One blustery January day, I get a call from Matt Chester, and he tells me he wants to build me a bike for product testing. He says I’d be the perfect tester because I like to ride in the winter, I dig rigid forks…
By Karl Rosengarth
This bike review started on a very strange note. One blustery January day, I get a call from Matt Chester, and he tells me he wants to build me a bike for product testing. He says I’d be the perfect tester because I like to ride in the winter, I dig rigid forks and I own an Eastern Woods Research. Matt figures I’m the kind of guy who’d appreciate the Utilitiman’s non-mainstream nature. All this from a guy I’d never spoken with before–a guy who either spends way too much time reading my drivel, or is an axe-wielding stalker.
The more we got to talking, the less the stalker scenario made sense; so I started warming up to his proposal. Matt told me the Utilitiman is a semi-custom titanium alloy frame that he hand builds based on the customer’s preferences and physical measurements. Just like an actual customer, I provided the following measurements: my inseam length, the distance from my bike’s bottom bracket to the top of my saddle, the distance from my handlebars to seatpost and how high my handlebars were off the ground. Normal customers get to specify rigid or suspension fork geometry (Matt decided I needed a rigid Kenesis Maxlight); derailleur hanger or single speed (he singled me out); V, canti or roller cam brake mounts (he V’ed me with Ritchey); QR or bolt-on seatpost collar; bottle cage bosses or no; and cable routing preference.
As a Matt Chester customer, you’re encouraged to discuss your riding style, and to throw whatever other idiosyncrasies you have into the mix. You see, Matt Chester IS Matt Chester bikes. He’s a one-man operation (see sidebar), so you get to deal directly with the man. He’ll figure out if you fit his S, M or L Utilitiman and build it with the options you selected for the low, low, everyday price of $1000. Pretty darn economical for a hand made, Ancotech 3Al/2.5V titanium alloy tubed (straight gage) frame. Full custom geometry can be had for $1500.
Back to my bike. Matt set my Utilitiman up for winter riding by throwing on Snow Cat rims and wide Enduroraptor tires. Snow Cats are 44mm wide, single-walled aluminum alloy rims made by All Weather Sports of Fairbanks, Alaska (907.474.8184 or www.mosquitonet.com/~aws). Wide rims increase the foot-print width of your tires, allowing you to ride softer, more slippery trails than you can with conventional rims. Matt made the stays on my bike wider than normal, to guarantee more-than-ample heel clearance (V-brakes tend to stick out too far otherwise). The stock Utilitiman (or most any bike for that matter) will work with Snow Cats, if you run cantis or Maguras.
Snow Cat rims, zero-maintenance rigid fork, no blasted derailleur to freeze up-aaaah a snow bike-I was starting to get it. A few weeks later, I literally got it. Almost immediately, I assembled it and hit the (non-snow-covered) trails. No snow was a good thing-I could get the feel of the Utilitiman, before I had to deal with icy conditions. The feel was 22.5 pounds of pure butter. Smooooove, thanks to those big fatty (low pressure) tires and wide rims, compliant 17" chainstays and a "magic juju how the heck do they make an aluminum alloy fork feel so soft" Kinesis Maxlight. Full speed ahead, damn the roots, rocks and reggae. Flick it here, jump it there, carve. Non-mainstream 72°/72° head seat angles worked for me-I had one fine singletrack machine between my skinny legs.
Uphill? Test the bending strength of Tom Ritchey’s 26.5" wide Rizer Pro bars-stomp those 180mm cranks and mash 34×20 gears up the steeps. Go, Chickenbutt, go. Downhill? Nah pra-blem, mon. Stah bill ah tee, mon. Then, right on cue, the snow hit. As promised, the Snow Cat rims allowed me to run marshmallow soft, low-pressure tires, providing "better than normal" traction in the snow. Nothing magical, but definitely improved traction. And the simplicity of one-speed-ness and rigid-fork-ness really is the way to go in the snow. Ritchey blue brake pads are the shit. Dress lighter than you think, it’s a single freezing speed and it’s a lot of work on those uphills. Smile like a crazy man, coz riding in the snow sure beats cleaning up the basement.
A few weeks later, as if on cue, John Muenzenmeyer from Nuke Proof rolls into town looking for a ride. I offer to let him ride the Utilitiman-one look and he’s all over it. After his (non-snow) ride, John’s sporting a huge smile, so I figure it’d be wise to get some of his impressions on tape. Here’s what John had to say… "It rode awesome. It felt kinda like a steel bike. It has a smooth feel to it, but it wasn’t real loose when I got up and stood on it. The bike was definitely stiff enough, for a Ti bike… I thought the bike was responsive. I thought the bike handled well in singletrack. It steered quick, but with the stays being a little bit longer, it kinda evened it out so it didn’t feel squirrelly… I thought it climbed relatively well, there were times when I couldn’t climb things I normally could have, coz it was super steep and it was a single speed and I didn’t have a granny gear. I thought the bike rode really great downhill… The welds looked good. It seems like he knows what he’s doing (Matt Chester). Visually it was very nice, I liked the way it looked-a real pretty frame there… The dropout slots are kinda short. The only thing that limits it is gear range, in my opinion. That’s the only thing he could do a little better, longer dropouts would give a little more space to move the wheel fore and aft… I love single speeds, so it was really great that I got to ride that bike. It fit me really well. You can tell that the guy that built it rode-that’s what I think is cool. Yeah, I love the bike."
Man, I’m gonna have to buy John a beer having so many lucid comments and saving me from having to think up my own, coz I totally agree with him (for the record, I did buy John a beer). Note: in an effort to build me a bike ASAP, Matt built it without all of his welding jigs (on loan to Gary Helfrich). He had to resort to makeshift rigging, and the rear dropout spacing ended up a bit tight. That made rear wheel removal and insertion a bit of a pain. He promises that his normally-built bikes would not have this problem.
I like to summarize, so here goes… titanium alloy, reasonably priced boutique frame, builder rides, non-corporate, snappy handling, smoove, fun, funky, wish I owned one. Contact: Matt Chester, P.O. Box 142, Leadville, CO 80461; 719.486.1006; www.mattchester.com.