“what the **** was that?”

a review of the Smokestone Mr Harry

The Smokestone Mr Harry Review

As you might have read in a recent post I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch party for Graham Foot’s latest Smokestone bike, The Mr Harry “Gravel” bike. I’ve used inverted commas here as I think it blurs the boundaries of lots of bike genres, but read on and see.

When I used to sell and fix bikes for a living I always spoke to the customer about buying the best frame they could for their money as this was the heart of the bike and all the things that hang on it to make it go, make it stop, make it comfortable or make it fast are all replaceable. Buy the bike with the great handling frame and upgrade the parts as they inevitably wear out.

And so I approached this review as a test of the frame rather than the parts it came with. this is doubly important as it will be sold as a frameset first, allowing the purchaser to spec it exactly how they want it. However, the way this frame has been designed challenges this, again blurring the conventional wisdom. So with this in mind there will be a report on some of the parts.

Disclaimer: This isn’t my bike, I’m just lucky enough to be the first person to test it in exchange for a UKgravelCO sticker 🙂

The frame

The Mr Harry is a titanium frame, officially Titanium grade 9 (3Al/2.5V) designed in Gloucestershire and manufactured in the Far East and comes with that lovely finish you only get with Ti. The welds are neat and tidy and it comes with a sloping but straight (yay for aesthetics!) top tube which is there to give a better anchor point for a frame bag, bent top tubes create all sorts of headaches for bike frame bags even if they do give more stand over height. The frame is drilled for an internal dropper post size 31.6mm to give you maximum options, has three bottle cage mounts, two inside the front triangle and one under the down tube and production frames will come with rack mounts as standard.

hurray for a threaded BB & proper tubes! See also exit for dropper post routing

The bottom bracket is external and threaded, rejoice! and is a standard size (73mm) despite the huge amount of clearance the frame allows. The chain stays are tubes rather than the current fashion of one side being a plate to allow clearance and the ability to run a large chainring and this not just enhances the look of the bike it helps with the side to side stiffness but still allowing vertical compliance. With the bike static and with me putting all my weight on one pedal there was next to no side to side deflection so all your pedalling power is going towards propelling the bike forward.

neat welds and sliding dropouts

The rear dropout is bolt through and the spacing is 148mm boost. these dropouts slide fore and aft along with the disc mount to accommodate the wheel/tyre size and shorten or lengthen the wheelbase. With 29 x 2.6mm tyres fitted the dropouts were set nearly all the way back, so almost max wheelbase. The head tube is standard Top cup = IS 42, Lower cup = IS 52 full specifications for all the sizes can be found here

The Ride

Typical NWAlps conditions

The first ride was a dialling in process, i adjusted the roll and the height of the bars, the saddle height and fore-aft placement to try and replicate as near as possible my own gravel bike to give a fair comparison. Initially I was going to ride in the Forest of Dean but then I thought the best test would be to ride the bike on familiar trails, routes which I know well and know how my own bike feels on them. These are a mix of short sections of tarmac, very muddy bridleways, lots of slick tree rooted forest, sandy field edges, canal towpath, wooden steps, gravel double track, slick clay cut throughs, draggy grass and moorland and trails the local MTBers have built in the woods with steep drop ins, off camber berms, rollers and deliberate obstacles such as fallen trees. So just about everything apart from dry and dusty and rock gardens.

climbing was actually fun!

I was concerned that as the bike was set up with pretty much the longest wheel base possible it would handle like a narrow boat but it turned into corners just great, it’s not a 26″ wheeled 4x bike but you turn the bars and it goes where you point it, be it downhill off camber or loose soil over roots. as the ride went on I challenged it to more and more trails that i tip toe down on my gravel bike and it just bombed through, the more i rode the more confident I got. Add a dropper post to this and it’ll go pretty much anywhere you point it. Seated climbing is comfy and only the slickest climbs defeated it, but this is more to do with the tyres than the frame. Climbing was also enhanced by the seat angle, not being too steep it allowed a great sitting position that enabled weight shifting to add traction when needed. All this off road prowess wasn’t at the expense of road manners though, it happily bowled along the tarmac sections and the big tyres just shrugged off pot holes, in fact I was deliberately riding over the worst bits for fun!

