths of corporate marketing departments. Quite the opposite. The modern gravel bike came from the same place mountain bikes and BMX bikes came from. They evolved into existence over the course of decades, splitting off one bike and taking geometries and components from others. They came from the wooly wild of dirt, asphalt, very small rocks, and the desire for roadies to ride away from traffic. As with mountain bikes, once people started racing them, the companies took notice.
It was only a few years ago that cyclocross, having already been around for nearly a century, trendily entered the social media feeds of cyclists itching for something different. For the first time (for those who did not race cyclocross), there was a bicycle configuration that had the potential to build the afore-mentioned span across said chasm between road and dirt. Road cyclists could now get dirtier. Mountain bikers could wear more ridiculously tighter clothing and experiment with different colors of bar tape. Even commuters, who previously had been shoehorned into one type of bike or the other, could now drop-bar it to work and back, with wider tires and more compact geometry.
cyclocross like-count dropped suddenly due to cycling-industry and
Instagram-influencer overexposure. But not before it had brought into the
mainstream many of the innovations we see on gravel bikes today: wide-tire
compatibility, lower bottom brackets, disc brakes, wider handlebars, etcetera. When
I say mainstream, I am talking about affordability and accessibility. Drop-bar
bikes with wide tires were not usually seen as floor-model bikes. They were
niche. They were expensive. Today, the gravel bike and its weird cousin the adventure
bike are now produced by the larger manufacturers. They can be seen in many
bike shops in sometimes surprisingly affordable builds.
There were other factors responsible for catalyzing the trend towards gravel bikes. For years companies like Surly had been offering wide-tire frames through the other gravel-adventure gateway drug: touring bikes. “Fatties Fit Fine,” Surly says. This was their way of telling the cycling community that it was okay to take your road bike off the asphalt once in a while. Touring cyclists have been doing it for years. It worked. Once the larger companies realized this, they jumped on it, producing the modern gravel bikes and adventure bikes we see on shop floors today. In my opinion, most of these bikes are pretty damn amazing.
And here we are. We can trace the gravel bike lineage all the way back through road bikes, cyclocross, BMX, klunkers, mountain bikes, touring bikes, and the need to test the limits and have many beers in the process. Influence in design trickles up. Now we are able to buy a single bike that would fit most of our needs. We can ride on the road, commute to work or school, and hit the trails (albeit light ones) and get dirty. All this with one type of bike. The best part, the large bicycle companies keep pouring money into research and development into making them better. Boutique companies and framebuilders, who have been in on this from almost the beginning, continue to produce a variety of traditional and innovative bikes.
Human beings (aside from those who play e-sports) will always want to be outside. It’s in our nature. I may go out on a limb to say that gravel bikes tick so many boxes, that they are here to stay. However, we are at the mercy of social media and marketing forces on this one. I can only hope that these bikes provide enough fuel for the likes to keep the momentum going.
Until then, please enjoy these images of a 2020 Specialized Diverge Carbon Comp X1. A great example of a gravel bike with awesome stuff all over it.
[Disclaimer: I work at a bike shop that sells Specialized. But no bias, I promise.]
I have often asked myself life’s deepest, most meaningful questions in the search for more knowledge: How far can I ride a touring bike on a singletrack trail? Will road plus tires even work on singletrack? When do I get to use the stuff I learned in Algebra 2? Who invented liquid soap, and why? I grew ever more pensive. As I carried my bike over some of the more difficult parts of Romero Canyon Trail, I tried to keep my mind off of my bad decisions…and the flies from the inside of my nose.
The Kona Sutra pictured above is certainly a capable bike. It is even able, with some difficulty, to make it on a trail, provided there aren’t that many loose rocks and dirt. Having converted the bike to 650b last year, the bottom bracket is nice and low, offering the stability of a gravel bike, with the load-carrying capacity of a touring bike. However, the bike, as pictured, is about 35 pounds (15.8 kg)…it’s really heavy. Too heavy to have a good time going up the trail. There were several washouts and debris flows over which I had to shoulder this beast. Once at the top, though, it looked great. So why do it? Research.
