Monday, July 22, 2019

One Year Review: Black Mountain Cycles MCD

A year ago this past weekend I rode my pink Black Mountain Cycles MCD, dubbed "The Bubblegum Princess", for the first time ever, and I have used it in events, for testing purposes, and for just riding around since. This review will touch upon what I think of the design and may also include a few bits on some components I have on it as well.

Black Mountain Cycles, in case you are not aware, is a small, independent bicycle shop in Point Reyes Station, California. The proprieter, and as far as I know, only employee, is a man by the name of Mike Varley. Mike came up in the early days of the modern mountain bike and worked at a famous California bike shop that carried some of mountain biking's most famous brands ever. Then he went on to work in the industry as a brand manager/designer for Haro Bicycles. After getting out of the industry, Mike moved to Point Reyes Station, opened up a small shop, and then decided to dip his toes back into frame design. From the Black Mountain Cycles site:

"I spent years designing modern, cutting edge frames for Haro Bicycles and Masi USA. Aluminum, carbon fiber, and steel. It’s the steel frames I designed during my tenure there that always gave me the most pleasure during a ride, bikes like the Haro Mary 29” wheeled mountain bike and the steel Masi Speciale. Those were the two bikes that I always came back to after evaluating the latest and greatest. And it’s those two bikes I’ve kept from that time in my life."

Mike combined his knowledge of classic frames and his experience at Haro to design the Black Mountain Cycles frames which he offers now. I bought one of his first run of frames, a model he dubbed the "Monster Cross", back in 2011. Now, in 2019, he offers a disc brake only version of a Monster Cross dubbed the "MCD" (Monster Cross Disc). I hopped on the pre-order list as soon as they pre-orders opened up. My pink MCD arrived last June, and I finally got it built up and ridden a year ago. Pink was a limited edition color, so it is no longer available in most sizes, but a fine looking "Olive Oil" is still in stock.

So, first off, let's look at what the frame is designed around. The MCD is designed around 45mm tires in the 700c format. The bottom bracket drop is 70mm, the head angle for my size is 72°, and the chainstay length is 438mm. The MCD has a sloping top tube, so my size is a small sounding 53cm for my 6'1" sized body. However, the effective top tube length is 57.5cm, which is dead center on the sizes I like to look at in road bikes for myself, (57cm-58cm.) The fork offset is 50mm, so that is about 62.8mm of Trail, and of course, that varies with tire size. But, it's right in the ballpark for bikes like this.

The Black Mountain Cycles MCD as it appears now.
Interestingly, all the geometry from the MCD crosses over to the Black Mountain Cycles current version of the Monster Cross. This is where I need to note that my first generation Monster Cross, the bike I often refer to as the "Orange Crush", due to its orange color, is not this geometry. The differences are minor in terms of measurements, but in terms of ride, they are quite noticeable. So, if you are looking to cross reference the current rim brake ride with any differences to the disc brake version, I cannot help you there. I'll keep my comments to this MCD then.

First of all, the fit is extraordinarily similar to my Gen I Fargo. Both bikes have that immediate "I am at home" feel. I knew, based upon my Fargo, that the MCD was similar in terms of some of the dimensions. Between that Fargo and my Raleigh Tamland Two, I have two bikes where fit is so dialed in, that I wanted to emulate that on the MCD. I took several detailed measurements off both bikes and transposed that to the MCD. So, stem length, saddle set back, and handle bar width were all critically examined and transposed measurements from my two other bikes mentioned were dialed into the MCD with predictable results. The MCD fit perfectly first try. Everything is set just the way I did it a year ago. I have made zero changes, nor have I ever considered making any.

I've chosen to use the pink MCD at most events I've done since I got it.
A Word About Components: 

One of the things that makes this bike very comfortable is the Whiskey Parts seat post and handle bar that I have on the bike. Both of those are carbon fiber components and they have a lot of inherent "give" to them which really helps out with vibrations and bumps. That handle bar is amazing, but the stem I have, the Redshift Components ShockStop stem, is such a great vibration/small bump eater that the ride is nearly magic carpet smooth on the MCD.

I recently switched out saddles from a Brooks Cambium to my favorite WTB Pure saddle. The Pure, (or older Pure V) are so comfortable and fit me so well that nothing else has come close. Other than that, a few wheel sets have found their way onto this bike due to Riding Gravel testing duties. The latest, the Spinergy GX wheels, are still on the bike.

Besides that, my Shimano 2X drive train is doing great. It is an 11spd system with a 46/36 crank, an 11spd 11-36T cassette, and an Ultegra long cage derailleur. A Wolf Tooth head set does the head set duties well, and my Bike Bag Dude bags carry all the stuff I'll ever need for a self-supported gravel ride.

The Ride; 

Okay, enough gear gab. How does it ride? Well, it isn't a noodle, but it rides really smoothly. It is a combination of the seat post, stem, the frame, fork, and whatever tires I happen to be running. I cannot overstate the importance of the Redshift stem and Whiskey parts on the bike which contribute so much to the smooth factor. Get all of that, slap it on most any bike, and you will have a very surprisingly compliant, yet weirdly non-noodle-like bicycle, unless the frame and fork you have is already a flexy piece of crap. Then all bets are off!

