When I posted last year about carbon fat bike rims, I got a lot of messages from fat bike companies who wanted to prove me wrong about fat bikes in general, or more specifically, show me how rad fat bikes are. Well shite, mission accomplished. It turns out I really dig fat bikes and the boys at Borealis Bikes and 9Zero7 Bikes were rad folks who are out to make the industry that much more fun. And we can all use a little more fun in our lives, right?
So then I gets to thinkin’: what kind of fat bike would I want for myself? I’m no winter racer. I hate being cold and long days in the snow probably aren’t up my alley. Shorter rides with a flask of whiskey in tow? Hell yes. 29+ capabilities with bikepacking in mind for the spring and summer? Fuck yeah.
Carbon? Rides awesome, but cost-prohibitive for the kind of ride I want. We all know the truth: mothafuckin’ steel is mothafuckin’ real, so steel it is. Now, who makes a steel fattie that would be worth investing my money into?
A coworker of mine rides this custom steel 29er a friend of his made, and it’s gorgeous. Seriously. I see a lot of custom steel frame builders and it’s easy to spot the slap-together shit. This wasn’t it. So I started to lust after a MERIWETHER frame almost immediately.
Whit from Meriwether put the fat bike of my dreams together, so I’m gonna tell you a little bit about the man behind the bike, as well as the bike itself. Look. If you’re going to get a custom steel frame, make sure you get it from someone who’s going to put a lot of care into it. Whit did just that. Here’s the story of my fat bike. This week, here’s an interview with Whit Johnson, framebuilder at Meriwether Cycles. Next week, a review of the ride…
1) If you were a stripper, what would your stripper name be?
Mr. Johnson (that’s actually just my real name)
2) Favorite trail beer
This is a moving target depending on who I ride with but right now it’s Ska’s Modus Hoperandi. Drink, crush, carry it out.
3) Favorite post-trail beer
If i’m feeling indulgent – Oscar Blues Ten-Fidy. If i’m drained after a big ride and thirsty – whatever is available.
4) Favorite breakfast beer
I’m too old for that! I need coffee.
5) Favorite whiskey for any occasion
Redbreast Irish Whiskey.
6) Fruity perfume or baby powder on your stripper?
What the hell is baby powder for? I’ll go with the fruity one.
7) What is your spirit animal?
I just took a quiz and apparently I’m a buffalo. Not sure what I think about that. I like buffalo and all but i was hoping for a bear or a wolverine!
8) Thoughts on the swapping (27.5+ in your regular 29, 29+ in your 26 fat, etc) of wheels’ effect on ride quality (i.e. because of bb height)?
This is a pandora’s box. Personally, i’m a fan of one bike – one intended use. The last thing I want to do is work on my bike or change wheelsets right before I head out on a ride as I usually am in a hurry to get out the door. I have a ride in mind and I love just grabbing the right bike for that ride. I ride my fatbike almost entirely in winter on snow. I ride my cross bike for dirt road riding and for racing. I use my 29-plus for most everything else from trail riding to bikepacking. I have a few other bikes but they’re less used than those three.
The main reason being that I like to dial in the geometry of each bike for its intended purpose and when you make an all-rounder style bike it’s going to be less than ideal at the extremes. It can do everything to some extent, but not everything as well. When you get to swapping tire diameters and widths on the same frameset it’s better on the wallet but less so on ride consistency and quality. Bottom bracket height is one issue, it can become too high or too low and make the bike behave differently, but you also change the trail figure and how the bike was designed to handle. With putting 29×3″ tires in your fatbike you’re also riding a frame that is…well..fatter…not only is it a little heavier because of the added material weight (frame, hubs, etc.) but more importantly it has a Q-factor up to 2.6″ wider than it needs to. That may or may not mess with your knees and hips but I know i don’t like riding my fatbike with a 222mm Q on dirt when I can use my 29+ with a 156mm Q. Higher Q has been shown to lower pedaling power and efficiency so I keep it as low as possible.
