Bontrager XR3 Review

My Fuel EX 9.9 was ordered with Bontrager XR3 tires, and I’ve used them for a year, and a year’s worth of mileage.

Over the weekend, I replaced them with a set of Continental Trail King 2.2s.

This post represents my thoughts on the XR3s, and the reason for the change.

First, I ran my XR3s on ENVE XC rims, taped with ENVE tape, tubeless.  As far as tubeless goes, these tires set up the easiest of any tires I’ve ever used.  For reference, Chad threw a pair of XR3s on a tubeless wheelset and just pumped them up–leaving them in the shop for a few weeks–and they held air perfectly.  The tires are just fantastic at tubeless.  For my purposes, I was running 2.2″ tires, and used 2 ounces of sealant per tire.  Over the course of the year I ran them, I cleaned them out one time and replaced the sealant.  I never had any issues with them–even if I went a month or two without riding the Fuel, they’d hold air amazingly well.

The tread pattern on the XR3s is good for midwestern conditions.  Good, aggressive knobs, but close enough together that they roll pretty smoothly on hard surfaces.

The knobs on the edge of the tread get knobbier, for better grip when yanking and banking.

I tend to use the Stan’s formula for determining starting pressure with mountain tires.  In short, rider weight divided by 7 = x.  X -1 = starting front pressure, x+2 = starting rear pressure.  For me, that suggests around 23 up front and 26 in the rear.  After some time on the bike, I tended to set them around 24-25psi front and rear, with good results.

Over the course of a year, they saw varied terrain in several states, and also some gravel and some pavement.  While they were not fond of wet leaves (what is?), they acquitted themselves admirably in most conditions.  They really did not like sand, but that may be more a reflection of my riding ability than their traction.  They self-cleaned surprisingly well in mud, were great on hardpack, did well on loose over hard, and most other conditions.  In most conditions, they would slide progressively and let you know when you were exceeding available grip.  To a point.

The “to a point” is a critical note.  I’ve tried to up my game with mountain biking–increasing my speed, braking less, having more confidence, riding harder lines.  It’s hit or miss, in all fairness, as my skill still needs a lot of improvement.  My concern about the XR3s is that they have a finite breaking point where your cornering speed exceeds available traction, and at that point, you’re gone.  They go from gradual, controlled drift to low-side, sliding on your leg and wondering what happened, instantly.  Before these, I spent a lot of time on Maxxis Ikons–which had less ultimate grip, but which were more recoverable.  If they cut loose and slid, you could reestablish traction and carry through a corner.  The XR3s have more grip, but once they go, they’re gone–and in a snap.  I don’t know how much of that to attribute to the tires, and how much to my skill or absence thereof, but I’ve low-sided enough times with these–and in a snappy, instant fashion, for it to be observable and disconcerting.

The XR3s were not fast-wearing; they still show a lot of good tread on them.  The reason that I’m swapping them out is because of a flat I had on the Chubb trail.  I was climbing an obstacle and heard that disheartening hiss of air leaving the tire.  I stopped, rotated the hole down, and tried to get the Stans to seal…a little blast of CO2 and a second try…no dice.  On the trail, we tubed it quickly and continued on.  Back home, I dug in for the post-mortem.

I don’t know what caused the hole (rocky trail with 12-18″ rock lips that we were climbing up), but it is a neat, round hole.  There is a chunk of rubber about 2-3mm across that is just missing (perfect circle), and around that, an area about the size of a pea that is deformed.  The weird part is that on the inside of the tire, the casing in the area of the hole was delaminating–whatever punched the (relatively small) hole also cut the tire casing at the (relatively small) hole, and the fabric inside the tire started pulling apart around the hole.  I was hoping to boot the tire and continue tubeless, but that’s a non-starter.

I threw on the Trail Kings for a few reasons.  First, in full disclosure, I had them sitting on the shelf from my old El Mariachi.  Second, I loved them on that bike, and have wanted to try them on the Fuel for some time, as the side knobs on them are super-gnarls, and I remember them being very predictable (even on a rigid SS bike).  Third, I remembered that they set up super easy tubeless, and held air well–and never let me down with a flat on the ElMar, even rigid, with my ‘not so delicate’ riding style.

When I ordered the Fuel, you had to pick a Bontrager tire (obvs).  Out of the available options, the XR3 was the clear choice, and I enjoyed my time with it.  Generally speaking, a good tire for many conditions.  I chose not to replace just the (failing) front with another XR3, as I wanted to see if I could cure the snap low-siding I’ve experienced with a different tire, and I’m hoping the Trail Kings will solve that problem.  Again, my complaint isn’t that the XR3s ran out of traction, but rather the fashion in which they did–snapping from a controlled skid into complete loss of traction low-siding.

 

 

Reverb Dropper Post Update

The last update I did on the Trek Fuel EX 9.9 indicated that I really didn’t use the dropper post much.  That was then.  This is now.

Now, I can’t imagine riding without it.  It’s truly a game-changer.

Extend it to full height and pedal, climb, cruise with maximum efficiency.  But when the trail turns technical or heads downhill, drop the saddle a few inches and confidence soars.  Your center of gravity lowers, your ability to move in front of or behind the saddle–to move anywhere on the bike–is greatly increased.  It’s a whole different ballgame.

I wasn’t really using the dropper until a friend of mine explained the significant advantages.  I figured what the heck–and gave it a shot.  I’m glad I listened.  It makes a HUGE difference in your ability to control the bike, and in your confidence going quickly through difficult terrain.  I LOVE the ability to go up and down with the handlebar-mounted control. Increasing confidence means increasing speed, which means pedaling less, which means going further, faster, with less effort.  Win, win, win.

Questions/criticisms/concerns/suggestions?

Well…a year in, my Reverb has about a 1/4″ at the top of the travel where it feels soft.  It goes all the way up, but when you sit, it settles just a smidge.  I need to spend some quality time with it and try to figure that out.

My other criticism is really more of a wishlist.  I wish it had 2 positions: fully extended, and a ‘down’ position.  In a perfect world, you could hit a button and have it drop to the drop setting (without having to weight it), then hit it again and have it fully extend.  That would be a very complicated system, and isn’t likely to happen anytime soon…but it would be magical.  I think I’d prefer to have  a shorter travel dropper, so you could drop through all the travel and hit your ‘down’ position quickly.  As it is, when I’m dropping, I sometimes overshoot and then end up with the saddle too low…and then you’re either riding super-low, or trying to raise it up a smidge while cruising hard terrain.

In any event…at one time I was talking about just putting a standard post on the bike.  I’m incredibly glad I didn’t.  The dropper post makes a huge difference, and I highly recommend it.  If I was getting one, I’d look at the Thomson one, and I’d look to see what Crank Brothers is coming out with.  Ideally, it would be cable controlled, rather than hydraulic…as I suspect that my soft spot is a hydro issue.  There will probably be an upgrade in my future, at some point.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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