All photo's are Copyright of Scott Swalling or the tagged Photographer. (Background photo Scott Swalling Photography).

About Me:

24Hr MTBike racer and general bike rider, climber and mountaineer. Good coffee drinker and cake eater (any cake, seriously, don't leave your cake laying around). Also, I like to try new things that challenge me.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Specialized FatBot Expert - Review

Fatbike - mountain bike designed with tyres between 3-4.6 inches, for riding on snow, sand, mud and also quite excellent on loose rock.  They look a bit mental and get far too much attention.

But there are two way more important facts: they are damn fun, maybe the most fun you can have with your pants on and are extremely versatile (maybe the next big thing in all mountain biking, with some of the geometries appearing at present and weights going down).

So after lots of research and very little riding of fat bikes I asked if they could help out and Chris the owner was very happy to help me out with the purchase of the Specialized Fatboy Expert and after a little wait due to some wheel production issues (issues all resolved) it arrived.

The factory spec is not too bad at all, but I had plans, so off came all the SRAM replaced with Shimano and it went 1x10 with a Wolf Tooth Components non-drop 32t chain ring, I added carbon bars, a gravity dropper I had laying around, Shimano M530 pedals and my preferred Ezi Grips with Hope Lock Dr caps.

What remained, is the brilliant frame and fork combination, extremely light and robust Specialized wheels, Specialized 4.6" Ground Control tyres, E13 crank and BB, seat stem and the Shimano OEM brakes.  The bike pictured below is my build (minus the seat post change).

She does grab the eye, so be prepared for a lot of attention.

So the first thing you notice about the Fatboy Expert is the size of those tyres and wheels.  They are wide and look a bit on the heavy side, surprisingly they are not too bad at all, although I haven't weighed this build the whole build must be under 28lb.  Not too bad when you consider all that rubber.

Specialized had the wheels and hubs commissioned, so they carry the Specialized name.  They have quite an impressive cutout in the rims (90mm wide) that are laced to the Specilaized branded hub with sealed bearings and Hi Lo flange, so far after over 3 months use in all sorts of conditions, seem very solid and reliable.  Attached to the rim is the 4.6" Ground Control, Spesh made an very good call here, these tyres at this size on these wheels are an amazing combination and the wheels use stock (but obviously wider for the rear) QRs, maybe a future version could have bolt through front and rear, but if I am honest for what I plan to use mine for I could see quite a number of issues with that change, not least it being a massive pain in the butt in freezing conditions.

Positive, responsive and more grip than you will ever need, that is what the massive 4.6" Ground Controls give you.  I am still trying to find the limit and in doing so going faster and faster, which is testing the brakes and my nerve.  They have a 120TPI count which maps closely to Spesh's 2Bliss tyre construction and should tubeless well (stay tuned for more on that).  The tyres provide loads of float on soft sand, amazing grip on hard pack and transition between the two seamlessly, even at speed. They chew through rocky terrain up or down, like it is a towpath all at a moderate 12psi inflation.

 Bags fall of grip and float

When they say fat, with a 190mm rear hub they mean FAT.  I was interested that this might make the frame bit flexible, but if it does once it is all locked together with the wheel in place you don't notice it, the power goes straight to the ground.

The brakes are a Shimano OEM BR-505 front and rear, with a 180mm rotor at the front and a 160mm at the rear stopping the Fatboy and my 82 kilo from speed extremely well.  I was a bit dubious at first as I am a Hope fan boy, but these brakes provide loads of modulation and control, and really stop you fast when you need them to.  The decision to put a 180mm on the front is a good one as you do seem to motor downhill on this bike.

The drive train it comes with has SRAM OEM 2 and 10 speed grip shift, which I replaced with XT (1x10) and the X0 rear mech with XT also.  The X7 front mech was just removed.  All this is just personal preference as I find Shimano more reliable. The Praxis Works chain rings I replaced with a 104 32t Wolf Tooth Components non-drop as they just work so well and the red one looks pretty.  Attached to the eThirteen cranks you get a very positive and robust drive train.  Which has stood up to quite a battering in my local hills and The Lakes District.

The eThirteen PF30 100mm, means that the overall BB width is kept at a modest 130 when measured cup outer to cut outer and therefore there is not a massive difference between it and my other bikes, but the first few rides will feel odd and I suggest you keep the saddle a bit lower than normal.  I have read a few differing reviews about the PF30s but I have to say that mine have not started squeaking or imploding and feel very smooth after quite a bit of use.
I wont bore you with details of bars, stems saddle etc.. I will just give you a quick list:
  • EA70 Monkey Bar;
  • Specialized 3D forged stem (OEM);
  • Specialized BG Henge (OEM) and my preferred saddle anyway;
  • Gravity Dropper seat post;
  • Shimano M530 pedals.
So finally, the frame and fork.  The frame is Specialized M4 aluminum, new apparently.  Well either way, they have got the geometry pretty much bang on and the weight is pretty impressive in the light direction.  This is fronted with a pretty striking set of Specialized FACT carbon full monocoque forks, giving a huge 5.0" tire clearance. Maybe a sign of tyre sizes to come?