Research, Dear Reader, sounds like an excuse. But it is actually a reason. Not a great reason, but there it is.
Being without a purpose-built mountain bike, I thought it might be a good idea to test out the Sutra on a surface other than asphalt or gravel. The handling and the tire choice were my main focus here. Touring and adventure bikes are usually seen as the best option for an all-in-one bike. However, like a fancy SUV, just because it looks capable, doesn’t mean that it is. I have done quite a bit of touring in my life, and I can tell you that the Kona Sutra is perfect for that. Asphalt and gravel…no problem. Beyond that, I wanted to know what the limitations were for this particular build. Thus, like a Patagonia-Lululemon-wearing-Montecito mom about to drive her G-wagon in the dirt, so did I set out to get some scratches on my exterior.
The wheels of my Sutra are shod with WTB Byway 650b road plus tires. I often get some questions about the capability of these tires from other gravel or adventure cyclists. Some of them want a tire with a little more bite than the WTB Horizons, but not as knobby as the Sendero. I usually recommend running the Teravail Cannonball if they want a little more tread. These seem to be a good go-between. But since I get the Byway question most often, I decided to take my life in my hands and push them to their limits. I had them on there anyway, so there’s that.
What I found after riding the Romero Canyon fire road and singletrack, is that that the WTB Byway is barely capable of handling loose, rocky trail conditions. Loose dirt about half an inch deep was also a problem. There just isn’t enough bite, especially going uphill. Even with decent bike-handling skills, and tire pressure at 20 psi, the tires slid out from under me way too often. Turns out, there is a reason why knobby tires exist: to make trail riding way less scary.
The Kona Sutra itself, despite the tires and the overall weight, handled well. There were some slight mishaps involving the too-low-for-this-use bottom bracket and the toeverlap. These problems became more manageable once I slowed down a little and found the right lines. Once on level ground, or even going downhill, the bike seemed to roll over almost everything. There were sections that were rutted and filled with cobble-sized rocks that seemed to pose little problems. Did I get some air on the way down? Why yes…yes I did.
I’m sure that without the Swift Zeitgeist saddlebag and the brass Honjo fenders to weigh me down, I would have had a lot easier time getting to the top of the trail. Again, I was trying to see if I could make it to the top, not how fast or how easily. Imagine those guys who go out with their 4×4 Jeeps, attempting to traverse huge gaps and rocks, just to see if they can. They stop often, look at where they are stuck, etc. That’s what this was like, except I didn’t have a spotter with me. I just went for it and made it from the trailhead all the way to East Camino Cielo. Slowly. It took me about four hours (with rest stops and photos). There were a lot of other bikers who passed me on the way up and asked me how it was going when they were on the way back down.
I would have been happier on a bike with suspension and a dropper post. But I don’t have one of those. I’m not that type of guy. This fact became obvious as my back and knees began to hurt from all the rigid-bike-on-a-trail-Spanish-Inquisition torture. It was even more apparent when one group of bikers passed me by, and one of them said to the rest of his buddies, “those are the tires that are leaving those smooth-ass tracks! Crazy!”
My nonconformist cycling style leaves little room for caring. Here is a summary of my research. Drink it in:
Road plus tires like the WTB Byway are not recommended for riding singletrack, loose-rock, and loose dirt trails…on purpose. They can be forced to work if you find yourself there by accident. I highly recommend the WTB Sendero, or Teravail Rutland tires, set up tubeless, inflated to around 20 psi for this kind of trail work.
The Kona Sutra is a seriously rugged bike. Geometry and handling on trails are exceptional. Just go slower than you would on a mountain bike and you will do fine.
Having the right gear ratio is tantamount. The base model Sutra comes with a touring-traditional triple chainring, that would work well. The LTD model comes with a single chainring…having at least a 42-tooth cog in the rear is a must. Anything less would be difficult.
