The Cheater Bike: Trek Fuel Ex

As was just posted, I recently returned from a trip to STL for some mountain biking.  My mount for this trip was my much-loved Trek Fuel EX 9.9, which you can read about here, here, here and here.


This thread is called “The Cheater Bike”, because in many ways, that’s what the Fuel feels like.  Brendan was riding a Stache 29+, and he’s a talented rider.  I was doing a far better job of keeping up than I had any right to.  The Fuel made climbs effortless, and gave me more confidence on descents than I’ve ever had.  When I would brake less and just let the bike rip, it would shred.

It sounds funny, but I felt the most in control when I was just a little bit out of control.  When I got used to the bike sliding on the leaves, and skipping over the rocks, and being just a smidge loose–that was when I was riding the fastest, and that was when I had the most ability to control my destiny.  When I’d slow down to turn, or to pass some obstacle, that would be when the bike would be less steady, and I’d start wavering towards the trees or the edge of the trail.  The Fuel just wants to go fast.  (The low-speed instability is a characteristic of bikes, not of the Fuel–it’s stable everywhere.  I’m just learning that oftentimes, faster is better when mountain-biking).

Any climb or obstacle in the path was surmountable if I had the speed and confidence.  Lofting the front wheel is ridiculously easy–from a normal, slightly off the saddle position, just pull back a smidge on the handlebars and put a tiny bit of power into the pedals.  The front rises controllably.  Keep on the gas as the rear hits the obstacle, and tuck the rear wheel up and over.  Any failure to clear a ledge is on the rider.

Similarly, when descending, just point and shoot.  Pick a line and go.  The bike does all of the work.  If you relax and keep it pointed in the right direction, it’s a screamer.

There are not a lot of instances where the bike can make you a better rider.  Sure, an aero road bike has advantages over a non-aero bike, but there’s nowhere to hide on the road.  With mountain bikes, the advantages of the Fuel are so great, that they can take a mediocre rider such as myself, and turn him into a hero.  Or something close to a hero.  It truly feels like cheating.

Every component on this bike was hand-selected to be the best.  And they are.  It’s one of the most amazing bikes I’ve ever ridden.


Mountain Biking St. Louis

Last weekend, Brendan and I hit the road and drove down to the St. Louis area for a weekend of mountain biking.  I had no idea what amazing trails there are in that area–it was truly a treat.

On Friday, we hit Castlewood State Park and rode just about all that there was to ride there–some pretty fun up and down action in bluffs along the river, including some nice climbs, a few challenging drops, and some beautiful scenery.

On Saturday, we lit out for the Ozarks–we rode the Berryman trail and portions of the Ozark Trail.  All in all, it was over 40 miles of mountain biking, ranging from gravel road to technical single track, with just about every type of mountain-biking in between.


The weather was beautiful; it started in the 40s and warmed up to about 60, with clear, blue skies overhead.  The trail conditions were nonetheless challenging–the oh-so-numerous trees had dropped their leaves, and the trail was covered.  It was impossible to discern what lay beneath the leaves, and occasionally was impossible to discern where the trail was.  You’d round out a corner, and find two paths diverged in yellow woods…both that morning equally lay in leaves no tire had trodden black.  Seriously, the trails were beautiful.


I had planned on 25 miles of riding, so when we were about 15 miles in, I figured we’d stop and have a bite to eat.  We had both packed snacks and sandwiches in our packs, and we found a nice log to sit on for a few minutes.

By the end of the day, the sun was getting low in the horizon and we were both ready to be off the bikes.  Berryman and Ozark were challenging because they were not flow–they were constant climbing and descending.  They were surprise corners, with off-camber, decreasing radii excitement.  They were mid-descent, hidden in the leaves obstacles.  They were amazing.  In the parking lot afterwards, whilst enjoying a delicious adult beverage, we sat in the sun and talked about the things that cyclists talk about after a good day in the saddle.  We delighted in the soreness of our legs and the shared experience of a day on the bike.  We talked about how beautiful it must be with leaves on the trees, and clear ground to shred.  We laughed.


The next morning, we hit the Chubb trail.  Riding out of the parking lot, just the thought of sitting on the saddle was painful, and my legs were reluctant to turn the pedals.  Just a mile into the trail, my mind was filled with the scenery and the challenge of the rocks, and the pain was a distant memory.  Chubb had some fantastic climbs and descents, and some truly technical components.  I successfully rode some pretty significant drops (but did skip the major, several-foot drop mid-trail).

I did suffer my first flat with the Bontrager tubeless tires I have on the Fuel.  It was a neat little puncture wound, but even the fresh Stan’s in the tires wouldn’t seal it up.  We had a heck of a time getting the tubeless valve stem out of the wheel (we didn’t have any pliars, and the nut that locks it in place was pretty firmly gunked to the valve-stem with some drops of Stan’s), but after a concerted effort, it was removed.  (An old leatherman has now joined my tool kit for mountain biking).  Tube inserted, CO2 puffed, we hit the trail again.

