Friday, 30 March 2012

Orange Gyro launched

Remember that prototype Orange 29er FS bike that was doing the rounds a while ago? It's now a real bike that you can buy. It's called the Gyro and is initially available as a limited run of 50 "Black Gold" bikes at £2,799.99. Here it is:

Clearly it's got a lot in common with Orange's ever-popular Five, and it's built in Halifax from a combination of folded aluminium monococque sections and more conventional tubes. As you might expect, Orange has gone for a fairly relaxed trail-riding geometry rather than full-bore racer -- the Gyro's got a 69.5/73.5 angles. There's only two sizes in the initial run, with the Medium having a 593mm (23.3in) effective top tube and the Large being 613mm (24.1in). I'd expect at least an Extra Large option to appear when the Gyro starts getting made in bigger numbers -- Orange makes a 22in Five, after all.Wheel travel is 110mm at the back and 120 at the front.

Looks good. I want a go. Find out more at

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Browse full-suspension bikes at Chain Reaction Cycles, Evans Cycles, Wiggle and Hargroves Cycles.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Bespoked Bristol: Award Bikes 29er

Adrian Ward's an interesting chap. He worked on race motorbikes and F1 cars for fifteen years before joining the design team behind Marin and Whyte bikes. He built the first Whyte PRST-1 prototype, although he now reckons that bike works better with a 24in front wheel. Post-Whyte he vanished from view a bit, then did a bit of work for the reborn Nukeproof and has now launched his own bike brand. Award Bikes (see what he did there?) seems to have been a bit accidental -- he designed a bike for himself initially, had it made out of titanium by XACD and has now decided to make them available to customers. And here it is:

You'll no doubt have immediately noticed a couple of things about the Award. Most obvious are the chainstays, which don't join the rear axle and bottom bracket in the usual way. The elevated chainstay design had a surge of popularity in the early 90s (Yeti Ultimate, Funk, Alpinestars, Fisher Montare, jumpers for goalposts etc), with various benefits being touted including chainsuck prevention and the ability to have very short chainstays. None of this proved terribly compelling and the design died out, for hardtails at least.

With 29in wheels, though, designers have been falling over themselves to get chainstays as short as possible. It had struck me that e-stays might stage a comeback as a result, and here they are. Ward's not the first, some US custom builders have done e-stay 29ers before, but the Award takes things to fairly impressive extremes. With adjustable dropouts, the back end can be between 405 and 425mm long. 425mm is regular 26in chainstay length, so on a 29er that's properly short. You can get 2.5in tyres in it, too.

The front centre is short too, with just enough room to get the front wheel past your foot and the overall wheelbase being shorter than a typical 26in hardtail. Whether that's desirable or not is open to question, but vive le difference and all that.

The adjustable dropouts are a fairly spectacular bit of work in themselves, and looked right at home in Brunel's engine shed in which Bespoked was held -- the Victorian engineer would have been pretty impressed by these, I reckon. The dropouts pivot on the bolt at the back, are adjusted by the vertical bolt under the front and locked in place by the other two. The whole lot is machined out of titanium.

The downside of the ultra-short chainstays is that you can't use a front derailleur -- there's nowhere on the frame to fit one, and even if you could the cage would collide with the rear tyre. Hence the Shimano hub gear on the show bike. Or you can singlespeed it if you wish. It'll take an 80mm suspension fork too.

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Browse hardtail frames at Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Evans Cycles or Merlin Cycles.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Bespoked Bristol: Ted James Designs 29Gnar

I was only vaguely aware of Ted "Superted" James before Bespoked Bristol. He moves in circles of which I'm only dimly aware -- fixed-gear freestyle and all that caper. His workshop is in Brick Lane, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Actually his output is more diverse than I'd thought -- he's done track, road, touring, cargo, mixte roadster, all sorts.

For Bespoked, Ted unleashed (and there really is no other word for it) his latest project, the 29Gnar. Which is clearly one of the very best names for a bike ever. And here it is:

At first glance the 29Gnar looks like a 29in MTB of the all-mountainy persuasion -- long fork, laid back, dropper seatpost -- which isn't a massively common breed but at the same time not entirely unique. But the second glance (and subsequent doubletake) reveals the Shimano hub gear positioned inside the main triangle above the bottom bracket:

Again, this isn't a completely new idea, although I can count the number of times I've seen it on a hardtail on the fingers of one finger. What is new is the rationale. For the 29Gnar is actually a dual-purpose bike. With gear hub in place and sus fork up front, it's a mountain bike that you can ride places. Or you can remove the gear hub completely, flip the rear wheel around and put a rigid fork in and turn it into a (somewhat lighter) fixed-gear freestyle bike in not much time at all. Ted reckons ten minutes, although I'm going to speculate that he's handier with spanners than me.

