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Colorado Rough Rider Reviews the Rawland Drakkar



For those of us who believe "life's an adventure", a bike needs to be many things. It must be durable yet light, comfortable on long rides and able to carry loads. Here in Colorado an all-rounder should also climb like a goat and handle rough dirt roads or single track with ease, but roll smooth and efficient on pavement. In other words, one bike that is both road and mountain bike - ready for anything that comes.

Although I know it's an unattainable myth, my search for the perfect alpine all-rounder has included nearly every strategy from stripping down (road-ifying) mountain bikes to beefing up road bikes. Approaches that work, but demand compromises. I love my modified Gary Fisher Aquila even though it's a bit slow on pavement and the flat bars are not comfortable on long rides. Nothing it seems quite reaches the all-rounder holy grail.

Imagine my excitement when finding the Rawland Cycles website one evening. "Choose your own adventure" is the company's motto. OK perhaps I was skeptical, after all my brand of adventure is Rocky Mountain big. Could they really offer a bike that handles alpine mixed terrain? Fully expecting disappointment, I emailed Rawland's Sean Virnig for more information and described my impossible needs. To my surprise, Sean said his new Drakkar (named after the go anywhere Viking ship) was designed with someone like me in mind. Could this bike really fulfill my all-rounder dreams. . . well maybe? Unfortunately I couldn't test drive a Drakkar to find out since Rawland only sells frames. After much deliberation and test riding other candidates, I finally decided to take a risk on the Drakkar.

Why I Ordered The Drakkar
What features initially led me to order the Drakkar? Perhaps it's the geometry, close to my favorite rigid 90's MTB (a hybrid between today's road and mountain geometries) but designed for drop bars. I hoped a "drop bar rigid mountain bike" arrangement would provide a comfortable cockpit for long rides without sacrificing too much single track handling. Or it could be the frame's versatility, able to handle diverse customization. This frame includes a plethora of brazons equal to a touring bike (even 3 water bottle cages), yet with wide tire clearance (full 29er tire compatible), and unique horizontal dragon's head rear dropouts for geared or single speed setups. Then again, the Columbus asymmetric Zona tubing spoke to my inner "steel is real" self. It might have even been the elegant frame proportions and extra ornamental details. Ultimately the Drakkar was chosen because I believed Sean Virnig's design approaches what he set out to achieve, a truly versatile all-rounder.

One feature caused me concern initially. The Drakkar comes disc brake only. In an effort to further versatility, disc brakes ensure an easy transition between 700c/29er or 650b wheel sets. Essentially creating 3 bikes in one via simple wheel changes. Although the simplicity of cantilever or V brakes appeals to me, and racks are hard to fit with disc brakes, I rationalized that disc brakes would perform better for alpine descents and wet trails.

First Impressions
How can I describe the anticipation when discovering a Rawland box on the UPS driver's shoulder? Perhaps it's closest to the unbridled excitement kids feel on Christmas morning. My emotions however were more complex, excitement mixed with trepidation even fear. I signed for the box, setting it in the garage unopened.


Several days passed. My wife couldn't believe the box remained unopened. But I'd already ridden my Drakkar for months - in my dreams. Surely the real thing couldn't measure up to expectations. Finally I mustered the courage. Surgically opening the box, fear turned to relief upon discovering a blemish free frame. All the welds looked clean. The paint job was smooth. Sparkling green, the color looked quite pleasing with contrasting gold decals. Rear stainless steel, mar resistant "dragon's head" dropouts can only be described as works of art.

The unique "biplane" fork appeared well engineered. A design providing wide tire clearance without a bulky fork. Frame proportions in general were elegant, sporting many ornamental details. This frame was more than expected.

One feature that stands out is Drakkar's raised top tube. I prefer higher handlebars for comfort. The raised top tube allows for higher bar placement with less spacers. Combined with a sloping top tube the cockpit looked about as relaxed as any bike I've seen. The only problem I found was that none of the dropouts has safety tabs should a quick release loosen. I wasn't worried about the rear. But it caused concern for the front until I realized, unlike most bikes, the front dropouts face forward so disc braking forces the wheel into the dropout.

The Build
I've modified and rebuilt many bikes, but never assembled one from a new frame. Wow, a chance to pick all the components. Of course, with freedom comes many decisions. I relied heavily on the knowledgeable staff at Peak Bikes in Golden Colorado to find the best mix from the vast amount of road and mountain options available today. Below is a list of components and why I chose them:

Drive Train - Good climbing on steep roads and trails is my top priority. Especially after a long day on mixed terrain. A mountain drive train was the obvious choice. I ordered Shimano XT for both derailleurs. The crank is an older unused LX (when LX was still mountain) that Peak Bikes had laying around. Like the XT, the LX sports a Hollowtec exterior bearing spindle system which is compatible with Drakkar's bottom bracket. I chose 22-32-44 front chain rings which is low as mountain components go. The rear cassette has an 11- 34 tooth spread. This arrangement maxes out the long cage rear derailleur's range of 45 teeth. With a 29er wheel size I get a low around 18 gear inches and a high around 112. I felt justified sacrificing the big racing gears in order to maximize climbing. Rarely do I pedal down mountain passes, instead worrying about braking and control.

