Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Gear Review: Santa Cruz 5010

Short Version:

Everyone has their own tolerances on bike tradeoffs. Some of my friends are happy to have a bike that is a more competent gravity rig for the tradeoff of some more XC/trail features; others would consider this sacrilege.
For me, after a season on this bike, I was leaning slightly more to the latter. I ended up changing steeds in late September after simple economics conspired against a continued weight loss plan for the 5010/Solo (carbon wheels and a carbon frame).
My final word: If you decide this is your rig, go light on this bike from the start, and seriously evaluate its use. Santa Cruz bills it as the more XC/trail version of the Bronson. I don’t have experience with the latter, but I think if I was riding more technical trails, I’d just go with a Bronson, and if I wanted a trail bike, I’d look at other options. This leaves a fairly small niche for the Solo to fill, but if it fits, it really won’t disappoint.

The Solo on one of its first rides this season to Gull Rock.

Long version:

I spent the summer riding an aluminum, Santa Cruz 5010, AKA Solo (I had a 2013 frame, so, technically, I had a Solo.)

The bike was assembled locally here at Chain Reaction Cycles, and they treated me very well. I went with an XT/XTR 2X gruppo, Fox F-32 CTD 120mm Kashima fork and Fox Kashima Float CTD shock, and a Rock Shox Reverb remote dropper. The shop threw on an XTR 2x crank. It pays to shop local.
This bike wants you to ride hard and ride fast. The more you push it, the better it feels. I hammered some descents I’ve ridden for years in ways I never knew I could. The bike has a fairly long wheel base and a semi-slacked head tube, and that gives it a “rides on rails” feel at speed.

I never pushed it through anything super technical since I never took it outside AK, but I have no reason to think the bike would not impress.

One of the things I liked the most out if this bike, it actually made me a better rider on my hard tail. Normally, the transition back and forth between full squish and hard tail is harsh, and takes a few miles and a bad line or two to re-calibrate.

Not with the Solo.

Another big surprise came from the 650b wheel size. I really wasn’t expecting much from the “new” wheel size. Sure, the hyped 29r wheels roll over “anything,” but I expected little improvement on the “roll-ability” from 650b. I was pleasantly surprised that this 5-inch bike rode like it was packing 6 inches.

Did the bike still retain the nimble-ness of a smaller wheel size? Hang on, I’ll get there.

Lastly, ya, Santa Cruz VPP suspension: it’s efficient. That’s all over the Internets though.
A slimmed down Solo at Bench Lake.
Here’s what I didn’t like.

Biggest mistake, buy freaking carbon. It’s 2014, not 2004. This is all on me. Robin – “I’ll sell you a carbon anything” – D at Chain Reaction told me to go carbon. He pushed, and I resisted.

The fact of the matter is, some bike manufactures are getting rid of aluminum frames all together. The shift is happening, and it’s happening for a reason. As a friend deep in the industry said to me two years ago when I asked him about the shift to carbon: “they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working."
That being said, I could not get over my own fears.

None of this has to do with the bike itself, but it did however, heavily influence how I felt about it throughout the season.

This bike felt like a tank from ride 1. I immediately put it on a diet. The stock Maxxis High Roller II tires were swapped for Maxxis Ardent Races. The former were very heavy for tires that are considered trail tires. Unless your trails go predominately downhill, they ride like suction cups.

Next went the dropper post. I can’t say I feel like my riding is getting held back by my saddle height. While droppers are starting to expand their appeal beyond just the gravity scene, it was an easy, top-heavy, pound of weight to get rid of. I found a deal on an OE carbon post and slid it in.

Then came the drive train. Remember that XTR crank? Light, yep; but geared high at 28/40T with an 11-36T cassette. Maybe if I kept my rides under 2 hours on rolling terrain I could manage these ratios, but stretched out on rides that last over 4 or more hours and climb thousands of vertical feet, my legs were over-taxed on long climbs, and often lacked the extra oompf needed for short steeps or technical maneuvers.

The logical option was to swap out the 24/38T XT crank on my Scott Scale 910. Problem: the angle between the Solo’s rear wheel and bottom bracket make it impossible to route the chain to a crank with anything less than a 28T ring without grinding on the bottom of a Shimano XT 2x clamp on front derailleur. The only solutions would have been to stick with the high-geared XTR 2x and go long cage with a pie-plate cassette in the back, or run an XT triple up front (I guess I could have gone straight 1X too). I went with the latter, going in the opposite direction as far as weight savings, but alternatively, giving the bike a wider range of gears. While the trend is decidedly moving toward 1X at the front, for the long and diverse rides this bike does, options are nice. On a plus note, I still moved the XTR crank to my Scott Scale and it was a welcome upgrade.

