Unveiled at the 2022 Philly Bike Expo to much fanfare, the Alumalith is a realization of Ronnie Romance‘s dream to incorporate his favorite aspects of vintage mountain bikes into a deciededly modern offering. Featuring a non-suspension corrected Switchblade-style fork, rim brakes, sharp angulation, and 6061 aluminum fabricated by renowned craftsman Frank Wadelton–but with internal dropper routing, clearance for 27.5 x 2.6″ tires, and a contemporary approach to geometry–the Alumalith is nostalgic delight for riders of today. Josh picked up an Alumalith earlier this year and has spent months building it, riding, refining, and riding some more. Continue reading below for his review of this niche yet capable and fun machine…
As a child of the 1980s, I appreciate a variety of objects that are now considered “vintage.” Since the time I could drive, I’ve had vehicles dating to my birth generation, I’ve never stopped using film cameras, I’ve been continuing to add to the vinyl record collection my folks started in the 60s and my appreciation of analog bikes and parts hasn’t waned since I got my first real mountain bike in the early 90s. And I don’t chalk up my interest in these relics of a bygone era to current hipster fads that contribute to their relative scarcity and price hikes. Rather, I think it’s the idea of craftsmanship and pride I grew up appreciating.
All of this stuff – from film cameras to pre-mid-90s vehicles – was built to last. When my parents bought their Volvo D40 wagon in 1988, they expected to own it for a long time. Like, for decades. And they did. By the time they sold it nearly twenty years later, it had accumulated 300k miles and had served as the first car for each of their three children. For all I know, it’s still running. When I look at the two pickups in my driveway, the 35-year-old Toyota will most likely still be on the road after the five-year-old Ford is turned into scrap.
Exponential technological advancement and corporate drive for profit have had detrimental effects on the quality of many products. From toys to televisions, many consumer goods just ain’t built like they used to be. I like the functionality of the SRAM AXS drivetrains currently on two of my bikes, but I’m not as convinced I’ll be able to use them in 20 years as I am with the Shimano XTR M952 derailleur and shifter I’ve had kicking around the parts bins and on random commuter builds over the years.
But I don’t see myself as a vintage purist. My ’88 Toyota, for example, has a Bluetooth head unit, I often use digital tools to scan my analog negatives, I think it’s fine to use modern tires and cable housing on vintage bike restoration projects, and I wear jorts but they are the stretchy kind. 70mm feature films shot on IMAX cameras? Sign me up! Incorporating modern accouterments can help enhance the experience of using older things while also preserving their lifespan.
Nearly two years ago I joined one of Sarah Swallow’s winter rides outside of Elgin, AZ. It was a spectacular all-day event with a great crew of people. I rode a good chunk of it alongside Ronnie Romance, who was riding his storied aluminum Duralcan StumpJumper, and I clearly recall part of our conversation centering around our shared appreciation for older bikes. I mentioned that I’d love to see someone make a bike reminiscent of the one he was riding, but that reflected modern geometry trends while being compatible with the cool vintage parts so many of us have been hoarding.
Ron then spilled the beans: he had been in discussions with legendary alumasmith Frank Wadelton (aka Frank the Welder) to build basically what I was talking about – a modern frameset of vintage provenance. I offered a deposit on the spot. “The rest,” as they say, “is history.” Ron, along with his longtime collaborators Crust Bikes, teamed up with Frank for a run of Alumaliths and I was one of the first to put my name in the queue.
