When considering a single bike you could be satisfied with for years, what factors would you prioritize?
Here are my top three.
- Versatility, seen in two ways, tends to make it to the top of my list. Versatility in terms of compatible parts for when they wear out, or become obsolete is one very high priority. Another form of highly desired versatility is measured in how well it can perform in a variety of disciplines, ways it can be built into a slightly different machine, and how it can be ridden differently.
- Durability, in terms of increased longevity over other options, and in terms of low maintenance, the amount of time it is ready-to-roll vs needing some service needs to be higher than other options on the market as well. This is almost as high on the priority list as versatility when I consider a single bike that I would need to be content with for many years to come.
- Comfort, whether its to keep me in the saddle for another hour or two or just to help me get through the next rough rock garden, comfort leads to less fatigue over the same period of time, which equates to control, which prevents injury. Staying on the bike more, both short term (not having to get off to rest my weary body) and long term (not getting injured) is a huge priority of mine.
If you decided to read through this article, you probably have some of the same priorities as me and may even know a little about the Chumba Stella Titanium already.
With its USA made titanium frame that has clearance for 29x 3.0 (on 45mm rims), this frame allows for just about every tire combination you can think of aside from the fat bike realm. That seemed very versatile to me on paper and I know and respect others who have ridden this same rig with 29×2.X tires for years, but how would it perform with 27.5×2.8 tires? That is answered a little later in the article.
Not only are many wheel and tire sizes possible, but the Stella is equipped with sliding Paragon Machine Works dropouts that are some of, if not the best single speed dropout system available. Not only does it allow you to run it single speed or geared or with an internally geared hub, but adjusting the wheelbase to suit your type of desired ride quality is also possible, slide it forward for quicker, snappy ride with more playful handling, or slide it back for a more relaxed, supple, stable feel.
Regarding dropout position, Chumba recently claimed that it can fit “29plus up to 3.0 inch on a 50mm rim fwd of dropout center/29er standard tires even a 2.4 inch all the way fwd in sliders/ 27plus up to 3.0 inch all the way fwd”.
It has a head tube that can accept tapered or straight steerer tubes and was designed to run rigid forks as well as suspension forks with 100-120mm of travel.
It can be setup with 1X chainrings up to 36T or run as a 2X with a front derailleur. There are three water bottle mounts on sizes M-XL. All of these features make this frame a foundation for an incredibly versatile bike. Chumba says, “it can be built towards XC racing, trail riding, bikepacking, endurance marathon and ultraracing”.
While I love the ride quality of steel framed bikes, titanium has a few qualities that make it distinctly different. It is much more durable long-term. Steel can rust, titanium cannot and will not. If you live near the coast where salt mist rusts your chain in mere months, or you ride salted roads in winter, this is especially important to you. You will almost always see titanium frames in their raw state, which I think looks awesome, but I have heard others say it looks too stock. There is a reason for this commonality between titanium frame manufacturers. Titanium when scratched can be buffed out. Yes, those scratches we all remember getting on our pristine bikes when they were brand new can just be rubbed away on a titanium frame. Talk about an awesome benefit.
Titanium rides a lot like steel, but dampens vibrations a little better and can be described as more springy or lively because it returns to position just a little faster than steel does. Titanium also weighs significantly less than steel. The Chumba Stella Ti frame comes in a 4lbs. When you have a USA made frame by people who are very particular in how they miter the tubing, as well as heat sink and argon purge it when welded to prevent distortion and material thinning, which should all make the frame last for a very long time.
While many would consider full suspension bikes to be the epitome of a comfortable rig, they are not the best choice for every riding application. Efficiency, weight, and durability are significantly increased when choosing a hardtail. What choices can be made to optimize comfort however? To begin with, a bike fitting session will always be the foundation for optimal comfort. One of the biggest mistakes one can make when choosing a bike is to purchase a frame that is the wrong size. Stem length, handlebar width, and seat placement are also very important, but pretty easy to change after the initial purchase. Secondly, on a hardtail, the rear wheel is usually static. This means it does not move like full suspension rear wheels do throughout their travel, there is also no shock sag, and no braking forces that change the effect of the rear suspension. Hardtails still have front suspension however, which definitely adds more comfort and control than a rigid fork.
When you ride a hardtail, it is very easy to get familiar with how the frame will consistently react beneath you because the rear wheel does not move, at least not very much. The Stella, with its sliding rear wheel dropouts, allows for additional adjustment in the position of the rear wheel, as mentioned earlier, which can help fine tune the ride quality and fit the bike to your riding style. With many titanium hardtails they are built to maximize comfort by using an under built approach. This gave titanium frames a bad name a few years back because they felt “noodley” as they flexed whenever you leaned, hammered out of the saddle, or pushed on them to get up and over obstacles. Nowadays, most of the titanium frames I have thrown a leg over have been built with the over built approach, likely to ensure that riders don’t have the “noodley” sensation that became well known. This is nice for railing corners and the bikes are responsive when standing to climb, but the ride is much harsher than you would find on a well built steel bike. That is not what many riders are hoping for when they pay a premium price for a titanium frame that should have had the ability to dampen vibration and provide a more comfortable ride than carbon fiber or aluminum rigs.
