Reportage

The Esker Japhy is One Scrappy 29er Hardtail

When one thinks of Esker Cycles, the Hayduke 27.5+ hardtail (reviewed here by Locke Hassett) quickly comes to mind – and in many ways, the Hayduke served as the launchpad for the design of Esker’s latest model, the Japhy.

While the Japhy looks like considerably “less bike” than the 140mm Hayduke with its 120mm fork and 29″ wheels, don’t count it out yet: the Japhy is scrappy and is willing to claw its way through just about anything!

Over the past few months I’ve been riding the Japhy all over our local trails here in Santa Fe and while at first I was hesitant about taking it out on some of the more technical terrain, I found it to be an exceptional climber and a surprisingly fun descender.

So, let’s get into it!

An Introduction

With the Hayduke being inspired by Ed Abbey’s George Hayduke, one of literature’s most controversial anti-heroes, the Japhy is named after Japhy Ryder, who was the hero of Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel “Dharma Bums“. While Hayduke’s main goal was to destroy the machines and constructs that threatened the deserts of the American West, Japhy Ryder – Japhy is an alias for Gary Snyder – was a poet, a mountain man, and a scholar of the teachings of Buddhism.

As a point of departure, one might say that Buddhism is far removed from “monkeywrenching” and rightfully so. Buddhism is comprised of four noble truths:

Existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the eightfold path of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism characteristically describes reality in terms of process and relation rather than entity or substance.

– The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. 

Personally, I found this to be a novel comparison between not only the two literary characters but the bikes as well. While the Hayduke was designed to smash, the Japhy, at least to me, feels more like a bicycle to experience nature in a less confrontational and aggressive way. Yet, as it goes with bikes, we often find ourselves in over our heads on difficult terrain, and in those instances, the Japhy isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves and dig in.

Esker describes the Japhy as:

Japhy was born out of the desire to ride everything from the backyard to the backcountry. It is designed and built to satisfy your adventurous side, and is equally at home on your favorite flow trail or an overnight epic. Japhy is the hardtail you reach for no matter what the ride ahead promises.

With this intention, Esker made some design decisions that put the Japhy in a different category than the Hayduke altogether. So let’s look at that in detail.

Geometrically and Programmatically Speaking

Intention is one of my favorite signifiers. It implies determination, planning, and an ethos. The Japhy’s intent is to be a bike that is jibby enough to ride your local trails, yet also a long-range ally. This discussion began with Japhy’s design. When Esker decided to split their Hayduke into two separate models, the newly-designed Hayduke went more into the long-travel, bigger tire market, while the Japhy got a less aggressive, more all-rounder platform.

Take the 120mm fork for instance. Since they base their geometry numbers off a 30% sag, Esker wanted the Japhy to be able to run a 120mm fork or a rigid, suspension-corrected fork. Esker really wanted to keep a 500ish (495mm) axle-to-crown dimension so that the geo didn’t change when going between a rigid or suspension fork. This means you can swap out the squishy fork for a rigid fork if you plan on touring gravel roads or keep it on for singletrack touring.

The Japhy also received a plethora of bottle and cargo bosses with the cable guides doubling as potential anchoring points for direct-mounted bags or cargo apparati.

Geometrically, the Japhy is in line with many other 120mm hardtails on the market. The size XL I reviewed, as a 195lb, 6’2″ adult with a 36″ inseam and a long wingspan, comes with a 490mm reach with the 50mm stem in the stock build. The 66º head angle and 75º seat angle across all sizes are great markers for how this bike will ride, especially when paired with the 65mm of bottom bracket drop and expanding 425-437mm chainstay lengths thanks to the versatile Portage dropout system, which was designed for users to easily swap drivetrains (run it singlespeed even!), hub, and accept racks.

Speaking of which, let’s look at that Portage design.

Portage Dropout

The disambiguation of portage means to carry a boat or vessel between two bodies of water. Yet, the modern vernacular has shifted. This is known as semantic change. Now people use it to describe shouldering a bicycle between two ridable sections of trail. Neat. By this definition, it would also make sense for these dropouts to have the option for mountain a rack so now the bike can carry gear as you’re carrying or pedaling it. Semantic change extends to all aspects of life, doesn’t it?

