Last updated March 4, 2023 with an overview of the Version 4 RacklessPannier.
After a number of decades of riding a variety of bikes, the industry had trained me to think that I probably needed another bike for the path ahead. In mid-2019 during a backpacking trip, while riding a superb Trek Farley carbon fat bike, I started to consider a custom titanium bicycle as the “next bike”. Thanks for opening this portal Kevin, your sage experience is greatly appreciated!
Fast forward to Fall 2022 and I no longer think about new bike additions!
Stepping back to Fall 2019, after much research and interactions with several US-based Ti bike suppliers, I contacted RollingDale Cycle, in Alberta, Canada, about their capacity to build a 29’er hardtail with a Pinion/Gates Carbon Drive. Dale Marchand got back to me quickly, and outlined his early efforts to create custom titanium bicycles: while stressing that he was just getting started. I will add that Dale is one of most capable and humble folks that I’ve met, and a wonderful human being!
My mindset was that the new bike would be ridden primarily on gravel’ish surfaces in the Rockies, and built with the lightest components available. “The Adventure Bike” would complement my primary bike, a full-sus trail bike (Scott XC Pro); and a fat bike. Dale and I worked on defining the build with a shared spreadsheet listing all components, and CAD drawings of the frame. I really enjoyed researching individual components suitable for bikepacking, while leaving the specifications for the frame in Dale’s very capable hands. My only frame requirement was clearance for at least 2.5 inch tires, 29’er. In December 2019 after Dale took numerous measurements of me, we agreed on a build, and a 50% deposit was transferred.
Dale’s welding and fabrication is a work of art! His use of CNC’d elements for the Pinion bridge/rear yoke, and the Paragon Machine Works rear dropouts when combined with his frame design is outstanding. I appreciate the low stand over as it adds to the utility and playfulness of the bike. Dale orients the drop outs such that the rear wheel can be removed and installed without adjusting or altering belt tension. Dale’s IG Feed is worth following.
The frame was built with a small tube welded to the bottom of each seat stay at a 70 degree angle. These enable direct-mounting of Bikepackers Foundry custom ultralight composite rear racks. This simple addition eliminates the shear forces inherent in “conventional” racks, enables narrower rack/luggage profiles, and creates mounts for Bikepackers Foundry Rackless Panniers.
A Pinion C 1:12 Transmission with 600% range combined with a matching Gates CDX Carbon Drive was what ultimately made the spreadsheet. The Gates CDX stainless steel sprockets were 32 teeth front and 28 teeth rear. In summer 2022 I started experimenting with other gearings, with 32/32 being an excellent pairing for pitchy singletrack. Dale recommended 170mm cranks which have proved to be a good choice. Pedal strikes are relatively rare, and I feel that there’s the right amount of leverage.
After about 10,000 km there is no visible wear to the sprockets, while the 115 tooth belt only shows very minor wear. The gear range in the real world is; Lowest gear 6km/h with a cadence of 60 rpm, and Highest gear 55 km/h at a cadence of 100 rpm. With the bike loaded (~60#) I can pedal up 10% chunky gravel grades for extended periods. Pinion has a very helpful calculator to explore different gearing and belt length options. If you are working with a frame builder it will be productive to have a conversation about which ranges of sprockets and cogs will fit within sliding dropouts for a specific belt length.
Fork and handlebar:
The initial fork was a Lauf TR boost “light” version. It very quickly, almost fatally, demonstrated that it lacked the precision demanded by technical trails. This is not a knock on the fork, merely my lack of understanding of its capabilities. The axle and fork legs can be in different planes when turning which can be problematic when fading trees and other obstacles.
The replacement is a Fox Factory 32 Step Cast with 100mm of travel and a two-position remote, It’s an excellent trade off between weight and performance. When paired with the Jones H-Loop carbon bar that typically has 35-40 mm of compliance, and 2.6″ tires, the combination is plush yet precise. I opted to mount the superb Ergon/Pinion DS2 rotary shifter on the left side to permit gear changes while braking with the right hand. On longer rides I no longer experience numbness and loss of strength in the hands that typically comes with thumb-shifting. Of course the grips are Ergon GC-1. The GC-1 is specifically designed for swept back bars. The subtle changes relative to other Ergon grips result in significantly more comfort for me.
