Monday, April 01, 2024

Honeman Flyer: Reviewed

This review of my Honeman Flyer from King Fabrications is going to cover mostly what I think about the geometry of this bicycle. I will also touch upon a few other things concerning the way it handles and on some of the parts I have on the bike. 

NOTE: The frame, fork, wheels, and a few other small parts were paid for out of pocket by Guitar Ted. Most of the cockpit components were gifted or sent in for previously written up reviews at no cost. 

None of the companies represented in this review paid for this post or have any pre-knowledge of this review being done. As always, I strive to give you my honest thoughts and views throughout. 

Now, on with the review.

Obviously the whole intention of the Honeman Flyer project was to prove if old 1930's track bike geometry had any bearing on current gravel bike geometry. It sounds like a far-fetched idea, but when you dig into history a bit, it starts to make more sense. I already wrote about this in an earlier post which you can read HERE

In this post, I will give you my take on what this unique geometry feels like and how it handles on gravel roads in the 21st Century, nearly 100 years after bicycles with this geometry first appeared on the board tracks across the United States. This post will also dispel the uninformed notion that "gravel bikes are just 1990's MTB's".

A long grade I rode up during the Mid-South gravel event recently with the Honeman Flyer.

The radical part of this bike is the rear end. The front? Pretty standard fare, actually, and I was quite surprised that 1930's track bikes would use numbers almost spot-on for a gravel bike made in 2024. However; no one is currently using the odd rear end geometry that the King Fabrications Honeman Flyer does. 

Just to quickly recap, the seat tube angle is a slack, slightly less than 70° while the chain stay is currently set at 450mm with the slider drop-outs. That connects to a bottom bracket that has 76mm of drop, which is what the geometry I found dictated for the 1930's track bike geometry I copied. That's a little lower than most, but not as low as I've seen today by far in a gravel bike. 

Just to keep things interesting, I went with a single speed specific frame and my gearing was "John Deere 4020" at 40T X 20T. A little lower than a lot of folks single speed gravel gearing, but my worst facet of gravel single speeding is climbing, so I erred to that side. 

Remarkably, I found that, while standing and mashing was certainly possible on this geometry, seated climbing worked better. It just seemed to fit my style and was a bit less of an effort to do, which is counter-intuitive for single speed riding. Especially when your cadence drops very low. 

Image by Erik Mathy

I'm not sure what else to attribute this to other than that perhaps having the bottom bracket a little further in front than I would normally have. This made seated climbing more desirable. Standing and mashing was fine, and I have no trouble getting into a standing position for climbing, it is just that seated climbing felt better and less strenuous, despite the low speeds at times. 

Even with the longer chain stays, I had no troubles with climbing in either position, dispelling any notions that longer chain stays are "bad" for climbing. I did get the rear tire to break loose twice during the same climb while standing but it wasn't detrimental and only was a brief "scratch" of the rear tire. 

I've already mentioned that cornering was a trait I immediately felt was a big improvement with this geometry, and that single track section at Mid-South only furthered my feelings that this is a strong suit of the Honeman Flyer. 

Another time when stability was prized was a brief moment during the Mid-South when I crossed over some looser dirt/gravel during a descent and the rear end broke loose. I was easily able to correct and ride it out, which seemed intuitive and not at all 'twitchy'. That was a nice revelation. 

Another interesting thing about this geometry is that the wheelbase is not crazy-long. It measures a touch over 41 inches at 1043mm, which isn't out of the ordinary. My Twin Six Standard Rando measures exactly the same, as an example. The thing is, this King Fab bike rides like a much longer wheelbase bicycle. It is definitely springy in the vertical plane and because of that, it rides quite smoothly. 

In fact, this is probably why I came out of the Mid-South without any physical issues. Normally my hands would get numb at some point, and the feeling of being "beaten up" would have been happening. However; I felt great after that ride, in terms of what I normally feel like, and I am pretty sure that was all in the bike's design. 

