Sunday, February 14, 2010

Project Access - Performance Access XCL Comp

Let the festivities begin - bike building festivities that is. As mentioned in a previous post, Boy Racer Ian is ready for a 26" wheel mountain bike. After spending way too much time on Craigslist and eBay searching for something nice enough to race, yet cheap enough for a 10 year old to outgrow - I've formulated my plan. Well, a semi-plan open to change anyway. Even so, plan has been officially named Project Access. Set your decoder rings to stun and follow along...

I noticed this Access frame on the Performance site months ago. Yeah, being semi-bike snob - well, not really - but certainly liking higher end stuff, I thought the mail order "no name" frames were junk. Still, when I looked at the specs for this frame - seemed perfect for Ian. The right size, under 4 pounds, disk and v-brake mounts, and sells for $115 or so. I don't remember the exact price, 'cause it just went on sale for $99. How can you beat that? For a 10 year old kid, could build this up into a nice race hardtail. I took a chance and ordered one up.

Ordering this frame also falls inline with a mental health vacation/project I've messing with and researching for a few months now - starting my own bike company. Without capital, a pipe dream for sure, but interesting to research exactly where frames are made. Not to blow away the smoke and mirrors, but when you look into this - some interesting finds. In any case, that's another story to post about. Having said that, was curious to see what this frame would look like.

Well, the frame arrived yesterday in a slightly battered box. Looked like it had been opened, since only about 2 staples were left holding the box closed. Frame was also poorly packed and kind of bouncing around inside - as was the box of parts - seat clamp, derailleur hanger and headset. I pulled it from the alleged cardboard protection and unwrapped the frame to check it out.

First of all, pretty stinking light - no scale to officially weigh it, would guess 3.5 pounds or so. I've held a fair amount of bare frames in my hands (still illegal in certain states I'm told) and this qualifies as light. The small size is a factor in this for sure. There's something really cool checking out a bare frame, free of parts - bike geek I am. Sue me.

Enough describing already, let's just look at the damn thing...

In all it's flat black glory, still clean enough for quickie living room rug photo session. Seat tube measures 14.5" with a center to center of 12" or so. Should fit almost 5 foot Ian well, with some room to grow. Curved downtube should avoid any fork clearance hassles. Frame is designed for 80mm - 100mm forks.

Weld quality won't impress anyone at Moots, but not bad at all. The build quality, paint and graphics are shockingly good for a $99 frame. I have a very expensive older Ellsworth Truth hanging in the garage with welds not much better looking then this. Of course I have no idea if this frame is aligned as well, and it uses cheaper tubing. For the money though, I'm amazed how decent it looks.

Curved seat and chain stays, v-brake and disk brake mounts included. Where the seat stays join at the top looks a little bargain like, but still not bad for $99.

Bottom bracket area detail. Welds still look pretty well done, certainly on par with bikes costing a few hundred bucks sitting on the bike shop floor. Makes you ponder the actual frame cost of most production bikes - most now welded in China or Taiwan. This frame is from China. Hopefully not welded by small children with excess toxic waste dumped into nearby stream. I'm half joking here, but do wonder about such things.

Here's where the story takes a turn for the worse. Notice the out of round head tube - caused by a whack to the front of it - complete with dinged up aluminum. You can tell someone dropped it onto something hard, like a concrete floor. I don't know if it was shipped this way or occurred during shipping itself. In any case, I'm not attempting to press a headset into that. Game over.

I called Performance today and they're sending a new frame. Well, technically I had to buy another frame, and will be reimbursed when I send this one back. I'm cool with that - it's quicker then sending this one back first and waiting for a replacement. I could have just bagged this whole idea and returned the frame for a refund as well. I'm impressed with the frame enough to continue with this project - especially for $99.

When the replacement frame arrives, will build it up with parts from the garage - wheelset from my Fat Chance, spare seat post and trick seat I already have, and mostly everything else pulled off Ian's 24" Specialized - drivetrain, bars, etc. Need to buy a headset as well - one that comes with the new frame is total junk. Oh yeah - and a fork. I emailed my mountain bike club list and have some leads on a few used forks. Fox and Manitou. This Option 1 build would be the cheapest route to get this rolling.

Option 2 build is to find a good donor bike on Craiglist or eBay and transfer parts to Ian's new frame. I've seen some good deals float through there, but none with a small enough frame - now that doesn't matter. Modified Option 2 is for me to score a used bike, then transfer parts off my Cannondale frame to him - old XTR and Fox fork.

Option 3 is to score me a new bike, then transfer my Cannondale build to him as well. Daddy likes that option, but tough to swing at the moment - though I'm working on it. Being Family Guy, can't justify throwing down $4000 for a new bike (I want something nice. Sue me). Something in the $2000 range - maybe. I've also been hardtail 29er curious for awhile (also illegal in some states I'm told) and have been looking into that. That also happens to be much more affordable as well.

