Cale and his Custom S&S Waltworks
It’s always a pleasure to meet up with old friends. Cass enjoys the chance to entertain a bikepacking and foodie amigo in Oaxaca, the perfect locale to ride bikes and eat fine fare. And Cale brings a wonderful custom Waltworks along for the trip. Read on to find more about Cale and his partner Melissa’s bikes, complete with S&S couplings, portage handles, and back-friendly geometries…
A number of years ago, I rode the Stagecoach 400 solo and loved every moment of it. After a few nights camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, communing quietly with plump barrel cacti and gleaming stars, I found myself back in San Diego with nowhere to spend the night. Friends put me in touch with friends who ultimately put me in touch with Cale Wenthur.
Before I knew it I was invited into his home, despite the fact it was already overflowing with a stray band of travelling bikepackers. I was whisked off to eat incredible Ethiopian fare, memorably located in a restaurant tucked at the back of a convenience store. Cale wowed me with his bike collection and generally went out of his way to help me out in every way. His hospitality, I should add, even included unleashing his angle grinder on my Wald basket and chopping it in half, in an experimental ‘ultralight basketpacking’ fusion. What a host!
Back then, Cale had a Surly World Troller, complete with shiny S&S couplings and a Jones H-bar, as well as a Rick Hunter gravel bike amongst his collection of choice steeds. Clearly, I was dealing with a bike connoisseur, and as I quickly realised after our Ethiopian feast – a table-size platter of beyainatu – something of a foodie.
So, when the opportunity arose for Cale and his partner Melissa to visit Oaxaca, the least I could do was share some of my favourite trails and point them in the direction of some fine Oaxacan cuisine. Besides, Cale was bringing his custom Waltworks, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing him, I was equally excited to check out this ferrous beauty because I knew its build would be as carefully considered as it was indulgent.
The trip we planned into the Sierra Norte to ride the Hebras de Ixtepeji bikepacking route coincided with me fostering sweet Huesos, a rescue dog we’d found whilst riding in the same region. So, he joined us too. Having Huesos along may have been more to Melissa’s delight than Cale’s, but still, off we rode (or trotted) into the high country.
But enough small talk… let’s find out more about the bike!
Cale, I know you’re a devout foodie. But I also consider you a connoisseur of fine bikes. What was the journey that led you to this beautiful Waltworks?
I would say I’m a general appreciator of fine things, much to my bank account’s dismay. This said, the Waltworks, and to some extent, my entire collection, is an iterative refinement of all the bikes I’ve owned before. The Surly World Troller I owned right before I ordered this frame was kind of my last attempt at building a non-custom touring bike that could take me anywhere.
I love Surly bikes in general, and I would say that brand has had more influence over the direction my riding has taken over the years than any others. I’ve always admired the workmanlike aesthetic of Surlys. They get the job done in a way that isn’t too precious, if that makes sense. However, there were just too many compromises for me to be truly happy with the World Troller. I know there are still people who insist that 26” tires are the only way to go, but as a base for the bike I really wanted to keep forever, that wasn’t a good place to start, so I shoehorned some 27.5 wheels into the Troll, which obviously had an effect on its geometry. Honestly, it wasn’t anything terrible, but I was by limited tire clearance either way.
The second major thing that I didn’t like about the Troll was the saddle-to-bar drop. I couldn’t get the bars as high as I wanted them on a stock Troll. Of course, I could have run 5” of spacers or a stem with a massive rise to fix it, but aesthetically, I just couldn’t live with that long term. And finally, there are all the small details such as having all the braze ons you want and none of the ones you don’t, etc.!
As to how I landed on Waltworks as the builder of this bike, that’s a sort of long story involving the 29er board on MTBR back in about 2005 or so. Back when 29ers weren’t really a production thing, Walt was all over that board and I actually had him build me a custom fork to turn my Surly 1×1 into a 29er. I sold that fork many years ago, but when I really started thinking hard about what my perfect touring bike would be, there really wasn’t a doubt in my mind I wanted Walt to build it—for a few reasons. First, he works fast. I hate the idea of 10-year waiting lists and people who get sucked into the mystique of owning a bike that takes a billion years to build. I’d rather be riding. And second, he has that same workmanlike aesthetic that Surly has. Sure, there are custom bits on this bike, but nothing is there for decoration or to make it stand out. It’s all there to serve a purpose and get me where I want to go.
Can you give us a rundown on what makes it so special?