Named after “geological torture that formed the Connecticut River valley” where the bike was both dreamt up and created, the Alumalith is reminiscent of lusted-after mountain bikes from the ‘90s in material, form, and construction. While most of us know Mr. Romance for his swoopy bar, lanolin-soaked twine-wrapped, beard-twirling touring bikes, his roots run back to late 20th century mountain bike racing. When I asked if the Alumalith was just another brilliant marketing ploy or, rather, something more meaningful, Ron replied:
“The Alumalith takes into consideration the last 30 years of my bike influences: the S-Works M2 frames I grew up XC racing on; the Frank the Welder built Spooky Darkside (Connecticut-made aluminum bike) I always lusted after; the Bontrager Switch Blade fork that looked so cool and symbolized the last gasp of non-suspended fork design; and, finally, showing off aluminum as a bespoke building material worthy of lusting for in its raw and somewhat polished form. I wanted to build the ultimate ATB platform utilizing technological and aesthetic nods to the past while keeping it modern under the hood. The most notable upgrades over a 90s MTB would be the slacker geometry and the 27.5 wheels with clearance for 2.6” tires.”
The Tange Switchblade-style fork is, of course, a standout aspect of this already flashy bike. Licensed by a variety of brands during the late 90s, these forks represented an interesting era in MTB tech right before suspension alternatives became the dominant choice for many riders. The blades are independent of the crown so, in theory, a rider could experiment with different tubing profiles or shapes to suit their riding style and/or terrain. But, as was also the case in the 90s, their badass appearance alone might have contributed to their popularity.
PC: Ronnie Romance from his blog “Picking up the Alumaliths at Frank the Welders“
Frank the Welder
While Ron is currently working hard on a shop visit and profile of Frank Wadelton, it’s important to briefly highlight Frank’s contributions to the growth of mountain biking, both from a mainstream and somewhat counter-cultural perspective. Frank started building bikes in southern California during the 1970s and had a penchant for motocross and BMX racing. By the late 80s, he was a partner at Yeti and welding frames during the brand’s early XC racing heyday with a list of other innovations and achievements too long to spell out here.
Frank started his lengthy stint working for Spooky Cycles while still living in Arizona and then followed the job back east to Vermont where he resides today. Spooky recently changed hands and shuttered, but Frank is still actively building aluminum frames and his legacy continues to live on in bikes like the Alumalith. You can read more about Frank’s storied career on his Marin Museum of Bicycling MTB Hall of Fame induction site.
My first draft of this writeup was based around Star Wars analogies, as my kids and I like to talk about how the Alumalith looks like it’s made of Beskar only found on the planet Mandalore, and would be the bike of choice if, ya know, Din Djarin ever needed a bike. And I thought about how far I could spin that analogy, comparing the aluminum forging process to that of Beskar, along with the blaster-repelling and lightsaber-resistant qualities of the mythical material.
But, in the end, I decided to be true to myself and explain the real reasons I was drawn to the bike. But that wasn’t before scooping a Mythosaur head badge from Jen Green (which Jonny Pucci told me I installed too high on the headtube, but whatever, Jonny).
Taking that concept to its terminus, I scooped a “southwest spaceship” stem cap from Tomii Cycles after finally seeing Nao’s craftsmanship in person at MADE a few weeks ago.
Selling bikes to buy new ones has sort of been my MO for as long as I can remember. Between old cameras and bikes, I’m pretty much working with the same initial investment I made years ago as I cycle through lesser-used gear in search of items more suited to my current lifestyle.
All drivetrain and bearing-related components for this build (including the classic Chris King hubs and headset) either came from my parts bin or from a vintage parts catch-all first-generation Karate Monkey commuter I recently sold.
Long before throwing a leg over an Alumalith, I suspected the T-6 aluminum frameset probably wouldn’t rank super high on the compliance spectrum, so opting for 27.5” wheels with the beefiest tires I could fit was a priority. Believe it or not, the market is not flush with rim brake compatible 27.5” rims in 2023, but yet there are a few pretty stellar options available. Last year, when I began sourcing parts for this build, SimWorks had recently partnered with Velocity to make the Standalone rims in multiple sizes, including a 27.5” version with machined sidewalls.
SimWorks USA is located adjacent to King’s Portland HQ and when I landed on my wheel of choice, SimWorks coordinated a hub refresh with King in addition to a super pro wheel build using their Peregrine straight gauge spokes for both durability and stylistic cohesion with the gold and copper hits throughout the build.
