Hack bikes: steel beasts heavy slung with mudguards, lights & rack. Off-season uglies & winter warrior ice-breakers.
Well, not so heavy, and maybe not so ugly either.
Thanks to modern-day steel, the winter hack bike is no longer the beast of burden of bike lore. Svelte, skinny, and yes even stylish, your off-season love interest is now a serious contender for a hazy summer of continent-crossing romance. With a few lessons in etiquette, it might even shave its legs, but let's not be hasty...
Tracing the evolution of the 'winter hack bike' leads to the door of Dominic Mason, founder of Mason Cycles and early Kinesis designer. Here Dominic recounts his early days designing what would become the new standard for off-season steel:
"I think I had a little hand in changing the concept of the 'winter hack' when I designed the first 'Racelight T' bikes for Kinesis. At that point you were supposed to suffer on an awful, heavy, dull, steel hack through winter and sling all your shredded old components at it. It was supposed to make you feel better about your best bike when you got back on it. I was from MTB, so I had no respect for that and thought, "why don't you have a really nice light, fast, responsive bike that feels more like your 'best' bike, so you actually might ENJOY the winter". So the Racelight T [T standing for 'training'] was born, and you could put 28's and 'guards on it and it was fast and comfortable. People started putting decent groupsets on them and hey...using them all year! So I did the Racelight Tk out of some decent tubing and people started putting Ultegra on it...
I called them '4Season' bikes [up to then only used on sleeping bags] and they sold amazingly well. After that the all season bike became more and more popular and now I think my ultimate expression of that is the Columbus steel Mason Resolution - a super fast, comfortable distance bike, designed and made to feel spirited, engaging and take you through the full year on all sorts of surfaces and a few adventures! Disc brake, tyre and wheel tech has helped a lot and really made this sort of bike viable and exciting."
...(the hack bike) was supposed to make you feel better about your best bike when you got back on it. I was from MTB, so I had no respect for that and thought, 'why don't you have a really nice light, fast, responsive bike that feels more like your 'best' bike, so you actually might ENJOY the winter'
Dominic Mason, Mason Cycles
With the recent launch of the Mason Bokeh, Dom feels like drop bars are now being taken to the next level:
"Recently we've introduced the Bokeh bikes and they have been amazingly popular: still light, engaging and fast but with the potential for running up to a 50mm tyre on 650b wheels or 41mm on 700c including 'guards. So, in a way, what started with the 'winter hack' becoming a bit more useable and adaptable has now ended up with these 'Continent Crushing' multi-terrain bikes that can be used in a multitude of different conditions. We call them 'AdventureSport' bikes".
Another brand that has deftly positioned itself across both road and modern four-season demands is London's Condor Cycles. Established in 1948, and with an equally long history of manufacturing frames in Italy, it is the Fratello that Condor's Claire Beaumont sees as this family firms answer to modern winter hack riding:
"The idea is, not everyone can own or has space for multiple bikes. So their weekend bike needs to be a functional winter bike and their go to bike for day to day commuting. We think that building from really good materials and by hand will make a frameset that will ride really well and actually if you're tired on a Monday morning, do you really want to be trudging to work on some horrid flexy beast or do you want to spend the morning gliding over tarmac?
The Fratello or 'Brother' was introduced in 2003/2004. We were making the Pendio in Britain and unfortunately couldn't keep up with demand - at the time we were beginning to build in a new facility in Italy because our handmade builder was getting older and older and young builders (at that time) weren't a thing. So we made a version of the Pendio in Italy, and as it's not a British made product, we called it Brother, or Fratello. But actually, people like the Dedacciai version of the bike so we carried on with it and our British building started to be phased our as our staff retired and Fratello grew more and more as a model."
The great thing about "hack" bikes is that there is no definition. So I might go riding on the Terra-X, that's my hack and someone else will join on a Fratello and it's all just a mash of it but the main thing is just to go with it..
Claire Beaumont, Condor
However, Claire feels that the idea of a winter hack is perhaps more personal than the label suggests:
"The great thing about "hack" bikes is that there is no definition. So I might go riding on the Terra-X, that's my hack and someone else will join on a Fratello and it's all just a mash of it but the main thing is just to go with it, making something work for so you have a good ride is what it's all about. Actually, I own Dean Downing's old training bike, it's aluminium and is from 2006, it had a dent in the top tube where a car hit him and we built it especially for him with deep drop brakes and more clearance so the Yorkshire mud wouldn't get jammed in. I now use that bike and actually, I think that's my hack bike. I was thinking about getting an old coca cola crate and fixing it to the back so I don't have to carry my heavy lock anymore...."
But the evolution of the off-season hack bike has brought with it other changes, as Jude Gerace from Sugar Wheel Works in Portland, Oregon explains:
“It seems as though riders have become increasingly more specific about the types of wheels they'd like for their bikes - and many have more than one wheelset too! We've noticed an overall trend for a bike that can handle wider tires and still perform as elegantly as a "Skinny tire bike". What I find most encouraging is that people are going to ride their bikes despite the weather and they're willing to spec their bikes to handle the roads.”
The trend for wider wheels seems to be a common theme across modern steel builds, so what, in June's opinion, makes for the perfect four season wheelset?
"That's a big question. It depends on the bike. For my road bike, I prefer as wide a rim as I can find that still performs well (right now the HED+ but that's because I have rim brakes) and a nice fat tire like a 35. I prefer to run at a lower pressure so that while the leaves are down I have traction - and really, it's a lot of fun to come bombing down a hill knowing that you're not going to skid out. It's also pretty fun to ‘float’ along and not get jarred by the road surface so much."
From Portland to Scotland, and now to something a little closer to home in the form of Shand Cycles. There’s lots to love here, and not just that logo, but also for Shand’s dedication to in-house production, quality finishing, and wide-ranging paint shop options (we’ll take the Imperial Blue, thanks!).
Pictured are the Stoater and Stosshie. Shand’s Russell Stout explains the main differences for those keen of eye:
“The main difference between the Stoater and Stooshie is the tapered carbon fork. The Stooshie is a little bit stiffer, but the Stoater fork takes a front rack and has a bit more versatility with internal cable routing for dynamo wiring for lights and USB. Both take mudguards with 35mm tyres. The Stoater will take 45mm tyres without guards and Stooshie 40mm without guards. Our Rohloff models have interchangeable dropouts to be able to run derailleur, single speed bolt-thru etc.
Our pick of the bunch is the Stoater, which, as Shand say is, “at home on road, towpaths, singletrack and pretty much any terrain you can throw at it”. Here again are those larger tyres, which as Shand explain, help to “open up some alternative routes to work that you might not have considered. This does mean that you might like to leave for work a little earlier than normal, though!”.
A bike that comes with a punctuality warning - take my money! Shand also offers a compelling Gates Carbon Drive option, but that's something we'll get into in a future post.