Monday, January 27, 2014

What bike should you buy?

HC has always been a seller of high quality, versatile steel bikes. Our early focus on Rivendell and classically styled accessories (canvas bags, metal fenders, etc) distinguished HC from some of the bigger shops in the area. Most people who know about Rivendell think of the overall aesthetic vision of that brand: fancily-lugged steel with 2-color paint jobs, silver parts, classic quill stems, shellacked cloth tape on the bars, etc. I always enjoyed the Rivendell aesthetic, but my main attraction to Riv was actually the tough, practical, well-designed bikes, with ample braze-ons for racks and fenders, and loads of tire clearance. They were and continue to be smart bikes. My first truly nice bike was the iconic Rivendell Atlantis, which looked like a classic touring bike, but actually had clearance for (then cutting edge) 700x50 - aka "29er" - tires with fenders. That bike was, in some ways, ahead of its time. I rolled a lot of miles on the Atlantis, on pavement, gravel, dirt, and snow,  taking full advantage of the multi-surface capability of Schwalbe 700x50 Big Apple or 700x50 Marathon XR tires. I did all-season commuting, self-contained touring, trail riding on the river bottoms, and even mostly kept up with the roadies on the Freewheel Wednesday Night Rides. Versatility.

The Atlantis taught me a lot of what I now believe to be important characteristics of any bike that fits my needs and personality. Firstly, the Atlantis taught me that pure road bikes are kinda boring (just my opinion, of course). I love turning off the pavement to explore some secret trail or two-track road. For that kind of rambling exploration, bigger tires are empowering. To this day, I've never been able to get jazzed about any bike that can't fit 2" or wider tires. Granted, pure road bikes are usually lighter and faster on smooth pavement, but maintaining a brisk average speed is hardly ever important if you're not trying to keep up in a group, which I never do. Secondly, the Atlantis taught me that bikes should be tough. Bikes fall over when parked, they sometimes get crashed, and in my case, they often get ridden (or carried) over sub-optimal terrain. After a year of use, the frame and most of the components will be scratched, scraped, or even dented. If you boil away nostalgia and mystique, a bike is just hardware, and if used as intended, it's going to have a hard life. A sturdy frame, solid components (usually mid-level, not elite racer stuff), and wheels with strong rims and plenty of spokes go a long way toward my confidence level in riding the way I want to ride. Thirdly, freedom of choice in bikes is being able to choose to use a variety of different racks and fenders, or not. This means braze-ons. A full complement of braze-ons might add 1/4 pound to your bike, but I've seen a lot of braze-on-less road bike owners feeling pretty disappointed that they can't easily put a rack on for RAGBRAI. Racks and fenders are accessories that almost everybody wants at some point, and you're better off if you own a bike that doesn't prohibit you from expressing this freedom to choose. Fourthly, the bike shouldn't have design parameters that limit it to a weird or novel part spec. Weirdness and novelty is fine, when it serves a purpose, but a lot of bike manufacturers put gimmicks into their designs just to be different or sexy in a competitive marketplace. That can mean difficulty reconfiguring or repairing your bike in the future.

These days, the brand that best captures my bike priorities is Surly. All my bikes are Surly now: Moonlander, ECR, Ogre, and a Disc Trucker that's currently in pieces. Arguably there's some overlap in my stable, so it's possible that one of these will go away soon. In any case, if you ask me which bike to buy, I'll probably steer you toward a Surly. I've spent many years trying to find bikes for different purposes for different people. About 95% of the time, the overall best available option, by my calculations, is one or another of the fine models from our buddies at Surly.

Here's my rundown of suggestions to meet various needs, based on the criteria I described above.

All-round, everyday use, mostly pavement:

Cross-check or Long Haul Trucker. These are classic picks, for good reason. These bikes do most types of normal cycling pretty well. There's a lot of overlap between the two, and it's safe to say that one can be a reasonable substitute for the other most of the time. The Cross-check is a bit lighter and more nimble, while the LHT carries heavy loads and goes in a stable, straight line a little better. If you're a big, heavy person, the LHT has a sturdier frame and comes stock with stronger wheels. Both are exemplary for commuting, touring, brevets, and even fast club riding if you have the legs for it. I could list the Pacer here, but I'd rather suggest a Cross-check with lighter wheels and tires. That way you get faster road performance without losing tire clearance and rack mounts. The Straggler is more or less a disc-brake Cross-check, and the Trucker also comes in a disc version, which I tend to prefer. That Disc Trucker is one smart bike, by the way. We at HC often wish more bikes had the ingenious Disc Trucker rear dropouts, but that's a subject for another discussion.

Here's my Disc Trucker in the foothills of Mt Tamalpais.

