Words and photos by Morgan Taylor.
There are many ways you can build a bike for traveling and all of them have their virtues; striking a balance is not as much a universal truth as it comes down to where you want to make sacrifices. When Stephanie and I set out to build these bikes, we had the long term in mind. Not just the fact that we intended to spend all summer riding them around the western United States, but that we wanted bikes that would be useful beyond that trip.
For us, the guiding principle along the way was that we wanted bikes that would be fun around town and commuting bikes when we came home, which is really what determined the frames we chose. We were building bikes for a honeymoon adventure but the lasting legacy was a bike that would fit in to our daily lives when that chapter came to a close. To put it simply, we didn’t want to tour on touring bikes. And after 4,000 kilometres of fully loaded riding, we’re happy we didn’t.
Why This Bike?
We officially departed on our trip in July, but we had actually been planning the trip – and as a result these bikes – since we got married last October. We wanted disc brakes and the ability to run flat or drop bars, and room for tires that would let us ride mixed surfaces with confidence. We considered a number of bikes, all of them production frames, and the Soma Wolverine stood out among the available options for a number of reasons.
First, the Tange Prestige front triangle is known for its lively ride when unloaded. Second, and possibly most importantly, the slider dropouts give a range of 425 to 445 – not quite as long as a traditional tourer at the long end, but definitely short enough for singletrack shredding and city manoeuvering at the short end. We could run the bike long for touring and then slam it upon return to the city. Lastly, the tire clearance on this bike was truly ahead of its time – only now, more than two years after the Wolverine first came around, are we seeing other bikes that can swallow a 2.1” tire.
At its foundation, the Wolverine is essentially an early ‘90s steel mountain bike, but with disc brakes. People have toured on those same bikes for years, and obviously they also rode trail on them. Perfect.
The Wheel Size Question
Since the Wolverine had been around for so long, we were able to look to what others were doing with these bikes to get an idea for what worked and how we might build our own. One thing that was glaringly missing was the presence of 27.5” wheels. Save for a few examples, all of the Wolverines we saw were running 29” wheels. If you’re familiar with my writing you know I get way nerdy when it comes to numbers and how those translate to ride feel.
Putting a 29×2.1 into a Wolverine raises the bottom bracket by more than 20mm. Sure, this is a monstercross bike, designed to fit larger than race legal 700c tires, but 20mm is a lot! And it just happens to be the difference in radius between 700c and 650b wheels. I couldn’t see why others hadn’t gone 27.5”, but nobody was doing it. The other problem with big 29er tires is they require you to run the dropouts all the way at the back, negating the sliders and giving up the quick handling of the short rear end.
I swayed back and forth between building 650b and 700c wheels, also considering the low chance of finding a 650b tire in a remote small town, but eventually landed on the smaller size. We ended up with 20mm more standover, the ability to run the rear ends short with whatever tire we wanted, and a bottom bracket height that is, in my opinion, more in line with how I like a bike to handle. Stephanie says she could write a completely separate story about just the wheel size issue. Now that we’ve got 5,000 km on these bikes, I can honestly say that 650b was the right choice.
Taking Cross Bikes Touring
With the frames and tire choices set, we needed to work out how we were going to carry all of our gear for a three-month trip, including everything I needed to continue publishing from the road. We put ourselves on Porcelain Rocket’s wait list in December, knowing that bikepacking gear would be compact and long-term versatile. Around this time Stephanie saw Whitney’s Kalakala and we immediately knew the Jones H-Bar was the ticket for her build. My drop bar build began in concept around the Swift Industries Ozette rando bag with an Ortlieb camera insert.
We toyed with the idea of running just the soft bags, but in the interest of long-term comfort, decided to go with small Ortlieb panniers as well – on the front, because putting rear racks on cross bikes can be a pain in the ass. It also, for whatever reason, just looks more balanced, but that’s a separate can of aesthetic worms. What we found in practice, and this is after all those loaded miles on various surfaces, is that the front bags make the Wolverine extremely stable at speed, even with the dropouts slammed forward; in fact, we have never run them anywhere but all the way at the front.
With the Porcelain Rocket gear sorted out – frame bags and Mr. Fusion seat packs for both bikes, and an MCA front harness for Stephanie (with a spare ordered for my future setup) – and my Ozette solidly attached and already serving for long commutes, we added custom black and tan Bartender bags from Randi Jo Fabrications and King Cage USB third bottle cage mounts from Ocean Air Cycles. Along with the Ortlieb panniers and some ski straps, our touring setup was complete.
Budgeting and Eating
As the bag setup came together and it looked like we would have space, we were more and more finding that we wanted to be able to cook camp meals that we’d actually like to eat at home, using locally grown fruits and vegetables whenever possible. We bought a copy of Bike.Camp.Cook to take some inspiration on meal planning and camp cooking setups, and knew it didn’t need to be space meals and canisters stoves. On their recommendation, we used regular unleaded gasoline in our MSR Whisperlite stove, which proved to be ultra cheap though not as convenient as a canister system. We also picked up the GSI Pinnacle Backpacker non-stick pot set, which worked out great.
We cooked everything from multi-stage pasta sauces to curries using lentils and rice to our arguably excessive habit of three or four Snow Peak french presses a day, and I only had to disassemble and clean the stove once after two months of use. We enjoyed excellent dinners and saved lunch leftovers in two containers on a regular basis. Liquid fuel stoves are definitely more daunting to use, but the fact that we only used about a gallon of gasoline over three months was proof that we’d chosen well both for health and budget. Flat out, the amount of money we watched other touring cyclists spend on food at restaurants was mind boggling.
