Home > Blog > Travel with Bikes > New Bike Build: Evolution and Frame Selection

 

I have only ever bought a bike for just little ol’ me once.

It was back when I was 13 years old and it was a beautiful 1995 Rocky Mountain Sherpa. I worked as belay staff at the Edge climbing gym in North Vancouver and saved up every single penny to make the purchase.

Red. Rigid. Grip shift.

I rode that bike for nearly 20 years. I added a Rock Shox fork to it in the late 90s and had to replace a wheel in 2007, and somewhere along the way I upgraded to v-brakes, but that was it aside from brake pads. [Check out the month of September in this catalogue cum calendar piece of marketing by Rocky Mountain to see my bike, although I remember my original fork as black, not grey.]

The frame was passed on a few months ago to a friend and will hopefully be rebuilt into a school commuter for his daughter. I am sad to see it go but excited that it will have new life breathed into it as I have felt the frame to be a bit too small for me since my early 20s. Which is too bad because as a 90s-era steel mountain bike it would have made a decent bikepacking bike. (I’m looking forward to the bike hopefully coming full circle and becoming my daughter’s commuter, too.)

 

What the future holds

We have many little bike trips up our sleeves for Summer 2018. We also have more mainstream desires to visit the Netherlands, tour there, explore all of the infrastructure and the girls’ heritage; to visit other cycling meccas, like Copenhagen. Hit up Japan one spring (to ski, see blossoms, ride fast trains, see epic cities, and bike). We have huge aspirations to bike from Sicily to Scotland one day (or vice-versa). We are planning a trip to just Scotland in Spring 2019. Mostly we want to find small roads, paved or not, family-friendly single- and doubletrack, where we can be away from busy car traffic, wherever that may be in the world: at home in the Rocky Mountains and west to BC, the UK, perhaps even somewhere down south one day.

Many of these trips involve planes, trains, and automobiles. We have mastered transporting longtails by car, but have decided that trying to fly or take trains with the Edgerunner does not sound fun. In fact, it seems like an insurmountable hurdle, which is unfortunate because the Edgerunner has proved to be very functional as a longtail for fire road gravel touring/bikepacking close to home and I love it for zipping around town. But, now that we have an e-assist on the CETMA it is peppy, too, and more practical for four-season use, plus it is way too lush to have so many cargo bikes.

Why not the Edgerunner?

The low derailleur setup of the Edgerunner is going to cause us grief sooner or later on rougher terrain and I’d rather avoid that scenario. An internal gear hub (IGH) would be a good fix and we could likely still get nice low gear ratios since the rear wheel is only 20″. So, if you are wanting a longtail for touring but prefer one with a lower centre-of-gravity, the Edgerunner is still an excellent choice if you don’t plan on flying with it or taking trains, but I would recommend going for an IGH. (I am happy to be proven wrong here, I know of one couple that tours with their Big Dummy and takes it on planes. It just seems so onerous to us that we can’t wrap our heads around it, especially the journey home when faced with scrounging up bike boxes in an unfamiliar city, plus the potential costs associated with flying a bike, let alone an oversized and overweight one.)

Growing kids

Our eldest will be seven at the end of the summer and she is more and more independent on her own two wheels. The longtail is great for that; she can ride herself or hitch a ride and I can drag her bike. But, she is getting heavy and I wouldn’t mind taking advantage of her strength a bit more. For that reason, we will be moving her to a Burley Piccolo or using her bike on a Followme Tandem. Still trying to figure out which: the Followme has very low clearance but has the benefit of giving her the chance to ride independently; the Piccolo gives us the clearance needed for singletrack explorations (or even just local mountain bike excursions — fun!).

Going kid free

While I still claim that the Edgerunner is an amazing bike, has been an awesome adventure bike, and has been great as my bike for around town, with or without kids, the fact is it is not easy to transport and it is heavy overkill for kid-free adventures.

After finishing seven year stint of being either pregnant and/or breastfeeding, I am ready for some kid-free adventures, either with my husband, solo, or with some ladies. I am ready and a new, non-cargo bike is my ticket to ride. This bike will also be easier to transport yet work to continue guiding my eldest on her journey to independent riding on our family adventures. And, it will give me freedom, as only a bike can do.

I have been selling kid gack on kijiji, saving up slowly, and will be selling the Edgerunner in order to finance this new project. Deciding on a frame was more challenging!

 

Frame

So, this has been my journey. From mountain biking from my early teens through my twenties, to dabbling in bike touring pre-kids, and then figuring out that we could tour off road, away from cars, with our young kids and bikepack. Now it’s time to move from longtail to… um… “normal tail”.

