Felt Dispatch 9/60. Photo by Chuck Baldwin.
Cycling

Second Thoughts on a 29″ Mountain Bike: Felt Dispatch 9 XC

If you missed my first impressions of Felt Bikes’ Dispatch 9/60, I’ll sum up: I love it! But I’ve had it a few weeks now, ridden it quite a bit, and spent a lot of that time researching and learning everything I could absorb about mountain bikes — mainly to figure out what exactly I got myself. And now I’m having second thoughts, but in a good way!

To set the record straight, I knew pretty much nothing about current trends in the mountain biking industry when I selected the bike. I narrowed in on a 29er with help from Cyclopaths Bike Shop owner Mike Burnell, from whom I acquired the bike in trade for digital design services (which are not yet live). I told him I wanted a really good mountain bike that would likely be ridden quite a bit on the pavement, with many of the rides simply up and over the edge of the Palos Verdes Hills to the beach.

Felt Dispatch 9/60 overlooking Torrance Beach near the Palos Verdes Hills. Photo by Chuck Baldwin.
Felt Dispatch 9/60 overlooking Torrance Beach near the Palos Verdes Hills. Photo by Chuck Baldwin.

I did not want a “hybrid” bike, one that was just OK off-road and only so-so on the road. I wanted a bike that was balls-out awesome in at least one category. And I definitely did not want a road bike.

An XC racing bike with 29” wheels checks a lot of those boxes. The bike is built for quickness, hammering up ascents without losing energy to the suspension and navigating descents on the fastest line. The larger 29” wheels maintain their momentum better than smaller tires, which makes pedaling long distances on the road a bit easier and more relaxing, and they roll over obstacles better, so the effects of navigating a bad line are minimized. I think we narrowed the selection well.

But now I have dozens of hours of research under my belt to go along with maybe a dozen hours in the saddle, and I’m about ready to make some changes, upgrades, and mods to the bike to suit my biking needs better.

Essential Upgrades

Comfortable Saddle

The first day of riding I spent about 4 hours in the saddle over 14 miles on- and off-road. For the next week my butt could barely touch the seat without screaming out in pain. The stock Devox saddle actually is padded, which surprised me because it looks and pretty much feels like hard plastic. It’s the first stock component that will be replaced.

Rather than baby-step to comfort, I’m going all the way in the other direction with this padded, coil-spring seat that gets mostly awesome reviews. It’s under $20 so if it doesn’t work out, which is likely, I won’t have lost much. But if it does, I’m looking at some comfortable long rides.

Quick Release Seatpost Clamp

I take it back, first I’m replacing the stock seatpost clamp with a quick-release version. Not sure why Felt did not include one, though it’sprobably because you don’t really get to stop and adjust your seat height midway through a race. Fair enough.

But for the times I’m not racing (100% of the time), mountain biking is quite a bit easier — and more fun — when the seat is raised during climbs, so your body is in the right position and your legs fully extend while pedaling. At the top, before you head downhill, lower the seat so you can move your body back and forth and left and right, as the bumps, jumps, and corners of the trail demand — without the seat in the way.

This $9 quick release seatpost clamp changes everything.

Likely Add-Ons

Dropper Seatpost

The coolest new development, IMHO, in mountain biking is the dropper seat post. I didn’t know they existed before I got the new bike, but it’s number one on my wish list now. A dropper seatpost is spring-loaded and operated by a lever on you handlebars.

Pull the lever and use your bodyweight to push the seat down to the desired location, and release the lever. The seat stays there. Pull the lever again when your butt is off the seat, and it will spring back to the extended position, preset to your height for climbing.

Dropper posts are incredibly fun to ride (I’m told!) since all the seat position compromises are gone. Put the saddle where you want, when you want, without slowing down. But they are heavy and expensive and not stock items on XC bikes. Despite that, they are gaining popularity on the racing circuit. “In three or four years, everyone will be doing it,” said Maxime Marotte, 4th in the UCI Men’s Elite Cross-Country rankings, in a recent interview with BikeMag. He’s been training on one for awhile, but only competed with a dropper for the last year. Despite the added weight he can get his body into better position and is faster as a result.

The going rate for dropper posts was close to $500 until recently — and still is for the carbon fiber version of the KS post most used by cross country racers. That’s half the value of my bike. They’re much more common on non-racing trail bikes $1,700 and up.

But now there are much less expensive options down to $90, including this $130 post, also from KS, that have the hallowed backing of Amazon’s customer reviews, and one of them is likely to end up on my bike when the bicycle budget permits.

The entry-level dropper seatpost weighs close to 700 grams — that’s a pound and a half — while the carbon fiber version is close to 400 grams. A fixed carbon fiber seatpost for racing, weighs 200 grams. With weight and cost differences that significant, it makes sense to leave that upgrade to the end-user.

Fatter Tires

I talked with Mike about 29”, 27.5”, and the old standard, 26” tires when we discussed which bike to get, but that was the first I knew of these new tire sizes. Like any dude, I wanted the latest and greatest, especially since I didn’t know nuthin’ bout nuthin’ when it came to modern bikes.

