Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Surly Karate Monkey second impressions

At Single Speed nationals with front 3.0 Knard
You may have read my Surly Karate Monkey first impressions here. Now I am a few months down the track I reckon its time to revisit and see what else I have discovered with longer term ownership.

I tend to think that the Karate Monkey is a tinkerers bike. I come from the generation of people that grew up working on their own cars and motorbikes, so its second nature to want to build their own bicycles. Especially if there are budgetary constraints. If you are the kind of person that buys a bike ready-made, and doesn’t enjoy messing with it, then the Karate Monkey may not be for you. Why? Because there are so many options for the person who enjoys getting their hands dirty. Building my own bikes is a big part of the enjoyment that I get out of cycling, and it helps with “mechanical empathy”. That link you have in knowing how what you assembled effects how your bike hangs together, sounds and feels. Some of my contraptions may not even look pretty, but they are my babies, and you never tell anyone their baby is ugly : )

The Karate Monkey was my first 29er, first drop-barred bike, and first rigid bike (since the late 80’s), so you have to bear that in mind when reading my findings. The reason I chose it was because of the many options it gave me. I wanted to try a 29er, and apparently the Karate Monkey was one of the very first out there. Canti mounts meant that I could build it up with old crap already lying around the shed, v-brakes, road wheels etc. In this first iteration it was a very capable Cyclo cross machine as it weighed in at a passable 24 pounds. (CX images from Craig Madsen).

For the second build iteration of the Karate Monkey I picked up some cheap wheels, complete with new tires and discs off trademe. With the addition of mechanical discs it rocketed up to around 28 pounds. The discs certainly took some getting used to. There is none of the progressiveness associated with hydraulic discs - they are on or they are off. On the trails of the Wainuiomata Trail Park the Karate Monkey was great. It climbed awesomely and descended with confidence. At no time did I think I would have been better off with a flat bar. In fact, I suspect the drop bars may even have a little bit of suspension built in, they certainly feel that way. Unfortunately I mis-read the course signage in the race I was doing there, did an extra lap and dropped from 2nd to about 8th in my class by the races end.

One thing you will notice with drop bars, you can be a bit limited with braking set-ups. If you go with road levers you will need to get the appropriate discs for them. I had some special road levers that had normal MTB-style-pull so went with standard MTB discs. If I wanted to go from the bar-end shifters to STI levers, I would have to get one of these : http://problemsolversbike.com/products/travel_agents/ or change to the road specific calipers. This is starting to sound more like its about drop bars than it is the Karate Monkey. I will try to keep on track.

There are many strange things about the Karate Monkey. It is the swiss-army-knife of bicycles, so in many ways it is a compromise. It can take very fat tires, but there is little clearance for your front derailleur or derailleur cable so you might have to use the “monkey-nuts” which push the wheel more rearward in the horizontal drop-outs to give better clearance up front. This in turn would negate the whole idea of having a bent seat tube which is presumably to allow the wheel to be closer to front for that legendary Karate Monkey cornering.  Of course if you go single speed its not an issue. My widest rear tires have only been 2.0 inches so I haven’t had any issues at all. Personally I hate the horizontal drop-outs which are a bit of pain when installing the rear wheel, but apparently a big improvement on previous models. At least now you don’t have to unbolt the disc calipers to change the wheel!

Something which I think is a real mistake on the latest Karate Monkey is the dropping of the canti bosses. They really gave you a lot more options. Mine is the 16 inch model. I was concerned that the 18 inch, with drop bars would be too long for me. With the 16, its great, but if I throw a normal flat bar on it, it feels a bit short. Bear this in mind when choosing frame sizes. I did a lot of research online for sizing, it did not help. An 18 with a shorter stem may well have done the job even better. Typically when using a drop-bar you are extending your cock-pit length a fair bit so you need a shorter top-tube or a shorter stem.
Some of the cable routing is not that great with the 16 inch frame, the bottom triangle (because of that silly little gusset) is only 13.5 inches tall. Presumably it’s for a better standover height. This does not leave much room to braze on a derailleur cable stop, hence you have crazy loops of cable sticking up above the top tube, and a very steep exit angle on your cable. Once again, not a problem if you are running it singlespeed.

There is only the one cable stop on the Monkey which is intended to use continuous cabling. I am not sure what I think about this. I am getting used to it, should improve cable life in theory.

I wasn’t really expecting to say anything good about a 2 and half pound steel rigid fork. I was wrong. It goes exactly where you point it. There is a lot of confidence to be gained from knowing that your wheel will go where you want it to, and it wont in fact wallow down the side of a rut and spit you off. As I said, I haven’t ridden a rigid fork since the late 80’s, but I cant help but think that the 29 inch wheels make it less of an issue. 

A good example of the merits of the wagon wheels came to me the other day when riding the river bank section of the Crazyman ride. There are a series of man made speed humps. When you hit them on the 29er, you just launch off them. When I hit them on my 26er, they really knock my speed back.

In really tight single track the karate Monkey’s geometry is amazing. It even turns better than my Santa  Superlight which is my best handling bike to date. That's with the drop bars on. I haven’t ridden it that much with the flat bar on, although I can say unequivocally, the drop bar is better for long descents as you only really have to brake, and not brake AND grip the bar simultaneously. Gravity and the shape of the bar means you can relax your grip and your hand wont slip off, or get arm pump to the same extent. This is one of the main benefits of a drop bar. There I go again. 

So what else have I found out? Its the only bike Ive ever had to use a proper head-set tool on. It was a tight fit. Luckily Marco had one in his garage. The bottom bracket shell is 73mm wide and I am using a 113mm wide spindled square taper BB on it, like most of my BB’s.

More things, not necessarily to do with the Monkey, but more the 29er format.
1. You can run MTB tires on Mavic Open pro road rims.
2. You can run road tires on 29er MTB rims.
3. If you flat, a 26 tube will fit a 29er tire no problem with a bit of care.

I have had a lot of fun with this Bike. It handles really well, its very robust, cheap and adaptable. I will probably ride it a bit more with the flat bar on, then put the drops back on, then do some big day trips on it, then maybe turn it into a singlespeed for a while.  I am interested to see how the drop bars cope with the big leverage efforts you get when SSIng. The “on the hoods” position on my current Woodchipper bar gives excellent leverage for in the saddle efforts anyway.

At around 5 and a half pounds for the frame, this is indicative of the many steel hard tails that are turning up on the market. Cheap and robust, and heavier than a lot of fullies. But if you are not suffering from weight weenerism and you like messing with your own bike, then the Karate Monkey promises hours of fun!

Other links. Worlds fastest Monkey. 

Karate Monkey First Impressions.


monkey with KNARD !

1 comment:

edubfromktown said...

Thanks for taking the time to post the info. I am considering a 2011 KM for my 1st foray into SS land. I'm also curious what rigid steel feels like compared to aluminum. I have a 29er full suspension and hard tail now... not having canti option doesn't bother me. Friends of mine have Niner's (with steel and carbon forks). From what they say, steel fork is cushier but carbon is lighter/stiffer. I prefer cushier so we'll see...