Monday, May 08, 2023

20 Years Of Monkeying Around

Surly's ad for the Karate Monkey circa 2003.
 An unusual set of circumstances found me tooling around on my 2003 Karate Monkey on Friday afternoon and while riding I was thinking about this bike. 

"How long has it been now?...

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks 


Yes! Twenty years ago this month I finally had my Karate Monkey together for the first time. Originally it was set up as a mountain bike. A single speed mountain bike, and it had 29"er wheels, natch, and I was off on a two-decade long adventure with this bicycle. This is amazing on many levels. 

Let's take a moment to reflect on what exactly the Karate Monkey means to cycling in general. This was a model introduced by Surly at the 2002 Interbike Trade show. Think about that for a moment. The first 29" tire - THE TIRE - The 29"er WTB Nanoraptor, had only become available three years prior to 2002. So, as product cycles go, it stands to reason that Surly jumped on this design work fairly early, possibly before Gary Fisher (the brand and the man) introduced commercially available 29"ers in 2001. But whatever the timeline for Surly was, they got this into my hands in early 2003 and I was riding it by May. Here's a bullet point list of significant "firsts" that the Karate Monkey can lay claim to.

  • It was the first single speed 29"er commercially available as a frame and fork. (There were no complete builds back then)
  • It was the gateway for many curious riders like me to try a 29"er for the first time. 
  • It was one of the only 29'ers available at launch with the option to run disc brakes.
  • It was a HUGE risk for Surly.
  • It became the prototype for 29"er geometry for the next decade. 
  • It was probably the most copied bike by custom bike builders in history.

The Karate Monkey as shown at Interbike in 2002.

For me personally this bike represents several "firsts" as well. Obviously, it was my first 29"er. It was also my first disc brake bike. It was my first "adult" single speed. Of course, I started out on single speeds as a youth, so that concept wasn't new to me. 

It was the bike I started gravel grinding with. It was my first drop-bar 29"er. I did the longest single ride I ever have done on this bike of mine as a single speed. It's the bike I've owned the longest of any that I have now.

So, this Karate Monkey, (by the way, it still is the coolest name for a bicycle ever), means a lot to me and I vowed many years ago to never part with it until maybe when I cannot ride anymore, or it breaks or something else tragic happens. 

My Campstove Green 2003 Karate Monkey as it appeared last year

 I wrote up an entire series on this bike after I had owned it a decade here on the blog. (The last of the five post series is HERE and you can search for the rest if you want as they ran consecutively in April of 2013) So, I won't belabor the point and the stories are all told here in the archives. 

But I will say that I never dreamed I'd own this bike for twenty years! That's a long time. But I plan on keeping it going and doing even more riding on it. In fact, something that got screwed up somehow with a review item has kind of spurred me on to doing some more with this bike. That's coming up, so stay tuned.


Phillip Cowan said...

I tried hard but I simply can't resist asking. Do you think you would still be riding the KM now if it were made out of carbon fiber?

Guitar Ted said...

@phillip Cowan - Ha! Okay, that's a fair question. I'm going to look at this in context of my Noble GX5 which is a carbon bike.

I see no reason that it wouldn't last that long barring an accident or crash damage. Karate Monkey's break, steel frames fail, and anything we ride can and will wear out. So, for me, the better question is "Will a carbon frame come out looking as well, be as functional, and be as safe to ride as my Karate Monkey is after 20 years?"

And to that I can heartily say, "No. No it would not".

The Noble is already looking a bit scuffed up but what is concerning are the rock hits that have taken chips out of the paint down to the carbon in a couple places. I could see where a big enough rock that hits the down tube, or chain stay hard enough, would cause a chip concerning enough that I would either have to get it fixed, or stop riding it over concerns for safety.

That's not likely to happen with a steel frame.

To my mind, that is the big difference. That and a muddy, gritty compound of gravel and dirt will grind through a chain stay made of carbon a lot more quickly than one made from steel. I've seen that with my own eyes. So, for instance, I would bail out on a ride with the Noble if conditions were severe whereas I wouldn't give that a thought with my Fargo.

So, I guess I would say that I understand the line of thinking you were going for there, but it is a complex question and the answer will differ with people depending upon circumstances.

Tman said...

I got mine sometime in that first batch replacing my Bianchi Project which I was already running Nanos on. Must have been my 4th or 5th season on 700c? Still have some 700x45 Smokes, one NOS! Sold it a few years back when everyone was gobbling up 29 parts. I think I doubled my money parting it out?!

MG said...

20 years… That’s a long time, but I’m so thankful the Karate Monkey existed. I believe it was a critical piece in the widespread acceptance of 29 inch wheels.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG - Yep! I agree.

Skidmark said...

Greets GT, remember the first Fisher SuperFly single speed that was offered to dealers/employees at the 2005/6 InterBike Show? Mine lasted 4 months, crack developed top side of top tube ~3 or 4 inches back from head tube. I thought😫😩my Trek rep would fix me up.
Still riding my 2007 Ferrous ‘29.

Guitar Ted said...

@Skidmark - Yeah, I do remember those Superflys and how a lot of those broke at a mold line in the center of the top tube. those could be fixed though, but not ideal from the get-go, obviously.

Oddly enough those Ferrous frames were also notorious for breaking. Glad to hear you still have yours. I thought they were gorgeous frames.