Urgent but RAD! That was the start of John’s email this past April of 2016. Coffee fresh in hand, what followed was a request for commission that instantly caught my attention: A 27.5+ bikepacking frame and fork with all the trimmings for a Mr. Ryan Wilson. Was I interested? Now, I know John. He’s always up to something rad. And I’ve seen a few images here and there of what Ryan’s been up to… More radness. What followed were a series of emails and phone calls with Ryan as we put our heads together, hammered out the details discussing his set up, riding style and terrain he’d be tackling. It would be my job to listen to what Ryan wanted and distill that into what he needed. This wasn’t just any bikepacking trip. This was something different. He’d quit his job of 10 years. Pack this bike with the bare essentials. Point it south and head for an extended stay in Peru. This bike needed to be designed and built to handle the rigors that lay ahead. Of course I was in!
A big part of my process is to understand the requirements of the build to come. A key first step is to discuss how the bike will be ridden and even more important, where it will be ridden. These two factors inform how I should be building the bike, what geometry to choose and give direction as to what components best align with these requirements. Set up wise (that’s the “how” part), Ryan wanted to run a porter style front rack, which would be made by Pass & Stow and have the option to run Anything Cages on the fork legs. Ryan would be proverbially off the map and basically off grid, so we discussed his options to run a generator hub with internal routing. 15mm thru axle up front and a 12×148 (boost) rear spacing along with a 44mm tapered steerer in a non-suspension corrected setup to maximize frame bag capacity as much as possible was a must. Cable routing would be full housing and I included the ability to run a dropper should he choose to at a later date. Drivetrain would be 1×11 and braking would be disc equipped. His kit would include a frame bag, seat pack and a few accessories on the bars as well as the top tube. He did not plan on running a rear rack for this trip but wanted the option just in case. Also up front would be the option to run traditional low rider mounts with panniers if not running the rack. Last but not least would be 3 bottle mounts. “Where” this bike would be ridden? Ryan’s basic requests were comfortably fits a 27.5 x 3” tire with a bit of mud clearance, confident on techy singletrack but still made to handle long days on mixed terrain like primitive dirt / mud roads, pavement and of all things: goat trails. Par for the course sounded like it would be 13-15k mountain passes. Essentially, he’d be “out there”. Lucky for me, I took notes.
Now let’s talk about fit. Rarely do clients have a true fit issue. What I’ve noted over time is that either they are between stock sizes making compromises or they have a handful of bikes that all have some sort of shortcoming with this clarification: “If only it had this AND that.” (That’s where I come into the equation.) From the start, I want to know where the client is in space. I’ll request a few images of existing bikes and some times if the rider cannot come over to the shop, a shot of them perched on their bike. The physical measurements I gather compose a rather short list. Cockpit length (horizontal length from handlebars to saddle), horizontal distance from the saddle tip to where the seat post connects to the rails, followed by the length of the saddle and finally, saddle height (center of the bottom bracket to center top of the saddle). I take a host of measurements from the rider but the three most important measurements for me are height, inseam and shoe size. This creates the foundation from which I can make slight adjustments to get the rider DOWN and IN the bike, balancing their mass between the wheels and keeping the load as low and centered as possible.
Geometry wise, I’ve found that certain measurements excel in certain terrain and it can be a fine balance between too much and too little of something. Good design is as little design as possible. It’s gotta be “just so”. And like wheel sizes, every factor that goes into making a bicycle and tuning how it handles is a bit of a compromise. Given that Ryan had long days planned ahead, I did not want to make the bike too tight or aggressive. This was a bikepacking rig first. Balancing those long days so the bike would be comfortable and confident at speed while loaded but keeping the bike playful and fun would be the challenge. No one number is king when it comes to bicycle geometry. Rather, it’s the whole picture: Head tube angle, fork offset, bottom bracket drop and chain stay length all play an equal role regarding how the bike will handle.
Ryan’s cockpit was pretty dialed in terms of length. Given this would be a non-suspension corrected platform, we could really play with a few numbers to optimize capacity for gear and hone overall fit. So we lengthened the head tube considerably. This opened up the usable space at the head tube and allowed the frame bag to increase in volume and lowered where the weight would be placed on the bike. Lengthening the head tube also allowed me to just about level the bars and saddle so his cockpit length stayed the same but on long days he’d sit just a bit more upright, taking some weight off his hands and getting it on his hips a bit more. How long the head tube and just how long the fork should be was an interesting problem to solve. Too much head tube increased the weight of the frame. Too much fork length reduced the usable space for the frame bag. Too much steerer would induce some flex under hard braking. I settled on an axle to crown measurement of 440mm, a head tube length of 200mm and made an allowance for about 20mm of space below the stem for gear tie in points.
I also tuned the bottom bracket drop to lower his center of gravity a touch. I’ve found by lowering the rider’s center of gravity, you increase the quickness of how the bike handles. Although tire choice and tire pressure play a factor in this, I shot for a 12” bottom bracket height. In combination with not too steep a head angle (70°), we’re delivering a bike that is stable at speed under load but because we’ve dropped the rider’s center of gravity, it still reacts quickly without being twitchy. Seat tube angle sits at 72°. If the tube did not have a radius, this equates to about the same position as if the seat tube angle had been 73°. Chain stay length also plays a part with handling. Too short and the bike indeed is fun to ride and is incredibly agile, but on long days past the 2 hour mark? You’re going to be feeling it and getting punished. In contrast, if the chain stays are too long, the bike begins to handle sluggishly. In this case, we also wanted to provide ample mud clearance so I placed the rear wheel at 16.75” / 425mm. I’ve found that the bike still remains playful but on long days you’re not getting beat up at this length. For the pedantic types, Ryan stands 6’2” with a 35.33” inseam. Factoring the above, reach came in at 17.9” / 455mm and his stack came in just around 24.13” / 613mm.
And of course there was that front rack. Ryan’s set up called for a loaded front end. Some times he admitted he’d be pushing his bike. I get that. We all have been known to push our bikes up a hill that won the battle. So walking beside the bike is key and having the load out in front and then distributed down the centerline of the bike makes this task less painful. The load is pivoting off the centerline of the bike. The most important factor when it comes to a front rack and a fork’s rake is placing the front axle about dead center beneath the rack. Too far back and the load is out in front of the bike, making things a bit unpredictable. I gathered measurements for the Pass and Stow rack and settled on 70mm of rake that equates to about 54mm of trail, which centers the load over that 15mm thru axle.
With a few adjustments and thoughtful planning, Ryan and I were able to optimize a host of factors. By looking at the bike as a whole, addressing his requirements and setup, I was able to center the load on the bike, building him down and IN the bike while leveling his saddle and bars to keep him in a comfortable position on long days. Geometry delivers a stable bike at speed with predictable handling characteristics. It’s quick without being too twitchy yet stable without being too sluggish. And when unloaded, this bike can shred with the best of them. Working with Ryan was a pleasure, as he knew what he wanted and that gave me a clear understanding of what he needed. The icing on the cake is seeing his photos. That’s proof bicycles are amazing.