Saturday, March 28, 2020

OPEN U.P. and say aaaaaaaaaah! - 6 monthly check-up

The dentist, the luddite and the Superbike.  
Glossary here.

I suspect it's no coincidence that OPEN make bicycles with model names like OPEN UP and OPEN WIDE. If this is not a clever subliminal marketing attempt at the well-healed "dentist" portion of the bicycle market, then I don't know what is. Unfortunately I do not fit into this demographic in any way, so the following review you may like to take with a grain of salt. Some might say I am more in the Luddite category, but then they would, wouldn't they.

This will be a pretty wide ranging post, because it covers a lot of new ground for me. My first 1x groupset. My first complete through-axle bike, only my second Press-fit bottom bracket, and my first SRAM hydraulic system, vs Avid, or Shimano.

The OPEN U.P. could be regarded as the first high-profile, modern, carbon "All-road" bike, if we disregard the bikes of old, that allowed the use of wider tires than was deemed normal at the time, and may have even been called touring or rando bikes. The OPEN U.P. (Unbeaten Path) was styled so differently to anything else out there at the time, with its fat frame lines and minimalist branding. Most people see it and say, "What brand of bike is that? Oh, never heard of them, where is it made? Switzerland?" It was the complete opposite of the cycle-tourist look, without rando bags or racks, appealing more to the Rapha ethic of minimalist gear, travelling with a credit card, a C02 and a Shakedry in your pocket.

OPEN's timing looked to be perfect with the resurgence in supple and fat tires, 650b wheel-sets, and a move away from road riding where riders have to share with an ever increasing number of cell-phone distracted car users - #gravgrav was becoming a thing.

The running gear out of the box.
Out of the box, the OPEN U.P. came with the Easton/SRAM Force 1x kit. A pretty solid build. Easton EA70ax wheels and bars, Maxxis Rambler tires, a Thomson seat-post and stem, and a very sexy, but painfully narrow Brooks Cambium saddle. The 130mm perch was a good 40mm too narrow for my butt so it was eventually swapped out for a Selle San Marco Regale FX, an acceptable compromise between weight and comfort, but not a serious saddle for back to back long days in the saddle. I also swapped out the Easton bars for some Thomson KFC cross bars which have a very fat and wide feel to them, and a weener UNO stem.

The frame
The frame alone costs more than 3 times the cost of the previous whole bike I bought, so it's pretty much a superbike by my definition. Normally I'd go for a more fiscally conservative option, but the stars lined up and a demo bike became available, along with a "dream-bike-build" pass, from my long suffering wife. My favourite and most adaptable bike up until now has been my Surly Karate Monkey The OPEN U.P. could not be further away than the Karate Monkey, at 1040 grams the OPEN's frame weighs less than the Karate Monkey's fork, but is still 160 grams heavier than the OPEN U.P.P.E.R model, which is significantly more expensive. Be prepared to OPEN UPPER your cheque-book even more for that model. Given the amount of off-road riding I am doing on it, I am happy to have the beefier frame of the U.P., although the designers say the UPPER's frame is no less robust. The guys at OPEN, Andy Kessler and Gerard Vroomen get credit for the dropped chain-stay design that gives them clearance for fat tires and yet still obtain road-bike levels of Q-factor. Q-factor is very on-trend in marketing circles these days, although Shimano seem to be bucking this trend recently with their wider GRX groupset.

The OPEN U.P. is a massive change for me in terms of the technology that passes for normal on many bikes today. It is supposed to be a "quiver killer". You could in theory get rid of your CX bike, your road bike, your touring bike and your bikepacking bike and replace it with this machine. This is assuming a few things. One of the things it assumes is that you have a spare set of wheels and enough gearing to cover all the different scenarios. I did manage to get rid of all of the above bikes, except the road bike, it's just not worth trying to sell.

The OPEN frame has 3 separate bottle cage mount points, which is a must for bikepacking, and a slightly sloping top-tube, which is also great for a frame bag, or even better, a half-frame bag, if you want to use all of those water bottle mounts. It also has mounts on the top-tube which make mounting of a gas-tank very easy, (or even another water-bottle).You can either bore holes in you current gas-tank for mounting, or use magnetic mounts.

