The old Surly Karate Monkey got a few small changes over the years but, for the most part, it was the same bike that helped 29ers gain mainstream acceptance starting in 2002. It was launched that year at the very event we’re now detoxing from (Interbike). We covered the new Karate Monkey earlier this year and brought you a slightly more comprehensive first ride impression for the geared, 27plusser.
To be honest, it was bit of a fluke that I ended up on this bike. After finding long lines for most demo bikes, and being unwilling to interrupt my contacts to jump the lines, I retired to the Surly booth to steal beer and borrow a place to sit. Sitting next to a friend I’ve known for 10 years, he suggested we take a pair of lonely-looking single-speed Karate Monkeys for a ride rather than just sit around and drink. Even after a decade of seeing each other at bike events, we had never ridden together.
I owned an older KM for years and was immediately surprised at how differently this new model rode. I also was surprised at how easy it is to pinch flat standard tires with tubes inside. Swapping tubes made me notice the thru-axle fork, an awesome spec for those that might want to upgrade to a suspension fork down the road.
I’ve been riding mostly geared bikes lately, complete with squishy bits, so riding a rigid was a bit of a shock–but a good one. I did miss having a dropper but I just ran the post kinda low and stood up a lot. It was fine. I felt good.
This is not a complicated bike. Nothing hydraulic, nothing to shift, little to do but work on maintaining momentum and picking good lines. The modernized geometry moves the KM out of the more XC realm it previously occupied, and the addition of more braze-ons means it can play double duty as bike-packing rig.
While I had a lot of fun on the stock 29×2.4 Maxxis Ardents, I am glad 27plus tires can fit in this bike. As much as I love 29ers, when it comes to riding a rigid trail bike I will take any help I can get and plus tires help a lot.
Surly seems to have developed a way make bikes that consumers self-selected without the need for a lot of marketing talk or explanation. Some if that is because Surly makes simple steel bikes that are versatile and sturdy. This is either something you find appealing, or you don’t. Not much middle ground. Meaning, I’m not going to tell you if this bike is for you. You are going to tell you.
This purple beauty is $1,175, although the parts shown aren’t all the stock items. For a more comprehensive ride review, including geo numbers, read our test ride from Lake Tahoe. Or, check out the eclectic custom build our publisher has on his old Karate Monkey, which has become his go-to whatever bike. For complete details, hit up the Surly site.
For the Canfield Brothers cultists, there’s a new steel hardtail on the block. Canfield updated one of its staples: the steel, get-rowdy 29er Nimble 9 to be Boost compatible, slacker and more sparkly.
The Nimble 9 combines the revered ride quality of a steel frame with a slack 66.5-degree head angle and stubby chainstays adjustable down to 16.25 inches via sliding dropouts, making it a candidate for singlespeeding and providing clearance for 2.5-inch tires.
Available in S, M, L and XL, the Nimble 9 frame retails for $749 and sells directly from Canfield Brothers.
Nimble 9 Boost Features and Updates
- 29er all-mountain bike
- 4130 chromoly steel
- Increased reach and shorter seat tube
- 66.5° head angle (w/ 140mm fork)
- Custom sliding Boost 148mm x 12mm rear dropouts, axle included
- Adjustable 16.25“ – 16.9” chainstays
- Stealth cable routing
- Sparkle metallic painted finish
- ED Black treated for superior anti-corrosion resistance
- Removable direct mount front derailleur block
- Two water bottle bosses
Ed note: This is part of our initial bike test of three new hardtails introduced at QBP Saddle Drive 2016, each shod with 27plus tires: the aluminum Salsa Timberjack, carbon Salsa Woodsmoke and steel Surly Karate Monkey. Despite their obvious differences, we will draw some comparisons and distinctions among the three, so make sure to check out the other first ride reviews, too.
In case you’ve been under a rock for the last decade or so, a primer: The Surly Karate Monkey was one of the first production 29ers on the market. Surly bikes are not the fastest, lightest, newest, fanciest or most technically whiz-bang on the market. That’s probably why I like ’em so much (have to admit my bias, here). When I start to feel like I’m just being aggressively and excessively marketed to as an editor in the cycling industry, I take a break and ride my Surly. To be fair, I also own a modern carbon full-suspension trail bike that I adore, but I wear the mantle of steel-loving retrogrouch much better.