Titanium is known for its comfortable ride and I’ve ridden Ti frames in the past that have been comfy but the downside of this is they can be a bit noodle like, flexing in the wrong places visibly. I’ve had MTBs that you can feel flex from side to side at the head tube and bottom bracket area. this frame however managed to be rock solid in these areas but at the same time was a very comfortable ride. The only way I can describe it is it’s like a good quality steel frame without the weight penalty.

Lets talk about tyres

Vittoria Mezcals XC-Trail were fitted to the test bike

So, as i mentioned earlier even though this is really a review of the frame there’s no getting away from the fact that he bike in this specification has big tyres. They are 29 x 2.6 a size you see on trail or enduro MTBs altough the tread on these isn’t as aggressive as most. The astonishing thing is that these aren’t even the biggest tyres the frame will take. it’ll happily accommodate 29 x 3.0.

This bike is marketed as an adventure bike and in this guise with these tyres I can see the bike tackling the Highland 550 or The Tour divide. loaded up with everything you need to survive it’ll deliver you to the end if not in comfort then less fatigued than on an alloy framed bike and less scared of a carbon frame being able to take the knocks of such an adventure.

For my local riding the tyres were an absolute giggle, on the off road sections they were brilliant, confidence inspiring and rolled well. On the tarmac sections they actually surprised me how little resistance they gave. Would i want to ride a 100k on the road on them? no, but read on.

Perception is your only limit

mind the gap

The title of this article comes from a comment made during my ride. On a short section between woods there was a quarter mile of tarmac with an off camber grass verge to one side, of course I took this option and towards me on the road came a group of road bike riders, i waved and they waved back and as they passed I heard one say “what the **** was that?” which I love! But it made me think that this bike has unlimited possibilities. The big tyres are great fun if you are lucky enough to ride 100% off road, although I’d probably go 2.4″ for myself. But run narrower tyres and the frame is nimble enough and light enough to gave a great account of itself in a cross race, a little larger tyre and it’s going to be exploring back lanes and unknown bridleways with all day comfort. you could even slip some 28mm slicks on there and join the local chaingang or 10mile TT. I’d have two sets of wheels, one with big tyres and one with 40-45mm tyres because I think this bike would absolutely fly on a set of light wheels with gravel tyres. The only limit is the riders imagination.

Conclusion

Graham Foot, the designer of this frame has deep seated roots in mountain bikes from almost the first day they caught on in the UK, Graham knows off road and has produced frames since those early days, better known these days for his Fat bikes. All that accumulated knowledge has gone into this frame, but I think Graham will be the first to admit he has less experience with drop bar bikes but Graham listens to his customers and with the likes of Andy Deacon, star of this years GD-Duro and long distance riding events inspiring and adding ideas he has come up with a super versatile, well mannered frame that somehow manages to be stable but still exciting with the feel of steel and be light in the process. However you spec this frame, as adventure bike, monstercrosser or gravel bike you won’t be disappointed.

The Details

As mentioned above, this is really all about the frame but for those interested here’s the spec as ridden,

  • Frame weight – 1.98kg (size Large)
  • Price (frame only) £1600 for Titanium frame , sliding dropouts 12mm bolt through
  • Full bike as pictured £3800
  • Fork – Whisky No9 mtn 15mm
  • Wheels and hubs – Halo Vapour 35mm
  • Tyres – Vittoria XC Trail 29 x 2.6″
  • Chainset – Sram GX with 36T ring
  • Rear Mech – Shimano GRX R800
  • Shifters – Shimano GRX R800
  • Cassette Shimano GRX R800 11-40
  • Brake Caliper – Shimano SLX
  • Bars – Genetic “flare”
  • Stem – Genetic STV
  • Seatpost – Genetic Syngenic 31.6mm
  • Saddle – Prologo Dimension NDR
  • Size Tested – Large
  • Sizes Available 52cm, 54cm, 56cm (large), 58cm, 60cm

Smokestone Mr Harry

a brief first impression…

it looks “right” somehow

I was recently invited to the Slam69 shop to view a very interesting new bike. The Smokestone Mr Harry.