Nimbleness Question: The bike’s long wheel base, somewhat slacked head tube, and low bottom bracket height all helped to make this one seriously BA bike on the descent, but conspired against it on technical climbs.

This bike felt nimble at speed, but I would not use that term climbing. Crank and bottom bracket strikes were common. The bike threw big wheelies at speed, but they were obnoxious when pointed upward.
I found myself off the bike and pushing a couple very short sections of trail for the first time this season, and I was really displeased by that.

Every full suspension bike is billed these days as being a great climber. Bike builders aren’t necessarily lying, but they are oft speaking only to a bike’s linkage efficiency. Linkage efficiency is only part of the equation though. If you ride up fire roads, and drop gnarly trails, than all the things I just complained about won’t really matter.

I found myself dreading taking the Solo back to the trails in the east. The technical, rooty, rocky, "WTF is a switchback" trails require deft handling and a nimble bike capable of withstanding a lot of abuse going both up and down. On paper, the Solo should have owned those trails, but in reality, I knew I’d be leaving behind orange paint marks on the slick quartz and granite features, not to mention a bit of anger at not being able to ride features I used to crush on an XC bike.

As for Alaska, we certainly don’t have much in the way of gravel road access, nor technical trails.

I guess, where I get a little irked at Santa Cruz directly, is when they call this bike the perfect backcountry steed.

What backcountry has a gravel road for the climb, and what backcountry rig requires that you walk ridable features?

Another tragic experience was the severing of a pivot link axel after about a month of riding. This is not unheard of for Santa Cruz VPP suspension; the Internet will tell you some stories. Santa Cruz was quick to respond to the shop when contacted, and immediately sent replacements, no questions asked. The one disconcerting thing: in an email between myself and a Santa Cruz tech, he described it as a “fluke” and said he had never seen that. When there are multi-page threads dedicated to the subject on forums like MTBR, I guess I’d just leave it at “sorry, replacements on the way, happy trails.” Like said, the issue was responded to promptly, and it never occurred again this summer, so, no complaints, just an observation.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

East Half

The secret plan to win fall 2014 has so far been an unrivaled success. I ditched an increasingly cold and inhospitable AK October 9, and took the best travel iten east I've had in 10 years: one stop in Chicago. I was in Vermont on a sunny October day before lunch!
Chicago, 5AM.

Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains.

Mad Max.

Amy's kale was looking a bit more vibrant than mine.

Despite only 2 hours of plane dozing on the red-eye, Ashar rallied the troops and I was able to catch a ride on day 1. I rode all but 2 days of the week and a half I was back east.
Nettle hollow.

Berry corner.

10 years ago this trail was underwater thanks to some industrious beavers.

Malzac's cabin looks no worse than it has. With bow season about to start, everyone is prepping their camps. I was just glad to charge some of my favorite East Middlebury descents.

Really? Whenever I pop out of Nettle Hollow and see this, well, it's just awesome.
Hike up Pine Hill.

Otter Creek.

Perch fishing on Lake Champlain.
First perch. We caught 46 of his buds.
Just Vermont.

Northern fishing on Hortonia on a perfect fall day.

Classic...stuck behind a manure spreader.
On Wednesday I rode the revamped Chandler Ridge trail, and later connected it with Oak Ridge to do a long point to point. It was great to see this sign, after growing up with these trails being illegal to ride.

Silver Lake with a view of Mt Moosalamoo. A few hours later I would be up there.

Bright colors in Leciester Hollow.

Peak folliage on the lonely Goshen-Ripton Road.

Blues night with Ashar and Andrew at 51 Main.
The casa.
Middlebury from Chipman Hill on a sunset ride and my last ride in Middlebury. What a send off.

Lobster night.
Re-uniting with my long lost ski buddy Jared on the Pine Hill Trails in Rutland. Jared's good thinking kept us from getting soaked by a passing thunderhead and enjoying these well-built trails despite less than optimal weather.


Lots of red tape in Spa State Park in preparation for SpaCX.

Bernie and I were graciously hosted by Colin and Megan, who live just across the street from the 99, former home of Skidmore Cycling.
On Monday Bernie and I headed south from Spa City to PA.
The bike room at Rodale is well used. Pretty cool!

We knocked out a sweet ride on fast flowy trails. It took some sniffing around to find the goods, but we got them and got out before dark.
The next day we headed to the White Clay trails in northern Delaware. I'd heard good things about White Clay, and they were all true. This is the Kingdom of the mid-Atlantic. Lots of fast, flowy trails that traverse open meadows and old-growth forests, with numerous features in-between.

One of my favorite shots.

On the way back to Allentown we made an accidental detour through Philly.