Honjo fenders from Simworks are well-built and can handle this type of riding without rattling. This is only if they are properly installed with more robust M4 bolts and nylon locknuts. The OEM fasteners are not strong enough. Drill bigger holes.
With the lower bottom bracket, using platform pedals, for me, was a must. I had to get off the bike too often to make clipless pedals work.
To sum up: for all the Kona Sutra owners out there, you have an awesome bike. Push it to its limits. Just be sure to use the right tires for the terrain and be safe.
[For more images, please see the gallery at the end of the article]
The legend of the Kona Sutra is that it is a great platform upon which can be built many different types of bicycles: touring, gravel, adventure, or even a rigid mountain bike. It has been my favorite for quite some time. It offers plenty of tire clearance (Max. 29 x 2.25 / 650b x 2.6), compact geometry that allows for more maneuverability, and excellent Chromoly steel construction. For those looking to build a bike that meets their exact needs or satisfy a few at once, this is a great option.
Due to the warm reception of my Kona Sutra Dream Build that I completed last year, I had a request to customize another one. Of course, I jumped at the chance: who wouldn’t want to give back to the community an opportunity to ride an amazing bike? It has been almost two years since I built my Sutra, and I have gained quite a bit more bike-building experience during that time. I was eager to put this new knowledge to the test on this new bike.
I was asked to do a similar build to mine, except different. Effy wasn’t very specific about the nature of the build, only that she wanted the same Simworks accessories: Honjo Fenders, Rhonda stem, and Beatnik seat post. Getting the bike to look good was not a problem. That left me to change up the drive train and the wheels.
I started, as I am wont to do, with a custom wheel build. I used what I believe are some of the best hubs for this type of bike: the venerable DT Swiss 350. These hubs are remarkable. They are sturdy, easy to service, and the star ratchet is upgradeable for better engagement on the dirt. I laced them to 32-hole WTB i29 ASYM rims. They are a reasonable price and quite reliable. Effy is not super tall, so she agreed to lower the whole bike by using 650b wheels instead of 700c. This has the advantage of bringing the bottom bracket down for a little bit more stability. She also liked the gum wall look of the WTB Byway 650b x 47 tires.
The drivetrain, like mine, would be a 38-tooth single-front chainring with an 11-speed, 11- to 42-tooth rear cassette. Having had this ratio on my own Sutra for a while now, I have found that it is perfect for city commuting and light adventure and gravel riding. There is plenty of bottom end for climbing. Since no one will be racing these bikes in stages, the top end is just high enough for those early morning Cat-6 commuter showdowns. The major difference between Effy’s and my drivetrain would be hers is mostly SRAM.
When I was first working on my build, the SRAM Apex was not available, and SRAM Force 1 was way too expensive. In order to have STI shifters and an XT derailleur, I had to add a pull adjuster in order to make the system work. Not so for Effy’s bike. The Apex was a nice, cost-effective solution that achieves the same result. No pull adjusters needed! I did, however, stay with the Shimano XT crankset and Wolftooth chainring as I like the look better than the Apex cranks.
Like my Sutra, I chose the Simworks by Honjo Turtle 58 fenders in black. These fenders do not come pre-drilled, allowing for an exact fit on whatever bike they are installed. With all the other black parts on this build, I thought it would be a nicer look than the brass ones I used on my own bike. After these were drilled and fitted, I wrapped the bars in Brooks leather bar tape to match the B17 saddle that came with the bike.
Effy was pleased with the final product. The fit was right and the bike looks great. The possibilities that this bike offers are, for Effy, unlimited. Sure, she is not going to blaze down singletrack trails. But if she finds herself on gravel, fire roads, or tarmac, she will be able to ride comfortably. Hopefully she will get a lot of good years out of it. Please check out the gallery below for more shots of this awesome build.
