Same Dog, Familiar Tricks

Same Dog, Familiar Tricks

From a sniper’s distance, all bicycle touring is of a piece. You need a bike, some bags, gear to keep you more or less self-sufficient and, finally, a willingness to forego the pleasantries. By pleasantries, I mean daily showers, dry shoes and an endless parade of clean chamois in which to swaddle your most nether of regions. So, that’s the big picture. However, the differences between fully loaded road touring, credit card touring and bikepacking are like the differences between an SUV, a family sedan and a quad runner.

For our Blackburn Ranger Camp I got to ride the Santa Cruz Highball, a carbon fiber 29er hardtail. Put another way, a category of bike I’ve ceased to have much interest in. It’s a tired category to me because there’s so little variation between so many of the bikes and there’s so little they do that can’t be topped by another kind of bike. Multistrada/Adventure bikes can do everything a 29er hardtail can do when it comes to fire road, though it might be slower on the drop. A full-suspension cross country bike will be faster in technical terrain and will almost always climb better on really steep terrain. There’s no doubt they are faster going down. And most of them, honestly, have too much trail and too long a wheelbase to be really playful in a way that takes advantage of their low weight.

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All that said, the Santa Cruz Highball was the most fun I’ve ever had on a hardtail 29er. It reacted with the sort of immediacy I’d come to think of as the domain of 27.5-inch bikes. But it descended better thanks to the larger wheels. And for the record, any time someone wants to say that 27.5-inch wheel rolls over stuff as well as a 29 does, I give them the number of the local head examiner. Bigger is always better, at least in that regard.

Though a few other bikes have more bottom bracket drop, the Highball benefits from chainstays and wheelbase shorter than some of its competitors which really contributes to the nimble feel the bike had. With a dropper post, this thing would be a ripper on really technical terrain.

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The hardtail was helpful from the standpoint that when fully loaded, all you needed to do was lock out the front suspension. With rear suspension, clearance for the seat bag can become an issue. Hose clamps on the fork held the cages in place for my clothing and sleeping pad; a fork like the Rock Shox RS-1 wouldn’t work too well.

While the flat bar can seem a bit limiting, position-wise, for long rides, the flat bar allows much more to be packed into the handlebar bag than you can with a drop bar, which can allow a rider to carry a warmer sleeping bag, more clothes or maybe a bigger tent.

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Both the handlebar bag and the seat bag have a variety of loops that allow for more items to be hung off the bags to increase overall carrying capacity. The two bags follow the same basic format in that what attaches to the bike is a skeleton that holds a dry bag. If your load increases (say you pick up another jacket along your trip, not that I’ve ever done that), the bags are expandable.

The frame bag has an expandable pleat and movable dividers attached with Velcro to allow for better organization. It was perfect for carrying my eating utensils, jacket and some snacks as it was easier to access during the day than other bags (save my hydration pack). It also features a port so that you can pass a hydration tube out and simplify drinking.

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While on the trip we used one additional bag, a variation on the Bento box. Ours carried two blinkies, a small headlight, the micro USB cable necessary to charge each and a new multitool from Blackburn that I’ll be reviewing separately. It closes with a zipper and has several outside pockets perfect for carrying a phone or gel.

As I mentioned previously, carrying as much weight as possible in plane with the frame makes the bike handle better. Nowhere is that more noticeable than if you’re on singletrack. What I also came to appreciate is that having more weight in plane with the frame reduces side loads on the wheels, cutting down on wear on the wheels and tires.

What follows is the inventory of bags we used from Blackburn:
Outpost Seat Bag (11L capacity): $119.99
Outpost Handlebar Bag (11.5L capacity): $99.99
Outpost Frame Bag: $64.99 (large)
Outpost Top Tube Bag: $44.99
Outpost Cargo Cage: $24.99

Final thought: Putting the out in “getting out there.”

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6 comments

  1. Dave King

    Padraig,

    How does the bike handle with all those bags on it? Neat review and I like that you venture outside the road arena.

    I’m a fan of my Breezer Cloud 9 29er hardtail. Where I live in the Bay Area, it’s perfect for the types of terrain and trails encountered. In fact, it’s also great for Marin and Mendocino. Yes, a FS bike would be a little faster on the downhills but I’m not sure about the uphills – if I were in Utah or Colorado or somewhere else ledgy or rocky, then yes. And I have found that it’s wheelbase is much shorter than just about any FS bike.

    Also, I appreciate that the lack of rear suspension is one less item on the bike that needs maintenance, overhaul, frequent attention, or replacement. If I don’t really need it for 90% of the trails I ride and it wouldn’t add much to my riding of these trails, then it’s more of a liability. I’ve had the seals and bushings go out FS frames and it is a PITA to find replacements. Your frame eventually gets bricked.

    That said, full suspension bikes have improved dramatically in the last 5 – 10 years and are much more versatile than they used to be. If I were living anywhere else, I would own one. And in another 5 or 10 years my aging back might be begging for one, too.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      The bike handled surprisingly well. Honestly, I was ready to play pig wrangler for half a week and was so pleased to find that wasn’t the case. There were times when I was stunned at just how much the extra weight helped with traction. That, in turn, helped with handling in a number of situations. Mountain bikes will sometimes understeer due to a front wheel slide, or oversteer due to a rear wheel slide. Either way, that can be unpredictable. The bags kept the tires planted and you could stay on the gas when you might otherwise have eased off for fear of breaking a tire loose.

      Regarding your Breezer, Joe has forgotten more about geometry than many product managers ever learned. His bikes are amazing.

      Full suspension has come so far that I recommend everyone try a good trail bike. They are just amazing. The experience couldn’t be more different from road riding, but it couldn’t be more delightful either.

  2. Dustin Gaddis

    I’m still a devoted hardtail lover. Sure, a dually is a bit faster on rough downhills, and climbing really technical stuff, but for 98% of what I ride a HT works great, while weighing less, costing less, and requiring less maintenance. All good things IMO. Horses for courses. I do most of my MTB miles on a rigid SS actually. If Pisgah was my home stomping grounds, I’d feel differently I’m sure. I’ve ridden ORAMM on a rigid geared bike and I certainly wont do that ever again!!!

    I assume we’re going to hear more about this ride?

  3. MattC

    Great post Padraig…my next bike will definitely be an “adventure” bike (specifically: bikepacking capable). My brother and I backpack in the Sierra’s nearly every fall, and this is one arena I’ve really been wanting to get into. A friend demo’d a Highball up in Santa Cruz a few months back (Wilder Ranch), he LOVED IT! Sadly my budget will be a little bit more toward the ‘lowball’ end of the spectrum, so I’ll likely be looking at one of the myriad of steel hard-tails out there (29’er is a MUST tho…preferably a niner +). Maybe I’ll even a used bike…get some GREAT deals out there from those that can afford the latest and greatest. I would have a hard time going deep into the hole for a bike I’ll likely ride just a handful of times a year. Now I just need some dough. Oh, and thanks for the info on the bags…that also all comes out of the bike budget.

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