Well, one of the perqs of living near Alex is having access to his robust inventory of off-road tandems at the MTBTandems.com shop up in Woodstock, Georgia. Mind you, I’m not special in this regard: anyone is always welcome to take out a tandem from the showroom or demo fleet and give the cranks a turn. We’re just extra fortunate because we’re only a 20-30 minute drive away.
One of the tandems Alex acquired and has available for sale is a special Calfee tandem that was originally built as one of their 2012 show bikes. It made appearances at several shows and events including the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) and the Sea Otter Classic. So, in addition to finding a collection of photos of the bike on Calfee’s Facebook page, you can also find additional photos and comments in an MTBR Review article, a Bike Rumor article, a Single Track World piece and a blog entry at Jeff Goldblum’s HollywoodonBicycle with an interesting account of an inauspicious first race attempt where the Ki2 / Lightning drive train exploded… three times. Hey, we’re into transparency here.
With regard to the latter, let me note that this particular tandem has been shown in a number of different configurations. When it was originally brought into this world it was sporting a Di2 electronic shifting system customized by K-Edge (aka, the Ki2) to make it MTB-worthy, which truly is part of its DNA: the system is built into the bike such that all of the wiring and battery is inside the frame and stoker seatpost; very cool.
However, in its first appearance it was set up as an all purpose enduro / gravel grinder / street bike with compact gearing, Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, a Lightning 50/34 crossover tandem crankset and a rigid fork…. on yeah, and a $3,000 Zipp 303 wheelset. As it sat, the bike weighed right around 31 lbs and carried a price tag of $17,000.
When it showed up at the NAHBS it had been shifted over to a single-side-drive configuration… still using the Lightning Cranks, was now sporting a White Brothers dual crown suspension fork and was also fitted with custom-made Calfee “Bar Stems” which are composite handlebars that have been bonded to stems and for the stoker, a stem and the captain’s seat post: yes, those are very much team specific items given that they’re not adjustable. With these additional bits of bling the tandem was now sporting a price tag of $19,000. Yes, I said $19,000. Bear in mind, the frame-only was $6,195 which included a custom design fee. The wheelset added $3,000, the custom K-Edge Ki2 system added another $3,400, $800 for the White Brothers 29″ Loop tapered steering tube fork, the BarStems can end up being over $1000 each, and so on. So, it all adds-up pretty fast. Mind you, you can get into a Calfee 29er that’s well equipped for under $9,000… but the sky’s really the limit.
That brings us to the incarnation that I rode. The very chi-chi BarStems were replaced with more conventional alloy posts, stems and composite bars which are still top shelf. The Lightning cranks had been replaced by the very robust Middleburn equipment with 2×10 (42/32 x 12-36t) and a White Brothers Magic 29 fork and semi-slick tires for the paved Silver Comet trail. As to what the current asking price is, I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know: it’d be far too tempting to add this one to the stable after the path ride: plush, plush, plush! OMG. I’d forgotten how enjoyable large volume tires are, never mind when the road is further isolated by composite rims and a composite frame with composite handlebars. Yes, you can surmise that we both really liked it a lot.
We’re at something of an advantage when it comes to evaluating how any Calfee or other composite bikes behave in that we’ve been riding our own Calfee tandem since 2008 and both ride Calfee single bikes: mine’s a ’97 Tetra Pro and Debbie’s is an ’02 Luna Pro. Without a doubt, the 29er displays the classic Calfee feel. However, our Calfee tandem sports a 30.5″ stoker compartment, whereas the 29er used Calfee’s stock 28″ stoker compartment spec. Debbie was actually fine with that as she prefers a more upright riding position off-road and slightly closer quarters, noting that our last two Ventana’s used a 30″ stoker compartment. They’re a little bit shorter nowdays @ 29.2″.
While it’s impossible to determine frame or drivetrain stiffness on a paved path with fat tires and a suspension fork, I could tell that the rear triangle was more robust than our 700c Calfee road tandem both from how it felt and how it looked: note that even the right chain stay has a recess for the for the derailleur cage. Also note that tire size is likely limited to a 2.1 by the stay clearance. Not a big deal for the design intent: this isn’t a FreeRide or Downhill machine. As always, a beautiful piece of work and best of all it’s unpainted: my favorite Calfee finish!
The ergonomics on the Calfee were really nice, especially with the addition of the Ergon GP1 BioKork grips: wow! They provide the same added comfort that a lot of tandem teams have started to enjoy with the fat/flat top “wing” bars, in that the large flat spots at the ends of these grips distribute the weight on hands across a very large surface instead of just the palm. Mind you, it wasn’t a perfect fit as I didn’t try to change out the stem to dial-in my reach and saddle setback, but it was close enough for a non-technical, semi-leisurely ride.
There were a couple of fine-tuning adjustments that I had to make on the Ki2 system. First off, I didn’t realize how deeply the signal wire end needed to be pressed into the seat post battery terminal so on my first ride around the block to get things dialed-in I was on a single-speed. However, once that was corrected no worries, eh? Well, almost no worries. I’ve looked at how they had the shifter pods placed on the Calfee at the the beach photos near Calfee’s shop along the Pacific Ocean, at NAHBS and the Sea Otter and I’ll be darned if I know how folks could use them without a lot of unnecessary effort. They were in the same orientation when I took my fit check rides and before heading out for our ride I had to rotate the brake lever/shifter pod assembly back towards me to get the buttons aligned to where my thumbs naturally fell. Once that was done, all was now good. Although, not having read up on the pods, I had to figure out Shimano’s thinking on the ergonomics behind the tall and short buttons.
