Readers may remember that in my recent post about my family’s vacation Up North, I mentioned that I borrowed a pretty root-beer-colored Milwaukee Bicycle Company 29er mountain bike to ride. The Milwaukee Bicycle Company is the house brand for Ben’s Cycle on Milwaukee’s south side, down there where da streetcars useta turn da corner round. Drew designs all the Milwaukee frames. Some are built at Waterford Precision Cycle and some are built overseas.
A unique feature about the Milwaukee frames is that they arrive at Ben’s naked (no paint or powder coat). This gives you the freedom to personalize your frame. Want extra braze-ons? No problem. Wanna run a derailleur? No problem. Want your bike to be fuchsia and yellow? Well, Drew may try to talk you out of that one, but they actually do have a few glow in the dark powder coat options. There are also a number of cool stainless head badge and Milwaukee logo options that Ben’s can braze onto your frame before you pick a color.
My frame was built with Reynolds 853, one of the new super steels. I didn’t weigh the Milwaukee, but if felt as light or lighter than my 24lb aluminum geared mountain bike and lighter than my lugged steel single speed mtb. My frame was built overseas, but the weld quality looked spot on (and I used to tig weld at Waterford). I appreciated the extra gussets on the down tube/head tube joint. If I had my druthers, I would buy the locally built frame, but if you are on a budget, the price difference is real. Even with shipping, the foreign built frames are at least 30% cheaper than those made down HWY 36 by Richard Schwinn’s minions.
One of the features I really like about the frame are the slider dropouts. These make adjusting chain tension a breeze compared to eccentric bottom brackets. They also keep the disc brakes in perfect alignment as well.
I don’t own a 29er myself, so I was looking forward to comparing how the big wheels roll. I typically ride a 17 or 18 inch 26 inch wheeled mtb. I assumed I would ride a smaller 29er frame, but Drew said most people feel comfortable on the same size 29er as their 26 inch mountain bike. He was right and I took a 17 inch Milwaukee. I think this is because of the steeper seat tube angle and the dramatically sloping top tube.
The bike I tested came set up as a single speed with Sun Ringle Charger tubeless wheels and a Manitou Minute fork. The brakes were hydraulic Avid Elixors. I swapped out the seat post and saddle for my personal favorite, the Selle An-Atomica Titanico.
The bike was super comfortable right off the bat. I enjoyed the more upright geometry of the 29er compared to my old-school time trial position on my mountain bike. The 71.5 degree head tube angle was about a half a degree to a full degree more relaxed than what I am used to, but the bike did not feel at all sluggish in the corners.
I rode the Milwaukee on the paved trails as well as in the dirt. With the tires pumped up hard, the 74 degree seat tube angle and big wheels helped the bike pedal a lot like a road bike on the blacktop. Once I got to the trails I let some air out for increased traction in the dirt. The bike handled quite well on the mountain bike trails. The big wheels and the Manitou shock evened out the terrain. The bike felt stiff climbing out of the saddle, but had the comfortable ride of a steel frame. It kind of reminded me of my old Gunnar cyclocross bike.
Manitou Minute 29″er Fork: Manitou forks are part of the Hayes Bicycle Group, which is a Mequon-based company. The fork was stiff in the corners and my 80mm travel version offered a super plush ride, and at a hair under 4 lbs, there was little weight penalty. The stroke seemed even, but I did notice a bit of dive-in when I hit the brakes or dropped off a ledge. I never messed with the air pressure or other adjustments with the exception of using the lockout on pavement, so perhaps I could have fixed this minor problem if I tried. It was not enough of an issue for me to worry about it on my weekend of riding.
The Sun/Ringle’ Charger 29″er Wheel set: are also part of Hayes Bicycle Group. I wonder if my wheels were laced up by Russell when he was still twisting nipples for Hayes at their wheel building factory on Milwaukee’s north side. The wheels seemed solid and spun light. The wheels came from the factory set up with the “Stan’s No Tubes system“. The Stan’s system uses a rubber rim strip and sealant to convert standard rims to tubeless. Tubeless tires are supposed to be pretty resistant to flats, but I never had to deal that thank goodness. I did bring along a 29er tube just in case.
The Avid Elixor disc brakes worked well, but did have a slightly annoying chatter or vibration that was transmitted to the lever. I took this to be from the slots in the discs. I don’t run disc brakes on any of my other bikes, but my friends who do said this was pretty common with the Avids. I would have preferred locally spec’d Hayes brakes on the bike, but the SRAM owned Avids are designed just south of the Cheddar Curtain and certainly did their job. I quickly forgot about the vibration as I got into my rides on the trails.
After test riding the 29er on the rolling trails of the north woods and the tight single track along the Menomonee River trails, I was pretty pleased with the Milwaukee. The bike is light and stiff, but retains that famous “all-day” steel ride quality I love. The big wheels gave a noticeably smoother ride than my smaller 26 inch mountain bikes, and I tested both on the same trails. The 29er wheels do force the geometry to be pretty upright for a person my size. I’m 5′ 10″ tall with a 32″ inseam, so the bar position is level with the saddle rather than below as most XC racers prefer. I could have flopped the stem like Tinker Juarez in the Cannondale headshock era, but for casual rides, I preferred the upright view of the world. That said, I would like to try a 650b wheeled mtb and see if it might be the best of both worlds for a person my size.
The frame is well thought out from the gusseted head and down tube up front to the sliding dropouts in the rear. When you add the ability to personalize your frame by choosing custom paint and braze-ons, the Milwaukee is a great buy for those who want a better than an off-the-rack mtb, but can’t afford to go the full be-spoke route with a custom frame builder.