It’s the first week of 2016, and early one morning I woke up in a gray, soggy Arizona desert. There was a lull in the rain, just after first light, and I figured this was my opportunity to leave the tent and have a look around. The cacti were kind enough to avoid growing in a spot just big enough for our tent, the spot found after midnight, but in a glance I saw, leaning up against the mesquite, my bike for this adventure: a titanium-framed XC/Endurance hardtail mountain bike–what Chumba Cycles calls their Stella Ti model. Rain drops dappled the smooth gradients of the bare metal along the top tube, while dirt, sand, and desperate amounts of chain grease stubbornly hung around the downtube and chainstays despite the night’s downpour. Cholla needles poked out of the bike’s frame bag, but thankfully not its tires.
Like I said, it was just in a passing glance, as I had a cat hole to dig. But if anyone had caught that look I gave the bike, they might have thought I was looking at someone I admired–someone I relied on in stressful times to help me make it through. Four days into riding the Arizona Trail in the midst of a sudden winter storm, the bike didn’t seem much too different from that kind of person.
Chumba is deliberate in their design to make bikes that not only race well, but have the accoutrements for loaded, self-supported riding. Rack mounts, sliding dropouts, and triple bottle cage bosses are all signs of encouragement to strap on your fancy campin’ gear. But take a quick look at the bike’s geo, and you’ll see pretty familiar numbers, similar to racy 29ers. For those taking notes, a 100mm suspension fork on the small, medium, or large frames leaves you with a 70º head tube angle, 73º seat tube angle, and 51.5mm bottom bracket drop, with the angles a tad steeper on the XL frame. It’s hard not to admire a raw titanium frame, the Stella being a USA-made one with oversized tubing, a 44mm head tube, with Paragons matched for a 142mm thru-axle.
I’m 5’8” on a low-gravity day, riding the bike in a size medium, shifting with Shimano XTR 11-speed bits, pedaling with Race Face Turbine Cinch cranks, stopping with Hope Evo X2 Stealth hydros, sitting on a Race Face Aeffect saddle, and otherwise enjoying a pure-Thomson cockpit, including their swoopy 12º bars that keep the Ti party going. It’s a flashy bike, with an unloaded, bagless weight at about 25.5lbs that was just so light and floaty on Tucson’s singletrack.
But, let’s be honest–this is a lot of bling for such isolated, unpredictable conditions as Arizona’s backcountry trails, but in preparation Chumba made one significant adaptation to their Stella Ti build: 27.5+. You know, the tire size no one will shut up about, that everyone who’s anyone is breaking out the calipers to see if their existing 29er will clear the wider shoes, and that I wish we would all agree to call “27plus,” because that’s way easier and actually works as a hashtag on Instagram.
Now, y’all can’t get these chunky Maxxis Rekon+ 27.5×2.8″ tires yet, but on DT Swiss FR570 wheels the bike adopts a stout, aggressive stance, and by design the tires have clearance even with the dropouts all the way forward in the frame. For the endless cholla and prickly pear of the AZT, Orange Seal handles punctures and lets the tires bounce around at soft air pressure, with a Fox Factory 32 fork accompanying the soft ride.
The most bikepacking-specific stuff on this bike are the Wanderlust Gear handlebar, stem, seat bag, and custom frame bags fit just for Chumba’s models. Wanderlust Gear, whose US-made bags you can buy through Chumba as well, come in black and très chic camo to go with your camo shoes, camo shorts, camo gloves, camo helmet, and camo iPhone case.
I like my bikes nimble, with a front end that lets me muscle it around. The bike should be happy to spend time with only the front or rear wheel touching the ground, and jib through any obstacle, as it’s unlikely I’ll go around it instead. When loaded down and a camera hanging off my back, this riding style puts a lot of stress on the bike–especially after five days of relentless desert riding in poor weather. The reality is, a mechanical out here could be life threatening if you’re unprepared. Not that I have any first-hand experience, as this bike persevered without any need for adjustment or repair the entire time. The 27plus tires got your back in the corners, so you can really let the bike wake up and get sassy. I’m just really surprised that the XTR Shadow derailleur, despite all those touchy-feely boulders–the sandy grit and grease that caked the pivots and pulleys–just loves to shift.
I know 1x gearing is blowing up even in loaded touring/bikepacking, but after asking a few Shimano 1x folk to confirm my experience, it ain’t all silver and gold just yet. Take this with a grain of salt–any shifting setup a few days, and falls, into a bikepacking trip will have some issues. But, if you want to get rid of that front derailleur and throw some bigger cogs out back, and your bike has short chainstays to help with poppin’ wheelies, expect the chain to (occasionally) drop on a slightly-harder gear if you backpedal. A perfect example of this is resetting the pedals to clear rocks in the middle of climbing.
Oh, speaking of climbing, holy crap this bike feels like, I don’t know, like you’re on an ultralight beam. Is it the titanium? The bottom bracket drop? Me having the best wattage output of any bikepacking trip I’ve ever done? Probably not that last one. Riding unloaded with the 27plus tires, I don’t think I ever had to get off the bike when presented with an incline.
Going down is where XC bikes tend to lose their steez, and the geo on the Stella Ti suggests it might have the same insufficiency compared to the latest batch of slacked-out 29ers, but any uncertainty I might have had about cutting down hiker-designed switchbacks on the AZT was reassured by the wide tires, with credit due to the Hope brakes–they did everything I asked of them without ever fading or, you know, breaking. Beyond tires and brakes, the swooped-out ti Thomson bars and Fox fork (with XC-level 100mm travel–was bottomed out on only the roughest dips and washes) took care of me in either its Firm setting with bags or Open setting unloaded.
I’ve got one hot take to sneak into this review, that I’ve saved as a closer. We’re already starting to see it, but you can absolutely expect companies to take their existing mountain bikes, strap some bags to them, wedge in a set of wider tires, and cash in on this new adventure by bike hotness. Don’t take the bait. Now, Chumba’s Stella Ti is by all means an XC hardtail that’s light, playful, and comes with some real fancy components for race day. But, Chumba has deliberately put in the work to make this bike capable of handling the abuse and neglect of bikepacking–in my case, even in a winter storm. Their base model at $4,695 comes with 29” wheels and full Shimano XT 1×11. My bikepacking iteration retails for $5,695, with their Wanderlust Gear complete bagset (handlebar, frame, seat, dual stem bags, and top tube bag) costing an extra $400.
Chumba’s team of men and women riders, with cat 1/pro pedigrees and backcountry experience abound, rides these bikes stripped down along course tape and loaded up along barbed wire. My experience was, by and large, with the latter of the two. The new tech in tire sizes and gearing combos has its high notes and low notes, respectively, but not anything more than the adventure itself might. In a way, the Stella Ti seems designed to push its own limits. I was more than happy to oblige, and in doing so I came away pleased, albeit surprised, with the resilience and performance.
More photos of the Chumba Stella Ti: