A Three-Season Review with the Fairlight Secan 2.5

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to ride and review a lot of interesting bikes, from hand built one-offs to small batch customs and a whole lot of factory production models. In all that time I’ve only found a few bikes that I really didn’t want to let go of. The Fairlight Secan 2.5 is one of those few.

This bike is perhaps the most adaptable drop bar bike I’ve ridden. To help make that point, Fairlight sent me two dynamo wheelsets to use for the review, and I’ve spent three seasons riding the bike in various configurations. Under myself and my friend Andrew, who helps edit my rambling reviews, the Secan has completed four 200 km brevets, and has been my go-to distance bike for the review period.

The Secan fits huge tires – 650×61 (aka 27.5×2.4) and 700×50 – which on its own isn’t an incredible feat in 2022, but this bike is also uncompromisingly fast. Most bikes that fit as much tire as the Secan are heavier in stature and don’t feel sprightly with small tires. The Secan feels – and looks – just as much at home on narrow slicks as it does on wide knobbies. While I have the privilege of being able to own more than one bike, the Secan puts forth a strong case as a do-all drop bar choice.

Prior to the review I’d been following Fairlight for a while and was intrigued by their uncommon approach to factory-built, production steel frames – they only produce four frame models – but also by their dedication to small details. Given the climate similarities between the British Isles and my home on the west coast of Turtle Island, colonized as Vancouver, BC, it’s natural that I saw features I desire in Fairlight’s products.

Of Fairlight’s three drop bar models, the Secan sits between the lighter, speed-oriented Strael, and the stouter, more adventure-focused Faran. In a traditional lineup, the Strael, Secan, and Faran would correspond to road, gravel, and touring respectively, but Fairlight’s approach to tubing optimization and wide tire clearances means all three frames draw outside the lines.

Fairlight History

Fairlight got started in 2016 by Dom Thomas and Jon Reid, each coming from different sides of the bike world to form a partnership focused on creating high quality steel bicycles that are reasonably priced. In a small company the owners wear many hats but, broadly, Jon’s focus is bike fit and business management while Dom takes care of engineering, design, and communication.

Jon comes from the retail side of the bike industry, and his experience with performance bike fit is why you see Fairlight offering 10 frame sizes in each of their three drop bar models. My own approach to bikes is very much fit-focused, so I find this quite appealing. Given that Fairlight is a direct sales model with no dealers, Jon’s approach to bike fit is obvious through the detailed and highly supported fit process Fairlight offers to their customers.

Dom’s passion is in engineering and design, but he is also the public face of the company and the one behind Fairlight’s incredibly detailed design notes. Dom’s approach is, if you’re going to do a thing, do it well. No shortcuts, no detail left unconsidered. And a focus on making bikes that people want to ride day in and day out.

Before Fairlight, Dom was lead bike designer and brand manager for Genesis bikes, including producing a steel frame that was raced in the pro peloton. It was at Genesis that he built his relationship with Reynolds, whose UK-made tubing you’ll find in all of Fairlight’s models. After Genesis Dom took up the torch and started his own brand of hand-built steel bikes, Wold Cycles.

Fairlight is somewhat of a middle ground between the never-enough-bandwidth limitations of a factory production company with dozens of different models, and the creatively abundant but resource-tight reality of a single person framebuilding shop.

Setting the Stage

When I first got talking with Dom about reviewing a Fairlight, I had my eyes on their lightest and zippiest model, the Strael. They’d just released an update to the model with incredible shaping on the chainstays and room for ~36mm tires, and it looks like an amazingly fun road bike. But, somewhere along the way, we got talking about the Secan, and its mega tire clearance, and that leads us to this review here.

After committing to the Secan, I still felt pangs of regret. I am admittedly quite tired of the gravel bike market and was concerned that I’d be giving up *something* in going with the Secan over the Strael. How wrong could I be? Very wrong. The Secan is in its details far from the cookie cutter gravel bikes flooding the market, and those details add up to a bike that’s not just fast but absolutely stunning.