Shimano bar end shifters sometimes called barcons often used for touring bikes seemed a good choice. Bar end shifters are simple, easy and work well. I like that they are serviceable in the field. Frankly my brifters seem fussy at high altitude and cold weather, which drives me nuts on mountain passes.

Handlebars - What I didn't realize until exploring options was the many subtle differences in drop bar design. A casual search through Peak Bikes website reveals dozens of possible designs. Ultimately I focused on drop bars designed for off road riding. WTB has the Dirt Drops, On-One offers the Midge bar. However, Salsa's Woodchipper was the handlebar for me. The drops flair out, providing added leverage and stability for single track, but the bend flairs less allowing more upper bar area and more standard brake lever placement than other designs. Woodchippers are designed to ride off road in the drop position. For an old rider like me that meant raising the bars further than expected. I used all the steering tube provided. The only downside is the large width. One needs to be careful navigating in close quarters with these bad boys.

The Woodchipper comes in MTB 25.4 or the newer 31.8 size. I opted for 31.8 mm bars with a Specialized mountain bike stem. 31.8 mm allows mixing road and MTB components. I hope the industry steers towards this standard for all types of bikes in the future.


Brakes
- Mechanical discs were clearly better suited for a rugged alpine all-rounder. They can be repaired in the field and are generally simpler to maintain. However, using drop or road bars presented a problem. Most disc brakes are designed for mountain levers with a different pull ratio. Luckily Avid and Tektro both make road disc brakes. Lenard Zinn, the Boulder frame builder, in a recent article declared road disc brakes are the future. They can be made lighter than mountain discs and provide better performance than rim brakes. It makes sense to me.

I almost chose the Tektro Lyra, weighing about the same as cantilever brakes. But the Lyra is a new design with few reviews. And I feared the rotors are too thin. Ultimately I ordered Avid BB7 mechanical road disc brakes which were easy to install and adjust even for a first timer. I opted for a 160 mm front rotor, while the rear is only 140 mm. This asymmetrical setup saves weight, but the bigger reason is simple physics. A rear wheel provides less stopping power before skidding. For hauling big loads, I might reassess this strategy.

Wheels - With three wheel formats possible (650b, 700c or 29er), this decision was rather difficult.
Sure, I could have ordered three different wheel sets and switched between them to create virtually three different bikes. But I'm interested in creating one all-rounder that will take me anywhere without carrying extra wheels. It was important to choose the single most versatile wheel set.

650b's with a smaller radius would climb better but probably not roll as fast. The smaller radius would likely be less comfortable over bumps. 650b is less popular, meaning less wheel and tire options. 700c/29er was my choice. Not everyone knows that 700c and 29er wheels have the same rim size. What differs is the tire width (29er is 2" or more). Ultimately I chose a Stan's No Tubes factory wheel set with Arch rims and ZTR hubs. The Arch rim allows full 29er tire widths or wide 700c touring tires, virtually spanning the entire wide and medium tire width spectrum (but not skinny road racing tires). Arch rims can be used with tubes but are tubeless ready. As mentioned above, with the 29er wheels I planned on extra low gearing to eliminate any disadvantage in climbing. I also toyed with tubeless to minimize rotational weight and further enhance climbing (see tires section below).

Tires - Schwalbe 45c Smart Sams which are marketed as all-terrain tires seemed a good choice. My hope was to find one tire that handles a variety of terrain well. Spinning extra rubber on pavement was not appealing, but neither was washing out on gravel or single track. At 1.75" the 45c width was a good compromise. While the 29er width Smart Sams come UST tubeless, the narrower and lighter 45c version did not have a UST stamp. I went tubeless anyway to save rotational weight and to reduce puncture flats in cactus country. Rotational weight is a big deal since a one pound savings at the rim and tires is worth 2 pounds on the frame (or other non rotating parts including rider and gear). Frankly, running narrower tires tubeless is a bit experimental. However, it seems the industry is beginning to look at road tubeless setups. This may be the future for road bikes.

Although not a full 29er volume, I hoped the 45c tires would smooth rough terrain since the Drakkar doesn't have suspension. And a good all-rounder shouldn't have suspension in my opinion. It adds weight and dampens power, compromising performance on pavement and smooth trails, all for added comfort on the occasional rocky single track. I might sound like a hard ass, but I'm just looking for the greatest efficiency over the greatest variety of terrain.

