The Search for the Perfect Noodle: An Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer Review

For Morgan Taylor, there’s a magical nexus that happens when a bike has a certain amount of frame flex and low-trail randonneuring geometry. In this long-term review of Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, Morgan recounts how past bikes have contributed to this preferred combination and then offers an in-depth look at why the NFE might just be the perfect noodle.

For nearly a decade I’ve been on a search for the perfect noodle: a bike frame that’ll wiggle just the right way with me. This Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE) build is another chapter in that long story. If you asked me in 2017 what I’d do with a wiggly low trail bike, I’d tell you long distance riding of the rando flavor. If 2017 me knew that in 2023 I’d be daily commuting on a wiggly made-in-Spokane low trail bike, and rarely riding more than 60 km in a day, I’d consider that an undesirable alternate timeline.

And yet here we are, with a swept bar and a basket and 50 mm tires on a beloved NFE that’s as happy to do an all-day-all-surface ride as it is to commute through our wet Pacific Northwest winters. The Elephant National Forest Explorer is a humble bike with a well-deserved cult following. Produced in small batches in Spokane, Washington since 2014, the NFE blends classic randonneuring geometry, disc brakes, and trail-friendly tire clearance to create a platform that reflects its name wonderfully.

Search for the Perfect Noodle

In my longform reviews over the years, one of the big ideas I’ve consistently come back to is how some bikes have ride qualities that others simply don’t. I dove deep into the special sauce of a compliant ride with the Ritchey Outback in 2020, and followed up with thoughts on tubing choice, low trail geometry, and the idea of flying too close to the sun with a Wake Robin custom in 2021. In 2022, I reviewed the Fairlight Secan and confirmed that, like with the Outback, some production bikes can indeed achieve sublime ride qualities.

I think part of the reason I’ve been chasing non-custom bikes with unique ride qualities is that, as a reviewer, I want to be able to say, “this bike, that’s available for you to buy, and isn’t super expensive, has the special sauce.” Sure, custom bikes can be built to specs that allow riders to get exactly the qualities they hope for, but beyond the financial hurdle, they can still be a gamble. My Rock Lobster was someone else’s custom that they let go of, and the Rad Bazaar has plenty of examples of custom bikes that didn’t quite work out for the rider that commissioned them.

Millimeters Matter

In the category of drop-bar adventure bikes the differences between frames are usually in the order of millimeters – and in terms of tubing, tenths of millimeters. Discerning the differences those millimeters make has become an obsession of mine, and finding the bikes that defy my assumptions helps keep the obsession simmering.

While I’ll take the long way around to get to this conclusion, I’ll say up front that the Elephant NFE is one of the special ones. Over the years I’ve reviewed a handful of low trail bikes here on the site and ridden a bunch more. I’ve given a lot of thought over that time to why I like riding these kinds of bikes so much, when they definitely haven’t seen mainstream acceptance. Low trail bikes have distinct character, especially when they’re built light enough to wiggle.

In my mind, a bike’s character is mainly a combination of two factors: the way it steers, and the way it reacts under pedaling and load. Everyone experiences the first of these factors, but the second can be a difficult phenomenon to chase. This is the story of how I came to own and love a second-hand NFE, with diversions to discuss project Al Dente, and why I think low trail bikes are wonderful daily rides.

My History With Low Trail

In order to start this story off right, we have to go back to 2015, the year Stephanie and I got married, and also the year John first reviewed the National Forest Explorer. The first of these points is obviously the more important one, as we began planning the builds that became our Soma Wolverines that year, and John’s NFE review was a big inspiration there. In 2016, as we toured through a bunch of US National Forest on those bikes, the NFE’s unmistakable color on all the vintage trucks etched itself in my mind.

At that time, 650b (aka 27.5”) was still an oddball wheel size in adventure and touring bikes and came with very little in the way of tire choice. Panaracer made road tires for a number of brands (Compass, Pacenti, Soma, Grand Bois, etc.) and Schwalbe and WTB made 2.1” XC mtb tires. When we spec’d our Wolverines there were only a couple builds on the interwebs with 650s. That year, 2016, saw the launch of WTB’s Horizon 650×47 and within a couple years after shops were full of 650 bikes from every brand imaginable. Now we’re spoiled with so many tire choices, even though gravel trends have turned back to 700c.

Of course, Jan Heine was touting the benefits of 650b in Bicycle Quarterly for a long while before the mainstream wave, and along with it the ideas of low trail geometry and beneficial frame flex (what he dubbed “planing”). While 650b may have hit the mainstream (a wave that has for the most part subsided), low trail geometry remains a fringe pursuit, and beneficial frame flex is, in my opinion, under appreciated. The intersection between the 650b wheel diameter, low trail geometry, and frame flex is coincidental, but it happens to be that many of the bikes that approach the sublime are part of the rim brake rando tradition.