Working While Touring
Another factor that came into play was my ability to work from the road. Obviously a big tour like this is a great opportunity for a content creator, but there are some important considerations when traveling with a bunch of expensive electronics. I shoot with a DSLR and I wasn’t about to invest in a smaller system; I also wanted to be able to access my camera whenever I wanted without stopping. I have for years done my photo editing and word processing using an iMac or a MacBook, and despite looking at tablet options, we again looked to our needs beyond this trip and bought a 13” Retina MacBook Pro a few months prior to departure.
The MacBook lived in the left side of my frame bag, in its own separate dry bag, in a bubble wrap sleeve that I made from old packaging materials. The camera – a Canon 70D with an 18-135 IS STM lens – lived in the Swift Ozette, in an Ortlieb camera insert intended for their handlebar bags, and I had a separate dry bag for that as well. By the end of our first week traveling I had stopped using the lens cap and basically never turned the camera off. That shows how much I trusted the Swift bag and my decaleur hack. For reference, the camera went in the dry bag for one day in July in northern Montana and two full days in September in Washington.
Building Our Dream Bikes
By the time we got going on our component selection, we realized that this was our chance to build the bikes we really wanted from start to end, without sacrifice. Stephanie wanted silver parts as much as possible, while I wanted all black. Of course, given that we were going on an extended tour, the two bikes should be as cross-compatible as possible, and this informed some component decisions.
There was no question that we wanted mountain bike low gears, and chose a double system for its broad gear range. We ended up choosing Shimano XT M780 2×10 as it was affordable and bombproof. I also liked that the XT cassette runs on two carriers, which is easier on aluminum freehubs. We went with a 38-24 crank and 11-36 cassette. Stephanie got XT shifters and I used Gevenalle’s GX system which works with Shimano mountain bike cable pull.
We chose DT 240 hubs for their ease of in-field service and laced them to WTB i23 rims (KOMs on Stephanie’s and Frequency Teams on mine) because I’d had great experiences with WTB’s TCS rims in the past. The way the wheels worked out, with the second front wheel built around a Shutter Precision PD-8 dynamo, we can use the same spare spoke for all four wheels even though none of them have the same hub/rim combo – and I’ve got seven of those in my seat post.
One other point that came along was my need for a high offset seat post on a road fit. The Paul Tall and Handsome post is the only post on the market with as much setback as it has (26mm) while also being really good looking, so it was the obvious choice. Once that ball got rolling we ordered up some Love Levers for Stephanie and took the plunge on two pairs of Klamper brakes. Say what you want without having ridden them, but these brakes are excellent in both lever feel and performance – and we are still on our original set of Kool Stop pads after 5,000 km.
Dialing in Fit
We got the bikes built with some late night help from The Lions Cyclery in Kelowna and got riding on some of their Brooks Cambium test saddles. This allowed us to hone in on which shape was best and then order up the colors we wanted. We both ended up on C17 saddles, myself on the regular one and Stephanie on the Carved. We have swapped saddles and it’s clear: her lighter weight doesn’t flex the Carved out as much, while I need the additional support of the regular C17.
Once Stephanie spent some time on the aluminum Jones bar we first ordered, it was clear that the position was great for endurance as well as confidence inspiring in off-road situations. I called Jeff Jones to ask about the titanium H-Bar and having him tell me that the carbon version was both lighter and more compliant, I ordered that instead. On my end I rode my first thousand kilometres on a FSA Compact drop bar, but was able to get my hands on the shallow drop Ritchey VentureMax Biomax dirt drop just before the trip and decided to give it a go. When we had finalized our stem lengths we ordered up Thomson stems and a silver setback post to match Stephanie’s desired aesthetic.
We rode both the WTB Nano 27.5×2.1 tires and Soma’s Cazadero 650x42mm for long enough to decide that, while we really enjoyed the ride of the Cazadero on pavement, the extra volume of the 2.1s was preferable off-road. They are also more forgiving when you ride into the shoulder or the ditch, which we’ve fondly come to call the Nano line. Back in the city, I suspect we’ll be spending more time on the Cazaderos and the new 650x47c WTB Horizon.
The final piece to come together was the dynamo light and charging system, as I wasn’t quite willing to hack together the wiring myself. My good friend Lyle, who now works at Rocky Mountain designing bikes, started his engineering career in electronics and I booked him well out to plan and execute the wiring with soldered joints. We went with Supernova E3 Triple headlights and tail lights, and a Sinewave Revolution USB charger wired into the frame bag. I could go on at length about this system, but suffice to say we were very happy to have full time lights that we didn’t have to think about.
How Did It Go?
Alright, so after all that, you’ve got to be wondering what broke as we pushed these bikes for over 5,000 kilometres, 4,000 of which was fully loaded. Here’s the list. One lost Ortlieb rail screw. A bent derailleur hanger getting too rad with Sklar. Four flats total, two each, all rears. One new set of tires. New chains at 4,000 km total. That’s it. I carried a LOT of spare parts and didn’t get to use them much.
You can see that we spent a lot of time planning, and that paid off big time. Alas, this won’t be the only iteration these bikes go through – only their first and the one that proved their worth. Now that we’re back in Vancouver, we’ve already got some Sim Works fenders lined up to begin the conversion to city bikes.
Other tourers revelled in how compact our setups looked, thinking we were running without as much gear as they were. In reality, we had a lot of stuff, but it was just packed efficiently. Maybe we’ve inspired some people to consider a different way that bike traveling could look. Maybe we’ve inspired them to go bike traveling regardless of how it looks! Either way, we couldn’t be happier with how these bikes turned out and where they’ve taken us.