With 300 kilometers on the bike, I’m now ready to do a writeup on first impressions, build quality, handling, and general value.
Where I’m coming from
In 2014, I completed 790 miles of the 816 mile Arizona Trail. A poorly mapped remote traverse that stretches from Mexico to Utah by way of a number of existing trails, national forests, and seasonal Jeep tracks. The bike I used for the non-wilderness stretches of this trail was a good bike, but simply not up to the beating it endured in this trek. I shattered one wheel and put a 6cm flat spot on another. The tight, winding, rocky, slippery and technical nature of this trail was a challenge on foot and an even greater challenge on a bike.
- Baseline – the Old Bike
My bike of choice for the AZ Trail was a hand assembled variant on the Motobecane 29er Fantom – a fairly comfortable aluminum hardtail that is still a very good all-rounder. I’ll go into a bit of detail on this bike, so that you know where I’m coming from on this review. I dislike when people give you a review, and you have no idea what their baseline is.
The Motobecane was built up with SRAM X9 shifters / derailleurs / cranks / bottom bracket, Shimano XT 160 mm disc brakes, Easton XC2 wheels, Continental MK2 2.4 tires, Easton EC90 SL carbon handlebar, Selle Italia seat, Chris King headset, Rockshox Reba fork, and a fairly generic stem/post. It wasn’t specifically built up for this sort of trip, rather it was built up as a replacement for my 1993 era Trek 8000. When I decided to give the AZ Trail a shot, I had already put over 5,000 kilometers on this bike (with proper maintenance). It was thoroughly inspected by two different shops before I started, and was ready to go.
On the trail with the old bike
I had no troubles on this build in the first few sections. The added 20 kg of bike-camping gear presented a few minor issues, and putting 2 to 3 days at a stretch on the bike was exhausting but fun. The entire section from the Grand Canyon into Flagstaff was fantastic (though a bit tight with a 29er), and despite feeling like I was driving a truck in many parts, missing turns, having difficulty with climbs, etc – it was good.
The trouble began south of Flagstaff. South of Flagstaff is some splendid riding, on and off the AZ Trail, but climbing out of Walnut Canyon is where the incredibly tight and nasty switchbacks start. I actually fell off the trail here, and fell nearly 10 meters before landing upside down in a tree. The handling characteristics of my bike were just not up to it.
After this the rocky washes and seriously rough trail literally put a massive flat spot in my tire. Cosmic Cycles built me a new wheel, so I was off and running for another long stretch. I had another wheel failure not long after, and then my brakes began to have issues dealing with the weight of the additional water required for the hot desert sections of the southern parts of the trail. We limped the bike as far as possible, but it was obviously time for better.
Time for Action
I rented and rode a number of different popular bikes – Niner, Yeti, Trek, Santa Cruz, and Giant on some of the easier sections of trail near Sedona and Flagstaff, and swiftly ruled them all out. Comfort, handling, or practicality all suffered on these designs, and they were all extremely expensive.
This is when I got on the phone and called up Seven Cycles. I had some experience with their builds and build quality from some road-biking friends, and knew that if anyone could build me an easy handling bike for the long haul, it’d be them. I had already learned online that Seven Cycles had been involved in some successful Silk Road expedition bikes. My constant reading of world-wide cycling blogs and books had taught me that most bike frames and builds ran into the problems I was having – very few were actually a complete success in the reliability, comfort, handling and stability categories. People were usually enthused to even survive, or swiftly switched to traveling by pavement. I’m not a pavement kind of guy! Since I wanted to ride my bike on all Seven Continents, sticking to paved roads wasn’t going to cut it for me. I use my bike to get to places a Jeep can’t. A road bike is out of the question.
A series of emails, some phone calls with the excellent folks at Seven Cycles, and an incredibly comprehensive fitting and design discussion later, my Seven Sola SL was ordered. I demanded as many US-Made parts as possible for this build, which ratcheted up the cost a little, but my total outlay was still about the same as an off-the-shelf bike from a major maker (if you were to go with the same component level). It seemed to take a VERY long time to get my bike, especially since my most recent crash on the Motobecane rendered it unusable for much of the 10 weeks until the Seven arrived.