By the time I’d put a few months’ riding into the Secan, I was certain that it was as fast a bike as I’d ever desire, fits all the tire and fender I could ever dream of on a drop bar bike and, in terms of range of use, is possibly the most adaptable bike I’ve ever ridden.

In this review I’ll make reference to bikes I’ve reviewed and enjoyed over the past few years, particularly the Surly Midnight Special and Ritchey Outback, as well as some of the ideas I dove into in the Wake Robin review.

It’s a Fat Tire Road Bike

I reviewed the Midnight Special back in 2018 and at that time concluded that it stood apart from other bikes in the gravel market due to its road-ish geometry and huge tire clearance. Looking back at that review four years later, much of what I said about the Midnight Special’s handling characteristics apply to the Secan. It’s got a relatively steep head tube angle compared to the vast majority of gravel bikes, yet fits more tire than the vast majority of them as well.

In the size 58R that I’m riding, the head angle is 72.5º and the bottom bracket drop is 77mm. That’s a low bb, and I’m all for it! In comparison, the 58cm Midnight Special had a 65mm bb drop and 73º head tube. That means, on the same tires, your center of mass would be 12mm higher on the Surly. Most bikes these days are in the 68-70mm range, which means the Secan is lower than average – but encourages you to run bigger tires to make up for it.

On the 700c wheelset I ran Panaracer Gravel King Slick 38s and Gravel King SK 43s, but spent most of my time on the slicks. With the 27.5 wheelset I ran Continental Mountain King 2.2s and the Teravail Rutland 2.1s in the photos, which both ended up about the same size. You could certainly run smaller tires than the 38s I used if you wanted to. I love ripping the Secan on high speed road descents no matter the tire – carving corners on a road bike is an absolute blast.

The Outback, in comparison, had a 71º head tube angle in the size Large I reviewed. The steering was noticeably more floppy, in a sometimes-less-than-desirable way. A 71º head angle is pretty normal for a gravel bike these days, though, and absolutely normal on smaller frame sizes on all types of drop bar bikes. I personally really enjoy the way fat tire road bikes like the Secan and Midnight Special handle on pavement.

The Other Side of the Coin

Of course, there’s another side of the coin, and that’s off-pavement handling. Mountain bike head angles have gone extremely slack over the past handful of years, and almost nobody is complaining about it. Many gravel bikes see 71º or slacker head angles across the board. What feels floppy on pavement is toned down on dirt, where the effects of pneumatic trail are reduced. The Outback stood out positively in its off-pavement manners, particularly climbing with its long rear end.

In contrast, despite fitting very wide tires, the Secan’s quick steering makes for a less stable off-pavement experience. Neither the Contis or the Teravails I rode had particularly grippy knobs, which made them reasonable on pavement but not all that confidence-inspiring off road. If you want more confidence off-pavement, a meatier tire – which the Secan can swallow – would be helpful.

Despite the handling being quicker than my usual trail bike, the Secan dragged me into the woods time after time. I’d just be out for a ramble around some roads and gravel trails and without fail I’d end up on chunky singletrack with a big smile on my face. The Secan strikes an interesting balance between off-road capability and on-road manners – just how much you’d like of one or the other depends on your tire choice.

Going the Distance

In all of my time with the Secan, the tires I enjoyed the most were the 700×38 Gravel King slicks, set up tubeless. Leading road club rides with our local shop, the Secan looked out of place next to the mostly-28mm tires, but I never felt slow on them. I did my first 200k on these tires with 35 and 38 psi respectively, and the second just this past week with 41 and 43. I liked the lower pressure, to be honest!

But, apart from tires, there are some very important features which enhance distance riding here in the Pacific Northwest: lights and fenders. Being from the UK, with a strong history of Audax (what we call randonneuring over this way), Fairlight understands the value of preparing a bike for coastal climates. It’s quintessentially British to consider that fenders and lights are part of a bicycle’s equipment. Easy to access fender mounts as well as dynamo wire routing. Nice.