I probably spent a thousand hours refining this bike in my mind during all the various bike tours I’ve done in the past decade or so. First off, the geometry is nothing crazy. I had to have that 69 degree head tube angle – aside from being a nice number it’s actually pretty perfect for the uses this bike sees. I wanted reasonably short chainstays to keep the bike feeling lively, but 420mm stays would have necessitated a curved seat tube, which I didn’t want for a bunch of reasons, so I ended up with a 430mm CS measurement. I’ve been very happy with how that turned out. The rest of the geometry is pretty close to a 2017-era Karate Monkey actually. Nothing too out of the ordinary.
When I put my deposit down for this frame, a few things I mentioned right off the bat were: optimize the front triangle for frame bag space vs. standover, S&S couplers, a small saddle-to-bar drop, and portage handles on the rear seat stays. I will always take more front triangle space over more standover in a touring situation. While there are tours I’ve done where this isn’t the case (Colorado Trail, Tahoe Rim), most of the touring I enjoy is around 70% fire road, so having that additional clearance isn’t something I feel like I need most of the time. S&S couplers are a bit of an obsession, I currently have four coupled bikes of one sort or another. I am a travel junkie and being able to bring bikes along on trips is a big priority for me—but more about this later.
Saddle-to-bar drop is another important one for me. Most people who hop on this bike remark about the upright position, and that was a conscious choice. I designed this bike around Jones bars (although I am currently running Tumbleweed Prospector bars and loving them too) and a minimal saddle-to-bar drop because I used to come home with badly bruised palms and a sore back after two weeks of 8-12 hour days in the saddle. Could I do more core exercises and fix this problem? Oh yes. Do I know myself well enough to know that I absolutely will not? Also yes.
Finally, the portage handles are a direct rip-off of Nick Carman’s (@nicholascarman) pink Merriweather Cycles hardtail. I don’t know if I saw that bike online or in person first but I remember thinking, “That is brilliant, my next bike will have those for sure.” It just makes picking a bike with a full-size frame bag up so much easier, I cannot tell you how many times they have come in handy over the years.
How was working with a custom builder? What was the timeframe like?
Walt is a great guy to work with, he is a clear communicator who loves to talk about bikes. I think our design call lasted 2.5 hours. He has built countless bikes, so I definitely deferred to his expertise when it came to some of the geo numbers, but I did have lots of strong opinions on the setup of the bike, as well as all the stuff I mentioned above and he was super accommodating to all of it.
It took about six months or so from deposit to getting the bike, but 95% of that was sitting on the waiting list, the actual build was around seven days or so, which is super cool. He sends you pictures of the process along the way and it’s so fun to watch it take shape.
I love that beaten-up box you use to pack your bike, covered in bike brand and peeling airport stickers. Can you tell us about the coupling process? Any FNTs for ‘bikepackaging’?
That box has its own story. I actually had it made by a company in San Diego, where I live, called Valley Box, in 2011. I think it cost me $50 and it’s been all over the world with me. Aside from an ever-increasing amount of gorilla tape keeping the hinge section together, it hasn’t skipped a beat. And aside from the fact that it’s probably saved me the entire cost of the frame in oversize fees over the past five years, anyone who has done a bike trip that involves plane travel knows what a nightmare finding transport to and from the airport can be. This makes that so much better. Obviously, it’s still a reasonably large box but it fits in pretty much any sedan and keeps you under the radar when you are new in a country and least mobile.
Coupling and uncoupling the bike is an easy process, and aside from checking to make sure the couplings are tight once or twice the day after you build the bike, you honestly never think about them again until it’s time to pack up—which is a process.
Frankly, coupling a boost spaced suspension-corrected MTB frame is not for everyone, especially if you are not a good home mechanic. I happen to love working on bikes, so this isn’t a huge downside for me, but you essentially end up stripping the bike down to the frame, with only the cranks staying on. I can have this bike fully packed in about 45 minutes if I’m really working at it, but an hour and a half is generally how long it takes me to do it in a hotel room or something like that.
My biggest tip: don’t bother putting everything in the S&S box. I actually travel with two bags: the box for the frame and wheels that also has a few of my other bikepacking bags used as padding, and a large 85l duffle that carries my fork and bars (Pursuador bars are wide!) along with the balance of my bike luggage and clothing. You might be able to shoehorn it all into one box on the way there but somehow all your gear expands during the trip, the last thing you want to do is stress over repacking your bike when you have to catch a plane. This gives me the space to include all the tools I need to do a good job of pulling the bike apart. And it helps make sure everything is well padded and nothing gets damaged in transit, which can’t always be said for traveling with a conventional cardboard box.
Where has the bike taken you?
Literally all over the world. I got this bike two weeks before a trip to Madagascar and had time for one quick overnighter before I packed it up and flew 28 hours to test it out in one of the muddiest places on the planet. Aside from a Race Face crank that constantly wanted to unthread itself, the bike was flawless and it’s been my go-to bikepacking rig ever since.
