The Paramo Ultra from Colombian bicycle builders Scarab Cycles is arguably the brand’s most versatile offering. With clearance for thicc tires, sliding dropouts, and comfortable geometry, the Paramo Ultra is inspired by the unrelenting high-elevation Andean mountain terrain where Scarab is based to provide a capable ride experience in even the most demanding pursuits. And because every Scarab is built to order based on a rider’s size, discipline, and style, no two builds are ever the same.
Josh has ridden a Paramo Ultra for the past six months both in Colombia where it was made and on his local roads and trails around the Sonoran desert. Below, he shares his thoughts on the build as well on Scarab’s overall approach to fabricating custom bicycles in the mountains outside Medellín…
Colombia has a rich relationship with cycling. With legendary names like ‘Cochise’ Rodríguez, ‘Lucho’ Herrera, Santiago Botero, and modern phenoms like Rigoberto Urán, Nairo Quintana, and Egan Bernal, Colombian pros have long made their country proud and inspired on a global scale. And, above all, they have excelled in mountain stages. Before getting invited down to ride with the Scarab team late last year, I didn’t really think much of their storied prowess other than they probably just had ample high-elevation training opportunities. But, as I immediately learned firsthand, nothing in the interior of the country is flat and the terrain presents a uniquely steep riding scenario, unlike most other locales.
Within the stunning peaks and valleys comprising the Colombian Andes are the jungles, rivers, páramo, roads, villages, and people that make this one of the most epic places I’ll likely ever have the privilege of riding. And understanding what it is to ride in Colombia is inextricably linked to understanding Scarab Cycles. Thus, this bike review will begin with some experiential reportage.
Colombia’s Andean Foothills
Like I assume others have, I first learned the story of Scarab Cycles from Ryan Wilson’s excellent shop visit and video profile published here nearly one year ago. Born from the collaborative efforts of Santiago Toro and Alejandro Bustamante, Scarab began building bikes in El Retiro back in 2018. The duo has since focused on complementary goals of showcasing Colombian passion and skill for building beautiful bikes from high-end materials, along with visually exemplifying Colombian culture and landscapes in each bike’s custom paint design.
El Retiro, where Scarab is currently based, is a mountain town situated about 25 miles and 2500 ft higher in elevation from the region’s urban center in Medellín, placing it at 7062′ above sea level. In this area of Colombia’s Central Andean foothills, commercial and residential centers dot the winding mountainous roads of Antioquia Province. Known as the “Land of Eternal Spring” due to the always-temperate climate where temperatures hover around 70-80° year-round and coffee and fresh flower farms blanket the zone’s undulating topography.
It’s a cyclist’s paradise, if said cyclists have a hankering for high-altitude lung-busting climbs with rewarding descents. The climb up Las Palmas, for instance, will take you nearly 2500 ft in six miles, from the Medellín valley into the Andean foothills above. Once there, seemingly endless paved roads and dirt tracks splinter off into the countryside.
To celebrate the culmination of five years in business, Scarab invited a handful of cycling media, team members, customers, and other friends of the brand to celebrate the milestone with an immersive experience.
I count myself as extremely fortunate for making it onto the celebration’s guest list, and even more so for having the chance to work with Scarab on a custom bike to review, right on its home turf.
Ciclismo con Escarabajo
Of course, it’s no secret that Colombia hasn’t been the typical South American destination topping most folks’ travel list. The nation has faced political instability and social strife for decades and even the most ardent travelers adopt a cautionary approach when faced with too-common news stories of kidnappings and other crimes. Hell, it was in Bogotá where Ryan Wilson was robbed.
I lived in Argentina in the mid-Aughts and traveled around South America a lot while I was there. Back then I wanted to travel to Colombia more than any other country, but heeded the strong warnings and never made it. But the country is changing, stabilizing in many areas that until recently were overrun by cartels and guerillas. Now seems like a better time than ever to visit.
As soon as I arrived in El Retiro and got my bike built up, my pedals were spinning. Santiago, Alejandro, and the rest of the Scarab team had planned a full agenda aimed at showing off all of their favorite aspects of this part of the country, and they wanted to do most of it by bike. We rode nearly every day during my week stay and, as the week progressed, the number of riders joining our groups grew until the weekend culminated in Scarab’s fifth anniversary celebrations.