Fender Connoisseur

As you may know I’m a fender connoisseur. I like them to be quiet, effective at doing their job, and aesthetically appropriate for the bike they’re on. The fenders that ended up on this bike are the Portland Design Works Full Metal 700x55s.

For a fender set that is easy to install and looks right on a modern bike, the PDW fenders are a solid choice. They’re not quite as fancy as a custom-installed set of Honjos, but they are miles ahead of flexy plastic fenders. I think for the average rider, they’re great.

These fenders did an admirable job of working with the 27.5 wheels but I’ve got a set of Velo Orange 700×63 Fluted ready to go on next. The silver is gonna pop bigtime, and I think the Secan is going to enjoy that.

Almost Everyone Appreciates the Best

I absolutely love having a bike with permanent lights. As a year-round commuter, not ever having to worry about charging bike lights is just one less thing for me to worry about. I feel safer having high quality lights available at all times. Fairlight obviously agrees as the Secan’s Cempa fork has sleek internal routing, as does the frame.

Fairlight only deals with the best dynamo systems – SON Nabendynamo – and they install them right in their UK facility. I think one of the biggest things that turns people off of dynamos is having to wire them up. Fairlight will take care of that for you and will even install the cleaner-looking coaxial cable to make it happen.

SON hubs are incredibly beautiful while also being the most durable dynamo hubs on the market. The SONdelux and SON28 hubs performed flawlessly in both wheels, as did the SON Edelux II headlight and their rack mount rear light, mounted to Fairlight’s own 3D-printed tail light mount.

Unfortunately the neat tail light mount met its end when our 1-year-old knocked the bike over and broke the 3D-printed piece. The whole bike went over and the kid was sitting on the ground unfazed like Buster Keaton when the house falls on him. I temporarily replaced the light mount with a piece of bent steel, but in the long run I think it’s best that the light is mounted further out of harm’s way – at least until our kids are older?

Fit Philosophy

I’m a big proponent of bikes that fit properly, and of working with a fit professional to find your ideal fit. I often say that bike fit is a process, and not a one-time thing. Once you hone in on your position, you have data that can be transferred between bikes of a similar fit.

With Fairlight’s proportional geometry philosophy, you can use their fit guide to quickly get an indicator of which frame sizes will fit you – but they strongly recommend you send your data from working with a professional fitter, or provide them with measurements from an existing bike on which you feel good.

Fairlight makes ten frame sizes in each of their drop bar models, but simplified, it’s actually five sizes from 51 to 61, with a Regular and a Tall fit in each of those five. The idea is that, particularly with carbon forks having a limitation of spacers below the stem, a wider range of people are going to be able to find a fit on a Fairlight.

My Fit on Fairlight

Fairlight recommended either the 58R or the 58T for me, which aligns with my other drop bar bikes. The 58R has a 150mm head tube while the 58T has a 190mm head tube. With a maximum of 4 cm of headset spacers, I would be on the upper end of the range for the 58R, while running 0-1 cm of spacers on the 58T. In the end I chose the 58R as it has a half-degree slacker seat angle at 73º, and historically I’ve needed a lot of saddle offset.

With the 58R I have indeed found myself at the top of the spacer stack on a 110×6º stem, and wondering whether this is the “right” size or not. Bar height is a critical measurement for any rider, and ideally your frame size lands you in a sweet spot where you could go up or down a little bit, and not need to run a super high or super low stem to get your fit. I don’t mind the look of the spacer stack, and could run a +17º stem if I absolutely needed more height.

Comparing the 58R Secan with the 58 Midnight Special and the Large Ritchey Outback, the numbers are relatively similar. On both of those bikes I was also running a positive rise stem. My Wolverine has slightly more frame stack but I’ve still got 5 cm of spacers and a 0º stem on that bike. So really, all of these bikes work. A real outlier is my Rock Lobster which has a 200mm head tube and a -6º stem. And that’s fine too!

Where would I go if I was looking for a little more bar height, or at least a little more flexibility with where my stem is mounted on the spacers? The 58R has a 150mm head tube and I’m using 4 cm of spacers. The 58T has a 190mm head tube which would negate all those spacers, or put 1 cm under a 0º stem. Interestingly, the 61R has a 170 head tube – possible Goldilocks option here – but also goes to larger diameter main tubes. So, lets talk about tubes!