The guys over at Chumba Cycles are specific about choosing the exact aerospace-grade titanium tubing for each part of the frame. They also employ S-Bend seatstays, sloping top tube and bent down tube to provide responsive, firm, consistent response when standing on the pedals, transferring power to the rear wheel, leaned over cornering, and when maintaining your line through rough sections. This is balanced with a comfortable, supple, vibration absorbing quality that titanium is known for.
Pulling the Stella Ti out of the box was a treat. Exquisite welds and the raw titanium have a look that you just don’t get with other materials and paint options.
The oversized tube set feels very premium. Thin walled, but solid and sturdy. I looked for imperfections, but honestly couldn’t find any.
I was a little confused that the frame had decals on the head tube, down tube, seat tube, and top tube, but had a M later etched onto the back of the seat tube to indicate the medium size frame I was testing. When I asked Vince at Chumba about replacement decals vs etched graphics, he said, “We have a wide range of colors available, only in the bold style, we are often adding more, check in with us to find out the latest offering. Currently, Matte black, Matte Dark Blue, Dark Blue, Light Blue, Orange, Red, White, Desert Gold, Green, Reflective, Chrome, Gold, and more.They are not available in the wrap style.
We do not offer etched graphics at this time.We can cut replacement decals on request. Soon these will be available in the store.”
The seat post is a Fox Transfer dropper post in 31.6, a very common size. Having ridden steel bikes so often, 27.2mm seat posts are very common and more difficult to find dropper posts for. This 31.6 seat tube was a very welcome sight. BOOST 148mm spacing for the rear axle was another feature to be thankful for. While many of my fellow riders have not been happy about needing to upgrade their wheels to this standard, it is much easier to fit narrower hubs in a wider spaced frame, using something like the Wolftooth Boosinator Kit, that adapts your narrow hubs to BOOST width, rather than having too narrow a frame and getting new wheels that are too wide for it.
After clamping the frame in the work stand, I put the rear wheel in and secured it with the thru-axle. Precision alignment was immediately apparent. Many bikes with a chain tensioning system that slides each dropout side independently have a little bit of misalignment that can be felt via slight friction on the thru-axle when inserting it. None of that friction was felt here. It fit as if in a frame without sliding dropouts. Quality was again very much realized here in this moment.
Custom Build Kit
On the Chumba Stella Titanium web page, you will find three build kits listed from $4495-6195, but there are also customization options in numerous drop down windows so that you can choose exactly what you want for the build. While this is convenient and helps to see exactly what your custom build will cost, I suggest you directly contact the guys a Chumba to have them get you set up with exactly. They have been amazing to communicate with.
The build that was sent out to us for testing is a custom 27.5+ build, with these specs:
- Frame: Stella Titanium Frame, 12x148mm through-axle
- Fork: Fox Factory Series 32 FLOAT 120mm Fork, 15x110mm through-axle
- Handlebar: Thomson Trail 20mm Rise x 750 Wide x 8° back 5° up
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano XTR M-9000
- Front Derailleur: none
- Shifter: Shimano XT M-8000
- Brakes: Shimano M-8000 (Ice Tech 180mm rotor front/160mm rear)
- Crank: RaceFace Turbine with RaceFace 32T direct mount NW ring
- Saddle: WTB Volt Pro
- Seatpost: Fox Transfer Factory Series 125mm + Wolftooth lever
- Wheels: 27.5 RaceFace Aeffect Plus, 40mm, 2065g, 9.2º of engagement
- Tires: Maxxis Rekon 27.5×2.8 EXO/3C/TR MaxTerra 120TPI
- Stem: Thomson Elite 90mm
- Headset: White Industries
- Grips: RaceFace Lock on
- Cassette: Shimano M8000 11spd XT 11-46T
- Chain: Shimano 11 speed
- Bottom Bracket: Kogel
The first ride aboard the Chumba Stella Titanium was an eye opener. It climbed well, like a lightweight hardtail should, so there wasn’t too much to be surprised by there.
It did not roll with as much momentum as my 29+ tire rig did, which was to be expected, but I immediately wondered how it would roll with some 29 inch rims and tires. As I climbed deep into the Prescott National Forest, I found myself to be very comfortably positioned on the medium frame and 90mm stem. I began looking very forward to some rolling descents, rocks, and roots to see how the other side of this coin performed. With the first rolling sections along the ridge, I dropped the seat with the Fox Transfer post via the Wolftooth lever in anticipation for a long downhill filled with tight switchbacks, rock gardens, drops, and fast straight aways where I would stop holding back and really let it all out.