The wide elliptic down tube provides loads of stiffness and reduces weight, as the M4 aluminum is clearly light.

The FACT Carbon forks are very sexy and certainly responsive.  With such a wide tyre, you really don't need much give in the fork, so the FACT is a great choice.

So what does it ride like, firstly I will say, when I know my next ride is on this bike I start smiling before I even pick it off the rack.  If there is one thing no-one can argue about is Specialized know how to R&D and then produce a bike.  This is no exception, in fact, they have probably pipped the specialist fat bike builders here, dare I say it, and I tend to ride niche or near enough to.

It is damn fun, you first notice that it is actually quite light to ride, it is nimble, more than you expect.  The frame and fork are impressively stiff as are the wheels, with those big tyres giving exceptional grip, control and comfort.  So much grip and control, that I have set new PB's on segments the first time I ride them, that I have ridden on All Mountain bikes a few times.

The bike responds well when pushed hard and is easy to ride when you are just cruising.  I find it as nimble in the air as it is on the ground and finds it transitions well from one sort of terrain and trail to another.

Those big old tyres and heavy tubes, seem to only really affect you when getting going or on a very long relatively steep climbs. On flat twisty trails the Fatboy Expert buzzes along and will surprise more than a few other riders, but if the surface is hard pack, it is going to hum like a tractor on the tarmac/bitumen.  So be prepared and watch yourself with those tyres when commuting to your trail, they really don't like high speeds on the road.

If I was pushed to give the Fatboy Expert some true ratings they would be as follows, out of 5:

Looks: 5
OEM Spec: 3.5
Ride: 4.5 (ignoring the climbing, I would give it 5)
Value for money: 4
Smile Factor: 5+

I really am impressed and this bike has been the one I have spent most time on since I got it.

Too much fun. :)

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Spoon to a gun fight

So if guns are for show and knives for a pro, what the hell is a spoon any good for in a fight? Alan Rickman, would claim it hurts more. Who though?

Sunday saw the 2014 running of the Gorrick 100, an annual race that is more challenge than a race, yeah right.  But it is great fun, the course always pretty good fun and all the category contestants appear to have fun.

Having felt off all week and not that interested in riding.  A Thursday night climbing session being the only exercise that seemed to lighten my ambivalence to training in the week, I was really struggling with the idea of racing. So I hatched a silly plan that I knew would put a smile on my face and be some good exposure for (you have to do your bit).  I decided to race the Fatboy in the Gorrick, a bad idea if there every wise one with the lack of mud, snow and/or sand.

So arriving at the race village, I got registered, chatted to a few folk as ya do, grabbed a spare tube off Big Al (who had come up a bit earlier than he need, top man and congrats on the 5 lap win!) and then I got myself sorted and readied the fatbike.

This was never going to be easy and frankly I still felt at odds with riding let alone racing, but I was on the start line and we were off.  A funny thing happens inside your head when you start a race, you take off like a loon and forget about most things, squeezing past riders on the first tight turn, I thought I would have a crack at seeing how well I can do.  But I was under no illusions, I was on a damn fatbike (the spoon from the Lock Stock-ish quote above) whilst everyone else was on 29er XC machines (the guns, no knives).

Surprisingly though as I pressed on, I made up places, scared people as the 4.6" tyres rumbled up behind them, took off camber lines in the inside of turns to overtake because I could due loads of fat tyre traction and generally had fun.  Lap five would prove to be the one that caused me issues and I decided to reign in a bit.  At this point a fell into a bit of company and shared some work with the eventual female winner Amanda Brooks, a fellow antipodean, but she soon rode me off her wheel and went on to the win. Congrats!

I rolled across the line in a surprising 19th on the tractor that is the Fatboy.  I was broken, the spoon hurt me more than someone else Alan. But as feeling returned, so did the fact that fatbikes are damn cool, but more importantly they are stupid fun.  Cycleworks thanks for getting the Fatboy in for me it really is too much fun. :)

Gorrick team, as always a great course and well organised event. To Chris Noble and Big Al, congrats on great rides and thanks for the heckling, always appreciated. ;)

Thanks to the usual suspect, Weldtite, WTC, Cycleworks and Alpkit.

Friday, 2 May 2014

K-Lite Bikepacker Pro

Right, if you are not into geekie bike focussed stuff or don't wish to be enlightened look away now.  Otherwise read on.

