This is part of a series of posts about cycling gear I have been using lately. First up, the mighty Surly Karate Monkey.
Surly Karate Monkey Review
Earlier this year, I was looking into bicycle options for life here in Sapporo. I was looking for something that would be as versatile as possible, including something that would be comfortable to ride in the middle of winter here. Sapporo gets massive snowfall in winter; a yearly average of almost 600cm (6 metres!) and an average maximum snowfall in one 24 hour period of 100cm. Unless you’re riding a Surly Pugsley or Salsa Mukluk , you’re not going to be cycling over any snow deeper than 15cm or so, but the local cyclists I talked to here in Sapporo all recommended that I consider getting a 29-inch wheeled mountain bike to handle the icy/snowy conditions in winter in Hokkaido.
With that advice in mind, I approached Surly and asked if they would hook me up with a Karate Monkey frame. Due to supply issues here in Japan, I ended up getting a complete Karate Monkey bike at cost (thanks Surly :-)). I opted for the Karate Monkey simply due to the reputation it has as a no-nonsense, versatile, back to basics bike. Steel frame, great build quality. The bike came set up as a single speed (33t at the front + 17t at the back + Truativ Firex 1.1 + 29-inch wheels = 56.5 gear inches). I have a Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal gear hub on order, but for the last 6 months or so I have been riding it as a single speed. The bike is awesome. I love it to bits. Stock standard with no bitsy accessories, it is like a huge BMX. So much fun. I now have it set up as a commuter/tourer (apart from the lack of gears), and it is very well behaved when loaded up.
Cycling on gravel roads is really where this bike comes into its own. The stock complete bike comes with WTB 2.2 tyres, which is a helluva lot of balloon power. The 700cc rims (well, 29-inch in mountain biking marketing parlance) mean that the final diameter of the wheel is monstrously large, creating a smaller approach angle on bumps in the road, meaning you get a smoother ride. As you can see, I have installed trekking/touring bars on the bike now, which increase the comfort level up even more.
Freeload Racks review on a Karate Monkey
Finding racks for a 29-inch disk brake bike setup can be a little challenging, however I have found that with a little tweaking the Freeload Racks do fit, and are an especially elegant solution for front racks on a Karate Monkey. They fit on more or less any bicycle on the planet (I wonder if they have tried a penny farthing), and are a great piece of ingenuity.
A Freeload Rack on the back of a Karate Monkey is a little more fiddly than the front, since there is nowhere on the rear seat stays where you can get a 100% snug fit onto the frame, due to the asymmetrical spacing of the cable lugs on the Karate Monkey frame. I got the racks sitting even by adding rubber shims to both sides of the mounting feet of the Freeload Racks. Not ideal, but it does the job (and my oh my those nylon straps on the racks are strong).
With shorter chainstays on the Karate Monkey, the adjust-ability of the Freeload Racks on the back of the bike is very helpful for heel clearance. You have to have the pannier mounting rails adjusted as far back as possible, but this doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. Mounting panniers on the lower of the two pannier mounting rails helps stability even more, however, by lowers the center of gravity overall; this is a great feature of these racks, and especially welcome on a 29-er mountain bike which has a higher center of gravity to start with.
A Freeload Rack on the front of the Karate Monkey is absolutely rock-solid, and is an excellent solution to the no-rack-eyelets issue on Karate Monkey forks. I am thinking of getting a touring platform (one with pannier rails) for the front, as I can imagine that this would be an awesome option for carrying panniers on the front of the bike. On a recent 8 day tour, the “Sports platform” was handy for carrying bulky items such as synthetic sleeping bags or wet tent flies.
As for loaded touring on a single-speed (not entirely recommended), this is what I had to say previously:I would say that the single speed gearing of the Karate Monkey (33t at the front + 17t at the back + Truativ Firex 1.1 + 29-inch wheels = 56.5 gear inches) is near perfect for all-round cycling. Even with a load on the bike. So far on the tour, I have not come across any situation when I had to stop and push the bike, but so far I have not had to cycle up steep gravel/side roads…I think that could be a situation where the single speed proves fatal on a bicycle tour. In other words, while gears would be the obvious preferred choice, this particular single speed setup on the Karate Monkey is great for day-to-day riding and on-road cycle touring. It bears mention that I do use SPD pedals. I think the situation could be different if I was not clipped in and using decent stiff soled cycle shoes. That is to say, on the uphills, I have spent most of my time standing up. Essentially spending up to three hours on a glorified stepping machine (albeit with much more interesting scenery than in a stuffy gym). This is doable though. (link)
The recent 8 day summer tour has got me all excited for a winter tour here in Hokkaido 🙂
Disclaimer: Freeload Racks sent me a pair of their racks free of charge to test and provide feedback.