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.)


BIGWORM said...

I've always had a soft spot for Jamis bikes. Ron Jamis, who started the company so many years ago, is from here in Tallahassee. In fact, I rode with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. The shop I worked in for the back half of my shop days is owned by a guy who originally built wheels for Ron, in the 80's. You'll still see a few Dakars and Dragons from the 80's and 90's on local trails, if you just keep your eyes peeled. I'm glad to see they still bring smiles to folks who didn't know them, way back when.

Velosopher said...

Wonderful to see you're still checking in, BW, and great to hear the Old Guard sticking up for Jamis. I've always had a good feeling about them, too, since I bought my Quest.

Anonymous said...

I am caught between the Dragon 650b or 29er (lame topic I know, sorry!) any advice? I love in similar NE environment and am a beginner/intermediate with room for growth. Also average tall at 5'9".

Velosopher said...

Anon, I would say that the choice is more about your riding style than aything else. If you're strong and tend to keep up with friends as they climb fast, and you can power over obstacles pretty easilty, then the 650b would be my choice, because you get all the responsiveness, lightness, and acceleration. I, however, am 50, and have less power than most of the people I ride with. I found it hard to power over obstacles with the 650s than with 29ers, and this was a deal-breaker for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much fir your thoughtful answer to my question, it resonates with me and makes sense.

Velosopher said...

Helping folks is why I do this blog, so I'm glad it did!

Matthew Landon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Landon said...

I know this is older, but I really appreciate the perspective in the review and the anecdotes in the follow up! I'm deciding between this and a 2013 Trek Stache 8. I'm 48, lots of knee junk, just want my rides to be fun with minimal wear and tear on me?!

Velosopher said...

Matthew, given your concerns, I would think the 29er size would be better. I happened to just test-ride this bike again outside the shop yesterday, and my thoughts were confirmed: a beautiful, fun bike, but I need the larger wheel size to deal with New England obstacles.