Dirt Rag Magazine

Review: Strong custom steel hardtail

The differences between a production built bike and a custom designed frame are numerous, but it all boils down to fit and function. Just as a custom tailored suit fits you like an "off the rack" brand could only hope to…

By Chris Cosby

It starts out so innocently. Garage tinkering with your friends after junior high school. Bombing through the woods on beater BMX bikes. Exchanging parts daily, garbage picking spare bits, driving mom crazy with that big box of bike parts that’s often in the way of the car. Then you finally buy that 10 speed bike you’ve been eyeing down at the corner bike shop. Then comes the racing, more expensive parts, all the tools and related riding gear.

If you can relate to this scenario, then you’re like me: bikes are in your blood. So it only stands to reason that my ultimate goal as a bike addict was a custom made frame. The differences between a production built bike and a custom designed frame are numerous, but it all boils down to fit and function. Just as a custom tailored suit fits you like an "off the rack" brand could only hope to, so does a custom designed bike frame. But there are more subtle differences, such as mixing tubesets to achieve a desired blend of weight and performance. Or determining specific frame angles and tube lengths based on the intended style of riding that the bike will see. Sure, high end production models can do some of this, but somewhere along the way, they have to assume something about the end user, whereas with a custom frame, the builder and the rider develop a relationship and an understanding of each other before the welding torch is even lit.

Such is the case with Strong Racing Frames. I had been in the market for a steel hardtail built around a 5" travel fork. After years of riding on aluminum mountain bikes, I wanted to get back to the feel of steel (more on that later.) In addition, I wanted to know whether a bike built just for you really rode better or not. Carl Strong’s approach to building bikes is "one at a time, from start to finish." I liked that attention to detail, which was even evident on his web site (www.strongframes.com) The site went into the specifics of sizing your body’s dimensions to ensure a proper fit. Then Carl and I discussed the type of bike I wanted and why. I mentioned the bikes that I have ridden in the past, which ones felt "right" and which ones didn’t. He asked me what type of riding I enjoy most. I mentioned things like tight, technical woods rides, fast and steep downhills, and long, rocky climbs. Basically what the bike companies are now calling "big hit" or "out of bounds" bikes. He then took all of this information and crafted a work of art that doubles as a bike frame. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Carl Strong raced expert mountain bikes for 15 years. When he hung up his cleats and took a "real job", he began to realize just how precious his weekend time on the bike was to him. So he started searching for that ultimate bike, thinking that his limited riding time should at least be spent on the best setup available. After several unsatisfactory purchases, he realized that in order to get a bike that matched his background and physical dimensions, he would have to build it himself. Soon after, he found himself building frames for his friends and word began to spread. As a result, he became a full time frame builder.

So what about the bike, you ask? Well, it’s all I hoped it would be, and less (meaning it was smaller than I expected, but that was good. Read on.) Carl and I decided on frame angles that were similar to my ’96 Fisher Supercaliber, but with a shortened and radically sloping top tube, tighter rear triangle and a steeper front end to account for the long travel fork. The bikes that influenced the design were the Fisher X-Caliber and the DeKerf Implant, but the Strong was going to be steel. Carl used Columbus Foco, their newest high end steel tubeset. Foco tubes are as light as aluminum, but with a wall thickness of just 0.4mm, are much more resilient. Carl chose a Foco Megatube (oversized) downtube for increased strength and stiffness, and wrap around gussets at the head tube juncture provide an extra degree of strength. (Incidentally, the seat tube inner diameter is a standard 28.6mm, and the headtube uses an 1 1/8" headset.) The frame geometry is as follows: 71.5° head angle and 73° seat angle; top tube 21.5" (23.75" effective length); chainstay 16.33"; seat tube 15.75"; bottom bracket height 12". The frame is disc brake specific with a fillet brazed mount and a reinforcing tube between the chainstay and seatstays. There are no canti studs, so the rear triangle has a clean look to it. Strong Frames use Ritchey rear dropouts, and the handmade head badge is by Mike Cherney, who also fabricates head badges for Ibis and Willits. The finish on my frame is a black powdercoat with a pearl overspray, which gives the frame a pearlescent hue in the sunlight. With a high end tubeset like Columbus Foco, prepare to shell out $1000. Custom paint like the pearl overspray adds $40, and details like a mega downtube add $50. With a "start to finish" apprach to frame building, turnaround time is a reasonable 3-4 weeks. Road, triathalon and cyclocross models are also available, as are Softride designs. You can choose from TIG welded, lugged (when available) or fillet brazing.

When the frame arrived, I was surprised at how small it appeared. I was even concerned when it went into the workstand that it was going to be too small. The top tube sloped so much that it looked like a 24" wheeled bike. But my fears were laid to rest when she came out of the stand and I took the maiden voyage through the parking lot of Bikesport in Trappe, PA. Chief mechanic and shop DJ Mark Taylor had done an excellent job in overseeing the build, and the ride was spot on. With a neutral weight bias front to rear, it is easy to move around on the saddle for proper positioning while climbing or descending. The high bottom bracket is necessary for east coast log hopping, and the sloping top tube makes the entire package very nimble on the trail. With chainstays as short as 16.33", there was a concern over mud clearance, but Carl allowed enough room to even run a 2.5" tire should I want to go that big. The Strong bike has a good slalom feel to it, yet is big and comfortable enough (with the help of a Thomson 410mm seat post!) for long woods rides. Seated climbing is comfortable, and hammering out of the saddle shows off the frame’s strong (pun intended!) build quality as there is no apparent frame flex. The sloping top tube aids in clearing big obstacles, since there is so little material beneath you to get in you way. The high bottom bracket helps here, too, keeping the chainrings out of the way of most logs. With a seat tube of just under 16”, it has a small bike feel with big hit capability. I’m loking forward to some serious dual slalom time this summer with the aid of a single chain ring and roller guide.

The thought of not running into another bike like it in any group ride is pretty neat. The thought that it was torched up just for me, my style and my size makes it a bike I can live with for the rest of my riding days! Contact Strong Racing Frames, 450 Hillside Ln., Unit C-4, Bozeman, MT 59715; 406.586.6264; www.strongframes.com.

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