Graham Foot, the guy behind this new bike has lots of experience in this sort of thing, producing his first bike back in the hey day of MTBing in the late eighties right up to the present and very successful fat bike range (the Henderson) the latest of these being made of Titanium.

The Mr Harry is also titanium and currently this is the only frame in existence and was literally only built an hour before the launch which is why a few of the parts are eclectic.

The basic idea of the bike is an Adventure/Gravel/bike packing bike that can take standard gravel size tyres or rubber right up to 29 x 3″

plenty of clearance even with 29 x 2.6 tyres

It has 3 bottle cage mounts, a larger triangle for full size frame bags if that’s your thing, is 100mm suspension corrected and pannier and dropper post compatible. This build with not particular lightweight parts nudged the scales at 26lb (11.8kg)

The quick ride I had showed me that the handling was very neutral, more MTB than twitchy road which is good for load carrying and unladen tech riding. The front height has been on my wish list for ages, high enough to see where I’m going without the need for a million spacers and a high rise stem. riding on the drops would be a comfortable place on this bike. It did no hands riding comfortably always a good sign of a balanced bike. I Loved the stand over and straight tubes on this large size frame and the sloping geometry. Stick a fork with the 3 bolt mounting options on it & I think it’s got the potential to cater for a wide range of rider.

I’m hoping to get a few days riding on it in the next couple of weeks to give it a proper run in real local conditions but first impressions are really positive.

More info can be found on the Smokestone bikes website

Missing out

So last weekend was the first “Gone Gravelling” ride out from The Trailhead bike shop in Shrewsbury. I’d love to tell you about how great the route was through the Shropshire Hills, how I made new friends and hooked up with people with invites for future rides. How although I was tired at the end it was all worth the effort and the pizza and beer reward at the finish was the best thing ever!

Yes, I’d love to tell you all that but unfortunately the weekend before the event I had a full on man-cold. Starting with a less than par ride that should have been easy to the next day when the sore throat began to full on constant runny nose to a sinus infection meant the weeks commute riding was a write off. Hoping that the enforced lay off the pedals would hasten recovery I left my first ride post cold to two days before the Gone Gravelling start. This ride didn’t go as I’d hoped. lacking energy i managed around 17 miles before heading home for a little lie down. I knew then that even though the ride was billed as going as fast as the slowest rider I would not have enjoyed the hills there, we don’t have the same gradients or length of climb here in North Worcestershire. “suffering” might be the buzz word for cycling in some quarters but in my mind that’s only acceptable if you are holding off the bunch with 10k to go at the end of Paris-Roubaix. Holding on to disappearing riders in the hope that there was some pizza left by the time i got there isn’t.

So it was heavy heart i messaged by friend that I was pulling out. I hate letting people down, I dislike not sticking to the arranged plan but it was the right thing to do no matter how much it sucks.

I’d been dreading seeing the pictures

Inevitably Sunday evening brought the deluge of pictures from the ride, filthy bikes and mud splattered smiling faces, pictures of pizza, beer and big grins. I’d been dreading seeing those but actually it cheered me up. It meant that the ride was a success and that could mean it’ll happen again and next time I won’t be weak and feeble!

So if you are planning a ride or gathering please invite me I don’t want to miss out on anything!

Going nowhere fast V going somewhere slow


I recently attended an evening at Stroud Brewery. A visit there just to sample the beer and pizza would have been enough to justify the journey as it’s that good and well set up but on this particular evening there was a talk on long distance self supported endurance riding and bike packing.

At the end of the 3 talks there was a Q&A session and amongst the questions was one for which the answer really hit home to me.