The frame fit is interesting. I am 5" 10" and I have short legs, and a long torso, and yet I have a decent amount of seat-post sticking out on my medium sized frame. Typically, I would end up with not much seat-post showing on a medium. I know several people who have accidentally ended up with the wrong sized frame for their bodies, so a bit of research needs to be done to make sure you get it right. I think I have more work to do on nailing my position still. There is plenty more to read about the internally routed cabling of the bike below, but one thing that I found disappointing was that the rear derailleur cable exit point from the chain stay is only really compatible with a road styled derailleur, not a great feature for a bike that you might like to throw an MTB derailleur on. I wonder if it would be possible to have multiple cable exit points? I know of one guy who has managed to by-pass this by routing his cable out the bottom of his bottom bracket and running it on the underside of his chain-stay so he can use a clutched XO 10/11 speed MTB derailleur . A lot of fuss just so he can get clutched 2x shifting, in SRAM. SRAM 11 speed road shifters work with SRAM Exact-Acuation derailleurs in Road or MTB. Not a problem if you are a Shimano GRX user of course. Shimano still believes that there is a place in the world for 2x thankfully. The geometry seems pretty standard by current gravel norms with a 71 degree fork angle and a 73.5 degree zero-set-back seat-tube angle. All I know is that it feels good to me.

Stealth gas tank mounted on the provided location.
All of my experiences so far relate to the SRAM Force 1x groupset that it came with, so bear this in mind. I am sure another group-set would yield a completely different result. At this point the gearing is still a bit of an issue for me. Much time has been spent poring over gearing calculators, weighing up the pros and cons of 1x vs 2x. There is plenty of info on the OPEN website about the options, but so far my glass of kool-aid remains full. I still want at least the equivalent of a 44 front and an 11 rear, to nail the long tarseal descents on my commute to work, AND the ability to climb a hill with at least 21.8 gear inches down low, thats a 36/46 front rear climbing combo on 700 wheels.

When delivered, the OPEN came with a 42 tooth chain-ring on the front and a 36 on the back. That is not going to get you very far in Wellington NZ. That's not even 1 to 1. Actually, I found one scenario where it was acceptable, the Tour de Gravel in Marlborough was quite doable with a 42 on the front, for my fitness at the time anyway. Commuting on the flat was alright as long as there is not a lot of extended downhill. The steepest climb I am likely to do is called the "Tip-track" and it is mostly made up from two 15% sections on loose 4wd. With a 650b wheelset on with a 36 on the front and a 46 on the back, it is doable. But then if a couple of days later I wanted to do a local bunch ride, I would have to take the 36 front ring off and replace it with the 42, and swap the wheels. Unfortunately the standard short-length cage Force 1 rear derailleur was pretty hopeless, it only allowed me to shift to a 36 on the back. It was replaced with a medium cage Rival version, which incidentally weighed the same, a portly 271 grams. That's quite heavy for a derailleur that is only supposed to work in 1x mode only. A SRAM Red derailleur weighs in at 145 grams, almost half. Not that I am ever going to buy a new SRAM Red derailleur, but there are plenty of people who will.

SRAM medium-cage Rival derailleur on left, Force short-cage on the right. Rival shifts to a 46, the Force only to a 36.
Bottom bracket
My fear of technology is at its zenith with press-fit BB's and it was no surprise to me that it started creaking pretty much straight away. Bear in mind that this was a demo bike, so it already had some miles on it, you might even think of this as a long-term test, rather than just the 6 months that I have had it. It was a plastic SRAM BB, more on this latter, but it has been perfectly quiet since its replacement. I've not looked up the actual BB height just yet, but it has never been a problem in any of the riding I have done, even on the most technical trails I have never had pedal strike. I am pretty sure the SRAM Force crank-set has 175 long arms.

Is Force 1x or mostly 1x?
Over the time I have had the OPEN I have managed to use a bunch of different front sprockets on this bike, a 36, a 38, a 42 and a 44, with 2 different rear cassettes, an 11-42 and an 11-46, all running the same length of chain, so I started to wonder if it was truly a 1x derailleur . According to the "internet" and the little diagram SRAM did, it's 1x only. I started to experiment a bit with running two different chain-rings on the front in "shift-with-a-stick" mode. On the front I had a 44 and a 36, and on the back I tried 11-42, and 11-46 cassettes. The drive train seemed to deal with it very well. The 44-46 combo was pretty ugly, but everything else was acceptable. So that's an 8 tooth gap on the front. Is that enough to warrant keeping the existing porky derailleur, or would you rather go for a more typical wider range front combo, 46/34 up front, with less of a dinner plate on the back, and a road based derailleur? If you are a weight weener you will know that that the monstrous 1x rear clusters can weigh more than a front double ring and front derailleur combined. This is still largely "1x talk", but relevant in the choices that the OPEN gives you, to deal with the different options as you will see below.