Doug Dunlop (aka Coldbike) recommended the Cane Creek ViscoSet headset. It is a welcome addition that greatly improves tight-lines steering, and further reduces upper body fatigue. My preference is to have all the internal disks aligned for maximum friction.
Dale built a custom Ti stem (+/- ~4 degrees & 40 mm), and a set of Ti spacers for the steerer tube. I prefer to direct-mount the GPS head at the top of this stack.
On the Scott full-squish, the Bicycle Cafe in Canmore had paired the inaugural WAO rim offering, and fresh spokes, with an existing DT Swiss 350 hub set. The result was like “new bike day”.
Returning to 2019. WAO had just come out with a Faction “gravel rim” with a 27mm internal width and engineered vertical compliance. These 29″ 32 spoke rims were matched with Industry 9 Hydra Boost hubs. With 200 ml of Finish Line sealant in each Specialized 29″ x 2.6″ Fast Track Grid tires (product link unavailable), the front weighs in at 2070 grams, and the rear at 2250 grams. They’re light, fast, fun, and very durable!
Four piston Shimano XTR with 180 mm front and 160 mm rear Ice-Tech Center Lock rotors. My ability to ride in control has increased, and I seldom skid while braking even when heavily loaded under difficult conditions. My perception is that there’s less pad wear than I was experiencing with two-piston brakes.
In mid-2019 after years of denial I started riding with a dropper-post. Clearly I’m an idiot for not being an earlier adopter! Specifically the PNW Components Coast suspension dropper is the one that I favour and it was specified for The Adventure Bike. The ~40 mm of air-pressure adjustable travel in the post is very welcome in the chunk, and being able to get the saddle out of the way is great. The Bikepackers Foundry Seat Bag, or a custom DIY composite rack are each designed to allow full usage of a dropper post.
Seat post collar:
Engin Cycles builds a beautiful two-bolt collar that reliably holds a dropper-post without any binding or loss of function.
While seats are a very personal choice based on many factors, it’s worth mentioning the Reform “Seymour” saddle. By a wide margin it’s the most comfortable saddle I’ve ever used!
The Adventure Bike is such a pleasure to ride under all conditions and loads. Rigged as a stripped trail bike (11.6kg) it is light, fast, precise, supple, and climbs well. Rigged as a fully loaded multi-day bikerafting setup (~40kg), it’s slow, precise, supple, and pushes beautifully. Unloaded or loaded the downhill sections are grin inducing, and inspire confident riding. The dropper post is a key component of making it all come together.
After a few seasons of riding, some additional thoughts:
The Pinion/Gates combination is superb! Quiet, reliable, and extremely low maintenance. Everything is cleaner, with fewer checks and adjustments. Mainstream commentary about derailleur versus belt seems to focus on theoretical drivetrain efficiency, and higher costs. My riding experience is opposite. Perhaps the fullness of time will alter this sort of commentary.
I enjoy riding/bike-pushing in less than ideal conditions and have the following observations.
1. Chain and derailleur systems quickly foul, lose efficiency, require ongoing adjustment and maintenance, and regular replacement.
2. The Gates CDX system is largely self-cleaning, and will likely just make a bit of noise if user-intervention is warranted.
3. The absence of a derailleur while bushwacking is liberating. Being able to confidently move a loaded bike (scramble-lift-push-throw-wade) through challenging conditions is notable, and appreciated.
4. To date, my experience is that the costs of a Pinion/Gates drivetrain are demonstrably less than conventional systems. (perhaps 1/10th). Further riding/testing/costing is required. 🙂
Still early days in my relationship with internal transmission/belt drive systems, three summers of around 10,000 km and about 100,000 metres of climbing; largely in the backcountry. My riding tactics have been fundamentally improved by how the entire bike and drivetrain functions and performs!!!
