CategoriesGear

First Impressions of a Titanium Mountain Bike

I’ve wanted a titanium mountain bike ever since I started mountain biking. Of course, 1993 Justin had no idea that, when he would eventually get his ti fighter, it would have 29-inch wheels, a single belt-driven gear and a tapered headtube. But that’s the form my long-awaited ti bike has taken.

titanium mountain bike
My first ride on a titanium mountain bike.

My experiment with belt-drive singlespeeds started with my Raleigh XXIX, which I built in 2013 as a leftover model from 2011. It convinced me that I could deal with a singlespeed on many of my local trails, and that belt drive is a very cool alternative to using a chain. The fun factor of the XXIX made me consider a nice steel frame -- I’d look for specs close to my Raleigh but with a touch more standover height, swap out the parts and call it good.

The Long Road to a Titanium Mountain Bike

I actually tried twice in recent years to buy custom steel frames (I’ll unspool those stories at a later time). I also considered a Burmese-made bamboo frame, but the company never quite convinced me on the quality front; I had a constant "caution" light flashing in my head.

In mid March, I stumbled upon a Domahidy Designs ti hardtail. The company is now known as Viral Bikes, and their only product at the moment is a titanium Pinion Drive hardtail called the Skeptic. They were (and probably still are) selling titanium frames from their previous incarnation as Domahidy Designs. The company owner and namesake, Steve Domahidy, also has a great reputation from his previous work as co-founder of Niner Bikes.

The price was super-attractive, and the build quality and handling had a very good reputation from all I could find online.

titanium mountain bike
Steve Domahidy committed to the belt drive … which was a big draw for me.

About the price – I could find ti frames slightly cheaper, but they’d require an upcharge and some time to build as a belt drive-compatible frame. I ultimately chose the Domahidy for two very big reasons:

First, I had more confidence buying a frame that was purposely designed as a belt-drive bike from the word go. I have a feeling that Steve Domahidy’s belief in that system will ultimately make this a “keep forever” bike just as much as the fact that it’s made from titanium. My gut tells me that he’s considered aspects of the belt drive’s impact on frame design beyond “sure, we can add a belt drive splitter.” That gives me a lot of confidence.

The second factor is incredibly important: When I shot an email to inquire about the frame, Steve replied within hours. He was enthusiastic and friendly through the entire email change, and he personally handled my order. And that’s to help a guy rooting around in the bargain basement of his offerings. This is sadly atypical in my experiences with other companies. An example: A few days before finding the Domahidy deal, I emailed another well-known titanium frame maker to ask about the possibility of getting one of their models in a belt-drive version. I didn’t hear from that company until after I’d placed my order with Domahidy. When they contacted me, I thanked them and explained the situation – and said that I’d always liked their bikes, and would keep them top of mind when it’s time to replace my 1999 Lemond Zurich road bike.

If I were in their position, my reply would’ve been something like “No worries, good luck with the new ride and we’ll be here when you’re ready for an awesome road frame.” But they actually didn’t reply. Since I never heard from them … well, it’s a little harder to get excited about them as a company. The takeaway here, Frame Makers, is be prompt and be friendly. Seriously, Be Like Steve. (I’ve since replaced my Lemond road bike with a Lynskey road plus bike — and not from the guys I’m talking about here.)

titanium mountain bike
The etched-into-the-head-tube approach to a head tube badge is quite cool.


As for the rest of my experience, Steve walked me through the process and set me up with a headset, extra dropout adaptors (allowing me to switch between hub and axle sizes) and a headset adaptor to allow my straight-steerer tubed fork to fit his tapered headtube. My titanium mountain bike frame was on its way!

It arrived about a week after placing the order, expertly packed and equipped with everything I needed to start. And it is an absolutely beautiful frame. How beautiful? I took it to a local shop erroneously thinking the headset needed to be pressed in – yes, it’s been a long time since I built a bike, and a few of the cool new standards are throwing me for a loop. This is a shop where it’s rare to see any bike with a pricetag less than $5,000. As the mechanic put it into the stand, nearly every other rider in the shop clustered around, saying stuff "Look at those welds!" and "That [drive-side] chainstay is badass!" This was a serious bunch of bike cognescenti, definitely not the sort of people to get excited about ho-hum bikes.