But being a total hypocrite the next build for myself will be a 29er that will fit 27.5 x 3″ tires with the use of an eccentric BB to account for the change in BB height as well as to run it with an IGH or singlespeed. It’s something I can tell will be popular and since the tire diameters aren’t too different. I love the chubbyniner (29+) wheel size so I think I’ll really like the 27.5+ tire size.
In general, yes. So much of it is unnessary! But it does work, luring people into buying new stuff. It’s funny because it feels like there’s been a recent explosion in this trend but I know it’s been going on forever. Overall, i have to say the innovation has been good. I’d have nothing to heckle otherwise! In the infancy of mountain bikes we had one type of mountain bike with one wheel diameter, one standard and accepted geometry and there were very few tire widths in the 26″ wheel size. Now just look at the options! It is truly insane. But I’m also for simplification. Being a singlespeeder at heart the more complicated the bike the more it bothers me deep down – whether it’s through suspension, gearing options, or the use of a battery to shift, or something else. When I heard Grant Peterson (Rivendell) say something like “it’s already so easy to shift…” (without electronic shifting) I laughed out loud. I really don’t find the need myself but if you do, have at it! Removing the front derailleur on 1x setups was one big step in simplifying drivetrain. I’m not against spinning on downhills or getting off and walking my bike up the steepest uphills occasionally if it means a simpler drivetrain and fewer things to go wrong. I have a Rohloff and love it for touring, and I can’t wait to try the gearbox since it puts that concentrated weight in a better place.The biggest place I see innovation that I like is through wheel and tire sizes. I’ve always been a fan of suspension by tire pressure. Surly was the only one (for the most part) pushing new tire and wheel sizes – for years. It’s damn cool to have the ability to own multiple mountain bikes that specialize in different things – snow and sand, ripping descents, all-mountain chargers, bikepacking rigs. At least in the tire and wheel size realm I like how these options are expanding what we once thought was possible on a bike. The bike is still evolving after 200 years!
10) How do you feel about USAC sanctioning a Fat Bike National Championship that was essentially a road race on snow?
Honestly, I was hoping Fat Nats would’ve stayed in the vein of the first National Championships – the Fat Birkie. Meaning i wasn’t too psyched on USAC’s nats course format and length. It looks like you could’ve ridden a cross bike on that course! Plus, who the hell has Nationals on Valentine’s Day? But if it gets the word out to people about fatbiking and makes it more appealing to some, I’m all for it.But if i were in charge I’d make fatbike Nats be more in the image of the Arrowhead 135, JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit, or the Iditabike. Those events have the true spirit of the fatbike, where you cannot physically ride a different bike over most of the course. A couple of short loops at a XC ski area to me defeats the purpose of using a fatbike. May as well have had Nats be at Sea Otter.
11) Why do you build bike frames? What got you started?
I love making something that helps people be healthier by going outside and exploring the world. It’s also just something I have always wanted to do. I grew up in one of the birthplaces of mountain biking, Marin County. In the 80’s i was surrounded by the first mountain bikes that were by their nature custom since it was all new: Cunningham, Breezer, Potts, Ritchey, Salsa, Otis Guy, and more. I still get a funny feeling inside when I remember seeing those bikes on the trail as a kid. To me they encapsulated something more than just a bike, but what getting outside and adventure was all about. Here…ride this bike…you can go anywhere…sky’s the limit.So finally I got my act together and learned the framebuilding trade. It’s not as glamorous as I had once thought but it is the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. I can actually make people happy by creating their adventure buddy. So that’s why I do this, to create something unique, fun, and lasting, even in the end it really is just a bike.
12) What’s your building process like? Do you put on metal and get welding, or do you need to get into a zen mode with some mellow tunes?
I love all music, Punk AND Hardcore! Really I’m all over the place in what I like. My ipod shuffle will scare the crap out of you and put you to sleep at the same time. But I do tend to listen to different types when welding versus other parts of the process. Bands like Tortoise and Mogwai or old Classic jazz (Coltrane, Miles) while welding. I focus better without vocals. The rest of the time I’m an 80’s punk at heart: No Means No, Victim’s Family. Minutemen and the like but I also have a healthy dose of 80’s guitar rock from bands like Rush and Van Halen.
13) What’s your favorite part of the process?
