This morning I officially crossed the 1000 mile mark (seven months) on the odometer of my Raleigh Twin Six, so I figured it was time for a review.
Iíve always wanted a cross bike even though I knew very little about the actual discipline until the last few years. I just always had a great appreciation for their versatility and simplicity. In early 2011 I tried to put my name on a limited edition Raleigh Hodala carbon fiber SSCX frame through my LBS. He is a Raleigh dealer and his Raleigh rep kept telling him I would get it as soon as it became available. It was my intent to build it as belt drive, internally geared CX. The rest of 2011 came and went and the frame never became available [to me at least], but I had my eyes on the aluminum version (Twin Six) just in case. In January of 2012 I was in a different shop that specializes in cross bikes and they had a Twin Six on the floor built up as a chain driven single speed. The frame was BEAUTIFUL. I went straight to my LBS and ordered the frame in my size. It arrived within three weeks, but it took another month to get the rest of the parts for my build. I told the LBS owner exactly what I wanted and gave him a budget of $3500. I think that all totaled (with some late component changes) I ended up just over $3600. I wanted as high quality and durable components as I could get without going overboard. I wanted to experiment with the Gates Carbon belt drive and Shimano Alfine 8 speed internally geared hub for a versatile, performance oriented bike that would be virtually maintenance free.
Key builds components:
Raleigh Twin Six SSCX frame
Gates Carbon Centertrack Belt Drive
Shimano Alfine 8 speed internal hub
Jtek bar-end shifter.
Avid Shorty Ultimate cantilever brakes
The rest is mid-high end stuff that is really nothing particularly special.
Frame and overall ride and handling: A
The Twin Six frame is gorgeous. It is intended to be built as a SSCX belt drive race bike, so it doesnít have extra fluff like braze-ons for bottle cages, derailleurs, fenders and racks, or cable routing. I had to settle for zip-tie cable routing for the IGH, but it turned out clean and subtle. The opening for the belt is in the front of the ďUĒ of the track end. The seat-stay and chain-stay each have a bolt plate and they are tied together with four allen bolts. It is simple and elegant. The frame is painted matte black with gloss black, artsy and clever CX relevant decals under the clear coat. Itís difficult to represent how cool the graphics are in a photo because they donít photograph well. The fork is an all carbon Easton EC90X. As long as the headset is tight, I get no shudder in the front end. The ride is responsive, nimble, and quick. I donít remember ever riding a bike that I was this confident on. The frame is stiff enough to be really responsive, but still compliant and comfortable. I have it fit so that the most comfortable position is in the drops. I spend the bulk of my time in the drops. On long slow climbs, Iíll move to the hoods to breathe a little easier, and Iíll move to the hoods if Iím likely to come out of the saddle to climb. I never ride the tops. Iíve ridden it with four different sets of tyres on pavement, MUPís, well maintained gravel, poorly maintained gravel, sand, loose cobbles, singletrack, and the local cross course in conditions ranging from hot and dry to frozen with fresh snow. I estimate 50-60% of the first 1000 miles are on a dirt surface. On the road with road tyres, it does a pretty good impression of a road bikeÖ.but it is most defiantly NOT a road bike. For easy touring and low speed conditions, it is more comfortable and probably better handling, but it is slower, heavier, and less efficient. At higher speeds, it doesnít corner quite as well or feel as stable as my road bike, but itís geared such that Iím spun out just over 30mph so it really isnít a big problem. On gravel roads, the bike is amazing. I can now ride a gravel road with the same position and style as I would a paved road on the road bike. Bombing a gravel road in a full tuck in the drops at 45mph is pretty exhilarating. On the local singletrack the bike will hold its own against a hardtail mtb, but Iím not riding the most technical of trails. Any more technical and I would have to put a foot down more often than would be fun. Gearing is a little steep and the lack of tyre width makes some sections of singletrack challenging, but itís a cross bike so shouldering it to cover a short section thatís too loose or too steep to spin over isnít a problem. On the cross course the bike really shines. This is what the bike was intended for. The bike just eats up chicanes and slalom sections, is aggressive enough to be fast on the flats and straight-a-ways, and light and comfortable enough to shoulder with ease.
