Apologies if it seems a little crass talking about unjustifiably expensive bike builds at a time when so many are discovering the horrors of Universal Credit, and many more are fretting over when they’ll ever be employed again. Rest assured I’ve been hit as hard as most, with all biking work disappearing, taking a huge chunk of my income with it. But maybe it’s the right moment for a bit of escapism.
Dreamy School Days
School days for me were long and often tedious, I’d usually have the compulsory work banged out in minutes, leaving much opportunity for the favourite pastime of drawing or listing out component parts of my dream bikes. Merlin Titanium, Pace RC35’s, Cook Bros, Grafton, Paul’s Components, an eye-watering and mouth-salivating concoction of anodised beauty, stratospherically beyond the budget of any teenager, even one like myself with three jobs on the go. Back home, I’d be poring over the listings of the Stif Cycles adverts in MBUK, seeing if I could source an XT rear mech for £2 cheaper elsewhere. Virtually all non-riding energy was consumed with that search for perfection, as if the bike was always just a couple of upgrades from reaching the zenith.
Of course, that’s Capitalism encapsulated! The eternal and futile belief that happiness can be bought, a shortcut to personal proficiency. As if some Rockshox Judys would make me descend like Jason McRoy or a Tioga Disk Drive could make me as cool as John Tomac. Age has largely eradicated those whims, glad to say that I couldn’t give a shit about what is perceived to be cool any more, enjoying the luxury of a life mostly unencumbered by craving acceptance. However, that cognitive development never quashed the burning desire to create, like a surfer seeking the perfect wave, I still slavishly pursued the perfect bike, until finally a few months ago that long-elusive formula was discovered.
The mission to create your dream build takes far more than simply possessing the requisite finances. A forensic understanding of what riding type provides your most powerful personal enjoyment is essential. To complicate matters further, that emotion can be transient, the full-on downhiller of a decade ago may now gain their thrills from epic exploratory bikepacking, and their chosen equipment will reflect this. The past 30+ years have seen so many machines come and go, some firing agonisingly close to the mark, others more reflective of the industry dictating to me rather than vice-versa. The Voodoo Bizango (back when it was a Joe Murray designed steel masterpiece), Santa Cruz Blur Ltc and Ibis Mojo HD3 all spring to mind. Superb creations that reflected the skinny XC racer, speedy all-rounder and budding enduro racer in me, at just the right moments.
These days I’d define myself as the quintessential all-rounder. Racing XC is way off the agenda but ask my mates and they’ll admit to knowing very well what my back looks like when the trails turn upwards. At the bike parks I jump like a three-legged elephant, but was losing almost everyone on the super-steeps at Morzine last year, hitting drops that 90% of the armoured-up DH crew procrastinated endlessly over. Finally, the spirit of exploration has bitten hard, days with double digit hours of hike-a-bike just to reach exposed mountain ridges, life-enhancing views and trails probably only previously enjoyed by a handful of fat-tyred maniacs. Endlessly versatile, lightweight, aggressive, indestructible, maintenance-free and forgiving, facets essential in my choice that until recently would’ve required a garage stuffed with a number of different options, but I’ve got them all in one, and it’s a hardtail.
Has To Be Hardtail
Back when I was a student, one of the de-rigueur t-shirts to own was the classic ‘skateboarding is not a crime’. I’d like a modern day version with a similar message for hardtails. So many riders seem to think that lacking at least 160mm of travel between your legs makes a bike virtually unrideable. Truth is, the perfect combination of angles, tubing and build perfection compensate hugely for the lack of spring. My Stanton Switch9er Ti excels in all those respects, a whippy, lightweight and yet bomb-proof masterpiece that is as comfortable whumping twenty-foot drop-ins as it is resting on my back for a three hour non-stop carry. I’ve reviewed it in glowing terms here and here and those views have simply hardened and enhanced since those words were written.
Component Choices and Choice Components
Component-wise, I’ll not bore you too much. Suffice to say some are entirely predictable, some very personal and others utterly decadent. Here’s a quick overview of the highlights.
From the yawwwwwn camp of predictability are the likes of the Pike 140’s with MRP cartridge, Renthal Fatbar Carbon and Easton Havoc stem. Predictable, functional, light enough, certainly strong enough and very user-serviceable. I suppose the XTR shifters and SPD’s, ODI Ruffians and Stanton Ti seat fall in here too, they all just work impeccably.
