Thursday, August 23, 2018
Monstercross News' Jon Severson's Review of the New Albion Drake
The New Albion Drake has been a curiosity of mine since I saw the first pictures of the prototype surface awhile back. It caught my eye because unlike most gravel/touring/commuting frames/bikes out there, it wasn’t being billed as a bike that could take 700c wheels and 650b wheels….but only 650b wheels. Why does this matter? Because most bikes in that category are designed with 700c wheels in mind first, then just squeeze in whatever width 650b they can make work second. So the idea of a dedicated 650b frame that can fit up to a 2.1 x 650b without fenders and up to a 42mm wide 650b tire with fenders…well, no one was making that in a dedicated platform below $1000 for a frameset that I knew of and the new crop of road orientated 650b tires had peaked my curiosity. So when I finally was able to pick up a Drake frame set, I did.
Really, it all started with being fascinated with the New Albion Cycles line in general. In this day and age a really nice looking frameset with well thought out features, graphics, and name brand tubing typically starts off in the $700 or so range. Heck, sometimes just a frame is that much. Go any lower and it shows. Graphics aren’t impressive usually, tubing is either listed as chromoly that’s not always double butted made be who knows or has a made up name made by who knows. Features like full rack/fender mounts front and rear, a 3rd bottle cage, and Rolhoff compatibility are rarely found as an add on item on their own much less all of the above. Yet the Drake has pretty much every braze on you’d order for a modern touring/commuter bike, as well as Tange tubing. Much less at this pricepoint.
Pricepoint and features like these was key in looking for a solid commuter/adventure rig/townie in my book. Being able to run 42mm-2.1” wide 650b tires was an added bonus which just opens up the possibilities. For me, commuting to meetings & running errands on my bike isn’t something I do often enough to warrant an expensive build. Nor is going on an overnight trip. But both in one? Pricepoint aside, that had my interest. I don’t have the pocket book to buy a bike for each much less spend a lot. Throw in the fact that it can also serve double duty as sort of a neo-retro mountain bike with disc brakes & 650b wheels it just made sense to go ahead and build one up.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering to yourself…why does it matter it’s a dedicated 650b? Why didn’t you want 700c wheel compatibility? I mean, why limit what you can do? Especially on the road side. Well, that’s easy. First off, one wheel set is a bit of spending cash on it’s own to build up much less two. Two wheels means two cassettes as well. Next, with all of the new 650b road plus tires coming out from Panaracer, Soma, WTB, Compass, and well everyone else my options for “road” tires was far from limited. On the 650b mtb tire side of things, their are options galore in 2.1 and had a set of 2.2’s I thought I could try as well. For my needs, switching tires would be infrequent and less expensive.
650b road in my opinion is great by the way for town/commuter use. Why? Smaller wheel/bigger tire accelerates faster than it’s 700c cousin. Great for stop and go traffic and poorly timed stop lights on city streets that are poorly maintained with lots of potholes. Long term, the smaller wheels are stronger as well which means less messing around. Especially when loaded. Now slap on a set of fenders for rain/slush and I have a bike I can ride year round with minimal fuss that is still sporty while being reliable.
The Drake is designed around drop bars and touring, hence the head tube extension that minimizes the need for $20 worth of spacers and keeps the looks clean. For my needs however I slapped a low rise/big sweep handlebar which while about 100mm less than what I ride on my mountain bike it’s just right for around town riding and rocking local single track. No doubt, it’d be a blast with drop bars, but looking in my parts bin of used stuff that wouldn’t get me much on Craigslist my wallet said this would be a more mountain bike orientated build. Riding the Drake with a normal flat/riser bar tuned out to feel so good I almost forgot it was designed for drop bars originally.
Riding the Drake is exactly how you’d expect a nice steel frame in the next price bracket up would ride. It’s smooth, but not flexy. Out of the box, the frame may not feel light, but on the road it’s smooth sailing. Whether it be riding single track or railing the gravel trails/roads nearby it’s a solid machine. I’ve primarily been riding on a set of 650b mountain bike tires, however they are 2.2’s which is just a touch more than the frame was designed for though they do fit the fork just fine. Ended up swapping out the rear as it did rub just enough on climbs/sprints that I finally admitted it wasn’t meant to be. However a set of 48x650b Gravelkings worked as well as anticipated in road mode while still holding their own better than skinny cross/gravel tires on gravel/singletrack.
Overall, it’s hard not to be happy with the Drake. It’s a workhorse type of frame set that does it’s intended job better than expected. No, it’s not going to win races nor is it a replacement for your full time mountain bike. But that’s not what it’s intended to do either. If you need something to get you to work, allows you to play on dirt trails on the way home, run errands or roll out for dinner, that you may want to take on a tour down the coast or across country one day the Drake is for you. Or perhaps you live in a big city where owning multiple bikes is tough for the space available in your home, the Drake truly can be set up to do just about anything. It’s a frame set that has a strong appeal to the working man, and a price point to match. It’s the kind of bike you’ll have for life, not because it cost you thousands but because you’ll always find a use for the Drake, as it’s ready to do just about anything.