Cyclocross Nationals is finally returning to the Northwest, the land of consistent mud, huge cyclocross fields and handmade frame builders. We put a few months of riding on a handmade Portland-based steel frame, and bring you the updated full review today.
The Civilian brand may be familiar to some. After starting in founder Tyson Hart's Portland, Oregon garage, the brand found a temporary home as a house brand of Backcountry.com (owners of Competitive Cyclist). We remember seeing the aqua, white and orange Vive Le Roi steel frames with sliding dropouts on sale for $600, and complete bikes for $1200 or so at the end of the partnership back in 2014.
Now, after a few years' hiatus, Hart has brought the brand back as a handmade, domestically produced small-batch brand. A Hart-welded frame is nearly five times the closeout price of the overseas-made models offered by BackCountry, but a lot more than price and welding location has changed.
His Feral Tsar is a shining (and sometimes mud-covered) example of Civilian's "Dirt First" steel steeds. Civilian current offers four models, including two flat bar mountain bikes, a gravel bike called the Flying Tramp and the Feral Tsar. We got the chance to put the Feral Tsar to the test and see if it could tame even the rowdiest cyclocross course.
Hart pairs Columbus Life, Spirit and Zona tubing to form the Civilian Feral Tsar frame. The front triangle and seatstays are Life and Spirit, while the chainstays employ Zona.
The final TIG-welded product is a handsome, approximately 4-pound package that looks partially modern, with its 44mm head tube, internal routing and moderately oversized diameter tubing.
The understated graphics and Colorworks Palette colors, paired with the older post and IS disc mounts and threaded bottom bracket shell, offer some contrast with a hint of a classic design in the post-cantilever era.
We're fans of threaded bottom brackets but relatively indifferent on the brake mounts. It is worth noting that some component groups like SRAM AXS eTap Force and Shimano GRX now only come with flat-mount brakes.
The $2,850 Feral Tsar frame is designed to be a race bike. The frame pairs cyclocross-standard 42.5cm chainstays with a 70mm bottom bracket drop and moderate head tube lengths. Our 56cm test bike came with a 56cm top tube, 71.5-degree head tube angle and 73-degree seat tube angle. Those inputs equate to a 380mm reach and a 595mm stack.
While the frame as-built certainly won't stop you from tackling long days of gravel, especially with a generous stack height for its given reach, it's not covered in frame barnacles, nor is built to take the fattest gravel tires. Its listed clearance is for 38mm tires, but we've squeezed in 42mm tires without scraping the paint.
Cable and hose routing is a mix of internal and external. The rear brake line goes inside the down tube, while the shift cable runs alongside the down tube, protected by a plastic sleeve.
The Civilian's gravel model, the Flying Tramp, features slacker seat angles and therefore much shorter reach measurements, taller head tubes, and slightly longer bottom bracket drops and chainstays.
Two of the safest bets in town for a workhorse cyclocross bike are SRAM Force 1 components and Easton alloy wheels and cockpit, and Hart opted for both as part of his smart, no-nonsense "Standard" parts pick on our $4,900 test bike. He also offers a "Deluxe" SRAM Red build, along with singlespeed versions of both build levels.
The SRAM Force 1 group needs zero introduction or criticism at this point. It is lightweight, retains the chain very well and offers a diversity of gearing options for both cyclocross racing and gravel. Our test bike came with a black XG-1130 11-42t cassette that offers a low 1:1 gear for gravel adventures, weekday trail riding and for riding attempts up the run-ups come cyclocross race day.
The handsome Easton EA70 wheelsets grab tubeless tires well, roll on high-quality hubs and aren't boat anchors like many OEM builds roll on. They're not the wider EA70 AX wheels or EA90 AX wheels we've come to love, but for cyclocross tire widths, the 17.5mm internal width is ample.
Easton also handles the handling, with a full Easton EA70 cockpit. Two big claps for Civilian picking a secure, two-bolt post. It boasts zero angle slip and zero setback. While Hart eschews the gravel-oriented flare of the AX handlebar, if that's more your speed, he can accommodate preferences.
Our build strayed from the "Standard" build in just two ways. Our bike arrived with the Ergon SRX3-S saddle, instead of the spec'd Fabric Line Elite and came with a matchy-matchy but ill-fitting seat post clamp. It was the one slip-up in our test bike build.
Hart said he has since switched to externally butted seat tubes since our build and now has a clamp that works perfectly, but ours did not. The post slipped badly on our first test ride, but Hart quickly replaced it with a different clamp that did the job (with the help of a bit of assembly paste). It goes without saying if you're dropping $2,850 on a frame, you'll want to ensure that's all sorted when you place your order.
