Handbuilt Bicycle News

The Ride

Naked Bicycles

Paul Skilbeck

Sunday 30 June 2024

The Everything Bike - And Then Some

An astonishingly efficient all-rounder, this bike by Naked does everything well. Its primary purpose is 75-100 mile mixed-surface rides with 10,000ft climbing and descending. Good riders on other bikes have been unable to even finish these rides. In my view, energy saved by this bike is what made the difference.

The Everything Bike - And Then Some
Custom Naked Daily Adventure, made in 2013. Photo: Mark Dawson/FatTirePhotos.com

From the moment I first mounted this bike, I found myself in a new realm of cycling, even after four decades astride various machines. Now, 12 years have etched their stories into its frame, and life's gentle coercions—chief among them, my dog’s insistent companionship—have curtailed those long, winding journeys over hill and dale. Nowadays these rides are shorter, more frantic, marked by the bounding energy of my four-legged partner. Some dog owners will nod knowingly at this. Yet, when I take this swift stalwart machine out, its virtues reaffirm themselves with every turn of the pedals and on each section of meandering singletrack. It’s a reminder that of the 30-odd bikes I've owned, this one stands unrivaled in its versatility. True, among my collection, the Ritchey Breakaway ‘cross bike might edge it out on swift, short rides over rolling terrain. But in the arena for which this bike was conceived—those rugged, enduring trails—I challenge anyone to present a superior contender. After twelve years and 6,000 miles, mostly over rough paths, it remains as steadfast and spirited as ever.

Shorter rides with Finnbar, while less demanding in distance and elevation, offered a whole different kind of joy

What kind of rides was this bike designed for? Let me take you back to why I first commissioned it all the way back in 2012. At the time, I was living in the heart of San Francisco, right in the dense center of the city’s grid. From there, it was a five hop to the majestic expanse of the Marin Headlands, across the famous Golden Gate. And another five or 10 miles would get me to start of the trails that truly called. Double this total, and you're staring down the barrel of at least 20 ‘dead miles’ round-trip on each adventure. I needed a bike that would help save my limited energy for the multiple hours of rugged trails ahead.

I'm talking here about Bear Valley, Bolinas Ridge, China Camp, Alta Vista and the 680 trail, Dixon Ridge (southside of Lucas Valley), the Mt Tamalpais Watershed including Coyote Ride, Pine Mountain, and White Hill. Typically these rides ended up being about 90-100 miles by the time I got home, and 10-12,000ft of climbing.

Looking far to the north along the Bolinas Ridge towards Tomales Bay, usually where I would meet a different trail for the journey back to town

Tackling those ‘dead miles’—the stretches of tarmac that bookend each adventure—that was the key. Yet swift as I needed it there, equally it had to negotiate the descent with finesse, climb with determination, and cruise those connecting sections at a steady 20 mph with minimal effort. This bike is the epitome of those needs.

Crafted by Sam Whittingham in 2013, this machine was conceived at the dawn of the gravel bike era, a time when the geometry for such versatile bikes was still being figured out. Sam’s expertise in off-road riding and his intuitive grasp of what a true multi-surface machine could be were instrumental. His design was a leap into the unknown, yet his estimations were remarkably on point.

Fitted with Bruce Gordon Rock n Road tires, this bike strikes a harmonious balance between speed and stability. On pavement, it rolls with a willing ease that belies its rugged nature, slicing through the dead miles like a honed steel blade. Yet, once the tires hit the dirt, it’s a different beast entirely, holding its own against mountain bikes on the descents. This dual capability, this ability to transition seamlessly between the worlds of road and trail, is what makes it a true all-rounder, ready for any challenge the ride presents.

The 43mm Bruce Gordon Rock n Road tyres are tremendous on dirt and they roll fast on pavement

The frame’s heart and soul lie in its tubes, forged from KVA MS2 stainless steel—a material choice that has stood the test of time and the rigors of so many rough miles. These tubes have weathered the elements admirably, with nary a hint of rust, maintaining their polished sheen through a regimen of regular cleaning and the occasional waxing. Despite enduring a fair share of hard knocks, the bike’s aesthetic and structural integrity remain uncompromised.

Back around 2015, the bike and I met a treacherous root halfway down a stepped descent, which left my arm in a sling and a noticeable crease dent in the top tube. Rather than shipping it back to Sam Whittingham, who originally crafted the frame, I opted for a more local solution. I sourced a replacement tube from KVA and entrusted Jeremy Sycip, a talented builder just a few miles away, to cut and weld it into place. While Sam might have preferred to restore his own creation, the proximity and convenience of Jeremy’s workshop made the decision easy.

This episode underscored one of the true advantages of having a locally made frame: the ease of access to expert craftsmanship when repairs are needed. Yet it’s not just about having a quick fix; on a more profound level it’s about the connections and the community that come with it—in particular the occasional encounter with the bike's builder. While Sam may have been a premium choice to engineer this fine machine, the synergy between design, durability, and the human touch that crafted it is a thing you can appreciate only in person. It is an invaluable byproduct of the custom-built bike. I miss this, and were I to feel any sense of regret around this bike, that would be it. Conversations with many frame builders over the years suggest this is a two-way street.

In the end we opted for a seat pin, not a mast, and reduced the seat tube bend

The bike's performance is driven by a reliable Shimano XT groupset. Over the years, it has proven its mettle, requiring only routine replacements—brake pads, disc rotors, chainrings, and hydraulic fluid. The groupset continues to deliver seamless shifts and enduring strength, making it a cornerstone of this bike’s resilience.

