By Karen Brooks
I went looking for an adventure-touring bike that could handle several hundred miles of rough gravel surfaces and mercurial weather for our March trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Black Mountain Cycles, a bike shop in northern California, had a bike that fit the bill. Proprietor Mike Varley has spent 14 years “behind the curtain” designing bikes for a variety of companies, so he has the know-how to bring a bike from drawing to shop floor. He offers two steel framesets: this rough-and-ready Monster Cross for multi-surface rides, and the Road for more genteel pursuits, plus a couple different build kits for each.
The Monster Cross is a bike for “roads” in the broadest sense—anything from pavement to dirt. Varley’s geometry philosophy is to produce a bike that disappears beneath the rider—a common goal, but not commonly reached. I’d say it has been in this case. This frame needs no adjustments in riding style, meets expectations, and offers encouragement to ride longer and faster on rougher terrain.
The head tube is on the long side (105mm) to get the handlebars up to a comfy position. The chainstays are not too short (432mm), again for comfort, and the bottom bracket is settled nicely down in between the wheels. The head and seat tube angles (71.5 and 73.5 degrees, respectfully) are fairly neutral, not racy-steep, and balance the rider between front and rear wheels. Steel brings it all together in a well-mannered way.
At first glance, this subtly sparkly brown frame bears a resemblance to a Surly Cross-Check, perhaps the mother of all multipurpose/cyclocross bikes. However, the Black Mountain has some refinements that set it apart. The frame is treated with an ED coating to prevent rust, and Varley added a convenient barrel adjuster at the rear brake bridge to match the one on the headset.
The frame’s double-butted chromoly steel tubes are thinner to lighten it up, both weight-wise and in ride feel. Some steel frames feel like lumps of lead to me, but this one has a light and lively personality. It also isn’t flexy when climbing or loaded down. (Of course, neither I nor my touring kit weighs as much as some, so I’m not the best pusher of those limits.)
Naturally, the frame has clearance for tires up to 45mm. It has full fender mounts and rack braze-ons at the rear axle, although you’ll need P-clamps to attach a rack up top. The brake mounts are for mountain-style cantilevers or linear-pull brakes, not road calipers, to maintain tire and fender clearance.
The custom build kit offered a wide gear range: Shimano 105 shifting, plus an XT long- cage rear derailleur to handle the 11-34-tooth cassette, paired with 50-34-tooth chainrings. (Varley swapped out the stock 36-tooth small ring to eke out a lower low gear.) This set-up worked flawlessly despite being heaped with abuse. My favorite part was the Salsa Cowbell 2 handlebar, Varley’s personal recommendation for off-road control. The drop is nice and shallow, with not too much forward reach, and the 12 degrees of flare felt natural. Avid Shorty 6 brakes stopped fairly well for cantis, although I wished for discs on occasion.
The 700x42c Continental Race King tires get a gold star for longevity, good volume with light weight, reflective stripes, and for rolling reasonably well on pavement. The whole build was obviously executed by a meticulous professional: handbuilt wheels are still true despite bike mishandling shenanigans, derailleur adjustment was flawless out of the box, and every bolt was appropriately greased and torqued.
This bike was perfectly capable of commuting, but it really came alive in tackling the rougher stuff. I could safely draft Adam on the C&O Canal rail-trail even when tired, not bothering to swerve for mudholes or branches. I could take the long way home through the park to hit up some singletrack. I could roll sweetly over cobbles and construction debris. Doing a gravel grinder on this bike seems like it might actually be enjoyable.
The only thing that prevented me from completely falling in love was the lack of disc brake mounts. A bike as capable of going hard as this deserves equal stopping capabilities. Varley says he may offer a disc brake-compatible version in the future.
If you want to purchase one bike that can more than handle a wide range of riding surfaces and styles, take a look at Black Mountain.
- Country of Origin: Taiwan
- Price: $595 frameset, $2,315 as built
- Weight: 22.64lbs. (without pedals)
- Sizes Available: 50, 53 (tested), 56, 59, 62cm
- Age: 39
- Height: 5’8”
- Weight: 125lbs.
- Inseam: 33”