Bikes of the Bunch: A retired pro’s Belle Cycles A.T.E.R exploration rig
Here’s something a whole lot different. Built for multi-day all-terrain adventures and with a design inspired by the “War Rig” of Mad Max fame, this handmade Spanish ride is unlike any other.
This unique bike belongs to former pro cyclist Christian Meier. Having retired from the WorldTour in 2016 (he spent his last five seasons with Orica-GreenEdge), the Canadian cyclist remains based in the pro cyclist hub of Girona, Spain and is the founder of The Service Course – a group of destination-based boutique bicycle stores co-owned by the likes of Simon Gerrans, Mike Woods, Kasia Niewiadoma and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
All Terrain Exploration Rig
The All-Terrain Exploration Rig, or A.T.E.R for short, was initially built with the 1,145 km, fixed-route Atlas Mountain Race in mind. The inaugural edition of this unsupported bikepacking race through the Moroccan desert ran in February 2020.
Made by Enrico (Kico) Maria Bellé of Belle Cycles in Barcelona, Spain, the A.T.E.R is centred around a welded Columbus steel frame with room for 29er mountain bike tyres and an Enve MTB rigid fork on the front. This bikepacking rig would be best described as a dropbar mountain bike, otherwise known as a monstercross bike. Whatever it is, it was built to go anywhere and do so efficiently.
Coming from a gravel frame built by Belle Cycles, Meier had a pretty good idea of the desired riding position. “We talked about big tyre clearance, and a MTB rigid fork was needed, so we had to draw the fit with the limits imposed by the high axle-to-crown length,” said Kico of the A.T.E.R build.
The outcome is a frame with an ultra-short head tube (78 mm) intended for use with a negative-21-degree stem. The front-centre was made long enough to avoid toe overlap with 29er tyres, all while considering frame bags and bidon space for multi-day adventures.
“On this particular bike, I was thinking of the natural stability added by the big wheels, so I went for a lower than my ‘average’ trail [figure] to keep the bike alive, also when eventually front-loaded,” Kico said. “I also drew a higher-than-average bottom bracket, as I wanted no issues with pedal-strike. I was thinking about racing a multi-day, multi-terrain event, maybe at night, maybe very tired … so I kept the real triangle length balanced for proper weight distribution and big tyre clearance.”
The result was a 440 mm chainstay length, 73 mm bottom bracket drop, and a relatively quick 65 mm trail figure from a 72.2-degree head angle and 52 mm fork offset.
While much of the frame is steel, the integrated seat mast is actually an Enve carbon fibre tube, finished with a custom titanium seatpost topper by Australian 3D-printing specialists Bastion. The use of a carbon integrated seat mast is a first for Belle Cycles, with the goal being to add compliance and save some weight.
That Mad Max look and skull head badge is the work of painter Kilian Ramirez Caballero, and is a finish that will certainly hide the inevitable paint rub and scratches that occur when bikepacking.
Racing the A.T.E.R
Having previously raced the likes of the Dirty Kanza, The Rift in Iceland, and the Pirinexus 360 (a 340 km gravel race that starts in Catalunya and goes up to France and back), the Atlas Mountain Race was Meier’s first multi-day, unsupported event. “The difference for a multi-day event being guys ride a bit slower but stay awake longer which means they go further. You aren’t really racing each other as much as just challenging yourself,” said Meier.
“The first 350 km was great”, said Meier of the event’s first day in which he took the lead. “The terrain was really mixed. There was quite a bit of hike-a-bike through dried-up riverbeds and up stairs and gulleys, but then there were sections of really beautiful, brutal climbing and long gravel roads.”
“The bike was really incredible. Exactly what I wanted. For that kind of terrain 29” wheels are a must. I usually ride and race on 650Bs so I’m really glad I had a larger option. The bike is ultra-smooth due to the mix of the steel frame, integrated carbon post, and tyre size.”
However, the success and lead of day one quickly ran out. “The longest ride I’d ever done was 15 hours without stopping, so when I was looking at multiple days of 16-18 hours on the bike I wasn’t sure how my body would react.”
