Regular readers may recall our friend Alex Nutt at MtBTandems.com was kind enough to loan us ‘Casper’, a small-size, white Ventana El Conquistador de Montanas back in June, right on the heels of the first A.O.R.T.A. weekend in Asheville, NC.
The plan was to do some back-to-back test rides on Casper and our somewhat larger ’02 Ventana ECdM to see if Casper might be a better fit. It would also give me a chance to see how Avid’s BB7 mechanical discs compared to our 4-pot, Hope 04DH ‘Enduro’ hydraulic brakes. The only other significant differences were a much lighter-weight White fork vs. our very stout Stratos S5T and a much wider tire than we’re used to using. The shifting was handled by the same SRAM grip-shift system (9.0 vs our X.0), so no major difference there; however, Casper was sporting an 11x34t cassette vs. the 11x32t we’ve always used on our off-road tandems.
Well, we FINALLY made time to give Casper a spin last weekend. Alex had extended several invitations for us to ride in a variety of different places around North Georgia over the past few months, but for one reason or another we just weren’t able to join them. As always, lots going on here at home and as mentioned before, we can typically sneak in a 30+ mile ride right from our front door where we live in a bit under 2 hours whereas the typical off-road ride on even the closest public trails puts us in the car for 30-40 minutes going each way. By the time is all said and done, we’d have spent the better part of 4 hours for what amounts to a 5-mile off-road ride on technical single track. A great workout to be sure, but consuming twice as much of our limited weekend time as the road ride from the house. The places Alex and others had in mind to ride were well beyond the 30-40 minute drive which put them in the category of all-day events, and that was the deal killer given other demands we’d placed on ourselves for weekend chores, projects and ‘decompression’ activities. Anyway, when Alex hit us up this time the ride was going to explore the recently completed trails at the Taylor Randahl Mountain Bike Trail Park in Woodstock, Georgia which fit the bill: close enough, the weather is now cooler and we’d have a chance to evaluate Casper.
The real catalyst for the Saturday ride was a weekend visit to North Georgia by Chris & Monica Judd from Florida who were bringing their Fandango 29er tandem back to MtBTandems for a “refresh” of the components. Chris & Monica are young, energetic, and rabid off-road enthusiasts who tear up the trails… and who also apparently succeeded in tearing up some Shimano UN54 bottom brackets: a first for Alex. So, in addition to getting some fresh bottom brackets for their Middleburn cranks, they also picked up a new 11x36t super wide-range cassette, some new Magura hydraulic brakes to replace their mechanical Avid BB7s, and some other goodies that essentially gave them a like-new tandem.
We arrived at Woodstock’s Rope Mill Park at the prescribed time of 9:30am and found Chris, Monica and 1/2 of another local team –Randy Evans noting his better half was indisposed for today’s ride — hanging out in the upper parking lot, sans tandem. It was still a bit chilly for our not-yet-adjusted-to-cooler-weather bodies and we gathered up with the trio to chat a bit as we waited for Alex & Co. to arrive with the Judd’s rebuilt tandem. I should probably mention that the Sunday ride plan didn’t actually firm-up until 11:15pm the night before when Alex sent me the follow-up Email to one earlier in the week. He’d just finished working on the Judd’s tandem so the ride was on. So, fashionably late, we saw Alex’s big red Dodge diesel 4×4 flying down the entry road to the park festooned with bikes around 9:45am. He had the Judd’s 29er, a second Fandango 29er for himself and Kim, and he also had a pair of single MTBs for their boys, Tracy & AJ.
It was probably a little after 10am before we finally hit the trail en mass. While it is called an intermediate trail, Rope Mill at the high-end of intermediate if only because of several really steep climbs, including the very first hundred yards that take you straight up and out of the Little River creek bed. It turns out that Casper was even more twitchy than our Ventana. The fork was also a lot less resistant to torsional twisting compared to our Stratos S5T and didn’t track well at all. So, at the first trail break we lowered the tire pressure a bit to see if a softer and more compliant tire might not reduce some of the trail-induced fork twist. The change paid off, as Casper was much easier to control for the rest of the ride. The fork twist was still a bit of an issue given the increased task load that came with having to man-handle the steering through corners and over roots and rocks, but not something that we hadn’t experienced before on some of our other off-road tandems that used 9mm quick release fork axles instead of the more robust 20mm solid axles on Casper and our ’02 Ventana.
Everything else about Casper was great… The SRAM 9.0 grip shifting felt familiar and there was no perceptible difference to the SRAM X.0 we have on our Ventana, the different rear shock position didn’t require as much air pressure as the one on our ’02 Ventana, but otherwise behaved the same and everything just worked quite well. I wasn’t feeling the love with the WTB 2.4 Mutano Rapor tires vs. the WTB 2.4 Moto Rapors that we’ve used in the past or even the very narrow IRC 2.1 Mythos XC tires which would have been very well suited to the ‘Avalanche’ trail. The Avid BB7’s worked just fine, although they do take a noticeable increase in finger pressure to use vs. the Hope Enduro hydraulics on our ’02 Ventana. But, it was really nice not cringing every time I applied the brakes since the always present and un-mitigateable brake squeal from our Hope hydraulics was absent from Casper. Ultimately, hydraulics are the way to go for off-road tandems that must tackle extensive brake use. However, on the other side of the coin, the Avid BB7s worked just fine and I didn’t feel like my hands suffered in the least. Moreover, in some respects the brake feel from the Avid mechanicals felt more natural and easier to control because of the added lever travel and higher finger pressure / pressure feedback that ‘s absent from hydraulics. I found that I was able to do a lot more trail braking with the Avids through the corners and load up the front wheel without touching the front brake which was nice… no worries about washing out the front tire. With our massive 4-pot Hope Enduro hydraulics the rear would invariably lock-up in the same scenario and was hard to finesse. So, the jury is still out on brakes given how well the Avids worked.
All-in-all it was a great ride and we really enjoyed getting to spend time with Chris, Monica, Randy, Alex, Kim & the boys. Casper went home with Alex, but we may try him again with a different fork: a single crown model, just for kicks. In the mean time we’ll have to see if we can’t get back to the ‘Avalanche’ trail with our ’02 Ventana to get an apples-to-apples comparison of the two bikes. We may to that on Sunday, or I may beg-off for a week and slap on a set of Avid BB7s to eliminate the brake issues from the equation.