The question was “after doing these long distance events what would you do different next time” One of the speakers spoke of taking less than 1.5kg of flap jack and the other less socks but Katherine Moore said the thing she’d do differently is “ride more slowly”

I’ve never been fast even though I’m probably fitter on the bike now than when i was in my twenties but I’ve always looked at my average speed on rides with a bit of disappointment. I work in a bike shop and a lot of the chat with customers revolves around how fast is that, how many watts will it give me, my average speed etc etc so I know many cyclists are obsessed by this, not just the road riders but MTBers too who love to check their time on a downhill segment or try for a KOM on strava or similiar stat based apps.

Katherine said “ride more slowly” and went on to explain that she’d done lots of races in incredible places with dramatic scenery and ridden with riders from all over the world but because she had either been trying to go as fast as she could or needed to finish before a cut off time she hadn’t really taken notice of the scenery or spent time getting to know those interesting people. She said that her goal now was not to worry about the clock and enjoy the ride instead.

This was the one thing that stood out for me. I’ve been hashtagging my photos on Instagram UKgravelCO with #lowspeedadventures more to make excuses for the lack of pace but I realise now that going slower and enjoying the ride rather than the performance is the way to go for me. I want to do rides where looking over the hedge at the view is more important than looking at the backside of the rider in front and holding their wheel. I want to ride at a chatting pace and not worry that a checkpoint isn’t going to be reached at an allotted time.

i feel liberated, the pressure is off. it’s time to enjoy the ride rather than the numbers, sit back, relax and just turn the pedals. This just might be a huge turning point in my riding experience. Will it put me off doing “race” based events? maybe, but perhaps this will now give me the impetus and motivation to seek out like minded riders, those who like the idea of no pressure low speed adventures where the actual ride and the people are the focus rather than the minutiae of the stats.

Katherine’s website can be found here and her instagram here

The art of being lost but knowing where you are

grass up the middle trails always lead to adventure

There’s no getting away from the fact that I live in a built up area, I am 30 minutes pedal from the centre of (arguably) The UK’s second biggest city. It’s not that much further into the heart of The Black Country and the massive industrial and manufacturing heartland of the midlands (yes peaky blinders etc, but lets not go into the fact that they were from Small Heath and not Cradley etc etc) so you would expect that riding here unless it was on tarmac via industrial estates lacked any sort of off road routes.

Well you’d be right and wrong at the same time. Around here you are never far from civilisation, it’s not the wilds of the Scottish highlands, the peak district or the wolds etc. What we do have though is hundreds of years of people walking home from work, horse made trails, canal infrastructure and disused rail tracks.

I followed a route I’d been shown once which loosely followed the route of the Tour of the Black country, a sportive that has tarmac and road sections and tries to emulate the great pro race Paris Roubaix. The ride was just over 50 miles and at least 25 of those were off road and for at least 15 of those off road miles I had absolutely no clue where i was going but knew exactly where i was. Let me explain.

Exploring is in my opinion what gravel bikes are made for, they can do multiple miles on tarmac and cope with off road trails too. I wouldn’t want to ride say 40 miles on a mountain bike on tarmac to ride 10 on bridleways. believe me i’ve done it and those MTB miles are a slog and the short bits of off road aren’t an exciting challenge on a capable MTB. a gravel bike will cruise the black top and scare the pants off you off road! who doesn’t like a bit of an adrenaline rush now and again?

so when I’m out riding and i spot a bridleway sign or a track I’ve never ridden i just go for it. it’s at this point that even though i know the general area i’m in I realise i have no clue where the track is going, what the riding conditions will be like, if i’ll have to turn around, climb a fence. cross a stream or cope with any situation. i call these follow the wheel rides, i just point the bike in a general direction and follow it. I’m not lost but standing in a field or a thick wood with no sight of anything i have no clue where I am or where I’ll end up.

Todays ride was just like that, I used the route I knew then followed any bridleway that i came across, one lasted for 3/4 of a mile, a mix of stones and sand across open fields that lead into a wooded section of roots, twists and turns, gravel and drop offs. It came out onto a tiny lane. I looked left and absolutely had no idea where i was, I looked right and saw the back of a pub…hang on I think i recognise that, yes! I knew where i was but no way would i have thought the track would have come out there. i rode up to the end of the lane and there across a busy road was a sign…

there’s nothing more exciting that exploring an unknown bridleway. Adventure awaits!