Compiling parts in advance of receiving a bike frame is always a bit stressful. Wanting the biggest tire possible, I was hoping a 27.5 x 2.6 would fit, but there was no way of knowing without having the frame and wheelset in hand. Additionally, I wasn’t sure how the clutch-less derailleur would function on trail in a 1x configuration with the White ENO crank and narrow-wide ring. On paper, the big wheels and tires promised to fit without a front derailleur in the way, but precise fitment was unclear. As you can see in these photos, however, it all worked out perfectly. 27.5 x 2.6” Teravail Honcho tires fit with plenty of clearance.
Speaking of derailleurs, I’ve been blown away by how the very clutch-less M952 rear mech performs with the White Industries narrow-wide chainring in chunky and bumpy terrain, small drops, and steep-ish rock rolls. I’ve ridden this exact setup for years on commuter bikes but never pushed its trail capabilities. Even trying my hardest to (not really intentionally) lose a chain, it’s only happened once doing a stupid hop from a curb.
Even more than the drivetrain and wheel decisions, I contemplated the cockpit setup the most. There’s certainly something special about Ron’s personal Alumalith, with his signature Ortho Bars providing both comfort and compliance, and I initially thought about riffing off of his configuration. I even went so far as to have Hubert Madrean bend a lengthy piece of titanium I purchased from Oddity Cycles’ reject bin last summer. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get 22.2 diameter bars with significant backsweep to securely lock into place with a spacer and 31.6 stem clamp.
So, embracing this communication from the universe (and because Ortho Bars were out of stock with no ETA), I looked for other options. Coincidentally, John had just found First Flight Bikes selling beautiful titanium Mountain Goat bullmoose bars through their eBay store and, like Tom Ritchey looking for a solution to handlebar slippage after riding Wende Cragg’s Schwinn klunker down Repack, I bought one on the spot.
My original plan for this bike did not include a dropper post, even though there is seat tube routing for one. Along with some of the new Paul bits I picked up for the build, I had a Tall and Handsome seat post that offered the perfect amount of setback for the Brooks B17 saddle and I was able to achieve a relatively short reach thanks to the 65mm bullmoose. But with my tall 34” inseam and 31.5” saddle height, a rigid seat post was not the best option for trail riding.
I had picked up a Fox Transfer SL for a gravel bike build, but it was the perfect length and diameter for the Alumalith so into the Alumalith it went. To match the raw frame, I partially stripped the anodized dropper lower and seat tube collar using this method to expose the raw aluminum base but left a bit of black to mesh with the patina starting to form in the frame’s welded junctions.
There were two ways I could go about routing the dropper cable. Naturally, I chose the difficult and uncertain path. I thought it would be sacrilegious to use full cable housing on this bike where everything else was beautifully externally routed with split cabling. But there was one problem: no lower cable stop on the bottom of the downtube. After coming up empty-handed in my search for a clamp-on stop of the proper diameter, I vented to my Amigo amigo Zach Small who, without hesitation, offered to have one 3D printed for me.
And by one I mean ten because you can’t really just get one of something 3D printed. So hit me up if you want one because I have extra! Sure, I could have found someone to weld a stop (which is much more difficult because the frame is not steel or ti) or used a stick-on option, but Zach’s solution is super durable, and fit perfectly so I don’t have to worry about it budging.
A build like this wouldn’t be possible without the folks at Paul Component making stellar parts for vintage applications. Touring Cantis were the obvious choice for their ample tire clearance and legendary stopping power. The only Paul part that I wanted to use, but couldn’t, was a Chain Keeper because the location of the dropper routing port is precisely where the guide would mount. But, really, it’s fine because I have yet to need a chain guide after hundreds of trail miles.
Cedaero also came through with the custom triangle bag. This isn’t something in their standard catalog, but when I explained what I wanted, they knew exactly what to do. A simple bag meant to mimic vintage portage strap triangle bags but utilizing a contemporary lace system because the Alumalith lacks attachment points on the seat and top tubes. Now, seeing how useful it is, and well-suited to this bike, I hope it’s something they’d be down to make more of!
