A Familiar Feeling: A Review of the Sklar Bikes SuperSomething

Adam Sklar has been building custom bikes for close to a decade—and we’ve featured plenty of them on this site! But, in 2022 he decided to move production of a new model overseas to Taiwan. Dubbed the SuperSomething, this first production Sklar has road bike bones while still (subtly) paying homage to Adam’s mountain biking roots. Hailey Moore has been riding our signature Radavist edition SuperSomething all summer and, below, shares her review, along with insights into Adam’s design intent for this all-steel gravel bike.

In a recent conversation with Adam Sklar about his first Taiwan-made, steel, production gravel bike—the SuperSomething—he kept going back to the word “familiar” to describe the feeling he wanted to capture. It’s funny to think about how a new-to-you bike could feel familiar but as the word resurfaced during our Zoom conversation (which, Adam generously put up with while having covid in the days before literally moving across the country) I was reminded of my undergraduate days and learning about Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.

A contemporary of Freud and controversial in his own right, Jung’s collective unconscious theory posits that there are three tiers to the psyche: the conscious (or, what we immediately perceive through our senses), the personal unconscious (similar to Freud’s notion that some personal memories, thoughts, and feelings reside in a layer of our psyche not readily accessible), and the collective unconscious.

According to Jung, unlike the personal unconscious the collective unconscious imparts every individual with aspects of the entire human experience, like a genetic memory bank, upon which we build our own individual experiences. Through his study of history, myths, and his own patients, Jung also came up with the notion of archetypes as a way of defining exactly what is transferred through the collective unconscious. Defined as shared stories or symbols, examples of archetypes include commonly recurring themes across the human experience. Think: the Old Sage (e.g. Gandalf, Dumbledore, Yoda) or the origin story of the Orphan (Frodo, Harry Potter). Think: Hero or Mother.

While I’m no Jung scholar, as Adam and I talked I couldn’t help but think of the near-universal experience that so many kids have of learning to ride a bike. It’s a romantic whimsy to imagine the act of riding a bike entering into Jung’s collective store of human acts and tropes, but it also feels so elemental. There’s even the idiom—“just like riding a bike”—that, of course, is used to describe something that is second nature. Something innate and reflexive. Something—familiar.

Sklar Baby

Adam grew up in Boulder, Colorado and started ski racing at an early age. He was introduced to mountain biking through his ski racing friends, many of whom were involved in SMBA, the regional junior development program. While he quickly glossed over talking about his first mountain bike (“a Specialized Rockhopper which was not cool. All my friends rode for Gary Fisher-Trek so they were all on the Paragon, but the Superfly was the cool one to have”), he seemed to have much fonder memories of his second bike, the Model 19 from the mail-order brand IRO. It was a rigid, steel, 29er single speed that he used to roam all the dirt roads and cutty trails that weave through the foothills outside of Boulder. Perhaps because I have my own version of riding bikes as a teen, it’s easy to imagine the sense of freedom he must have felt aboard the IRO.

As Adam tells it, “We were riding from town and riding trails that I’m sure everybody is riding on gravel bikes now. So [now] I’m like ‘Okay, I guess that was just gravel biking.’ [But] that’s an experience I think back on. That’s what got me into bikes—that bike was so fun; it was simple, it was capable enough but still interesting. It was exhilarating, still.” Adam had a custom Walt Works fork made for another bike he had at the time, his Vassago Jaberwocky, and in addition to a burgeoning appreciation for the range of terrain you could travel on such simple machines, it was at this point in his journey with bikes that Adam discovered the handbuilt scene.

From NAHBS 2016; Sklar Disc All-Road

With an engineer for a father and an industrious mother, it sounds like Adam certainly grew up in a household that promoted the DIY spirit and makers’ mindset. Early on, he made his own instruments and fiddled with electronics. It wasn’t until after he moved to Bozeman, Montana to study engineering and got a job in the machine shop on campus that he started experimenting with making his own frames. Bozeman—with its long, flat valley hemmed in by steep trails—partially absolved him of his strict adherence to singlespeed riding and he outfitted his fourth or fifth frame (a full steel suspension mountain bike) with gears. Although he raced cyclocross all through college and after, drop bars didn’t enter into his recreational riding until his 7th frame. After building a steel cyclocross race bike for himself, Adam discovered that the dirt roads surrounding Bozeman had their own merits beyond just commuting to the trails. And, riding gravel extended the season by four months (two on each end of Montana’s often prolonged snowy season).