The first evening, it was just me, our media partner Logan, and Alejandro on what was supposed to be a “warm-up” ride to La Ceja, but ended up being more of a wake-up call that I was about to get my legs ripped off all week.
As more media arrived we continued to learn what a perfect base El Retiro is for spectacular road and gravel riding. For the next ride, Santiago led us out to Guatape from El Santuario, through the small town of Granada. This was my first time seeing Chiva buses in person. These buses are used throughout Colombia to transport people and products between remote rural mountainous areas and small towns that connect them. Built on modified city bus chassis, Chivas are all intricately hand painted, with patterns that use a consistent design language, yet are all uniquely crafted depending on region and artist.
We spent the next morning touring Scarab’s workshop before heading out on another memorable ride. This time, our group left El Retiro for La Union with a detour to one of the most beautiful zones I’ve seen. The valley we rode up gave way to a layered view of the Andes which were blanketed in a dreamlike evening haze. Luckily I had a little point-and-shoot camera with me to document the moment.
On Friday, a large group assembled and we rolled out from Scarab HQ through even more stunning mountainous landscapes to Montebello. Of the 67 km ridden that day, only about 15 were paved. Near the top of the primary climb, we stopped at a beautiful farm where we filled up on traditional ajiaco (chicken and potato soup) and drank coffee that was hand-roasted right in front of us.
We suited up again the next day for the crescendo ride of the week. Following primarily gravel and rocky roads, a large group of riders connected El Carmen the Viboral with La Unión. This was a big ride and, despite feeling fatigued after days of big rides, the stunning views of rolling hills and campesina offered a welcome distraction.
The Scarab Way
But if you’ll never make it to Colombia, Scarab Cycles wants to bring Colombia to you. Before Friday’s big ride, Scarab held their fifth-anniversary party at a beautiful native plant nursery Vivero Tierranegra near their workshop. It was a wonderful time and the grounds were beautifully decorated with snapshots of Scarab’s past and exciting news of their future.
Six bikes were on display, each representing a limited edition paint design released at different points throughout their five years in business with Escarabajo as the new feature. Jugla, Campesina, Magdalena, Rauch, and Chiva are all inspired by different aspects of the Colombian culture and landscape.
These represent the various forms of paint application that can be applied to any Scarab frame including hand painting, dipping, and stencil overlay. Due to their sustained popularity, some have found permanent homes as offerings in Scarab’s lineup of finishes.
Check out the five routes I rode with Scarab at The Radavist’s Ride With GPS Collections.
Paint and finishing is a primary focus for Scarab and, in just five years, they have already developed a strong design language from both their limited additions to current offerings. Alejandro, who leads the design side of the Scarab house, is a former architect and envisions both the micro and macro aspects of the brand’s visual identity.
And they want customers to play an active role in designing their bikes. This was great for me, as I’m typically awful at conceptualizing colors or design. It’s a big decision and, if possible, I prefer to leave it up to professionals and/or choose a vetted option. Alejandro and his team provide a little of both – they have an established portfolio of available schemes but invite input and evaluate each customer’s preferences.
Even though I was talking to Alejendaro about design when the Chiva edition was on its way to being sunsetted, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Tapping local bus painters, this is the only design Scarab utilizes an artist outside of their team to sketch the intricate line drawings. So I left that conversation open at first, saying it’d be super cool to imagine something that combined Scarab’s Colombian roots with the terrain I ride in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
Alejandro followed up a few days later saying something like: “Josh, we have just the thing for you.” The result blew me away – the language of Chiva done in softer earth tones inspired by desert landscapes.
I’ve visited a lot of bicycle framebuilders over the years and Scarab occupies a unique space amongst all of them. The brand was founded by Santiago and Alejandro, but they aren’t the only ones building and finishing the bikes. Rather, the pair scaled the operation by hiring a team of ten to facilitate the process from start to finish. Everything from bookkeeping and design, to ordering tube sets, fabricating, and finishing frames takes place in Scarab’s workshop where everyone has a unique role. Being a small team allows the brand to scale production as needed while having control over every step of the process. Scarab delivered around 150 bikes to customers in 2023 and forecasts predict they’ll increase that number by 100 in 2024.
