Todd, from Black Cat Bicycles, has long been a favorite framebuilder of mine. A while back I did an Inside/Out Shop Visit with him in his home shop out of Aptos, California, and showcased a few of his bikes. I’ve also reviewed one of his Thunder Monkey hardtails. Something about his fillet-brazed and hand-carved lugged creations always resonated with me, even though I am usually attracted to tig-welded, more utilitarian “off-road” bikes. Truth be told: I’ve long wanted a Black Cat but wasn’t sure what to ask Todd to build for me.
Then it happened. As I was catching up with him at the 2022 Chris King Guest House event, I couldn’t stop drooling over the Swami 29er he had on display, so much so that I put a deposit down for one shortly after. So why buy a rigid mountain bike? I actually love riding rigid bikes on the same trails I ride my hardtails and full suspension bikes on. While I don’t take the same lines on my rigid bikes, I’m still relatively fast, or plenty fast enough, when descending a bike sans suspension.
For me, it’s all about being connected and honing skills. At this point, both reasons are tropes in bike reviews like this, right? Yet there’s something addicting to riding rigid bikes, and the Swami 29er has proven to be an incredible ally on our trails here in the Southern Rockies. Let’s check it out in detail below.
The Swami is an interesting bike. But then again, Todd from Black Cat is an interesting fella, so they’re one in the same. Curvy, trippy tubes, wild paint, and moderate angles. Plus that curved seat tube. There is a lot going on for such a simple machine. Todd laid out the design intent for the Swami in one of our early emails:
“My goal with the project is to build an up-to-the-moment rigid mountain bike, not a throwback to the 90s’ NORBA geometry, but also not an attempt at pushing some geometry envelope that we’re not sure we want to be pushed. Rather, a new-school, proven geometry that is comfortable in the widest variety of terrain as possible.”
- Standard boost axle sizes (110 x 15 front, 12 x 148 rear) to ensure parts availability and pragmatism
- Up to 2.6″ tire size possible
- Custom built non-suspension corrected unicrown steel fork to insure ride quality and durability
- Art school dropouts or swinger single-speed dropouts
- S-bend seat stays for excellent compliance
- IS brake caliper mounts for maximum compatibility, durability, and weight savings
- Completely sealed tube set
- Lugged-style gusset at the head tube/down tube junction
- Comes with a single-color powder coat with a two-color logo or panel. Original paint design is certainly available.
- 73mm British threaded bb shell
- 1-1/8″ to 1-1/4″ tapered fork and Chris King/White Industries headset, ec34 top, ec37/33 bottom
- “Recurve” top line: convex curve on the top tube, concave curve on the seat stays
After comparing my other bikes and addressing my fit qualms with previous rigid mountain bikes, we came up with a clear and concise direction. It all came down to the tip of saddle to bar clamp dimension, which I typically use to determine if a bike will fit me. I tend to prefer 22″-24″ in this realm, depending on the proposed purpose of the bike. I veer towards the longer end of that window for anything fast-feeling, and on the shorter end for all-day exploits. Todd and I went back and forth nailing this dimension down, resulting in 22″ on the nose with the 55mm stem.
Todd doesn’t work in BikeCad or on the computer for his bike drawings. Instead, he sends over a full-size drawing with the geometry noted…
- Head Tube Angle 68º
- Seat Tube Angle (effective due to curve) 73º
- Bottom Bracket Height: 11.8″/ bb drop 3.1″
- Effective Top Tube 26″
- Head Tube length 7.6″
- Chainstay length starting at 430mm — good amount of room for 2.6″ tires with a 28t chain ring.