And went to the museum (not really).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Firm Ground

The ground is frozen solid. The sun was just strong enough to thaw a few patches of trail today, but in the cool evening air it has refrozen.
This summer felt like one long ride. I can tell you about every weekend. Some felt legendary, others simply adequate.
Like all long rides, they are singularly memorable, and yet blended into a conglomerate experience.
Tires hook into a trail that rides like sandstone. Corners I've leaned into countless times feel fresh and new tonight.
Every summer seems to get better. Get stronger. Ride. Farther.
I know this lighting. Just after the sun goes down, for maybe 5 minutes, everything is brighter. The disappeared sun shoots rays above, reflecting them back down even brighter than before.
Alpenglow Tordrillos, a shimmering Cook Inlet.
What made this summer what it was?
The people I rode with. The many more days I rode alone.
Dry trails and long sunny days. Wet ones that forced recovery.
It's dark enough now under the spruce canopies that the earth is invisible.
Scattered leaves like stars. The bumps of roots and rocks I really can't see. They still tell me what I need to do.
I want to go back. Snap my helmet onto the bars, zip my jersey all the way down, settle into an endless climb through a hot summer afternoon.
I want those techy little sections. Those steep rollers, root wads, and rock gardens; short and sweet, cleaning them makes the ride.
Finally, I want the win; not a race, or a competition, just the day. Knowing that I tapped it, and my body, to their maximum potential, and that I won't soon forget it.
I lean back hard on the bike bringing it into a full wheelie.
Slam ­-- the bike compresses on the steep embankment, gnarled in roots.  
The tires find purchase and legs deliver power.
A few more pedal strokes later and I rattle off the final feet of single track for the evening.
Only a sliver of light remains on the horizon through a leafless birch forest. As the bike builds speed, pulled down by the long smooth hill, the cold air bites. I'm thankful I dressed warm.
Somewhere I know that this is the last non-winter ride in Alaska this season. I try not to think about it.
I maxed this one out.
Time to look forward.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Russian Fall

I hope for it every fall.
Colds nights kissed by killing frost.
Afternoons embraced in warm sun.
Bright yellow leaves hanging on for their final hours.
Fading fields of fireweed and tall leafless stalks of cow parsnip
These could be the last days of riding unfrozen ground.
The September rains moved south for a bit; the October high pressure moved in.
The ground is full of water from our successive 10-day deluges, and the dying plants no longer thirst for the sky’s bounties.
Without vegetation uptake, the trails don’t dry quite like they used to.
Riding conditions are variable. Hard and fast goes slick and greasy and back, low light and wilted grasses shadow-out trail features, a carpet of leaves plays it’s own game of auditory and tractional tricks.

But everything is as it should be.
I made a very leisurely start solo start on Friday morning to ride the Russian loop. Temps were in the high 20s at sun up, so I was in no particular rush. A few puddles and shaded sections of Res Pass trail below the Bean Creek Trail junction had ice and thin crunchy mud, even in early afternoon. Upper Russian was in much better shape than Res, but still had plenty of wet sections in the normal spots. Lower Russian was fantastic, bone dry, a bit leafy, with a few big cottonwoods down since my last pass in late June.

The late start kept me moving all day – the trail between Resurrection River Trail and the Upper Lake is a bear highway this time of year, and not my favorite place to be alone in the fall. I did stop to chat with an old-timer from Stratford, NH who was reading the mostly empty trail log at the upper trail head. Though he has lived in Alaska for over 30 years, his Northeast Kingdom dialect was still thick enough to hear in conversation. A couple miles later I came across Jeremy, Luc and friends out for a run. After finding the often popular Res Pass lot empty at mid-day, it was re-assuring to know I wasn’t the only one out enjoying this short window of Alaskan fall.

So long Solo. I picked up a new rig, a Yeti SB-95. It decidedly did not disappoint.

On the south-face benches between Upper Lake and Resurrection River Trail. Still green and protected from the frost in here.

Fading fields of fireweed below Upper Lake.

Peak colors in Cooper.

The ride was over way too fast, and I was eager to head back for more.

On Sunday morning, Dan “The  Colt,” Nathan, Cody and I loaded up and headed south. Temps were a bit warmer, having only dunked into the high 30s overnight in Cooper. We rode the loop again, and this time enjoyed Indian summer conditions by the end of the ride. Nathan won the hero award, tackling the 44 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing on a rigid SS while the rest of us rode our comparative 2-wheeled arm chairs.

Dawn patrol moose in the hood.

Cody? On the road? Is that a smile?! Doing the loop was well worth it.

Well worth it. We were passed by exactly 0 cars and only 2 oncoming.

Cooper Mountain.

Taking a few minutes to enjoy the warmth on the beach at the Upper Lake.


Is it next weekend yet?