So about these dropouts, which many have noted look similar to the Salsa Alternator dropouts. Tim Krueger (Esker co-founder and president) and Anders Broste (Esker co-founder and engineer), both spent parts of their careers working at Quality Bicycle Products, or QBP, the umbrella company that owns Surly, Salsa, All-City, Teravail, plus a number of other brands.

Tim and Anders have been involved with numerous dropout designs. Some of which made it to production like the Alternator and some that haven’t seen the light of day. The process enabled them to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each design, as a benchmark for the Portage dropout system.

Back when Tim left Salsa and started Advocate Cycles, he hired Anna Schwinn to design the predecessor to the Portage in the OG Hayduke frame.

In regards to Salsa, the only real connection is that Tim once worked there. The Portage Dropout may look similar in some ways, but its function and design are different than the Alternator.

Build Spec

Here’s what I really liked about the Esker build I received, which is categorized as the J3 build, coming in at $2,800 for the complete, as seen here, minus the XT pedals, the Sim Works ‘John Cage’, and Farewell saddle pack. This kit includes the MRP Ribbon 120mm 29er fork, an XT 12-speed (10-51t) kit, and A35 Industry Nine wheels. Mounted to those wheels are Terrene McFly 2.8″ tires. This entire package is specced for the long haul. XT is a bombproof kit, the MRP Ribbon is a breeze to setup and handles damn well in rough terrain.

One thing I would point out is the McFly are on the small side of 2.8″ tires, measuring 2.67″. As you can see from the photo, they fit but it’s tight (this is with the dropouts all the way forward). If you want a true 2.8″ you can adjust the dropouts back to fit in the wider chainstay area, while sacrificing +/- 1.5cm of chainstay length…

 

 

Ascent

The Japhy is a remarkable climber, something I wasn’t alarmed at with its 75º seat tube angle. Coming from reviewing the Chumba Sendero last year with a 73.5º seat angle, my personal Starling with a 77º angle and the Moots Womble with a 74.8º, a 75º STA (sagged at 30%) climbs damn well through steep and technical terrain. Which, as it turns out is all we have here in Santa Fe. These video clips were shot on Atalaya, one of the steepest singletrack climbs in the area. If you watch closely my form while climbing, I’m riding on the tip of the saddle, steepening the effective seat angle, and thus I’m able to whip the front end around effortlessly to make it up some of the more technical areas, without losing traction over the rear.

Side note, this clip is actually the first time I’ve cleared this section! I found the Japhy, unlike myself, to be an exceptional climber, so having it as an ally was very helpful.

One factor that is related to its abilities as an ascent-minded bike is the weight of the complete. Which, I might add is equally as remarkable for an $800 frame! This bike, as pictured here, minus the water in the bottle is 31lbs on the nose. Again, for an $800 frame, with gussets, custom dropouts, internal routing, that’s a solid build weight. You could build up a light singlespeed, or throw some more carbon bits on it to bring that weight down if you were inclined.

Personally, I’d love to see a carbon wheel build with a meaty 2.6″ tire like the Teravail Kessel. While the McFly tires hold their own, they are not as reliable on steep, loose descents. Speaking of…

 

 

Descent

Remember, this is a 120mm travel 29er. For someone who tends to ride 140-150mm travel 29ers, it took a bit to get used to a shorter travel bike. In fact, there were many moments where I felt incredibly under-gunned. You know the sensation. You get moving down a trail to suddenly find yourself going too fast and losing traction, nearing ever-so-closely to crashing. This sketchy factor is part of the fun of riding hardtails. Underbiking certainly has its merits. Particularly when you ride a 120mm bike in terrain where you tend to ride a much longer travel machine.

Atalaya is my go-to loop and I’ll be damned if I can’t take a review bike down it!

Here’s where the Japhy is willing to put aside the Buddhist principles of its namesake character and roll up its sleeves. In all the “oh shit” moments I had, I never wrecked it out, or lost traction in a dangerous way and to be perfectly honest a large reason for some of these scrappy moments was due to the McFly tires just not having enough bite to chomp into the corners.

Yet, I found myself not compromising on the terrain I’d take the Japhy. Atalaya is a great example, where we shot these videos and a few photos. Earlier last week, we rode Saddleback, another technical trail. I was impressed at its ability to navigate steep chunder and dense rock gardens. Now, I am by no means as confident on a 120mm bike as I am with a 140mm or 150mm bike but that sketchiness is part of the fun.

