What Bike for Bikejor? Q&A Session with “Benjen Stark”

It’s a question we see asked on Bikejor and dog-sledding community groups year-round. And the honest answer is, any! Well…kind of.

Giving someone the answer to the question of what bike they should buy to bikejor their dog with a single answer/link to a specific bike is very likely just, wrong. It doesn’t matter if they have an unlimited budget, what works for one person, certainly isn’t ideal for another. So, given the apparent difficulty of properly answering that very question, we’ve teamed up with a friend of ours who knows a fair bit about running his dogs – but, most importantly, he knows a hell of a lot about what to look for when buying a new bike.

Due to some commercial sensitivities, our friend has asked to remain anonymous, so for the duration, they will be referred to as “Benjen” (‘cus who doesn’t like a mild Game of Throne references, ey?).

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Our collaboration with Benjen takes shape in the form of an interview:

Q: Hi Benjen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Usually, at this point, we’d ask a few background questions so our readers get an understanding of your experience and knowledge, but with the unfortunate need for anonymity, this is a little tricky. So, let’s go basic – in as much detail as you’re willing to give, how much experience do you have running dogs, bikejoring and in cycle-tech in general.
A: Hey guys, it’s my absolute pleasure to help you out – and sure, apologies for the anonymity thing but, y’know, needs must. I’m gonna have to keep it real vague to stop some privy listeners from putting 1+2 together and making 10, so…four-seasons or so running dogs and bikejoring, and err …(long pause)… about 15 years on/off in the bike game with something of a full-time commitment in the last five or so.

Q: Okay, so it’s pretty fair to say you know your way around a bike?
A: Yep, I won’t go as far as to say “it’s my job”, but it may as well be.

Q: Great, so you are the guy for the job. So, we’re just gonna sling this at you. I need a new bike for bikejor, what should I get?
A: I knew what we were gonna get in to here, but how do I even answer that? I’m gonna have to throw this back to you. I need more information, so how much off-road riding experience do you have? How good are your bike skills? Are you experienced, or a newbie? How many dogs are you running? What sort of dogs are you running? Where do you live? What’s the weather usually like? Are you racing?

Q: Okay sorry, that was mean of us. We didn’t really expect a holy grail answer. But that answer really opens up a lot of the problems with this question. It really is too open ended. Is it possible to give us a short flow-chart type synergy to help people in the market for a new bikejor machine get going in the right direction? Start us with a few basics, and together we can try and produce some sort of logical answer.
A: I think that’ll work. So, back to basics. Vital point – you need good brakes. That is absolutely the most critical and basic function for bikejor. Sliding in very closely after that, you need something that is structurally sound. If buying second-hand or from anywhere other than a reputable bike-specific store, it’s very advisable to get a bike-specific store to review your purchase to ensure its safety. The slightest loose bolt could cause a major incident, especially where dogs are involved.

Q: Absolutely, safety should always be the first priority. You mentioned “good brakes”, disc brakes are usually quoted as the standard, is that always the way?
A: As a casual observer you’d have to agree, but bad disc brakes exist too. In truth, very good ‘vee’ brakes are probably better in dry conditions than lower-end disc options. That said, they are very rarely seen in modern setups. An intermediate-level hydraulic disc brake should be the go-to minimum. Cable-actuated disc brakes are not all that reliable but do have the advantage of being easy to maintain. Never discount a hydraulic rim-brake such as a Magura – but again, these are now fairly rare in wild.

Q: Right – so disc brakes aren’t the only way, but they are the most likely solution by the sounds of it. Let’s hit up the next two big-points; suspension and wheel size.
A: Wheel size is a new-born monolith all of its own. Let’s simplify now, and diversify where needed later. So, wheel size options are…26″, 27.5″, 29″, Plus and Fat.

26″ is basically now old-money – some great deals to be found second hand, but not advisable to buy new – compatible wheelsets and tyres are becoming scarcer each year.

27.5″ this is the new 26″ – it’s fun, poppy and easy to control. They’re better around the bends and generally more manoeuvrable.

29″ers are fast, grippy and stable. It’s got to be the choice for most MTB racing, wether it’s right for you and your dogs is another question. They’re brilliant in a straight-line and over rough terrain, but cornering and muscling them around can be tricky. Shorter riders often struggle more on 29″ers.

Plus – the new kids on the block, in most instances they’re a half-way house between 27.5″ and 29″. Can provide excellent grip in the dry, and really smooth over rough terrain. Early tests showed tyre choice can be prohibitively limiting, and punctures can become an issue. There are some more niche variations in the Plus market, but on the whole, avoid unless you know what you’re dealing with.

Fat – this is the outside-of-the-box option. Consider these an ATV without an engine. Genuine go-anywhere machines, but not one for the speed merchants out there. Brilliant in soft conditions, but many for sale are much for the looks and not performance after a surge in popularity over recent years. Maintenance can be costly, with a limited choice in components.