The new Monkey is slacker and longer. It sports a 69-degree headtube angle (formerly 72 degrees), a slightly shorter chainstay length, a wheelbase stretched by about an inch and a longer top tube. Seat tube angle is the same. The seat tube diameter bumps up to 30.9 for greater dropper-post compatibility while the frame comes stock with Surly Dirt Wizard 27.5×3.0 tires. I’m nuts for Dirt Wizards, especially since they were updated to be less tear-prone. They have grip, grip, grip for days.
Whereas the old Monkey was either rigid or built with a 100 mm fork, the new one will take up to a 140 mm fork. A 140 will raise the bottom bracket 17 mm and kick the headtube angle out to 67.5 degrees. The frame is loaded with even more braze-ons than ever. Yessiree, this is intended to be a bikepacker, a rigid singlespeed, a cross-country bike or a trail shredder. Or, all of the above. Choose your own adventure. Choose all of the adventures.
The new Monkey made me smile. It’s not better or worse than the two Salsa’s I also test rode at Saddle Drive: the carbon Woodsmoke and aluminum Timberjack. In fact, those other mid-travel 27plus bikes outshine the Monkey on several points. For $600 more (OK, yes, that’s a lot) you can get in on a carbon Woodsmoke with suspension or, for the same price as the Monkey, grab the Timberjack and get suspension.
Surly’s entry in this category is just different. If you want a plus hardtail, you have to find the one that suits your riding style and calms your inner demons. The Karate Monkey is my drug of choice. I would probably build it just like this Surly employee did. No, yes, this is exactly what I’d do.
Anyway, how does it ride? It rides like a Surly. The Monkey is still made of the company’s 4130 ‘Natch chromoly steel, but with slightly bigger tubing than previously used on this bike. It doesn’t have internal cable routing or weird tubing shapes. It’s not light but it’s mighty comfortable. Get off my lawn.
One of the Surly guys said the company strives for balance with its bikes. It didn’t try to do stuff like make the rear chainstays as short as possible just for the sake of making them as short as possible. The Monkey is intended to ride well in a multitude of situations, not just one or two. And that it does.
The bike is extraordinarily stable, almost to a fault if you’re intending to play. It’s not as flickable as some other bikes but rather trucks along with confidence, those big meats digging in all the way. To that end, it climbed far better than I expected. In fact, on the ride up the dirt service road, I kept looking around to see if I had a tailwind. No such luck. (I’m not very strong but I had just downed two shots of espresso; maybe that had something to do with it?) I caught up to two dealers also riding the Monkey who made the same comment: “This thing climbs really well!”
On flat to rolling singletrack, the Monkey felt a little sluggish. It’s weight and big tires means it’s a bit slow to get up to speed. The bike also doesn’t hold its momentum as well as other options. I felt that I was working it harder than the aluminum Timberjack and carbon Woodsmoke that I also sampled that same day on the same route in the hills of Northstar at Tahoe. Yes, those bikes have lighter frames. Still, if I were looking for a single hardtail that’s versatile, reasonably priced, comfortable and fun, I’d pick this one.
On the way down, the Monkey is a blast. I would have loved to have tried out a version with a suspension fork; I can image the addition of some squish would make this bike truly shine. I plowed it along the same intermediate DH trails I tested the other plus hardtails on and it held its own, rigid fork and all. It confidently led me down slow, techy sections that required taking it more carefully but was also just as happy being pushed hard through the chunk. With the help of the big tires, it hugged the dusty berms, despite being not as easy to throw around.
Some on the interwebs have called this a 27plus Krampus. Not so. The geometry numbers aren’t even close. The Monkey is more like a slimmed-down Surly Wednesday (read our full test of that bike), from which this frame borrows some tricks. One of them is a proprietary dropout called Gnot-Boost that offers spacing of 145 mm, allowing the steel frame to expand to fit 148 mm Boost hubs or pulled inward to work with a 142 mm hub. Surly is also now offering an add-on that allows you to transform the rear track dropouts to standard, vertical dropouts.
True to being a Surly, this thing is so versatile that I’m just going to send you to the Monkey’s homepage rather than trying to detail all the details, here.
The stock bikes are orange (geared/frame) for $1,400 complete, purple (singlespeed/frame) for $1,175 complete and black (frame only). Frame/fork can be had for $600. On the 1×11 geared version you get SRAM NX components, an 11-42 cassette, SRAM Level brakes, an Answer Pro Taper handlebar and a WTB Volt saddle (note that not all of that is pictured; the demo bikes at this event had different builds). The singlespeed will run 30×17 gearing. Go nuts.