Hearing the first-ride feedback and seeing the photos of them outside having fun. I mean, I love welding and it’s fun to miter tubes and all, but my favorite part is hearing that I nailed the geometry and seeing the photos of the bikes taking them to cool places.
14 What would you tell someone who has never had a custom frame built before?What should they expect? Why is custom better than a bike off the rack?
It really depends what you want in a bike. A bike can be so much more than what you find at a regular bike shop. It can be made specifically for your body and riding style, and it can look the way you want it to look. It should be a reflection of the rider. If you are only concerned about weight or getting it right now, going to a shop may be for you.
To me, custom is one of those things that you really have to try. You become part of the planning, building, and realization of your new bike. It’s a unique thing when you get right down to it, where else can you really do that? For riders that love bikes and all the in’s and out’s it’s truly satisfying to see, ride, and feel a bike that’s made specifically for you.
It also may change your view of the marketplace. It’s an interesting time right now. There are a lot of small custom US builders offering a product that is lower cost than the high-end Chinese carbon bikes sold by the big guys. Instead of swapping out bikes every year a custom bike is something you will likely keep for many years. The throw-away carbon bikes really bug me and needing to have a new model each year is such a waste of money and resources. Steel is the most recycled material on the planet and they’re still coming out with lighter and stronger tubesets.
Someone that goes with a custom frame (from me at least) can expect a lot of dialog, sharing ideas and data. I want to know everything about what they want the bike to be like – how it rides, how it looks, where the cables go, everything. I’m happy if they want to be hands off, or if they want to tell me where they want the cable guides. It’s custom after all and I do my best to offer that in every sense of the word.
15) What’s been your favorite frame built to date so far?
That’s a hard one to answer, they’ve all been pretty different. The one that comes to mind is a fatbike I made for a woman who has a partially fused spine and is 5′ 4″ tall. Because of the large diameter wheels and the use of a Bluto suspension fork it was challenging to design a bike with the lowest standover possible and with a seated position that kept her spine straight. The result was a bike with a curved top tube that came into the top of the downtube instead of the head tube. I fabricated a huge gussett to add strength to an already beefy downtube. The bars are 4″ higher than her saddle to keep her back straight, it’s got a short wheelbase by using short chainstays (430mm) and a short top tube with no toe overlap. She couldn’t have been happier with the result. It takes her farther than her previous fatbike and more importantly pain-free. If anyone’s interested in seeing it, it’s the purple frame with pogies on my website.
16) What style of bike do you enjoy building the most and why?
I enjoy the simplicity of a straight-tubed cross frame but I like the challenge of bent-tubed fat- or chubby- bikes the best. I guess because they’re my favorite type of bike. The big wheels are challenging to design around but there’s nothing else like riding them. They are the new ATV of the mountain bike world, you can go farther and to new places that you just couldn’t or wouldn’t on a skinnier-tire bike.
17) Where’s the coolest/craziest place one of your frames has ended up?
Right now the farthest out is Berlin, Germany and he has plans for a middle-east bikepacking tour this spring.
18) Tell us about your shop. What gives it character? Where is it?
My shop is in a small town called Foresthill in the northern California Sierra Foothills. The shop itself was built from scratch by an engineer and was his retirement machine shop where he’d tinker on cars and make this and that for the property. If you see photos of it you’ll see how much time he put into it and how lucky I am to have stumbled onto it.
19) What brought you to Northern California from Colorado?
I grew up in northern California and left in 1991 for college in Boulder, Colorado. After living in Boulder for 10 years and another 10 in nearby Nederland my wife and I (who also grew up in the Bay Area) felt like it was time to head back to be closer to our families as our parents are getting older. I’m digging re-exploring some of the places I grew up riding, and the huge mossy trees and endless singletrack around Lake Tahoe are incredible.
20) Tell us something awesome that we haven’t already covered in these questions.
Before transitioning to framebuilding i made maps and managed spatial databases as a GIS Analyst. That’s another reason for my nickname Meriwether (from Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition). I was always one to go get lost by bike and map the trails. Meriwether also was the expedition’s Naturalist and I have a Master’s in biology. I’m one of those guys always stopping to take photos along the trail.