Low-Trail Reviews

Beyond jumping on friends’ bikes for a few laps of a campsite, the first low-trail bike I spent significant time on was the 333fab Air Land Sea in 2017. No doubt inspired by the same types of rides that led to the NFE, the Air Land Sea was a wonderful bike that left me wanting more. Max built that bike to fit a 2.25” tire by way of a 73 mm bottom bracket shell, and the handling was quite nice—but I’ll admit that, in terms of tubing, the Air Land Sea did not have the wiggle I have come to appreciate.

The following year I reviewed the lilac Velo Orange Polyvalent, a bike that ended up sticking around for a couple of years and seeing numerous iterations. Despite the classic rando aesthetic, the Polyvalent is a touring bike capable of being heavily loaded, and as a result, also did not wiggle. The most successful build of that bike came a couple years later, but let’s look at the bike that really opened my eyes before we get there.

The Grey Pelican

My wiggly low-trail interest turned obsessive in the spring of 2019, when my friend Gabe offered to long-term lend me his infamous grey Pelican. Gabe is the thoughtful mind behind the Box Dog Pelican, and oversaw that project through a handful of small-batch runs with a number of different US-based builders. There are less than 100 Pelicans out in the world today, with wiggle-friendly, standard-diameter 9/6 tubing and relatively conservative low-trail geometry.

Gabe’s grey bike is a one-off custom built by Ahren Rogers of Banjo Cycles using True Temper oversize 7/4 tubing. It has the same geometry as the small-batch Pelicans: a 73º head angle, 60 mm fork offset, 70 mm bb drop, and a 435 rear end. After a second run at a winter solstice Seattle-to-Vancouver ride together in December 2018, Gabe left the grey bike with me. I rode that bike on two 200 km rides and was amazed at how light and fast it was… every time I turned the pedals, it moved with efficiency. And yet the thin wall rim brake fork had a lot of flex, offering comfort no disc fork can rival.

As a dry season distance bike, primarily ridden on smooth surfaces, a thinwall, rim brake rando bike likely would be my ideal. And yet, living in the Pacific Northwest, our relatively mild, persistently rainy winters enable year-round riding in lush forests. Add in the urge to ride dirt roads in the mountains, and the grey bike’s braking left something to be desired for me—and, apparently, for Gabe, as in 2019 he decided to buy the Elephant at the center of this story.

Cooking Up “Al Dente”

With our desires converging around similar geographies and riding needs, Gabe and I dreamed and schemed on how to get the best out of a low-trail disc bike. (Back then we fondly referred to the idea of a dirt-focused, flex-forward low-trail bike as the Al Dente—a name since ™’d by Beach Club for an aluminum gravel bike. Mamma mia! Let it be known that we’re discussing a wigglier noodle here.)

We considered what it might look like to build a disc bike that reached for the standard the grey bike set for both of us. We wanted a bike that would sing underneath us, that would fit a wide tire and a fender, and that had everything we wanted to make a bike into an all-year-all-surface ride. Lightweight tubing, compliant fork, rack and fender mounts, and so on. Gabe’s build of the NFE involved drop bars, fenders, and 2.1” Thunder Burts.

In those pre-pandemic times Gabe and I would ride together at least a couple times a year, sharing ideas and riding each others’ bikes to further the conversation. The upheaval of the pandemic turned our international partnership almost completely digital, and also put the Al Dente project further onto a back burner than it ever had been.

Having put a decent amount of time in on the Elephant, Gabe felt the NFE didn’t quite live up to the high bar of the grey bike. (Spoiler alert: no bike has, he’s still riding the grey bike a lot now, in 2024.) The reality was, he still felt the rear end was too stiff laterally, not providing enough of that beneficial frame flex we love so much. In mid 2021, Gabe commissioned a frameset from Cameron Falconer and stopped riding the Elephant. I was, of course, still curious.

Back to the Polyvalent

With the experience on the Pelican leaving me lusting for a lightweight, noodly rando bike, the Polyvalent’s touring-spec tubing reminded me more of my Kona Unit than the rando bike of my dreams. However, I liked the handling of the bike and the fork was more compliant than an average disc fork, so in 2021 I decided to swap the drops for a swept bar and the bike was absolutely transformed.

What made the Dadbike Polyvalent so successful is how it integrated into my day-to-day riding routines. While we love the idea of weekend rides with friends and overnights in quiet places, I spend a lot of time on my year-round commuter. The Polyvalent took me through the winter of 2021-22 in style, the character of the bike being determined more by the handling than the frame flex.