What I don’t recall was whether we talked about 27.5 Plus bikes. I knew I didn’t want a fat bike. Just watching people ride those things on flat pavement told me those huge tires were heavy and not easy to pedal, especially up the hills I envision. Plus, my plans are not to ride ON the beach, but TOO the beach, and I don’t know when it last snowed in LA’s South Bay.

But fatter tires do have more traction off-road when the trail is loose and they the absorb more bumps, which is especially nice on a hardtail.

The stock Maxxis Ardent 29×2.25” tires are extremely well regarded though. My research indicates that, in reality, they measure wider than many tires that are spec’d at 2.3 or even 2.4-inch widths. I measured the width at about 2.1” with calipers when fully inflated though, and it looks like I have about half an inch of additional clearance on each side between the tire and rear sections of the frame.

I may try the Maxxis Ardent 29×2.4” tires next. The Ardent series has a tight center tread section that provides very low rolling resistance, which is ideal for the frequent street riding this bike sees.

With all things being equal, wider 2.4” tires with a standard level of air pressure should have less rolling resistance, while providing more traction, than 2.25” tires that are slightly deflated to increase tire traction on trails with loose terrain.

It may not make a huge difference, but it’s a fairly low-cost way to tweak your bike’s handling characteristics, especially if your old tires are worn out anyway.

Long-Term Possibilities

11-42T Cassette

The Felt Dispatch 9/60 has a single-chainring drivetrain with a 30-tooth cog at the crank and a 10-speed cassette in the rear with a range of rings from 11 to 40 teeth. But there exists an 11-speed cassette (even a 10-speed) with 11 to 42 teeth, and that’s two extra teeth of low-end climbing power! Of all the upgrades and changes to this bike, this is the only one that I don’t understand why Felt didn’t go with different components.

The 42-tooth version of the same model of 10-speed cassette is $60 on Amazon. An 11-speed version by SRAM is less than $70, which extends the range and absorbs any gaps between gears by adding an 11th.

The shifter, derailleur, and chain on the 9/60 are all designated as “10-speed” in the specs on Felt’s site, so going with an 11-speed would definitely increase the expense of that upgrade. Sticking with the the wider-range10-speed cassette will increase my ability to chug up a hill without replacing all those extra components, but there will be larger gaps between the gears (which probably accounts for Felt’s choice of the 11-40T cassette).

But this seems like a fun upgrade that will be felt immediately.

27-Plus Wheelset

I’ve read a bit about this, and it may or may not even be a possibility with my bike. The outside diameter of a 27.5+ tire is about the same as a standard 29”, so height-wise they’d fit. But 27plus tires range from 2.8” to 3.25” wide, with 3” being the standard. And that’s probably too fat for my frame’s rear clearance. (And yes, I’m freely mixing all the different monikers for this tire size.)

But, 27+ tires are giving 29” tires a run for their money under some conditions. They have a lot more traction overall due to their wide footprint and that 3” balloon provides way more shock absorption than standard tires. Some say they amount to the biggest improvement in MTB suspensions in decades. They offer about the same rolling resistance and they’ve repeatedly tested faster than 29s on some downhill descents.

They almost sound perfect, but those 3” air cushions can also allow too much tire squirm when cornering hard and the tall sidewalls are more susceptible to damage. Finding the right air pressure is allegedly critical to the tires performing as expected. Tires that are only 2.8” wide address some of the issues — and they might fit my frame. Whether I can do anything with 27+ on my bike remains to be seen, but I’m keeping my eye on it.

Such an upgrade would require, new rims, spokes, hubs, and of course the tires. You can use the cassette and brake discs from the 29” wheels. But at that point, you might as well complete the wheelsets and have both 29s and 27pluses to choose from, based on the trail.

Heading up a soft, sandy trail on 29x2.25" tires. Photo by Chuck Baldwin.
Heading up a soft, sandy trail on 29×2.25″ tires. Photo by Chuck Baldwin.

I’m incredibly satisfied with this bike. Besides the quick release seatpost clamp and the unbearable saddle, these upgrades aren’t really necessary at all. They’re simply the result of immersion in an interest, finding out what other options exist, and seeing if they can be applied. If I had gotten Felt’s 27.5+ Surplus bike, the above section would likely have been about how to convert it to a 29er. The grass is always greener on the other side.

That said, the more I learn, the more I realize what a good value the $999 Felt Dispatch 9/60 is. So far, I haven’t seen any $1,000 bikes with significantly better components or specs, but plenty with worse. I have seen slightly more expensive bikes with better components and I’ve seen less expensive bikes with full suspensions — but subpar components all around, including the rear suspension shock absorber.

I would have loved to get a full-suspension bike, and someday I will. But in order to improve on my modified XC hardtail (once I finish my upgrades), my next bike will have to cost close to $3,000. In the meantime, there’s tons of fun to be had.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these upgrades, and if you have any advice to add, in the comments below.

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