We were psyched that UCI rules did not influence Hart's tire choice. The tanwall 35mm WTB Cross Boss tires offer appropriate volume that better serves 99% of all cyclocross racers and 100% of Civilian's target customers, compared to a 33mm UCI-compliant version. The tread is versatile and handles dry, loose conditions as well as moderately sloppy conditions. It's a good run what you brung option.
The Feral Tsar Ride
Hart's Dirt-First philosophy has hit a sweet spot with the Feral Tsar. The frame and build feel race-ready out of the box. It handles exactly as we'd expect a modern cyclocross bike to behave, in that it handles steep climbs and tight turns without complaint and excels in accelerating on bumpy terrain.
It's a cyclocross race bike but doesn't try so hard that you feel like you've fallen into old-school Euro geometry with high bottom brackets or short head tubes. The 70mm drop is what we'd label as the new normal, especially factoring in the larger volume tires many of us run. Paired with the generous stack (595mm on our 56cm bike), the Feral Tsar is equally capable of doubling as a gravel bike, as long as fat 45mm rubber isn't your requirement.
Ride quality is determined so much by tires and tire pressure, but thanks to a wheel swap to summer gravel wheels and tires, we've had a chance to isolate some variables. With fatter rubber, we can say with confidence the Feral Tsar isn't as stiff or as harsh as most race-oriented carbon rides. It's not a plush pushover, and it's confidence-inspiring when sprinting or powering up steep climbs but doesn't rattle you on big hits. Insert your favorite steel cliché here—you probably already know whether this is your type of ride or not.
Although molded, shaped carbon frames and wider bottom bracket shells often offer more mud clearance than traditional steel frames the Civilian doesn't skimp in this department, and that's critical especially if you're racing in the Northwest. While the Feral Tsar doesn't claim to be a gravel bike, these days we're looking for gravel tire clearance on muddy days, and the Civilian passes this test.
The Feral Tsar also impresses with its threaded bottom bracket shell. If you're gonna get muddy, you'll be power washing your bike, and the threaded shell helps minimize creaking and makes for straightforward bearing replacement.
Spend nearly $3k on a frame and you'd be justified in expecting it to have plenty of nice touches. The Feral Tsar sports a raised subtle logo on its head tube and elegant internal routing of the brake lines but opts for external routing of the shift cables. It's a practical choice, especially if you're going to replace contaminated cables during a muddy season. We wish it came with a built-in seatpost clamp—which would have avoided our early test ride post slippage—but trust Hart has solved this with a new clamp.
At $2,850 for a frame and $4,900 for a complete bike, the Civilian Feral Tsar isn't cheap. Value hunters and weight weenies who prioritize the country of origin probably will seek a less feral, more common option than this 20-pound ferrous build.
Yet for a domestically built handmade frame, it's competitive with other high-end builders and within a half a pound of a carbon Wilier that costs $500 more.
The Feral Tsar is a fine, handsome ride with some nice handmade touches and the relatively forgiving ride of steel. Our time on the Feral Tsar went by too quickly, thanks in part because we were having a ton of fun carving up the dirt.
Is it a good value? Of course, that's subjective. You could spend similar money, or even $1k less, and get a custom frame from a number of builders, but you'd have to get in line and then wait. If Hart's Dirt-First stock geometry and IS brake mounts work for you (Hart will also do custom geometry, for a $250 premium), he could quickly set you up with a well-thought-out machine for cyclocross racing with ample mud clearance and versatility to tackle offseason gravel.
Cross is always coming, and the Feral Tsar will make sure you're ready.
See a complete photo gallery below the specs.
Civilian Feral Tsar "Standard" Build Cyclocross Bike Specs:
MSRP: $2,850 frame only, $4,900 complete bike as tested
Frame: Columbus Life, Spirit and Zona tubing, TIG welded in Portland, 142x12mm rear dropouts, IS brake mount
Fork: TRP Cross Fork 15mm thru-axle, post mount
Rear Derailleur: SRAM Force 1 medium cage
Crankset: SRAM Force 1 GXP with 42t X-Sync ring
Cassette: SRAM XG-1130 11-42t
Shift/Brake Levers: SRAM Force 1
Brakes: SRAM Force 1 HRD post mount
Rotors: SRAM Centerline Centerlock
Wheelset: Easton EA70 tubeless, 17.5mm internal width
Tires: WTB Cross Boss, 700c x 35mm
Handlebar: Easton EA70
Stem: Easton EA70
Seat Post: Easton EA70
Saddle: Ergon SRX3-S
Weight: 20.2 pounds without pedals, 12.7 pounds without wheels
More info: ridecvln.bike