Final word on the Build - Ultimately no bad surprises on the build. The Drakkar frame easily accepts current bike technology, no "jury rigging" was needed. I did learn bar end shifters are not compatible with Shimano's Shadow derailleur design. My build required a standard XT model.

One nice surprise, It turns out the rear dragon's head dropouts are more than just aesthetics. Rawland specially designed these dropouts to fit standard racks even with disc brakes eliminating an early concern about the disc only frame. I was initially worried about fitting a rack with disc brakes. Since I usually travel ultra light, only carrying about 15 pounds on the rear, a light duty Axiom rear rack was chosen. These racks are inexpensive and among the lightest available.

The First Ride
Up until now I hadn't actually ridden the bike. Even though I'd spent much time thinking about it. The bike's true performance as an alpine all-rounder was only theoretical. Over the many hours spent on the build I'd worked through my trepidation and fear. The first ride was all unbridled jubilation. Although I planned to stay on easy roads around my house, passing the single track on South Table Mountain was irresistible. Against better judgment I headed up on steep single track.

Too my surprise the bike climbed remarkably well. While climbing I immediately noticed the Woodchipper bars provided great leverage and stability. These bars and the relaxed cockpit made riding comfortable and pleasurable. I also noticed the bike's 45 cm chain stay length made for quick and responsive handling.

Descending steep rocky terrain was not as easy. The narrower tires held well but didn't quite have the grip of a 2" plus MTB knobby. "On the hoods" made for sore thumbs. "In the drops" alleviated hand pain and worked better, but not quite as good as a flat MTB bar.

Descending steep smooth dirt however, didn't present a problem except for the occational rear tire slight skid on the steepest sections (which might have been the same with a full MTB tire - these sections are steep!). Rolling single track was a treat on the Drakkar. The large diameter wheels really did feel faster in general.

Back on pavement, the Drakkar handled nearly like a road bike. Perhaps a little slower, but more stable with the wider tires. In general the bike felt like an MTB on trails and a road bike on smooth pavement. For dirt roads and broken pavement the Drakkar excels like nothing else I've ridden.

With 29er wheels on medium and small bikes, toe overlap can be an issue. I didn't have any toe overlap problems with the 45c tires on this medium frame. In fact, I had plenty of room and could probably mount full 2" plus tires without problem. I used power straps on MKS Mt-Lux Compe flat pedals. My feet are size 9.

Another nice technical feature is the high bottom bracket. With the 45mm Smart Sams, the BB was higher than my 26" wheeled MTBs. I hit my pedals less than usual on rocky sections. Frankly, I can't stand low bottom brackets on any bike taken off road.

When braking hard I noticed a small vibration at the front end. My LBS said all road disc brake bikes have fork vibration. Apparently no rigid forks are beefy enough to resist movement like a large MTB suspension fork. I quickly learned to brake less forcefully and have virtually eliminated the vibration. The upside, this same flexibility also dampens bumps more than expected. The nice flex is probably due to the high end steel, but also the raked fork design. Interestingly, the bike did not feel too flexy or unstable.

Shortly after the first ride my bike fell over bending the derailleur hanger. Bent hangers are a common problem (I've had this happen on traditional MTBs too), Peak Bikes easily bent the tab back in place and I've had no problem since (going on 1,000 miles already). However, Ben at Peak Bikes discovered the bike's adjustable wheel base could be extended because the dropouts are designed for both geared and single speed setups.

The bent hanger led to a discovery I might not have realized. Now I'm excited to explore the correlation between wheelbase length, handling and load carrying. Could it be that extending the effective chain stay length from 45 cm to 47 cm makes the Drakkar more like a fully loaded touring bike? If so, this bike would truly be a uniquely versatile platform. Keep in mind the stainless steel dropouts provide a durable but very hard surface and require special no slip nuts if the wheel is not set at the minimum position held in place by the dropouts.



Update - Breckenridge To Taos

I recently took my Drakkar on the Breck-Taos Alpine Challenge, a 300 mile mixed terrain route which includes both unpaved mountain passes and pavement. Joe Crews of Rough Rider fame came along on his Rivendell Sam Hillborne sporting 40c Schwalbe Marathon tires (the widest he could fit). Both bikes performed very well. Although Joe felt washout on moderate dirt road descents, probably due to his bike's narrower tires and longer wheel base.

My Drakkar was great in all conditions encountered. The tubeless 45c Smart Sams worked well with no skidding, washout, flats or problems. The disc brakes were a treat for long mountain descents, especially the 4,000 vertical drop from Loco Ridge Pass (the Old Ute Trail) into Salida Colorado. We also crossed a shallow stream experiencing no reduction in stopping power.
I've changed my mind about disc brakes, they are worth having.

