- Singular Swift
- £340 (frame and fork)
- UK-based 29er chassis
- Classic looks, contemporary design
All dimensions based on Large frame
|Effective top tube length (TT)||620mm (24.4in)|
|Chainstay (CS)||450mm (17.7in)|
|BB height (BB)||310mm (12.2in)|
Over the last few years a healthy number of tiny UK-based bike companies have cropped up, each starting out by combining an individual’s own ideas and designs with increasingly accessible overseas manufacturing. With production runs of 50 frames perfectly feasible, it’s perhaps easier than its ever been for a new company to get out of the blocks.
Naturally enough, most of the newcomers have gone for niches largely ignored by big, mainstream manufacturers. And as is so often the way with alternatives to the mainsteam, that’s resulted in quite a few companies doing vaguely the same kind of thing – to wit, reasonably-priced steel hardtails for enthusiasts.
Singular Cycles is a little different. Founder Sam Alison is a big fan of 29in wheels, a fact quite possibly connected with his prodigious height. As if that wasn’t niche enough, he also has a soft spot for drop bars on off-road bikes, singlespeeds and classic styling. We took a look at a Swift, the first bike from the Singular stable. It’s described as, “an absolutely no-compromise 29in wheeled mountain bike with an attention to geometry that makes for a fantastic handling bike, whether rigid or suspended”. Bold claims indeed…
The first thing that catches your eye about the Swift is the rather glorious orange paint and classically-styled panel decals. There are a lot of frames on offer at the moment with rather, well, functional colour schemes, but Singular is clearly making an effort. This is the geared version – the singlespeed version looks the same but has an eccentric bottom bracket to tension the chain and comes in an equally fine pale blue. The singlespeed model still has a derailleur hanger (although no cable guides), though, so it’ll play both ways. Both sport a splendid swift motif on the head tube – nice touch.
Enough of colour – what lies under the paint? There’s no tubing sticker because there aren’t enough of any one kind of tube to warrant it, with the Swift being made of a mixture of Reynolds and proprietary butted 4130 chromoly. In common with pretty much every other metal mountain bike on the market, the tubes are TIG-welded together, although in Singular’s world it’s the second-best choice – if Sam had his way the Swift would be lugged, but he can’t easily get lugs to give the geometry he wants, so welding it is.
On the subject of geometry, this is where we witter on a bit again. We’ve discussed the issues facing designers of 29in bikes before, but here it is in a nutshell. There are two strands – making the bike handle, and making it fit – and they interact in all sorts of ways. Bigger wheels tend to steer more slowly for two main reasons. First, they’re inevitably heavier and have more inertia. Second, for a given head angle and fork rake, a bigger wheel means more trail. Trail is the horizontal distance at ground level between a line running through the bike’s steering axis (ie the centre of the head tube) and the tyre’s contact patch. The longer this distance is, the slower the steering.
In the early days of 29ers, getting shorter trail to speed the handling up generally meant steepening the head angle, which also meant lengthening the front centre (that’s the distance between BB and front hub) in order to push the front wheel away from the pedals so that it didn’t hit your feet in turns. That means a very long top tube, although some designers shortened it again by steepening the seat angle too to bring the seat further forward. Combine that with longer chainstays at the back and you end up with a bike that’s very long with the rider very much in the middle of it.
There’s another way to shorten the trail, though, and that’s to lengthen the fork rake, or offset – how far ahead of the steerer tube the front axle is. The usual rake for 26in forks is around 38mm, and until very recently that was carried across to 29er suspension forks too. A few manufacturers started making their own rigid forks with more offset, Gary Fisher’s G2 geometry does the same with an exclusive Fox fork and for 2009 both Fox and RockShox are doing 29er suspension forks with around 46mm of offset, which gives the same trail for a given head angle as a 38mm offset on a 26in wheel.
As you’ve probably noticed, it’s a bit of a minefield. Singular’s solution is quite neat, being essentially a little bit of everything. A glance at the numbers will tell you that the head angle is on the steep side, but not crazily so. The top tube also is rangy, but not unprecedented. But the seat angle is actually slacker than you’d expect, leaving less of the bike sticking out behind the rider. All of these numbers are with Singular’s own extra-long 485mm axle-to-crown rigid fork with 48mm of offset.
This design predates the ready availability of longer-offset suspension forks, with the idea being that a sagged 80mm travel fork is actually shorter than the stock rigid one, steepening the head angle to compensate for the regular offset. That’s not perfect, but it’s turned out to be a prescient move on Singular’s part, for the new generation of ~46mm offset 100mm travel forks will plug straight in and give handling all but indistinguishable from the rigid option.