Critiques

No bike is perfect and every bike is a compromise. The same applies to the Japhy. My biggest qualm with the bike has to do with the head tube length. To simplify the production process, Esker specced a 100mm head tube for the size Small and Medium frames and a 110mm head tube for the Large and XL frames. As a large fella, the 110mm head tube (even with a stack of spacers) made the bike feel long in the right way but low in a bad way, particularly when going through the 120mm of travel. By comparison, the Chumba size Large with a 130mm fork had a 110mm head tube and the Womble size XL with a 140mm fork has a 130mm head tube.

This means both the Large and XL Japhy have a stack (the vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the middle of the head tube) of 614mm with a 120mm fork, comparing the Chumba’s 641mm with a 130mm fork, and the Womble’s 650mm with a 140mm fork.

Now, I know these bikes all have different travel forks but it gives you an idea of where my comfort zone lies as a taller rider. Even with those longer forks sagged, the Japhy’s stack height comes up shorter by at least a couple centimetres. If you like your bars higher, a bar with more rise is likely the ticket.

This stack height isn’t a deal-breaker by any means but it did cause me to edit my riding style a bit with a lower front end. I feel like this was a big motivation in Esker making the front end a bit slacker on the Japhy. If it were any steeper, the bike might feel twitchier (in a bad way) when going through technical terrain.

Crowd-Sourced Questions

We added a note to our Instagram last Wednesday, asking if readers had specific questions for me to address in this review. A lot of these inquiries were related to riding it with a rigid fork or for bikepacking. As noted, I didn’t take it bikepacking nor did I ride it with a rigid fork but I can address these relevant questions:

@bear_of_berryhill wrote: Would you recommend it for the types of trails you ride in Santa Fe?

The answer to this is easy! Yes! I really feel like the weight, geometry, and overall build spec of this bike is well suited to our “all mountain” riding here. It climbs exceptionally well and descends easily with some adjustments required when riding shorter travel bikes…

@gavfaw wrote: Can you fit Klampers on the rear?

In my experience with Klampers, the only issue they tend to have on bikes is when the cable/hose guide is too close to the caliper. Since they’re cable-acuated brakes, they require a long ‘loop’ of cable to keep them running smoothly. Luckily, the Japhy has a good amount of distance between the caliper and the mount and I don’t see why this would be an issue.

@arroncvalleen wrote: From the Minnesota/Wisconsin area and I am super stoked for my Japhy that’s on order. I think it’s going to be great on the ride variety of trails we have here from mid-west chunky to the machine-built flow. How comfy is it for longer marathon rides of singletrack?

The longest ride I did on the Japhy was a 25-mile loop with over 2800′ of climbing. Not exactly midwestern terrain but I will say that longer distances are the sort of riding a 120mm bike excels at. Even my aforementioned qualm about the stack height is moot when considering longer marathon riding. Personally, being super upright on a long travel bike makes for more discomfort when putting in miles than a lower stack bike. Plus, it’s steel! It packs a big tire (which damps the ride a lot) and it’s lighter than many steel hardtails on the market. I think these are all part of the considerations Esker took note of when designing the Japhy as more of an “expedition” bike.

Takeaway

At $800 for a frame or $3600 as pictured here as a complete (with two lower-priced tiers also as an option), the Esker Japhy continues the original Hayduke lineage within the brand’s catalog in a more subdued package. While the bike isn’t designed specifically for bikepacking, it has the potential designed in, and while it might be undergunned in terms of fork travel when compared to other hardtails on the market, it holds its own in all-mountain terrain. Over these past few months, I’ve enjoyed riding this bike as a point of departure from other, longer-travel models I’ve reviewed over the past year. In short terms, the Japhy is a veritable ally for whatever you can throw at it.

Many thanks to Esker for sending a Japhy my way. If you live in Santa Fe, ride an XL and would like to pedal it around, head to Sincere Cycles where this bike is currently residing until we box it up and send it back to Esker.

If you have any questions, drop them below in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. Thanks!

Thanks to Bailey Newbrey for the cover photo and Kyle Klain for the videos!