The trail was beautiful, including some great river bottom riding and some of the most technical rock action that we had seen on this trip.

Prior to this trip, my favorite mountain biking has been Steamboat–and more locally, Brown County.  This drive was about equal to Brown County.  I will say that Brown County is a lot more flow–you can cover a lot more ground, a lot faster.  St. Louis was more technical, more challenging, and in some ways, more engaging.  I look forward to heading back.

The fun of the Mandem.

I started my life on the Mandem as a stoker, and happily so.  As a stoker, I can bury myself without regard for hypoxia.  When riding easier, I can look around and enjoy all aspects of the ride without having concern for where the bike is pointed.  I can shirk navigational responsibilities and just focus on spinning circles.  I can have a biking experience that is totally different from any other on-the-bike experience I’ve yet had.

There are those random moments of oddness–the second where your brain forgets that you’re a stoker, and you suddenly see something that triggers an attempt to grab the brakes, or steer–only to find that you can do neither.  There are the moments where the captain shifts to a gear that’s too high, and you find yourself gutting along at some ridiculously low cadence.  There are things to get used to–but the good far outweighs the bad.

I recently tried my hand as captain.  That is quite an experience.

Getting used to turning on gravel takes some time.  There’s far more planning involved.  Sure, there’s the longer wheelbase, but there’s also the matter of coordinating the captain/stoker english to get the bike at the proper angle.  There’s the practice of having to counter steer for two moving bodies, rather than just one.  There’s the knowledge that if you biff, you’re taking down someone else with you.

But there’s the fun–the sheer fun–of riding a bike with another person.

The wheelbase of the Mandem means that even on loose gravel, it’s incredibly stable.  It does drift around a little bit, but provided that you relax and let it drift, it never goes far.  If you fight it and correct every little movement, you quickly tire of steering.  A gentle hand and slow, steady corrections work best.

What is surprising is how different it feels under power.  If you and your stoker are pushing as hard as possible, the front of the bike starts to feel light–it starts to feel like a sport bike that’s trying to wheelie.  The bike is laterally rigid, but under full power, you can feel it moving around.  The long wheelbase means that it rides like a cadillac–vertical compliance is amazing.  Never disconcerting or unpredictable–just comfortable.

The wheels could use some improvement, and I’m not certain if I’m sold on the drivetrain. Getting the rear derailleur to shift happily takes a lot of chasing.  This is a bike that’s calling out for Di2…or even SRAM wireless.  We’ll see what the future holds.

For now, it’s fun on just about any surface, and is surprisingly capable.  When you really get it cooking, there’s not much that is going to catch the Mandem.  On that note–as a captain, you do have to remember that you’re responsible for steering.  On one of my last rides, we did a sprint and I was fully invested…tunnel vision starting…when I remembered that I was up front and had to be responsible for driving the bike.  It all worked out in the end.

If you haven’t ever tried a tandem, add it to your cycling bucket list.

Knog Blinder Road 70 Taillight Review

I’ve been running a Knog 4V Standard taillight for several years now, and it just won’t die.  It’s been submerged, run in snow, salt, sand, mud, gravel, dirt, dust, rain, rain rain rain rain rain rain rain, 110 degrees and -37 degrees.  It’s been a great light.

I recently (about 3 months ago) had a chance to pick up the newer Road 70, which features 3 small LEDs (like the 4V) and one larger LED.

As can be seen, it has not lived an easy life thus far.

I typically run it in a flashing mode, and easily get 4 hours of burn time out of it.  I haven’t run it down to dead to see what the total battery life is.

It has shown itself to be reliably fully waterproof, and thus far has proven to be as durable as my old 4V.  The real advantage of this light over the 4V is the larger LED at the bottom; that LED is angled slightly upward, so that when mounted on a seatpost, it is pointed straight at drivers behind you, increasing visibility.  The 70 is significantly more visible from the rear than the 4V, and that makes it a worthy upgrade in my view.

Charging is via USB, with a flip out, integrated charging point–just like all of my other Knog lights.  Genius.

Thus far, I have nothing but good things to say about the Road 70; I’ll update this in a few months after I have more time with it.


TRP HY-RD Brake Review

When first we built up the Mandem, we threw on a set of Avid BB7 brakes that I had laying around.  I’ve spent a lot of time with BB7s on the Vaya, the Big Dummy, and various fat bikes, and have gotten pretty adept at tuning them.  On the Mandem, I never could get them quite right.  Maybe it’s all the cable pull, but they would either drag or not have any braking effectiveness.

