I have a special place in my heart for this bike. I will never get rid of it. Evan built this bike for me shortly after I started mountain biking again in 2013, with a small frame that had been sitting around the shop where he worked at the time and a lot of random parts. A friction thumb shifter made a 10-speed derailleur work flawlessly with a 9-speed cassette. A fat front, a setup known as the “Huntingdon Special,” provided extra traction and float in lieu of a suspension fork. For a couple years, this setup dominated the scene in the Huntingdon area riding community, hence its name. It was perfect for the Allegrippis Trails, and also perfect for beginners — simple, yet confidence-inspiring.
Evan customized his masterpiece with two stickers printed from the shop label maker: “Fatter than you are” on the fork and “Fuck off” on the top tube, one that I’m sure elicited some interesting thoughts when I let others borrow my bike.
I rode this bike for everything. It was the only bike I had for a while. I rode it in the snow, I rode it on the rail trail, I rode it on the road. I took it on a trip to Colorado and blew everyone’s mind.
Iteration 2: Singlespeed.
In early 2016, I decided that I wanted to try riding singlespeed. When I was first getting into riding and borrowing bikes all the time, I rode several singlespeeds because they were what was available to ride. But at that time, I was predominantly riding at Allegrippis, and was so new to the sport that I really didn’t care what bike I was on — I was just glad to be out there.
After 3 years of riding under my belt, and the addition of another mountain bike with gears to my fleet, I decided that it might be time to have a dedicated singlespeed. I did the conversion from gears to singlespeed mostly by myself, with a little bit of guidance from Evan. This was a big accomplishment for me, one that I was really proud of.
I remember my first ride in Rothrock on it. I had to stop halfway up Rag Hollow Road and catch my breath. But I had fun. I also remember walking a lot. Not on that ride, but on others. I enjoyed singlespeeding at Allegrippis and on relatively mellow trails, but Rothrock was still a tough beast. Throughout the next year, I started doing a lot of reviews for Singletracks, so I constantly had other mountain bikes to ride. I was riding the El Mariachi less and it began to fall by the wayside. It was time for a revamp.
Iteration 3: Bikepacking rig.
With a constantly-revolving door of mountain bikes that I was reviewing, I decided that the El Mari could serve me better as something else. I was becoming more intrigued by bikepacking and longer rides, and a do-it-all mountain/gravel bike that could handle some trails but also not suck to ride on the roads seemed like a good addition to my fleet.
This major shift in identity for the El Mariachi involved putting gears back on (still 1×9 with the same thumb shifter system as the original), swapping the fat front for a normal 29er wheel and going to 2-inch tires front and rear.
I did a couple overnights on it, and then decided to try out Jones bars, which took some adjustment but ultimately I liked them for gravel grinding and casual riding.
Iteration 4: Hardtail MTB/dirt touring bike.
In fall 2017, El Mari got another major change with the addition of a 120 mm Reba suspension fork, a hand-me-down from Evan when his El Mariachi cracked and he upgraded to a Canfield Nimble 9 with a 140 mm fork. I kept the 2-inch tires on for a while and continued to ride it for gravel, touring, and light mountain biking. I eventually swapped the front tire for a beefier 2.4 inch Maxxis High Roller when I found myself riding more and more singletrack on it. The addition of the Penhale Gypsy to my fleet in early 2018 filled the dirt touring bucket, and it once again felt like El Mari needed to find another niche.
Iteration 5: Hardtail singlespeed mountain bike.
In fall 2018, with some prompting from Evan, I decided to give singlespeed a try again. I’m in the best physical shape of my life and my mental capacity for suffering is at a level now where I think I can have the patience for the inevitable walking and painful rides. I had every other kind of bike I wanted: fat bike, full suspension mountain bike, gravel bike, another gravel bike with bigger tires. The logical place for the El Mariachi to land was back in a singlespeed role. So I took the gears off again.
I kept the Jones bars on for a while, wanting to try them on a singlespeed, but discovered that for mountain biking, I didn’t like how upright they kept me, especially when climbing. I tried the Salsa Bend 2 bars next and decided they will stay, at least for now.
I also ended up with a brake upgrade when Evan wanted to get new ones for his Canfield. The mechanical Avid BB7s went to my fat bike, and I put hydraulic Magura brakes on the El Mariachi.
Conditions this winter made singlespeeding and skinny tires pretty impossible for the past few months, but once it thaws and the trails dry out, I’m excited to get back into a regular routine of riding El Mariachi in its latest form. I think this one will stick around for a while.