So, does that mean the frame isn't very smooth? Well.......I doubt that is the case. But, honestly, I cannot say. The parts I mention that make this bike so sweet to ride have been on it since the beginning. I'll bet this frame and fork are nice riding bits though. Not as smooth and "magic carpet-like" as what I experience, but nice nonetheless.

I can say that the geometry is good. It isn't amazing in any area. It is stable enough, quick handling enough (for my tastes) and doesn't do anything weird, except for one trait it has which I've never quite been able to put a finger on. It has a bit of a strange wiggle in the rear end on fast descents, but not consistently. In fact, with the current Spinergy wheels, this hasn't been felt, but I've had it with three other wheel sets. I still am at a loss to explain this, because it is intermittent, and as I say, seems to be gone with the current wheels. Hmm..... It wasn't a deal breaker, but I recall the first time I felt this, at the 24hrs of Cumming last year, I was a bit surprised, and I didn't like it, but with it being gone for now, I cannot say what's up. I can say that the high bottom bracket on the Orange Crush, (it's 5mm higher than the current bikes from BMC), made a similar feel in the rear on steep, fast descents so much so that I don't take that bike to hilly rides anymore.

The bike with 650B wheels and tires.
The MCD is not specifically a 650B machine, but I have run that sized wheel and tire combo on it. With 650B X 47mm tires you have just enough tire clearance and it will work. I will say that these tires lower the bike a bit, (smaller wheel diameter than 700 X 45mm) , and they make the bike handle a bit twitchier due to how smaller wheels affect Trail.

I'm okay with the 650B wheels on this bike, but I am not enamored enough by the ride qualities to switch permanently, or even occasionally. I only use them because I have a need to have 650B wheels to test tires. Besides, the slight increase in instability the 650B wheels bring isn't the direction I want to go in with regard to handling on a gravel bike.

Which brings me to what I wish I could change. First of all, I'd go a little deeper on the bottom bracket drop. I understand where Mike Varley is coming from though, as he uses the MCD as an "underbike" on MTB trails at times. The higher bottom bracket being a necessity there. I would also probably go a full degree slacker on the head tube angle and increase the fork offset to 55mm. This gets the front wheel "out there" which, in my experience on loose gravel at high speed, is a good thing. Plus it makes the fork work better in terms of ride quality.

I do like the two down tube mounted bottles on the inside of the front triangle. I like that I can fit four bottles easily. I like the pump peg. The rear drop outs Mike designed in conjunction with Sean Walling of Soulcraft Bikes are awesome. The segmented fork is cool and actually rides well (despite my having the suspension stem and handle bar, I can see the fork "working" over the chatter and bumps, so I know it is smooth.) So, I like a lot about this bike, but it isn't "perfect". Close though. Very close.

As stated, it reminds me of my favorite bike of all time, the Fargo Gen I, and so you might ask, "Isn't the BMC MCD like a Vaya then?", to which I would answer, "No, it isn't really". The Vaya rides more stiffly, being a light touring bike, but that said, the Vaya is a great gravel bike too. (I've had a Vaya and have ridden it extensively on gravel) But as far as bikes on the market, the Vaya is a close approximation of a BMC MCD, just not quite as cool and a little more "touring bike-ish" for sure. Let's put it this way- the Vaya is no Fargo Gen I, and the BMC MCD seems more like that Gen I Fargo, to my way of thinking. A slightly faster, lighter Gen I Fargo, but still having that MTB component, which I think Mike brings to his designs for this and the Monster Cross.

So, to sum up- The way I have this bike set up in conjunction with Mike's frame and fork design is a recipe for ultra-smooth gravel riding. This bike is the one I reach for now most often if the ride is long and I am unfamiliar with the course. It is set up so that it will work as a great self-supported gravel grinder platform, and exploratory back country road bike, or just for everyday riding. Plus, Mike seems to pick out the coolest colors for his bikes. Add that to the great value and Mike's guidance in building up the bike, (you can go anywhere from full builds to partial set ups to just a frame/fork), and you cannot go wrong here. Plus you'll have a bike that you won't see on every street corner, which is cool. Highly recommended.

Note: I purchased the Black Mountain Cycles MCD with my own damn money and was not asked for this review. So there!


Skidmark said...

...does the rear end “wiggle” perhaps show up only when you have loaded on extra gear.

Blain said...

Good timing. I've been riding my canti MC for a little over a year and love it...except the cantis. I've been debating a MCD, but have been hesitant with the fit change. A topstone 105 is a contender as well, but I dig the steel fork on the MCD (and the paint, and the cool factor).

The rear 'wiggle' is curious. It'd be interesting to know if you had any ideas on what that may be.

Guitar Ted said...

@Skidmark- Hmm.... Not that I am aware of. It is super random, actually. I haven't had it happen enough to make a judgment call.

@Blain- See above. Again- super rare, but it did happen. I probably should have not even mentioned it, because it hasn't happened in a long time. Especially since I switched to the Spinergy wheels.

youcancallmeAl said...

If the Gen1 Fargo is so near perfect, why isnt it your go to bike?