Unless you've been hiding under a Roller Cam brake, you've probably noticed that tires are getting bigger on drop bar offroad bikes. Whether it's the 50mm rubber of the Raleigh Stuntman, 2.1" rubber on the Bombtrack Hook EXT or 1991 John Tomac Raleigh Signature, or the 3" plus tires of the Wilier Jaroon+, curly bar bikes aren't constrained to cyclocross tires and have been growing in footprint and air volume.
The trend isn't only with the big brand bikes, however. Small custom builders are well-suited to nimbly meet the desires of customers, whether they're discerning cyclists looking for a specific tire clearance, feature or fit, or a Chico-based component company looking for a demo bike for journalists.
Paul Component Engineering put out the request for "monster cross" bikes from custom frame builders, and Cameron Falconer of Falconer Cycles answered the call with this red, white and blue steel beauty:
Made in Quincy, Ready for Grinduro
Falconer is quick to echo our oft-cited philosophy that labels and categories matter little in today's world of versatile bikes, but when pressed, calls this machine a "drop bar mountain bike."
Although most of Falconer's orders are for dirt-oriented machines, including bikes built to work with both 700c x 40mm and 27.5 x 48mm tires, he said this iteration, with clearance for 2.4" tires front and rear, is more "monster" than his average drop bar build because it was built for the rocky, tough trails of Chico or final downhill segment of Grinduro. "It's a proper rigid mountain bike but it's designed with a little shorter top tube for the drop [handlebar]," said Falconer.
"I build a lot of fat tire 'cross bikes for people, for tires up to 45c, but usually not quite this fat," he said. "I think it's a sensible bike for what a lot of people are doing. It's super comfortable all day on the road or trail. You can throw on frame bags, tackle singletrack, do a gravel race, but it's probably not the bike you'd shuttle Downieville on."
Falconer aimed for versatility, with "middle of the road" geometry, saying his bike is not super slack or steep. Our test bike featured a 57.5cm top tube paired with a 73.5 degree seat angle, 70.5 degree head angle, 44.5cm chainstays and a 7.0cm bottom bracket drop. Sitting on big 2.2" rubber, there was plenty of pedal clearance on the rocky trails. "If you did want to run 700x40s on this, you'd still feel like you're sitting in it pretty nicely," Falconer explains. "I tried to make something that's real versatile and would work with a skinnier tire, but is perfectly competent with a bigger tire."
Falconer has been building bikes full-time for four and half years, learning the craft in 1999 from framebuilding master Ed Litton. He TIG welds his frames and forks from steel, sourcing his main tubes from Vari-Wall, but maintains that tubing brand matters far less than finding the right tube for the job. His seat stays and fork blades are straight gauge 4130 chromoly.
Paragon Machine Works provides some of the fittings, with 142x12mm thru axle Syntace dropouts, and a 27.2mm internal diameter seat collar. Like many metal framebuilders, Falconer eschews the trend of flat mount disc brake calipers in favor of the tried-and-true IS mount, which allows for easy brake alignment and reinforcement.
Flyin' Falconer Flew the 'Frisco Coop
Falconer has long been one of Norcal's faster cyclocross racers, but after years in the San Francisco Bay Area, craved a slower-paced life. Last August he moved to Quincy, California, the home base for Grinduro. He uses the dirt roads and trails for product development and training, and showed off all that work by clocking the second-fastest time on the technical downhill final segment of Grinduro, finishing just behind former World Cup downhiller Duncan Riffle.
You might guess a builder fleeing Silicon Valley is not all over the internet and not glued to social media, and you'd be right. Falconer isn't on Facebook or Twitter, only has a personal Instagram account, and a modest web presence.
Sound like your kind of builder and bike? Falconer's frame runs $2,000, with the handmade fork running another $450. Don't expect instant gratification though, as he currently has a wait of seven to eight months.
Dressed in Red, White and Blue of the USA
You don't have to be completely blue with envy, however, as the featured Paul Component Engineering parts are now available and can await your frame. The Falconer Cycles drop bar mountain bike, as with most demo bikes at the Paul Camp, was fully dressed with domestically-built componentry, including plenty of Paul Component Engineering bits in blue (this year's special anodized color). The Falconer used the Tall and Handsome seatpost, Quick Release Seat Post Collar, Stem Top Cap Light Mount, Boxcar stem, Klamper mechanical disc brakes, and Thru Axles Quick Releases.
The made-in-USA parts didn't stop there, however, with Velocity Blunt SS rims, White Industries bottom bracket and crankset, and a White Industries pre-production headset completing the build.
First Falconer Ride Impressions:
Enough about the history, pedigree and build. How the heck did the bike ride?
First, some disclaimers. Forming ride impressions on a 25-person no-drop group ride, on somewhat foreign trails, at a casual riding pace is not very easy. It's fun, but not ideal bike testing conditions. One 90-minute ride was all I got, as journalists were encouraged to rotate between rigs for subsequent rides. However, I took every opportunity to speed up ahead for "photography reasons" and attempted to get a better feel for the Falconer I had for the afternoon:
With that context in mind, I have to say I was thoroughly impressed. Falconer hit the target of building a Chico-ready bike that was confidence inspiring, despite the big rocks and drop-offs that did all they could to up-end this rider for the second year in a row. With big-volume tires, a slightly slack front-end and short-stem (and tires deflated to 20 psi), the bike was well-equipped for technical riding, yet didn't feel sluggish or too upright (in terms of center of gravity) for motoring along on the pavement or dirt roads.
The Falconer also felt more lively than many of the adventure-style bikes we've been testing. Perhaps it was the steel tubeset and fork, or the smattering of high-end componentry, but it climbed well and didn't break my back when I threw it on my shoulder in an attempt to complete a cyclocross bike tester's checklist. The results of such test? With the moderate slope of the top tube, there's a little less room for your shoulder than a traditional cyclocross bike, and the steel tube makes a bigger imprint than a molded carbon shape. However, the big tires and low gears ensured the times I couldn't ride over something were minimal.
The build kit was unique but well suited for the ride. The Klamper brakes, once bedded in, provided smooth, ample stopping power. The new White Industries MR30 1x crankset and bottom bracket, paired with a SRAM XD 10-42 cassette, kept the chain on and me pedaling over rocky climbs, while the Velocity rims and WTB tire combo remained burp-free despite some near bottoming-out hits. It took a bit getting used to the SRAM GX mountain bike shifter perched on the top the bar, but shifting eventually became close to second nature.
Complaints? We pride ourselves in always having a few, anytime we test something, but my biggest complaint is the minimal time and speed I had on the creation. If I wanted to get picky, perhaps I'd change a few things about the build, first by increasing the relatively low 32 x 10 tallest gear for more speed on the pavement. Also, having just one Cross Lever on the bars is fine for cruising to the Sierra Nevada brewery, but for technical terrain or long gravel rides, I'd prefer two, or none at all (on the right side of the bar was the SRAM shifter).
While I'd love more riding time on this bike, I think in a world of ever-increasing tire sizes, based on my one short ride, the Falconer might be the closest thing I've ridden to an ideal do-it-all steel machine. For many, such big tires might seem like overkill, with 40mm and 45mm tires already looking huge compared to cyclocross treads. However, investing in a custom frame probably means you'll want the frame to stay relevant for a while, even if 2.2″ tires eventually replace 40mm options in your normal "offseason" riding. Some of us are already fans of going this big when there aren't man-made barriers and course tape ahead.
Falconer says he hasn't built a lot of drop bar bikes for tires this big. If I was a betting man, I'd wager that's going to change.
More info: falconercycles.com
See the full photo gallery of this bike, along with a Falconer's golden cruiser-style mountain bike below.