The density altitude figured up at 11,400 feet during high-noon today. 100 degrees, high, thin air and like Stephen King’s Under The Dome taking place inside a gigantic hair dryer. That’s exactly what it felt like. Hardly a time to go on a moderate ride after literally no training volume this year, but I wanted to ride a standard twenty-something mile loop on my newly built-up Soma Smoothie frame.
Curiosity got the better of me; I turned down a hard packed gravelly road used in the area’s bi-annual Boulder-Roubaix race. I chose to ride the eighteen-mile course to see how it performed. I knew this would be a much different ride. I expected immediate amazement. I didn’t get that, well, the instant amazement part. What I got was the slowly warming amazing of what a bike can give the rider when it can go most anywhere, AND, still deliver a performing ride.
My build goal was to build a fast and durable bike that would easily tackle a surface like the legendary cobblestones of Belgium and France. The key ingredients of such a build would rely upon the tires and the frame. Both would have to absorb bumps and vibrations but the frame would also need a responsive performing feel.
The Soma Smoothie has the same tube angles of a Cannondale CAAD9 aluminum race frame. It just weighs about 800 grams more. That’s all. To preserve the racy frame angles and handling, I picked the IRD Technoglide headset for its shorter than average 11mm stack lower cup and matched it with a Kinesis DC07 carbon fork for it’s lesser axle-crown measure than most, at a very reasonable price. This combination allowed a long reach fork with a minimal change in stack height to the front end. About 6mm, or, a quarter of a degree to a third perhaps. The result let me run larger tires without the fork and headset lifting the front end and create changes in actual frame angles/designed handling. With decent Easton EA70 wheels, Shimano’s 5800 series 105-11spd group set and some 28c Michelin Endurance Pro4 v2 tires, the whole ship came in at about twenty-one pounds. That first hit down the hard pack gravel road told me I had chosen my parts well, and the frame was a great selection.
**A quick note about the 5800 groupset. Soma did tell me that a longer reach caliper was likely necessary however I found the 5800 was a definite change from teh 5700 105 group before. In fact, with the brake pads all the way down to the bottom of adjustment, they made perfect contact with the wheel rim. I did not need “long reach” calipers with this build. A regular 5800 group is awesome on this bike and the higher models should fare just as well.**
It’s not just the fact a steel frame that absorbs road vibration, it’s the tire size that the frame allows. The 28c Michelin tires, that measure true to 30mm on my 17.5mm internal width rims, really did the extra trick. As a whole package using an aluminum seat post and cockpit pieces, the pavement vibration was nicely absorbed by the frame and fork and to be honest, I felt it was at first marginally better than the aluminum frame I had been riding before, but as the miles ticked by, I realized something. I was moving faster down rougher roads than before. the 32mph coast down a rough dirt hill was chattering before and now, fun! That’s right, 32mph, down hill, over washboard dirt and gravel on 30mm tires was downright enjoyable and at no point did it feel like I was getting shaken down for lunch money in the hallway by my previous CAAD9 aluminum. I rolled through the bumps of manhole covers and gaping asphalt cracks and through washboards and other light bumps. Notice I didn’t say over. Through is the word. I felt more smooth on this stuff, where the previous CAAD9 would jar my body as well as physically slow the ride. Now, large bumps on the previous magnesium frame? Well, it would roll through the lighter bumps as well but hitting anything decent? Do so and that Mg frame would come at me with a baseball bat in hand. Peculiar for sure, like moonshine – an unstoppable and unforgiving force once on the roll. Not a single startling moment of anything like that with the Smoothie. In fact, this steel bike on that 50% dirt road course is a faster bike over the CAAD because of the ride quality.
Any cycling enthusiast would be happy to discuss the merits of Steel vs. Aluminum vs. Carbon and what they’re good at or deficient with. When I put power into the Smoothie, there was hardly any more flex over what an aluminum race frame delivers and to get to a point where this frame is reaching it’s limits and impeding your abilities would take some serious trained rider ability. It takes some bumps. It absorbs road vibration. It is not a wet noodle on power. It’s comfortable and a fantastic all-around bike that you could actually race because it can do most any road you see and that’s more gravy on the Thanksgiving plate. I chose this bike over a Cannondale CAAD and a storied magnesium alloy frame. It fits better than they did, rides better and takes tires with more volume and therefore more comfort and better rolling resistance. It’s very close in stiffness to the others and feels great on a downhill.
I recommend this frame. Be advised, there is prep work to accomplish upon receipt. Standard facing and chasing of bottom brackets and head tubes are common in a steel frame and this is no exception, but $400 for frame alone and this becomes an absolutely great deal especially when you shop around for others, finding the equivalent weight and quality costs much more. You’re not getting anything lighter and for a higher Reynolds number material for three times the cost, you don’t get much different performance. This Smoothie is a true race geometry and responsive steel frame that can fit tires that measure true at 30mm. Zero complaints. Get yourself one.
The end of my ride began fifteen miles in. I climbed a shallow gravel road with my heart rate near 180. At the top I realized the water I just drank was hotter than my body. I could have made tea in that bottle. At the top, I was able to ride down a long shallow descent of coasting in the mid twenty-mile-per-hour range. I took what was last of that bottle and sprayed myself in the front, everywhere, to cool off. At first, the water burned hot as it soaked through, but then evaporated away in the wind, doing it’s job and cooling me to immediate effect. I stopped at the small general store five miles from home to cool down and get some colder water, not to mention the excellent slice of cherry pie there at Mary’s Purple Door Mountain Fountain.
Many other cyclists stop through and all of them today had their head low and stumbled around a bit. It was not just hot, but painful hot today. Punishing hot. After thirty minutes I could see straight again and went home. Twenty-one miles was all I could do. Sixty wasn’t a problem in February, but seeking, finding and getting a new job got in the way until today. This bike is now the go-to ride for any training and specialist competition involving a mix-up with dirt packed roads.
Thank you for reading.