Friday, February 28, 2014

Love Letters: The Soma ES Initial Review

I'm in love. Unfortunately, I fall in love pretty easily, and often pretty hard. It's a fault, I am aware, but the Soma ES has really found a special place in the bike fold (the "ES" stands for "extra smooth"). Like having multiple children, one can compare their differences and similarities, but it doesn't mean you love one more than the other. I had heard the rumors and talked to those with Soma's prior to getting the ES and it was difficult to understand until riding it for myself. I had a brief encounter with a Soma Buena Vista some time ago, but the frame was so small it was almost impossible to ride (and strange, because it's not as though I'm a giant and rarely find a bike to be too small). But, I've wanted a steel road bike for quite awhile and just haven't found something that seemed as though it would work for my needs. There are customs to be had out in the world, but I really didn't have it in me to plunk down the sort of cash required. The ES is (in my opinion) affordable, and as such, it was near the top of the list. At around $400 for the frame, really it's probably one of the most affordable steel road frames out there.
The Soma ES frame is a hand-welded, Tange Prestige chromoly frame and weighs in around 4.1 lbs (for the 54cm, per Soma's site). It should be noted that my goal with this build was not to have the absolute lightest bike possible, but to find a nice mid-point between comfort and weight to allow me to use it for a variety of purposes. In the end, the build ended up being lighter than I anticipated, but thus far, it is working out well.

When I first spoke about picking up the Soma frame, a reader commented that she would like to know how I/we choose parts for a build. With this particular build, I didn't have (nor want) to spend a lot of extra money, so we built it with the intention of using (for the most part) items that we had sitting around from prior bicycles or builds. This meant that the choices for me were limited with this particular project. Because I tend to be rather finicky about the way a bike feels, I didn't want to spend extra money on parts, only to discover that I didn't like the ride or that it didn't fit properly. My thought from the inception was simply to use what was available in the parts stash and if all went well, I will potentially change things out down the road. So, with all of that said, the parts selected were not necessarily what I would ideally have chosen, but in order to get it on the road, I wanted to use what was available.
The hoods are a bit torn up on these shifters/brakes (they're Sora, in case anyone is wondering - so nothing special) because they're older, but they still work just fine.
There's nothing extra special on this build of the Soma (at least in its current form), with the exception that I did splurge on a new Chris King bottom bracket. I'm using an 8x2 set up on the shifters (because it's what I had and because the 8-speed shifters just seem to work really well), making it a 16-speed bike. I had to pick up a crank because we didn't have anything appropriate, so I managed to scrounge up a used one that does the job and is actually decent. My hope, assuming that I continue to find myself lost in love, is to change the drivetrain out to a 10x2 (and because of the crank selected, I'll be able to keep it with that set up as well). This will, of course, require a few changes to things, but for now, I just want to get a good feel for the bike.
XT rear derailleur was also a part had from another bike build.
I've had the opportunity to ride the ES a few times now, taking it on short test rides and a couple of slightly longer rides (between 10-20 miles), and I am quite comfortable on this bike. It's a different kind of comfortable than say the Surly Cross-Check or the Rivendell Sam Hillborne. Those two feel Cadillac-y; a bit heavy, but solid, smooth, and great fun to ride. The ES feels much lighter, but still comfortable and easy to handle. Honestly, I was surprised at just how light it was when I picked it up with one hand. I'm so used to having heavy bikes (setting aside, of course, my road bike) that it almost felt foreign to be able to so easily carry and move the bike.  I haven't weighed it, and I have no doubt it's heavier than the road bike that comes in somewhere around 16 lbs, but it's definitely plenty light. Perhaps even too light. Part of me thinks that I should have opted for the steel fork to keep more of a classic look and feel, and while I suppose it's still possible to obtain the steel version of the fork, I am not displeased with the bike in any way due to fork choice.

