I’ve put up a couple of posts about the Carver Gnarvester in the past. I thought it might be a good time to follow that up with an update on my experiences and thoughts now that I have a full season under my belt on the 29+ rig. I got my Gnarvester at the beginning of the mountain biking season in May. Since then I’ve put almost 1500 miles on that bike and all but a handful of those miles were off-road. It’s pretty easy to get excited about a new bike when it’s actually still new. Having that same enthusiasm about the same bike several months later is more of an accomplishment. If anything, my favorable opinion of the 29+ has grown even stronger.
Here are some of my observations about 29+ in general, not specific to my Gnarvester:
Descending on steroids. This one puzzled me at first since I’ve always been a lousy descender. I’m genuinely faster on the descents with my fully rigid 29+ bike than I was on my race bike with a Fox 32 fork up front. When playing around with Strava, I’ve racked up more personal records on the downhill segments in one season than I had accumulated before. I’ve also found that I can comfortably keep pace with other riders on full suspension bikes. I totally didn’t expect that to be the case.
Climbing is slightly slower. It’s not something I ever felt on the trail but I could see it when looking at GPS data from my rides. If I were to put a measurement to it, I’d estimate that the loss is somewhere under 10%. That’s not something I’d stay awake worrying about. I would still run this bike as my race rig, if I were still racing. I was not as strong this summer as previous years, so that may factor into the reduced speed.
The flats. Riding flat terrain is probably the bike’s strongest point. The extra traction in the corners makes tight and twisty single-track an amazing experience. I’m able to lean into corners noticeably more than I could with 29×2.4″ tires. Some reviews I’ve read claim that the bigger wheels are sluggish and slow handling. I’m not sure what bikes those people have been riding, but it’s not a quality that I’ve been able to notice while actually riding my bike. It certainly isn’t specific to the wheel size.
Mud and sand. Obviously, with bigger tires you’d expect better performance on soft surfaces. The bike definitely delivers in this area. At 200lbs., I’m able to safely run 12psi. This gives me a relatively huge contact patch with the ground that allows the bike to float over soft ground. Even beach sand is manageable. Riding across lumpy soft grass fields doesn’t suck nearly as much energy out of my legs. The only condition in which I’ve found it lacking is when riding greasy, slime-like mud. In those conditions, the ability to slice down to the firm soil below is where you find an advantage. With that one exception, I’d call this one a definite net positive.
Fun. Ultimately, the 29+ platform isn’t about performance – at least not in my eyes. I have no doubt that I could climb faster with a lighter bike with lighter wheels. A full suspension bike might even give me better downhill control and higher speeds, if I were interested in that. Much like my fat bike, the first word that comes to mind when I think about this bike is “fun.” I finally have a bike that feels like it’s optimized for every situation from groomed single-track to bushwhacking along old tractor roads. I think of it as my fat bike for the summer.
When I first saw Carver‘s Gnarvester frame at NEMBAfest last year, it immediately piqued my interest. I loved the way the bike looked and I really liked the large, high volume tires. Since they had the bike available for demo, I was able to take it out for a spin. My wife knew by the look on my face when I returned that I was going to want one of these frames myself. My enthusiasm for this bike may have seemed a little out of proportion at the time, but, now that I’ve been able to really put the bike through its paces, I feel it was justified.
The Gnarvester is Carver’s “29+” frame. Before delving too deeply into the specifics of the bike, the 29+ platform needs a little explanation. First, this is not a fat bike – it rides pretty much like you’d expect any other 29er rig to ride. It will not perform like a true fat bike would in snow, nor is it sluggish like a fat bike. The bigger tires are no substitution for suspension, although they do absorb small chatter pretty well. Really, 29+ is nothing more than a 29er frame with the clearance for 3″ tires on wide (50mm) rims. The bike is otherwise composed of all “normal” parts. That said, the bigger tires do make a big difference. It has all the advantages that originally got people interested in 29er bikes – better traction due to the bigger contact patch, better cornering, smoother rolling over roots, etc. – only more so in every way. Surly’s choice in naming the platform “29+” was more accurate than I had originally realized – it’s like putting a 29er on steroids.
Ample clearance for 29×3″ tires with 50mm rims.
Well constructed titanium frame at a surprisingly affordable price.
Sliding dropouts allowing the use of almost any axle setup.
Chainstay that can be “broken” for use with a belt drive.
Tapered head tube accommodating most fork steerer tubes.
