Words and photos by Dave Schlabowske (@daveschlabowske)
Hi, I’m Dave Schlabowske. I retired a year ago from my position as the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed, and these days I spend most of my free time exploring gravel forest roads, ATV trails, and logging tracks in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
The last time I pedaled the Colorado Trail in Durango, I did it on a lugged steel Waterford with Nitto mustache bars. I think that was 1990, the same year Durango hosted the very first UCI National Mountain Bike Championships! While Ned Overend is still shredding the trails around Durango, even he has upgraded to a full-suspension 29er.
I’m no Ned, so four years ago when I planned to head back to Durango to guide some mountain bike trips for Bike Fed members with Travis Brown, I figured I should bring something other than my lugged steel single speed with its 1.95” Dart/Smoke sneakers or even that venerable Waterford All Rounder that took me from Durango to Silverton and back via the Colorado Trail.
At the time, I couldn’t quite make the leap from a rigid bike with 26” wheels all the way to a full-squish bike, so I eased into modern mountain biking with a Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral 29er. I felt comfortable with the Feral’s tig-welded True Temper OX Platinum tubing and confidence in the quality since it was built by my old friends at Waterford Precision Cycles (where I spent a blessed but brief stint welding and brazing).
Milwaukee Bicycle Company bikes are sold under the umbrella of Ben’s Cycle and Fitness on Milwaukee’s near south side and designed by Drew Triplett, who was an engineer at Trek before he moved to Ben’s. Their MUSA frames are built by Waterford, welded just half an hour’s drive from the shop, and delivered bare steel. This allows customers to customize their frames with almost any braze-ons they want, not to mention virtually any powder coat or paint finish imaginable. I originally ordered mine in a bass boat red sparkle powder coat with three water bottle mounts, some cool polished MBC badges, and downtube logo.
My sparkly Feral served me well the last four years, but after a couple more trips back to Durango, I finally succumbed to the comfort and control of a full-suspension bike and purchased a 27.5 Plus Trek Fuel EX 9.8. Once I went full suspension, I found my hardtail Feral spent most of its time hanging in my basement, so I decided to recommission it as a dedicated bikepacking rig.
To do that, I took the bike back to Ben’s and had them strip it, add the third bottle mount to the downtube, top tube bag mounts, bottle mounts to the seat stays, and had it powder coated metallic orange. While the seat stay braze ons will fit water bottle mounts, my primary reason to add them was for a custom rear rack inspired by the Trek 1120.
I really like the rear rack on the Trek 1120 because it allows me to switch from my big 14L Relevate Terrapin seat bag to a smaller dropper post compatible bag. But the Trek rack seemed way beefier than what I would need. I wanted something lighter since all I would be carrying back there is my 1 lb Z-Packs tent on one side and a similarly light Enlightened Equipment quilt or Big Agnes sleeping bag on the other. So, I bought some .035 stainless rod, a cheap tubing bender, and dusted off my brazing goggles and my oxy-acetylene torch. Bending the rack was pretty easy, and I brazed the stainless rod using Fillet Pro for stronger joints. My rack only weighs 284 grams but is rigid and stronger than needed for the light loads I strap to it. After an initial test trip, I headed back to the basement and brazed on an additional rod to each side of the rack so it was easier to fit the tent stakes and poles in separate bags.
To complete the conversion from cross country race bike to bikepacking rig, I built a new front wheel around an SP PD-8X dynamo hub, Sinewave Beacon light, added a taller stem, Jones H-Bar, and mounted King Many Things cages to the Manitou Marvel Pro with King USBs. Dr. Jones H-Bar bag fit the new bars, and the Gondola Dropper Post bag from Rockgeist pairs really well with my PNW 27.2 Pine Coast. I considered asking Ben’s to add internal dropper post routing but decided I might want to swap the post to my single speed or even my Waterford All-Rounder, so I stuck with external routing.
Finishing touch points include the comfy orange Ergon GA3 grips and matching PNW Loam dropper lever with a black X2 Selle Anatomica saddle. I fell in love with those saddles after doing a story on the factory where they were made in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. There are still quite a few tanneries in southeastern Wisconsin, but nothing like Milwaukee’s industrial heydays. For the drivetrain, I am still running the original mix of SRAM XO and XX1 1×11.
- Frame Milwaukee Bicycle Company Feral
- Fork Manitou Marvel
- Tires Schwalbe Racing Ralph
- Handlebars Jone H Bar
- Headset Milwaukee Bicycle Company
- Crankset SRAM X0
- Pedals Fyxation Mesa
- Cassette SRAM X1 11 spd
- Derailleur SRAM X1 11 spd
- Brakes Magura MT4
- Shifter(s) SRAM X1 11 spd
- Saddle Selle Anatomica X2
- Seatpost PNW Pine Dropper
- Stem Dimension 110mm +35°
- Front bag Rockgeist Dr Jones
- Frame bag Salsa Ranger
- Rear bags Rockgeist Gondola
- Accessory bags Sea To Summit Big River 5L, Relevate Gas Tank
I now have a little more than 2,000 miles on the Feral as a bikepacking rig, and it has become my go-to bike, even though it is a little heavier and slower than my Fyxation drop bar adventure bike. What I find I like most about the rear rack, is that it allows me to keep my tent, stakes, poles and sleep system separate. This helps me stay more organized but also eliminates worries about putting a wet tent in with my down quilt. And between the two 5L dry bags and the 5L Gondola seat bag, I actually gained a liter or capacity over the Terrapin.
For a guy who has been riding rigid forks for the past 20 years, I won’t pretend to understand the wonders of modern suspension technology and tell you why I love how the velocity dependent needle circuit responds to the oil flow rate through the low-speed needle on Manitou’s Doroado TPC+ 4-Dimensional Compression Damping. All I can tell you is that this relatively lightweight suspension fork adds all-day comfort and makes it a lot more likely that I will toss nearby singletrack in any bikepacking trip I am planning.
The 29er strikes the perfect balance for bikepacking in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. The 2.35” Schwalbe Racing Ralphs run tubeless are fast enough on the gravel forest roads and handle rough ATV trails and singletrack with aplomb. And when the surface gets sandy, I can drop the pressure in the tubeless setup to 18psi and float through all but the softest sections of the Moquah Pine Barrens in Bayfield County. In retrospect, this project has exceeded my expectations.
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