On that note, today I was going to bum a ride on a friends Niner EMD to check it out - but needed to reschedule. I did take a drive over to Veloce Velo in Issaquah to check out some Niner bikes, but all the hardtails (demos included) were sold. I did test ride a Specialized Stumpjumper 29 with a decent build kit and RockShox Reba SL fork. Pretty nice bike for $1850....

The Niner frame geometry would be fit me better however, will check that out ASAP. Speedgoat also has some killer deals on Niners at the moment - with free shipping and no sales tax. I'd rather support a local shop, but the savings difference may dictate if I can pull this off at all. I'd probably go for the Air 9 model....

I've also been looking at the Sette 29er available online. Yeah, an "off brand" but a killer deal with a 3.2 pound frame, SRAM X7/X9, decent wheels, and RockShox Reba SL fork for $1200. That I could swing and it's half the price of a similar Niner. I've also Googled a bunch of favorable reviews on it. Interesting. The geometry appears to work for me as well. Very similar build kit to the Specialized I rode today for $600+ less. Frame also appears to a copy of the Niner. Makes you wonder....

More pictures and various rambling to follow as this story unfolds. Feel free to comment, ridicule, or ignore as needed. Thanks for your patronage. Drive safely. Good night.


  1. Sorry to see that the head tube was damage. I know that most frames come from the same far off land and like you can't see myself putting my leg over one.

    I did get the chance to ride a Zion (steel frame) that was set-up with drop bars and a single speed with the big wheels that I like.I did not know anything about Zion, but I think it was a cheap frame special on the web. If I could fine one I would get it.

    I don't think you will go wrong with the Access frame for your son. I am sure he will like having a new bike to ride and race on.

    I had a 1996 M2 Specialized that I race and I have to say that was the most stiff riding bike that I ever had! Since going back to the Bontrager I will not ride anything that is made from aluminum. It just hurts my back!

    It sure would be nice to see a Mountain Bike Club or a school club work to do some youth development to source bikes or parts to help out with the sport.

  2. Yeah - having the frame arrive damaged was a bummer. As mentioned, the frame construction appears to be cool - much better then expected. For a 10 year old racer, should build up into a great bike. Honestly, for anybody - would be a nice hardtail bike.

    I've done some web searching for Zion in the past, don't think it exists anymore. At one time, it appeared to be the house brand for JensonUSA - the online outfit. I seriously doubt it was made in the U.S. - not sure.

    I'm all for the smaller USA builders and I used to shun the offshore welded bikes - thinking they were somehow not as well made (That's no longer true).

    I've changed my way of thinking - partly due to the quality of bikes from Taiwan has become world class - there's nothing wrong with 'em. And partly due to not having a choice (at times). The frames from China have improved also. Asia also appears to the carbon fiber capital of the bike word - almost all carbon frames are manufactured there, sometimes with "Made in Italy" and/or "Made in Spain" stickers one 'em - due to manufacturing requirements in those countries. Raw frames, painted and assembled in their countries can be labeled as made in Italy and/or Spain.

    Most Treks are now made offshore, with the exception of a few carbon models. Specialized makes all frames offshore - at one time the S Works frames were made in the US - but no longer (I think). Cannondale made all their aluminum frames in the US, that's just about to end - or did already.

    When it comes down to it, its only the frame were taking about - since almost all the other components are made somewhere else as well. But - the frame is the soul of the bike - on higher end bikes anyway.

    So, when it comes down to it - buying a (pretty much any) production bike, means buying an offshore bike. As far as design and build quality - they're still great bikes.

    Would I rather see 'em being made here and creating jobs at home? Sure, without a doubt. That's a whole 'nother aspect to debate. As far as the frame quality itself, nothing to fear.

    The USA build is still possible though places like IF, Seven, Serotta and the like. Super, super nice bikes - if you have the dough. In the past I did, now being single paycheck family of four, can't justify that now (and at least for a few more years).

    Also, as I mentioned in my post - I've spent many hours on the web looking into frame manufacturing. If you wanted to create a small bike company - with your own frame design - many outlets to produce "your" frame - most in Asia and a few left in the US. I'm not talking about welding up frames yourself, will leave that to the art crowd - which I dig also. I'm talking production frames. It's pretty cool to be able to do that without setting up your own manufacturing facility.

    Once you do the research, some of the illusion of marketing and branding is brought into play - especially when you realize some competing frames are made by the same factory. Bit of a exaggeration here, but seems like you're paying for paint and stickers. There is some truth to that though.

    I'm rambling here a bit, since this topic is super interesting to me - as well as the bike industry itself.

    On aluminum frames - you're correct - some are crazy stiff, but not all of 'em. Steel frames can also be made too stiff. I'm a fan of all frame materials and all can be made into a great (or really bad) frames.

    You're also right about the lack of youth development for young riders and how cool that would be. The high school race series that's been around for a few years is a start - and coming soon to my state. There's a few other groups, recreational and racing oriented as well. But compared to Europe and other bike crazed countries, the cycling scene for kids just doesn't exist here - except for BMX, which seems to be a completely separate world.