To make it all work, the 29Gnar needs a 135mm rear hub that takes a fixed sprocket one side and a disc on the other. Ted made that too:

He ran out of time to finish everything off before the show, so details like cutting the fork steerer down and cable guides and paint were omitted, and some of the hub gear mounting hardware was clearly slightly of the last-minute persuasion -- Ted was still building it at 6am on Friday morning.

Clearly the 29Gnar is a very niche bike, but that's what Bespoked is all about. And as an advert for Ted's ingenuity and fabrication skills, it can't be beaten. Have a browse around at Ted's site to see more.

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Browse Shimano hub gears at Wiggle or Chain Reaction Cycles.
Browse hardtail frames at Chain Reaction Cycles, Wiggle, Evans Cycles or Merlin Cycles.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Bespoked Bristol: Cotic Rocket breaks cover

This weekend I went to Bespoked Bristol in, um, Bristol. It's sort of a UK equivalent of the US's North American Handbuilt Bike Show (NAHBS, which doesn't stand for Not Another Huge Beard, Surely? as some may think). 2012 was the second year of the show -- I didn't go in 2011, but people I chatted to who did (this is what passes for research around here) said it was much, much bigger this year. It was certainly big enough to impress, and the attendance was substantial too. I popped out for some lunch a bit after midday on Saturday and there were people queuing to get in then.

There were, of course, many shiny things to look at. Attracting a great deal of attention was the new Cotic Rocket full suspension bike, which might seem like an odd thing to be drawing the crowds at a somewhat nichey show like Bespoked. But it's unusual in that it's (mostly) steel. It's impressive how far Cotic has come -- I remember owner Cy Turner coming to my house in 2003 with one of two prototype Soul frames, and here he is nine years later with a range of eight frames including a ground-up FS design without a catalogue part on it. There are quite sizable brands who haven't entirely designed their own FS bikes, and Cotic's still just two people.

Anyway, enough verbiage, here it is:

Pretty smart-looking, I'd say. With most of the industry obsessed with curving and bending everything in sight, making a bike out of straight lines is something of a novelty.

But why steel? Although Cotic's reputation is built mostly on steel hardtails, Cy's not wedded to the material -- the first Cotic FS bike, the Hemlock, was aluminium. Aluminium is less dense, so you can use more of it. But in places you don't necessarily want to use more because there isn't room, like a seat tube that's got to have bits of suspension hanging off it, you get a stiffer tube with steel. The Rocket's 35mm seat tube is fat by steel standards but not by alu ones and is, apparently, very stiff. Once you've made one tube out of steel you kind of have to make all the others out of it as well, or at least the ones that you want to weld on.

The Rocket has an aluminium swingarm, because it needs all sorts of chunky machined bits that would end up very heavy in steel, including the dropouts that accommodate a 142x12mm rear axle. The 150mm rear suspension uses Cotic's own Droplink setup, with a little aluminium rocker controlling the arc of the seatstays to alter the spring rate through the stroke as well as dealing with side loads on the back end. The rear brake caliper is mounted well forwards in a position that Cy established -- from experiments with the Hemlock -- minimises the effect of braking on the rear suspension.

And the weight? Claimed heft is 7.3lb including a Fox Float RL shock. Sounds heavy? Well, aluminium bikes in this class aren't crazy-light -- a Santa Cruz Butcher with the same travel is 7.45lb. So the Rocket's in the ballpark. As is the price, starting at £1,350 for frame and Fox shock, with other shock options available.

More pictures:

Bottom bit is aluminium, top bit is steel.

The Droplink does clever things in the middle.
To avoid welding anything to the thin middle bit of the down tube, the shock mount is bonded and bolted in place.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Three wheel sizes on my wagon

I thought I had wheel sizes figured out. 29in for cross-country hardtails and short-travel FS bikes, unless you're very short. 26in for piss-about hardtails and long-travel FS bikes. And 650b waiting in the wings, driven by some big brands. The 650b-specific forks and tyres that have showed their faces thus far suggested that the inbetweeny wheel size (and, to digress for a moment, I don't want to hear any more nonsense about how it's “halfway” between 26 and 29in – it's not, it's closer to 26 than 29, and very few “26in” or “29in” wheels are those diameters anyway. My 26in wheels are more like 27.2 and plenty of 29in setups are over 30. Er, where was I?) was destined for the kind of longer-travel, burlier applications for which 29ers present packaging and wheel strength issues.