And, err…what was the other part of that question?

Q: Suspension?
A: Right! Sorry. Yeah, so, the default go-to is a hardtail mountain bike with front-suspension forks for most bikejorers. I’m inclined to agree this is absolutely the best option for the 99%. People riding on very smooth terrain, or with fat/plus size tyres might seek a fully-rigid option, but that could become limiting when racing. Full-suspension bikes are seen at races but typically aren’t the most efficient. However, there are a couple of events where a short-travel XC-specific full suspension bike would likely be advantageous, but it’s unlikely worth the investment as it’d be redundant most of the time. Rear shocks and pivot-bushings are a huge maintenance expense for full-suspension riders, unless you really struggle without a rear-shock, it’s just not worth it.

Q: Awesome. That’s great so far. So once people have made a decision on their requirements for brakes, wheelsize and suspension. What’s next?
A: We’re really approaching the geek-out area now. There’s a lot of bikes out there that, on paper, look pretty much identical, but maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds apart in price. Most of the time this is down to brand, quality and materials used – everyone knows carbon fibre is the modern-day material, but it comes with a tomorrows-world price tag.

Q: And carbon fibre for bikejor? Yay? Nay?
A: It’s a contencious issue. To the unfamiliar, it seems like a great option if you can afford it – it’s lighter and pro racers use it so it must be good right? Well…to a point. I would rather take out a bike that weighed 2kg more, with a higher spec-list than a lower-specced carbon version. Speed and weight are related, but there’s so many marginal gains to be had in mountain bike componentry, having a cheaper carbon (£2k is cheap for carbon – as a benchmark) bike is very unlikely to give you any gains over an equivalently priced steel or alluminium frame. Carbon fibre products are now extremely strong, but they act very differently when damaged. Damaged carbon has a knack for failing compleltly. It doesn’t bend, it just unravvels in to nothing. If you’re prone to crashing, I wouldn’t recommend.

Q: Do you use any carbon on your setup(s)?
A: Handlebars, that’s it. Just because carbon bars have a vibration reduction quality to them which can stop arm pump etc. No other reason.

Q: We’ve talked continuosly about mountain bikes. Is that the only option?
A: It’s the only sensible option. [laughs] No, but seriously – if you had very good bike handling skills, and a very fast dog, then a cyclocross may be favourable for racing higher-speed events with long straights etc. Overall though, mountain bikes are the way to go for most.

Q: Perfect, perfect. So, to finish off, can you recommend some specific bikes to people? Maybe at incremental price-points and for different approaches?
A: Sure, as it’s impossible to really give a you should buy X, Y or Z option, I’ve put together a few bikes from this years Kona and Cannondale ranges that should help people understand what spec and price points to look for. Both brands certainly aren’t discount or budget options, so these aren’t cheap bikes – but they also aren’t in the ’boutique’ part of the industry where you’re more or less just paying for name/reputation. Basically, these are all very much middle-ground.

At the lower/middle end, I’ve selected a Cannondale Trail 1 L, this bike is pretty much spot-on the money for what you’re getting. Whilst not the lightest, the spec list is comprised of pretty well-tested components meaning reletively hassle-free bikejoring. More Information: http://amzn.to/2uz6FZ2

At the upper/middle end, I’ve selected a Kona Honzo AL, a 29er with slack-geometry. This blurs the lines a little, taking the fast rolling 29er wheels but with really confidence-insipiring control in the geometry. This would make a fantastic progressor bike for those getting really in to the sport. More Information: http://amzn.to/2tCX7rA

Now, there’s no ‘top-end’ or ‘world class’ option coming here, as I’ve been told we’re saving that for a later article, so, two out-the box options to finish. I said earlier that fatbikes were a great option but finding the right ones could be difficult. Well both of these offerings from Kona are absolutely trick. If you’d like a bit of fat in your life, it’s almost certainly gotta be one of these. It’s the Kona Wo and the Kona Wozo – there’s a couple key differences between the two. The Wo is a little more adventure based, and the Wozo designed around trail centres. If it were me, just using for bikejor, I’d go for the Wo (I’ve seen a few lovely examples selling second hand for less than half-price in recent weeks) – but, if you want to use the bike for some trail-slaying too, the Wozo gives you a bit extra in the capability area (albeit with a minor weight penalty).
More Information: Kona Wo – http://amzn.to/2uz24pG| Kona Wozo – http://amzn.to/2uzA598

Q: We love those choices, I’ll be having a look at that Honzo later for sure. I’m not sure about the fatties yet, but that’s just a bias on looks alone. You’re absolutely correct, we will be producing a ‘dream bikejor bike’ article based off of the ideas Benjen has shared with us today, so stay tuned for that. Benjen, thank you very much for joining us once again. Until next time…
A: It has been my pleasure, I look forward to collabing with you guys again, and hopefully at some point I can get you guys over on my channel. Thanks for reading!