By the second day, both a lack of physical and equipment testing caught up. “I got five flats which slowed me down quite a bit,” he said. “Then a small screw came loose in my shifter so that took a while to fix as well. I was also running a saddle with a slightly flatter profile than on my road bike. I think that small change started to cause a bit of rubbing on my sitbones from the 12 hours I’d ridden the day before.”
Meier made it 550 km into the race before the pain in his sitbones took over. “I had to wait overnight for the pharmacy to open in the morning, and when I eventually got what I needed and tried riding I was in all kinds of pain,” he said. “I realised I’d either have to ride 500 km standing up, or scratch.”
Looking back, Meier would change the Vittoria Terreno Dry 29 x 2.25 (approximately 700C x 57 mm) tyres for something with a heavier casing, “especially the sidewalls as that’s where I had the issues”. Additionally, that negative-21-degree stem may have been a little much for bikepacking: “The position felt good and matched my normal gravel riding position, but for 16-hour days it might have been slightly too aggressive.”
Additionally, the Shimano GRX Di2 groupset with a single 40T chainring and 10-46T cassette was perhaps a little limited for the climbs while carrying a load. “I spent a lot of time at the low end of the range, so swapping the front chainring for a 38-tooth instead of a 40-tooth would have been ideal,” he said. “Some of the climbs were 14%+ for long stretches and when the bike is fully packed up, that makes for some slow going. Some parts of the course were 18-20% which really tested me.”
That 11-speed 10-46T cassette and crank combo is somewhat rare outside of Europe, and comes from Italian component company Ingrid. And while the Shimano RX817 rear derailleur has a recommended capacity of a 42T cassette, the 46T does indeed work without modification (as also found on the Evil Chamois Hagar).
Similarly weird are the mismatched Shimano XTR and GRX brake calipers front and rear. Simply, this is because the Enve front fork requires a post-mount caliper, while the frame is built to road standards to fit flat-mount.
Where to next?
Of course, Meier and the A.T.E.R have unfinished business. When asked what’s next, Meier said that he’s looking to possibly do events like the Badlands 2020, a 700 km race with 15,000 m of climbing in the south of Spain put on by Transiberica Ultracycling.
“In June we’re going back to Tajikistan with guests of The Service Course and we may extend that trip into Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “I’d also just like to do some more of my own bikepacking adventure trips into the Pyrenees. I live so close to so many amazing mountains that are just waiting to be explored.
“I’m sure I’ll find a few extra events to complete towards the second half of the year, but the main thing I’m loving with the A.T.E.R is just riding it. It’s such a capable bike … you feel like you can go anywhere. That’s where the name really came from: All Terrain Exploration Rig. And that’s what it seems to love doing most.”
Frame: Belle Cycles custom
Fork: Enve Mountain, tapered steerer
Headset: CeramicSpeed 44 mm tapered
Rims: Enve M630
Front hub: Son Dynamo
Rear hub: DT Swiss 240s, XD freehub
Spokes: DT Swiss Aerolite
Shifters: Shimano GRX RX815
Rear derailleur: Shimano GRX RX817, with CeramicSpeed titanium jockey wheels
Crankset: Ingrid CRS-POP, 40T chainring
Cassette: Ingrid 10-46T
Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace HG901
Bottom bracket: CeramicSpeed Coated, T47
Front brake: Shimano XTR M9000, Shimano RT86 160 mm rotors
Rear brake: Shimano GRX RX810, Shimano RT86 160 mm rotors
Handlebar: Enve Compact Road, with Enve SES clip-on aero bars
Stem: Syntace FlatForce, custom painted
Seatpost: Integrated, Bastion titanium seatpost topper
Saddle: Fabric Scoop Flat
Pedals: crankbrothers Candy 7
Tyres: Vittoria Terreno Dry 29 x 2.25, setup tubeless
Cages: King steel
Bags: Custom Cordel
Other: Son headlight
Weight: 10 kg (including dynamo headlight and cages, no pedals or bags)