Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Ragley Bigwig - End of Term Report

No it's not a fatbike!! The Ibis 941 rims do look chunky though
So I've had a full season of riding, racing, holidaying and coaching aboard my Ragley Bigwig 29er and it's time to sum up what I think of the bike.

It is worth mentioning again for the sake of integrity that Ragley were kind enough to give me the bike for free but put me under no obligation to write this review or actually promote their equipment in any way so it's all 100% my honest opinion.

So what is that opinion?

The nitty gritty of the spec was dealt with in my previous review so I'm not going to go over it in detail here.  To summarise briefly, after a few months on the bike the frame, forks, SLX gears and brakes, Ragley stem and bars were all excelling.  The wheels, Nukeproof dropper post, Ragley grips and saddle, WTB tyres and the front mech and associated gubbins had all been swapped or broken for various reasons.

The addition of Ibis 941 carbon wheels with Maxxis Minion 2.4's set up tubeless along with a KS Lev dropper post and Southpaw lever, my favourite ODI Ruffian grips and a swap to 1x gearing had vastly improved on the original set up albeit with an added cost that doubled the £1550 RRP!

Ride wise, my feelings on the Bigwig were only enhanced during the second half of the year.  This is a remarkably capable bike.  In addition to wrapping up the Vitus Enduro series hardtail category I was away riding the arse puckeringly steep, techy trails of the Tweed Valley and the confidence inspiring nature of the frame just egged me to push it harder.  The remit of the Bigwig was always about producing a big wheeled hardtail that feels like you're sitting on a 160mm bike and in that respect Ragley have succeeded massively.  Having my weight placed effortlessly within the centre of the bike means that I'm constantly poised for whatever the trail dishes out regardless of how steep or nasty it becomes.  It is a downhill weapon par excellence and definitely the fastest hardtail I've ever had the fortune of riding.  I've been encouraged to attack trails to a degree that I've never experienced without some travel out back to compensate and the bike has soaked up the abuse with only an occasional cramping trail leg to make me back off.
The Bigwig is a podium topping machine
So what has changed from my mid-season impressions?

I was initially critical of the low bottom bracket height.  Whilst it obviously makes carving corners a dream and gives the bike a really stable feel, easing you into a low centre of gravity, it also means multiple stalling pedal strikes on the climbs.  Over time I've subconsciously adapted my style to counteract this problem.  I did put 170mm cranks back on and still think that the standard speccing of 175's is a big mistake but it's amazing how you eventually adapt to any bike's attributes.  I'd still rather have it a touch higher but it's not a major issue.

On the flip side I've actually begun to wish it wasn't quite so slack in the head angle.  Now I know this is all the fashion at the moment with 'longer, lower and slacker' seemingly tattooed on the brains of frame designers but there are times when it is detrimental.  I have noticed a slight 'flip-flop' nature to the steering which is a facet of overly slack frames.  What I mean by that is that if you turn it a few degrees from straight, it then wants to continue turning further of its own volition with no rider input. The end result is that on flatter trails I've found myself having to fight the front end a bit to keep it on line.  It's very subtle but has been increasingly notable as I've got totally familiar with all the foibles of the bike.  I could run shorter travel forks to help alleviate the issue but the 130mm Rockshox Yaris have been superb.  It's obviously trail specific and on vertical drops it's great to be pushed back on the bike but given that Ireland isn't noted for those types of trail it almost left me feeling a bit over-biked at times, a feeling I've never experienced on a hardtail.  Perhaps I'm just not hardcore enough for the bike!

Perfect bike for the Tweed Valley trails
The rest of the frame angles feel pretty bang on for me and the bike actually climbs exceedingly well for a slacked out, near 30lb machine.  29ers are superb on the ups and I can't think of many trails I've been unable to plough through without dabbing.  An extra bit of length in the top tube would be welcome but I never felt hugely cramped and adapted by moving the saddle back a bit further than recommended.

What about the wheel size debate?

It's a real shame to me that this still exists.  I know a lot of the memes are tongue in cheek but there are still a fair number of riders out there actively hating on 29ers.  I think it's fair to say that the majority of those have never ridden one of the new breed of big wheeled bikes and would join the queue of converts pretty rapidly if they did.  Here's the facts as I see them.