- Unicrown fork at 17.3″ x 2″ — 440 x 52mm
- Cables/hoses along the chainstay/bottom of the down tube
- 30.9 seatpost, with a total height of less than about 500mm (175mm-185mm). Longer than that runs into the radius and/or bottle bosses on the seat tube
Check out that “recurve” top tube to seat stay line…
All of the parts for Todd’s bikes are hand-cut, hand-bent, and machined in his shop. He doesn’t order a kit from a framebuilding supplier; he makes every component unique to a Black Cat. This includes his tubeset selection, which is a light and responsive mix of Reynolds, Columbus, and Velospec. He likes smaller diameter tubing with thicker walls, bent to all kinds of groovy shapes to offer up a truly unique ride.
On a recent ride with a friend, we discussed rigid mountain bikes in rough terrain. He’d commented on how fast I was moving through the rocky trails and how he needed to set his bike up differently for trail riding. I remarked, “man, it’s all about big tires and flexy tubes,” and began to shift my hips and handlebars in an opposing motion, showing how much the Swami flexes. His response was, “whoaaaaa it’s a noodle bike!”
Now this isn’t an aluminum-lugged, carbon tubing 1990s road bike “noodle;” it just has some flex…
That conversation stuck with me, and I began to think about the “c” word: compliance. Bastardized by carbon fiber marketing jargon over the years, related to frames and wheels, compliance is the property of a material undergoing elastic deformation when subjected to an applied force. It is equal to the reciprocal of stiffness. Simple enough, right? By moving my hips and arms in opposing directions, I displayed the frame’s compliance due to the tubing diameters, butting profiles, and unique bends.
A straight-t000bed bike with no bends or a bike built from oversized tubing might not flex as well as the Swami flexes. Since I don’t plan on doing any fully-loaded touring on this bike–I’ve got my Sklar 29+ tourer for that–I was a-ok with Todd making me a springy frame.
The beauty of a bike designed to flex is its uncanny ability to slide through rocky and steep terrain. I don’t monster-truck launch or jib over rocks as I do with my full suspension, but I’m still navigating the same terrain. Like a trout in shallow water, bikes like the Swami find the path of least resistance to slip and slide across the rocks, skirting around the chundery terrain while maintaining a sure and stable footing.
What I love about the Swami is I can pre-load this springy action to my advantage. Kind of like you would in a board sport. I call this “frame pop.” If going into a sharp, flat turn, I can counter-load the bike just before and use the deformation as a spring. It’s also great when I have to make last-minute course corrections, as shifting my body weight to the side will ultimately cause the bike to flex in that direction. It helps to be 190lb, 6’2″; I can use my weight to push the bike into pleasant deformity, and suddenly, even the most familiar trails require different dance moves when I ride the Swami.
TL;DR, a bike with compliance isn’t a bad thing at all. Dance with your bikes!
Build Kit: Vintage Modernism
I love me a mountain klunker. My recent vintage builds have a way of infecting or influencing my modern builds. For instance, on the Swami, I wanted to use my vintage Magura “two-finger” levers from the mid-80s paired with short pull PAUL Klampers. I even have the original rubber brake lever boots! I’ll admit, I first thought of this combination with aesthetics in mind, but this setup provides more than enough stopping power for this bike, even on super techy trails, and the modulation is off the charts. The levers matched the Moonmen Moonriser 3″ rise titanium bars that look like they came from a mid-80s moto build. The WTB grips are a throwback profile from the “turned down” Magura POW-R motorcycle grips. If it ain’t moto, it’s worthless!
Since we live at 7000′ and every ride here is a real ass-kicker, I wanted to have the same “alpine” gearing setup I use on all my trail bikes: 52t cassette and a 28t chainring. This keeps my knees happy and my cadence fluid. I have very long legs, so 175mm cranks paired with a slack-er seat angle keep my hips happy too. Continuing with the vintage-inspired, modern components, I thought the Engin Port Royal cranks paired with a 44RN ring would look the part. Then I went over the top and ordered a copper SRAM chain and Eagle cassette.