Maxxis Ardents front and rear. Not really enough room for the 2.2 on the back. I swapped to a 2.0 Specialized.

Tires and wheels
I can safely say, I don't have another bike that handles as well as this one. On the road with my 38 mm Compass Barlow Pass tires it inspires a ton of confidence. These really are the default tires on the OPEN for me, as they are still a very capable compromise off road on the dry hard-pack trails around Polhill or Belmont where I do a lot of riding. "Quiver killers" are all about compromise....

The 700 x 43 mm Panaracer Gravel Kings are a very robust tire which I used for the recent Akatarawa Gravel Fondo. They obviously lack the suppleness of the Compass tire, but there is no place for suppleness when riding on parts of the Karapoti Classic course anyway. I probably should have had the 650b wheels on for the Aka Fondo, but I was hoping for an easier ride on the faster stuff. The Gravel Kings still track really well on the road when heeled over at speed, but they obviously feel a lot slower than the Barlow Passes, with their substantial tread. They are a really solid grippy tire. With the 700 wheels it's a good idea to put some tape on the back of the seat-tube as you can get scuffing from the tire, maybe there is a bit of vertical flex in there, I was quite surprised to see it as it appeared to have plenty of room. In fact, I've just checked, and that is my error, the OPEN UP is only specced to accept 40mm tires, not 43mm, because of the diameter, NOT the width. Of course all tires are different in the real world.

SP dynamo hub in 650b. Easton ARC 24 rim.
In 650b mode I am running a Specialized Fastrack Control on the back at 2.0 inches, and a 2.2 Maxxis Ardent on the front. This is a ridiculous tire for a weight weener bike like the OPEN, and at 730 grams the tire weighs 3/4s the weight of the bike's actual frame. (They were cheap). The fat front 650b tire had quite an impact on the handling compared to the 700 tires. Not bad, just different. You get used to it, but it is just obviously more "MTB-like". There is something about the accurate steering of a narrow tire that I enjoy when on the trails on a gravel or cross bike. Despite the weight of the front tire, in 650b mode, the whole bike still weighs less than my carbon road bike. I enjoy the 650b wheels in the weekends on the trails but the default wheelset is the 700c Easton EAX with the Barlow Passes for commuting and unplanned excursions. I've recently swapped the Ardent out for a Specialized Fasttrack S-works 2.0 on the front and it feels really nice.

One of the rear Easton wheel bearings has worn out already and the Carbon-Ti X-12, 12mm  through-axles have taken a bit of getting used to. Once or twice I have failed to torque the rear one up enough and it has come loose mid-ride. It's usually only noticed when shifting deteriorates or you hear a clunk from the rear. Once I had over-torqued the front and was not able to undo it with a multi-tool so I definitely need to re-calibrate my arm.

I have a dynamo wheel built up in 650b and used the 47mm WTB Horizons for a short time. They felt quite dead and slow to me, actually, a lot like an old Specialized Armadillo. The Horizons do look very robust, so it would be a hard decision to pick between them and the 700c Gravel Kings for bikepacking. Having the dynamo in 650b mode would likely swing it. I guess there are plenty of other fast rolling 650b tires to look at as well. The Horizons just look like they should be faster than they actually feel.

K-Lite dynamo lighting kit on the 650b SP hub with an Easton rim. Looking forward to the dark again

I was initially very apprehensive about the brakes, having had only bad experiences with Avid hydraulic brakes. The "Easter Island" styled flat-mount brakes have on the whole been a pretty good experience so far. Currently the front one sometimes rubs/squeaks, and sounds like a Grey Warbler under braking, and the rear brake has developed a bias towards one side, which I need to deal with properly. But they are very powerful, which means I tend to ride more on the hoods than I normally would. The high vertical profile gives me confidence that my hands wont bump off in the rough stuff. The discs are 160mm at both ends, and it is very easy to accidentally lock up the rear. In fact, on my first ride off a very steep and wet street, I accidentally locked up and slid into a major road-way. The organic brake pads have not lasted well for me, even in dry weather so I will be going back to sintered metal. One thing I have noticed about the brake levers is that the lever surface is way more robust than that of my buddies Shimano GRX, which seems to have the surface covering peeling off it in a very short time. The fork feels strong and flex-free despite only weighing 390 grams and I have not had a peep out of the Cane Creek head-set to date.