1) 29ers are faster.  They roll faster, they corner faster, they're much better in really highly technical terrain and faster in speedy technical terrain.  They flow better in rough sections with far less impact from stalling gaps between rocks and roots.  They climb better, grip better, in short, if speed is your goal then you're currently massively missing a trick if you're on any other wheel size.  XC racers use them and I confidently predict that within three years, if their sponsors allow it then most EWS podiums will be filled with riders on 29ers.

2) Their wheels are weaker.  Yep, they're bigger which means more pressure on the rims.  If you want to keep them straight and also a decent weight then you need some carbon rims or some well built aluminium rims with the right spokes at the right tensions.  I think bike manufacturers need to think about the quality of wheels on their 29ers.  I'd like to see tyre manufacturers keep up too and offer some tougher tyres for the big wheels.  I still rip holes in them at an alarming rate.

3) They're not as playful and that can result in them being less fun.  I really enjoy going fast and so the Bigwig has had me grinning from day one but on the occasions where I jump back on to my super light 26" wheeled Ibis Tranny singlespeed I'm reminded just how much fun small wheels are. With the 29er trundling over everything so effectively there's less need to bunny hop and jump sections but there's no doubt that throwing a bike about is a hell of a laugh and so if you value that playfulness over pure rapidness then the big wheels may still not be for you.

4) They close the gap between hardtails and full suspension.  The big wheels perform some of the function that suspension does, allowing the bike to stay fast over technical sections that would stall smaller wheels and so on a hardtail they have a huge impact upon the ride capabilities and characteristics.
Treat it like you love it, and I do love it!
For me, I'm a convert and can't see myself opting for a smaller wheel size ever again on my main bike.  I love hardtails and love speed so there really is no other choice.  I've also got over my aesthetic aversion to the wagon wheels and grown to almost love the look of the Bigwig.  I find that the more fun I have on a bike, the more I grow to love all aspects of it eventually!

So what's the final verdict?

Ragley have got a lot of things very right with the Bigwig.  It truly is a blast to ride, always attack minded and seriously fast in all terrains.  It inspires confidence on the downs and certainly doesn't instill hatred for the ups.  As a £1550 package it's well priced and I reckon it's much better than an equivalently priced full bouncer that will have more corners cut spec wise.  The Rockshox Yari forks are pretty faultless and the Ragley bar and stem are brilliant units.  The SLX/XT gearing and SLX brakes have been fantastic.  Given that my usual bikes cost four times the Bigwig's RRP it could easily have felt cheap but actually, bar the odd niggle (and expensive wheel and seatpost upgrades) it actually felt pretty damn good.

It's certainly not perfect.  The Nukeproof dropper lever is poor, the wheels needed a rebuild and WTB tyres are a mediocre choice.  Speccing 175mm cranks and 2x gearing on a bike with a super low bottom bracket and ISCG mounts is just bizarre.  The frame was just about 10mm short for me reach wise and I'd love to see my chosen 18" frame be just a touch longer in the top tube.

Overall I'd have no hesitation whatsoever recommending the Ragley Bigwig to anyone.  It's a superb hardtail that would make a worthy addition or brilliant replacement to a full suspension bike for anyone who doesn't aspire to win Enduro races outright or spend most of their ride time at a bike park.  The 2017 version has addressed some of my complaints with 1x11 gearing and a much better dropper post, and in stealth black it's definitely a looker.

I failed in my intentions to ride a stock spec bike for the year, the lure of carbon wheels and the need for a dropper post that functioned better meant that my Bigwig would actually cost over £3000 to replicate. That expenditure did hugely enhance the ride quality but I reckon that the 2017 version with a set of decent hand built wheels (something like Stans rims on Hope hubs) would be a stunning bike that would give change out of two grand.  I'd more than happily spend another season on that set up which given my previously long running insistence of only using absolute top spec kit represents quite a statement.

Thanks Ragley.  It's been a hell of a ride!

Chimay and Ragley, two great products! Cheers!

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