Why El Jefe Review
Just released, the Why Cycles El Jefe is the latest titanium hardtail in the company’s lineup. We got to test out this bikepacking-specific pro model for a few weeks prior to its release. Find the detailed review and a comparison to Why’s other hardtails here…
El Jefe. The name alone is pretty compelling. And while the Spanish translation—The Boss—might conjure up images of the Bruce, it’s actually a bike designed by and for bikepacking pioneer Jefe Branham. The all-new Why Cycles El Jefe is the company’s first pro model bike, and perhaps the first pro model bikepacking bike of its kind. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few collaborations, of course, such as the recent Bicycle Nomad/State 4130 All Road. But, the El Jefe is the first bikepacking-specific bike with a custom-tuned geometry co-created by a bikepacking/ultra-endurance athlete—with their name on it. We had the chance to put the El Jefe through its paces prior to today’s launch. Find the review and all the details below.
For those unfamiliar, Jefe Branham is nothing short of a legend in the bikepacking race scene. And despite what his first name might suggest, Jefe is about as humble as they come, regardless of his decorated resumé. That, for starters, not only includes the title as the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) Director, but also contains a laundry list of race wins and finishes. He’s won the CTR four times and in total has eight CTRs under his belt. One of those wins was the first-ever CTR way back in 2007. And, he’s also hiked it. In addition, Jefe is a two-time Tour Divide finisher, placing 2nd and 1st, respectively. He’s also a route creator. You may have seen Jefe’s words recapping his own Gunny Loopy Loop race near his home in Gunnison, Colorado.
When I asked colleague and accomplished ultra-endurance athlete Neil Belthenko about Jefe, he had a lot to say, “Jefe was the guy I looked up to when I was getting into these races. He inspired me on his 2011 TD run as we were all rooting for the local! Between his positive and humble attitude, and his accomplishments, Jefe is hands down one of the best dudes in this small niche.”
- Highlights (Size L)
- Angles: 67.5° Headtube, 73.3° Seattube
- Reach/Stack: 474/615mm
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm Threaded / 68mm drop
- Hub specs: 148×12 (rear)
- Seatpost Diameter: 31.6mm
- Max Tire Size: 29 x 2.6”
- Price: $2,349 (frame only)
El Jefe is Why Cycles’ third dedicated hardtail mountain bike and sixth bicycle overall. Judging purely by the numbers, it’s hard to say exactly where it fits in this lineup. All three hardtails aren’t too dissimilar, geometrically speaking, each having its own individual eccentricities. But not surprisingly, El Jefe fits its namesake. It’s built to be light and fast, without many frills to speak of. When I asked Jefe what inspired this bike, he mentioned that the project came from the need for “a more racey, go-fast bike to complement the Wayward and S7.”
El Jefe vs. Wayward
Comparing it to the venerable and award-winning Wayward, El Jefe has a significantly lower stack height, a 9mm longer reach, 0.5° steeper HTA, and 15mm shorter chainstays. It’s a bit of a different animal. “I wanted shorter stays, a longer reach, and a somewhat low bottom bracket. So we threw some numbers around until we liked them and then Adam [Miller] worked his magic to bring it all together,” Jefe said. At its essence, the Wayward is a more planted, comfort-focused, and upright style bike, while the El Jefe is its faster sibling with a quicker and more aggressive stance. The two also have a few distinguishing features. They each have three-pack mounts on both the top and bottom of the downtube, as well as a pair on the seat tube. But that’s where the similarities in load-carrying duties stop. The Wayward has rack mounts, but Why nixed them with the El Jefe, keeping to a more svelte platform. Notwithstanding, they added a pair of mounts at the cockpit for a bolt-in top tube bag.
It’s also worth noting that given its relatively straight top tube, the El Jefe has a slightly more open frame bag space. The triangle still isn’t that large, however. I fit it with a full frame bag initially designed for a size medium steel Jamis Dragonslayer. That bag offers plenty of room, but obviously not as much as a typical size large tubular steel bike might have. Lastly, the Wayward is built around 29+ tires and can clear up to 29 x 3.0″ rubber, whereas El Jefe was designed with 29 x 2.6″ tires in mind. Looking at the clearance with the sliding dropouts at about the halfway mark (below), it’s perfect for 29 x 2.4″ tires but can also clear 2.6″ according to Why, and can even clear 29 x 2.8″ tires with the sliders moved all the way back.