I’m a big fan of hydraulic brakes, and find that on drop-bar bikes, hydro discs are head and shoulders above mechanical.  Looking at the Mandem, going to hydro looked like it would involve custom brake lines running to the rear, which was not something I was excited about.  Hence, we looked into the HY-RD setup.  Honestly, the reviews that the HY-RDs get are pretty bad, so I did not have high hopes…but I wanted to at least try them before we cobbled together custom hydro brakes.


They HY-RDs have the brake fluid reservoir, piston and caliper all built into one device.  The brake cable runs to the caliper and activates a self-contained hydraulic system.  Ours installed without any bleeding or other issues.

Clearance is similar to BB7s.


The cable pull is pretty short, for full activation (compare the 2 pics).

As noted above, install was a breeze.  The brakes self-clearance like any hydro system, so even if there’s a waffle in your rotor, these don’t rub.  Modulation is perfect–just like you’d expect from hydros.  Total brake force is also fantastic, which is pretty important on a tandem.  They’re predictable, braking force is linear, they work great in rain/mud, and they’re easy to install.

For a ‘regular’ bike, I prefer true hydros because they’re lighter, and in the long run, I suspect more reliable.  You never have to recable true hydros.  For the Mandem, or for a budget alternative to true hydros, however, the TRPs are great.  They really provide a very high degree of confidence in riding the Mandem, in all conditions.  Thus far, a few months in, they come highly recommended.



Continental Cyclocross Speed Update

Four years ago, one of the very first reviews I did on here was of the Cyclocross Speed.  That’s still one of the best read reviews on here, even though it is a bit embarrassing in retrospect.  There’s also an update here.  I loved the Speeds when I used them, but they’re not tubeless compatible, and hence, when I wanted to go tubeless, I had to switch to another tire.

I understand that some versions may be tubeless compatible.  My experience trying to mount these tubeless resulted in Chad having permanent hearing loss and a lot of latex to clean up.

When I was running the Speeds, I loved them because they were light, fast, durable, and great on gravel/limestone/pavement/other fast surfaces.  With a file tread, they’re obviously not intended for mud.

When recently we built up the Mandem, Brendan and I threw on what we had laying around.  At the time, that was a set of Clement XPLOR USH tires in 35c.  I have not run the USH on a regular bike, but on the Mandem, they were awful.  No matter how much you inflated them, they felt totally dead and draggy on hard surfaces.  When you cornered, they would push in turns…and then fall off the center tread onto the diamond side treads and feel totally unpredictable.  It was not an enjoyable ride–and for 2 people to ride a bike together and notice the tire drag, something’s gotta be wrong.

We swapped out the USH for a set of Speeds in 35c, folding bead.


As you can see, they’re pretty darn new on there–only about 100 miles thus far.  I can’t say how they’ll hold up on the tandem; they used to wear like steel on the Vaya.

The ride quality is totally different.  These feel so much noticeably livelier.  In corners, they’re predictable–no push, no deformation, no sudden rollover.  They’re just fantastic.  On pavement, they roll almost like slicks.  On gravel, they are great.  I do wish they were 38 or 40c tires, but they do a good job for 35s.  We recently took them through a wet, muddy creek crossing and they slogged through with aplomb.

We’re running these at about 85psi on the Mandem, with no ill effects.  They were a truly fantastic upgrade, and they have made the Mandem even more fun to ride.

Bontrager CX0 Tire Update

I’ve previously written about my much-loved CX0 tires here and also here.  I’ve been running CX0s for three years now, and have many thousands of miles on them, in both 34 and 38c width.  The vast majority of that time was tubeless, although there was some tubed time on the Vaya.

These are the CX0s currently mounted on my Moots.  These tires show about 1200 miles. The front looks great:

The rear looks decidedly more worn. IMG_3936

They still have a lot of life left in them, though.  I tend to replace about 2 rear tires to every 1 front tire.  On the Moots, I run a 38c up front and a 34c in the rear, for better mud clearance.

With these tires, tubeless, I’ve had precisely 2 flats, both of which were sealed on the spot with Stans (just get the hole on the bottom of the tire, shake some stans down to it, and inflate).  The second flat was about a month ago, when I cut a tire on a sharp storm drain inlet, and it sealed up on its own in about a minute, after the shake and pump routine.  Who knows how many more smaller holes I’ve had that have healed on their own without my knowledge.

What do I think about the CX0s?  I love them.  At Kanza, I know three riders who were in a group–one was riding CX0s tubeless, and the others were riding other tires with tubes.  In 150 miles, the CX0 had no flats; the other two riders had 7 flats.  They’re really and truly fantastic tires.  They do wear on the faster side, in the rear of the bike where the weight is carried…and particularly if you ride pavement with them a lot.  That tradeoff is worth it, when considering their light weight, toughness, and low rolling resistance.  They’re not fantastic in mud (although the side treads do an admirable job of trying to push through muck), but on gravel, they are without equal.