Custom bikes are often the result of a person’s opinions formed by their lifelong experiences. Oftentimes, a custom bicycle does its best to address many problems or functions, resulting in a Swiss Army Knife of vehicles, aka jack of all trades, master of none. Personally, I’ve always tried to work with a builder to design a bike specific to one job, rather than fit in a slew of other functions. Over the years, I’ve relied on scalpels, versus cluttered, do-it-all devices to take on whatever kind of riding I’m interested in and while I’ve got a few mountain bikes, none of them were ideal for the kind of bikepacking or off-road touring I enjoy.
In fact, the one that’s grown to be my favorite for bikepacking or off-road touring, happened to be my first “modern” mountain bike. Or at least my first mountain bike as an adult: my rigid Indy Fab. It’s a rigid, non-suspension corrected 29’r with disc brakes and a long-ish wheelbase. While it wasn’t 100% ideal for, nor designed for, bikepacking it did the job. Yet, it lacked some of the necessary accouterment for full-on touring: mainly provisions for rack mounts, extra bottles and a tubeset resilient enough to carry not only me, but bags loaded with gear. Strapping bags to the Indy Fab often resulted in so much frame compliance that I was sure the thing was going to snap sooner than later. We all know that a broken or lost bike can be a huge drag, so I began a conversation with Kris Henry at 44 Bikes around the time this Tasmania trip was in its planning stages to make a bike designed specifically for off-road touring.
I wanted a modern version of my Indy Fab, made with resilient tubing, mounts for cargo cages and a front rack, with low trail and most importantly, a longer top tube, akin to how modern mountain bikes are designed. Also, I wanted to build a bike around the Jones H Bar, not a flat bar, which would offer a number of hand positions without going to a drop bar. All with a similar riding position as my Indy Fab. One of my qualms with touring bikes, or the riding position offered by many touring bikes rather, is they’re all very upright. For me, I find that if I’m riding all day at an upright position, I develop back and neck pain. Since I have gangly arms and long legs, I am most comfortable stretched out, even for hours on end. Even with my Geekhouse touring bike, I found myself riding almost exclusively in the drops. Take a look at the space between the frame bag and the head tube. That’s usually where my head tubes are on my other bikes, which have 120mm stems.
This was my initial thought process into working with Kris at 44 Bikes on my new bike. He worked with my fit, based on my current bikes and my Indy Fab to dial in where and how I’d sit on this bike. We went back and forth a bit on the longer top tube and short stem, where my belief was a longer top tube would alleviate hitting my legs any bag I might have strapped to the stem and handlebar, while aiding in the steering provided from the wide, swooped grip of the Jones H Bar.
Then, to make things even more interesting, I wanted it to be a front-loader. I like to tour with a majority of the weight up front, as long as the bike’s geometry accounts for that. It makes it easier to push your bike if need be, handles better out of the saddle and when the geometry is really dialed in, descends like a breeze off-road.
This bike would have a 70º head tube angle, 70mm of rake on the 468mm axle to crown fork. Kris recommended having the weight centered on the hub, so we went with a Pass and Stow rack, as spec’d on Ryan Wilson’s bike (which is similar in design intent, *different in execution.)
Ryan Wilson‘s 44 Bikes is being put to the test in Peru!
*Since I ride such big bikes, my frame bags are relatively big as it is, so I opted for more standover and less front triangle room, whereas Ryan’s bike has a huge front triangle for the biggest possible frame bag. Ryan’s bike also has less saddle to bar drop and a longer stem, FWIW. Again, it’s a matter of preference.
The resulting build might look a little odd, especially considering what the cycling industry is currently presenting to the public as touring bikes, but it has proven to be everything I had hoped for in terms of handling and functionality. It’ll still hold its own on singletrack, unloaded but that’s not what its design was optimized for. Remember, I wanted a front-loaded touring bike, not a rigid MTB that would shred trails unloaded. It’s hard to have both.
Having ridden it at various phases in the “loading” process, I can assure you it rides the best when it’s got bags on it. Namely my camera gear, which has always been a bit of a burden on the bicycle. The lack of good solutions means my camera usually ends up on my back, with lenses stashed in a pack somewhere on the bike. This system of using a Wald basket bag by the folks at Porcelain Rocket and Monkey Wrench Cycles, with an added camera insert has proven to be quite handy. It eliminates dust from dirt roads (my one major qualm with randonneur bags) and there are no zippers to get clogged either. As long as the bag is rolled and snapped closed, it’s even stable enough descending rough and rugged singletrack. Then, when I want to shoot a photo, or if I’m cruising on a smooth sealed road, I just drop the camera back in or just on top of the bag. On this particular trip, I had the idea to snap a hip bag from High Above on the front for my snacks, pump and other items. It’ll fit in the front of the basket as shown, or on the back.
For panniers, I used my new Anylander roll tops (also made by Porcelain Rocket.) They attached easily to the Pass and Stow rack, leaving plenty of room if I’d like to add bottle cages to the rear side of the fork legs as well (similar to what Ryan has done.)
It’d been a while since I’ve opted out of a large saddle pack on a ride, but I didn’t mind. With a bike designed to have weight up front, and a majority of that weight being at the top of a rack, anything else in my panniers or frame bag seemed of no consequence for handling. i.e. I didn’t need to spread any load out on the back of the bike. Also, remember, there’s a 190 pound human pedaling this thing from the rear of the bike…
Options for Plump
Aside from the updated geometry and heaps of braze-ons, another glaring difference between the 44 and my Indy Fab is the wheel size. This bike was designed to accept a 27.5″ x 3″ tire, perfect for various types of substrate. For this trip in particular, which I truthfully had little knowledge of the road conditions, I opted for the WTB Trailblazer 2.8″. It’d be small enough to pedal along smoothly during any sealed road riding we might do, while offering the volume and lower pressure for any sandy or loose off-roading. I hear there’s quite a bit of sand in Tassie! Also, this frame will clear a 29’r by 2.5″ with ease.
Currently, I’m giving the new SRAM Roam 60 carbon wheels a go while they’re in my review queue (more on those later) but eventually I’ll lace up a SON hub on the front for generator lamps. What I will say right now about the wheels is that if carbon wheels can take fully-loaded touring, I’m sure they will handle anything you can throw at them, or huck yourself down!
White Industries’ new MTB 30mm spindle cranks, a SRAM XO derailleur, PAUL Klampers with Yokozuna compression-less housing and a very special PAUL stem (more on that later as well!) round out the primary build kit. Bags from Andrew the Maker, Fog City and Porcelain Rocket are all doing their jobs as well.
Praise your Builder
I cannot express how stoked I am to own two 44 Bikes, especially a touring bike like that that at the end of its time will surely have countless stories to tell. If you’d like a project like this of your own, I highly recommend chatting with Kris at 44 Bikes! Many thanks to Mike at Golden Saddle Cyclery for building this beaut up!
What Color is That?
Desert Leather with a matte clear from Prismatic Powders.