A couple of weeks ago I asked a question on the HPG owner's group because I had come to a point where I realized I needed a new bicycle on account of my shot elbows. I was asking about 27.5" versus 29", but got a whole lot of great advice on my elbow issues as well:
This post is for folks who might be interested in my latest evolution of a bicycle. A little background - I've been mountain biking since the late 80s and did a whole lot of stuff on a full rigid before any kind of suspension existing. I've ended up getting a new bicycle about every 10 years since. The last 20 years I've been riding full suspension mostly. But I did get a hardtail 29er a handful of years ago that really struck my fancy as a perfect general purpose traveling machine. It's the one that I've done ~70 miles of the kokopelli trail on - pulling my BOB trailer for a little over half of that.
I recently got to the point where all of the bikes that I had (Kona Dawg 26" FS, Kona Process 27.5" FS, Diamondback 29" HT) simply had too much reach for the comfort of my elbows. I had already done everything I could to improve my riding position (raised bars, short raised stem, ergon grips) and still wasn't comfortable on any of them. I figured out I probably needed a smaller frame size (since I'm right on the cusp and had always gone bigger). In the process, I really wanted to end up with a "quiver of one" which to me hopefully meant a hardtail. They're simpler and transfer power extremely well.
To make a long story short on my elbow problem, a smaller frame size was really most of what I needed. I ended up with a size medium Giant Fathom 2. This allowed me to position my seat so I am balanced over the crank and don't need to weight my elbows but can still get the controls close enough to me that it doesn't hurt my elbows. Here's how I set it up, and some of the things I learned (bear in mind I have - had - 3 other bicycles to compare it to that I've ridden quite a bit).
29" definitely rules. It rolls quicker and more easily over obstacles than 27.5". With comparable quality forks, the ride is noticeably plusher on a hardtail 29er than a full suspension 27.5. This runs counter to prevailing opinion, but it seems like I can climb some of my more technical test sections better on the hardtail 29er than on the full suspension 27.5. Certainly no worse.
The 130mm Giant brand forks that came on the fathom were actually pretty doggone decent, particularly considering the price point. Thanks to our partner Jake down the street at Gear Junction, I upgraded them to a set of 140mm Fox 34 new take offs for a very good deal. On a side note, Jake was the service manager at our off road shop before he opened his used gear shop. We’ve got a lot in common when it comes to gear perspectives and I lean on his knowledge all the time when it comes to wheeled vehicles. As you might expect, the Fox forks are a very noticeable upgrade that makes the ride that much nicer. Between the extra length of travel and a little bit longer steerer tube, I picked up maybe another inch and a half of rise over stock. On account of my elbows, I run them pretty soft but of course can still easily adjust the amount of bob while I'm riding.
For handlebars, I used what worked best in my experimentation on other bikes - a short specialized stem with about 45 degrees of angle coupled with a Surly Sunrise BMX style handlebar cut down to 29" wide which my experimentation had shown works best for me.
I was already using Ergon grips, but Ken's suggestion to try bar ends again had me trying out the ergon grips with integrated bar ends. They make a tremendous difference. I find that I'm on the bar ends more often than on the bars.
The fathom has a nice clutched deore 1x12 drivetrain on it. I really like 1x drivetrains for simplicity. They might be a tad range limited, but not bad – worth the trade off for the reliability and simplicity of them methinks. I also like the better clearance. Makes a bash guard much less necessary, particularly with the higher clearance of 29” wheels.
Tire width -- the fathom came with a very nice set of tubeless tires in 2.5" width. I'm super glad I didn't go with 27.5+, because I'm not yet sold on running tires even as wide as 2.5". On the plus side, they do provide a plusher ride when run at lower pressures. Particularly on the rear where lower pressure provides traction and suspension. On the minus side, boy do they drag! I’ll probably eventually try the 2.4” front / 2.2” rear combo I was running on my old hardtail. We’ll see. Trying to give the “modern” higher volume / lower pressure thing a fair shake before I make a decision. I’m also trying to give tubeless a shake again as well. Last time I tried it, I hated it because I couldn’t get over the fact that my tires had a perpetual slow leak. It wasn’t that I minded pumping them, just knowing that they were always slowly failing me. Nonetheless, they are lighter and more supple and Jake made a strong argument that in a way tubeless are more reliable on account of how easy they are to plug. I’m not sold, but I’m trying tubeless out. Again.
Dropper seat post – I actually bought the Kona Process because I went shopping for a dropper for the Dawg and it had an old enough spec seat tube that I couldn’t get a dropper without an outrageous shim. I ended up buying a new used bike instead. I knew the dropper was going to be a big help on the downhills to encourage me to keep weight off of my elbows. Since I hadn’t ridden one on a hardtail, I didn’t realize how nice it was for normal trail riding. When I’m riding the flat on anything but pretty smooth trails, I like my seat about an inch down which effectively gives me yet another inch of rise out of my handlebars. Without a dropper, I use to either suffer on the climbs because I had my seat down, or suffer on the flats because my seat was too high. Once you go dropper, it’s hard to go back. And medically speaking it saves the heck out of my elbows.
Brakes – the tektros that came on the Giant were plenty good. I originally wanted to replace them with Avid BB7s because I prefer the simplicity and reliability of cable actuated disc. That’s what I have on my old hardtail. Then I figured out that the thing that hurts my elbows the very most is going downhill and using the brakes. Anything I could do to make that process a little easier was worthwhile. I was originally going to swap out the Tektros on the Giant for the Deores on my Dawg. But then thanks to Jake I ended up with a set of new model take off Deore SLX brakes for the Giant. At my size, I’m sure the 4 piston will be nice and save my elbows that much more.
As far as the stuff mounted on my bike, I like to have everything I need for the bike on the bike always with it – and nothing on the bike that isn’t specifically about bike travel. That’s what my pack is for. I really like being able to have 2 water bottles always on my bike. Water consumption goes up when you’re riding so it works out that I’ve got whatever is normally in my day pack plus 2 more. On the medium frame I was able to get 2 cages in the middle triangle. I did try a really cool cage out with a ratchet adjustment that would let it take a Nalgene but then I couldn’t get another cage in there. On a larger frame it would have worked.
I had a frame mounted pump on the top tube of my old hardtail. For this bike, I upgraded to one of the newer ones that have a foot rest on it. An all metal Lezyne. Very nice. The Giant has a bottle cage mount on the bottom of the frame. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around hanging a bottle underneath of my frame, but I didn’t mind hanging a pump there. Particularly an all metal one. Was it necessary to modify a piece of picatinny rail and sleeve a couple of 30mm scope rings out of the parts bin just to QD mount a bike pump on my frame? No, but it pleased me to do so and came out pretty cool if I do say so myself.
The HPG bike frame bag was originally meant as a bottom mount. Now that I’m needing it as a top mount, I revved the BFB to a version 2 to make it better for top mount. By the time it’s commercially available, it’ll be just as home on the top of the frame as it has been on the bottom. In it I carry tire plug kit, spare tube, shock pump, presta to Schrader adapter, zip ties, tire levers, and multi-tool.
When I go bikepacking, I take a BOB trailer. It’s much better than hanging a bunch of stuff off of your bike in a number of ways. For one, it’s not a big thing to throw a 2 gallon rotopax full of water on the bottom of it underneath your camp supplies which is pretty much the minimum for desert camping. Pulling a BOB requires a special rear axle which the good folks at Robert Axle Project provide in a variety of sizes, including the one I needed for my Giant. I’m not certain that a BOB will play nicely with the 1x12 rear derailleur, but I’ll test it out very soon and know for sure. I’m excited to get out into the springtime desert for some bicycle camping!