So my riding friends are probably fed up with me blabbering on about K-Lite technology, but I guess I have been excited about.  A while back I decided I was fed up with batteries, charging them, rides being dictated by them and having to conserve light when on a long ride or carry an extra battery.

So I started looking at the dynamo light options, weighing up the technology and costs, weight and output and even getting my head around the fact that I will have cables running all over my bikes again.  Something I had enjoyed not enduring for sometime now.

So with all my research in hand, I settled on K-Lite.  The tech stood up to my limited knowledge, the price seemed right, the units themselves tough and durable and the best bit, they are a small company which means they are more agile and innovative.  What's not to like there?  From what I have learned as well that Kerry, provides pretty damn fine customer service to a global customer base, from Australia, his adopted home from New Zealand.  So I am supporting the Aussie-New Zealander alliance as well.

So decision made and I wen ahead and ordered my Bikepacker Pro 1000/600lm light set. I even got to choose K-Lite orange as the colour.  Soon enough the lights arrived as shown below and I was immediately impressed with the size, weight and power. Not to mention the quality of light.

What's in the pack?
The Bikepacker Pro arrives with:
- Light, obviously,
- control box which provides the switch between 1000/600lm, On/Off and of course the standlite,
- an inline switch to be able to charge USB battery sets and compatible products when you are not using the light,
- associated cables (when your order you choose between SP/Shimano and Schimdt SON);
- a bar or riser stem mount (choose when you order or email K-Lite and I am sure they will help you out more),
- you even get a few zips tires to get you started.

 The control unit with On/Off and 1000/600lm switch and built in standlite.
Switches are extremely water proof as has been tested extensively.

One of the other points I like about K-Lite was there reuse policy.  K-Lite use a 3D printer to print up the control units, mounts, switch mounts (available for other options) and mount spacers.  They do their level best to use recycled plastics to do this. So combining this with the fact that they are dynamo lights, they are pretty damn environmentally friendly

As you can see below the light is quite small, yet omits a great deal of light and it is quality light a well. I have to admit when the light arrived I was a little concerned about the coverage and quality of light.  I can safely say after the first ride I was riding as quickly in the dark on technical trails with the 1000lm from the K-Lite as I did with any of my more powerful bright white battery powered lights.  Even in heavy fog, I found switching the light to 600lm mode and turning of my helmet light, the light was still excellent. The light is not a bright white light as many of the leading battery powered ones are and it doesn't need to be as bright as the light seems more natural.  By this I mean that it lets me pick up the detail on the ground better, it doesn't flatten the detail.  Which is pretty handy when riding on technical terrain.

Light pictured on the stem riser mount, which allows you to mount the light centrally.

The light housing is machined from a piece of aluminum and the heat sync directly contacts the housing so it does get a tiny bit warm, but it means you get the optimum performance from the light as the circuits can run at full capacity as the heat sync cools rapidly. So you get the option (if you choose to switch down) of true 1000/600lm when you are traveling at 15.7kph or higher (if memory serves on the specs).  The light naturally deeps on a curve as you speed decreases on climbs or when coming to a stop.  But I have found there is more than enough light when climbing slowly and the standlite when stop suitably bright for the riders use and certainly provides visibility to others if you are on the road for example.

Cables, like I said, I don't really like cables, but I made the sacrifice as I knew dynamo was the way forward for me. The cables K-Lite provide are suitable to get the maximum out of your hubs for running your lights and charging stuff. They are connected with XT60 connectors and constructed to be pretty damn waterproof.  I haven't note if K-Lite provide an IP standard themselves, but they plugs and cables have been well and truly tested by me and I have had no issues.

As mentioned there is even an inline switch to allow for charging compatible USB products and battery sets such as the tiny and brilliant Sinewave and KEMO. Then you can charge your phone, iPod etc... from the battery unit.

So the Bikepaker Pro is very versatile in what it does and how you configure it, so as a 24hr racer, a newbie bikepacker and perennial night time trainer, for me it is perfect. The only problem you have is how to mount it, where is it most out the way for you, yet the switches are accessible.  Well the picture above displays my preferred mounting configuration and allows for a clean set of bars for adding Alpkits stems cell pouches, fuel pod or Kanga, battery packs, GPS or even strapping gels and sports bars to the bars when you are going for that unsupported recorded 24hr ride.

Cons: What could I fault about the Bikepacker Pro light, well only one thing and that would be the same for any dynamo light.  It is not super stupid bright.

Pros: Reread above, come on folks. ;) It is small, light, tough, versatile and the light quality is perfect.  How tough? Well the light is so perfect that I found myself going way too fast down a slightly dodgy descent a little while back, I made a mistake and hit the ground very hard. The light unit was still shining bright when I got back to my feet.  It is very tough.

If you are after a dynamo light, I can certainly recommend these over the other leading brands, the build quality and price, just make them a market leader in my eyes.

The future of endurance riding is bright!