A hard tale

It used to be an anomaly: in this modern world of efficient-pedalling dual suspension MTBs that comfortably negotiate terrain ranging from baby-smooth XC/Flow trails through to punishing enduro and even downhill-esque descents, it was rare that you saw a hardtail out on the trails.

Well, at least it was until the past couple of years, anyway. The resurgence of hardtail MTBs – most notably those built out of ‘old-school’ steel – has come on fast; Norco’s Torrent HT, Kona’s monster Honzo ESD are just two of the latest, joining brands such as UK-based Cotic and Stanton, along with Canada’s highly regarded Chromag, in offering bikes that are tough, fast, forgiving and up for anything.

The combo of a bike frame made from a material regarded as ancient by the ignorant, with a modern drivetrain (think: single-ring 1x12), forgiving wheels (again, notably in 29-inch size), dropper posts, long-travel forks and the modern MTB trend of long, low and slack geometry, and suddenly you have a bang-for-your-bucks rig that is super-tough, super-simple to work on, with no pivots, rear shock, etc., and just simple, awesome fun.

And it was this that led me to head down the MTB hardtail path around two years ago. Although, for this ageing (ageless?) MTB rider, I approached the ‘hardtail resurgence’ in a slightly different way…

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Retro to the point

I have always been a fan of steel hardtails, partly due to my – ahem – not insignificant age, meaning I was actually around for the dawn of mountain biking, exploring numerous trails on my fully-rigid stone-grey Diamondback Topanga back in the mid 1980s. That bike, sans suspension, taught me plenty about line selection on trails and even though it had since disappeared from my garage, I had never forgotten the fun of a steel-frame hardtail and how these bikes seem to engage the rider more with a trail (probably as you do have to focus more on staying upright!).

When it came time to look for a steel hardtail again, I was after something a little different to the norm; I had dabbled with a couple of Niners (a SIR 9, built with smooth Reynolds 853 steel and the ROS 9 – a 4130 chromoly all-mountain rig) but wanted something that really brought me back to those earlier days of shorter wheelbases, flickable frames and – dare I say it – 26-inch wheels. I wanted to (I guess) prove that such a bike, with all those ‘old-school’ aspects, could still razz trails with the latest and greatest hardtails.

So it was that after first sourcing a New Old Stock (NOS) 2010 Rocky Mountain Blizzard frame (the famous Canadian brand’s last XC steel hardtail in beautiful, springy Columbus Zone steel tubing no less) for my wife to ride, that I scored big-time with what I thought could be the ideal hardtail all-rounder : another Rocky Mountain Blizzard – but this time, the ultra-rare 2011 Long Travel (LT) version, built with beefier 4130 chromoly steel, and which could take a fork of up to 150mm travel. This all-mountain variant of the Blizzard was only produced by Rocky Mountain for one year – and in very limited numbers – so when I spotted a very tidy Large-sized example over in (where else) British Columbia, Canada, it only took a few emails and a tiny amount of haggle, before a friend of mine was returning from BC with, er, just a little bit of additional flight luggage.

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At this point, dear reader, I will understand perfectly the question you ask of why, in 2018, I would want to return to the seemingly redundant 26-inch wheel-size, and also why I would want to build up a trail/all-mountain hardtail frame that also featured another couple of ‘redundancies’: a straight-steerer head-tube, and a QR 135mm rear axle? Yeah, I wondered about that myself, but have always been one to travel the slightly different road – while fully realising, in this case, that tracking down new/second-hand components to fit those out-of-date standards was probably going to be either half the fun, or complete my transformation into a fully-fledged madman as I lost the battle to stay sane during what could have been a truly fruitless search. It’s here, folks, that research really does pay off…

The dream begins at the front end

The idea behind this Blizzard LT build was, initially, to scour second-hand markets for the required components; I had thought (as did a lot of others) that there was minimal – if any – possibility of finding a new straight-steerer fork for the bike and was prepared to do the hard yards of being patient. After a couple of months, patience went out the window and, in what was definitely a semi-fit of madness and desperation, I jumped on FOX’s fork selection page. And it was here I copped my first welcome surprise: the US suspension giant still actually made a couple of forks for a straight-steerer 26-inch MTB, one of which was the mighty FOX 36, albeit in 160mm-travel form, which was a bit longer than I wished as the Blizzard’s recommended fork length maxed out at 150mm. However, it only took a quick chat with FOX’s Aussie distributor Sola Sport to confirm they could drop it to my preferred 140mm (note: this may change at some point) and I was super-stoked. What I had envisaged being the most difficult part of the build had been sorted, albeit not cheaply. That resolved, it was
time to turn my attention to my next potentially painful search: a 26-inch all-mountain wheelset.

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Industrious effort

An all-mountain hardtail relies on a number of factors to provide a good ride and handling experience: the frame material is one (and as most know, steel is definitely more ‘forgiving’ than alloy or even carbon), an efficient fork (it’s the only form of ‘suspension’ on a hardtail – besides your arms and legs, of course), and a wheelset that offers both compliance and strength.

