I started riding long after hardtail bikes were replaced by their full suspension brethren. My first mountain bike was a Santa Cruz Superlight with 100mm of rear travel and hydraulic disc brakes. Not a bad start. My buddies reminisce about the old days of cantilever brakes and the birth of mountain bike suspension, and I smile and pretend I understand.
Then a couple of years ago I picked up an inexpensive all-mountain hardtail and turned it into a single speed. What a great time I had on that bike! So simple, nothing to distract me from the ride! But the lure of full-suspension pulled me back and soon a new bike arrived at my door. My hardtail found itself sitting unused in the garage and eventually found itself on Craigslist. With the hardtail gone I spent the next couple of years riding my new full-suspension, and ride it I did! But for some reason, the memories of my hardtail and the smiles it brought to my face kept returning. I started regretting having sold my little single speed buddy.
This summer I spent a couple of weeks riding in Whistler. I’ve a friend there who rides a Chromag Stylus and has for years. I knew he was a solid rider as we have spent time riding my home territory in Hawaii. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in Whistler though. We rode some of the gnarliest terrain I’ve ever ridden, and he systematically destroyed every trail we encountered, on his Chromag hardtail. One day we hopped on the gondola to do a run with some guys from the Pinkbike crew. All solid riders. We spent several hours heading down Top of the World, Kashmir, Middle of Nowhere, Kush etc. It didn’t matter that the rest of us were on big beefy full suspension bikes, my buddy was always ahead waiting for us to catch up.
With memories of my old hardtail haunting me and new memories of eating my friend's dust, I soon found myself at the Chromag shop down the street. My friend introduced me to a mellow, laid back dude named Julian. Julian spent an hour answering my questions and helping me understand what to expect out of a Chromag. The geometry on their bikes is pretty much identical. And that geometry is intended to eat up terrain. There is some decision making in the process. If you plan to huck 30 footers you may want something with thicker tubing. If you want a slacker bike, put a longer fork on it. It’s that simple. And wheel size won’t limit you either. 26, 27.5, 29? No matter, they all ride and feel like a Chromag.
Chromag actually has two version of each frame. One is made in Canada, the other overseas. Julian actually recommended I purchase the overseas version which took me by surprise. He explained the overseas models are half the price and just as solid as the Canadian versions. I ended up going with the Canadian built version for two reasons; first, you get to pick your paint job and the options are pretty much limitless, second, I thought it would be really cool to have a handbuilt Canadian bike!
So here I am months later, having ridden hundreds of miles on my beautiful decal blue Samurai 65, happy as can be! I’ve been wanting to write this review for weeks but didn’t feel I had clocked enough time in the saddle.
I’m 6’1” and decided to purchase a Large Samurai 65 frame. I may have gotten away with a M/L frame but the geometry of the Large is closer to my Knolly Endorphin, which I absolutely love. When I first built the bike, it seemed massive, and I thought I had made a mistake! Until I rode it.
Most of the time the Samurai will serve as my all-mountain trail steed, but I have a weakness for endurance mountain bike races. It needs to be suitable for the occasional 24 hour race as well. I solved the issue by putting the 2 position 160mm Pike up front. It stays at 160mm 95% of the time but with the option to easily run it at 130mm for the races.
For wheels, I went with a pair of Spank Oozy Trail 295 with the Bead Bite tech. Light but tough set of wheels that easily set up as tubeless, and at a bargain price compared to other options out there. Besides a brand new Reverb dropper, everything else, including a Shimano XT drivetrain (with a 40 tooth One Up conversion), XT brakes, Raceface bars, Raceface 34 tooth NW, Easton Haven stem and Oury grips all transferred from the Knolly. Overall it’s a pretty sweet setup that I’m happy with.
Part of my enjoyment from the Samurai 65 is the fact that it is a hardtail. I know it’s hard to believe. I hear my fair share of comments about hardtails, “I’m to old.” “My kidneys can’t take the beating.” “They rattle my brain.” I get it. When I first started riding a hardtail, I felt much the same way. Eventually, as the miles piled on, I began to realize I couldn’t ride it like my full-suspension bike. No more sitting back heavily and plowing through the terrain. My legs were now my suspension. Front suspension also becomes much more important as you learn to rely on it, not only to soak up terrain, but for traction. I’ve always heard die hards say everyone should learn to ride on a hardtail. I always just dismissed the idea and although I still don’t believe it’s necessary, I see the value of spending time on a hardtail to develop skills. My own ability to center my weight and find balance on the bike has improved dramatically since riding the hardtail. Not to mention learning how to see multiple lines and make choices on the trail.
But what is it about the Samurai 65 that makes it unique? Well, let’s talk about it.
