Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: Motobecane Boris

Oregon probably isn't traditional fatbike territory, at least not the Portland area where we have neither snow nor sand. But tradition gives way to necessity when building a stable. After all, Catniss didn't traditionally have exploding arrows, but they sure came in handy once she had them! Likewise, with a fatbike in one's stable, every ride becomes an opportunity to use it.

I picked up the Motobecane Boris during one of BikesDirect's sales, which is to say their everyday price. As is the trend with BikesDirect, they stick a single mid-range component on the bike (in this case the SRAM X9 rear derailleur), and then compare it pricewise to bikes that have the full X9 gruppo (compare to bikes costing $2400!). But once you understand that ruse, and accept it as merely a charming fib rather than maliciously deceptive, the $800 price of the Boris is very reasonable. To my eyes, the components appear nearly identical to the KHS 4 Season 3000 which retails for $1800. The frame, too, is a dead ringer. Perhaps we have a third-shift special? Seriously, these bikes are virtually twins.

My Boris arrived in fine shape. UPS is no match for a bike protected with 4 inch tires.

I've put together enough partially assembled bikes that it took only about 10 minutes to have a mostly functional ride. I'll admit to always being frustrated by handlebars. Either the bikesdirect builders employ the world's weirdest cable routing, or they twist the handlebars oddly when attaching them to the tubes for shipping. The end result is this:

The routing works fine, but is awkward. Cables that should go around the headtube go instead behind it. Weird, but serviceable. I'll re-route when I get some free time. The end result looks like a fat-bike:

The first thing I noticed.. This thing is heavy. Bikesdirect glosses over this fact:

How much does a fat bike weigh? These bikes are big and Big FUN. Big weighs more. Most average fat bikes weigh between about 30 and 40 pounds. How much do these fat bikes weigh? Compare specs, aluminum fat bikes with similar parts will weigh the about the same.

37.25 pounds is between 30 and 40 pounds, but realistically a quality fatbike will weigh between 25 and 30 pounds. 37.25 is a substantial premium. The > 8 pound front wheel is part of the problem.

The components are fine, but budget. The Avid BB7 discs are no match for a modern hydraulic brake. Locking the wheels with light pressure from a single finger is not an option, and modulation is coarse at best. The Front Derailleur (Sram X7) and crankset (Sram X5) suit the bike.

The Ride

If Max' Cannondale is the Mclaren above, then the Boris is my F-350. After breaking my Trek's (brand new) rear derailleur on a log, I took the Boris out for the same 6 mile cross-country loop that I usually ride on the Trek.

At the trailhead I had my first surprise; we tend to steer a bike by instinct.. Just lean and nudge the bars and the bike turns. Turning the Boris, at first at least, is a much more intentional action. Rather than counter-steering, I found myself steering in the direction I wanted to turn. I've never driven a cruise-ship, but I imagine it feels something like the Motobecane Boris. Over the course of my ride I got used to the bike's handling and steering became more natural.

Climbing was also an interesting experience. At 37 pounds the Boris outweighs my Trek by... a lot. 10 pounds maybe? On the other hand, without the rear suspension you lose a lot less energy to useless up-and-down movement. Again the first few hundred yards took getting used to, as with the low tire pressure (about 7 psi) the bike bobbed in time with my pedaling. But again I quickly learned to work around that, and climbing on the Boris seemed about as quick as my Trek. With the tires at urban riding pressures (20psi or so) it would probably climb better than a full suspension rig.

Descending highlighted the Boris' biggest component shortcoming (though admittedly not for the target market). While the quick release seat is handy, it is no match for the dropper seatpost that I've become spoiled by. In rolling terrain with the seat high enough for comfortable pedaling, descending was a treacherous experience, with every feature threatening to chuck me over the bars. When I did finally stop to drop the seat, descending was actually a blast. With a bit more practice, I suspect it will be every bit as fast downhill as is my Trek (at least under my inexperienced guidance). I'm not sure if I'll put on a dropper post, but if I do the 31.6mm seat-tube should allow a generous 6-inch drop.

The real pleasure was climbing on low-traction terrain. A couple notable climbs where I tend to slip out on my Trek, even with mud-tires, were easily conquered with the Boris' 4-inch low-pressure tires. I haven't tried snow yet, but with the right tires it should be a great snow bike.

What Next

We here at the Huffman Bicycle Club are seldom happy unless we're tweaking our rides. But with the Boris I'm not so sure. It's a cheap bike, and if I spend money on upgrades it'll be a cheap bike with a few expensive bits and pieces. For now, while I'm considering upgrading the tires (the stock Vee Mission tires are much derided by those in the know), I'll probably hold off on more expensive upgrades like rims and components.

It's not hard to spend 4 figures trying to shave a pound or two off a road bike. Were I to try, I have no doubt the same money could take 8 pounds off the Boris. But if I decide that I like fat-biking, I would probably come out well ahead by selling the Boris on Craigslist, and picking up a better brand with better components. You know, like the Salsa Beargrease, which allegedly comes in at about 24 pounds... Yowza.

I'm planning a couple trips to snow country, and will try to bring the Boris with to give its intended usage model a try.


For $800 the Boris is a buy. It's cheap and, while a hardtail is just a full suspension ride that bounces less, a fat-bike is a genuinely different experience. I anticipate the Boris getting weekly use in the future.


Max said...

I like it! You've inspired me to move to mine for the commute home today. Of course, urban street riding on a fatbike won't be the same thing.

The brakes are to me the most obvious shortcoming. How hard is it to add hydraulic discs to an existing rig?

I would be up to agreeing to bring them on our Colorado trip this summer, for an alternative ride when the afternoon showers let loose.

Max said...

A few further comments:

(1) Do I interpret your post to mean you saw the third Hunger Games installment? Your street cred. is officially gone.
(2) Have been riding mine around. It's fun. But the weight is no joke. I think gears, at least in the rear, are in order on this.
(3) One really needs to find some snow to be able to review these things. Cutting across a grassy field is a blast but hardly the necessary use model -- after all, I can ride across grass and over curbs on the road bike.

sam said...

(1) I like to think that if Catniss Eberdeen rode a bike, it would be a fixie. Not one of the hipster fixie, but a practical one, perhaps with panniers to hold her quiver.

(2)/(3) Yes. Out of their element, they are fun in the way that a Jeep Wrangler is fun, which is to say not very except for the inevitable thumbs up that you get from those in the know. You've ridden yours in snow, though, right? How does it do there?

Max said...

No snow yet. I missed the storm and it's been 40 and rainy since. Mud, yes. It definitely floated when any narrower tires would have bogged down. It also bogged down at the margins, though.

I find myself wondering if this is what mountain biking is like and I just don't remember. I literally have not ridden a mountain bike since November 1998.