The foundation of the bike is the frame. And oh my gawd there are so many choices out there. Thankfully, I had a few must-haves that helped me to eliminate a lot of the noise:

  • steel
  • rigid, but accommodate up to 3″ tires
  • lots of choice for attachment points (braze-ons/bosses)
  • frame-only option
  • not 29″
  • fit me

Nowadays, I want a bike that is easy to transport and versatile. I was on the hunt for a bike that could, at the very least, be good for bikepacking/touring with or without kids. Ideally, this bike would also be fun to ride as a non-cargo bike in town but, more importantly, as a mountain bike on single track in our local hills (as I’m itching to get back mountain biking more now that my youngest is getting more independent). This Swiss-army knife do-it-all demand is a lot to ask for in a frame. But, I think that I have found it and, with the right components (especially drivetrain and tires), it will do the trick.

Steel is real

Steel is creamy to ride. I find aluminum tinny. Lightweight, but tinny, it doesn’t absorb much from the road or trail, depending on your fork. There are different grades of steel, for sure, and I am no aficionado, but I have always preferred any steel frame I have ridden to the aluminum ones. I have never tried carbon or titanium (and holy smokes: price tag). I like steel.

Steel is durable and fixable. It is much easier to weld steel than to find someone who can weld aluminium. Not that I would be in to riding a cracked frame for long, but when push comes to shove, I’d like a bike that could possibly be made workable until replaced. If I am going to consume, I like to make choices that can last the longest and are fixed the easiest.

Rigid but suspended with tires

While curious about bikepacking with a hardtail and open to a frame that could run either rigid or a front suspension fork (like the Tumbleweed Prospector or pre-2017 versions of the Surly Troll, for example), I ended up choosing a fully rigid bike and am okay with that. This opens up the main triangle a teeny bit more on my already small frame, which is a nice benefit.

My very first experience with balloon tires was the day I rode the Edgerunner. It felt like I had a full suspension bike. It was unreal and that feeling has lingered, giving me much confidence that I can have a very comfortable ride on a rigid framed bike with plus size, high volume tires.

So, the frame I chose is rigid, does not have the option to change it to a hardtail (although I did that with my non-suspension corrected Sherpa…), but it does accommodate up to 3″ tires (depending on the tire/rim combo).

For further comfort, I am going tubeless. I will be building up a pair of WTB Scraper i40mm 32-hole rims. I figure that I will have one set of wider 2.8-3″ tires for bikepacking and mountain biking and another narrower 2.5″ pair for more on-road trips. Both of these tires are inherently high volume and can be run at lower pressures for some serious cushion. Or so I understand as I have yet to experience it!

Attachment points

While bikepacking minimalism may have evolved as a result of the desire to ride good bikes with no traditional attachment points, like braze-ons or bosses (aside from the odd water bottle mount here and there), I fully acknowledge that I will not be travelling at a very minimal level for a few years yet as we have two young kids (and I don’t like riding with a backpack). So, racks are a must (especially if we end up using a Burley Piccolo).

I kept my eyes open for a frame with modern bikepacking in mind, one with lots of options for attachment points on the frame and fork, so that I could use only frame bags or could use racks or pursue some basket-packing. I like choice, it gives me freedom.

Frame-only

Not all bikes are available as just a frame. I wanted to find just a frame, new or used, that I could build up. This will be my first complete bike build and I think that it is essential for me to learn more about mechanics as we go further afield in our adventures (especially with two young kids in tow).

While I’ve known how to change a tire for a long time, I have only dabbled in shifter adjustments, cable/housing changes, or swapped out stems and seats. Beyond that I know nothing. So, let the fun and empowerment begin!

Putting together a bike, even at the theoretical and gear-gathering stage, has been immensely informative. I have learned so much, although now I feel like I have even more to learn because it is a vast, vast world out there.

Not a 29er

I’m short. Not super short, pretty average really, especially for a female. A whopping 5’4″ even. I am convinced that I am too short to enjoy being perched on top of 29″ wheels.

27.5/650b, fine. 26+, yup. 26″, definitely.

When it comes to hauling live cargo, I have always gravitated towards the smaller diameter wheels for a lower centre of gravity, too. And, I still have some live cargo in my near future.

Fit me

The bike world is very male dominated. While I can appreciate that guys on the taller to very tall side of the spectrum experience the same issues as me, most male riders can find a frame that works for them. Many women riders are limited by brands that carry XS and truly S frames or getting a custom build. Custom build is not an option, currently.

There are only so many frames out there for me to choose from that give me a decent standover height (which is about 75 cm/29.5″). Plus, there are only so many places to try them out before you have to take a leap of faith in geometry and measuring tapes and make a decision.