With only 10 pounds on the rear rack, 8 pounds on my back and another 6 pounds of water in the 3 bottle cages, the Drakkar was nicely balanced. Even on fast descents the bike always rode smooth and stable yet handled responsively. It never felt I was wrestling the bike going straight or turning. Only on one very fast paved descent did I suspect a slight shimmy. But I was going too fast for confort and braked to a normal descent speed.

For the plethora of dirt roads found here in the Rocky Mountains, the Drakkar is almost an ideal bike. Multiday rides like the Breck-Taos Alpine Challenge or Great Divide Route can be ridden with an MTB, but the added comfort of a drop bar is much nicer and more sustainable in my opinion.

Update - Rawland's Drakkar versus Salsa's Fargo
The only comparable bike I've ridden is the Salsa Fargo, another drop bar mountain bike. Both bikes have a nice, relaxed cockpit for extended riding. However, the Drakkar is lighter and faster from my experience.

Although I've only test ridden the Fargo, other significant differences seem apparent. The Drakkar has a higher bottom bracket for better clearance. In fact the Fargo's low bottom bracket was a major factor in my not choosing it. The Drakkar's shorter chain stay (45 cm versus Fargo's 46.5 cm), raked fork design and high quality steel creates more responsive yet softer handling at least unloaded or carrying moderate loads on the rear rack.


Could it be that the Drakkar and Fargo are designed for different purposes? The Fargo seems to be made specifically for touring with heavy loads on dirt roads. While the Drakkar's versatility and all-rounder aspirations extend well beyond the Fargo's intended use.

I've come to wonder whether the Drakkar should even be classified as a drop bar mountain bike like the Salsa Fargo? People often ask, "what kind of bike is that"? At first I called it a drop bar MTB. After riding the Drakkar for a while I began referring to it as a monster cross or alpine touring bike. Lately I call the Drakkar a "29er road bike" because it's relatively fast on pavement. Perhaps no single label truly describes my Drakkar and what it can do. This bike stands alone.

Update - Lookout Mountain
I recently took the Drakkar on a tour of Lookout Mountain, up Chimney Gulch (a local MTB test peice) and down the Larriat Loop road (a local road bike test peice) to form a great mixed route above Golden. Riding to the trail head, the road racers were a bit faster but not much. On the single track, only a couple tough rocky sections slowed me down. I carried my bike over a few rocks primarily because the thought of scratching my new frame worried me. I noticed most mountain bikers were also walking these sections. To my surprise, the Drakkar climbed as fast if not faster than nearly all the mountain bikes. All were amazed to see a drop bar bike on these trails, and how well it handled on relatively difficult single track. I'm getting used to riding tougher trails with the drop bars. It's different than riding flat bars and takes some practice.

Descending the very steep pavement felt positive with disc brakes and wider tires. As I traveled home on 32nd Avenue, the bike zipped along rolling pavement with ease. Much more comfortable and faster than my mountain bikes.

The Bottom Line
As the company's motto implies, the Rawland Drakkar really does allow you to "choose your own adventure". Think of the Drakkar as a versatile platform able to handle a variety of builds. I created an alpine all-rounder, surprisingly well suited for Colorado's notoriously mixed and steep alpine environment. My Drakkar rides like it is both a mountain and a road bike.

With the 29er wheel option (if geared low and fitted with tubeless medium wide tires) this bike climbs great and rolls fast on most terrain including moderate to difficult single track, rough dirt roads, and smooth or broken pavement. The relaxed geometry, high quality steel frame and drop bars provide a wonderfully stable comfortable ride for multiday dirt road touring like on the Great Divide Route. Yet the Drakkar handles sporty and responsively like my favorite 90's rigid mountain bike, even with moderate loads.

The Drakkar's unique blend of performance is so much fun my other bikes haven't seen action lately. I prefer it over my mountain bikes (I have 3) on all but the most technical rocky trails. The Drakkar also gets used for pavement instead of my Scott road/triathlon bike. It's a little bit slower, but the fatter tires dampen what passes for asphalt here in the Rocky Mountains and feel very solid on long paved descents.

I'm rarely ready to go home just because the pavement ends. If I could only have one bike, the Drakkar would be it. Ultimately the Rawland Drakkar is the closest thing to a perfect all-rounder I've found.

*Photos of finished bike were taken by Joe Crews or Todd Remington. Photos of frame only were pilferedfrom the Rawland Cycles website.



Other Manufacturers
(for this build)

Shimano Drivetrain
Avid BB7 Brakes
Stan's No Tubes Wheels
Salsa Woodchipper Bar
Schwalbe Smart Sam Tires




Below is an extensive review of the Rawland Drakkar by Colorado Rough Rider Todd Remington. If you live near Golden Colorado and would like to see this bike, contact Todd Remington at todd@alpinebicycle.org