On-Trail with the Alumalith
I’ve written previously about how riding capable gravel bikes changed my perception of local XC and flowy trails and did a lot to boost my excitement for where I live in southern Arizona. The Alumalith has cranked that sentiment up a few notches. While it’s not as efficient as a gravel bike to get to and from trails, it’s so much fun to ride. Some might call it “under biking,” but riding varied and rocky singletrack on a rigid MTB is both invigorating and great training for “normal biking” or “over biking.”
The frame is built around classic 100/135mm spacing standards with decidedly more contemporary geometry than the 90s bikes that influenced it. I’m riding the largest 22” frame and the entire size run features the same head and seat tube angles – 69° and 72° respectively – with a 426mm reach on the 22″. In terms of angles, I think the Alumalith is near the sweet spot for an all-around non-suspension corrected MTB.
While its wheelbase and front center are shorter, the Alumalith shares similar angles with my modern Bender touring bike, though it isn’t the kind of bike you’d want to lash a bunch of weight to because it’d end up sluggish and twitchy. In tight singletrack it’s responsive, engaging, and inspires me to keep pedaling rather than turning around to go home. Additionally, the seat is steep enough to offer a planted climbing position with a head angle keeping things feeling planted and fast while not giving that forward-biased OTB feeling.
I think Ron’s intent with this was to make up for the short reach with a longer 90s-style stem and swoopy bars, though my relatively short stem and flat bars work well too, as I’m proportionally lacking in the torso area. With weight more forward than on a modern slacked-out MTB, I don’t feel my positioning causing pedaling resistance in the rear end, yielding an all-together efficient pedaling stance. However, if there ever is another run of these bikes, I don’t think it would hurt to lengthen the reach and extend the front center a bit making it even more sure-footed.
The Alumalith is stiffer than we’ve come to expect in modern mountain bikes, but not in a negative way. Rather, it’s something to keep in mind when looking at an aluminum bike that harkens back to the 90s when stiffness was what everyone thought they wanted. Most modern hardtails and even rigid bikes have elements of compliance built in, whether it’s from the tubing profiles or material choices, and we expect to see this as a differentiator between models, brands, builders, etc.
And those qualities are largely what we try to distill in our reviews here, hoping to help potential buyers choose the right bike. The Alumalith’s tempered aluminum frame construction – plus the straight-blade aluminum/steel fork – is optimized for durability, speed, and low weight. You won’t find me talking about dancing on flexy chainstays or planing through chatter with a raked-out fork. However, the beauty of this particular frame is the ample opportunities to add suppleness.
RevGrips, wide tires with Cush Core, and titanium handlebar come together to smooth out the ride quality that still leverages the frame’s inherent benefits. Additionally, and this might sound crazy, the etched Brooks B17 has been the best feeling B17 I’ve had yet right out of the box. It’s like the slight removal of material created the supportive hammock feel that usually takes months of breaking in to accomplish.
This bike is pure fun. It’s a blast to ride and was a pleasure to build. It’s unabashedly niche, but shouldn’t be. In my opinion, more bikes should be available that can accommodate simple and trusted components while offering a comfortable and middle-of-the-road riding position. The Alumalith isn’t the only one to occupy this sector, though; just look to some of Crust’s other offerings–such as the new geared Wombat–and Mone, Surly, Hudski, etc. Like a trusty old truck or coveted turntable, there’s still a place for bikes like the Alumalith and I hope we continue to see more of them. I’ve heard rumblings that there will be another batch of these framesets, so I’ll do my best to summarize my feedback in a concise list below…
- Comfortable yet confident geo
- Ample tire clearance
- Stellar appearance
- Thoughtful neo-retro accouterments like canti brake mounts, dropper routing, and Switchblade style fork
- Gets more comments at the trailhead than my Toyota does at the gas pump
- Lack of mounting points for portage strap/bag
- Geometry could be slightly more progressive
- No lower cable stop for dropper routing