Cyclocross bikes are everywhere these days – some even suggest they are the ‘gateway drug’ of choice for mountain bikers who want to get into the growing road cycling. When I got mine, in 2007, it was just a model in the range of then new brand Genesis (a range, including single speed road and MTBs, steel frames, hardcore hardtails, in fact not a million miles away from that of a certain Yorkshire web based mountainbike company…) stocked by our local shop. Its robustness made sense to me who had recently discovered my enthusiasm for cycling along with my old Raleigh ‘racer’ in the back of the garage and felt the need of an update. Northumberland roads can be rough, at least the interesting ones can be, so having wheels that wouldn’t explode and a frame that wouldn’t snap seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of riding my Vapour off-road and stuck some road slicks on it straight away.
Curiosity got the better of me after a couple of years and if you read back through this blog you’ll see I ended up doing the legendary Three Peaks Cyclocross five times along with many other ‘cross type events. On top of Ingleborough I usually think how useful it would be to have a mountain bike but there is a certain perverse pleasure in piloting an unsuitable bike at times like that. In fact, on a recent holiday in Wales, Sam and I headed off, mapless, into the forest near Machynlleth and ended up riding down what was basically a full-on down-hill mountain bike track. We were on ‘cross bikes, with slick, road tyres but the grins on our faces said it was brilliant, if sketchy, fun!
After I broke my wrist last year I found riding a flat handlebar’d bike more uncomfortable than a drop barred bike. Even off-road on a ‘cross bike was more comfortable than the same on a suspension MTB with a flat bar. I’ve always had a hankering for a ‘cross bike with fat tyres (known as a Monstercross bike by some) and suddenly this concept became even more attractive. At about this time my cousin Brant was setting up his new company, Pactbikes, and he was talking about 650b wheels (the new MTB standard) having the same diameter as road wheels and tyres. Disc brakes means that wheels can easily be swapped and the idea of a bike with a couple of sets of swappable wheels seemed so versatile that I couldn’t resist trying it out.
The Kielder 101 event (next weekend) was advertised as being open to Monstercross bikes too. I asked Brant if he could make me a suitable bike and after several months of musing, discussing and throwing designs back and forwards my bespoke Pactbike frame arrived last week.
What would it be like? Would everything fit? How would it ride? Would it be too much of a compromise in all areas?
Well, it’s brilliant! Firstly the frame seems very well made, smooth welds and all of that. Everything fitted together perfectly. The fork has masses of clearance – 650bx2.1 easily fits with room to spare. It’s all surprisingly light – 11.4kg with 650b wheels and mtb tyres on.
I’ve built it with 1×10. A 9sp rear mech works perfectly with a 10sp STI shifter and, although I was worried about the gearing, I think it’ll be fine. Another concern was using a MTB chainset – something that aids the clearance for wider tyres – but really it’s fine. Maybe Graham Obree wouldn’t like it but increasing the Q factor by 6mm really isn’t a big deal.
So how does it ride? Well, magnificently.
This is not a drop-barred MTB, this is a ‘cross bike with the comfort and grip of a MTB but with geometry that allows you to go fast off-road and on the inevitable road sections linking bits of trail. That statement probably gives some insight into my intended use for this bike. I’m not going to put it in the car and drive to Glentress. This is more about riding around on the tracks and trails around here which are what is considered XC mountainbiking these days – nothing too steep or technical, just rough. I want to just ride my bike and explore – this is about enjoying myself, not racing or chasing Strava segments. I’ve never been competitive, either in nature or ability, and getting older doesn’t improve my chances of either getting better!
So, it’s great off-road and the trade off of extra drag with bigger tyres (2.1 Smart Sams) seems minimal compared with, say 35c, ‘cross tyres. What about on-road? Well, surprisingly good with 700×40 tyres on! Again the fit and geometry are familiar and the handling is secure.The gearing is a bit more limited at the top end but having ridden a single-speed bike spinning out or pushing high gears is fine. Plus you get to use the whole block instead of wearing away the same three or four sprockets.
It’s early days in this relationship but so far I’m thrilled. This bike is more than I ever hoped it could be and I’m looking forward to exploring both the countryside and its abilities. I reckon there’ll be loads of bikes like this in years to come. If you fancy one give Brant a shout!