I refuse to be bumbling while trying to dis/mount a fully loaded bike, especially if there is live cargo attached to my rear in any fashion other than a trailer. I am also hoping that I can get away with using this bike as my mountain bike and, speaking from current experience of riding my husband’s too-big-for-me old full suspension ride, I hate having a frame that is too big: it hurts to land on your top tube and then that makes me want to try less stuff, for fear of inflicting further pain, which isn’t as much fun. It’s a lose-lose.

The other aspect of fit for me that is very, very important is having a short cockpit. Most of my height is in my femurs; my 5’10/11″ husband and I have pretty much the same length of femur, a lot of his height comes from his tall Dutch torso. I don’t have those Dutch genes giving me great reach, I’m more of a stocky Scottish build. I also have a shitty back and can’t be stretched out all day; me and my body prefers a more upright riding stance. So, I eliminated a bunch of other frames based on their effective top-tube length, for fear that I couldn’t achieve the upright position I was looking for, even with the shortest stem possible and swept-back bar style, like Jones.

I was seriously tempted by the 27.5+ Salsa Fargo for this reason but knew I didn’t want drops for the same reason. It seems there are quite a few people who swap out the drops for flats on this bike with great success, even a more extremely angled Jones bar. But, I couldn’t wrap my head around it without trying it out, couldn’t find one to try, and it was an expensive gamble, so I dropped the idea.

 

My final choice

My top three were:

  • Tumbleweed Prospector,
  • 27.5+ Salsa Fargo, and
  • Surly ECR/Ogre/Troll

Prospector

I think that the Prospector is my dream bike. I’m not ready to commit yet and would have had to cash out some serious savings to pony up for it. Maybe I will do that when I’m convinced I want to go full fat and do some serious long distance trips in remote areas, but that’s not my reality right now. I was really close to buying it at one point because I hate consuming and it really does seem like the Jack-of-all-trades kinda bike that I was hunting for, meaning it could be the last bike I ever buy: for bikepacking, touring, or mountain biking. Very, very tempting. Plus they’re gorgeous and have some ingenious design points. I think I would maybe just fit a small and my friend thought someone in town had one I could try, but I ended up deciding against it so didn’t try (and kinda wanted to assume it didn’t fit to make my decision easier!).

27.5+ Fargo

I have a feeling this could be a great bike for me. I have always coveted a Salsa (a company that builds real bikes), I almost bought one pre-kids, back when I thought that I would want to bike tour on a more roadie style frame.

The Fargo frame looks small and nimble. I couldn’t reconcile myself with the drops, as described when I was exploring bike fit, above. That combined with a tiny triangle for a frame bag and shorter rear stays (making a rack and panniers less ideal due to possible heal clip), it got cut from the list.

Surly

I landed on a Troll.

If I had gone for the ECR or Ogre, I’m small enough that I could have and would have opted for the 27.5+ options in either of those. In the end, the idea of sticking with the classic 26″ diameter but getting to use nice high volume tires that would essentially put me at 27.5+, while keeping me flexible for touring in areas where running non-26″ could be an issue (like South America) won.

The Troll also comes in XS (unlike the ECR or Ogre) and I wasn’t sure if I was an XS or S. I went with S, after all. I nixed the ECR because it seems a bit more stretched out than the Troll.

I picked a 2017 model because the 2017/18 frames are the same (the build is just different) and I was hoping Get Gone Maroon was a brownish-red (and I love red and was kind of stoked that the first bike I ever bought was going to be a similar colour to this new bike). Turns out it is a reddish-brown, oh well.

I am amused that I went with a Surly in the end. I had actually completely ruled them out from the get go. They are obviously very popular and understand the bikepacking market extremely well. However, I have always had mixed feelings about their image and marketing; I’ve never felt cool enough to live up to the witty banter, brash talk, or harsh fonts, nor do I feel that I will ever be cool enough to fit the mold they portray on their website. I’m just a mom, after all. But, in spite of the super cool badass dude website they have, they continue to make XS frames and, as such, their bikes are often recommended in groups and forums as being ideal for smaller size people (i.e. women). Kudos to Surly for being there for a variety of body sizes. In the end, I decided that I am almost 37 and can handle any sort of insecurities I feel about being part of the cool kids clique because they offered the product I wanted. I looked beyond their marketing and bought what I think will work quite well for me and my needs.

I was super lucky and the frame size (and colour) I wanted was in stock; the bike arrived from the Canadian distributor to our local dealer, Bike Bike, in less than a week.

Now to finish picking out components… New Bike Build journey to continue. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, I would love to hear about what you look for in a frame, too.

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