And then the first round of the UCI MTB World Cup happened. No big name showed up on a 29in DH bike. So far so good. But Nino Schurter lined up for the men's XC race on a 650b Scott, and went and won it. The floodgates look likely to open. But is that a good thing?

There are some key differences between the 29in and 650b phenomenons. 29in wheels have been around for a long time – I rode a Willits in 1999 or so, and they've been available from mainstream brands for a decade. It's a mature technology, with forks and tyres readily available and geometry mostly sorted. But it took a while to get here, and that it did is in large part down to the persistence of the niche builders and early-adopter grassroots enthusiasts that just wouldn't let it go. Most of the industry was reluctant, to say the least. In that sense, the growth of 29ers has been from the bottom up, end-user-driven.

650b's not like that. Initially the inbetweeny wheel size looked set to follow a similar path to 29in, with a small but vocal band of (often bearded) enthusiasts pushing it and hoping enough people would listen to give them a choice of more than one tyre. It didn't work. 650b fizzled and all but went away.

But now it's back, but at the behest of some very big names. Scott's showed its hand and other big players have plans. The major fork and tyre manufacturers have 650b product lined up ready for 2013 ranges. And that's the difference – it's top-down, driven by manufacturers rather than riders. 

That's not necessarily a bad thing, although there's no shortage of historical examples of things foisted upon a reluctant market that go on to vanish without trace. But you have to ask – does anyone actually want, let alone need, another wheel size?

Racers, of course, will latch on to anything that might give them an edge, however small. At World Cup level, every little helps. You can't argue with Schurter wanting bigger wheels but not wanting his bars at chest height. It really doesn't matter whether there's an real, physical performance advantage either – if you're more comfortable on your bike you're going to perform better. Hell, if you like the way your bike looks you're going to perform better. Funny things, brains.

Manufacturers clearly want something new to sell. It was ever thus, and more so in an essentially static mountain bike market. These days it's as much about selling more bikes to the same people as it is about bringing new people in. But this could backfire. Believe it or not, there's a limit to how many different bikes any one person can sensibly own (and yes, you may insert your own “n+1” line here). And the MTB marketplace is already quite bewildering, with suspension travel at every 20mm increment from 100 upwards, bikes with the same travel having wildly different geometry and being good at different things and two wheel sizes. Adding in a third is going to result in some pretty scary product matrices. 

The other thing is that for most people, the people who don't race (or do, very occasionally and not particularly seriously) it really doesn't matter. Theoretical performance improvements don't matter when you ride for fun. Actual measured speed differences don't matter if you're always taking slower, more interesting rides or going the long way because the trails are more fun.

That said, I don't race and I'm sold on 29ers. On hardtails, at least. They're fun.

So there's my conflict. On the one hand, I like innovation. I very much appreciate the fact that the bikes we have today are better than the ones we had ten or twenty years ago (and it doesn't really matter what “better” means here either). I like freedom. The UCI deciding to legislate against a wheel size for racing or is not something I want to see. And I like choice. But only – and here's the rub – up to a point. Mountain bikes got popular in the first place because they were bikes that you could do pretty much everything on. Now we've got specialisms and niches all over the place. It's possible that 650b could represent a move back towards all-rounders, a kind of Goldilocks just-right wheel. Or it'll represent more fragmentation, more confusion and, ultimately, fewer sales. And that would do nobody any good.

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Thursday, 8 March 2012

Gear backlog: The Bike Place 2012

Now that an entire month has passed, clearly it's time to bash up a few pics of shiny things from The Bike Place mini-trade show at Silverstone. It's a good spot, overlooking the track in an airy building -- certainly a big step up from last year when everything was distributed around a large number of quite small rooms. 2012 felt like a real show. Anyway, things:

This is the Banshee Prime (although it'll be called the Mythic Prime in the UK thanks to tedious trademark issues). It's a 130mm 29in all-mountain bike with adjustable dropouts, 1.5in head tube and enough beef for a 160mm fork up front (just as soon as someone makes one).
BOR is a German manufacturer of (unsurpsingly) high-end lightweight parts. The XC666 chainset comes in at a claimed 605g with three rings on it, and the "Smart Spindle System" means that you can fit it to pretty much all of the eleventy million bottom bracket standards that are kicking around now. The spiders are swappable too, to fit your chainring requirements.

