For some time, a thought had been forming in the back of my mind. Even if I didn’t think about hardtails too often, I knew that spending time on one would be good for me, in an “eat your broccoli, Peter” kind of way. The thought was worming its way in, but I was content to push the broccoli around the plate and tuck back in on some steak.
And then a few things came together and all of a sudden I had a gorgeous Sky Blue Chromag Primer built up. The time for excuses was coming to an end. The time had come for a few forkfuls of broccoli.
If you missed it, have a glance at the first look, where I covered the Chromag Primer’s geometry, build, and other details.
Learning to ride the Chromag Primer
I was coming back to a hardtail for the first time in about 12 years so this is just as much about that process. Initially, I’ll admit to feeling all kinds of apprehension. What if I can’t hack it? What if I hate it? Will I be slow and not be able to ride with my buddies when I want to ride the Primer?
I needn’t have worried, and I won’t keep you in suspense: I bloody love this bike. But it wasn’t an overnight process. It went something like this…
Ride one: the Shake Down. Took it out solo, for about an hour on a few mellow trails. Forgot that riding mellow trails means ‘go fast’, and also forgot that I was riding a hardtail. Rode right off a bridge and smacked into a tree. Ok, dummy, let’s just give it a bit of time to get used to the new mustang before we head to the rodeo.
Ride two: more shaking down, more speed, less crashing into trees. Despite its ~29 lb. weight and 3″ tires, this bike climbs faster than expected. Taking some time to find ideal tire pressure in the WTB Bridger 3.0s (I’ve settled btwn. 12-14 psi front and 13-16 rear, depending on terrain and conditions).
Rides 3-6: Somewhere around ride #4 or 5, I felt like I was getting used to riding a hardtail, for real. Then came Expresso, a flow trail on Mt Fromme with a few rough bits. Rode from start to finish which is 5-6 minutes if you don’t stop. Managed decent speed, kept it together everywhere, but definitely felt my hands and ankles at the bottom of the trail. Remembered that riding a hardtail used to be more punishing, even for 25-year old me. I also enjoyed how it scooted out of corners and how accelerations had just a little more pop.
Ride 7: Time for another slice of “you suck” pie. Hit a 3′ drop at speed, thinking: “the fork and tires will eat this shit up”. Actually, the problem was I wasn’t thinking at all. Forget to use my legs and arms to absorb the impact, blow a foot right off the pedal, and almost careen into the bushes. On a flat, wide piece of trail. Manage to hold it together and make the next turn. Maybe I don’t suck, but I’ll think about that feeling in my ankles the next 7-8 times I hit drops on the Primer. It also forced me to improve my technique a bit – no matter what bike I’m on. Bikes with 5″ of travel make you lazy.
Rides 8-12: Feeling like maybe I’m figuring out how to ride a hardtail. Can’t help but notice, though, that I still mostly ride this bike when I’m out with people who ride at a more casual level, but not with my regular riding crew. I don’t want to be the guy that forgot to pack his parachute. Going to have to deal with that eventually.
Rides 13-18: Cam steals the bike! Truth be told, I hadn’t ridden it in a few weeks because I was going from one press camp to the next and hadn’t had time to get back to it. Cam loves the thing. I’m jealous and plot the day when I’ll steal it back.
Ride 19: #Snowmageddon strikes Vancouver. I ride in the snow a few times with a 165mm bike with high volume 2.5″ Maxxis Minions. Realize that the WTB Bridger 3.0 tires on the Primer are what is really called for, so I complete my plan to steal the Primer back from Cam when he’s distracted by a shiny new bike. Turns out to be the perfect choice. There are some spicy moments: steeps, ice-covered rock, unpredictable snow depth, but I forgot about what bike I was on and just focused on riding the thing. Between the many hungry knobs and sipes on the WTB Bridgers, I had ample grip. The lack of rear suspension meant nothing in the softer conditions – all that really mattered was finding traction and keeping it.
That was December 15th (or so). I haven’t ridden any other bike since then but I have been riding a lot. Sometimes in soft snow on steeps, sometimes firm, packed snow on flatter, faster trails. Other times in a mix of slush, mud, and loam. The full gamut of winter north shore conditions. I am now a full-fledged hardtail convert. No longer do I worry about who I’m riding with or what trail we’re riding before deciding to bring the Primer.
I bloody love this bike. But it wasn’t an overnight process.
The snow has melted and I’ve put some time in on dirt, on trails that demand your attention, and will rap your knuckles if you fall asleep in class. There have been a few days where I just didn’t have it, and when that happens, there’s less to rely on to get me through. Those days have been rare, though, and in general, I have enjoyed the simplicity of riding a hardtail, as well as how it has changed me as a rider and reminded me of some things I had forgotten.
Great, but how does it ride?
