Steel was once a pillar of British industry, employing 350,000 people. While still a global industry worth £630 billion, the use of steel in high-end mountain bikes has all but died out. Is there still a place for the steel Swarf Contour 115 mm 29er, or is it a bike that should be left in the past?
Deep in the Scottish Borders, we find ourselves squeezed between lathes and frame jigs crowded around a single bike stand. The air is filled with the acrid tang of burnt welding rod while a front triangle slowly puffs smoke from its Reynolds 853 seat tube. In this simple work stand is where each and every Swarf bike is born. Adrian Bedford, the man behind Swarf Cycles is momentarily in a world of his own as he studies the neat weld carefully, a beautiful ribbon of melted steel.
There’s no rush or sense of time pressure, each join is meticulously made and inspected. Steel bikes always instil a strong sense of nostalgia, having to compete with aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre as a frame material means it has all but disappeared in the MTB sector. Steel is heavier, more flexible and prone to rust if mistreated. However, it’s easy to work with and gives bespoke builders like Adrian the opportunity to create their vision.
In a world of bloated carbon fibre tubes and portly framed aluminium bikes, a skinny steel bike stands out like a cheetah in a herd of elephants.
As we debate all the latest geometry innovations, it’s clear that Adrian Bedford really knows his stuff. An ex-aerospace engineer and mountain bike guide, all his frames are hand-made in the UK to order. We are here as Swarf has just released its latest bike, the 115 mm Swarf Contour 29er, a bike designed not for racing, but for the mountains. The Swarf Contour cuts a distinctive silhouette, the slender seatstays line up perfectly with the top tube to produce a hardtail-esque profile that is both elegant and capable looking. It’s certainly one of the most stylish bikes we have seen. Geometry nerds looking at the rear suspension will see the single pivot design, then spot the linkage adding more progressivity to the shock, but then they will notice that something is missing.
There’s no pivot at the dropout of the Swarf Contour, instead it uses the natural flex of the flattened skinny seat stays to accommodate 6 mm of vertical movement. The 4130 CrMo steel seat stays are pre bent to preload the suspension towards the sag point. Steel is highly resilient to fatigue, and by using this method, Adrian has saved some weight and reduced the bearing count in the frame — always a good thing for long term durability.
The Swarf Contour is an interesting bike, standing in defiance of the ‘throwaway model year culture’.
The Swarf Contour in detail
The Swarf Contour is designed around a 130 mm fork and features 115 mm of rear travel, driving a 200 x 51 mm shock. It has a 73 mm threaded bottom bracket shell and will be available in 148 x 12 boost and 142 / 12 non-boost configuration. The frame weight is 3.2 kg without a shock and cable routing (with the exception of the stealth dropper port) is all external. There is space in the rear for tyres up to 2.5”. Prices start from £1950 for the Contour frame and Rockshox Monarch RT3, £2150 with a Cane Creek DB Air and £2250 with a DB Coil shock.
The geometry of the Swarf Contour
Riding the Swarf Contour
We exchanged the narrow bar of the demo bike to a 780 mm Renthal Fatbar Carbon, and instantly felt at home on the size Large (1.8 m tester). With a 465 mm reach the riding position is generous, and combined with the very short seat-tube at just 445 mm shorter riders can choose to up-size if they want even more. The long reach and long chainstays put you in a very central position on the bike, and the ferocious 41 mm BB drop is ground-skimmingly low. If you live somewhere with rocky climbs you can expect to strike your pedals frequently. The advantage is is superbly confident cornering — a compromise which we would take every time. While certainly not the lightest short travel bike, climbing uphill the ride is fast and efficient. Anti-squat sits near to 100% at the sag point using a 32 tooth chainring and in all but the largest cassette ring the suspension is totally neutral. We found we were frequently sitting two gears higher than usual on familiar climbs and long days were a breeze. It’s the sort of bike that would be just as happy climbing hard for a one hour after-work blast as it would churning through a seven hour mountain epic. Even our hobbit legged testers had considerable seatpost length exposed, so very tall riders would be best off investing in a long dropper to get the height they need.
On the descents, any assumption that this bike will be nervous with only 115 mm of travel is instantly dispelled, and we soon found ourselves hunting down bigger bikes on technical descents. The 66.5° head angle and 75.4° effective seat tube angle put the Contour right into the mix with some of the best handling trail 29ers out there and the 629 mm stack height gives a nice high front end for easy-going handling. It thumps through fast hits and big sends with total composure and silence, only showing its shorter travel DNA on big repeated hits. The low bottom bracket puts you right into the action when you are slicing through hard turns and the steering is precise and sharp, as it should be. The sublimely balanced geometry and unflappable ‘just enough’ suspension travel makes mincemeat of technical singletrack. You work a little harder when it gets really rough, but it’s intoxicating fun.
The Contour is like a sleeper estate car, practical enough to transport the labradors, but if you bury the throttle it has enough poke to pin Fido and Rex firmly to the back windshield
We were surprised how easy it was to push the Swarf Contour on harder trails, this impressive versatility is down to two things, the well-damped and supportive chassis, and the highly progressive suspension (the leverage ratio drops from from 2.85 – 1.90). Even when subjected to highly unruly behaviour we experienced no bottom-outs, even with minimal compression dialled in on the Cane Creek Double Barrel Air shock (a coil shock is also an option). The Swarf Contour proves it’s not the size that matters but what you do with it, feeling far more endowed in the travel department than it is. Yes, it’s a practical mile muncher, yes, it’s great at long hike-a-bikes or Alpine missions, but to confine it as a ‘mountain’ bike does it a disservice. The Contour is a refreshingly different take on a high performance bike and with no aspirations of being an enduro race bike or XC whippet, it can focus on being great at everything in between.
From long drawn out mountain days to straight-up trail bombing, the Swarf Contour is always up to the task. Yes, there are lighter trail bikes, but every gram of weight gained is made up for in versatility. The Swarf Contour is a bike that will attract a rider who does not care for ‘model years’ and who knows what they want. It’s not built for the mainstream and instead it focuses on versatility and durability, providing a sense of occasion every time it’s rolled out of the shed.
+ Sublimely balanced geometry
+ Elegant construction
– Low bottom bracket means pedal strike on rocky climbs
– Heavier than some competition
For more info head to: swarfcycles.co.uk
This article is from ENDURO issue #035
Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of ENDURO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality mountain bike journalism. Click here to learn more.
Words & Photos: