By Karen Brooks
You may know Sam Whittingham or his brand Naked Bicycles & Design by the award-winning bikes he’s shown at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Whittingham won the 2011 People’s Choice Award for an ultra-clean and minimalist singlespeed dubbed the Gentleman’s Scorcher. The Loonie 29er singlespeed Whittingham built for this test recently won the Best Mountain Bike award at the 2012 show, still caked mud from the many miles I put on it.
Like all good custom builders, Whittingham likes to find out as much as possible about the customer before designing and building a frame. Besides the detailed “How To Get Naked” instructions on his website and a brutally honest “Bike Picker” chart the process involves many conversations, measurements, and ideally a ride with Whittingham on his Quadra Island, British Columbia, trails. Since time was short we had to make do with some emails and phone calls. The result of these measurements and conversations is a stunning frame with tubing and geometry customized for my mountain biking bliss. Hell yeah!
Whittingham’s basic design is shaped by the gnarly technical terrain he likes to ride. His general philosophy on 29ers is short in the back for flick-ability, a bit long in the front to keep the wheelbase stable, and a fairly high bottom bracket to clear obstacles. All in all, he aims for a bike that “likes to play,” in a speed-trials sort of way.
My general wish was for a lightweight frame that is stiff enough to lay the power down. This particular Loonie is made from True Temper Platinum tubing, with butting profiles and wall thicknesses carefully chosen to balance comfort, light weight, and durability, tipping the scales slightly toward durability.
The chainstays measured at 416mm where the rocker dropouts were set. That’s certainly short, and the subtle curve of the oval seat tube helps tuck the rear wheel under the rider. The bottom bracket height is 323mm. The effective top tube of 614mm is on the long side for me, but when paired with an 80mm stem the cockpit felt just right.
In a technique Whittingham first tried on the Scorcher, the seatstays continue past the seat tube and are joined on either side of the top tube—no bridge required. Besides allowing more tire clearance, this configuration lends lateral stiffness to the rear end, along with the wide, BB92-specific bottom bracket shell mated with ovalized chainstays. Whittingham uses Nova brand chainstays, as he says they’re the only ones that are this wide but with thin walls. The front end is designed to give fairly neutral, but not sluggish, handling with a head angle of 71 degrees and trail measurement of 82mm.
Refreshingly, Whittingham doesn’t claim that the bow shape to his seat- stays is some kind of pseudo-suspension; it is mainly an aesthetic choice. He also cautions that the upward curve of the top tube is not for everyone—he has curved it the other way to provide more standover clearance for shorter or less experienced riders.
As you’d expect, the frame’s details reveal a high level of artistry. The frame’s bends are subtle yet striking. The elegant seat collar has two forward-facing slots to keep dirt out and provide even clamping pressure. This was my first use of Paragon Machine Works’ rocker-style dropouts and I dug ‘em—no slippage, easy to adjust. And then there’s the show-quality paint job: white, black and gold, with a bit of “foliage” detail.
The standard “Full Flow Single” build kit matches the frame aesthetically and functionally. This frame has a 44mm head tube, allowing for a 120mm Fox F29 RLC with a 15mm thru-axle. (I’ll go ahead and declare that 9mm quick-releases, especially for 29ers should become extinct.) The wheels are lightweight Industry Nine 29er Cross Country.
I must admit I didn’t think I’d be a good candidate for a custom frame, as I don’t have any unusual geometry requirements and can get along fine with stock sizes. I must also confess that I didn’t have great expectations for a steel frame, thinking from past experience that they are generally heavy and dull-feeling. But after riding this Naked, I now realize my error. The feel can most definitely be tuned with the right tubing selection for the rider’s weight and style, and this is plenty of justification for going custom.
The Naked feels light and lively in a way that I would have only expected from titanium, and perhaps even a bit more “springy,” in a good way, without the “whippiness” or weird feedback Ti frames can sometimes give. I’m well aware of steel’s reputation for feeling more “alive” than other frame materials, but until now, I’ve never experienced it for myself. The frame still holds up to singlespeed mashing just fine. It may not have that instantaneous leaping-forward feeling of carbon, but it also doesn’t rattle my bones in certain situations.
Whittingham’s favorite techy trails jive perfectly with the rocky stuff we have around here. This was a bike that liked to leap up and flow down, meant to aggressively tackle big rocks and leap over logs with deer-like agility. As promised, I could pop up and over stuff naturally. The steering did indeed feel neutral to me, not so different from my personal Moots 29er singlespeed, pretty cool given that the Naked has 40 more millimeters of travel. All of that travel ended up coming in handy—what leaps like a deer must also land like a deer.
The height of the bottom bracket put me off at first. In past 29er tests, I’ve appreciated the settled-in, carving feeling of a lower BB. But for the type of aggressive, gnarly riding this bike shines in, the higher BB assisted up- and-over maneuvers and kept the cranks and chainring clear of rocks. It’s a configuration that definitely encourages playing hard.
One drawback of the curved seat tube is that there is only one bottle mount, on the downtube. Those that like to travel in hardcore racer fashion with no hydration pack may be disappointed. But then again, it’s a custom bike, and if two bottle mounts are important to you, you can have ‘em.
Sam Whittingham builds beautiful bikes, no doubt about it. But this bike is not meant to be a museum piece; it should be ridden, hard, and often. You can have a custom builder do whatever you want, but it’s best to pick a builder whose own riding style matches your own, for a melding of personalities and riding styles. If you like to achieve flow on crazy-technical trails, the classic look and feel of steel, and getting caught in the rain, write to Sam and escape.
- Price: $2,000 frame, $5,800 as built
- Weight: 22.6lbs. complete
- Sizes Available: Custom
- Country of Origin: Canada
- Age: 38
- Height: 5’8”
- Weight: 125lbs.
- Inseam: 33”
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