Gates Centertrack Belt Drive: A-
The belt drive is really what makes this bike special. It is so flippiní smooth you wouldnít believe. There is no perceptible stretch or loss of efficiency compared to a chain. Iíve not experienced a single tooth skip or dropped belt. When itís clean, it is dead silent. DEAD SILENT! However, it has not been quite as maintenance free as I would like. Iím finding that riding in particularly dry and dusty conditions (which are the norm here in CO); the fine dust tends to get in between the belt and ďchainringĒ and has begun to wear the anodizing off the ring and etch the belt causing some pretty obnoxious drivetrain noise. Iíve found that I can scrub the anodizing thatís embedded itself into the belt out with a toothbrush and water in about the same time it would take to service a chain, and it will get quiet again until I put some miles on the dry trail. Itís worst on the singletrack, but on the road and on the cross course, itís really a non-issue. Most of the time I just live with it or give it a quick shot with the hose. I expect to get at least three chains worth of mileage out of the belt even with the dust issue. If I were reviewing this product on a road oriented commuter bike, I would be giving it an A+.
Shimano Alfine 8 spead internally geared hub: B+, A-
This is my first experience with an IGH. Iím pretty impressed. Shifts are smooth and fast, although it does take some getting used to zero load shifting. Once you get a feel for putting a little hiccup in your shifting peddle stroke, it really is a pleasant mechanism. Itís tough to put into words how convenient being able to shift at a complete stop or while coasting is. Gear range is good for cross. It would be a little steep for mtb, and a little short for a true road bike. The gap from 5-6 is a little bigger than I might like. The reason I donít score it better probably has to do with how Iím using it. I donít think the designers at Shimano had trail riding and CX in mind when they developed their line of IGHís. Iím finding that the hub is almost as sensitive to cable tension as a derailleur and I donít always get 100% engagement, particularly downshifting from 4-3 and 3-2. Iím only aware of this when Iím on the trail or cross course though. If the cable tension is off and I havenít moved the shift lever fully into the detent to get 100% engagement, it will let me know, not immediately, but down the trail when I torque up on the crank to get over a hill. In a single fit, it will pop and buck violently to the next lower gear. On just a couple of occasions early on, I have shifted to a spot between gears where there is zero engagement. Fine adjustment of the cable tension resolves these issues, but it is not quite as fiddle-free as I was hoping it was going to be. The weight is also an issue and the reason I wouldnít give it better than an A- even on a commuter. The hub is a bit of an anchor and it does affect the handling of the bike. I think that stripped down for race day, the bike weighs in around 21.5lbs. Thatís kind of portly for a bike that can easily be built less than 16lbs as a SSCX and probably less than 18lbs as a 1x8. With a little practice, tyre changes are just as fast as on a derailleur equipped bike.
Jtek bar-end shifter: A+
This is a high quality product. It is all alloy construction and the detents are spaced accurately for the Shimano hub. There really isnít much more to tell. Itís simple; it works, and is robust. I was only able to find two options for drop bar shifting for the Alfine hub. The Jtek bar-end shifter and the Versa brifter. Price made the choice a no-brainer. I would have chosen the Versa-Alfine 11spd combination if it werenít more than double the price of the Jtek-Alfine 8spd combination. The only improvements I would make to the Jtek shifter is to shorten up the lever arm by 1.5-2cm and offer 11 speed compatibility.
Avid Shorty Ultimate Cantilever brakes: A
I told my builder that I would spare no expense on brakes. If it meant cutting the budget elsewhere, I wanted the best brakes. The ASUís are another fantastically constructed product. They give me all the stopping power I could want. The arms can be set wide for more power or narrow for better modulation and feel. Many people set the front for power (and clearance) and the rear for modulation, but I have them both set as you would typically set the rear and I have no complaints. There was a little squeal early on, but some minor pad adjustment has corrected that. The brakes are solidly constructed and I havenít noticed any flex in the cantilever arms or need for constant adjustment. The installation instructions are not the best, but once they are set up, they are fantastic.