Featured Review

On a Steel Horse I Ride

Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral 29er in front of the Miller Brewing sign

This post originally appeared on Bikepacking.com.

The last time I pedaled the Colorado Trail in Durango, I did it on a lugged steel Waterford with Nitto mustache bars. I think that was 1990, the same year Durango hosted the very first UCI National Mountain Bike Championships! While Ned Overend is still shredding the trails around Durango, he has even upgraded to a full-suspension 29er. 

Man in bike jersey next to Waterford bicycle on the Colorado Trail
My trusty custom lugged steel Waterford All Rounder somewhere between Durango and Silverton on the Colorado Trail.

I’m no Ned, so four years ago when I planned to head back to Durango to guide some mountain bike trips for Bike Fed members with Travis Brown, I figured I should bring something other than my lugged-steel single speed with its 1.95 Dart/Smoke sneakers or even that venerable Waterford All Rounder that took me from Durango to Silverton and back via the Colorado Trail. 

At the time, I couldn’t quite make the leap from a rigid bike with 26-inch wheels all the way to a full squish bike, so I eased into modern mountain biking with a Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral 29er. I felt comfortable with the Feral’s tig-welded True Temper OX Platinum tubing and confidence in the quality since it was built by my old friends at Waterford Precision Cycles (where I spent a blessed but brief stint welding and brazing).

Milwaukee Bicycle Company bikes are sold under the Ben’s Cycle and Fitness umbrella on Milwaukee’s near south side. They are designed by Drew Triplett, who was an engineer at Trek before he moved to Ben’s. Their MUSA frames are built by Waterford, welded just half an hour’s drive from the shop, and delivered back to Ben’s Cycle bare steel.

This allows customers to customize their frames with almost any braze-ons they want, not to mention virtually any powder coat or paint finish imaginable. The frames are noted for their polished stainless logos on the downtube, head badge and seat tube badge.

I originally ordered mine in a bass boat red sparkle powder coat with three water bottle mounts, some cool polished MBC badges and downtube logo. And despite the custom options, I was riding my bike two weeks after I ordered it! 

My sparkly Feral served me well the last four years, but after a couple more trips back to Durango, I finally succumbed to the comfort and control of a full-suspension bike and purchased a 27.5 Plus Trek Fuel EX 9.8. Once I went full suspension, I found my hardtail Feral spent most of its time hanging in my basement. So I decided to recommission it as a dedicated bikepacking rig. 

To do that, I took the bike back to Ben’s had them strip it, add the third bottle mount to the downtube, top tube bag mounts, bottle mounts to the seat stays, and had it powder coated metallic orange. While the seat stay braze ons will fit water bottle mounts, my primary reason to add them was for a custom rear rack inspired by the Trek 1120.

I really like the rear rack on the Trek 1120, because it would allow me to switch from my big 14L Relevate Terrapin seat bag to a smaller dropper post-compatible bag. But the Trek rack seemed way beefier than what I would need. I wanted something lighter since all I would be carrying back there is my 1 lb Zpack tent on one side and a similarly light Enlightened Equipment quilt or Big Agnes sleeping bag on the other. 

So I bought some .035 stainless rod, a cheap tubing bender, and dusted off my brazing googles and my oxy-acetylene torch. Bending the rack was pretty easy, and I brazed the stainless rod using Fillet Pro for stronger joints. My rack only weighs 284 grams but is rigid and stronger than needed for the light loads I strap to it. After an initial test trip, I headed back to the basement and brazed on an additional rod to each side of the rack so it was easier to fit the tent stakes and poles in separate bags.

To complete the conversion from cross country race bike to bikepacking sherpa, I built a new front wheel around a Shutter Precision PD-8X dynamo hub, Sinewave Beacon light, added a taller stem, Jones SG 2.5 riser H-Bar, and mounted King Manythings cages to the Manitou Marvel Pro with King USBs to hold the fork bags. A Dr. Jones H-Bar bag fit the new bars, and the Gondola Dropper Post bag from Rockgeist pairs really well with my PNW 27.2 Pine Coast post. I considered asking the guys at Bens to add internal dropper post routing but decided I might want to swap the post to my single speed or even my Waterford All-Rounder, so I stuck with external routing.

Finishing touchpoints include the comfy orange Ergon GA3 grips and matching PNW Loam dropper lever with a black X2 Selle Anatomica saddle. I fell in love with those saddles after doing a story on the factory were they were made in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. There are still quite a few tanneries in southeastern Wisconsin, but nothing like Milwaukee’s industrial heydays. Pedals are Fyxation Mesa MPs, a fantastic flat pedal at a hard-to-beat price. For the drivetrain, I am still running the original mix of SRAM XO and XX1 1×11. 

I now have a little more than 2,000 miles on the Feral as a bikepacking rig, and it has become my go-to bike, even though it is a little heavier and slower than my Fyxation drop bar adventure bike. What I find I like most about the rear rack, is that it allows me to keep my tent, stakes, poles and sleep system separate. This helps me stay more organized but also eliminates worries about putting a wet tent in with my down quilt. And between the two 5L dry bags and the 5L Gondola seat bag, I actually gained a liter or capacity over the Terrapin.

For a guy who has been riding rigid forks for the past 20 years, I won’t pretend to understand the wonders of modern shock technology and tell you why I love how the velocity-dependent needle circuit responds to the oil flow rate through the low-speed needle on Manitou’s Doroado TPC+ 4-Dimensional Compression Damping. All I can tell you is that this relatively lightweight suspension fork adds all-day comfort and makes it a lot more likely that I will toss nearby single track in any bikepacking trip I am planning.

The 29er strikes the perfect balance for bikepacking in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. The 2.35 Schwalbe Racing Ralphs run tubeless, are fast enough on the gravel forest roads, handle rough ATV trails and singletrack with aplomb. And when the surface gets sandy, I can drop the pressure in the tubeless setup to 18psi and float through all but the softest sections of the Moquah Pine Barrens in Bayfield County. In retrospect, this project has exceeded my expectations.

FRAMEMilwaukee Bicycle Company Feral
FORKManitou Marvel
FRONT HUBShutter Precision SP PD-8X
TIRESSchwalbe Racing Ralph
HEADSETMilwaukee Bicycle Company
PEDALSFyxation Mesa
SADDLESelle Anatomica X2
STEMDimension 110mm +35°
HANDLEBAR BAGSRockgeist Dr Jones
FRAME BAGSSalsa Ranger
SEAT BAGRockgeist Gondola
REAR BAGSSea To Summit Big River 5L
TOP TUBE BAGRelevate Gas Tank

Dave Schlabowske retired a year ago from his position as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. He now spends most of his free time exploring gravel forest roads, ATV trails and logging tracks in Wisconsin’s North Woods. He developed the Tour de Chequamegon published on this site and is almost ready to share a 360-mile gravel loop that passes by two dozen waterfalls in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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