The Primer’s geometry is progressive. Not ‘progressive for a hardtail’. Progressive, period. The chaps at Chromag are hardtail aficionados and they ride everything Whistler has to offer without rear suspension – sometimes for 4 or 5 hours at a time. The Primer is their first cut at a plus-friendly frame that also accepts 29″ wheels, but it also represents the vanguard of their aggressive geometry. A 65-degree head tube angle and looong reach numbers combine with 16.3″ (415mm) stays and a 12.6″ (320mm) BB height (w/ 160mm fork).
While we’ve gotten used to numbers like these for long-travel trail bikes (AM, Enduro, whatever), this is a bit different for a hardtail. And it’s certainly part of the reason I got myself into trouble a few times early on. The riding position felt very familiar and very comfortable and that had me entering sections with more oompf than I may have been ready for until I got used to it. But most people (me included) are going to ride just a bit more slowly on a hardtail – that seems normal, right? So you may want a slightly steeper head angle and a slightly higher BB. Not me, though, and not in our terrain. I’ll give up a bit of front end quickness in exchange for confidence when it gets steep.
Like with any other bike with a lazy head angle, the more aggressive you are with your inputs, the better it corners. So, trust your tires and tip it over, and be rewarded. The Primer is snappy coming out of a corner, but I wouldn’t call it nimble when you’re going side to side in short order. I’m not calling it sluggish, either. The lack of rear suspension gives it an extra measure of responsiveness, but this is a Corvette, not a Lotus Elise. Short chainstays mean you can get it around but that long front end likes to track at speed. Let me also remind you that so far I’ve been running it with huge tires and wide rims – I fully expect the 29-inch experience to change the feel a bit. All things in good time…
Let’s talk about how this bike pedals. If you’ve ever owned a steel hardtail, you’ll remember the subtle, silky feeling as you turn over the pedals. That’s flex, hoss, and it’s nice. Look, this is not a light bike, and the wheels are not spritely, so acceleration isn’t violent. However, once you’re spun up to speed, it ticks along nicely and carries momentum well. Without trying, I’ve put in some decent climbing efforts and found myself remembering that a hardtail – even one with a big fork, fat tires, and burly components – can feel like an efficient pedaler.
Not surprisingly, technical climbs are not the Primer’s favourite pool hall. When the trail tilts up and gets rough, pay attention. Steep and smooth is cruisy. Flat and finicky is fine. The wrong side of the matrix just requires your A-game.
Things I’ve learned
Clipless pedals are great because I’m used to them and they do keep my feet planted better when the rear end is shaking me around. But I switched to flats when the snow arrived and have been on them for two months now. That led to a few raised eyebrows. “You’re going from clipped in on a dualie to flats on a hardtail? Aren’t you worried about being bounced off?” I was worried at first, but you get better at gripping and feeling the pedals so it becomes less of an issue. You can GTFO the bike more easily which is handy when you get in over your head – which I find has happened more often than normal as I get used to the hardtail. Mix it up. Enjoy the change.
Saddles are always important because they’re a contact point, but they’re even more important on a hardtail. The Chromag Trailmaster LTD is a husky fella and has slightly more cushion in the nose which works well if you perch there on steep climbs. It’s not a featherweight at 320 grams, but the comfort is worth it. A brand that specializes in hardtails knows a thing or two about saddle design. The heavy duty leather holds up well to mud and moisture. Occasionally it gets a bit rough after it’s been wet, but a dry ride with a softer fabric over your bum will buff it right back out again.
Gear selection and line choice on technical climbs is more important than on a dualie. Mashing only works for a bit, and then you’ll get bounced off line and dab.
Line selection is always more important on a hardtail but the firm rear end makes it fun to double over things that would otherwise make it a bad day.
You will become very aware of where your back wheel is. Aiming the front and letting the rear wheel follow is not enough – you often have to place both wheels. This will make you more precise.
If you’re reading this, it’s quite likely you are also thinking about adding a hardtail to the mix. Perhaps you’re already a tribe member, in which case I hope to be able to provide enough about my impressions to inform your future decision.
Hardtails make great test bikes. Components and their performance are easier to isolate when the rear wheel isn’t suspended, and the narrower margin for error means I get closer to the edge of control more often. This is partly because I still often ride into sections at speeds reserved for more skill or more suspension, and partly because that’s just the way it is on a hardtail: some terrain is a bit hairier, and always will be.
Tires. Wheels. Brakes. Your Fork. Bars. Saddle. These things are critical.
DT Swiss Spline ONE 40mm wheels and WTB Bridger 3.0 Tires
I’m going to start with the wheels and tires because they’re a big part of the story with this bike, and have been significant so far in a range of conditions. This is a meaty wheel/tire combo. Lying in wait are some Maxxis Minion DHF/DHR in 27.5 x 2.8 that I can’t wait to try and compare, but the constant onslaught of snow has kept me opting for the extra flotation of the Bridgers, even though I’m sure the chunky Minions will provide more bite.