Sklar Bikes Factory Team Does The Colorado Trail (2017)

In the immediate years following college, Adam and a group of four friends rode the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango. It was his first experience with bike touring and he built all of the bikes that he and his friends rode (two rigid mtbs and three suspension hardtails) on the high alpine, predominantly singletrack route. When I asked him for more specific takeaways from the trip, instead of getting into any details he pivoted a bit by saying that while it was really cool to “do the hard physical thing in the beautiful place thing […] Something I’m trying to communicate more is that I just like being outside and bikes have been one way to do that.” A statement that, seemingly, makes the vehicle secondary to the experience.

I noticed the same macro-to-micro perspective in the way Adam talks about his orientation to design, which he says he came into “backwards” through bikes, starting with his Walt Works fork, and being a young admirer of filet-brazed frames and fancy lug work. “It’s been fun to find out about craft through bikes, and then find out about design through craft. I’ve been more design curious over the last few years making some furniture and stuff like that.” One of the reasons that he’s had time again to start dabbling in other forms of craft is where the SuperSomething comes in.

SuperSomething: Origins

On the beginnings of Sklar as a brand, Adam says, “I was excited to make stuff and I got so wrapped up in it that I never stopped to think about what direction [Sklar] was heading in, I just found a way where I could make bikes. Then eight years went by.” During that span, his workload consisted of time-consuming and expensive custom builds where he felt like he was “delivering bikes but I was selling customer service.”

On the mountain bike side of the sport, the progressive trend was pushing frames to become “slackest, longest, steepest super bikes—engineered to win downhill races.” As the gravel scene continued to grow, Adam received a lot of customer requests for “a dropbar 29er with a dropper post with road bike geometry” that felt at odds with his own design vision.

He tried to like those bikes, and in 2017 built himself a 27.5 version that could clear 2.4” mtb tires (“a monster cross thing, I guess we’re calling them”). On paper, it seemed like the ideal bike for commuting to the trails then ripping around a bit but “it ended up being super boring and one of the least favorite bikes I’ve ever built myself.” Meanwhile, the bikes he kept building for himself and wanting to keep had “good ‘ol reliable road bike fit with a little bit higher trail, a little steeper seat tube, a little higher handlebar.” In short, Adam says “ It was a good lesson in that you can have fun on a really simple bike.” Like in his IRO days.

While I haven’t tracked down and compared geo charts, the SuperSomething in one way is a return to Adam’s IRO as his first idyll of a bike—simple, capable but not overbuilt—as well as a culmination of everything he’s learned about bikes and design since. In his characteristic nonchalant manner, Adam describes that, for non-competitive riding, a bike really only needs to do three basic things: 1) get you around town, 2) serve as a tool for exploring where you live, and 3) and maybe be used to go camping sometimes.

A lot of what made its way into the SuperSomething is a result of his own riding preferences, combined with what he learned from eight years’ worth of communication with custom clients. Increasingly, it seemed that most people approaching him in search of a custom bike were looking for the elusive one-quiver-bike. Maybe this is the result of marketing—as more bikes are positioned as the perennially-capable all-rounder, as consumers come to see wide gear ranges, wide chainlines, and wide clearance as de rigeur—but Adam also speculates that this is probably because there’s such a high premium on custom bikes. Of course you want the do-it-all bike if you’re paying in the five figures for it. But, like his self-described boring and overbuilt 27.5 dropper-equipped dropbar build example, he often found the all-in-one bike to be lacking. The real skill in being a custom frame builder was in being able to turn the experience, or emotion, the client described wanting to have into hard numbers.

Even if they weren’t always using the same terms, Adam intuited that what most customers were after something just capable enough for a wide range of terrain but that was still a thrill to ride. “It turns out that most people ask for the same stuff,” Adam explained. “You hear the same story over and over, which is cool. And that’s part of what triggered the SuperSomething. [I realized] ‘oh 80% of people are asking for the same thing that I want.’ It turns out that the geometry you get for that is a lot like a road bike, and it turns out that road bikes are a lot of fun to ride. They’re familiar. I guess I use that word [because] I came from designing all these mountain bikes that were super new school… but I think a large portion of the fun of riding bikes is that familiarity—[when] it feels like I’m on a bike—so I’m always trying to find something that pushes you a little bit (it has some of that new-school mtb design philosophy in there) but it’s meant to be a bike.”

I think Adam’s tautological description of what the SuperSomething is meant to be (i.e. “a bike”) further illustrates it as his search for the quintessential bike. A singular example that embodies the whole; the image that comes to mind when you hear the word; the bike you want to ride everyday. The truest manifestation of one’s idea of the thing.

