Let’s get masochistic!
A good bike build starts with a long, reclusive, brooding period of introspection. I spent three months scrutinizing details to the point of madness and back, scouring the web for inspiration, guidance, and emotional support. My local bike shop almost disowned me, but at long last, success! My new bikepacking rig is complete!
As you seclude yourself into your inner cave to attempt a bike build, start by asking yourself a few questions:
- What am I riding now?
- What am I riding next?
- What bikes do I admire the most?
For some people, Question One is the most important part of the process. It’s the reason custom frame builders ask for a list of your favorite bikes during the vetting process. ‘What am I riding now?’ assumes your new bike is a natural progression along your current path.
For me, I had to focus on Question Two: ‘What am I riding next?’ My path is not well defined, and my horizons have expanded rapidly over the last year of ripping about on my Surly Karate Monkey. Owning my first mountain bike and pushing it to its limit helped me figure out what I needed in an off-road machine. I’m ready for a fork in the road.
Then enters Question Three: ‘What bikes do I admire the most?’
The answer to Question Three is, without a doubt, singlespeeds. I am smitten with the idea of singlespeeds. Conceptually, it’s the cleanest bike in the world.
If you graph the distance between your fastest and slowest speed, you’ll see a range that depends on your power, your route, and your bike. When you’re off-road, your speed is limited; the distance between your climbing speed and your descending speed is much, much smaller than on a road bike, which can easily span a range of 5mph to 45mph in a single ride.
In other words, the mountain bike discipline loves a smaller gear range. Most serious mountain bikers today use 1×10 or 1×11 gear systems, with clutch derailleurs and huge cassettes, because the elimination of the front derailleur also eliminates a whole host of shifting issues, including dropped chains. They don’t mind the slightly limited range of gear inches, since there’s not as much variation off-road as there is on-road.
Singlespeeding takes this to another level. No range at all; just a single ratio right in the middle of everything you’re doing. I dipped my feet into this world with a two-speed setup using a Paul Melvin and a front derailleur. It was a fun system, but I felt like I was standing on the sidelines of singlespeed mountain biking. I couldn’t quite appreciate the zen experience of spending an entire ride without thinking beyond brakes and cranks. I was yearning for it.
Ultimately, the frame I settled on was a Soma Juice 29er. It checked all the following boxes for me:
- High-Quality steel
- Paragon-style sliding dropouts
- Low standover height
- Short reach
- Tapered head tube
- English bottom bracket
The bearing interfaces in this frame are perfect. An english-threaded BB shell means I don’t have to even think about BB30 conversions, and thank god for that. The headset I used is a Cane Creek ZS44 zero stack, so I can run the same bearings and steering tube as a regular old 1 1/8″ threadless headset. I still have the option of running a modern suspension fork later.
The lines on the Juice are so clean. The welds are smooth, tight, and uniform and the cable bosses are intelligently placed.
My singlespeed drivetrain uses a 32T Surly steel chainring and an 18T Chris King cog matched up to a freehub body using Surly spacers. Right now, I’m using a regular old 9-speed chain, but in a week I’ll be upgrading to a Whipperman bushing-style chain, one of the strongest and longest lasting chains available. An all-steel SS drivetrain lasts forever.
My X9 crankset with an aftermarket North Shore Billet spider takes the single ring perfectly; adjusting chainline is as easy as swapping around spacers in the back. That’s good; I’ll need a perfectly straight chainline with the Whipperman chain.
I chose XT hubs because they’re cheap, reliable, serviceable, and can be repaired or replaced almost anywhere in the world. They use simple ball bearings and can be flushed and re-greased with a few cone wrenches and some basic know-how, and they have served me well through three winters. I went with the high-flange, 6-bolt version for a bit of extra strength.
I went with Easton Arc 30 rims. They’re a new offering for the 29″ and 27.5″ market. Symmetrical spoke lengths, welded aluminum rim, no brake track, and three different widths for different tire profiles. I went fat, fat, fat with 30mm internal width, and then set them up 3-cross with DT Swiss double-butted spokes and brass nipples. Both tires are set up tubeless with Stan’s rim tape and sealant.
In the front, I’ve got a 3.0-inch Trax Fatty, which ends up being about 2.8 inches wide on my rim. It has a nice round profile at 20 PSI, with a smooth-rolling center tread that makes up for the considerable footprint.