Jamis is betting that the rider who wants a steep, short-travel cross-country bike is moving away from steel and looking for newer and lighter materials like carbon fiber. Thus they have redesigned the Jamis Dragon 29 to appeal to the more aggressive trail rider. Looking over the dramatic changes for the new model, I think some pretty wise choices were made.
Gone is the 100 mm fork, in favor of a 120 mm Fox Float 32. Head-tube angles have been slackened from 70 degrees to 68.5. The rear QR has been replaced by a 12×142 thru axle to match the front’s 15 mm. The head-tube diameter is increased to 44 mm so it can accept today’s tapered forks. The fixed chainstay has been updated to include a sliding dropout that allows the rider to adjust the chainstay length between 435 mm and 455 mm. The sliding dropout also allows for an easy singlespeed conversion if you feel so inclined. And the inclusion of ISCG05 tabs are always a good thing. Let’s not forget a dropper post and a 2×10 drivetrain featuring a clutch derailleur. Just goes to show, you really can teach an old dog new tricks.
The Dragon Pro features Reynolds 853 heat-treated steel. Compared to the Reynolds 520 steel (same thing as 4130 chromoly) found on the less expensive Dragon Sport, 853 steel is stronger at the weld points and the tubing doesn’t need to be as thick to achieve the same strength. Since I don’t have the Sport version of the Dragon I can’t compare the two, but I can say that the Pro is everything you’d want in a steel frame. The tubing is svelte, the bike feels just stiff enough, and you can probably find someone to repair the frame if you need to. The Pro frame also weighs 300 grams less than the Sport.
As with any hardtail mountain bike, the Dragon’s lack of rear suspension makes high-speed forays into rock gardens and the more technical sections of trails a bit more interesting. However, the increased power transfer to the rear wheel during climbs and quick acceleration are welcome benefits. This is where the inclusion of the KS eTen dropper pays off in spades. Being able to fully extend my legs on climbs and get low and compact when picking my way through rocks or carving through berms makes all the difference. While not the best dropper I have used, the eTen performed well and offers a smooth 100 mm of travel. The handlebar remote is easy to use, and the post reacts quickly enough when called upon. With the popularity of internally routed posts, I do think Jamis should have provided an access hole in the seat tube.
Now let’s talk rubber…
I’m not a huge fan of Jamis’ tire choice for the Dragon, the Vittoria Barzo, but tire preferences are always going to be pretty subjective. For me the Barzos rolled very well but lacked a bit in cornering ability. The tires performed well in most trail conditions, but there were a few times they lost their grip when I found myself relying on the side knobs. Your mileage may vary, but the Dragon is an aggressive enough bike to handle more aggressive tires.
No complaints from me on the SLX brakes and drivetrain. With a 180 mm rotor up front and a 160 out back, there is more than sufficient braking power. The shifters feature Shimano’s dual-release mechanism on the upper trigger, so you can pull or push it to shift. I also really dig the way Shimano designs the upper shift lever. The slight protruding shelf makes it incredibly easy to find with your thumb and operates smoothly with very little power required.
Because Jamis is marketing the Dragon in the “aggressive trail” market, I do question the Fox Float 32. While I think the 32 is a great lightweight, all-around fork, it doesn’t instill the kind of confidence I want while riding through technically challenging sections of trail. A slightly beefier choice would go a ways to stiffen up the front end when tackling rocks, roots and other protrusions. Since forks generally are a high-cost upgrade for the consumer, getting the right one on a bike at the time of purchase is an important consideration. It’s not a deal breaker, just somewhere I think Jamis could have made a bigger impact with this bike.
Overall Jamis did a great job updating the Dragon Pro so that it would appeal to a broader range of riders. When compared to a few other hardtails at a similar price point, it stacks up well, and it’s great to see steel bikes maintaining relevance in today’s marketplace. With a few tweaks here and there, the Dragon Pro would be a welcome addition to my stable.
- Price: $2,799
- Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL
- Wheelbase: 44.69 inches
- Top Tube: 24.41
- Head Angle: 68.5 degrees
- Seat-Tube Angle: 73.0 degrees
- Bottom Bracket: 12.36 inches
- Rear Center: 17.1-17.9 inches
- Weight: 28.86 pounds