Monday, September 22, 2014

Jamis Dragon 650b Pro: First Impressions

My experiment with the Salsa Mukluk as a 29er has been very successful, and certainly isn't over, but as I've hinted in these pages recently, I've been hankering to try out a purpose-built mountain bike. Something a bit easier on the wrists and nimbler in the tight spaces those crazy New England mountain bikers go flying thourgh. I've been thinking about a hard-tail because a) I don't have almost no experience with suspension and wanted to keep it simple, b) I have an old-school esthetic, and c) I ain't got the scratch for a truly nice full-suspension rig. (What is up with $5,000 bicycles?)

Through the good graces of Will Sytsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, I got the chance to do an extended test ride on one of the most fabled hard-tails in the industry, though in a new incarnation.

Jamis has been making their Dragon in 26er form for over 20 years. Soulful Reynolds 853 steel --legendary for being light and stiff -- and a first-rate spec have been the main attractions all that time. Now, they've released a 650b version, a wheel-size I've been curious about. It comes with a full X9 drivetrain front-to-back, and killer Fox Float fork. And only 26 pounds! I enthusiastically signed on.

The day the bike came in, I was knocked right out by the delicious paint job:

Jamis calls it Root Beer, but they're wrong. When I got it home, Mrs. V took one look at it and nailed it: Cherry Cola. A metallic-flaked, earthy brown with deep candy-apple undertones. In fact, the whole build is drop-dead gorgeous. Many well-placed white highlights (including two white spokes on either side of each tube valve for quick trailside top-offs) balance out the classic lines.

I've taken it out about six or so times on trails from buff to gnarly. Let's talk first about the wheel size:

Part of the pleasure of the smaller wheels is the ease of lofting the front end on to obstacles large and small, and this proved very welcome here in New England. The greater maneuverability of the wheels  (and the shorter wheelbase compared to the laid-back Mukluk) also meant switchbacky descents were just killer fun. This bike is a bit more trail- than race-oriented, so the geometry is fairly slack, but it's still way more responsive than my stately Mukluk. Speeding the Dragon through S-curves, all I need do is point my chin where I want my front tire to end up, and bang! It's there. That quickly. 


However, the smaller wheels did mean that I had to work harder. I learned mountain biking on a 29er, and got very used to plowing right over obstacles that give smaller wheels pause (literally). With the 650s, I need much more momentum, strength, and skill to get over those same tall roots or bulky rocks. Now, if you learned on a 26er, these babies will probably seem cushy as heck to you...

Having little experience with suspension, my opinion about the fork has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I really like the Fox Float 32. For one thing, it's finely tune-able. I've fiddled with the rebound and three-step compression settings (Lock-out, Trail, and Descend), and have enjoyed the fine-grain differences they yield, when combined with rebound adjustments. I can give myself just a little cush with quick response, allowing me still to feel the trail -- very important to my rigid-trained brain. I suspect this fork stacks up extremely well against similarly-priced competition.

The X9 shifting is the best I've experienced on a mountain bike -- swift and positive, even with tension on the chain. It's been a pleasure. The handsome white section on the rear derailleur neatly ties in the white bands on the paint frame and the white fork stanchions. I'll say it again: This bike is esthetically flawless.

A few quibbles with the stock set-up:

I found the stock tires -- 2.2-inch Geax Saguaros  -- good enough on very buff terrain, but not great for more typcial Western Mass trails, crowded as they are with damp roots or marbly gravel. The center knobs are not very bulky, and, even tubeless, the Saguaros lost their grip more than my beloved Maxxis Ardents on my Mukluk. With that said, I know a rider in this area with more skills and strength than me who finds them more than good enough.

The Ritchey Trail handlebars are handsome and have a nice sweep. They're also quite wide: at 755 mm, they provide a ton of leverage through hardened ruts or rock gardens. They're also occasionally too expansive for the many sapling squeezes in Western Mass, and -- in combo with the 100 mm Trail stem --  flatten my back and thrust my head further over the bars than I care for. However, a simple stem replacement and hacksaw to the bar ends can fix this problem.

In sum:

This is a gorgeous and flawlessly functioning bicycle. I'm hesitant to say any more than that, because  the qualms I have about it have more to do with me as a rider than the bike per se. If you are a true intermediate-or-above rider, or are used to smaller wheels, or live somewhere with mostly buff trails, you're going to flat-out fall in love with this slick piece of steel.

(A word to the wise: My test ride period is over, and the bike is back on the sales floor at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange for a smokin' price. It's a 17-inch model. 'Nuff said.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Trail on Mt. Warner in Hadley

Pioneer Valley mountain bikers (and hikers) should know about the lovely new trail that's sprung up on Mt. Warner in North Hadley over the last year.  If you like the buff, flowy nature of Earl's Trails, there's a pleasant surprise waiting for you on this scenic hillside.

Mt. Warner is well-known amongst locals as the easy-to-spot high point in Hadley, one of the lowest-lying Pioneer Valley towns. There's some evidence that so-called Paleo-Indians were there as long ago as 10,000 BC, and that the more recent Norwottuck tribe hunted there quite a bit. Later settlers left behind two handsome artesian wells in remote places on the hill.

For almost as long, locals have made other kinds of use of the hillside: hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and, yes, mountain biking. However, the property was all private, and usage rights were contentious and unclear.  Trails consisted either of neglected cart and jeep trails, or unmarked, complex spur trails.

In 2009, The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts organization dedicated to preserving local places of natural beauty, acquired 156 acres (amid a larger protected area of about 500 acres, including neighboring Lake Warner) and set about to preserve and develop it for wise and enjoyable outdoor usage. Within the last year, Pioneer Valley director Josh Knox and a varied team of staffers and volunteers (recently including me!) have developed a lovely two-mile trail, mostly new but incorporating existing paths where possible.

I've been riding this yellow-blazed Salamander Loop Trail trail for months now, and believe it compares quite favorably to some of the best riding in the Valley

Intentions to develop further official trails do exist, but in conceptual stage only.

Though all are welcome to ride or hike the trail now -- I met four first-timers there just this past Sunday afternoon -- the reservation will open officially on Saturday, October 18, 2014, with a ribbon cutting and guided hike at 10:30 a.m., followed by food and festivities at the popular North Hadley Sugar Shack, just around the corner from the Reservation. For more info, go here.

Finding the trailhead is a bit subtle right now, as road signage is still in the works. Simply put, look for an unmarked gravel driveway on the north side of Mt. Warner Road, half-way up the hill from where the road branches off of Route 47. This driveway leads to a nice, new gravel parking lot.

Get out there and have fun -- fall is here and the air is crisp!