The Samurai 65 has been a spectacular climber. Most of the time I don’t bother dropping the fork into the 130mm position. Even in the 160mm position, the bike charges uphill. It does wander a bit more but not enough to warrant taking the time to drop it. I actually prefer the front end being a little light on the way up. It allows me to easily wheelie around tight switchbacks or over obstacles. Slightly shifting forward in my saddle on steep climbs is more than enough to get balanced and stable.
I spent my first few weeks riding the bike in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada. Among loose dirt, sand, sharp rock faces, and cactus. The Samurai climbed up the jagged, edgy rock faces like a goat. I remember the satisfied feeling of completing several short, technical climbs I didn't expect to. When climbing I prefer to be out of the saddle where I'm able move my weight around, the bike around, or both. There is plenty of room on the Samurai for this kind of movement. Remember how at first I thought I had ordered to large a frame? Once actually on the bike, riding in technical terrain, it felt spot on, and balanced. No tire slippage in all that loose dirt and sand.
I returned home to Hawaii to find it pouring rain. It’s still raining… Either you ride in the wet and mud or you don’t ride at all. Mud clearance on the Samurai is fantastic. At first I was a bit worried, I’ve had other bikes that appeared to have more mud clearance. After weeks and weeks of real world testing in some of the nastiest, muddiest conditions you can ride in, I report happily that I’ve had zero issues with mud getting stuck and jamming up my wheels. I haven’t even washed my bike in weeks, why bother? The mud just keeps piling up and the Samurai keeps going and going.
I’m absolutely satisfied with the Samurai’s climbing ability. Short distance, long distance, technical, jeep roads, bring it on!
Although I do a lot of climbing, I don’t care for it. I pedal for the downhill. In this category the Samurai 65 exceeds my expectations. In the beginning, while figuring out the correct tire pressure, I went through a few rides where things were a bit bouncy. Once I dialed in the right amount of air, things got heavenly. At times, I feel like I’m on a full-suspension bike. I know that sounds like a bunch of bull, but it’s true. The rear does not have that harsh feel I expected it to. My previous hardtail was carbon where this one is steel, maybe that makes up for some of the difference. Maybe I’ve learned how to pick a smoother line or absorbs shocks better with my legs. I don’t know, I only know the ride is surprisingly smooth on board my Samurai.
The 160mm Pike up front makes for confidence inspring downhill. The Samurai absolutely feels at home with this size fork. Not only does it allow me to soak up bigger hits but set the frames head angle at a pleasant 66.7 degrees. At first I thought this wouldn't be slack enough, but I was mistaken. The Samurai 65 paired with the 160mm fork is a killer combo. It wants you to pick the gnarliest, most steep line you can find. I’ve ridden other bikes that argue with you the whole way down. They complain and fight against you. Not the Chromag. This bike is so comfortable and confident on the down. Loose gravel, sharp rocks, dry, wet, muddy, roots, the Samurai loves it all.
Cornering has always been a weakness for me. I tend to come out of corners with to much weight on the back of the bike, and to little up front, losing speed and traction. The Samurai has changed all this. Maybe it's the nature of a hardtail, the loss of rear suspension forcing you to ride more centered on the bike. Now, instead of coming out of turns with my weight shifted back, I'm exiting corners centered and balanced, with pressure on my front wheel guiding me through the corner. Where before I was afraid to commit, now I’m finishing corners with more speed. In this case, I would agree that riding the hardtail has absolutely helped developed my skill.
Some of my recent improvement in cornering I owe to tire choice. Changing things up this time around, I went with a WTB Vigilante up front and Specialized Purgatory Grid at the rear. Both tires stick well, uphill and down. I never once felt they were slipping, either in the loose dirt of the desert or mud caked roots of Hawaii. The Vigilante doesn't shed mud as well as the Purgatory but it also doesn't pack up enough to interfere with the ride. My only complaint is the Vigilante’s sidewalls are pretty thin. This causes the sidewall to fold easily at high speeds. In rougher terrain with sharp rocks I can see them getting chewed up easily. As far as traction though, spot on! The other day found me riding a favorite spot with plenty of wet roots in the corners. Traction was so good I mentioned to my buddy that I needed to trust my tires more and pick up the speed!
Is the Samurai 65 for you? It may be or may not be. If you’ve been looking at all-mountain hardtails I say go for it, you won’t be disappointed. If you have been considering a hardtail in general the Samurai 65 is a fun bike that gives you the benefits of a hardtail while still maintaining many of the characteristics of your full-suspension trail bike. And to top it off, Chromag offers their overseas version, the Wideangle, for half the price of the Samurai 65. They are also a pleasure to work with.
I’ll happily spend all day in the saddle on my Samurai, riding whatever the trail throws in my path and always feel like I’ve brought the right bike. I can prove it with the smiles.