I spent a considerable amount of time building my Surly Travelers Check. I completed the initial build last April. Since then I have ridden it on the roads in two countries. I amassed quite the trove of feedback on the original build. This mostly came in the form of teeth-clenching gripes I kept muttering to myself while climbing the steep hills in Okinawa. I realized that I would like to not only make some improvements to the drivetrain, but I also wanted to expand the bike’s overall use…meaning dirt and gravel.
I wanted to keep the bike as simple as possible when I bought the frame. Being a travel bike, I needed to make sure that I could get it repaired in foreign countries. The original build featured a simple 2×9 drivetrain featuring a Shimano XT RD-M772 rear derailleur and a Shimano Sora FD-3300 front derailleur over an FSA Vero 2x square-taper crankset. Using a pair of Dura Ace barcon shifters, the friction front actuation worked out well. It was simple to adjust, and I had endless trim. However, I found the need for a little more finesse on the rear. Nine speeds is fine on flatter roads, however, when faced with super steep hills, it makes for less efficient climbing. Plus, the Sunrace 9-speed 11-40t cassette never really got along with the indexed rear shifter. They spoke different languages, I guess.
Overall, the bike did its job and got me where I needed to go on that trip. Okinawa is mostly asphalt and has beautiful flats along the coast and some very challenging climbs inland. When I returned, I decided to upgrade to an 11-speed drivetrain. This required replacing the rear derailleur with a Shimano XT RD786 11-speed rear derailleur (with a Shimano XT 11-40t cassette), new FSA N10/11-speed chainrings (46/34t), Microshift SL-M11 shifters, and chain. Expanding the bike’s use on gravel and dirt necessitated the need for larger tires. I also wanted a bit more effective diameter and a softer ride. I ended up choosing the Panaracer Graveling 700×38 over the Panaracer 700x32s that I used in Okinawa.
Always expecting the unexpected, I also added a Kinekt 2.1 Body Float seat post. It is a light, parallelogram-actuated, coil-spring saddle solution that a colleague of mine uses on his hardtail mountain bike. Rather than suspending the bike, it suspends the rider, offering equivalent ride comfort in a smaller travel range.
To test the newly-christened Surly Gravelers Check, I thought I might try to ride it on some fire roads behind Santa Barbara. So I chose the Mission Canyon Catway (see map below).
Not the best idea…
It was a gnarly ride that, based on more feedback acquired from more teeth-clenching gripes, required a much different bike. I made the mistake of starting via the Tunnel Connector Trail, which was very steep and full of loose rock and fine dirt. However, when I got to the catway, the ride was much easier. I had fun, took some pictures, survived the descent, and learned a lot. Here are my takeaways from this adventure:
The trails behind Santa Barbara are very steep in some places and have a lot of loose rock. The 700×38 Gravelkings, even at 25 psi were not aggressive enough for the loose, rocky conditions. More aggressive tubeless tires would have been better.
The geometry of the Traveler’s check is not suited for the the steepness of the descents. It was difficult to get my weight over the back tire enough to keep myself from pitching forward. A slacker head tube angle would have been safer.
My gear ratio was definitely not suited for all the climbing. My lowest being 34-40. It was a struggle, and I had to dismount a few times, but I made it. I think if I had a wider low-end range on a 1x setup, I would have been fine. I also had trouble getting out of the saddle, if I did, the rear wheel lost traction.
On the flatter parts, the bike performed well. If I found the right line, I could clip along at a decent speed. The bike was a bit wobbly, and a lower bottom bracket would have helped stabilize the bike. The Gravelers Check has a 62mm bottom bracket drop. For this type of riding, a drop of 85mm like that of the Specialized Diverge would be better.
I have a good feeling that the Gravelers Check will eventually live up to its name. It’s a good, solid bike that looks pretty dank and goes just about anywhere. I just have to remind myself that it has its limitations. For travel, it will continue to be amazing. For gravel, dirt, and small climbs, I think it will do fine. For heavier trail work, I will build another bike. The upgrade to 11 speeds was a good decision. I have yet to find the true do-everything bicycle. This one comes close. I can travel with it. I can ride dirt trails with it, provided they are no too gnarly.