Pursuit Cycles Supple Road review: Paved or not, and just how you want it
Pursuit Cycles Supple Road review: Paved or not, and just how you want it
- What it is:Custom carbon fiber frames from long-time titanium and steel builder Carl Strong.
- Frame features:Modular monocoque construction, custom geometry and carbon lay-up, clearance for 700×32 mm or 650×42 mm tires, lots of accessory mount and paint options, titanium T47 bottom bracket shell and rear thru-axle guides.
- Weight:850-1,000 g (claimed, frame only); 8.27 kg (18.23 lb), as tested, size 53 cm, with fenders.
- Price:US$4,800 (frame and fork only with standard features); US$13,300 (complete bike, as pictured, without pedals). Pricing for other regions based on current exchange rates.
- Highs:Excellent stiffness, handling, and ride quality; full suite of custom options; focus on long-term durability; timeless aesthetic, competitive frameset cost.
- Lows: Limited range of custom geometry, complete bikes are expensive, having to explain to your riding buddies what a “Pursuit” is.
The high-end road bike market has evolved into a veritable arms race of technology, with practically every mainstream company trying to outdo the others across a wide range of objective metrics — with increasingly small margins of victory, and at seemingly higher costs year after year. Who can save a second here, or a gram there? It’s a battle that always has a winner, though the joys of victory never seem to last long given there’s always something “better” around the corner.
What if you didn’t care about being on the cutting edge of that stuff? What if you were just after a bike that was nearly as light, but rode, handled, fit, and looked exactly how you wanted? Back in the day, custom bikes were always more expensive than mainstream options. But nowadays, that gap isn’t nearly as big as it once was. In fact, it’s practically nonexistent, and in some cases, the order is even reversed.
Carl Strong is a frame builder in Bozeman, Montana, who started out in his grandmother’s garage in 1993 and steadily forged a well-earned reputation over the next three decades building custom road bikes, gravel bikes, and hardtail MTBs — mostly in titanium, some steel. But in 2016, Strong decided to branch out into carbon fiber with a new endeavor called Pursuit Cycles and a small group of partners and employees.
Jared Nelson is Pursuit’s director of engineering, and also happens to be assistant professor in mechanical engineering at the State University of New York in New Paltz, specializing in fiber-reinforced composites (and even more specifically, in manufacturing defects of those composites). Bill Cochran is more of a silent partner, providing much of the initial financial backing required to get Pursuit off the ground (and he’s also Pursuit’s wheel builder). Carl is Pursuit’s general manager, and also handles frame design, sales, and marketing. Carl’s wife, Loretta, handles the finance and some photography.
There’s also production engineer Luke Middlestadt (who, together with Carl, was on a recent Nerd Alert podcast where we discussed Pursuit’s operations), carbon technician Theo Loo, soon-to-be-painter Mark Levy (Dark Matter Finishing is handling Pursuit’s paint currently), design engineer Jeff Wyatt, and photographer Pascal Beauvais.
And that’s it — just nine people, and they’re not even all full-time. After a few years of getting their feet wet refining the process, Pursuit Cycles is now in full swing.
Doing things differently
Custom carbon bikes are nothing new. Parlee has been in the game for ages, as has Calfee and Crumpton. And of course, there are newer players like FiftyOne, Appleman, and Argonaut. With little exception (Argonaut’s new RM3 being one), the preferred manufacturing method for smaller carbon brands is tube-to-tube construction since it’s so conducive to small-batch building. Tube-to-tube construction is sort of like fillet brazing, but with carbon fiber: fully cured tubes are mitered at the ends, the joints are bonded together, and then the joints are wrapped with strips of carbon fiber and the whole thing is baked to cure.
Instead, Pursuit has opted for modular monocoque construction, where entire sections of a frame are molded as one piece, and then those subassemblies are bonded, overwrapped, and cured. It’s the preferred method for mainstream brands since high-stress joint areas can be made thinner and lighter than tube-to-tube methods while still hitting the desired stiffness and strength characteristics, and it’s how mainstream companies with big R&D budgets can produce these new-school ultralight bikes with such complex shapes. Modular monocoque construction requires a lot more initial investment — hence smaller builders’ tendency toward tube-to-tube — but from a performance perspective, it’s still the pinnacle.
“It has been quite expensive,” Strong said. “The tools are one cost and the engineering to design them is pretty significant as well. We are using aluminum tools for a few reasons; first is cost. Steel would last longer, but as a boutique company, we don’t put that many parts through them. We also take very good care of them because everyone that uses them is very passionate about their work. The other reason is weight; they are much easier to handle.”