SuperSomething: In Review

So after all of that philosophizing, what exactly is the SuperSomething? The SuperSomething is an all-purpose, all-road bike built around a non-boost 700x42c wheelset from double butted heat treated chromoly, specced with a straight blade, unicrown steel fork. The design takes inspiration from a comfortable road bike position inflected with subtle mtb characteristics, notably a slightly longer top tube designed to be paired with a short(ish) stem, and a higher offset fork to achieve a longer front end. As a nod to Adam’s early singlespeed days, the rear triangle is built around Paragon Machine Works’ rocker drop outs.
The stated tire clearance maxes out at 2.1”—whether running 700c or 650b—but I found that a 700×2.35” Ikon fit in the fork just fine and an Ultradynamico 2.2” Mars squeezed in the rear.

I received my Radavist SuperSomething in late June and have since logged nearly 800 miles on it—a large portion of which included a couple recon trips to Colorado’s Sawatch Range while putting together a new bike touring route. There were five build kits to choose from for the Radavist edition and I ended up with the top tier Drop Bar SRAM Force AXS and ENVE build, as it was the only one left in my size (54cm). Fortunately for me, it came in the dreamy “Super Splatter” rust and violet colorway!

Admittedly, I found this build kit to be kind of a headscratcher. To me, the race-focused components—high-end wireless drivetrain, carbon ENVE stem (90mm) and post—seemed a bit asynchronous with the Ultradynamico mtb tires (no shade intended!) and wide 48cm bars (also ENVE, also carbon). If it was meant to be a race bike, I’d want narrower bars. If it was meant to be an ultra-capable gravel bike, I’d want a more forgiving gear range (than the 10-44t XPLR cassette with a 42T ring) and shorter stem for a more upright position. I eventually transformed the bike to the latter but not before stubbornly taking it on some mixed-terrain rides around Boulder, then loading it up for a two-night tour in the high country.

Despite the componentry tension, I could tell this bike had something going on from the first ride. It was remarkably smooth but not noodley. And, when I arrived at a singletrack sneak between some dirt bits on a regularly-visited route, the bike felt just about as capable—yet more nimble—than the hardtail I’d last ridden this section on. It felt playful without feeling sketchy, game without being deceptive. At least on the descents. With this groupset, the steeper climbs were kind of a big-ring bummer, so I was excited to change things up.

I was loath to say goodbye to the carbon cockpit, but I had to swap the bars and stem to a setup more appropriate for my size and riding ambitions. I ended up doing most of my riding on the SuperSomething with a pair of Zipp XPLR bars (a narrow 46cm) with a 60mm stem, 10-52t GX Eagle cassette, and Rene Herse cranks coupled with a 36T chainring. Much better. For a while, I had the wheels (ENVE AG25) set up with a pair of Rene Herse Fleecer Ridges (700x55c) but after taking it on the aforementioned high country loop, I opted to revert back to a fast-rolling mtb tire.

Once I had the setup sorted, I took the bike out on the last leg of my Sawatch route recon—a mix of singletrack, pavement, and the full spectrum of Colorado “gravel” (i.e. blown up mining road cobbles and babyheads). I’ve been continually impressed with the SuperSomething’s ride quality and riding it loaded down only added to the smooth factor. Adam’s bikes all feature his signature arcing ovalized top tube; I used to be a “lateral stiffness, vertical compliance” skeptic, thinking it hackneyed marketing jargon, but the SuperSomething has made me a believer.

One of the most surprising, and delightful, characteristics of the bike is the way it handles tight cornering on trail. While the SuperSomething is positioned as taking more design cues from the road end of the spectrum than the mtb, the higher offset/ longer front end noticeably translates to maneuverability.

On the flip side, the bit of penance you pay for this fun factor is the slightest sense that the front end wanders when riding uphill at slow speeds. I would not, by a long stretch, call it wheel flop (even under load); rather, when grinding up a steep grade the front end almost imperceptibly noses around a bit.

After years of “running the business then throwing together a frame when I had time,” moving from MUSA-custom handbuilt bikes and to Taiwan-made production frames has allowed Adam to, once again, create more space for thinking about big picture design and craft as he continues to grow Sklar.

An early SuperSomething prototype that he held onto and rode for three years has the record for the longest bike he’s made and kept around—he’s sold all of his other dropbar bikes. He says that, in the past, he would have never advised one of his friends to buy one of his custom bikes: they were just too expensive to produce. But, he would advise them to buy a SuperSomething. And that’s, well, saying something.