In summer of 2020, with pandemic fatigue already setting in, a dark inky-blue-fillet-brazed road frame came my way from Portland, Oregon. I purchased the frameset from my fellow bicycle fanatic Dan, who had commissioned it custom for himself, documenting the process with much detail on an online forum. At the time, with little hope, I had sent him one of those “if you ever decide to sell this…” notes. Two years later that note paid off.
The frame had just about everything I would have ordered for myself on a bike from Kirk: his signature s-curve “terraplane” seat stays, 1″ threadless steel fork, light oversized tubing, low 78mm bottom bracket drop, a metal head tube badge, fender eyelets, and medium reach brakes so the frame can run up to 35mm tires. Speaking of the medium reach brakes, when I first read about Kirk’s MRB model, I assumed it meant “medium reach brakes” but instead it stands for Montana Road Bike, a bike suited for tarmac and the roads after the paving ends. Or essentially, how most road bikes were built in terms of versatility and tire clearance and fender mounts before about the mid 70s.
I collected all the parts before the frame arrived and built it in short order. Regular readers here know I lean toward retro/traditional silver components, but the Kirk with its black King headset seemed to call out for black. I built it with a new Campagnolo Chorus 12 speed group with their sub-compact 48/32 crankset. I used a set of Zonda C17 wheels with Soma Supple Vitesse 33mm tires (that measured ~31mm) on the Zondas.
- Groupset: Campagnolo Chorus 12
- Seatpost: Deda Zero 100 27.2
- Saddle: Brooks Cambium C13 158mm
- Wheelset: Campagnolo Zonda C17
- Stem: Deda Superleggero 120mm painted to match
- Bars: Whisky No. 7, 44cm 6d flare drop bars
- Brakes: Velo Orange Grand Cru
- Weight: 20.5 lbs pedals and cages, ready to ride
It is probably the best riding steel bike I’ve ever been on. I would describe the ride as plush but racy. It is not just about comfort–the bottom bracket and chainstays feel like a solid platform when sprinting and climbing out of the saddle. Of the bikes I’ve owned, it feels a little like some hybrid of my early 1990s Serotta Colorado TIG and 2015 Cannondale Cadd 10, but with a magical supple feeling added in. The mid-trail handling (~56mm trail) felt neutral and natural. It is a cliche, but it really was one of those bikes that seemed to disappear beneath me–to feel like an extension of my body. I don’t chase KOMs on Strava but instead use Ride with GPS, which does track my PRs. The first month I rode the Kirk, I broke a PR almost every time I rode it.
I climbed Mt. Lemmon few times, did long flat centuries, hill repeats, a few short dirt road sections, and often took the long way home because the bike was so much fun and so comfortable. Because of the pandemic, I almost always rode alone, but I did one ride with my neighbor Pat. We climbed up the punishing heaved asphalt of Redington Rd. road and on the down the road was so rough that it jarred his rear light loose sending it into pieces all over the road. Pat rides the latest Specialized S-Works Tarmac and the next to him on the Kirk, I seemed like I was not getting bucked around as much. I can’t say for sure if it was just my slightly wider tires, or the the s-curve terraplane seat stays, or something else.
On the Kirk, I noticed that my average speeds crept higher on familiar routes–from 14.5-16.5mph to 17-18.5mph. This may not be a fair comparison, as my previous average speeds were on my MAP and Ritchey, both of which had some luggage and significantly wider 650b wheels (I’m leaving the wider-is-just-as-fast tire debate aside for now), as well as fenders and racks on the MAP.
Speaking of luggage, it was weird riding a bike without a bag. But also a little liberating–like I was a boy racer again back in 1989–three jersey pockets full of snickers bars and the truth. But I did miss the utility of my other bikes a little bit. In the ~1000 miles I put on the Kirk, I never put it in a rack, stopped at the grocery store for some avocados on the way home, or ran a package to the post office. It was too fancy a bike for any of that. Even for a quick coffee stop, I didn’t really let it out of my reach. Mostly, I just got on it and rode for half a day without stopping, with everything I needed in my pockets.
First, the color. Is it blue? Is it black? Yes. The color is wonderful. I couldn’t take the Kirk anywhere without getting comments. My wife–who has developed a certain immunity to spectacular bikes over the years–even commented every time she saw it. Big frames can look gangly. In my years riding and looking at many 60-63cm bikes, I’ve noticed that some of the builders whose bikes look great in large sizes also happen to be fairly tall themselves: David Kirk, Dave Wages (Ellis Cycles), and Mike DeSalvo to mention a few. The Kirk MRB is a big bike that looks gracefully proportioned.
The fit of the Kirk MRB was great for me. I will likely replicate it on another medium reach bike. It has been awhile since I’ve had a dedicated modern “regular ass” road bike, and I found I liked it, and liked riding at a faster clip. I also love the simplicity of medium reach rim brake format for a road bike, and 30-35mm tires cover about 85% of the riding I like to do. As much as I loved the Kirk, there are a few small things I might do differently if I was commissioning a custom for myself:
- I might slacken the headtube angle by half a degree, to 73 degrees, and increase the fork rake to 45 or 47mm. That would increase the front-center a little while maintaining a similar trail number. That said, the 73.5 HTA with a 43mm fork rake was really fun to ride with fast and precise steering.
- Lengthen the chainstays a few millimeters. at 422mm, the 30mm tires are super close to the front derailleur when it is in the big ring. 35mm tires would hit the derailleur. Lengthening the stays to 425-430mm would alleviate this. This could just be a Campagnolo Chorus derailleur issue–another FD might fix it too, but I generally really like stays in the 430mm range.
- The fender mount and bolt under the rear brake bridge limits the height of the tire that can be run. Again, 35s would likely rub depending on the rim/tire combination.
- I would also request that the brake bridge and fork be maximized for tire clearance. On the MRB, the brake pads sit just below mid-slot in the calipers–if they were all the way at the bottom, you might even be able to go wider than 35mm.
- At 170lbs, I wondered if the tubing diameters could be smaller and what that would feel like on this bike? The Kirk had more oversized tubes than my other steel bikes: 34.9 DT, 31.8 TT, and 28.6 ST. The Kirk was noticeably stiffer than my MAP out of the saddle, but without an unpleasantly harsh ride.
I’ll be boxing up the Kirk to send back to Dan soon. Why would I let go of a bike I loved so much? That is hard to answer. When I bought the bike from Dan, he agonized over the decision to sell, and in the end I offered him first right of refusal should I decide to part with it. I’m perfectly happy selling it back to Dan, even if I’ll miss it; afterall, it was built specifically for him. It has has been joyful getting to live with this bike for the last 6 months. Building and riding this bike helped me cope with the pandemic and added to my bicycle education. I’m also dreaming of a new life in the not-too-distant future. My wife and I plan to join our daughter in Spain in our retirement. The Kirk would be great to ride in Spain, but I know from my touring there that I would want something less precious and more replaceable for the bicycle life I envision there. I also still have more than my share of great bikes to ride. When we move, I’ll only be able to take one or two, so I have to keep an eye toward that eventual reckoning.