The Build

Holy cow, this thing went together so easily. I love the internal headset because you don’t need a headset press to install it. The brake line guides and routing are in the perfect place. The belt drive is the hardest part to set up, but that’s to be expected. I notice that the CenterTrack system is considerably noisier when it collects some dirt, where the previous version was dead silent. Maybe some wear to loosen the interface between that center ridge and the belt will help.

All the bolts related to the belt drive splitter and dropouts are big and solid. The frame tubes themselves are a larger diameter than you might usually see for titanium, looking almost like aluminum tubes rather than steel (the welds, of course, are a dead giveaway that it’s ti). There’s a “built to last” vibe about it all.

titanium mountain bike
Beefy hardware, clean welds. That’s what you’ll get with a Domahidy or a Viral Skeptic.

There’s just one thing I wonder: The bike is designed so you can add derailleur cable routing to the bottom of the downtube via what looks like water bottle bosses. Would it have been possible to add another one so that there could be a third water bottle boss? I’ll bet the long-distance hogs who would be interested in the Viral Skeptic would dig that as much as I would.

Hitting the Trails

So far, I’ve had it on a few rides. And I have had an immense amount of fun on both – the Domahidy handles beautifully. I don’t need to muscle it around nearly as much in the tight, technical stuff. I’ve noticed that it likes aggressive countersteering, pointing the knee into turns and aiming a bit more with the hips. It also has a remarkably gentle ride. It’s a subtle feeling of small shocks dissipating before they go shooting up the seatpost.

titanium mountain bike
And there’s a look at the drive splitter.

I have a pretty good amount of Strava data on both rides. On one 2-mile climb on the first ride, I beat my previous fastest time by 1:20. I wasn’t trying to – I was just riding at the pace that seemed right. Same deal on another 7-mile section -- about two minutes faster, and that’s with climbing and extending sections of downhill. It was solid on tricky, twisty downhills, too – I PRd my time on a 1.2-mile mostly downhill run by about 2.5 minutes. This was all apples-to-apples singlespeed-versus-singlespeed data.

What about pitting the Domahidy against my Santa Cruz Superlight? I recently did the Six Hours in the Papago race, so I had a lot of data about the area. I wasn’t willing to ride the duller bits just for the sake of collecting data, but I did have some interesting takeaways: fastest-ever time on a 1-mile downhill by about 20 seconds; second-fastest time up the steepest climb on the course (keep in mind we’re also talking about geared versus singlespeed in the steep stuff); 20 seconds faster on another steep hill. I doubt I could sustain this through multiple laps, but I still think these numbers are a good indicator that the bike fits well and makes me better in certain situations.

Want more comparison data from Strava? I did a head-to-head test with the Dohamidy and the Santa Cruz. It’s pretty enlightening!

More Than Just a Great Titanium Mountain Bike

After all the years drooling over them, I’m excited to have a titanium mountain bike. Its differences are subtle but noticeable, adding up to a riding experience that is definitely what I hoped it would be. I’m also glad I found the Domahidy – buying from the company now known as Viral Bikes was a very positive experience. Steve clearly cares about the quality of his products. If you’re considering a Viral Skeptic, you’ll feel very good about spending money with Viral just because of the service. And you’ll like them even better after you spend some time riding one of their bikes.

And let me add this: I trashed the rear wheel (the third WTB wheel I’ve mangled in recent history). Since ordering one from a local shop, I’ve been waiting. And not being able to ride the Domahidy has made me a little … testy. Sure, my Santa Cruz is still solid. But there’s just a little extra fun about any good new bike – and the titanium magic seems to take that up a few notches.