As stated above, one thing of note with the Soma frame is that it is sold as a frame-only (there is an option to purchase a complete bike as well). A matching fork is available for an additional cost. Because I figured I would ultimately end up getting a carbon fork, I chose not to bother with the matching steel one and instead used those funds to get those few other items needed for the build. Yes, a carbon fork was actually cheaper than the matching steel one, crazy as that sounds.
Easton fork was obtained for a killer deal on a closeout with a store on Amazon (& I had a gift card to use with Amazon, making the cost free-to-me)
The ES has done really well on climbs, too. This actually surprised me, 1) because of the current gears/gearing; 2) because I suppose I had an idea that it would feel weightier than it does; and 3) because the words "enjoy" and "climb" never go hand in hand for me - ever. I am saying it here - probably the first and last time it will ever be uttered by my mouth (err, fingers), I have actually enjoyed some of the climbs on this bike - and worse yet, I have no idea why.  I have tried to figure it out to no avail. My road bike is full carbon, geared appropriately, weighs less, and should be the go-to choice for such rides, but I can't think of a time when I was climbing on the Trek and thought, "Gee, this is kind of fun!" I hate to say it, but those thoughts have actually run through my mind with the ES. I've considered the possibility that it is merely due to the fact that it's winter and the road bike has (for the most part) stayed tucked away, but because I seem to harbor such disdain for climbing, I would think that this wouldn't matter. It is also entirely possible that the climbing hasn't seemed as painful (even pleasant at times) because the rides have been shorter than they typically are on a training ride in the summer. Even going on a 20 mile ride is not the same as a 50+ miler in the heat of summer.
The photos I took all seemed to grey out a lot of the colors, but I suppose that's my own fault for not taking a proper camera. :O)
One really great thing about the ES is that I don't feel out of place riding it around town or out on the back roads with the hardcore roadies (if I were going to use it regularly as more of a commuter, I'd likely take advantage of the eyelets for a rear rack and fenders). It seems to fit in just about anywhere and it has a sort of understated, yet still identifiable look. I've ridden in workout, bike-specific, and everyday clothing and never feel odd or as though I need to put something else on to get on this bike. I also appreciate that Soma had the awareness to keep branding and stickers to a minimum, allowing the buyer to keep the bike fairly tame (color-wise) if s/he chooses, or add his/her own flair to the bike.
I am not normally a "pink" sort of person, but I've realized that I always seem to end up with some version of it on my bikes (be that a baby pink or a more raspberry color), so I just gave in and decided to get both a bottom bracket and a headset in pink, and since I was in it, I just dove in with pink cable housing too (it didn't hurt that it was on the clearance table at a local shop). Do any of the pinks match? Of course not. I didn't want to get too carried away with the pink though and realized it needed something to balance it out, so I managed to find the turquoise/teal colored leather Brooks bar tape at a ridiculously low price (I highly recommend looking around if you're okay with not necessarily obtaining your first color choice for parts because I have found some great deals - often more than half off - when I'm not picky about color choice. Be willing to check all sources, including CL, eBay, local shops, etc).

The tires are the very same ones that I had on a former road bike that were removed for a different choice at about 600 miles, and are Schwalbe Durano's in creme (for the record, I run them at around 90-100 psi, generally speaking). They are not the tires to select for the least rolling resistance (though still not bad), but I like that they're a bit softer/cushioned yet still hold a higher pressure, and that I can use them when it's a bit wet out and not worry that I'm going to slip all around. Plus, I had them in the parts stash, so that made them an easy and obvious choice. The saddle and saddle bag are from previous builds as well that just keep making their way from one bike to the next (the saddle is a Brooks B-17 and the bag is from Rivendell). The wheels came off of a prior build for Sam, so they too were in the parts pile to be used. Again, they're not the lightest wheels out there, but that wasn't of concern to me for this build.