Wheels were tricky. The realm of 26-inch wheels that offer decent width these days is very thin; I was after as much wheel width/tyre width as I could fit in the relatively narrow chainstays of the Blizzard to help dampen the rear end. Most 26-inch wheelsets I found on the second-hand market were only 19-21mm in width, and probably not up to coping with me hucking the bike off bigger drops.

It was at this point that I realised my budget was going south – and in a big way – and I could have quite easily pulled the pin. But, no, instead of doing the sensible thing, I thought if I was going to blow a large portion of it, I might as well go the Full Monty…

I am guessing it had been a little while since Industry Nine’s Australian distributor, Dawson Sports, had received an enquiry about a custom-build set of

26-inch wheels; the Industry Nine Torch Enduro 32 Hole hoops, to be exact. Indeed, Brent Dawson, seemed both surprised and a tad impressed by the dream build idea he was hearing from the madman on the other end of the phone when I rang.

Industry Nine has a well-deserved sterling reputation for its high-engagement wheel hubs and wheelsets. These Torch Enduros were ideal, with a 26mm internal diameter (30.5mm outer) a three-degree engagement and six-pawl mechanism. Uniquely, Industry Nine offers buyers the option of anodising, whether that is just the hubs (such as I did) or even the butted aluminium spokes as well. Pretty colours aside, these wheels are built tough, but still light (weighing in at 1610g) and have a welcome 113kg rider weight limit. Plus, they were available in 135mm QR rear hub format. Yes, these were pretty damn expensive but as this bike was built as a true ‘keeper’, I was sort-of okay with the pricing. Wrapped around the wheels are some Schwalbe Hans Dampf 26x2.35 tyres up front, and Nobby Nic 26x2.35 rubber out back.

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The essentials add up

After the big expense of forks and the Industry Nine wheelset, the Blizzard project was starting to resemble a bad day at the stock market. This meant refocusing on the fact that the rest of the components needed must offer plenty of bang for my ever-decreasing bucks – yes, I was still delusional in terms of wanting this build to not go overboard…

The drivetrain and brakes were a no-brainer: I am a huge Shimano fan and, back in 2018, Shimano had just released its SLX 1x11 drivetrain with that big 46-tooth ring on the rear cassette – add in a set of SLX brakes (180mm rotors front/rear) and I was nearly there.

For the cockpit, I stuck with a Canadian theme and went for Chromag’s OSX bars and a 50mm Ranger stem (in red to match the hubs), along with a schmick Chris King headset and – ideal for my big size 12s – a sweet set of Chromag Scarab flat pedals (also in red). Finally, I have, since the initial build, fitted a 125mm KS Lev dropper post.

To say the Blizzard build project became bigger than Ben-Hur is an understatement. But, thankfully, the actual build itself – undertaken by master bike mechanic and former MBA Editor Tim Robson – was straightforward. And, once I saw Robbo snap out a wheelie as part of his ‘shakedown’ after the bike had been built – and saw his huge grin – I knew all that component chasing, dreaming, and way too much money had been well worth it…

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Old timer making trails new again

I am fortunate to live near one of Sydney’s most popular MTB trails – Manly Dam – and also frequently visit my ‘oldies’ near Tathra on the Sapphire Coast quite often. So, it has been mainly on these two very different trail networks that the Blizzard LT has been ridden.

My other bike is a dual-suspension 29er, so every time I jump on the relatively ‘small’ hardtail, it does take a while to readjust my riding style. Thankfully the hardtail is a forgiving bike; that FOX 36 eats up the choppy, rocky sections and drops on Sydney’s Northern Beaches quite well, with the steel frame and those Industry Nine wheels taking a bit of sting out of the ride as well. The bike’s short wheelbase ups the fun factor immensely; the more you fling the bike about, the more fun you have on it. This is counterbalanced somewhat by having to be way more on my game in terms of both overall bike handling, and also allowing for the smaller-diameter wheels’ reticence to roll over everything – although that just gives me an excuse to jump off more stuff. The Shimano drivetrain and the KS Lev dropper have never faulted since being fitted, and those SLX brakes are just so effective each and every time.

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I am, however, about to make a few changes: the 50mm stem is going to be swapped out for a 60mm to give me a bit more ‘room’ for my long-ish torso, but also to compensate slightly for a planned-for increase in fork-travel, from 140mm to 150mm. This will slacken the head angle a bit as well, something that is always welcome on the Northern Beaches’ gnarlier, steeper trails. The other tweak may be fitment of a carbon bar, for a bit more vibration damping up front.

Overall, I am pretty stoked with the Blizzard LT. I try not to think how far over-budget I did go with this build but for me the end result of a bike that I will likely keep forever makes that initial slightly frightening investment worthwhile. Yes, I still look at the modern hardtail MTBs and think ‘maybe’ – especially some of those sweet Stanton models built with so-sweet Reynolds 853 steel – but the absolute grin factor I experience every time I jump on board the Blizzard LT, whether for a quick blast around Manly Dam, a day on the trails down at Tathra, or even just to ride with the kid to school, means it would take something incredibly special for me to contemplate parting with it.

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