It’s a Compromise

In that game of millimeters, the big difference in a low-trail bike is the offset of the fork. It’s easy to see fork offset on a classically-curved fork like my Elephant’s: if you draw a straight line through the head tube and down the fork, the offset is how far the axle is in front of that line. On most bikes the offset is between 45-50 mm, give or take. Low-trail bikes’ fork offsets are usually 60-65 mm.

When millimeters count, 15-20 mm is A LOT. So much, in fact, that low-trail bikes often exhibit negative handling traits like instability, and shimmy when you take your hands off the bars. They really are teetering on the edge of stability. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either worshipping at the altar of Jan Heine or trying to pull the wool over your eyes. To its credit, that Polyvalent rarely shimmied, perhaps because it was spec’d with a 60 mm offset fork rather than the going “full rando” with a 65 mm offset.

Some part of me wonders if the high fork offsets of classic randonneuring bikes came about to address toe overlap on smaller frames, and not as a desirable handling characteristic. But, that’s not to say some people, like myself, don’t like the outcome of these changes, regardless of cause. Sure, it’s less stable, but I’m willing to accept the drawbacks for other benefits that come along. And if the results weren’t desirable, bikes like the NFE and the Pelican wouldn’t have a cult following like they do.

But It’s Also Good

It seems like a less stable ride and potential for shimmy would be a bad combination. This is likely why we don’t see many low-trail production bikes. So why would anyone choose a low-trail bike?

A comparison I like to make is sidecut on skis or snowboards. If you look at a ski you’ll see that the tip and tail are wider than the waist. This contrasts the earliest skis, which were essentially straight planks with an upturned tip—which mostly liked to go in a straight line. Sidecut is also discussed as turn radius. When your sidecut has a smaller radius, you’ll make sharper turns more easily. Low-trail steering geometry feels like having a smaller sidecut radius.

There is another factor in the effective “sidecut” of a bike’s handling, and that’s the rear end length. This is pretty simple to understand because the longer the rear end, the deeper the sidecut needs to be in order to have the same radius. The classic rando “sidecut” contributing factors—a 60-65mm offset fork and 430-435mm rear end—make for a bike that turns more readily, and I find this quite enjoyable on an everyday bike.

To illustrate this point with a counter-example, mountain bikes have become drastically longer in the past decade. As a result, they’ve got a lot more trail than their predecessors, or a shallower sidecut, aka a larger turn radius. These bikes are significantly more stable at higher speeds, but don’t turn as quickly. Many folks find these modern mountain bikes less suited to twisty old school singletrack. They want a tighter turn radius.

The Elephant Goes North

Alright, so we’re a couple thousand words in here, and I yet to acquire the bike that the story is based around. I told you I was taking the long way around! Anyhow. With Gabe’s Pamplemousse Falconer having replaced the Elephant in the summer of 2021, he told me I was welcome to try the Elephant. Problem was, land borders were still closed. It wasn’t until spring of 2022 that the Elephant finally migrated north.

When it came time to build the frame, I didn’t have a drop-bar build on hand that would give me the gear range I was looking for. I didn’t really want a fully modern groupset and waffled on what to do with the bike for a few months. When I finally made the decision to build it from the parts bin as a flat-bar build, it felt like a bit of a concession—a feeling that turned out to be totally off base.

How the Build Came Together

As is common with my builds, much of what ended up on this bike was already in the house. Gabe gave me the bike as a frame, fork, and headset with an ideal wheelset—WTB KOMs laced to an SP dynamo and a DT 350. Velo Orange sent up the Growtac brakes to review and that really got things moving.

I started with a NOS 10-speed XT M786 derailleur and 11-36 cassette that I’d hoarded as spares for our Wolverines, which also run XT 2x10s. I’ve got a couple used ones in the bin as well, but other than one of the clutch bands seizing up from lack of maintenance, I’ve never used any of the spares. I’ve absolutely scoffed at shifters with indicator windows in the past and now, well, now I don’t mind them! Mismatched Deore and SLX, what a combo.

The front derailleur was also NOS from our Wolverine builds, one that I mis-ordered and happened to be top-pull only. While I wasn’t sure if the derailleur would work with the 46/30 Velo Orange crank (originally from the Polyvalent), it all works really well. Paired with my favorite pedals—silver Chromag Scarabs—the sensible choices were well underway.

Surprise Hits and Permanent Temporary Solutions

The 650×50 Goodyear Connectors have been a surprise hit. With 2500 km on them now, the rear tire is barely showing any wear, and they’ve been 100% reliable. They aren’t the lightest (around 550 grams each) but with that track record, I can’t complain. This build was the first time I’d used the 700×63 VO Fluted fenders on a 650 wheel, and they came out to 68 mm wide with plenty of clearance around the tires but no visible gap. Perfect.