I was asked how this ES differs from the Surly Pacer I've had in the past. I think one of the biggest issues for me was handlebar height on the Pacer. I really liked the Pacer and it was a great ride too, but having problems with hands and wrists, I couldn't seem to get the Pacer to a place that allowed me to be comfortable when riding longer distances. The Pacer had lighter weight parts and different gearing (after we rebuilt it, not as a stock bike from Surly), but the frame is similar in many respects; however, when I look at the geometry of the two, I begin to think that just slight differences made a big difference. The top tube is actually slightly (very slightly) longer on the ES than on the Pacer (both were/are 46 cm), but the ES head tube is longer, which I believe assists in allowing me to get just that bit more I needed for the handlebar height. Again, they are both solid frames, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend someone try either. My preference (at least to date) has simply been in favor of the Soma.

Regardless of the specifics chosen to build this bike up, I think it's a solid frame and worth a look for a person seeking an easy-to-ride road bike at an affordable price when compared to other steel options on the market. Parts and pieces will likely change on this bike (as they have on nearly every bike I've owned) over time, but I think this one is turning into a really solid option. If you're interested in seeing a few more photos of the bike, you're welcome to see them here. I'm still working on a true "glamour shot" photo shoot, but it's been challenging for me in recent weeks, so I'll add them to the folder as I get them completed for those who have interest. As always, if you have questions about the build, parts, or have had your own experience with Soma or the ES, feel free to leave your thoughts, ideas, and so on.

13 comments:

  1. Very nice! Thanks for the write-up. I've always liked Soma, but have not yet owned one.

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    1. Thanks. I think Soma's are definitely worth looking into if you have interest in a new project or bike. :O)

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  2. Nice build. Thanks for showing us the details. It's going to take a while for me to wrap my mind around the idea of enjoying a climb ;)

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    1. I am with you, and am surprised I have any such thoughts, but some of those climbs have actually been pretty good. :O)

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  3. The Smoothie & ES are great bikes, and I like the colour scheme of your build. Enjoy!

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    1. I am looking forward to riding it more and getting a better feel for it.

      Thank you! :O)

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  4. The ES is on my list of speedy bikes to consider for my next build. You must think I'm stealing all your bike choices. :D

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    1. :O) Not at all, Cecily. I'm glad to see you haven't given up on the idea of a road bike. The ES really could be a good one to try, especially because if you get a nice long steerer on the fork, you can get the handlebars up quite high. I still have this urge to attempt a more swooped style bar on this bike... but, I still haven't decided how I'll use it most often, so I think that will help make the decision.

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    2. Great build! :) Would like to build a randonneuring bike, and am erring between the Soma Randonneur and ES Smoothie. I´ve just finished Surly Lht Disc for touring with panniers, would need a lighter and snappier yet comfortable bike for Randonneuring purposes. Just worried is ES relaxed enough in geometry compared to the Randonneur, do you have any idea of this?

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    3. The ES has fairly relaxed geometry, but feels more "roadish" if that makes sense. I haven't ridden Soma's Randonneur bicycle, but I believe it has a lower trail to help carry front loads. So, depending on what you need to carry with you, that might help you make a decision between the two. You might also try contacting Soma directly to see what their thoughts are as they can provide more detail and likely offer additional information that would help you make your decision. Good luck - and congrats on your LHT build!

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    4. I know this is a few years old, but I thought I might be able to add some more useful experience here.

      Soma has the Saga and Saga Disc now, which use large-diameter tubing throughout. They're like the Surly LHT/Disc Trucker except with less of the Surly "long and low" rider positioning and a more comfortable ride…for a stiff touring bike.

      I've never had an LHT, but I did have a Cross-check a long time ago. While it took a rear load without getting all noodly, I had endless trouble with yanking out the wheel no matter what I did. I got a Soma Double Cross to replace it, but it ended up getting noodly (though is a very nice ride without rear panniers). The Saga is much better than the Double Cross for that use.

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    5. Thanks for your feedback. It's always helpful to get information from others who have ridden a variety of models/brands and to hear about their experiences, so thanks for taking the time to share.

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