In today’s edition of Bikes of the Bunch we head to Canada to learn about a custom titanium all-weather, all-terrain build from local company Naked Bicycles. This particular bike belongs to Neil Winkelmann, who wrote the following about his striking ride.
The idea for a new bike came about a couple of years ago. At the time I was cursing the awful cantilever brakes on the loaded tourer I had pressed into service for year-round commuting here in rainy Vancouver, Canada. The brakes were squealing, shuddering, and failing to slow me much at all during an unpleasant, white-knuckled ride down a steep hill. As I thought of the grit-laden destruction I was causing to my rims, I said to myself “You need some disc brakes for this rain-riding caper”. (I also needed a proper winter bike for club rides. I’d gifted my old winter bike to my nephew without really thinking through the replacement.)
I’d “custom built” three of my last four road bikes in the sense that I’d specified the groupset (always Campagnolo) and components to suit my tastes, but they were fitted to stock carbon frames. I figured that I might as well take the next step and go full custom. As FYXO says “Life is too short to ride shit bikes!”
I didn’t need another lightweight “race” bike – my Colnago C59 was doing that job just fine. For that reason I was happy enough to trade a slight weight penalty for the benefits of full custom. I wanted to use the bike for all-year commuting, winter club rides and gravel adventure riding.
I’d previously looked at gravel/CX offerings in stores and online from major manufacturers and was a bit frustrated that bikes built up with hydraulic discs generally did not have fender mounts. You could get fender mounts on lower-end cross/gravel bikes, but they typically had cable-actuated discs. I wasn’t about to buy a nice bike and then “bodge” fenders onto it. (Things have improved greatly over the past two years, and a stock bike that would suit my needs is definitely available nowadays).
I can’t actually recall how I first became aware of Sam Whittingham and Naked Bicycles, but once I started looking into Naked as an option I liked everything I saw and heard. Sam was a west coast local and seemed truly authentic. He handcrafts bikes of extraordinary functional beauty in a rustic cabin in the woods on Quadra Island that is two ferry trips and a day’s ride from my place on the mainland.
I see working with a local builder like Sam as the polar opposite of buying from a brand like Canyon, for example. Buying a big brand from a LBS is somewhere in the middle, I guess. I bought my previous three road bikes without ever going into the store — they were each bought from a store, but I just never went there. I knew exactly what I wanted and I did the transaction by phone and email, and had the bikes shipped.
I made contact with Sam and his partner Andrea by email and placed my name on a waiting list with a small deposit. The waiting list was long and I had time to think about the specifications. There were a few things I initially indicated to Sam that I was keen for:
– A titanium frame
– Flat-mount hydraulic discs
– Fairly aggressive position to more-or-less match my C59 (more on that later)
– Fender mounts
– Clearance for 40mm gravel tyres (and biggish road tyres with fenders)
As the build date drew nearer, we swapped build sheets and slowly refined the details. I left the specification of the tubing entirely up to Sam. I decided to go with the new mechanical Shimano Dura-Ace. An extravagance to be sure, but I don’t buy new bikes often, and this one is intended to last a long time. The switch away from Campagnolo was due to a reluctance to be a test-pilot for their new disc systems. (And SRAM hydro road levers should be killed with fire. The ugly … it burns!)
Sam suggested an Enve cockpit and seatpost. The bend on the Enve bars is very different to the 3T Rotundo traditional bend I am used to, but it is just as good. OK, it’s better.
I’ve ridden nothing much else other than SLR saddles for 12+ years and the Kit Carbonio Flow SLR was an easy choice. The Chris King headset was also an easy choice.
About a year later, my number came up. I booked an appointment and cycled up to Quadra Island to meet Sam, get measured up, and finalise the details. I was very impressed. He’s a neat guy and the whole feel of his place is just fantastic. It is a little slice of paradise on earth, up a steep gravel driveway by the bay, in the forest, at the end of a winding country lane. Seriously west-coast.
We discussed riding position, and Sam put me on his adjustable rig and dialed me around a bit as we chatted. He suggested that, for the sort of riding I’d be doing, I adopt a slightly shorter and more upright position. He also suggested that for slightly quieter handling on loose surfaces (compared to a race bike) we stretch the front and rear centres a bit. It meant a shorter stem, but that was OK.