Some other highlights were taking it back to Ecuador riding with my partner and two friends from the US alongside my Ecuadorian friend Xavier, who I met because he had a bike box in the customs line in the Quito airport on my first trip there.
Its biggest trip, though, was in 2019 when my partner and I sold all our belongings and gave up our apartment to spend four months riding through 17 countries in Europe, which was an absolute lifetime memory. By that time, the Race Face cranks had been swapped for the oh–so-pretty and oh-so-spendy Cane Creek EeWings, and aside from replacing a tire and a chain I had absolutely zero issues on the entire trip. I would unhesitatingly take this bike anywhere in the world, and hopefully I can continue to do that again soon.
Talking of which… where do you hope it might take you in the future?
The next big trip on the horizon is spending some time in Chile and Argentina, hopefully in December of 2022. This said, it’s probably best to not make too many plans too far in the future right now.
Anything you’d like to point out in your build? Any underlying reasons for particular components, whether it’s based on your previous experiences or the simple pleasures of running beautiful parts?
As you pointed out, I’m an appreciator of fine things, and over the years I have been lucky enough to try out a lot of fancy gear. But the performance of a Shimano XT drivetrain is something I have yet to find a match for. I’m currently running the 12-speed XT8100 with the 4-piston brakes, and while parts availability is somewhat of a concern, its performance is worth that risk to me. Aside from that, the standout parts are the bling eeWings cranks, and the eeSilk Seatpost with a Brooks saddle that I will never part with. I also have to say the Persuader bar has proven to be absolutely fantastic. I tend to run my Fabios Chest on most trips and the wide flat mounting section combined with the generous sweep of the bars makes a perfect, trouble-free system.
- Frame Waltworks custom 27.5+
- Fork Waltworks custom
- Shifter XT 8100
- Derailleur XT 8100
- Cassette XT 8100
- Crankset Cane Creek eeWings 170mm
- Brakes XT 8100 4 piston
- Rotors XT 8000 6 bolt ice tec
- Rims eBay carbon 35mm internal
- Hubs King
- Tires MAXXIS DHF, Specialized Butcher
- Handlebar Tumbleweed Persuader bar
- Stem Thomson 4 bolt 40mm
- Saddle Brooks B17
- Seatpost 27.2 Cane Creek eeSilk
- Grips Jones
- Pedals Spank Oozy
- Any other choice partsPeaty Valves w the core remover and rockgeist spacelink
- Bags/racks Porcelain Rocket, Revelate, Fabios Chest, Pec Dec
But hold on… are those two Waltworks I see bathing in the forest? Tell us about your partner Melissa’s bike!
Oh yes, Melissa rode her Karate Monkey on our Europe trip and I was constantly asking her what she would change about it. The resulting bike is what she came up with. Once again, the geometry is very similar to her Karate Monkey, to the extent that she is running a Karate Monkey fork. However, she desperately wanted more packing space, so she also gave up standover height for a larger front triangle—though hers is far more dramatic than mine. She went from an extra small Revelate bag that basically held a beer and a liter of water to a large Revelate framebag on the Waltworks. This gives her so many more packing options.
She also wanted more seat-to-wheel clearance, and now she is able to run a full-size Porcelain Rocket seat bag system. Overall, we run pretty similar setups because I generally buy the parts and because it’s easier to carry spares that way.
However, Melissa is probably more sensitive to changes in her setup than I am. She has really specific opinions on all her touchpoints. I think we went through a few stems before she got her bars dialed in exactly the way she likes them.
Oh, and how was Oaxaca?
Absolutely wonderful. I can see why you have chosen it for your semi-permanent home. The architecture, food, and most importantly, the trails are world-class. The feel of the city is a magic combo of relaxed and vibrant, that is hard to find anywhere else in the world. We had so much fun visiting all the amazing restaurants and art galleries, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. We will be back soon, probably with enduro bikes to hit those amazing trails the way they deserve!
And lastly, any recommendations for good eats?
I have this thing where I love to visit a super fancy restaurant after a bikepacking trip. There is something about coming off days of eating whatever you can find in small stores, or dehydrated meals, that makes a fancy meal taste that much better.
In Oaxaca, I’m not sure you can go wrong. Everything is so fresh and well prepared. I didn’t have a bad meal. But the absolute standout of the trip was Agua Miel, which is a bit of a ride out from the city but more than worth it. Another hidden gem was breakfast at Las Chimoleras, an unassuming spot on a street corner in the ‘centro’ that served up the best breakfast we had on our entire trip.
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