And, what’s really wild, many of the Scarab team had little to no prior experience in metal fabrication or painting before working there. So pretty much all of the staff had to be trained up for their positions and now they have valuable skills to either move around and try new things internally at Scarab or, someday, move into other forms of work. Scarab stands out for their willingness to invest in their staff through teaching and, as a result, have all of the skills needed to produce and finish a frame in-house.
Paramo Ultra Review
Scarab wants to design their customers’ dream bikes. They currently offer eight models ranging from the lugged rim-brake road bike Linea to the Apuna all-road and their newest offering, the Darien XC MTB. While their lineup was originally road-focused, Scarab has since solidified themselves in the gravel category with the Paramo and Paramo Ultra.
When Scarab originally reached out to ask if I’d be interested in testing one of their bikes, I was intrigued by their foundations in making performance-oriented bikes with claims of “telepathic handling.” I set my sights on a build that leveraged Scarab’s penchant for speed and efficiency with the kind of curly bar bike riding I mostly do – long days, chonky surfaces, and some extended tours.
These days, it seems futile to pigeonhole myself into a specific cycling discipline but, when pressed, I’ll always consider myself a mountain biker. Through my experiences “on course” documenting adventure races over the past few years – in addition to pushing myself in race environments and daily rides to go longer, harder, and faster – my concept of what I want in a gravel bike continues to shift. And Scarab came into my life at a perfect time.
The last gravel bike I spent considerable time building was the Amigo Bug Out. To distill it to its essence would be to describe it as a drop bar MTB with standard (non-boost) hub spacing. It’s long and slack, and excels on super rough roads while feeling playful on mild singletrack. I also spent a lot of time last year on a Sklar Super Something, in addition to some lighter-weight carbon gravel bikes at media camps, like the Pivot Vault, Canyon Grizl, etc. All of which I enjoyed for various reasons.
When presented with the opportunity to package elements of what I like in all those bikes into a Scarab, my inputs to the team were that it should be efficient and capable, have a comfortable riding position, room for big tires, and playful geometry, while retaining peppy acceleration. And, not to belabor this too much, my ideal Scarab would stand in contrast to bikes like the Kona Sutra, which I feel are too relaxed for the kind of spirited riding I enjoy on a daily basis vs being on a tour. Though, since I’m usually stuck behind my computer screen these days, none of my bikes see much extended adventuring. But, alas…
The Paramo Ultra wasn’t yet a regular offering at the time I started talking with Scarab about what such a bike could be. Its counterpart, the classic Paramo, was Scarab’s advertised gravel model with clearance for 700 x 45 mm tires and angles that look on the race-y side for a gravel bike. But when I mentioned my desire to fit a 700 x 50 mm (or larger) tire, Santiago responded by saying something like “Josh, we actually have just the thing for you.”
Geometry and Fit
The Paramo Ultra is a sibling to Scarab’s Paramo gravel bike, just designed to be bigger, slacker, and longer. As I think is happening in many locations around the world – particularly in the Andes region where Scarab is located but also including my area of the US Southwest – Scarab is seeing their riders go further away from paved roads into the backcountry with increasingly rough surfaces. They realize it’s important to offer bikes for this type of terrain.
Instead of the Columbus Futura fork on the Paramo, the Ultra uses an Enve Adventure fork for increased tire clearance, mounting points, and dynamo routing. Additionally, the frame tubing is different and reflects the Ultra’s intended use – most of the tube set is still Columbus with the chainstays being the main exception. Here, Scarab opted to use Reynolds chainstays that have a profile more appropriate for dimpling. The Paramo Ultra also incorporates Paragon sliding dropouts to further dial in rear end length depending on tire size and to tweak desired handling when using narrower tires.
Scarab uses a design and manufacturing approach known as “mass customization,” which takes into account variables they know work well together and combines those with specific rider inputs. This allows them to produce high-quality steel bikes that they know will ride and fit well, and deliver in a timely manner. For reference, there is currently a twelve-week turnaround for a fully custom Scarab bike (including custom paint) from the time of deposit to delivery. I find this to be remarkable for a brand doing everything in-house and projects to make 200+ frames this year.
They’ll also customize the frame itself in a variety of flavors. Want internal brake and dropper routing? Scarab will happily oblige. On the flip side, frames can be left free of braze-ons when using wireless drivetrains. How about rack mounts and multiple bottle bosses? They happily add them as well. I waffled about requesting a dropper cable port but decided to keep it simple with a BTCHN’ titanium seatpost and custom Posedla Joyeseat (more on that soon).