Of course I couldn’t resist this and it turned out even better than the last, a steep off camber rocky climb turned into sublime singletrack through some woods. there were various points where there was a choice of going on or right or left, i plumped for straight on and it popped me out onto a very sandy track sign posted ” roman road” i knew this path! seconds ago i was lost, exploring the unknown, now i was back on familiar territory and i knew i could link this up to the canal which would take me in the direction i needed.

You can do this any where, don’t despair that you live in the middle of a city, the gravel bike will transport you to places you never knew where there even though you’ve lived in the area all your life, that happened to me just last week on a ride guided by a local, 50 years in this county and there were routes I’d never ridden literally on my door step.

So please try it, go and get lost in your local area (but do tell someone which area you will roughly be in, just in case) i guarantee you’ll be surprised what you discover. In the words of @24TOM LOST IS FOUND

Instagram, what is it for?

I use instagram to post pictures, I like then to be seen both on my personal account at @rocketdoguk and of course the account linked to this site UKgravelCO I assumed anyone who posts on there with an open account, i.e. not private feels the same. They post pictures for everyone to see.

There are some people who are sponsored and I also assumed that the whole point of tagging your sponsors was to give them something back in the way of publicity. This is what i do with the help i get from Rad 8 Sunglasses, Mudhugger and BeerBabe. I try to spread the fact that the products they produce have been tested by me and are worthy of your attention.

When I repost other people’s pictures on UKgravelCo instagram account I always ask permission and up until two days ago this was done with a brief message on the comments of the repost, typically, “is it ok that i’ve reposted this?” Usually the original poster doesn’t comment even though I tag them in so they get an alert to say their pic has been posted by me. occasionally they reply with a smiley face or a thumbs up etc indicating they are fine with it, they and UKgravelCO get a bit of publicity. Once only someone said they weren’t happy for the repost to be published and that’s fine, I then deleted the picture ASAP.

Then after using a message similar to the above on a repost i got the following direct message (i’ve removed the senders tag as they clearly don’t want any publicity)

So, this person only posts pictures that their sponsors have paid for and doesn’t allow sharing of pictures of their sponsors products. that seems a bit of loss of publicity for them. As far as i could tell from their account they are not a world renowned sports person or celebrity. I guess the nearly 1000 (and growing, yay!) followers of UKgravelCO are not the type of riders that this persons sponsors (and yes they are all bike, gravel and outdoor activity related) want to sell products to. I’m sure that’s not right is it? don’t these companies futures rely on selling stuff to us?

UKgravelCO isn’t a business, the T shirts that you can buy do not bring much revenue, in fact if you buy one I get £2.08 and I’ve sold 4. That money will go towards paying for the next batch of stickers which cost around £45, which as you can see is a bit of a shortfall. What I’m trying to get across is that I wasn’t in this case or any time trying to profit from other peoples work in any way. The point is to promote healthy outdoor pursuits using a bicycle.

I’m a little disheartened by the whole episode I’ll be honest. Since the message, unless the picture is hashtagged UKgravelCO or UKgravelcollective i’ve asked in the picute’s comments if i can repost. This does mean a delay and of the 10 or so pictures I’ve wanted to repost for you to see only half have replied, so only 5 have been reposted.

I’d be interested in hearing your views.

Do you need a Gravel Bike?

Screenshot_20181104-164550

The gravel phenomenon

Sacrilege I know when this is a site dedicated to gravel bikes but around here we adhere to the #norules philosophy so I’m reposting this article I published on my other blog and the guys at ADNTR.C.C where kind enough to repost.

It’s just a bike right? A road bike with a bit of clearance for a bigger tyre? Well, yes and no. that’s a road plus bike though…probably… or is that a touring bike? Hmmm, maybe maybe not although the gravel bike frame will probably have the ability to mount at least one rack, mud guards and multiple bottle cages. That is unless it’s a pure gravel racing bike, paired down to the bone for weight saving and the ability to move forward efficiently at top speed with scant regard for comfort.

