Steel Magnolia: A Review of the Soma Juice 29er

Looks good, rides better.

DSC_6745

The Soma Juice is a steel hardtail unlike any other on the market.

Most steel hardtail bikes have the soul of a singlespeed beater, or maybe a punk rocker. Aggressive geometry, cheap steel tubing, forged dropouts, and indestructibility define the field— from the eminent Surly Karate Monkey to the On-One Inbred, the steel mountain bike is counterculture at its finest.

DSC_6653.jpg

And then, Soma comes along with counter-counterculture in the form of a steel mountain bike that feels distinctly… civilized.

DSC_6714

Sophistication is not snobbery; the ride quality of this bike still grants a confidence that helps create an out-of-body riding experience. The deliberate flex and compliance in the considered selection of steel tubing and geometry make the bike an extension of your extremities. You’re riding inside the bike, or with the bike, or maybe you just become the bike.

MD029074

I got to know the Juice 29er intimately over the last seven months, from the perfect riding conditions of late Fall, through the milder than usual winter, and on to spring. I did everything on the bike, from daily commuting to aggressive mountain biking and dirt jumping, and of course, bikepacking and touring. The bike also saw a range of builds and explorations of the frame’s purpose; I set it up singlespeed, dinglespeed, 1×10, and was constantly changing ratios, handlebars, tires, and even geometry.

That intimate feeling that only a well-balanced steel frame can create was the hallmark of the frame, something I was delighted to explore. It’s not a perfect bike, but for ride quality, I have yet to experience better.

MD029140

Building Up the Bare Frame

Like my Double Cross Disc, the Soma’s frame details make this a pretty straightforward frame for converting from another bike, or building up from scratch. All the sensible dimensions and sizes are there, from the 27.2 seatpost to the English-threaded bottom bracket. My frame is a Size Large, which comes in at a slightly shorter reach than my old Size Large Karate Monkey.

Like Soma’s more typically sophisticated road frames, the Juice has all the ‘signifiers of quality,’ as Jeff Frane from All-City Cycles calls them. Bottle mounts are adorned with four-pointed reinforcements, and the dropouts are drop-dead gorgeous. All the welds are finished and smooth, and the decals and paint give this bike an aesthetic that even Rivendell fanatics can appreciate.

DSC_6725

Unlike the Double Cross Disc, the Soma is also future-proof for some of the industry’s new standards. Since the Tange steel dropouts are replaceable and compatible with Paragon dropouts, you can run almost any permutation of axle, even Thru-Axle hubs and Rolhoff hubs. Additionally, the head tube accommodates a tapered headset and steerer, so it’s compatible with every suspension fork on the market that matches the geometry of the bike. It’ll play nice with suspension from 100-140mm of travel, depending on how slack you like it.

One gripe from the build; the angles of the seat tube and chainstays are not accomodating to all front derailleurs. The cage on my fairly typical Sram X9 front derailleur with a 36/24 double crank intersected the chainstay, so I had to ditch it. I am not sure if an XT front derailleur would do better, but in the age of 1×10 drivetrains, this may not matter to you at all.

MD029120

I went with a Cane Creek 40 headset, which translates the tapered head tube for a straight steerer tube. This let me run a Surly Krampus fork, blistered with bottle cage mounts, which matches the geometry of Soma’s stock Cro-Mo fork perfectly. The Soma fork has a slightly higher quality steel to it, but the Krampus fork is very affordable and very, very durable.

MD029171

Soma sells another Juice fork called the Battleaxe, which as Soma tells it, was the starting point for their first fat frame, the Sandworm, a fatter cousin of the Juice. With a Battleaxe fork, you can run the Soma Juice with a 135mm front instead of a 100mm if you want to. This allows you to run a fixed gear or singlespeed rear hub (or, really, any 135mm hub) up front in case your rear freehub fails, or if you just decide to get pitted on a one-speed setup for a while with a simple wheel swap. It’s a neat little addition to an already great frame that makes the Soma an ideal adventure bike.

Max Bike Map

Bikepacking on the Soma Juice

Speaking of adventure bikes, one of the ways this bike saw a lot of use in my stable was as a bikepacking rig. Even a mid-winter loadout, like the one shown above, suited the frame’s ample attachment points and tire clearance.