– non-sequential shifting is a game-changer! You’ll need to figure out what works for your riding styles and conditions. I tend to pedal at-speed up to a slope and then drop 6 to 8 gears and immediately climb at cadence. At the top of a hill I’ll frequently add 4 to 6 gears for standing pedaling to regain speed.
– greatly reduced shifting fatigue on longer routes. I typically have significant hand-strength issues (that impact shifting capabilities) after about 300 km. This issue is no longer something that I need to plan for.
– rock gardens and super-tight lines are no big deal. If you and your pedals can grind/bunny hop through the features, the drive train will also.
– mud, sand, gravel, even bentonite clays* clear quickly and efficiently from the drive train. *The same can’t be said for the wheelsets. 🙁
– no need for regular cleaning or any lubrication of drive lines. Annual maintenance is a very easy 10 minute transmission fluid change. I also clean and lube the Hydra freehub a few times a year.
– SUPERB customer service from Pinion and Gates! Early in my Pinion usage I experienced a loose lock ring. I was able to contact Dale, who in turn contacted Pinion. By the time I was out of the backcountry the next day, replacements were already on route, no charge. The Pinion/Gates technical support folks had taken the time to consider my usage cases and recommended in increase in the lock ring torque from 40 to 60+ Nm. Reflecting back on the loose lock ring incident, my lack of experience made the situation worse. Lesson learned … pay attention for lock ring movement and re-torque if required. (see example photo below) Nothing like this incident has happened subsequently.
– Smaller environmental footprint, and much lower cost! Again, early days. Based on a review of 6 years of my derailleur maintenance records, the Pinion/Gates system is saving me $600-800 annually on drive train maintenance (c2019 costs). If factoring in the lifetime frame durability of titanium vs. regularly replacing carbon frames this number is wildly conservative. Pinion quotes 60,000km as a planning distance before considering replacing a C Series transmission. The replacement cost of a complete Pinion C 1:12 and Carbon Drive system is similar to a top-spec Shimano or SRAM 1 x12 system without electronic shifting.
– Shifter cables on the Pinion receive little wear as it is a simple un-tensioned two-cable push-pull system that does not require fine adjustment. I rode more than 5,000 km before making a “one-click” adjustment to each cable. If cables fail they are easily replaced on the trail. If no cables are available, the transmission can still be manually shifted with a hex key.
Cons:– high initial cost of a complete titanium bike (with a Pinion bridge and frame splitter) can be quite daunting, particularly if not considering full-cycle costs. The complete bike described here cost about C$9,500 (US$7,000) in late-2019, excluding the second wheelset.
– aluminum sprockets and cogs wear quite quickly (<5,000 km) which can also lead to collateral damage to the belt. The pictured Gates CDX system eliminates this issue.
– finding accurate usage information about Pinion and Gates systems can be challenging. Ryan van Duzer (DuzerTV), and Alee Denham (Cycling About) each have informed longer-term usage perspectives. Alee publishes and regularly updates several comprehensive bikepacking and touring guidebooks. Just don’t bend the belts like they’ve demonstrated. 🙂
Bikepacking.com has published a short-term review of the Pinion transmission. March 2023.
Things to monitor closely:
– any indications of loosening in the lock-ring attachment between the Pinion transmission and the front sprocket. I’ve index marks (red Sharpie) on mine that I visually check when cleaning the bike (see picture and notes above).
– spare belts are light, inexpensive, and easy to change. Carry one! Sara and I built a special internal compartment (two layers of VX-21) on the down tube side of a DIY framebag just to store the spare belt in a flat and protected area.
– if riding off trail – grass, pieces of sticks, ice, and other debris tends to accumulate in the bottom of Centre-Track groove in the belt. If riding in any of these conditions I’ve found it useful to periodically monitor for buildup and if warranted scrape the debris out of the Centre-Track groove.
In June 2022 Kevin and I were working together on a bikepacking project and each riding titanium Pinion – Carbon Drive bikes.
I noted that he was more able to grind up difficult slopes. This led to a chat about gearing. Kevin was running 32 front and 32 rear, vs my 32 front and 28 rear. Subsequently I added a 32 tooth rear sprocket to the mix. Which has increased my steep climbing capacity. A 34 tooth rear and matching longer belt are on order…looking forward to playing with them!