Sram Force. (Easter Island) Very high profile, feel less dorky than they look. No left shifter. DOH! 
Tinkering with bikes
I've always been a tinkerer, its part of the enjoyment I get out of personalising my bike, for aesthetics or performance. It's not unlike the satisfaction that my wife gets out of planting and maintaining her garden. I kind of expect most people to be like this, but I know they are not. This is why I have mostly rejected running tubeless tires for so long. It's not uncommon for me to swap my tires 3 times in 2 weeks, depending on what I am doing, commuting, a Hill Climb, a Gravel fondo. I just cant be bothered with the mess of tubeless. I suspect it's also what happens when you join the "One-bike-for-all" team. But now I've bitten the bullet and got a "tank" and tubelessed my 650b wheels. The 700's had gizz in them when running the Gravel Kings for the Akatarawa Gravel fondo, but a few days later I de-gizzed them and went back to the Barlow Passes with tubes for commuting.

Top, 2x shift with a stick, 44 and a 36 (hidden). 11-42 on the back with Rival medium derailleur. 
The OPEN is a very pretty bike, and to date, I have never read a bad thing about it, apart from the price. But the aesthetic comes at a cost. After swapping out my rear derailleur to get a better gear range, my cable was now deformed, it would not thread back into my new long-cage derailleur. No problem, I will just replace the derailleur cable. Not so fast....

There is a good reason why "dentist bikes" all use electronic shifting.... the cables are all on the inside of the bike. Any time you want to change a derailleur cable on the OPEN, you will need to remove the crank, and bash out the press-fit Bottom Bracket.

This was a very new thing to me. I could not believe it. I emailed OPEN to confirm this, and Andy Kessler, one of the owners of OPEN, to his credit, replied in minutes, (they really are a 2-man company) but I was gob-smacked. To make matters worse, at my local bike shop, the proper extraction tool was not working on the stubborn plastic BB. Eventually we got it out by bashing out one of the bearings independently, as it was causing a very tight fit. Once that was trashed, we were able to whack out the plastic BB shell. This was a very traumatizing experience for someone with a $5,500 dollar light-weight frame, and repeating the procedure every time I need to replace my derailleur cable, or change from a 1x to a 2x set-up does not encourage me to want to tinker with this bike's shifting mechanisms. So yeah, maybe there is a use-case for electronic gears after all. Probably SRAM AXS. It's just a shame I am not a dentist.

Enter here if you want to change your derailleur cable. But first remove the bottom bracket.
I don't think the design of the OPEN has changed much since it first popped out of the mold in 2015, and it's a credit to the designers that it is still one of the most desirable bikes out there. I suspect that other more recent arrivals to the #gravgrav train like the Hakkalugi MX are encroaching on its territory with a dropper-post ready 31.8 mm seat-tube, friendly cable routing access and a better rear derailleur cable exit point to allow the use of MTB derailleurs. The Hakklugi also has a screw-in T-47 BB and mudguard mounts. If I was a dentist with a healthy practice this is one of the bikes I would also be looking at.

Whether you take your OPEN bike-packing or not probably depends largely on your running gear and personal inclination. If you have a cafe/weener build you might like to replace some of those light-weight carbon accessories with alloy ones, and make room to stow away your derailleur charger. I know of a few people who have used theirs for bike-packing and they seem very happy with them. You probably would not want to do the Old Ghost Road on one, but the Tour Aotearoa or the Kiwi Brevet would not be a problem. Not having accessory mount points on the fork is a downside, but I guess you can always buy a new fork for bikepacking, and leave this one looking pretty.

The brave new world of direct mount chain-rings. Kill all your spiders and save a few grams !
The OPEN is an amazing bike. It has become my goto bike for everything. Commuting, hitting the trails, and all manner of events. It's crazy light, it handles like a dream, on and off road, and I do love the colour. For me I feel that it works best in most situations with the 700 wheels, but then again I seem to be using the 650b wheels a lot right now, commuting with the dynamo front wheel. It doesn't make sense that you can have so much fun off-road on a bike like this, that looks pretty much like a road bike.