All-around, everyday use, more off-road capable:
The Ogre and Troll are pretty much the same bike, aside from wheel size, with the former having 29" wheels and the latter having 26" wheels. For short people, the Troll with 26" wheels is my suggestion, while for medium to tall people, the Ogre with 29" wheels would be preferred. If you want true versatility from one bike, and don't care much about high-mileage, high-speed road riding, either of these would be a great choice. Both fit large tires (2.5" at least) and have numerous braze-ons for different racks, fenders, the Surly trailer, disc or rim brakes, and even the Rohloff 14-speed hub. I had a Troll for awhile, but decided to trade it for a Disc Trucker for the lower center-of-gravity I prefer for carrying very heavy touring loads. I've had an Ogre for a year or so, and plan to keep it around as my main daily rider. The new ECR belongs in this category, too. The ECR is a close relative of the Ogre, but with clearance for 29x3" tires and a more touring-oriented geometry (longer wheelbase, lower BB).
Here's my Rohloff-equipped ECR, before any riding and tweaking of fit. It's a garage-queen this winter, but eventually I'll probably cut off some of the steerer and tinker with saddle angle.

All-around, everyday use, ultimate shit-hitter:
This category is reserved for the Pugsley (or fancier spec Ops Pug) and the Moonlander. If riding over almost any type of terrain is your priority, and you don't care at all about weight and maximum speed on pavement, get one of these. The fat tire bikes have an undeserved reputation as a one-trick pony (i.e. only worth riding when it's snowy), but I find them to be tremendously versatile. My Moonlander has probably been my most ridden bike in the past year. I use it for commuting, grocery runs, trail riding, exploring, and just general transportation. I probably wouldn't ride it on a century or a brevet, but then again, it might be fun to ride past all that incredulity. Sometimes I think we geek out too much about bikes, and lose sight of the fact that our main goal is fun. There aren't many bikes that are as much fun as a Pugsley or Moonlander. Incidentally, we recently discovered that these fat tire bikes tend to be pretty appealing to people who are only mildly interested in other types of cycling. I can name two or three long-suffering cycling wives who only discovered that cycling with their husbands is fun when they tried Pugsleys.

Here's the Thill family fat-bike collection, His and Hers:


Shaun said...

Excellent piece, Jim! My experience mirrors yours pretty closely. Going from the Rivs, which I decided were too "precious", to my current Surly stable.

Margarita O'Brien said...

I saw your ECR in the shop- what a knockout!

Jeff Hendricks said...

100% right on the money. This blog is LHT approved.

Anonymous said...

Jim - interesting thoughts on a wide range of cycling considerations. While I tend to agree with a majority of your commentary, I struggle with the un-mentioned weight of the Surly line up. While I have never owned one, I have lifted them in many a bike shop and have always been shocked at their heft. It seems to me that it would not be difficult to apply the same design parameters to a frameset built with superlightweight tubing. Not only would this drastically improve the not insignificant bulk of the machines, but it should also improve the 'liveliness' of the frameset under real world riding conditions. I have always had a difficult time riding frames that feel 'dead' when attempting to maintain a spirited pace (I enjoy using clip-in style pedals for the very reason that you are able to apply 360 degrees of power - a lightweight frame nicely compliments these type of shoe/pedal connections). A second intangible when it comes to considring a frame for purchase is, of course, the aesthetics. While I agree that Surly attempts to deliver a thoughtful, flexible design, I find the overalll aesthetic to be a bit lacking. I either prefer top notch lug work with paint that nicely accentuates the lug shoreline - or - a super strong, super lightweight carbon in a stealthy black with minimal graphics or fuss. Carbon can easily be designed to incorporate all of the design features you mention while delivering outstanding performance. I get a bit nervous when I consider a wide tire - while I understand the 'do all-ness' of a wide, supple casing tire, I still prefer a narrow (700x25 or 28) so that the tire compliments the lively ride of a superlightweight steel or carbon frameset. One material that I have left out of the discussion is titanium - lightweight, non-corrosive and strong. My only beef is that it has a rather industrial look. Thank you for your thought provoking review.

Jim Thill said...

Anonymous: I continue to be amazed at your persistence in trolling this blog.

Jeff Hendricks said...

Thanks, Jim. Weight is only one factor in buying a useful bike... and price per pound/functionality, steel is still where it's at.

Secondly, I'd like to add you forgot to mention the Big Dummy, probably one of the most versatile city bikes out there. You wouldn't want to be racing on it (though there is now a "CargoCross" class at some CX races) it's capable of awesome feats of awesomeness.

That being said, I'm about to rebuild the drivetrain on my LHT with an IGH. Just haven't decided which one yet.

Joboo said...

Nice informative write up Sir!!

slOW RIde said...

Speaking of lively spirited high quality steel bicycles, consider this: My Reynolds 853 Poprad and 4130 chromoly Cross Check have identical component builds and fit. The only difference I can see is 8 mm lower bottom bracket for the Poprad. More stable, right? Lively, right? However, the lively spirited steel handles terribly with studded tires in this snow. The front end is never planted. The Cross Check plows straight ahead. Heavier? Absolutely. Functional? Absolutely.

Eric Daume said...

With two Surly in my fleet (a CC and a Krampus) I can agree with a lot of your points. My only caveat to the Troll or Ogre as all around bikes is their infernal track ends + gears combo. I really despise this configuration when I have to remove or reinstall the rear wheel. Sliding dropouts or an EBB have their own issues, but I would rather deal with those.