BOR's range also includes a bunch of 29er rims -- the XMD333 is eyeletted, tubeless ready (just add rim tape) and weighs a claimed 355g.

Let your inner geometry geek run wild with Burgtec's range of offset shock mount hardware. Eccentric drillings alter the effective eye-to-eye length of the shock, lowering the BB and slackening the head angle by up to 1.5degrees. Or raising and steepening, if you want.

Burgtec's Penthouse Flat pedals have been around for a while -- these two-tone anodised ones are a bit special though.

Hey, look, a 29er, who'd have thought it? This is a titanium Burls one with a segmented Ti fork.

And this is Devinci's Atlas 29er FS bike with 110mm of travel from Dave Weagle's Split Pivot back end.

Devinci also has the Wooky 29in race hardtail.

Same wheel size, different intent: Kona's Honzo is steel, low-slung, slack and ready for hooliganism.
Might as well get the rest of the 29ers out of the way too -- here's a not-quite-production-ready Orange E9.

And a 29in Five, which might actually be a Four but doesn't have a name yet. Could be something quite special, though.

Swinging to the other end of the wheel-size spectrum, this is the Inspired Skye 24in trials bike, as ridden by that Danny MacAskill off YouTube (it's the new telly).

There's still room for 26in wheels out there. Evolution Imports is now bringing Liteville bikes into the UK. The 301 has an interesting rear suspension layout with the shock attached to the frame at the back end and the rockers driving it from the front -- the top of the seatstays swing up above the top tube. Different rockers give 120, 140 or 160mm of travel. It's got ISCG tabs, tapered head tube, 142x12mm rear axle and a claimed frame weight of 2.3kg plus shock.

If the 301's not enough bike, the 601 offers 165 or 190mm of travel depending on what length shock you put in it. Attention to detail includes different butting profiles on the left and right chainstays and seatstays. You'll find stainless bearings everywhere, a mount for a Syntace chainguide and adjustable geometry thanks to a sliding shock mount. It also comes in six sizes and has a 10 year warranty.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

2013 Shimano SLX

As a person of fairly limited means, Shimano's SLX has been my favourite groupset for some time. It's got most of the performance and features of XT and even XTR, weighs a little bit more but is hugely cheaper. I have bikes with posh stuff on, but the SLX-equipped one gets out the most – I'm not paranoid about tearing a derailleur off and I don't mind putting gritty miles onto the cassette because it doesn't cost enough to feed a family for a month.

So the announcement of the spangly new 2013 SLX is of some interest. Here it is in full:

And here are all the bits:

Chainsets will come in double or triple versions, with the double now being a “proper” 24/38 rather than just a triple without a big ring. The triple runs Shimano's Dyna-Sys close-ratio 24/32/42 setup.

The Shadow RD+ system seen already on Shimano's high-end rear derailleurs makes its way to SLX for 2013. A switch on the cage engages higher spring tension and a friction stabiliser on the cage pivot to reduce chain bounce and slap. Shimano's Direct Mount RD design means that frame manufacturers can opt to do away with the top bit of the derailleur (the “B2 body plate”, it says here) and bolt the rest directly to the frame for more stiffness and hence more accurate shifting. It's not something the end user needs to worry about too much – all new Shimano rear derailleurs can use Direct Mount RD or the conventional mech hanger.

The shifter has seen a couple of tweaks, with shorter levers and a manual mode converter to switch the left-hand shifter between triple and twin-ring setups. There's also an Ispec shifter that shares a mount with the brake lever if your handlebar clutter is beginning to get you down.

It's not all that long since SLX acquired funky new brakes, but here are some more. The lever looks the same but is apparently lighter. The calipers are new, with 22mm ceramic pistons and Shimano's one-way bleed anti-air-bubble fluid routing. More likely to be noticed in use are the new three-layer rotors, with stainless steel on the outside aluminium on the inside. This is meant to improve heat dissipation. You can also use finned Ice Tech pads, although they don't come as standard.

As well as the usual hubs, SLX gets new through-axle (“E-thru” in Shimanospeak) hubs with a 12mm version for the rear and a 15mm for the front. There's also an internal tweak to the freehubs, with more notches and two sets of pawls for quicker engagement.

So there you go. Nothing all that radical, perhaps, but it's got most of the good stuff from further up the heirarchy. We'll have to wait and see how pricing works out, but it's bound to be affordable.