This robust, lightweight, groupset is complemented by a set of HED Ardennes 32-spoke wheels, with their bladed spokes contributing both to their aerodynamic efficiency and striking aesthetic. These wheels have been stellar companions on countless rides, and they carry a story of their own that deserves telling in due course.

The front end is graced by a Whisky Parts No.9 Cross carbon fork, a component I’ve particularly enjoyed for its blend of lightness and rigidity. Unfortunately, I cracked the steerer tube, possibly from over-tightening despite using a torque wrench—a reminder of the delicate balances in working with high performance materials. While I’ve appreciated this fork, it’s time for a replacement. I’m considering a titanium unit for its renowned durability and like the steel frame, it's naked beauty. That’s a decision I need to mull over with some seasoned frame builders.

For touring, I swapped to a set of Velocity Aileron wheels with 40 spokes, chosen to handle my weight and the added load of long-distance adventures. Starting those tours at 260 pounds before adding luggage, I needed wheels that were uncompromisingly strong. In hindsight, a 36-spoke pattern in these sturdy hoops would likely have sufficed, but the extra security of the 40 spokes provided peace of mind and flawless performance over rugged miles.

The cockpit setup features Ritchey WCS carbon bars, stem, and seatpost—components I love for their lightweight strength and vibration damping qualities. To this, I added a pair of Deda Blast mini aero extensions. Though only 15 cm long, they make a noticeable difference, offering about an extra 1.5 mph on flat, windless roads, and into a headwind you'll revel in a priceless feeling you're getting some of your own back. They are perfect for those 5-15 minute stretches of road connectors. However, they do require some conditioning to maintain position comfortably, as their supports are a short three inches up from the wrist. Even so, they’re a fantastic addition for quick bursts of speed and efficiency, and I highly recommend them for anyone looking to optimize their bike’s versatility and performance.

This setup has not only supported countless rides but has also provided a foundation for the bike's evolving story—a testament to its adaptability and the meticulous selection of every component.

Deda Blast bars are well worth it, especially for headwinds!

Getting this bike brought in a significant shift in my perspective on cycling. For decades prior, my focus in single-day rides had been on racing and speed—rides geared towards pushing limits and achieving faster times. Slow rides were merely recovery sessions to support those intense efforts. However, once I acquired this bike, my mindset underwent a profound transformation. Speed ceased to be the priority; instead, rides became about the adventure: pathfinding, managing resources—fuel, hydration, and energy output—to ensure I could actually complete each ride, which was far from a given. More than once, unable to find the next trail and with daylight fading, I switched to a contingency plan so at least I'd be riding after dark on known-paths. This shift in focus opened up a new realm of cycling discovery for me, with endurance and the exploration of new routes and landscapes replacing outright speed.

While brilliant in its primary purpose, I found on a trek from Seattle to San Francisco this bike is good but not great for fully-laden touring. The best bike I've used for that purpose remains a steel mountain bike I used on a trans-Europe tour in 1992. It featured a more compact frame with ovalized tubing, fitted with 40mm road tires on 650C wheels—a combination that provided a tight, responsive feel even when laden with panniers. In contrast, the larger frame even with the larger diameter tubing of the Naked bike I currently ride haven't mitigated the side-to-side flex that becomes noticeable under a heavy load. In most cases that's not much of an issue, but in tight corners on fast descents when you're working the front brake hard it can be a little unnerving.

While the Naked bike excels in many respects, this particular aspect has highlighted the enduring qualities of my old mountain bike. Its design minimized flex and maintained stability, making it better suited for long-distance touring with substantial gear. This comparison underscores the nuanced trade-offs inherent in bike design—where choices in frame geometry and materials so significantly impact performance under varying conditions and loads.

My Naked bike may not be designed for road racing, but it has surprised me with its performance in spirited sprints against roadies, particularly those adrenaline-pumping dashes to the town sign. However, on my epic 90+ mile one-day adventures—tests of endurance and energy management where efficiency across every terrain type is paramount. In these rides I truly believe my Naked is giving me a big advantage.

These rides are not just about distance; they demand upwards of 6000-7000 calories, requiring meticulous energy conservation not only on the grueling climbs but also the descents and singletrack trails where a flat bar can offer an energy efficiency no drop bar can match. It’s a test where every component of the ride—from bike to body—must perform at its peak. Interestingly, none of my riding companions have been able to keep pace with me on these journeys. Despite similar fitness levels and experience on roadie-type rides together, their bikes—mainly 'cross bikes or full rigid mountain bikes—seem fractionally less suited to these epic endeavors.

I speculate that even a gravel bike, had it been around during my prime riding days, might not have fared much better than a 'cross bike. The reasons for my Naked bike's superiority lie not only in its setup but also in the synchrony between my bike’s design and my riding style. Flat bars augmented with aero extensions provide enhanced control on descents, a noticeable boost in speed on flat stretches, and as mentioned earlier a significant morale lift when battling headwinds.

The decision to move house, change jobs, and add a dog to the family unit prompted me to scale back these monumental rides before gravel bikes gained popularity. Nonetheless, my setup remains uniquely tailored to my needs, reflecting years of fine-tuning and experience. It's a testament to the importance of finding the right bike for the right purpose—and in my case, maximizing enjoyment and performance on every unforgettable ride.

Nothing can beat the aero tuck when pedalling into the teeth of a headwind

The stainless tubes have lost the lustre that drew so many compliments from others 12 years ago, but after a waxing, they still look great and I've never had to worry about chips and scratches.

When new, this bike was a show-stopper!

It’s not merely a machine but a bespoke partner, tuned and refined for my riding style, my physical dimensions, to best meet the unique demands of my adventures, across rolling hills or carving through dense forests. This level of individuality, this intimate connection, is what makes riding it such an unparalleled experience.