For the first few drops and technical sections, I remember taking it easy to get familiar with the Stella. After a bunch of tight turns and rock gardens, I quickly realized this wasn’t just a lightweight hardtail for XC racing. It was floating over stuff way better than expected. I was pleased that it was so responsive to my input, railing turns with precision that was nearly as good as much heavier, overbuilt, beefy tubed frames I have ridden, but it was soaking some of the chatter up that other, slightly more precise rigs would not. Only when pushing down on it super hard in a turn did I sense it losing just a small amount of precision. That said, it felt much better overall than those other stiff, precise rigs. It also allowed better control when braking bumps and trail chatter would cause other stiffer rigs to have more trouble maintaining the intended line. Through smooth tight turns, it railed where the flex was only felt right before the tire side knobs gave way. Perfect for my style of trail riding.
When riding the Stella Ti on smooth fire road sections, it felt very efficient and I found myself wishing for a 2x drivetrain so I might be able to push even harder and take my speeds up past 30mph on the gradual downhills, but I spun out with the 32×11 high gear. For 90% of my riding in the mountains, I am climbing for long periods, and then descending lines that follow contours of the mountain or drop down steeply, so the 32×11 plenty. The 32×46 on the low end was perfect. Climbing just about anything was possible, unless it got so loose and steep where even hiking would be challenging to maintain traction. Even clearing the ledges and rocks were easier to get up and over than I thought. With a little more commitment to the challenge, I found that technical climbs up and over objects that I normally wouldn’t try were within reach now.
On Trail 48 in Prescott, there are tons of telephone pole sections to clear, both up and down steep, rocky singletrack. Some were able to be wheelie dropped, others took more finesse to get down. I was able to clear almost all of them going uphill with some trialsy body english and proper pedal stroke timing, but it really wore me out! The bike is perfect for this type of riding.
After running the 27.5×2.8 Maxxis Rekon tires for a couple months, I decided to try my 29+ wheel set with Maxxis DHR2 3.0 up front and Maxxis Ikon 2.6 on the rear. The Ikon fit in the rear triangle with the drop outs all the way forward with plenty of clearance. The DHR2 fit in the Fox Float 32 BOOST fork with no rubbing, but it was close. Rolling over obstacles was much easier and momentum was maintained much better as well. Pedal strikes that would happen on rare occasion when climbing over rock gardens or on narrow trails with the 27.5×2.8 tires were now non-existent.
Shortly after switching to the 29+ wheel set, we received 3 feet of snow in one day in Prescott. This was a great opportunity to see how this bike and how plus bikes in general can handle snow. The short story is that plus tires are better in the snow than other choices, but not anywhere close to riding a 4+ inch tire fat bike.
When the snow on the roads got packed down, confidence was boosted. I was really enjoying this rig on the snowy roads until a warmer day came when I road home in the afternoon on a gravel forest road. It had been melting throughout the day, but was now in the shade. I went down hard on a corner that had iced up and the bike and I slid for about 50 feet. This resulted in a large hematoma on my shin. During the following weeks, the trails had a mix of snow and mud, which was no problem for the Stella. Mostly, I ride at dawn and the ground was often frozen, making for a great surface to ride upon. The limited clearance on the Fox fork became apparent as some of the trail material would adhere to the large tires and rub on rare occasion. The rear tire did not have any issue with the debris clearing the frame however.
Stella Achievements & Heritage
Chumba has had multiple records set on ultraraces on the Stella Titanium at Tour Divide, the Stagecoach 400 and the Comstock Epic. These are no walk in the park races and really challenge an athlete’s fitness and grit, as well as their equipment. The comfort and efficiency I have found to be a well balanced mixture in this bike are apparently very useful for achievements over much longer durations!
I have desired a solution to the compromise problem when trying to balance my top 3 priorities of durability, versatility, and comfort. The Chumba Stella Titanium is the best bike to date that I have found to combat the N+1 dilemma that we have struggled with. It balances durability, versatility, and comfort better than expected. I thought that compromise would be required, but Chumba has balanced the qualities of this bike in a way where I don’t feel like there is much, if any compromise here at all. Chumba has a bike that was not custom built for me, but feels like it could be.
To find a hardtail that is this efficient, fun, fast, and versatile, but also comfortable and durable seemed like an impossibility before I threw a leg over the Stella Titanium. During my first ride however, I realized I might be riding a bike I won’t be able to send back to Chumba.
My hunch was right.
Although I am not in a place to purchase this bike immediately, I have talked with the guys at Chumba about buying one in the future. With two wheel sets and a few other components to switch out occasionally, this bike will undoubtedly be my first choice from the quiver for many years to come. After chatting with Chumba about sending the bike back, they allowed me to hang onto this one just a little longer so I could race on it in the Whiskey Off-Road 50 mile race next weekend. Stay tuned for a follow up race report where I plan to share how the bike performed and my impressions of the Whiskey Offroad event.