In terms of geometries, which are technically custom for every rider, things like tubing arrangements can be pre-defined for each frame model and then dialed in once the Scarab team learns more specifics about their customer. In my case, I knew I wanted to test the Paramo Ultra for its design features, but that was only the beginning. Scarab gave me the full customer experience including video calls, an online worksheet, and lots of emails to understand me, the kind of riding I do, how I want my bikes to fit, and what I do and don’t enjoy about other bikes I’ve ridden.
Before going to Iceland for the Westfjords Way Challenge, I had gotten an updated bike fit on the Sklar Super Something I had been training on and used for that event. This was pivotal in informing my experience with Scarab and something I recommend anyone do before pursuing a custom bike build. Typically the builder can perform a fit, or arrange one for you. It’s more complicated though when that builder is on the other side of the globe, so finding a local fitter is key.
Before the fit, I was getting a lot of shoulder and hip pain riding the Super Something long distances. Through the process (thanks to the homie Kaolin Cummins at Flat Tire in Cave Creek!), I learned that the stack height was too low on the 58 cm and saddle to bar distance was too much, causing me to hunch over even though the stem wasn’t slammed. And yet, the reach and standover were fine. After installing a stack of headset spacers, refining saddle height and setback, rotating brake levers, and adding pedal spacers (damn narrow Q-factor!) we made it work and I rode it for hundreds of miles relatively pain-free. Bottom line is that I’m built weirdly with long legs and a short-ish torso and have never fit well on stock frames without a lot of adjustments. It’s not you, Adam, it’s me.
The Super Something and a slew of other dropbar gravel “adventure” bikes, including the Pivot and Canyon mentioned above, are the ones I like to ride most for long distances. There’s a sweet spot with a 70°-ish head angle, ~73°-74° seat angle, ~430-440 mm chainstays, and kicked out front center that just feels right to me. It seems the industry has landed on a fairly widely accepted form for these kinds of bikes and I’m here for it. And it aligns well with Scarab’s vision for what the Paramo Ultra could and should be.
While I do like to be fast and efficient, I’m not racing head down in the drops over flat surfaces on every ride. I’m riding chunky and varied terrain that requires planted and predictable handling. And the resulting Paramo Ultra, built according to my inputs (ride style, terrain, etc), is just that and includes key fitment details. But the beauty of the Scarab process is that if you wanted a Paramo Ultra with a more aggressive head angle and tucked front end (even at the expense of toe overlap) Scarab would make it happen as long as everything fit within their parameters for safety and quality.
I’ve kind of hinted at the ride quality throughout this review thus far, but to say it directly, I’ve been very pleased. Which is sort of a relief because the worst thing would be to dislike a bike I was so involved in designing.
My preferred rides contain long and fast gravel sections that lead out to singletrack, and the Paramo Ultra feels right at home in both but I really love the kinds of long and loose descents we were riding in Colombia because they aren’t all too common here in Arizona. At 23 lbs built as shown here (with bags, bottle cages, and all), the Paramo Ultra is pretty damn lightweight for what I’d consider a big gravel bike. This helps it accelerate quickly. Cruising speed is where I notice Scarab’s claimed “telepathic handling” the most, as the combination of choice tubing and geometry offers a predictable feel.
It’s no traditional road bike, however, and I consider the handling to prioritize stability rather than feeling overly responsive. Although the head tube angle is relatively slack, with the chainstays in their longest position (which is where they need to be to fit big tires like Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge) climbing is efficient and I hardly ever lose traction even on steep and loose ascents. High volume tires, a noticeable bb drop, and front hub placement all contribute to a planted feeling that inhibits twitchiness I’ve found in more “racey” bikes.
Speaking of tires, the Fleecer Ridge at an advertised 700c x 55 measures closer to 56.5 mm on the Astral Outback rims. They make for a tight fit in the Paramo Ultra’s rear end, even with the dropouts extended into their longest position. This isn’t a problem for me, as I ride in mostly very dry conditions and enjoy a little extra volume. But for locations where mud clearance is an issue, the Paramo Ultra is probably best with tires closer to 50 mm advertised width.