So I think that covers most things. A lot of what I have mentioned relates to 1x and SRAM's groupset more than it does to the OPEN itself. Initially I was a bit peeved at the 110 BCD SRAM Force crank with its hidden chain-ring bolt nonsense but once I realised how easy it was to remove the crank, and access the chain-ring bolts that way, I got over it. This crank has probably been on and off more times than all the cranks on my other 10 bikes over the last 2 years. The direct drive system for mounting sprockets without spiders was all new to me as well, but rather than getting out an allen key, and a torx driver to change gears, I'm more likely to opt for one of those old fashioned front derailleur things. I guess I am a bit of a Luddite eh?

Tire nerdery appendix
Some recent events 'Ive done in the last 6 months and the tires I have used.

Original tires - Maxxis Ramblers 40mm, (435 grams)
The Tour de gravel - Compass Barlow pass, 38 mm, (360 grams)
The Boganduro - Panaracer Gravel Kings 43mm, (490 grams)
Short test rides - Panaracer Pasela 38mm, (420 grams)
Short test rides - WTB Horizons, 47mm, in 650b (505 grams)
Vets Hill climb - Specialized Roubaix 32/30 (390 grams)
Akatarawa Gravel Fondo - Panaracer Gravel Kings, 43 mm, (490 grams).
Vets Hill climb - Compass Barlow pass, 38 mm, (360 grams)
Casual weekend trail riding, in 650b  - Maxxis Ardent 2.2 (730 grams) + Specialized Fasttrack 2.0 (530 grams).
More Casual weekend trail riding, in 650b  - Specialized Fasttrack 2.0 (485 grams).
Commuting more recently, 650b  WTB Horizon on the front, and a Barlow pass 700 on the back, reverse mullet.

OPEN website
The OPEN website, is one of those frustrating one-page ones. Google is not that kind to OPEN as OPEN is a very common word, as is UP ! The best part of the site is the "Customer build showcase"  and the "blogs" where punters ask Andy and Gerrard questions about gear compatibility and where they announce new initiatives.

Gearing geekage
Combinations of gearing with a SRAM Rival medium rear derailer and a 44/36 shift with a stick double on the front. Running the one length piece of chain. Black cassette is 11-46, silver is 11-42. It seems to tell me that a range of 8 teeth between your front 2 rings means you can get away with a 1x rear derailleur. This could be an acceptable hack for bikepacking.

More disturbing links from a weapons-grade nerd

Drinking the koolaid: Something that people believe, despite obvious evidence indicating that its not a good idea.
Derailleur: A device that derails and re-rails your chain into an appropriate location in your drive-train - Mentioned 32 times in this post.
1x: A marketing initiative to simplify the drive-train of a bicycle by giving the rider less choice in gearing and creating heavier, more complicated and faster wearing componentry, while simultaneously creating a bad chain-line.
Dentist: A disparaging term for a cyclist who is usually not quite young anymore, and has a job that enables purchase of highly expensive cycling equipment, even if their dedication to cycling as a hobby is not intense or long lasting.
BB: Bottom bracket. What the crank-arms attach to. Conveniently located towards the bottom of the bicycle.
Q-factor: Quack factor, relating to the width of the bottom bracket, and how it might make you feel like a duck when pedaling.
Tubeless: A clever marketing initiative by BIG LATEX to wrest control of the "inflated tire" sector of the market from the conservative tubed area and spawn a massive new component industry around fixing flats, without actually having to touch a tube. Based on the clever Sea Monkeys marketing model of topping up your ever-fattening tire until you can observe (feel) the "latex-monsters" inside. Changing tubes can be complicated and dirty, compared to owning a compressor and blowing gizz all over yourself, at home, on the trail or on the road.
Gizz: Sealant, Stans, tire milk.
Gas-tank: Bento-box, tool-bag that sits on top-tube.
#gravgrav: The new phenomena that is breathing life into a bicycle industry marketing teams. #egravgrav will be next.
#allroad: The predecessor to #gravgrav. A lot more about "spirited riding" than "shredding the gnar".
#gnar: That which must be shredded.
#grinduro: A special event for millenials where it doesn't matter if you get dropped. Everyone is a winner.
#boganduro: A grinduro for bogan millenials.

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