The center triangle is nearly the same size as a Surly Karate Monkey, as evidenced by the perfect fit of the custom framebag Nick from Rogue Panda sewed up for my old KM. This coincidence saved me a lot of trouble finding a framebag, and I suspect the stock Revelate framebag will also fit this nicely. My standard Oveja Negra framebag, size large, also fits perfectly. A low top tube cuts down on your framebag storage slightly, but it’s pretty ample as it is, and the low standover height allows for a stem bag to be run between the seatpost and frame. You could also P-clamp a water bottle cage right at that junction, between the top tube and seat tube.

MD029037

When I got the frame, I gave it a quick wrap with surface protecting ‘helicopter tape.’ The helicopter tape prevents your framebags from rubbing through your paint, which would provide a gateway for corrosion. It was pretty easy protecting this frame, since all the tubing is straight.

MAXD0300

I found the Juice to be predictable and stable for bikepacking, especially once I backed the rear wheel up in the dropouts for a longer wheelbase. The compliance of the steel frame wasn’t an issue when fully loaded with gear; on the contrary, it really helped smooth out long miles of pavement and washboard dirt roads. I put down a few long rides on the Juice, and that’s where the flexibility of the steel frame really shined; even after a full day of riding, I still felt fresh enough to hike-a-bike up to some great camp spots.

DSC_6666

Ride Quality

Tange Prestige double-butted Cro-Mo tubing… delicious. I want my wheelchair designed with this stuff when I hit my 90’s. Like the Double Cross, the Juice has variable butting profiles and tubing thicknesses throughout the frame that give it the perfect balance of stiffness and compliance. I’m about 160lbs, and I noticed a little flex from the rear QR hub, so this is definitely a frame I’d consider thru-axle hubs for. The frame really wants to talk, and lets the hub flex a tad much with a QR.

DSC_6740

This compliance was confidence-inspiring on small dirt jumps. I live pretty close to B-Street and Earl’s Trails in Amherst, and I took the Juice down a few of the tracks that let me get airborne. I wouldn’t recommend taking it any higher than a couple of feet, but the landings were easy to float into with a lot of body english and a tiny bit of give from the frame.

Bunny Hop

Soma’s frame is very lightweight for a steel frame, and with a light tubeless wheelset and smart components, I was able to move this bike around easier than any of my other rigs. It’s light, flickable, maneuverable, and loves to hop. The sliding dropouts let you slam the rear wheel pretty far forwards, decreasing your chainstay length for a ride profile that simply loves leaving the ground.

DSC_6658

Function and Versatility

I built up the Juice in so many different ways. For the wheels, I vacillated between narrow 2.2 semi-slick bikepacking tires like the Teravail to a 29+ Vee Trax Fatty in the front, and happily played with everything in between. My favorite tire on the Juice was an Ardent 2.4 matched up to a super-wide Easton Arc 30 rim. The flotation was awesome, and it really helped smooth out trail chatter on a fully rigid bike. Big rubber and no suspension really teaches you a lot about trail riding… especially when you’re also going singlespeed.

MD029127

This bike spent most of its life with one speed, which is a great application for the frame. The dropouts make finding perfect chain tension and wheel alignment pretty easy. I swapped gear ratios all the time, and I especially liked being able to drop the rear wheel out easily when I wanted to swap a tire or cog. Sliding Paragon-style dropouts allow you to adjust your wheelbase anytime you want, and adjust chain tension without needing to redo your disc brake. Awesome!

DSC_6721

I carried over the simplicity of the drivetrain into the brakes, with Avid BB7 mechanical discs. With a 160mm rotor in the back and a 180mm rotor in the front, I had plenty of stopping power and never wanted for more. I had a few close calls on my commute on this bike, and the Juice stops on a dime, with no flex whatsoever from the head tube under heavy braking. Older Juice frames had a tendency to crack near the head tube, but with the frame redesign and a reinforcement under the downtube, that seems like ancient history. This frame is tough where it counts, and feels very safe.

The frame also has Soma’s signature rack mounts, giving you a wealth of options for use. I don’t think the bosses detract from the aesthetics at all, and if you ever wanted to set up your Juice with fenders and a rack for some touring, it’s ready to acquiesce.