Yet another permanent temporary solution is my wiring for the SON Edelux II light that I’d pulled off a bike I built for a nephew. SP hubs’ connectors use bare wires, while the SON has spade connectors, so I used wire and connectors to make an extension. I thought I’d eventually do something different with this, but after enough time, it’s totally fine. I’m particularly happy with the light mounted to the front of the V1 Rawland rando rack.

Fit Parts

In the fit department I tried a few bars along the way, but have come back to the VO Granola a number of times after trying others. Since this bike would fit me with a drop bar, I needed a 130 mm stem, and a local callout yielded a Thomson X4—thanks Geordan! Pulling the Growtac brakes are Paul Canti levers, and Ergon GC1 grips are perfect for a high sweep bar like the Granola.

The Camp and Go Slow Western Rattler tape adds nice texture, and I’ve since added some Dia Compe tandem stoker nubs for something extra to grab onto. The saddle and Paul post are borrowed from my Wolverine, still with the spare spokes inside from our 2016 trip—and they happen to be the right length for this bike, with the same wheel spec.

Bags Bags Bags

Since this is my year-round commuter, I leave both the basket and the saddle bag on all winter to carry my extra gloves and layers. I’ve already written about my love for the Porcelain Rocket Meanwhile, and the story behind the brown one. Rockgeist is still making the Meanwhile, and in brown no less. This past winter I began using an Outer Shell basket tote, and am enjoying the easier access a zippered bag provides as well as the additional pockets.

The saddle bag is a Swift Industriest Zeitgeist from the 2018 Swift Campout collection. This one’s particularly meaningful to me as 2018 was the year I worked with Martina on the Campout project. The Outer Shell Stem Caddy has long been my favorite stem bag. This one is dear to my heart as it came from Jessica at Ponderosa Cyclery after she visited us on a tour in 2018. The Ponderosa National Forest logo is meant to be on the NFE, along with our Found in the Mountains sticker.

The Wiggle

I built the NFE to ride through the winter of 2022-23, and it quickly became my favorite bike to ride. I thought I’d be building it up with the flat-bar setup temporarily, and yet, a year and a half later it’s barely changed. The NFE has what I’d consider a “full rando” steering geometry: a 73º head tube angle, 65 mm fork offset, and 70 mm bottom bracket drop, on 650b wheels.

From a fit perspective the Large NFE is within a couple millimeters of my 58 cm Wolverine, so with quite a similar build I was curious how they’d compare. On paper, the two frames appear similar with oversize 8/5 tubing, nearly identical fit geometry, the same bb drop, and the same front center. The difference is drastic. The Elephant’s front end is a lot more whippy, the fork significantly more compliant—and yes, it does shimmy lightly when ridden no-hands.

But for me, the biggest difference is the way the NFE flexes under power. While not quite as fast as Gabe’s grey bike, the Elephant has an efficiency that neither the Wolverine or the Polyvalent can match. At first I was hesitant to rave about this at home, as those Wolverines are special to us, but Stephanie has a Banjo-built Pelican, and she can feel the difference there too. Those millimeters and tenths of millimeters make a noticeable difference.

I may not be doing very long rides as often as I might have imagined, but I get to ride my Elephant almost every day. The joy of riding a wiggly bike is there for me on a 5 km commute or a 50 km adventure. I’ve run my Tubus Tara rack with panniers up front and that definitely pushed the limits of the front end’s stiffness. Doable for the occasional trip, but if you’re carrying a full load often or want to get rowdy, the NFE is probably too wiggly.

Beyond Expectations

For me the Elephant has worked out really well: it’s just the right amount of noodle. It does everything the flat-bar Polyvalent did, but also has get-up-and-go in a way that bike never could. It’s faster than my Wolverine, despite being very similar on paper. All of this feels like the reward from lessons learned on a very long journey. I didn’t end up where I thought I would, but I’m truly happy with where I am.

In the end, this build became the kind of everyday bike I think everybody should have: an efficient setup with permanent lights, permanent fenders, big-ish tires, a basket for your stuff, and gearing for camping (not unlike Cari’s NFE, I might add). That it wiggles just right under me is the true magic, and something I hope everyone gets to experience eventually.

As we posted back in January, Elephant is currently running a pre-order for a batch of thu-axle NFEs for delivery in May 2024. We’ve confirmed this week that there are still spaces available, if you’re interested in getting an Elephant of your own. See more at Elephant Bikes.