The bike was built up with a SRAM X9 1×10 drivetrain, Velocity Dually rims and Surly Knards in the tread department. I opted to use a Krampus fork due to my personal bias toward steel forks. Carver’s carbon fork would be a great performance upgrade as well as improving aesthetics. I even put in some ti water bottle bolts to keep things light and strong.
The overall impression that this bike gives would best be described as “playful.” The geometry and light weight makes for a ride that just wants to be whipped around, bunny hopped and man-handled in tight single-track. Shortly after getting acclimated to the new bike, I found myself actually jumping some of the small sets of doubles around Kingdom Trails. This is not my typical behavior if you ask anyone that has ridden with me much. Even with the dropouts positioned in the middle of the range of the sliders, the front end of this bike lofts easily over obstacles.
When climbing or descending, the bike handles very well. Nothing of note other than a stable, reliable, neutral feel – which is a good thing. The big traction in the back makes soft, steep terrain much more manageable. With a derailleur setup, you could tune the back end of the bike using the sliders to change the handling characteristics a little. So far, I haven’t found any need for this.
With these big, fat tires you might expect the handling to be on the sluggish end of the spectrum. So far, that hasn’t been a noticeable trait. It may technically require more effort to bring the bike up to speed due to the greater rotating mass, but I’ve never been able to feel it while out on the trail. What I did notice was that this bike corners like a cat on a carpet. The bigger contact patch paired with the bike’s geometry inspire confidence to lean the bike further than you’d expect. I love taking this thing through tight, flowy single-track, like Riverwood at Kingdom Trails – it feels like I’m playing a video game. The handling is also quick enough that it can maneuver through slow technical riding just as readily.
On previous titanium bikes I’ve owned, I was able to get some serious flex out of the bottom bracket under load. Not with this frame. It maintains most of the classic springy feel that titanium is known for without having the drivetrain turn into a wet noodle. The bottom bracket area remains quite stiff. The shaped tubing makes a big difference in this area, as well as looking really cool. The other thing worth mentioning is that the quality of the welds and overall construction and finish of the frame is easily on par with what I’ve seen from more expensive frames.
There are a few down-sides to consider with the 29+ platform, and, therefore, with this frame. At this moment, there is only one 29×3″ tire actually on the market as far as I have been able to determine: the Surly Knard. Fortunately, it’s a decent all around tire. According to on-line rumors, there are some others on the horizon, but they’re not here yet. The other major concern is the lack of suspension options, if that’s your desire. The Cannondale Lefty can work with a 3″ tire, but the clearance is rather tight from what I’ve read. There is also the MRP Stage fork which seems to have just enough room for the wider tires. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from putting some normal 29er rims and 2″ tires on this bike, but you’d be missing out on the real benefits that the frame has to offer.
Overall, this is just a flat-out fun bike to ride. The big rubber allows you to more smoothy roll over roots and rocks. It is light and nimble enough that I wouldn’t shy away from racing on it, even with the big rims and 3 inch rubber. I’ve loved riding over stream beds and any technical terrain as the bike just seems to handle anything I throw at it. It is an awesome bike for trail exploring, bushwhacking and would be great for mountain bike packing if it had braze-ons for mounting a rack.
Carver will be at NEMBAfest again this summer. Hopefully, they’ll have a Gnarvester available for demo, because this bike is worth the effort to get out and try one out for yourself. But be careful; you might end up hooked on it before you have to return it.
Overall Rating: 10/10
Titanium’s magical ability to be both strong and light at the same time.
Big tires allow for great traction
Plenty of mud clearance
Sliding dropouts give many options for the drivetrain (derailleur, single speed, internally geared hub).
The chainstay has the ability to run a belt drive.
At $1399, it’s still not a trivial expense
Limited tire choice if you want to take advantage of the bike’s full potential.
The tapered headtube looks slightly silly with a 1-1/8″ fork.
Lack of braze-ons if you do want to load it down for bike packing
No front derailleur option at this time
Very few options for front suspension.
Clearance for 29+ wheel/tire setups
3.8 pounds in medium size
ZS44/ZS56 tapered head tube
Brushed Finish with Bead Blasted Logo
Standard mtb hub spacing
73mm BB shell
Sliding dropouts – any axle type can be accommodated
Since I had to get out of the single-speed business, the next logical step was to get some gears. I got this work of art from Carver Bikes in Maine. The Gnarvester! It’s their 29+ bike (29×3″ tires, similar to the Krampus). It’s taken a while for me to gather up all the parts it needed, but it did come together eventually. I’ll have a full review done some time in the near future. After taking it out for it’s maiden voyage this weekend I can say that it was worth the wait. Photos added to make Wil happy.