Last but not least on the drivetrain is the beautiful Ingrid rear derailleur. These made-in-Italy derailleurs work with SRAM, Campy, or Shimano shifters and can be paired with either road or MTB shifters. They also come in a variety of colors, including this stunning flat olive drab. The beauty of a great product is that it melds in with your day-to-day use so well that you never have to think about it. Looking good is just a fortunate by-product here!
I had Bailey at Sincere Cycles re-lace an older set of ENVE wheels with silver spokes, and I stripped the stanchion of my Wolf Tooth dropper to add more silver bits to the build kit. The “New Mexico tire of choice,” aka the Teravail Kessel 2.6,” wraps these carbon hoops, keeping me planted on steep climbs and maintaining traction while shredding lightly. Eventually, I’d love to swap to some polished aluminum rims, but I’ve had these ENVE wheels for so long that I might as well continue to thrash them.
Between the Klampers and the big tires, this bike has no issues descending from the mountains to the foothills here in town. The ergonomics and modulation I get with the Magura levers are divine, and this black and silver build kit has grown on me! Ultimately, the Swami build met my goal of a vintage-inspired modern rigid 29er.
Swami Parti Diagram
Here’s where it gets nerdy. This cockpit is held in place at the steerer by this unique stem that Todd makes for some of his projects. Inspired by vintage BMX stems like the Tuf Neck, the “Sturdy Wrist” stem is an inverted block stem made by Todd in his shop with some Black Cat, doom-metal-fueled magic or wizardry. What’s interesting about this stem is that unlike the BMX stems that inspired it, the clamp block bolts underneath the main stem’s body, making it a negative rise stem, technically. I wasn’t sure how a blocky part like this stem would tie into the otherwise swoopy bike profile, but it’s grown on me!
I think the main reason I love the stem is the arc and two-circle diagram, which, coming from an architecture background, I’d label a “parti diagram” for the Swami. In architecture, a parti is a thought or idea solidified into a reference or physical form that repeats itself and informs future design moments throughout a building. Sometimes this is a diagram that represents the floorplan of a building that ends up influencing the design of a lighting fixture, door knob, or other element. The term comes from 15th-century French, in which “parti pris” meant “decision taken.”
Like a true parti, Todd plays off this circle+arc intersection throughout the frame. The downtube gusset wraps around the head tube, forming a lug that strengthens a crucial intersection and adds a unique touch to Todd’s bikes. I thought this parti diagram ended there until I saw his “Art School” dropouts…
Suddenly, it all clicked. The diagram illustrates the ball mechanism that keeps tension in the Art School dropouts. Seeing this detail expressed throughout the frame shows that Todd spends a lot of time designing his bikes from tubes, hardware, and, yeah, paint…
It all started with a stem cap my buddy Mike Cherney made for me. Mike makes metal things. Primarily jewelry, but he is best known in the bike industry for his cast head badges like the ones on Moots bikes and the Ibis “Handjob” brake hanger. His fingerprints are all over 1990s mountain bike designs, and he’s a great guy. I pinged him for a top cap last year and said I wanted something Southwest-inspired. Not knowing what I’d receive, I was blown away when the finished stem cap arrived.
When you order one of Todd’s bikes, they usually come with a powder coat finish, but there’s an option for a custom paint upcharge, which Todd does in his shop, which is what I opted for. We had a brief exchange about the direction to go, and then it clicked; Mike’s stem cap! I sent the cap to Todd and told him to let his third eye guide him on the design. The result is a pattern with an ombré fade in a lovely violet to deep purple hue. The base olive drab with purple paint over it hits hard on two of my favorite colors.
Riding the Swami
I rarely drive to a trailhead here, and it is part of the reason why I wanted to live in Santa Fe. Our singletrack is within a short pedal across town, and some of my favorite rides have over 600′ of elevation gain on pavement before you even hit the dirt. Riding a lightweight, nimble bike like this makes those efforts all the easier, no matter how tired, groggy, or sore you are. It’s when you hit that dirt for the first time that it gets interesting!