El Jefe vs. S7
El Jefe and the S7, Why’s other popular hardtail, are significantly different in the tire clearance department. The S7 is built around 27.5+ tires and can clear up 29 x 2.4s, although smaller 29 x 2.6″ tires are possible with the sliders all the way back, as we’ve tested. El Jefe is made for large 29er tires, however, which explains the 3mm lower bottom bracket drop (68mm). Otherwise, when you look at El Jefe next to the S7, the two share a very similar geometry, with a few millimeters in variation here and there. The most significant difference is that El Jefe has a 14mm longer reach than the S7 and a 7mm longer wheelbase. That kind of semi-modernizes this breed of back/cross-country geometry, so to speak. As Jefe put it, “I think the geo is more or less right in line with a modern do everything kind of fast hardtail… but it’s not another rowdy hardtail.” El Jefe also has a 0.3° steeper seat tube, which places the saddle slightly less over the axle. Lastly, the S7 has rack mounts while the El Jefe does not. So is El Jefe the S7 killer? Maybe.
As for other frame details, El Jefe has the same sliding dropouts as the S7 and Wayward, as well as the same machined integrated standard headtube requiring zero bottom bracket cup pressings. El Jefe has its own unique graphics package that’s laser-etched into the frame with motifs on the top tube, seat tube, down tube, and seat stays. Like other Why frames, it also gets a quote on the inside of the chainstay; this frame had one from Jacques Cousteau, “We must go and see for ourselves.” And on the top tube and down tube, it gets a nice little mantra from Jefe himself: Fast or Slow—Just Go. The lily on the seat tube is an homage to Jefe’s daughter, Lillian.
For this review, Why loaned me the frame, fork, and wheelset. There is also an option to purchase El Jefe with those three main elements plus a headset for $4,499. The rest of the parts came from my parts bin and the new SRAM Eagle GX AXS kit that was sent for review. Here’s the full build kit. The total build weighed in at about 27.3 pounds (12.38kg), which includes a pair of alloy OneUp flat pedals.
- Frame Why El Jefe (large)
- Fork Rockshox SID Ultimate
- Wheels Revel RW30 1/1
- Tires Maxxis Rekon 29 x 2.4
- Brakes TRP Spyke
- Levers Avid Speed Dial Ultimate
- Crankset SRAM GX Eagle (32T)
- Derailleur SRAM GX Eagle AXS
- Shifter SRAM GX Eagle AXS
- Handlebar Whisky No.9 20mm rise / 800mm wide
- Grips Ergon GA3
- Seatpost Crank Brothers Highline 150
- Saddle Ergon SM Comp
To The Trails…
Considering I’ve been riding mainly steel hardtails and 29 x 2.6” tires lately, when I first got on this ridiculously lightweight build with 29 x 2.4” tires it felt like riding a bike unloaded after pedaling with four panniers for two weeks. El Jefe is quick. It accelerates fast and handles swiftly, too. At first, the steering felt anxious while climbing up technical bits, but I was able to tone that down after dialing in the SID fork and settling into the feel of it. I was surprised at how well this bike handled going downhill. Looking at 67.5° head tube angle, it certainly doesn’t fit into the rowdy hardtail category, but it doesn’t come off as a wimp, either. Berms, roots, and rollers were all greeted with grace, and the long cockpit kept me centered and right where I needed to be to maintain traction and control. It corners fast, intuitively, and precisely, which isn’t surprising considering the head tube angle and shorter 44mm fork offset.
El Jefe thrives on moderately steep, technical terrain. My first real ride on it was on Squirrel Gap, one of my favorite local trails that has a few technical sections. I was pleasantly surprised by how well I handled these considering I wasn’t yet used to the bike. I felt like I could point the bike up rooty or rocky moves and everything else just followed. As cliched as it might sound, it felt like force applied to the pedals translated directly to the wheels without much loss in progress or control. The minimal weight of the build certainly helps in that regard, but it seems like that this responsiveness and confidence can also be attributed to a very efficient frame design. It also seems very much at home navigating rocky sections and carving through obstacles. No doubt, that maneuverability can be attributed to El Jefe’s low 68mm bottom bracket drop and short chainstays.