A Bicycle is a Series of Tubes

People love to talk about the magical qualities of steel frames. Heck, if it weren’t for those magical qualities, a lot of what we write about here at the site might be different. There’s nostalgia for steel as a material, and despite changes due to modern processes, steel frames are aesthetically distinct from their aluminum, carbon, and even titanium relatives.

Aesthetically, Fairlight’s ovalized top tubes are a thing of beauty. On this Secan we’ve got what started as an 8/5/8 25.4mm round tube, which has been ovalized to 30mm wide and 20mm tall. It looks totally normal from above, but unusually thin on the side profile. It’s unique, but also intended to improve frame compliance.

Fairlight uses heat-treated Reynolds 853 main tubes and heat-treated 4130 in the rear triangle of the Secan. Interestingly, some of the stiffest steel bikes I’ve ever ridden have been 853, but tube diameters and butting lengths obviously make a difference. The Secan uses 14mm seat stays and 19mm chain stays, both shaped to accommodate the big tires.

When we talk about steel’s magical potential, we’re talking about taking advantage of the material’s springiness to create a system that does its best to absorb impacts and road vibrations. The narrower the tubing, the more compliance you get, and this goes for each and every tube in the system.

In the Ritchey review I got into the idea of comfort compliance, while in the Wake Robin piece I focused on beneficial frame flex under power: the harmony of bike and rider. In both cases, the load (rider and luggage weight) and power input (rider’s meat engine) affect how much of each type of flex actually happens.

My concern with going to a 61R frame with its larger diameter main tubes is whether I’d experience the same enjoyable flex in the frame. Similar to a pickup truck that’s intended to be driven with a load (and that rides smoother when loaded down), the combined weight of rider and luggage is a big factor in whether you’ll experience the benefits of these different kinds of frame flex.

OK, What’s the Catch?

The limitation comes at a point where frame durability suffers. It’s also possible that a frame could be too flexy for its rider, but with ISO testing protocols, this is not common. So, it’s mostly a balance between weight and durability. Unfortunately, much of the benefit of steel frames is lost on the average rider of a production bike. With the vast majority of factory production frames, manufacturers err on the side of caution, choosing durability over comfort or performance.

This is where Fairlight differs. Rather than erring on the side of caution, they go to great lengths to find out just how light they can make their frames – while still passing ISO impact and durability testing. This means breaking more frames in testing, but giving more riders the chance to experience the comfort compliance and beneficial frame flex that can be designed into a steel frame.

Because Fairlight goes to these lengths, the Secan has that get-up-and-go that I seek out in a bike, and a smooth ride. Not quite as smooth as the Ritchey Outback with it’s boingy fork, but smoother than an average carbon-forked gravel bike. How do they get there? If each individual piece of the puzzle can contribute positively or negatively, the overall effect of many small changes can make a big difference in the end result. With Fairlight’s approach, each frame is as light as it can possibly be while still passing ISO impact and durability testing.

Details, Details, Details

If you’re following along, you’ll already be getting the feeling that Fairlight pays attention to details few production bikes – and most custom bikes – do. Here are a few more things that I think are worth talking about.

Bentley Mk2 Dropouts

The modular Bentley Mk2 dropouts are beautiful, but more importantly, they’re extremely functional. Flat mount brakes can be a pain to align, but these dropouts are the best I’ve used. Nicely aligned and smooth to move when needed. The stainless plates on the outside look great but also act as washers to protect the frame where the dropouts bolt in, but also as built-in washers for the fender and rack eyelets.

Straight Cut Design Bags

Ross from Straight Cut Design sent over some bags with the bike, including a custom-fitted frame bag, which has rarely been off the bike. I like how the bag meets the down tube creating a little notch that heavier objects like tools sit down in, while my pump and spare clothes occupy the rest of the space. In the narrow left side pocket I keep a pen and sharpie #thatsrando, my Dynaplug, and my phone when the weather is dry.