The first ride on a rigid mountain bike, after months of riding full suspension bikes, always takes a few moments of pause to recalibrate. One of the benefits of suspension is its increased traction, both climbing and descending. That steep and rooty climb that you can ride right up the middle of on a full suspension takes different considerations when navigating on a rigid bike. Yet, with a rigid bike, you’re shaving a lot of weight without a rear shock, linkages, swingarm, and suspension fork, but your tire pressure is more important.
I usually hover around 20 psi on the rear tire and 18 on the front while riding the Swami. Maybe a little less if the trails are less rocky but never as low as my full suspension with CushCore. You want to be efficient on all-terrain and have to consider your body weight and riding style. Too much pressure and you bounce all over. Not enough pressure and you risk snakebite or rim damage.
What impressed me the most about the Swami is how well it climbs. Even with an effective seat angle of 73º, I felt like it climbed as well, if not better than my 78º (unsagged) seat angle on my Murmur. Even my Moots Womble has a 74.8º (sagged) seat angle and I found that the Swami climbs better than it, too. The reason for this comes from the lack of front suspension and the high stack of this bike. The wheelbase also helps with this vertical stability. The more I dig into the climb, and scooch forward on the saddle, the more it stays planted, grinding up the steeps, through the rocks, loose soil, and roots.
Since the geometry is so even-keeled, it doesn’t get cumbersome or twitchy when I start to descend after a leg-burning climb, rather it feels calm and controlled. That is, until you begin to push the bike. This cool and collected demeanor at high speed transforms into a Southwestern Coachwhip, finding lines, skating through our loose, kitty litter soil, and rolling down rocky escarpments. The Swami is all about getting in over its head; it’s simply your job to hold on.
A recent discussion in Hailey’s Hummingbird review raised a good point; rigid bikes don’t necessarily make you a better rider. Sometimes having a full-suspension bike does that instead. The truth of the matter is, different folks require different pedal strokes and everyone’s terrain is different. However, as someone who grew up riding rigid MTBs and didn’t own a full suspension bike until 2018, there’s something fun and engaging about riding a rigid. That and I moved to a part of the country where the MTB reigns, so I like to mix it up and keep things interesting.
It’s not a matter of being faster or going longer or further as much as it is filling that gap of emotional glee that you find on a bike with no suspension. Yet, it is that balance, that tenuous dance between over-biking and under-biking that brews those feelings of stoke.
If you only ride rigid, it can get old–at least out here in our terrain–as much as only riding full suspension. The Swami filled a nice niche between my vintage 26″ rigid bikes and my hardtail or gravel bikes. Over the past few weeks, I’ve put in a lot of time forming a relationship with this beautiful bicycle, one I’m looking forward to solidifying with more high country rides here in Santa Fe and beyond.
- Frame: Black Cat Swami 29er
- Fork: Black Cat Swami 29er
- Stem: Black Cat Sturdy Wrist
- Bars: Moonmen Moonriser 3″
- Headset: White Industries ec34 top, ec37/33 bottom
- Brake Levers: Magura
- Brake Calipers: Paul Klamper
- Grips: Wilderness Trail Bikes
- Shifter: SRAM GX
- Dropper Post: Wolf Tooth
- Dropper Lever: Wolf Tooth ReMote Pro
- Seat Clamp: DKG
- Saddle: Brooks Cambium
- Cranks: Engin Port Royal
- Chainring: 44RN “Radavist Edition”
- Pedals: Wolf Tooth Waveform
- BB: RaceFace
- Derailleur: Ingrid 12 speed
- Cassette: SRAM Eagle XX1 Copper
- Chain: SRAM Eagle XX1 Copper
- Hubs: Chris King MTB
- Rims: ENVE M30
- Tires: Teravail Kessel 29×2.6″
Many thanks to Bailey at Sincere Cycles for the stellar build, Josh for the fun action photos, and Todd from Black Cat for being such a badass builder. I really love the bike. Thanks, man.