A few rides later, I decided to slam the rear wheel as far forward as the sliding dropouts would allow to try it in super short 420mm chainstay mode—a number that might be attributed to Jefe’s home state. I felt a little awkward on the climbs in that position, to be honest. I had a hard time keeping the front wheel down on super steep and technical climbs. Going downhill, although a little bit rougher, it was a carving machine with the shortened stays, but I still decided to return the dropouts to more of a centered position, making the chainstays about 427mm in length, which still has a nice nimble feel but adds a little stability in the climbs. Either way, it’s nice to have the versatility, and for someone with shorter legs than me, that short chainstay position might be a lot of fun.
I had the opportunity to load up El Jefe and take it out for a three-day bikepacking trip in a remote stretch of wilderness along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. According to the route instigator, this was to be a “gravel bike friendly” route, so I tried to keep the load light, despite needing to carry three days’ worth of food. Being the only one on a mountain bike, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient this bike was with a full load. I was even more blown away with how well it did when we learned that this was no gravel bike route… and the going got chunky and technical.
All told, the bike and gear (before food and water) weighed about 39.95 pounds (18.12kg). I didn’t weigh it once all the food was packed up, but I’m guessing the food and water added another 8-10 pounds. Prior to the trip, I adjusted the sag of the SID fork to compensate for the weight. The bike pedaled well on our paved approach to the loop we were riding, and once off road, we immediately hit rolling and chunky doubletrack with river crossings and steep bits here and there. After a few miles, we merged onto the first stretch of technical singletrack. Even with the full load, El Jefe felt solid, stable, and sure, retaining its incredibly responsive and efficient feel. I surprised myself by clearing a few obstacles and rock moves and was stoked at how reactive it felt even with the full load. Up, thrust, and over motions were fluid and the long reach gave it a balanced and centered quality when riding technical sections. Over the next three days, those feelings persisted and I grew to love El Jefe as a bikepacking rig even more than I did as a trail bike.
About two weeks later I learned that Jefe Branham had just set a new singlespeed record on the AZT 300 route on this bike—with 29 x 2.6″ tires. It’s worth noting that most riders who set records on the AZT are on a full-suspension bike. His quote was fitting, “[I’m] cooked. I pushed really hard last night and this morning, legs are f@cked!” But it also got me thinking about how I found the El Jefe to be a little less fatiguing than other hardtails I’ve ridden. I can’t pinpoint exactly why (no pun intended). I wouldn’t consider it to be the most supple bike I’ve ridden, but it has a certain mojo to it in that regard and seems to soak up the mileage yet still feel stiff and reactive where you need it, if that makes sense. I didn’t have enough time to try it with 29 x 2.6″ tires, but I can imagine that they would even further its all-day pedigree, not to mention capability. All that being said, Jefe is 47 years young, which is pretty close to my age, and I can’t really imagine pushing 280 miles in one go on a singlespeed hardtail. According to Jefe, he’ll also be riding the Colorado Trail Race on it this year, set up similarly, with one gear, 29 x 2.6” tires, and a 130mm fork up front. Godspeed, Jefe!
- Size Tested: Large
- Actual Weight: 2248 grams (frame)
- Place of Manufacture: China (frame)
- Price: $2,349*
- Manufacturer’s Details: WhyCycles.com
*Frame only ($2,349); Frame and SID ultimate ($2,999); Frame/fork and new Revel RW27 wheelset ($4,499).
- Lightweight frame with an efficient geometry that offers a good balance of speed and capability
- Great graphics and finish
- Transitions into a beast for loaded bikepacking
- Clearance for 29 x 2.6″ tires and sliding dropouts
- Relatively small frame triangle
- No rack mounts
To wrap things up, you might be asking, who is the Why Cycles El Jefe for? I guess the short answer is that it’s suited to riders looking for efficiency and speed in a backcountry hardtail. And getting even more granular, it’s certainly a machine fit for multi-day technical bikepacking, as its namesake demonstrated on the AZT. El Jefe thrives when loaded, particularly on singletrack. It does really well on rolling technical singletrack, cross-country trails, and doubletrack. It’s made for going fast; it pedals efficiently and excels at keeping pace. All that said, it’s a backcountry hardtail at heart.
For anyone reading this and comparing it to the Wayward, the question would be whether you have a penchant for stability and comfort or efficiency and speed. Both bikes are extremely versatile and can do a lot very well, but each has a bent toward one of those directions and thrives there, without a doubt. If I were to have my way, I might marry the two and have the longer reach of EL Jefe with the slightly slacker head tube and rack mounts of the Wayward. But for now, I’ll have to keep dreaming…
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