I’m an engineer by trade, meaning we were able to discuss some of the geekier aspects of the design. We were very much on the same page on everything that we discussed.
I vacillated briefly between road and off-road pedal systems, but on Sam’s advice went with an off-road option. I’ve had flawless service from Shimano SPD pedals in the past on MTBs, so a set of XTRs was ordered. With new stiff carbon soles available on CX/MTB shoes these days, you’re not giving up much except a few grams compared to road systems. The year-round, all-weather, all-surface service of the bike meant it made sense.
Sam suggested the new flat-mount Columbus gravel fork that had just become available. It is a truly nice bit of kit. The Industry Nine wheels were also a recommendation from Sam, but they also fit exactly with my views on great wheel engineering — 2:1 lacing and straight-pull spokes make so much more sense to me than the alternatives. And you can get the hubs in cool colours.
I actually ended up ordering two sets of wheels. A “road set” of i9 AR25s shod with 28mm Continental Four Seasons, and a “gravel set” of TRCXs shod with Maxxis 40mm gravel race tyres. The wheelsets differ primarily in rim width. With identical hubs, changing between the two wheelsets is a breeze.
Initial riding impressions are great. It is smooth and handles without any real conscious input from me. I’ve been on Campagnolo for 12 years so going back to Shimano reminded me of the things I do and don’t like about it. The brake hoods initially felt huge and ungainly. Downshifting at the rear using the big lever works better than the smaller carbon blade on my Super Record, but I miss being able to dump half the cassette with one push of the button. On the front, it is similar. Up-shifting with the big lever is easier, but the front derailleur needs trimming more often as you move about on the cassette.
One thing I’d forgotten is that when shifting Shimano with the small lever, you need to push and release the lever for it to actually shift. It took a couple of shifts for me to realise it wasn’t faulty. When I had this conversation with Sam, he smiled and politely suggested that I wouldn’t have any of these “issues” if I’d gone Di2!
Gearing is compact 50/34 with 11-30 at the back. I never seriously considered a 1X chainset.
This is my first-ever disc-brake bike. The power and modulation is impressive, but the rotors aren’t as quiet as I perhaps expected. I’ve been advised that they may quieten down a little once they’re fully bedded-in. I’m looking forward to when I see the real benefits in the rain.
I wanted shifter cable routing that was fuss-free to keep running well in grim weather. On Sam’s recommendation, based on a lot of CX experience, I ended up with an external front derailleur run and an internal, but fully housed/sealed rear. It all works great.
To be honest, the higher riding position is still a little unfamiliar to me, and I wonder whether I couldn’t be a centimetre or two lower at the front. I’ll get used to it, and I’m confident it will be a benefit on loose, steep downhills, but the bars on my C59 will no doubt feel low and far away for the first few rides in the spring.
The colour scheme is one of Sam’s designs. He’d previously done a similar look in blue that I liked, and I chose a green variant almost at random. The little orange/gold bands are a touch from Sam to pick up the orange-anodised hubs on the gravel wheelset. Colours of the fall! The gorgeous, matching green Salsa seatpost clamp was a little free “upgrade” from Sam.
The running whippet on the top tube is a custom touch. The graphic is taken from a tattoo my wife has, which in turn is based on a photograph of one of our dogs, Zivah!
Overall the process was extremely satisfying and very professional in terms of how Sam and Andrea at Naked Bicycles worked their end. I’m not going to discuss the price other than to say it wasn’t cheap, but I consider it to be extremely good value. The quality of the end product is exemplary, and I’m very happy. Is it a “better” bike than what I could have purchased off-the-shelf? I’d say “definitively, yes”, in all the ways that matter to me.
I’m a relatively new Canadian — I’ve been here just over 10 years — and it was great to connect with a local, west coast small builder. The bikes Sam makes are true pieces of art. I love that, in spite of apparently strong demand for his products, he has kept it very small. His business model reminds me a bit of Linda Manzer’s (a Canadian luthier).
In terms of the finished weight, Sam weighed the bike with the gravel wheels, with cages, but without pedals, at 17.5lbs (7.94kg). Not bad at all for a disc-braked Ti all-road/gravel bike.
It’s great to finally “get Naked”!