Over the course of this journey I’ve ridden two bikes: a Santos Travel Master Cromo 2.6 and a Thorn Sterling. Both are 26in, mountain bike-style tourers, which is generally the best way to go for riding south of the US, where 700c (or 29er) touring kit can’t be found for love nor money.
Several people have asked me which of the two bikes is ‘better’. I guess the answer would have to be an ambiguous ‘neither’ – though each is better suited to certain applications. In a nutshell, the Travel Master is burlier and longer, and designed primarily for hauling the heaviest of loads with complete stability. The Sterling is lighter and tighter, and built for smaller capacities and a livelier ride.
I ran both bikes with almost identical kit: Ridiga’s superb CSS Andra rims, Magura’s reliable, coil sprung Odur (85mm for the Travel Master, and 100mm for the Sterling), simple Middleburn square taper cranks, Tubus/OMM racks and a mix of Schwalbe Marathon XR and Extreme tyres, in a fat, trail friendly 2.25. And, of course, Rohloff’s Speedhub, which has worked faultlessly throughout the journey, making short work of muck, dust and snow. Both frames are Rohloff specific and feature eccentric bottom brackets – a neat and easy solution to adjusting chain tension.
As a sidenote, I chose to run suspension on this trip because I’d always intended to unearth singletrack side trips along the way, and because the folks at the Adventure Cycling Association recommended it for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. If I wasn’t such a keen mountain biker, I’d probably make do with a rigid fork, fat tyres and some comfortable grips, like the Ergon GP1s or GR2s – which are setup options on both bikes. Ultimately, a rigid fork on a 26in offers better reliability and load carrying abilities, at the expense of comfort over corrugated tracks and some technical prowess when mountain biking.
And another thought worth considering: If you are going to run front panniers with a suspension fork – which is ultimately is not what they’re designed for – pack your bags as light as possible to avoid the fork flexing too much. Keep your bar bag as light as possible too.
So, having put in several thousand rugged kilometres in on both bikes, here’s a few thoughts on the pros and cons of each…
SANTOS TRAVEL MASTER CROMO 2.6
What I like:
Massive tyre clearances for 2.25s, plus room, great for mud, snow and fat tyres – and ‘guards too
Heavy duty, oversized tubing for serious load carrying, handles really well offroad at speed
Loads of bottle mounts, and triple eyelets for positioning options, including below the top tube
The frame is designed for 85mm of suspension, which is ample to take the edge out of potholled and corrugated dirt roads
Derailleur hanger in the event of a Rohloff failure
Surprisingly nippy handling for an expedition bike
Lots of build options to suit different budgets
Tough finish and loads of paint choices to express your individualism…
What I’m not so crazy about:
Oversized tubing offers a tad harsh ride when riding off road unladen, especially with a rigid fork
On the largest size, the head tube is too long for some suspension fork steerers. I was fitted with the largest frame because the top tube is a little shorter than I’m used to, so I needed to go up a size to get the reach MSG Cycles recommended.
I didn’t have much standover clearance with an 85mm fork, though it was fine with a rigid fork
No disc mounts (keeps things simple though, and allows for more compliance in the frame and fork)
What I like:
Massive tyre clearances for 2.25s plus room, great for mud, snow and fat tyres – and ‘guards too
Lighter, narrow gauge tubing for lively handling unladen – this is a fun bike to ride
Reassuringly solid too compared to some steel hardtails
Versatility – good for touring, mountain biking and commuting
A blast to ride off road
100mm fork is perfect for all but the most challenging of terrain on singletrack sidetrips, and more easily sourced than 85mm lengths
Disc mount for versatility back home and future proofing
Lost of build options to suit your taste
What I’m not so crazy about:
If overloaded, the frame gets a little wallowy. Bear in mind that it’s rated by to 15kg at the back, which should be enough for frugal packers but not everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tours.
Disc brake hose guides aren’t open ended, which would make for easy swapping between discs (home use) and V brakes (on tour).
Disc mount could have been be tucked away between the rear stays, so a mechanical disc caliper, like Avid’s reliable BB7, wouldn’t foul a rear rack.
For water guzzlers or those with desert touring inclinations, an extra bottle mount below the downtube would have been welcome.
Longer 100mm suspension fork less suited to loaded travel as it has a little more flex in it. This said, 80mm forks are hard to come by these days, so it’s easier to find a replacement in the event of a failure.
If there’s to be a verdict of sorts, I’d say the most important point to bear in mind is that you can’t shoe horn everything into one bike. Both bikes are very nicely thought out, and definitely fulfill their respective mandates – my minor grumbles aren’t deal breakers in any way.
So, if you pack relatively light and enjoy unladen mountain biking side trips, the Sterling is a great choice: it combines fun, nimble handling with respectable touring credentials. Plus, it’s a touch beefier than a standard steel hardtail, so should swallow up some bruises too. In terms of build, the frame is very nicely finished, and comes properly prepped too.
If you really want to load up the Sterling, Thorn do a rigid fork, the Mt Tura, which is rated to 25kg – adding substantially to the frame’s capacity of 15kg. But if you’re keen to run suspension, as I was, then the ideal setup for the Sterling may well be a combination of two rear panniers and custom frame bag, from the likes of Epic Designs, Carousel or Porcelain Rocket. Framebags help spread weight within the frame, rather than loading up the fork with a rack and panniers. For extra water carrying capacity, I hoseclamp water bottle cages to the fork legs without any detrimental effect on handling.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you running the Sterling with a single wheel trailer, like an Extrawheel, BOB or Aevon – thus entering into a whole different world of load carrying. For more generous cargos though, you should really be checking out its beefier brother, the Thorn Nomad, which also come with S&S couplings for air transport.
Onto the Santos.
If you’re planning an extended, heavily loaded dirt track adventure through a gamut of seasons, the Travel Master will definitely do you proud. I was impressed with pretty much everything about it. It’s ruggedly built and attention to detail is absolutely spot on. Like the Thorn, it’s very nicely put together. And like the Thorn, there’s plenty of build options. The way the sizing worked out for me, a rigid fork would have been a better option than suspension, as standover was a touch tight for more technical riding. There’s a aluminium version with a slightly shorter head tube – and hence more standover – which also has a longer top tube, but I’m a traditionalist (of sorts) and prefer to tour with a chromo frame.
Which is a good reminder that it’s worth checking frame geometries out too – the Santos being noticeably shorter on the top tube than the Sterling. I had my Santos bikefitted for me by MSG Cycles, and I have to say, they did a great job.