The WTB Bridger 3.0s have been good for intermediate aggressive riding, and great in hard and loose over hardpack, as well as snow (soft, crusty, and firm). Rock face grip is only so-so, and the rubber compound isn’t the stickiest, so there are times when the wide tire still breaks loose over slick sections. With that said, the round profile is very predictable when being leaned over, until you reach the edge, and then you really lose ’em. In the snow, this is a blast. In dirt it’s also a blast, actually, but I’m looking forward to trying something with a little more beef on the sides. The knobs are small and quite tightly spaced for our conditions up here, but they have been shedding mud well and dig into soft dirt admirably – just not as well as a more aggressive tread would. Still, given their better than expected rolling performance, I wouldn’t complain about running these tires year roundup here. Sidewall support is good, but should be given the tire’s weight (~1170g which isn’t light but this is a proper 3″ tire so it’s all relative). The leading edges of the knobs are ramped, and they have sipes aplenty.
The 40mm wide XM 1501 Spline ONE wheels from DT Swiss are holding up well. They’re a wide rim that, in combination with the Bridgers, make for a very substantial amount of alloy and rubber. They are stiff but not harsh, and despite some hard hits, they’re still straight as shower rods. I can’t remember any spokes pinging when they were new, and none have come loose. The 36 tooth star ratchet hubs offer a 10-degree engagement angle, which is good if not as excellent as the near instant engagement of some competitors – I’ll likely get a 54t upgrade kit and report back. Still, even if DT aren’t the blingiest hubs, they just don’t fail, they’re light as a sparrow’s ear and solid as a rhino’s arse. Safe as houses. At 1,850g for the wheelset, there’s nothing to complain about weight-wise for a wheel of this girth.
Fox Factory 36 Float 29″
On a hardtail, your fork is like your Maginot Line. Wait, that’s a terrible analogy. Let’s call it the first but in a way it’s also your last line of defense. The Chromag Primer is optimized for a 140-160mm fork up front, so you can be damn sure I maxed that out like an AmEx in December. Fox’s FIT HSC/LSC damper is a hot number and given how much abuse the front end takes, I’m really happy with the way it rides. It absolutely needed two spacers, but the way I have it set up has provided good small bump compliance and crucial progressivity so that I can hit things with the front end and not bottom out. Here’s what I’m running right now (when the snow melts and steeper trails open up, I’ll add a bit more HSC):
Spacers: one yellow + one blue
Air: 78 psi (Sag ~25%)
HSC: 10 out from closed
LSC: 15 out from closed
What do you expect from XTR? Perfection? Well, yeah. And that’s what I have to report.
Shimano XTR brakes
Powerful and consistent. They do take a while to warm up in this cold weather and squeal like bastards until that happens, but there is also likely a bit of contamination in the pads from stuff the snow is picking up, and even road salt from riding on the road. Performance is unaffected. The lever feel, adjustability, and consistency of the XTR Trails is terrific. I’m running 180mm rotors front and back and in these conditions that’s been fine, but if I were riding valley trails in Whistler I’d think about a 200 up front. The importance of good brakes is amplified without rear suspension to save your ass when you mess up. I expect to go through brake pads a bit more quickly as a result.
Shimano XTR drive train
The Primer is designed around a 1x setup and I have a 32 up front and an 11-42 on the back. What do you expect from XTR? Perfection? Well, yeah. And that’s what I have to report. I’m waiting a bit longer to install a 44 in the back and also have one of Shimano’s new XT front rings which is supposed to offer better chain retention, but so far that has not been an issue. I have hit some choppy sections at speed but not nearly what I expect to encounter once the trails are clear.
Race Face Turbine Dropper post
I want to give this unit a bit more time because just like wheels, a dropper post can’t be tested quickly. But so far I have had only positive experiences with Race Face’s new Turbine. This has included consistent performance in cold weather. The thumb shifter has a bit of cable play and rattles slightly but it doesn’t affect performance and this feels like a small complaint. I like the return speed, which isn’t fast but it is smooth. Everything is well-constructed in typical Race Face fashion. Installation was fairly straightforward and it has to be said that RF’s product manuals are easier to follow than any others I’ve seen.
Chromag OSX 35 bar, HiFi 35 stem, Palmskin grips
Having spent the majority of my time on carbon bars over the last few years, I must say that the feel of an alloy bar is nice to come back to. Just a wee bit of flex and the knowledge that, like the steel frame, the bars will last a long time. The OSX 35 are wide, stout, and good looking bars. Due to the long 473mm reach of the size L Primer frame (complete geo here) and my propensity for short stems, a 35mm length HiFi 35 stem was my choice, and I remain happy with the quick steering and super precise feel. The Palmskin grips are a bit softer and grippier so you can ride ’em bareback. I usually wear gloves but like the grips either way.
I was overdue to step back from all the cutting edge bikes I had been riding and be reminded about the simple joy of a good steel bike. I rode hardtails for years before dualies were attainable for me, or even very good, so there’s no question that some of what I was feeling was nostalgia for those early days of ‘riding technical‘*.
*You should watch the whole thing, but the reference is at 1:30 if you’re not familiar with it.
Do you hardtail? Do you wish you did? Or wish that you wish you did?