Now with the slipping seatpost issue squared away I can ride the bike without a constantly varying saddle height! That has proven to be a good thing and has reinforced my feelings about the geometry. Oddly enough, I actually moved the saddle back a couple more millimeters when I swapped out the post and this has been a good move so far. I never would have dreamt that making the bottom bracket a bit further forward would have this dramatic of an effect on so much of the bike's handling.

Why, exactly, the old track bike designers made the bikes like this is still a guess. I can speculate, but without some definitive dissertation from a designer from that time, all I can do is guess. There was the reference I found that intimated that these machines were often used on rough, unpaved roads while training, so that would make sense if the geometry was defined by that part of the rider's needs for a racing bike. 

Conclusions On The Geometry: So, are we the beneficiaries of old track bike geometry during these gravelly times? Maybe. I doubt that it was a direct influence, but in a roundabout way, we have ended up, at least partially, where we started. 

 As far as a connection to mountain bikes of the 1990's goes, it pays to keep in mind that early mountain bikes were an outgrowth of 1930's Schwinn/cruiser style bikes made for youths. (And their smaller diameter wheels, by the way.) Early MTB's were carbon copies of 1930's cruisers, in terms of their angles, as an example.  

So, to say that "gravel bikes are just 1990's MTB's" is really missing the mark. Those 1990's bikes were evolutions of the first generation MTB's and their 1930's inspired cruiser bike geometry with smaller diameter wheels. 1990's MTB's were not the predecessor of the modern gravel bike then. Nor were gravel bikes influenced by those early MTB's. 

The Parts: Some of the bits and pieces I used on the Honeman Flyer deserve a little attention here as well. I have Wolf Tooth Morse cages on the bike as well as their rear through-axle. I am using a painted to match Salsa Waxwing carbon fork, and those sweet TRP brake levers. 

The bottle cages are actually really good. If I were to eject a bottle, it would have been on one of the bone-jarring high-speed descents at Mid-South, or in that single track they had there. But that did not happen and I would 100% trust these cages in almost any situation. 

The through axle did its job, and that's a good thing. I did actually witness a guy have his rear through axle eject on a high-speed down hill at Mid-South. Frightening! Fortunately he was able to bring the bike to a stop without crashing. But that just points out that a good through axle used correctly is a key to a safe, enjoyable ride. Thanks Wolf Tooth! 

The TRP brake levers on the bike which were gifted to me by a reader of this blog are top notch. I love the feel and the hoods are super-comfy for my paws. Thank you!!

Finally, the Waxwing fork was something I feared would be super-stiff and unforgiving. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was nothing of the sort. That smoother ride and those Three-pack bosses are much appreciated. 

Conclusions: So, with all of that said, does this bike do the things I need in a single speed gravel bike? To that the short answer is "Yes". However; there are always things I'd change about any bike I've ridden, and this one is no different in that regard. 

First, I'd add another bottle cage mount under the down tube and I would have arranged for two on the inside of the main triangle on the down tube. But I am a water bottle hoarder and I don't always need that many mounts. Having just four places for a water bottle will force me to pare back on the packing! Plus it would have increased the price to me for the frame and I was on a pretty strict budget.

I'd probably ask for a tiny bit more tire clearance so I could run 45-47mm tires. No big deal. At least this bike has more clearance than the Twin Six does! Interestingly, it doesn't need bigger tires, mostly due to the already fantastic ride quality of the frame and fork. The Stormchaser single speed I tested in 2020 was a great single speed gravel bike but the front end of that bike was super-stiff and unforgiving. It took me putting in 50mm tires to tame that. It is nice to have this Honeman Flyer be so smooth, and lighter, since it doesn't require those heavier, fatter tires to smooth things out.

Otherwise I am quite happy for now. I don't see anything glaringly "wrong" with the geometry. It is a super-smooth riding bike. The wheels, especially the Paul Components hubs, roll like crazy. The handlebar is comfy and along with the smoother ride, my hands are pretty happy. So, yeah.....this one is a keeper. I am excited to roll with it for years to come.