While the test bike came with a slightly wacky flared drop bar setup, the Swift isn’t designed specifically with drops in mind – a slightly longer stem and a pair of flats will work just fine. If you’re fully into the drop thing, Singular is developing the Gryphon, with a shorter top tube and longer head tube so that running drops doesn’t mean lots of spacers and a tall, stumpy stem.
Elsewhere the frame is very tidily put together. It’s disc-only, there’s plenty of mud room even with the hefty tyres fitted, you get two sets of bottle bosses and the cable routing is traditional brake on top, gears underneath. Our only constructional quibble concerns the fork – with recent controversy about quick-release wheels and disc brakes, the fork’s actually slightly rear-facing dropouts make us nervous. We understand, though, that a move to forward-angled ones as now found on most suspension forks is on the cards, and to be fair we didn’t experience any problems with the existing setup.
Swift primarily deals in frames and leaves choice of components up to you, although it does have a couple of build kits available, neither of which featured on the test bike. Our Swift was put together with an eclectic selection of parts, including the distinctive flared drop bars. The Swift is perfectly happy to run a more conventional flat or riser-bar setup, but the flared drops are a personal preference of the designer and we thought it’d be interesting to try them. With the long top tube, a distinctly stumpy stem was needed to get the bars no more than a comfortable stretch away.
Adorning the bars were a pair of 10-speed Campagnolo Veloce Ergopower levers, not a component that we see much in the world of mountain bikes. 10spd MTB cassettes are something of a rarity, but thanks to differences in sprocket spacing between manufacturers, they actually worked quite acceptably over the 8spd cassette fitted. There’s really only one choice of disc brake with these levers, and that’s Avid’s BB7 Road cable-operated discs. They took a bit of juggling to get right, but once set up proved confident and reliable stoppers.
Adding the the general pumped-up cyclocross feel was a twin-ring chainset offering 34 or 42t options. The big wheels were shod with Maxxis Ignitor and Specialized Captain tyres, while a classic Thomson/Flite combo provided somewhere to sit. The whole bike came in at a perfectly agreeable 11.7kg (25.8lb) on our scales.
Let’s deal with the bars first. Drop bars for off-road has been a small but vocal niche for many years, with a lineage traceable back well before John Tomac to cyclocross and rough-stuff touring. The Swift arrived with the currently in-vogue setup of flared drops positioned high up so that you can ride in the drops pretty much all the time – you can sit up and ride on the hoods if you like, but thanks to the flare it’s not actually all that comfy. In the drops you end up with quite a racy stance, but there’s plenty of width and you’re not as low and far forward as you might think. Your hands end up not far off the position they’d be in with a longer, flat stem and bars, just oriented differently.
The Swift’s front-end geometry actually has less trail than a typical 26in bike, and it’s certainly pleasingly brisk in the steering department. You can’t help noticing the extra overall length in the twisty stuff, though, and bigger wheels are always going to be heavier. It’s not a bike that really lends itself to super-technical riding – it’d feel a bit handier with a more conventional handlebar setup, but even then you’d only be chucking it around to prove that you could, not because it feels like it wants to do it.
It’s very comfy, though – there’s no doubt that big wheels roll over all sorts of stuff that 26in ones stutter across, be they rocks, roots or holes. And while acceleration might be a bit muted thanks to the big tyres, once up to speed the Swift hangs on to it a treat – inertia can be your friend. Ride it efficiently, without too much braking and accelerating, keeping it smooth, and it’s very rewarding and quick, too. And it certainly eats up the miles if you want to get epic – it excels on mixed back lane/off-road rides, a bit like a ‘cross bike but considerably easier going on the off-road bits. It’s designed to be ridden long, and it certainly fits the bill there.
Ups and downs
Positives: Brisk handling, mile-munching ability, classic looks, versatile
Negatives: Requires a certain mindset
The 29er movement attracts more than its fair share of zealots. Singular Cycles is refreshingly non-fundamentalist about its chosen wheel size, happily admitting that it’s follwing the “bigger wheels for taller riders” logic – Swifts only come in Medium, Large or XL sizes. It’s even working on a 26in bike. Very few people are claiming that 29in wheels are the right solution for everything all the time, and the Swift is a great illustration of this. It’s very good at flowing, rolling trails, it works great in rigid form, it’s comfortable. It’s less good on steep, nadgery stuff and it doesn’t exactly beg to be jumped around. If that’s you, take a good look at the Swift – it could well be just what you’re looking for