– Tall button’s ended up being representative of the “big ring / tallest cog” whereas the short button moved the chain towards the “small ring / smallest cog”. Once you get it, it’s not hard, but I definitely had to think about it for the first leg of the ride. Not as much on the second.
As for how the shifting worked, it worked very well! There was only one front derailleur mis-shift where the chain overshifted for a moment; recovery was the same as it would be for a non-Di2 derailleur: soft pedal and shift down to the smaller ring. All of the other shifting was spot on and very crisp. I attempted double shifts, rapid shifts up and down the cassette and back & forth front chain ring changes and the system nailed all but that one over-shift where I may have already been in the smallest cog. Now, I will confess to being a huge fan of SRAM’s GripShift technology: I’ve got X.O on our Ventana tandem and both of my single mountain bikes. I find the shifting movements to be 100% intuitive and love never having to take my hands off the grips to shift. But, that said, I’ve also used shifter pods, Rapidfire and the other paddle systems and that’s where my immediate fondness for the Ki2 system came in. No kidding, on my second ride around the block with Debbie now on board to check her fit I confessed that, “I REALLY like the electronic shifting on this bike.” My point of comparison was our 4-day test ride of a Santana Beyond equipped with Di2 back in May of 2012. While I was able to adapt to the road-lever Di2 system I never found that it was “better” than the mechanical systems. But, then again, I’ve never had a problem with shifting on a tandem, which many teams do. In that regard, the Di2 / Ki2 is a Godsend, assuming the mechanic who sets it up follows the instructions to the letter. The Santana had not been dialed-in when we started our test ride, whereas Alex definitely had the Ki2 dialed-in on the Calfee 29er: it made all the difference in the world. I was constantly fiddling with the “fine tuning” on the Santana but never once touched the adjusting buttons on the Calfee’s Ki2.
And how about those wheels and brakes? The brakes, I don’t think the rotors and pads have been fully seasoned so the braking power wasn’t where it will be once they are. Case in point, I attempted to lock up the rear brake on a downhill grade into a tunnel underpass and never even got close. I had to remind myself that these were hydraulic brakes and not cable, as that also factored into the lever feedback and effort that I was using. Again, until the brake pads get bedded into the rotors all bets are off on how well the Shimano XTR brakes will work.
As for the Zipp 303 wheels, I’m not sure our ride was one that could ever be used to evaluate their suitability / durability / value-adility: we weren’t climbing big hills, sprinting out of the corners and never even lifted the bike off the ground just so we could experience it’s 35lbs dry weight (Yes, it apparently gained some weight once the BarStems and rigid fork were replaced). And, with a top speed of perhaps 24 mph at some point during our ride, I’m pretty sure the deep section rim and dimpled sidewalls never really had a chance to shine either. However, if you slapped a pair of 28mm tires on the bike for a road ride they’d probably be in their ideal element, as that’s where the Aero package comes into play: after all, this is the rim that the pros have been using for Roubaix mated to the aforementioned 28mm tires. As for off-road use, if you have the $$ or can get the wheels at something less than retail, what the heck. They look perfect on a Calfee and given that they’re laced to Chris King hubs with some pretty nice spokes, they should be very good wheels: light, robust and aerodynamically more efficient than something like a Deep-V or even a Rolf with the right tires. But, geez-o-pete, if you nail a pot hole or rock, it’s a bit more than a $75 bill to replace that rim. On the bright side, Zipp has a pretty good replacement policy whereby they cut owners some slack and sell the replacements at near wholesale prices.
So, how would I sum up the test ride experience with the Calfee? How about with a still photo grabbed out of a GoPro video stream?
Yup, the lovely Miss Debbie was smiling the entire time as was I. The ride quality was sublime and the build package worked extremely well. Not a lot of top end gearing to be had, so it’s not something you’d necessarily want to jump on for a fast club ride on the road unless you enjoy spinning at 110-120, as you do run out of gears in the mid-20’s. But, let’s face it, that’s not what this machine is designed to do.
As mentioned last fall, Debbie has not been all that keen to return to single track nor has she shown an interest in gravel grinding either. However, I think she really enjoyed the Silver Comet “workout” (pure cardio) and has shown signs that she might be willing to give our local off-road trail a try. In regard to the latter, my plan is that once those trails dry-out and open back up we’ll try to find a weekend day when we’ll be at home long enough to break out the Ventana and take a spin on the trail. Alex offered to let us take the Calfee home, but given that we’ll be out-of-town for most of March’s weekends and because we’d have nothing to compare the Calfee to, I opted to pass UNTIL we can get out on the Ventana. The Ventana is, after all, our last real point of comparison so after getting some trail time on it we’ll be better able to compare its performance to the hard tail, 29″ Calfee. Well, and if turns out that my off-road tandem skills are bit rusty, I’d rather discover that dumping our well-amortized Ventana frame vs. the $6k Calfee frame!
Again, more to follow. But, if someone’s looking for a great 29″ hard tail tandem for use as a gravel / trail bike or touring, you won’t find one that’s much better than this machine so long as they can live with the 2×10 gearing. It’s a beautiful thing!