A gravel bike will have a cyclocross tyre around 35mm, er unless it’s a 45mm tyre but then that’s a 29er XC mtb with drop bars. Phew! at last we’ve nailed it down. Oh but hang on there’s a 650b option with 2.2 inch rubber so that’s what used to be called in the days before gravel bikes, monstercross! Arrgh!

Screenshot_20181104-171059.jpg

All road, adventure road, road plus, gravel, cyclo cross, monster cross, tourer, rough stuffer there are lots of fancy names and sub genres but when it comes down to it it’s just riding a bike. In fact that’s just what I’ve been doing. I have a steel mountain bike of at least 10 years vintage. It’ll take a 29er wheel and a CX/Touring/narrow XC tyre in the back, it’ll even take a 29 x 3.0 inch tyre in the front with the lovely steel fork I have fitted. But at the moment it’s got 35mm tyres that cost me £3.99 each from a well known northern online store. The tyres have a continuous centre line of rubber with a few shallow side knobs, The bike is no lightweight but rolls well on tarmac and is frankly scary on any damp surface so you can imagine what it’s like on wet trails, pretty lethal. However it’s made the bike much like HG Well’s time machine. When I ride it I’m transported back to the late 80s early 90s. a time of narrow bars, long stems and the excitement of riding local trails for the first time. The time when we went out exploring and nearly every trail you pedaled down was a new personal discovery. Bridleway signs were an invite to unseen (by me) vistas and new routes to the pub or cafe. handling was scary, brakes (canti) were frankly non existent.

The trails that you now dismiss on your fancy “trail/hardcore” hardtail as being too tame become a proper challenge again, low grip and twitchy handling just with disc brakes instead of canti brakes. except this doesn’t help as the wheels lock up easily unless you concentrate and go gentle with them rather than slamming the anchors as you would with a 2.4″ knobbly rubber tyre to bail you out. The bike skitters about like bambi on the proverbial ice, I suddenly have to pay attention to the trail ahead and actually have to plan where I point the front wheel. I’ve relearned the art of weight shifting to give some extra traction to the rear wheel and to lean on the front to get the most of the limited grip. The bike has old school XC geometry so there’s no relaxing behind a 65° head angle and letting a plush 160mm travel fork take the strain. I have to actually use my arms and legs as suspension! There isn’t even a dropper post!! The adrenaline rush is unreal as you bounce off the rock you missed when planning ahead, it’s how I imagine Danny Hart felt on his rain soaked world championship DH win, stay on your bike Danny!….ok maybe it’s not in that league but it’s the most exhilarating fun you can have at 8 mph, it just feels like 50mph and my thigh muscles are as clenched as they would be at that speed.

So, I’ve got basically a hybrid bike that I use on trails and lanes. I use it to explore. That little lane that has grass growing up the middle that you’ve never ridden up could lead to a gem of a bridleway or track that needs exploring and might link up to somewhere you know and create a great loop. You’d never go up there on a road bike, you wouldn’t have pedaled 30 miles on tarmac on an mtb to get there. The only things that I have on this bike that I didn’t have on a bike back in the day is consistent braking and bars over 600mm wide.

42371368074_c132f0a1ba_z
flat bar fun

A gravel bike does all this; it’ll probably even have wider tyres too. It will be comfortable over long distances, be forgiving, have all the rack and bottle mounts you’ll ever require and you’ll be at the cutting edge of the latest buzz word in cycling after the “E” word. But do you really need one?

Nope, you just need to dust off that old hardtail you’ve hidden behind a pile of junk in the shed, stick on some narrow tyres, remove the peak off your helmet (not really) and hit the trails that you now ignore or avoid because they are too easy and not challenging enough for your enduro rig. Get back to basics and I guarantee you’ll have a big grin on your face and a little bit of fear in your heart as you hit that first 8mph downhill.

Would I gratefully accept a modern gravel bike over an old hardtail mtb/hybrid?

You bet your ass I would!

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