Pursuit uses conventional molding techniques whereby carefully cut swatches of uncured carbon fiber are placed by hand and clamped inside a clamshell mold, with a mix of inflatable bags and semi-rigid preforms that apply outward pressure to squeeze out the excess resin during the baking and curing process. But while most modular monocoque frames are made using one-piece front triangles with separate stays, Pursuit builds its front ends from three sections.
According to Pursuit, these smaller sections can be produced with greater consistency and better surface finishes, and because the insides are more accessible, it’s also easier to perform proper quality control. Stays are produced as individual pieces as usual, and the dropouts are compression molded bits using chopped-fiber methods.
“We have about 20 molds we can mix and match,” Strong continued. “We are also able to trim parts within a small range. But there are limitations, and unlike metal or tube-to-tube bikes, we are limited to frame models. We couldn’t make an adventure bike or mountain bike. But unlike most manufacturers building with molds, we are able to tailor top tube lengths over a range of about 2.5 cm per head tube size, and we can tweak the head tube angle, seat tube angle, chainstay length, and bottom bracket drop within a small range.”
Although there are limits to how far the geometry can be varied from the stock settings, the one-at-a-time production methods do allow for custom lay-up schedules to suit customer wants and needs. And either way, custom geometry and lay-up schedule are both included with the standard purchase price.
Quality is a major part of Pursuit’s stated mission. Internal and external surface finishes look practically perfect straight out of the mold, and Strong says every frame is mechanically tested before it goes out the door. Axle sleeves and the T47 threaded bottom bracket shells are made of titanium for more precise alignment, to prevent galvanic corrosion, and for greater durability than aluminum. The titanium axle guides and aluminum replaceable rear derailleur hanger are made by a local machine shop, and the bottom bracket sleeve is sourced from Paragon Machine Works, but modified in-house, and everything that should be chased, faced, or machined actually is.
Otherwise, just like Pursuit’s sister brand, everything else happens in Strong’s shop in Bozeman.
While aerodynamic efficiency obviously isn’t a goal here, traditionalists will likely still find plenty to catch their attention. Claimed frame weights are competitive at 850-1,000 g depending on size and desired stiffness (paint supposedly adds 40-100 g), there’s a standard 27.2 mm round seatpost and external aluminum clamp, and cables are external up front for easy service and maintenance.
There are options galore, too. Looking for a particular cable routing setup? Easy. Front and rear fender mounts? Done (provided you choose the Columbus Futura fork instead of the Enve one). A third bottle mount? Child’s play. A top tube bag mount? Get ready for snacks galore! All of those extra holes are even reinforced with different plies of carbon fiber as needed.
The sky’s the limit on paint, too. Single-color finishes are included, but anything else is only limited by your bank account balance. Finished-to-match components are also available.
Technically speaking, Pursuit currently offers three drop-bar models, though they’re variations on a common theme. The Pure Road is as it says on the tin, with aggressive geometry and a classic silhouette designed around 28 mm-wide tires. The All Road is basically a gravel bike with room for 700×40 mm or 650×48 mm knobby rubber and a longer-and-lower geometry for more surefooted handling on loose surfaces. And then there’s the Supple Road middle-child being reviewed here, built around 650×42 mm or 700×32 mm for poor road surfaces, but with a frame geometry closer to the Pure Road for entertaining handling. Each model is offered in stock sizing from 52 to 59 cm, but that’s kind of a moot point given the available custom geometry.
All things considered, the starting retail price for the frameset is quite reasonable at US$4,800, particularly when you remember that custom geometry and lay-up is included at no additional charge — not to mention the fact that flagship framesets from mass-produced brands these days are substantially more expensive.
Complete bikes are where things diverge a bit more. The bike that was supplied for review here would command a whopping US$13,300 fee. Granted, this bike was outfitted with a full SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless electronic disc-brake groupset (with power meter) as well as one of Pursuit’s more elaborate paint jobs and a seatpost, stem, ultralight Berk carbon fiber saddle, leather bar tape, and Portland Design Works full-wrap fenders — all finished to match. However, it also came with a set of handbuilt wheels built with 650b Velocity Blunt SS aluminum rims and Chris King hubs wrapped with 42 mm-wide Rene Herse Babyshoe Pass clinchers. That’s all good stuff, but it’s worth pointing out that flagship mainstream models would invariably come with carbon wheels for similar money, and maybe even a power meter. Pricing for other regions is based on current exchange rates.
Total weight for my 53 cm sample was 8.27 kg (18.23 lb) as pictured with fenders, but without pedals or other accessories.