Of course, nothing is ever perfect and I do have a nitpick. The ENVE Adventure Fork is fantastic for what it is – it’s light, strong, paintable, offers lots of tire clearance, and has plenty of holes and mounting points. And, maybe most importantly, it’s a known variable for the fabrication process, thereby allowing the builders the efficiency benefit of just focusing on the frame. But it’s not metal and in my opinion, doesn’t offer the ride quality or elegant appearance of a steel or titanium alternative.
Despite my request, Scarab is not currently set up to build steel forks. But, in the future, I would love to see them offer a steel fork option, particularly for the Paramo Ultra. It would be an attractive addition to an already striking frame and, again in my opinion, would further enhance the bike’s feel in the rough stuff.
Shimano GRX 12-Speed Update
Following my time in Bend, OR getting a first look at Shimano’s new 12-speed mechanical GRX drivetrain, the brand sent me a kit for long-term testing. This came at just the right time to build up the Paramo Ultra. With the Super Something (that I apparently can’t stop mentioning), I was using the 11-speed GRX and found its gear range to be limited so I was stoked about having a wide range 1x group on the Paramo Ultra that I knew would be climbing lots of hills.
After spending more time with the new 12-speed GRX, over 1,000+ miles so far, most of my initial impressions have become my long-term impressions: it shifts smoothly, the brakes are powerful (even though I’d still like to have a mechanical option), and the hood/lever ergonomics are very comfortable. I do have a nitpick about the crank design, however. Shimano is using the same GRX crank for both 1x and 2x applications. This means that in 1x mode the chainring sits outboard of where it would with a 1x-specific crank and, in turn, creates what appears to be an unnecessarily wide chainline in the lowest gears. While shifts happen as they should when set up properly, as this is how Shimano engineered the group after all, tolerances are tight with a noticeable cross-chain feel in the lowest gear and sensitive to even slight changes in cable tension.
And this wouldn’t seem so out of place on bikes with spaced-out chainstays or a thick yoke. But on this Paramo Ultra, the chainstays don’t flare much and allow plenty of room to tuck the chainring in closer to the frame, which would then ease up on the chainline. I’m a big fan of the group overall, including the “wide gravel” 151 mm q-factor. Don’t get me wrong. But neither Shimano, nor third-party manufacturers, are offering offset chainrings to reign in the width for narrower bikes, so it is what it is for now. And, as of the time of publishing, Shimano is not making GRX chainrings smaller than 40T. But Wolf Tooth just launched 38T and 36T chainrings for this system, so I’ll be picking one of those up soon.
- Frame: Scarab Paramo Ultra
- Fork: Enve Adventure
- Handlebars: Pro LT Gravel 46cm
- Headset: Wolf Tooth
- Brakes: Shimano GRX
- Derailleur: Shimano GRX 12-speed
- Cassette: Shimano 10-51T
- Cranks: Shimano GRX 12-Speed with 40T
- Wheels: Astral Outback
- Hubs: Astral/White Industries CLD
- Seatpost: BTCHN Titanium
- Saddle: Posedla Joyseat
- Handlebar Tape: Ergon
- Tires: Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge
- Bottle Cages: Wolf Tooth
- Top Tube Bag: Wizard Works
- Handlebar Bag: Ornot
From beginning to end, working with Scarab through their full custom design and build process was pleasant and efficient. To anyone looking to make the jump to a custom frame for the first time, or add another type of bike to their stable, I recommend Scarab for the shortlist of builders to consider. At around $3600 for a frameset with custom paint, the Colombian brand presents a solid value proposition. While that amount of coin is certainly not what many would consider “affordable,” it is congruent with other brands offering custom steel frames in the same space.
As far as the Paramo Ultra is concerned, it ticks nearly all of the performance and fit boxes I’d hope for in a modern gravel bike: tire clearance, comfort, build quality, lively pedaling, plenty of mounting points, and versatility. I just wish there was an option for a Scarab-made steel fork. Now comes the hardest part of the entire process – do I send the bike back to Scarab’s demo fleet or do I purchase it and continue riding for years to come?
- Collaborative and quick design/build process
- Custom fit and geometry
- Stunning paint options
- Flawless welds and finishing
- Optional mounting points, routing, etc
- Ample tire clearance
- Fast delivery time
- Competitive pricing with similar offerings
- Made in Colombia
- Only available with a carbon fork
- Chainstays could have a bit more spacing
- Custom bike pricing can be a barrier to entry for many riders
See more at Scarab Cycles