Arrival of the Seven
The Seven Cycles Sola SL custom finally arrived in mid-October, was swiftly and expertly assembled at Cosmic Cycles in Flagstaff, and I was able to hit the trails in time to catch the amazing Fall foliage.
The final assembly took about 3 days. I was now ready to rip. This time I was hitting the trail with a bike built from the ground up for the toughest trails I could ride and designed to handle all my bike-camping gear as well.
I wasted no time getting this bike out on the trails, and that’s where the real fun starts.
Seven did an amazing job on this frame from a build and engineering standpoint. From the subtle bead-blasted lettering to the incredible welds on the frame and rack, everything felt far above premium. Just take a look at those welds!
I had it custom lettered with “Vuelta al Mundo”, my goal for this new bike.
The component set on this bike was all about keeping what worked, and fixing what didn’t. The bottom bracket and wheel problems were addressed by going with Chris King for everything – and going with huge thru-axles everywhere. The wheels are 32 spoke custom builds by Cosmic Cycles using all US-made parts. The rims are wider, stiffer, and better made than the previous wheels, and just slightly heavier. The drivetrain is SRAM X11, with a Wolftooth 30t chainring and a Chris King bottom bracket. The brakes are Shimano XT on the larger 180 mm rotors. Front fork is a new edition Rockshox Reba with thru-axle, the seatpost is now Easton, and I swapped my handlebar across from my old build. With the exception of parts I simply couldn’t find US makers for, everything from pedals to seat is made locally. Even the titanium bottle cages. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a US maker for mountain bike brakes or derailleurs, and there were no reviews at all of the sole US maker of suspension forks.
Putting the new Seven to the test
The first ride for this new bike was the first section where the old bike had troubles – the Stagecoach Trail, about 976 meters (3,200 feet) of climbing followed by a super fast windy descent through slippery aspen leaves, deep forest, and lots of rocks, roots, and loose ground.
The Motobecane Fantom began having issues here, feeling large and ungainly even without any load on it.
On the Seven Sola SL, this ride was pure bliss. I was able to go far faster than I’d ever gone before on the wide open high prairie sections, and the windy descents were fearless. The massive 180 mm brakes bled off speed on a dime and the frame never felt like a 29er. I’ve done this ride four more times so far just to enjoy the amazing feeling, catching air where I never did before and feeling extremely planted and confident on the descents.
I next took the new Seven Sola SL through Walnut Canyon – where I previously had crashed on the Motobecane and the tight switchbacks and careful maneuvering are a real issue.
Again, with the Seven there was no concern at all. This bike handled everything I threw at it with style, grace and confidence. The super sharp turns, rough rocks, rapid elevation changes, loose soil, and mud had no impact on the soft confident ride.
Sedona, of course, was just a ride in the park. Riding with friends was even better, since it put the responsive handling of the Seven Sola SL into even sharper contrast when it was compared against off-the-shelf handling, even for riders of roughly the same size. My friend’s bike displayed every classic 29er trait – it was cumbersome, difficult to manage on even somewhat tight turns, and the long wheelbase made the rapid slickrock transitions and pop-ups much more difficult to handle. I won’t name names, but let’s just say that the bike he was riding is about the same price.
The Seven Cycles Sola SL is a light, nimble, and soft hardtail that takes whatever you throw at it and begs for more. The titanium is compliant and forgiving to ride, but a solid foundation for powering up climbs. The bottom bracket doesn’t wobble even when I’m torquing on it with all my weight, and all the trail noise and chatter you get with aluminium and carbon frames is noticeably absent. I was extremely impressed with the build, fit, and finish of this frame, and it lived up to my wild hopes and fantasies.
2015 will see thousands of kilometers on this bike, in Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, under full and light load. I will do a follow up review after it’s really gotten a full break in.