 

CategoriesGear

Raleigh XXIX, Belt Drive, X-Fusion – A Few Thoughts

Raleigh XXIX, singlespeed, belt drive, McDowell Mountain Regional Park
An awesome new bike, my favorite local trails … what’s not to love?

Something about this bike that makes me a happy, friendly rider. I realize it as I greet a mountain biker headed the opposite way. Every time I ride this thing, I get so chipper that I’d say "hello" to a rattlesnake.

It’s more than "New Bike Syndrome." I’ve had plenty of new mountain bikes, and there’s something different here.

Maybe it’s the Gates Carbon Drive; I’ve wanted to try one for years. I salivated when I first saw the Raleigh XXIX with its belt drive. And hey! Wouldn’t you know it? That’s pretty much what I’m riding. I found a Raleigh XXIX stripped of all its parts at a local shop. They also had its belt drive bits lying about; I took those home, too (and ordered a new fork – more on that later).

Seven rides into life as a belt-drive singlespeeder, and I’ve had no problems. Haven’t touched a shop rag or a bottle of lube. Every bit of power I put to the pedals goes to the rear wheel. In just more than a month, I see a difference in my abilities.

And that belt drive. Many a mountain biker scoffs about it: "Is it really that hard to maintain a chain?" No. It’s not. But any extra work is a barrier – a barrier that can make it easier to say "You know, I’m tired and don’t feel like getting my bike ready. I’ll ride tomorrow." Maybe that never happens to you. But it does to me. And the belt drive is, as Forrest Gump says, one less thing. It’s also light and reliable, though the rider bears some responsibility for dialing it in right. By the way, you don’t have to be a mountain biker to ride a belt drive – they’re popular with the commuting crowd, too.

Hmm, what else about this bike makes me such a cheery nutjob? The X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2 suspension fork. I love the Fox FLOAT on my Santa Cruz Superlight. But those things are expensive! For about $400, the Slide 29 does everything my FLOAT does. And even something it can’t – it locks out.

On the trail, the Slide 29 works hard. Square-edged hits make it hiss a bit. But it steers where I point it. It makes short work of stuff in the trail. It didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

 

X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2
A close look at one of the X-factors of my Raleigh XXIX – the X-Fusion Slide 29 RL2.

So we have a steel hardtail belt drive with a cool fork. Oh, and it’s a 29er, a novelty for me. If you’re a 26er holdout and expect me to say the Raleigh XXIX handles like a porker, sorry. It just doesn’t. And it rips through fast corners. The combination of hardtail and singlespeed pairs well with the 29er wheel; the big wheels softer the ride and preserve your precious momentum. I’m still not convinced 29er wheels are a must for every mountain bike (or mountain biker), though.

Speaking of wheels, I ordered some WTB Frequency i23 rims built on SRAM 9.0 hubs and added a Stan’s tubeless conversion. The wheels seem durable, but the Stan’s wheelset on my Santa Cruz Superlight spoils me. The bearings roll like nothing else, and the SRAM hubs don’t compete. The WTB Frequency i23 rims, though, look like they can take a flogging from a heavy-riding mountain biker. So far, they have.

Other bits: A gold Chris King NoThreadSet. An old set of Hayes Nine hydraulic disc brakes. A Shimano SLX crank, Answer carbon handlebar, Thomson seatpost and an excellent WTB Vigo saddle. Some people complained that the Raleigh XXIX looks goofy with its World War II graphics. Hmph. Maybe it’s because I grew up watching Black Sheep Squadron, but I like it.

There’s really only one thing I’d change: the top tube. I’m 6’2 with a 34-inch inseam. When I stand over the top tube of the XL frame, there’s flesh-to-metal contact (feel free to chuckle and infer whatever you wish). Raleigh could make a nifty bend in the top tube like my XL Santa Cruz Superlight. Boom. Problem solved.

Chris King headset aside, there’s nothing fancy here -- but each part is an upgrade from a regular Raleigh XXIX. It all adds up to a bike that’s one big chunk of fun to ride.

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