Saturday, April 14, 2012

Monster Cross: A Primer

What do you get when you put fat, knobby tires and disc brakes on a bike with 700c wheels and drop handlebars?

Actually, no one seems to know for sure.

Some call it an "all-'rounder." Some call it a touring bike with fat tires. Some call it a 29er with drop bars. Most people don't know what to call it -- or why anyone would want to ride it.

One moniker seems to be gaining popularity, though. More and more folks agree: It's a monster cross bike.

It's actually not a brand-new idea. People have been outfitting their mountain bikes with drop bars, their 'cross bikes with tires too fat to be UCI-legal, and their touring bikes with rubber wide enough to handle towpaths, bridle paths and dirt roads, for a long time now. But I think the burst of productivity in bikes like my Salsa Vaya -- odd-looking bikes meant to do many things well, though no one thing perfectly -- has fed the flames. People are turning their Salsas, their Surlys, their Singulars, into monster cross bikes in droves, because these bikes are part of a new breed; not too proud to rock awkwardly-handsome, burly gear... geometry stable enough for dirt of all kinds... and frames built for enormous cassettes and long-throw derailleurs and even disc brakes (as on the Vaya).

They're not mountain bikes, but they handle almost any dirt you can throw at them. They're not pure road bikes, but they handle fine on tarmac.

Actually, there are as many opinions about what qualifies a bike as monster cross as there are people riding them (e.g., see comments on this early conversation about the genre). Some say the tires have to be larger than 35 mm (otherwise it qualifies for a genuine cyclocross bike) but no larger than 1.9 inches (or it's really a drop-bar 29er). Most agree that the drop bars are necessary, because part of the beauty of monster cross is the ability to settle in on hard-packed gravel, dirt, or even paved roads and get a little roleur action in, often on the way to one's next dirt segment.

In the last few years, the bike companies producing these weird new rides have further blurred the lines by generating a new style of handlebar, with short drops and widely-flared bottoms (for cranking up steep ramps or providing balance at low speeds). Get some history of that here. Some of them don't even look like drop bars -- or any bar I've seen before, though they're quite handsome, in that quirky way I like:

Singular Gryphon with Salsa Woodchipper bars (Photo: Guitar Ted,
 It seemed inevitable that races would start cropping up for this discipline, and indeed, they have. And if you do an image search for "monster cross bike," you'll see thousands of examples.

Niche or not, it's here. Maybe not to stay, but it's here.

*     *     *

When I bought my Salsa (from my terrific local shop Hampshire Bicycle Exchange), I chose Salsa's Bell Lap bars to finish it out -- a lightly flared number very, very comfortable on the hoods (see photo in blog title banner, above, for best view of the flare angle).  With its relaxed geometry and rough-road provenance, the Vaya is really a quintessential candidate for a monster cross bike.

However, it was disqualified because it came with the splendid Kenda Small Block Eights in 35 mm width. Widest tires I'd ever ridden. They looked monstrous enough to me to conquer anything I'd be dumb enough to try to ride over.

Time passed. I ventured tentatively from the gravel roads to trails and single track. I gained a scant few of the skills one needs to navigate trails which I would have difficulty walking up (or down) without a bike anywhere near me.

I got hungry. I tried more and more. And as the trails got harder, I got more curious as to what wider tires would do for me. I scouted out the supply on the Web. Sadly, there is a dearth of tires between 40 and 45 mm (the largest size most folks will put on a Vaya). Manufacturers haven't quite caught up with this trend yet, and don't see much margin in producing an "in-between" tire. A few enterprising souls are out there, though, and couple months ago, I read about one such company on Black Mountain Cycles' Web site: Vee Rubber, a lesser-known firm based in Thailand.

Then, just last week, Chris at Hampshire Bike let me know he was selling a lightly-used pair of Vee X-C-X 1.75s -- or 45 mm. He let me borrow them for a test ride.

Without further ado, here is my handsome beast with a new, monstrous look:

Who could resist that rugged charm?

Plenty of clearance in front

Fat-tired bikes, you make the rockin' world go 'round
The test ride yesterday was a blast. I went out to that trail system near my house I told y'all about last week, and ended up going three times as far as I did the first and second rides there. With some hike-a-bike, I found a whole 'nother network of lovely, flowy stuff attached on the far side of the little mountain I started on. Oh boy oh boy oh BOY!

Suffice to say it was very different riding trails and single-track on fatter tires. (Duh...) I could have done same ride with my 35s, but I don't think it would have been as fun.

Now, they didn't help as much as I'd hoped in the piles of leaves on steep ramps. Note also that the lugs are pretty low-profile on this tire, so who knows what a more aggressive tire might have done. I'm a total newbie to MTB tires, and hope to find out more as I go. (Any suggestions in the comments section are welcome.) The Vees might be too mild for the stuff I'm trying these days, but I think at the low price I can nab them at, I might as well get started with them. I think they would do wonderful double-duty on steep gravel roads around here, with a few more pounds of air in 'em. (If I keep doing these washed-out, saw-toothed trails, though, I might just have to cave and get a full-on mountain bike. The Vaya doesn't feature MTB gearing, and I get pretty cooked, and lose traction a lot.)

The Salsa was already everything I love about cycling rolled into one bike. Now? A road bike, a trail bike, a gravel-grinder, and just about anything else I want. No one thing prefectly, but a lot of things well -- that just about describes me, I'd like to think.


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