The controversy comes in the drivetrain. A 28 tooth ring and an XT 11-36 cassette facilitate the use of the brilliant wee Saint short cage rear mech. I’m a massive Shimano acolyte, finding SRAM functionally and aesthetically inferior in almost every way. I truly hate their clunky shifts, excessively elaborate cable routing and see no need whatsoever for a 50t lowest gear or £250 cassette! It goes without saying that this is all extremely personal. I ride almost exclusively off-road, on tight, steep and techy terrain and never spin out the 28-11. Likewise, I’m fit, very fit and so if I can’t get up something in 28-36 then frankly nobody without an engine is getting up there either, no matter how twiddly their gearing! And if they did somehow manage it then I’d stroll casually past with the ‘9er balanced on my back, no pivots or linkages digging painfully in. The real reasons for these choices though are that I feel ten speed was the peak of shifting performance. The right balance between retaining function in the worst of the gloop without having huge jumps between gears. I ran 11 speed XTR for a brief period but found it just a bit fine-tuned for aggressive ham-fisted panic shifts mid-stage in the enduros, and so it migrated to the gravel bike rapidly. Chuck in the fact that a cassette costs just £40 odd and a replacement mech about £70 and there’s a touch of economic sense in there too. Dream builds aren’t purely about dropping as much Dollar as possible!
Which sounds total bollocks when the rest of the bits are examined. Justifying cranks, brakes or rims that individually stray into the four-figure territory is damn-near impossible, but I’m sure as hell going to try, starting with the true piece-de-resistance, the Cane Creek EE Wings. So a grand for some welded ti cranks is ridiculous. And that’s before you consider that they needed a new chainring, bottom bracket and Park Tools torque wrench to tighten the bolt to the strictly specific 52Nm. It’s not even like the XTR’s that they replaced were anything but amazing, but I wanted that 28t chainring and the Shimano were still four-bolt, 104 BCD, and so could only facilitate a 30t, plus look at them, just look at them! If anything can compliment the perfect satin finish of the Stanton frameset then it’s those beauties. Fortunately function matches the visuals on this occasion, and performance is truly next-level. For a start they’re light, carbon light, but unlike the layered black stuff they’re also unbelievably resilient. A moment always springs to mind that encapsulates just why these are the best component I’ve ever owned. Skipping down a cliff-edge singletrack in the Chamonix Valley, instant death to one side and solid rock the other, a split-second decision was made to deliberately crank-grind over a boulder to avoid the annoyance of either dabbing or ripping the mech off on a narrow slot. A few seconds later, still buzzed by the success of the audacious manoeuvre, reality of its stupidity dawned. I’d defy any carbon crank to survive that idiocy, but the EE Wings just laughed it off. I could probably polish out those scratches but the permanent visual representation of that idyllic moment is far more satisfying.
The Trickstuff brakes drop firmly into the same category, functional perfection at a blistering cost. The nine-month waiting list more than justified by the completely customisable options. Mine are a mix of the Direttissima and Maxima with the stronger clamps and built-in reach adjusters. Build quality is unbelievable as is the stopping and modulation, so much raw power that initially the front brake was snapping spoke heads daily, necessitating a re-lacing. No issues since, just ultimate control, once experienced it’d be hard to go back.
Compared to those masterpieces, the Chris King hubs, headset and ceramic bottom bracket seem almost run-of-the-mill, but when it comes to bearing surfaces they remain unparallelled and are user-serviceable, have incredible longevity and are effectively future-proofed with interchangeable upgrades. The hubs are laced to the unsung heroes of the whole build, the Ibis 942 carbon rims.
Now to call them a budget option would be ridiculous! They cost over £500 each, but compared to the Enve alternative they’re a steal, and from everything I’ve read and experienced they’re actually much better quality. Certainly mine have endured more abuse than is reasonable for any component. Thousands of cased landings and thousands of good ones too. Full-bore hooning into jagged rock gardens. Hucks to flat. Endless dings on granite and root where tyre pressures have erred a touch too far towards ultimate grip. And the 942’s have not only survived but have stayed perfectly true, and I mean perfectly. The Haute Route and its relentless high-speed rock spikes did finally cause a miniscule delamination of about 2mm of one layer of carbon, but a dab of superglue had them back to 100%. They’re scratched to bits but come back for more, again and again, superb.
The Finished Article
Every single piece of the overall jigsaw has been hand-picked, with a highly selective and volatile owner seeking nothing but the best, and happy to ditch anything just a degree off perfect. Fox 36’s, gone. XTR cranks, mech and brakes, see ya. Rockshox Reverb, don’t make me laugh!! For three decades it was always about the next upgrade, slavishly reading the mags, the websites, the blogs, seeking the next big thing, the quintessential early adopter. But finally a calm has descended, the dawning of a new realisation that for now this bike simply can’t be topped. In time that will change. Who knows what the next iteration of perfect will look like for me? Gear box? Belt drive? Battery? Whatever happens, that evolution will forevermore be driven by what I actually do and not what we’re told we should be doing. The path to ultimate contentment has been obscene in its expense, its wastefulness, its frivolity. It’s swallowed thousands of hours of physical labour and minimum wage exploitation, but without that sweat and graft the satisfaction of this end result would be much less sweet. As I look back now and see a kid washing dishes for a whole Summer to earn less than I can sometimes pick up in a day now, I can still see the link, still feel my passion for the sport burning bright. It’s been a bumpy ride to perfection, but the smoothness of the ride it’s created brings contentment beyond compare.
Happy trails everyone, they’ll still be there when all this shit blows over, just make sure you’re all still here to enjoy them.