After more than a year of riding on the WAO Factions and realizing just how capable the bike frame, and overall build was, I started exploring options to increase the bike’s capabilities . This led to the addition of WAO Union‘s paired with similar I9 hubs. This second wheelset has heavy trail tires* mounted and each weighs about 200 grams more than the wheelset mentioned previously. At low pressures of 15-18 psi the bike performs extremely well in sand, mud, soft gravel, and light snow. * Bontrager Team Issue SE4 29″ x 2.6″ with 250 ml of Finish Line sealant/wheel. More sealant than required? Probably. However, I’ve not been stopped by a flat since riding a section of the AZT in 2017 with tubes and slime…it was very ugly…>15 punctures in just one short day. 🙁 Knocking on wood as I write this.
Weight with WAO Faction wheelset and Specialized Fast Track Grid 2.6″ tires 26#, 11.6kg.
Weight with WAO Union wheelset and Bontrager Team Issue SE4 2.6″ tires 27#, 12.1kg.
Frame only weight, 1,724 grams. Tubing, 3AL/2.5v + 6AL/2.5v
Head tube angle 67.5 deg. Trail 140 mm
Head tube length 110 mm
Seat tube angle 72 deg.
Seat tube length 430 mm, post diameter 31.6mm
Effective top tube length 630 mm
Stand over 670 mm
Chain stay 470mm with 32 front and 28 rear sprockets and a 115 tooth belt, and about 440mm with 32 front and 32 rear sprockets and the same 115 tooth belt. The on-order longer belt (118 tooth) and a 34 tooth rear sprocket will likely yield a 460-465mm effective chain stay length.
Bottom bracket height 320 mm
Bottom bracket drop 55 mm
Wheelbase 1190mm, with 32/28 and 115 tooth belt.
Tube diameters: seat stays 19mm, chain stays 22mm, top tube 31mm, seat tube 35mm with 31.6mm post, down tube 38mm.
It’s worth reiterating that the combination of 100 mm of Fox 32 fork travel with 30-40 mm of Jones carbon H-loop bar, 2.6″ rubber rides like more than the sum of the parts. Likewise the 40 mm of travel in the PNW Coast suspension dropper combined with the supple geometry of the frame, seat and chain stays, and 2.6″ rubber create an extraordinarily capable and comfortable hardtail. Comfortable enough that my favoured Scott Spark Pro XC 100mm x 100mm 29’er found a new rider in 2022.
A couple of other zeros related to The Adventure Bike: Serial #19. Nineteen is the score cribbage players use to describe zero points in a hand. The number of bosses on frame #19. Bikepackers Foundry innovative, secure, durable, and flexible attachment systems and luggage make frame bosses unnecessary.
March 4, 2023 – Version 4 Rackless Pannier notes: It’s been a challenging and rewarding development process. This version builds on previous iterations by simplifying the mounting system, utilizing heavy webbing and buckles, and increasing the thickness and size of the anodized aluminum “crash” pad. Looking forward to the 2023 riding season to get a solid start on the 10,000km testing protocols. 🙂
What makes this integrated bag/rack work? 1) There’s an extremely strong and rigid composite stay that runs from the seat stay “titanium rack mounting tube” diagonally to the upper corner of the back panel. 2) There is a composite panel on the entire back plane of the bag that is rigidly strapped to the side of the rear triangle. 3) There is an anodized aluminum pad ~2x3x0.125″ bolted to the outside face of the drop out. The purpose of this element is to prevent the bag from deflecting into the spokes in the event of a crash. This is my forth generation RacklessPannier and I’m very happy with how it performs, so far. It’s large enough to hold lots of food, and then be quickly and completely removed when not needed. By design the bag looks simple, while having about thirty elements that combined meet my performance/reliability/utility/weight criteria. The bag has a roll-top closure under the flap and is seam-sealed. ~8 litres capacity & ~250 grams mounted.
Rider profile: older and slowing
Thanks for reading! Cheers … Guy