DSC_6679

Fit and Frame Quality

While I played around with a lot of handlebar setups, the short stem and flat bars felt just right to me. The bike loved having Jones bars, too, but the angle for me wasn’t ideal for the leverage I needed on a singlespeed drivetrain (i’m a climber!). That’s no knock on the bars or the frame; the top tube is long enough that you don’t need a longer stem to feel in control, but not so long as to restrict riders with long legs and short torsos like me. Chances are, if you have a preferred geometry, the right size Juice can accommodate that particular fit.

DSC_6669

If you have a longer torso, or you like a “race-fit” with a long top tube, you should be able to size up for this frame without sacrificing standover height, since the top tube slopes considerably. I think almost anyone will need a 400mm seat tube, so I went with a Thomson to keep the weight down.

DSC_6664

The frame quality is, as previously mentioned, excellent. It feels like a custom frame, handbuilt with care and consideration. That said, the supple steel frame doesn’t feel indestructible, like your typical steel hardtail. This bike is like a rally car, capable and ready for off-road terrain, but it lacks the brute force resistance of a heavier frame like the aforementioned Surly or Inbred. It’s tough, yes, but within limits; I don’t think you can thrash it forever without seeing some consequences.

It does feel tougher than the Soma Double Cross. The tubes are burly, and I was unable to dent or significantly scratch anything, despite a lot of gravel grinding and a few crashes/endos on some rocky trails. I also laid the bike down very hard on slick ice, while fully loaded in the backwoods of Deerfield, and it survived without a scratch or a hiccup. It almost fell off my car once… let’s not talk about that.

Final Verdict

This is the same rating system used for the Soma Double Cross Disc review. It’ll be the new standard for all my bike reviews.

  • Frame Quality: Based on the overall quality of key signifiers like welds, tubing, bosses, dropouts, and paint. 9/10
  • Frame Fit: Based on sizing availability, geometry, how ‘normal’ the fit is, and how appropriate the fit is to the intended discipline(s). 10/10
  • Durability: Based on how well the frame held up to normal, un-cautious use and neglect. I am not a museum curator, and a bike should not need me to be, to an extent. 8/10
  • Performance: Based on overall ride quality, agility, comfort, and control. Also considers handling when loaded, if the bike is intended for touring. 8.5/10
  • Function: Based on the versatility of the bike within and beyond its intended use, and the inclusion of real-world useful features like bosses. 9/10

Total: 44.5/50 = A-

MD029363

Keep Riding!

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “Steel Magnolia: A Review of the Soma Juice 29er

  1. Keep riding the steel frames and you will never go wrong. It is my favorite frame material. A well designed steel frame has a liveliness and durability that can not be matched.

  2. Rode a lot of bmx as a kid/teen and miss the feel of a steel frame. Been eyeing the juice for some time. Happy i found this review. Will be swapping my frame for a this one real soon. Great break down by the way, it sealed the deal.

  3. Hi,

    Actually this a real interesting article to me!
    I am looking for few reviews regarding Soma 650 B-side.
    I’ve found a deal to my mechanic, was mounted with 27.5×2.8. the Idea was the same to mount a 29rigid forck (ogre) and use for bikepacking and later on mount the suspended fork (the only problem that one is tapered anche the other one is straight).
    Have you tried the 650Bside?

    would be any simple solution to shift from a tapered fork to a straight whitout changing the Headset?
    I rode a Krampus but was not a good feeling to me for 29+.
    I have few dubs between Ogre or 650 Bside.

    do you have any suggestion?

    Alessandro

    1. Hi Alessandro, lots of questions here! If the headset is a Cane Creek 40, you can get a crown race for the straight fork that will match the bearing in the tapered headset. Then, you can switch back and forth freely. I haven’t ridden the B-side, but I did ride the Juice and I can confidently say you’ll be happy with that bike. Thanks for reading!

  4. Thanks for the review! I’m considering building this up as a medium-long travel (140mm) trail bike with larger tires (maybe even 650+). What is the largest 29er tire you’ve been able to fit in the frame, and what are your thoughts on a 650+ conversion?

    1. Hey Jonathan,

      I fit some fat rubber in this bike. 2.4″ Maxxis Ardents on 30mm rims were really high-volume and fit with mud clearance. I don’t know about 27.5+ but having ridden other plus bikes, that ardent on the wide rim does 95% of the same thing when it comes to grip and traction.

      I easily fit a 29+ wheel in the front, but switched back to the Ardent because that tire seemed to be a sweet spot.

      You can probably fit just about any 29er tire you want to. Going plus is an unknown, to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s