In the back, an Ardent 2.4 sits slightly wider than usual on the rim, with a nice squared profile. The grip on this tire is insane; the trails I’m on are covered in wet leaves, and I have better traction climbing on my rear tire than I do while walking the bike.
The 29+ tire in the front paired with the biggest rubber I can fit in the back is magic. I am much more confident on jumps and rough sections, I never lose traction, and I’ve noticed no difference in rolling resistance. If anything, the rounded profile of the Trax Fatty makes it feel faster than my old 2.35’s. The two tires don’t even look too different in terms of diameter, so I don’t think it’s affecting my handling at all. Frame builder Jeff Jones actually designs bikes with this tire size combo. And speaking of Jeff Jones..
I’m using Jones Loop H-Bars, one of the coolest bikepacking handlebar setups around. If you don’t know Jeff Jones, he’s the supreme leader of an alternate timeline of mountain bikers, where the rules and conventions of 30 years of mountain bike design have been thrown out in favor of innovation and creativity.
The loop bars have a swept-back profile, with two center levels. One places the rider’s hands close together, and keeps the body upright. The other, “loop” section out front serves as a pseudo-aerobar, perfect for climbing and descending. It stretches you out and places you in a more aerodynamic position; a bend at the elbows allows you to flatten almost completely out for minimal resistance.
Even the grip section allows flexibility. If you ride up near the brake, with two fingers on the lever, you’ve got aggressive control and good braking power for long downhill sections and singletrack. Slide an inch back to a 1-finger braking position, and you have a relaxed riding position perfect for casually exploring new trails at moderate speed. Slide even further back, and you’re on a beach cruiser. The extra-long custom ESI grips allow smooth transitions between positions.
It’s a fun handlebar, and I’ve really been enjoying it. Jeff Jones took time out of his day to call me when I mentioned I’d be running the bar on my blog (I bought a used bar). He guided me through the ideal bar position, stem length, distance from headset, and seat position to utilize the bar as it was designed, and I tried to set the bar up exactly the way he described. The short reach of my frame and a relatively short stem makes the position feel more upright than I’m used to, but the experience of riding can only be described as falling inside the bike, at one with the terrain and the undulating trail.
I kept my Avid BB7 brakes. Don’t fix what isn’t broken! Some micro-adjustments at the levers really improved braking feel, to the point where I’m comfortable using one finger most of the time. Compressionless brake housing rocks.
To interface well with the frame, I needed a fork that compensated for 100mm of travel that was still QR-compatible, and I really didn’t want to lose all the bosses my Ogre fork had. Luckily, Surly makes a special Krampus fork with bottle bosses for bikepacking, and the geometry matches the Juice frame perfectly. Good price, great utility, even better durability.
A Thomson seatpost and the original WTB Pure-V from my first touring bike, now close to 20,000 miles old, round out my contact points. I want to get a little further over the back wheel, so I have a setback Thomson on order with my LBS.
VP Harrier flat pedals with Five Ten Aescents finish up the build. They’ve chewed into my shins two or three times now, but they work great. I’m really beating them up on the rockier, more technical trails, so I hope they keep working great…
First Night Out
I took the Juice out to the eastern side of the state for Thanksgiving. Rather than sleep on the floor in my grandparent’s place, I packed a bag quickly and set out for greener pastures.
On a little spit of land off the coast of Massachusetts, right between Hingham and Hull lies World’s End, a park tracing its lineage to Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the same landscape architect behind Central Park, Cornell, Stanford, and Yale. Olmsted set out to design a subdivision of apartments, placed the access roads, cleared the fields, and never completed the project. It affords a beautiful view of the many harbors and coves off the coast of Hingham, and I had the whole place to myself.
Temperatures went slightly south of 30º with the constant wind coming off the ocean, but my bivy bag was nice and warm. I tied off the line to my handlebars to keep the mesh off my face and slept out under the stars. What a perfect night.
With about 10 hours of trail time under my belt, the bike is an improvement from my sightly-too-big Karate Monkey in every way. It’s light at 27lbs, agile with the huge tire footprint, and extraordinarily simple with the singlespeed drivetrain and standard, utilitarian component group. It’s durable and efficient for long distance travel, and ready to be strapped up with bikepacking bags. And whaddya know, my framebag still fits!
The best bike is the one you carefully curate yourself. It might not be custom, but this hunk of Soma Steel certainly feels like it, and it looks the part, too. Love at first sight.