Cycle Life

The Jackal K9     Photo: Aaron Gulley

The Singlespeed Wars

We pitted the Spot Honey Badger against the Jackal K9 in search of the finest one-geared ride. So which one’s tougher, dog or badger?

If you are like me, you might be skeptical of the singlespeed. When I received my first SS eight years ago, I didn’t really get it. With all the advancements in suspension technology and the optimization of gearing into 2x (and now 1x) drivetrains, a hardtail mountain bike with only one gear seemed stubbornly and needlessly anachronistic.

Then I rode it, and a funny thing happened. I liked it.

I liked not having to worry about gear choices all the time. I liked the quiet, simple ride. I liked the way the bike transformed trails that I could almost ride with my eyes closed on a geared full-suspension bike into new and fascinating challenges: Suddenly I had to climb out of the saddle, spin hard on descents, and approach once-simple rocks and steps with a bit more circumspection.

In short, the bike transformed the riding experience for me, made it new and interesting and fun all over again. And though I’m not one of those acolytes who insist on SS or nothing, ever since then, I’ve kept a singlespeed in the stable.

Fast forward to last fall, when we built up two singlespeeds in search of the ultimate SS machine. In one corner there was the Jackal K9, an open-mold carbon hardtail from a small bike company in Santa Fe that we tricked out to be silly light and scorching fast. In the other was the new Spot Honey Badger, an interesting steel frame hung around the Gates Carbon Drive from a boutique manufacturer out of Golden, Colorado. They are both singlespeeds but otherwise two very different bicycles, and yet we threw them up against the same trails and races in the hopes that one would clearly edge the other.

JACKAL K9
We tested the K9 a year ago and, though we found it to be a good, fast, high-value bike, we couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than just another hardtail racer. When the owner of Jackal suggested a singlespeed, we decided that’s exactly what the K9 needed: built with the right parts, it could be among the fleetest, most feathery bikes around.

Ours came with the new SRAM XX1 crank and XX brakes, a Rockshox SID fork, Stan’s latest ZTR Arch EX 29er wheels, carbon post and bars from Truvativ, and lightweight Hutchinson Python tires. Our size medium tipped the scales at just 18.7 pounds. And though the blingy build isn’t exactly cheap at $4,300, it’s much higher value than you’d get from big name brands.

With a tapered head tube, a PressFit 30 bottom bracket, and a 15mm thru-axle up front, the K9 is plenty rigid and efficient. In fact, that’s the overall impression it gives—this is a bike that’s all business, no excess. It felt that way as a geared ride, too, but in singlespeed form it’s even more pared down and minimal, like a Ducati that’s been stripped to ride the track. The chainstays are relatively short, the head tube is steep at 71.5 degrees, and the cockpit is fairly long (including a 110mm stem on ours), all of which combines to make the K9 feel lively and wound up even when it’s standing still.

On the trail, it pilots like a fighter jet. It leapt forward with the slightest pressure on the pedals and, thanks to the ridiculously lightweight, never felt over geared, even on the steepest pitches. It’s so light and agile that you want to kick out the back wheel on the berms and bunny hop every little lump in road. The XX1 crank is beefy and solid, and the Arch EX wheels are gossamer enough to spin up quickly but are much more rigid than pervious generations. Short of carbon hoops, which would cost at least double, these wheels are about as good as you get.

This bike carves up singletrack like a Ginzu and blasts over the rough like a motocross machine. The carbon frame soaks up some of the chatter, but this is no forgiving ride. We’d prefer to see a skinnier diameter seat post than the 31.6mm spec to help smooth out the trail a little more. And fatter tires than the 2.0 Pythons would help, too, though more rubber would also diminish speed and agility. The SS build helps in this respect, as the bike is decidedly quieter and smoother than it was with gears. And at the end of the day, the K9 is a race bike and benefits from being ridden like one: hard, fast, and aggressively.

SPOT HONEY BADGER SS
Except for the parallel of having only one gear, the Honey Badger is almost the antithesis of the K9. Constructed of proprietary Japanese steel and hung with hard-working mid-grade parts, it is no racing lightweight. Far from some throwback steel-is-real soul bike, though, the Honey Badger has some fascinating innovations. Between the pronounced bends in the seat stays and the scalloped-out wheel well in the down tube, Spot claims as much as an 82 percent gain in vertical compliance over straight-gauge tubing. The company has also equipped it with a new horizontal slider dropout that allows the bike to be easily switched from single speed to gears, should the infatuation with simplicity wear out.

The other benefit of the new slider is that it lets you remove the rear wheel (for a tire change, for instance) without having to un-tension the Gates Carbon Belt Drive. Speaking of the belt drive, if you haven't ridden one you’re in for a treat. If a regular chained single speed is quiet, the belt drive is like a Ninja on a moonless night. There’s no noise, no creaking, no chain slap, and no lag in output—you push, and the bike goes silently and automatically forward. And this second generation of the system, dubbed CenterTrack for the ribbed spline that keeps the belt in position, eliminates any reservations we previously had about slippage. This is, simply, the cleanest, quietest, finest system for a singlespeed (or internal hub, for that matter).

The remainder of the Honey Badger spec is just good, smart, durable parts: Sun Ringlé Charger Comp Wheels with WTB Bronson tires, Avid Elixir 5 brakes, Truvativ aluminum stem and post. We were also pleasantly surprised by the Manitou Tower Comp 29er fork, which had broader range of adjustments and a plusher feel than many of the 2013 Fox offerings. All together, the Honey Badger packs a lot of value at $2,600.

As for the ride, it’s as plush and easygoing as Spot claims. It tamped down bumpy and rocky terrain like a wet sponge, yet the steering is quick and the acceleration and power transfer still sprightly. Between the compliance in the frame, the cushy fork, and the wide, supple tires, this bike has as much plushness as a soft tail and was perfectly comfortable for all day rides. And while it’s not light at 25.6 pounds for our size medium, the Honey Badger felt much livelier than that suggests. It’s not a bike you would race, and it would benefit from an upgrade to more chipper wheels. But few testers had many complaints about it, and most just shrugged their shoulders and said how much they enjoyed riding it.

THE VERDICT
Both the K9 and Honey Badger offer tons of value and exceptional rides. And their vastly different personalities make choosing between them simple.

The K9 is a fast, light, assertive bike that wants to be ridden hard. It’s the obvious choice if you want to race, but it’s also the right bike if a singlespeed is going to be your primary because, at sub-20 pounds, it’s versatile enough to take on the broadest range of terrain—and remain fun doing it. And I love that it’s easily convertible to gears, as well, so that you always have the option if singlespeeding blows your knees, low back, or just your mojo.

The Honey Badger is the SUV of single speeds, though it’s more Subaru CrossTrek than, say, Honda Pilot. It’s nimble and well-thought out and super comfortable on the trails. And what it lacks in blazing speed and sex appeal, it more than makes up for in value. This would be a great second bike in the stable if you wanted a single speed to reenergize your local trail rides or help build power in the off-season. And the durable steel build and belt drivetrain should last as long as you care to keep riding.

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