The bar bag is called the Bagel Bag, and it’s absolutely cavernous. When I use this bike for commuting, my entire lunch container fits right in with a banana on top. But for the long rides the bike pulls me out on, I usually set up three ziploc bags that I can access while riding, one with dates, and two different types of home made wraps or burritos. My all time fave is peanut butter, banana, and Himalayan salt, but lately I’ve been getting into the sweet potato egg burritos from the Feed Zone cookbook.

Shimano GRX 810 2x

With a 48/31 crankset and 11-34 cassette, the GRX 810 double setup gives a nice wide range. The 31/34 low gear is good for most hills with a moderate load, while 48/11 on the high end is bigger than I was expecting. This is a mechanical shifting group and it had no surprises. Ergonomically the GRX stuff is really nice and the brake levers feel great. Shimano has finally figured out how to decouple shifting and braking happening with the same lever, and I’m here for it.

Hope Rims and Hubs

The two wheelsets supplied were as follows: 700c Hope 20FIVE rims laced to SONdelux front and Hope RS4 rear hubs; and 650b Hope Fortus 23 rim laced to SON28 front and Hope RS4 rear hubs. The 38mm Gravel Kings didn’t want to seat tubeless to begin with, but went on after having a tube in them overnight. The Hope hubs are super loud, which isn’t really my preference, but it sure is distinctive.

Ritchey Bar, Stem, and Post

Having enjoyed the Ritchey WCS Carbon VentureMax bar so much during the Outback review, I asked if they would supply a bar for this review. This time I went with a 40cm bar, which does feel narrow as I usually run a 42, but the wide drops are so good for descending that I figured I’d go for a more aero choice on a bike that was going to do a bunch of distance riding.

This was also my first time using the Ritchey WCS Pavé 3.5mm bar tape and I am enjoying it more than I usually enjoy thicker tapes. Nice texture and somehow it doesn’t feel as thick as it actually is. They also sent up a WCS Carbon Link seat post which adds a bit of compliance, has a nice adjustment, and weighs nearly nothing.

Fairlight Website Experience

The amount of information on Fairlight’s website eclipses that of any other bike company, ever. The lookbooks and detailed design notes are full of high res photos of frames in various states from raw to fully built. The aforementioned bike fit pages are helpful. And it is nice that they have all their lead times for frame and groupset availability in one place.

While the amount of information is overwhelming at first, and opening PDFs is a bit odd if you just want to poke around, the detail is much appreciated from a company that doesn’t have brick-and-mortar locations. I do think it would be useful to have the geometry chart on the product page where you pay your frame deposit, but having all four in one document is also useful.

What About the Price?

With the Reynolds 853 frame, a bunch of details that you know add cost, the SON dynamo system, and the very decent GRX build spec, I was pleasantly surprised to find this bike would cost about $3700 USD, plus $300 for shipping, plus taxes and duty upon entry. You can check out Fairlight’s pricing for the Secan in the UK HERE and the rest of the world HERE.

Since Fairlight preps every frame in their UK facility, you get more choice than usual when it comes to the parts hung off the bike. You get the build started on Fairlight’s deposit page, where you choose frame size, headset and seat clamp, wheels, drivetrain, crank length, stem length, bar width, tires, and whether you’d like a dynamo system installed.

After Three Seasons

It’s not often that I have nothing but good things to say about a review bike. I can usually pick out some detail that makes it a deal breaker as a long term prospect. You know, some way to say, the bikes I already have are still better, or at least preferred. With the Secan, I could argue that the fit isn’t quite perfect, that the colour isn’t my first choice… but in reality, if this black beauty stayed here at my house a little longer I wouldn’t complain.

The Secan has many details that we just don’t expect from a production steel frame. With production frames like this, at this price, it’s more difficult to make the case for a custom. Sure, there are people who won’t fit one of the ten sizes, and there are people who’d want a different frame material or who want to support a local builder. But, for those who are riding factory production bikes and looking for an affordable upgrade, a Fairlight might just be it.