The allure of choice
I should first preface this review by pointing out the inherent silliness of reviewing a custom bike. Whereas stock bikes from mainstream brands are more locked-in in terms of things like ride quality and handling, the beauty of a truly bespoke bike is that you can have it exactly how you want it. In other words, you should take my commentary here with a grain of salt since Pursuit’s customization options mean you can make your bike however you wish — even if it’s different from my preferences. The loaner that Pursuit supplied used a lay-up schedule that was “in the middle of the stiffness/comfort scale,” so there was room to adjust things in either direction.
But at least for me, it turns out that middle-of-the-road approach was just about right.
I’ve often professed my soft spot for rally car-style road bikes — bikes that are light and stiff and fast and quick-handling like traditional road racers, but can play on a wider range of surfaces. Modern gravel bikes fill that niche to an extent, of course, but most these days have more sedate handling to provide mainstream confidence on loose terrain.
The routes I usually ride around Boulder are picture-perfect for that style of riding, with lots of well-paved roads taking you to parts unknown, dirt roads that can be so well compacted and maintained that they can be smoother than the tarmac, and light-duty trails and gravel paths that have always been doable on a traditional road bike, but are far more enjoyable on a gravel rig.
In 650b form as Pursuit supplied, the Supple Road tackled all of this with aplomb.
The soft and pliable Rene Herse tire casings roll fast on smoother ground, they suck up all sorts of chatter that normally overwhelm smaller-volume tires, and the big contact patches are so, so entertaining through fast corners.
Handling-wise, the stock geometry is a bit of an outlier in terms of many mainstream multi-surface machines, but that’s also why I found it to be so entertaining. On proper off-road surfaces, I most certainly appreciate the longer-lower-slacker frame geometry that’s become so popular in recent years. It’s more confidence-inspiring when there’s minimal traction, it doesn’t bite you as hard when things go (literally) sideways, and many buyers don’t really care too much about quick handling, anyway.
In contrast, the Supple Road’s stubby trail figure and short wheelbase make it feel like a good road racing bike — but with big, fat, grippy tires. Turn-in is quick and responsive, the low bottom bracket feels reassuringly stable at higher speeds, and with more weight on the front wheel than many gravel-specific bikes, you can really drive the front end through paved corners — at least when it’s dry. I unfortunately found the wet grip of the Rene Herse tires to be surprisingly lackluster, and when they let go, they do so quickly (to the point where I had my first road crash in close to a decade while testing this bike).
As promised, the frameset is stiff and efficient-feeling under power, with none of the squishiness or softness of so many modern gravel bikes that are designed for more off-road duty. And as you’d expect, the Supple Road feels more like a traditional road racing bike when outfitted with aero wheels and narrower 700c rubber. The ride quality of the frame itself is a bit on the firmer side when outfitted that way, but that’s somewhat by design given the Supple Road’s stated purpose. Nevertheless, it’s hardly objectionable, and let’s not forget that anyone ordering one of these for themselves can request a more comfortable setup.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I think it’s safe to say that the Supple Road will appeal to traditionalists who prefer a more classic silhouette. The top tube is nearly level, all of the tubing — while still pretty heavily shaped — is nominally roundish, and aside from the rather loud paint of my test sample, the whole thing comes across as refreshingly timeless. Can the Supple Road go head to head with a Trek Madone in a wind tunnel, or battle a Specialized Aethos on a scale? Of course not, but I’d argue that the prospective buyer of something like this won’t really care all that much, and in fact, may even actively eschew both of those things.
That said, I’m a big fan of the finished-to-match components and accessories. They lend a cohesive look to the whole machine — especially the fenders, in this case. All things considered, Pursuit isn’t charging that much for the additional finish work, either; seems like a no-brainer to me. I’d pass on the matching leather bar tape, though. The texture is great and it looks fantastic, but the complete lack of padding is brutal on your hands.
In terms of the finish work in general, it’s superb. The paint was extremely clean and smooth, the masking lines are sharp, and while I’m not usually a huge fan of big chrome down tube logos, it went well with the polished silver wheels on this test bike.
The whole thing just looks classy. Grown-up. Timeless.
Turning back the clock
Ultimately, I think that’s the real appeal of a bike like this. While so many mainstream brands are perpetually chasing “more” or “better”, Pursuit — like so many custom builders — is instead offering “outstanding” in perpetuity. Yes, bikes will invariably continue to get lighter, more structurally efficient, more aerodynamically efficient, maybe a bit more comfortable, and so on.
But at some point, enough is enough, no?
As it turns out, “really, really good” is pretty darn good, and plenty of people are perfectly ok with that. Were I in the market (and had the cash) for a do-it-all road bike like this, and also had my heart set on carbon, I’d certainly have a Pursuit on my short list.
More information can be found at www.pursuitcycles.com.Read More