Ari said...

That’s a fantastic idea of recreating a frame like that. I’ve always wondered about those old SS bikes seen on those old photos. They must’ve spent hours on those bikes. They always seem to use narrowish tires. Great post.

Guitar Ted said...

@Ari - Thanks! As for the tires, I've read and seen evidence that they would have race specific wheels and tires. Often they would use a special hangar set up where the rider would hang his race wheels from the handlebars and a special attachment to the axle nuts which carried the wheels. This allowed the rider to ride to and from the event without using the special tires for track riding on regular roads.

Obviously wider, larger volume tires could be used as "training tires" meant for rough roads. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but in the case of a few riders I researched, it is clear that they used the same bike for training and racing, so the wheel situation I read about makes sense.

FixieDave said...

Just a fantastically neat bike mark! Of all the different bikes I’ve had between my legs it seems I tend to favor longer chainstays and slacker than industry 73+ degrees…… the out of saddle SS climbing vrs seated seems to fit my observations as well

Guitar Ted said...

@FixieDave - Thanks man! That comment means a lot coming from someone that has spent a lot of time riding fixed gear like you. I appreciate that.

Nooge said...

I think the fact that the bike doesn’t feel like it has long chain stays makes sense if you’re comparing it to traditional, steeper seat tube bikes with typical BB drops. I think chain stay length is a poor metric, even if it’s easy to measure. Instead, I think the horizontal distance from the seating position to rear axle is the main influence. That of course varies a bit based on saddle height, setback and even where you have the axle in the dropout. But those factors are user adjustable, while the seat tube angle is built into the frame and has the most influence when you consider how long your average BB to saddle distance is.

Nooge said...

I think the reason it rides so smooth is that the weight is hanging so far back, plus the 27.2 seat post diameter. That helps your weight flex the frame when you hit bumps. Having your weight further back also keeps your weight rear biased, lightening the load on your hands, arms and shoulders. It also causes you to use your leg and glute muscles a bit differently. All told, it sounds like it’s a great match for you.

Sam Placette said...

The bike looks great. I'm curious what you think about the idea of retrofitting a modern production gravel bike to get this sort of effective seat tube angle. Could I slap a layback seatpost on my bike and get the same geometry benefits as the Honeman flyer? Just a thought. Big fan of your work, keep it up, thanks

Guitar Ted said...

Sam Placette - Thanks! On the geometry and if you could get similar results with any other modern bike; I would say that would be very difficult. In fact, if you think about that, wouldn't someone just do that - modify an existing bike - rather than have a custom frame made to spec? For any reason?

No, I think you have to go all in to "get there", or you have compromised on something - or everything. It just would not be the same thing, because - well, it wouldn't be the same. Right?

I've got a 1980's MTB that I rider often, the yellow Dorado, if you've got a long memory and saw that bike here about a year ago. It's got the slack seat tube, the slack head tube, but the bottom bracket drop is next to nothing, and while it has similarities to the Honeman Flyer, that and the smaller wheels just don't quite do the same thing. So, you can perhaps surmise from that example that you wouldn't really be able to replicate the bike based on some of the main things the Honeman Flyer has going on. You really have to have all of it.

Sam Placette said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I am familiar with your Dorado (and enjoyed your write-up on the restoration process). I agree with you, that is a horse of a totally different color and I would expect it to feel a world apart from the Flyer. I would be curious how your Standard Rando, which I understand has geometry similar to the Flyer, might feel with a looong setback seatpost to approximate the seat tube angle on the Flyer. However, to your point, once you start changing the geometry in that way you would have to fight geometry changes in other areas like the center of gravity shifting rearwards and the effective top tube becoming longer.

To be honest I thought it would be amusing if super long setback seatposts became the trendy new performance accessory, like the new aero bars. Anyway, thanks for humoring me and thank you again for what you do.

Guitar Ted said...

@Sam Placette - Thanks for reading the blog and for the thoughtful comments.