Drop-handlebar mountain bikes have reared their pretty ugly heads from time to time over the years, most notably and visibly when John Tomac decided to race both downhill and cross-country with drop bars on his Yeti all those years ago. It didn’t seem to slow him down, but how are they for mere mortals?
I’ve experimented with all sorts of curly bar setups on everything from fairly standard cyclo-cross bikes with room for bigger tyres to 26×2.5in-tyred mountain bikes with radically flared WTB or Salsa drops and bar end shifters. As experiments, they’ve always been interesting but I’ve never found myself in a position to claim that such a setup is ‘better’ than a standard mountain bike, and I don’t expect that to change.
However, in recent times two significant product developments have brought the whole idea back to life – bigger 29in wheels for mountain bikes and interrupter brake levers. A lot of purist cyclo-cross riders call interrupter levers on the top of the bars “chicken levers” or “cissy levers”. I call them enablers because they enable me to ride the sort of ragged terrain where it’s not that easy to maintain absolute control if you’re hanging off the back of your saddle and trying to brake hard from the drops or the lever hoods.
The first time my twisted pride let me use interrupter levers was about 10 years ago in the 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross, an especially tough race held in the Yorkshire Dales in September. Extra levers on the top of the bars made riding the difficult sections far easier and, consequently, a little faster. I feel the same way about bigger wheels on mountain bikes: there are loads of well rationalised theoretical pros and cons but as far as I’m concerned they just make riding a bit easier on rough terrain.
Don’t get me wrong. My approach isn’t as simple as just wanting everything to be easier. If it was I’d stick to riding on the road, or put a motor on my bike, and I certainly wouldn’t put drop bars on a mountain bike! But, like many enthusiasts, I’ve always harboured the flawed ambition to create one bike that lets me ride absolutely any type of terrain, from road to potholed dirt lanes to proper rough woodsy trails, with as few compromises as possible.
Ironically, such a bike is bound to be slightly compromised almost everywhere but Ragley’s TD:1 29er mountain bike frame has allowed me to come as close as I ever have to that perfect all-rounder. With a little practice it flows through most of my local trails as fast as any other relatively comfy mountain bike. It climbs superbly with hands on the lever hoods and last week it happily cruised my regular 35km back lanes cafe ride just a single kph slower than the week before on my road bike.
The most interesting point about the TD:1 is that it’s designed to take a short rigid fork rather than a suspension fork, effectively pandering to the fact that a lot of big-wheeler mountain bike riders choose to shun suspension because the bigger wheels already add the roll-over comfort they feel they need. From the sales point of view that’s a brave decision from designer Brant Richards, but there’s no denying that the fresh-from-the-mould 672g Ragley carbon fork completes the frameset package very nicely. The Lynskey-built titanium frame weighs in at 1,775g (3.95lb) in a medium size, by the way.
Richards didn’t intend the TD:1 to end up being ridden with drop bars but I just couldn’t resist it when the new radically flared Ragley Luxy bar turned up. I find it too wide on the ends and too fat on the tops (it’s 31.8mm right across the flat part) but I’m giving it some time before I revert back to my old favourite, narrower WTB flared drops. At that point I’ll probably revert to using Paul’s Crosstop levers and Thumbies gear shifters, which have currently migrated across to my old Ibis Hakkalugi cyclo-cross bike.
Other parts choices that make this my ultimate (at least so far) all-rounder are lightweight Novatech TX 700c wheels shod with WTB’s Vulpine 2.1in semi slick treads, which roll remarkably fast on the road and grip the dirt far better than I expected them to. SRAM 10-speed DoubleTap shifters work perfectly with an XX mountain bike rear mech and cranks, and stopping duties are performed more than adequately by the new Tektro Lyra road-lever-compatible cable disc brakes.
I choose long-term test frames on the basis of being able to experiment with all manner of different ride setups, so this is still a work in progress. So far it has exceeded my expectations in almost everything. Inevitably, it’s still not as confident as a suspension-loaded flat bar mountain bike on rough terrain and it’s not as fast as a skinny tyred road bike on blacktop. But for those long, steady rides that encompass a little bit of everything, it’s the perfect cross-dresser.
Steve Worland is technical director of What Mountain Bike magazine. To subscribe, visit www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk.