Thorn Nomad MK2
You may wish to read how the bicycle is holding up (at the 17000km mark) here: Let’s talk gear (and how it’s faring out!
After 17,848km of cycling down through the USA into Mexico and across Canada, I realized that my initial choice of a touring bicycle wasn’t going to do it for me. While my Surly Long Haul Trucker is fully capable of making it around the world, I wanted a few features to make my cycling life easier on and off the bike and commenced doing research into a suitable bike that would achieve those needs. I jumped at purchasing my previous bicycle with only 1 day of research and a brief 1 hour chat at the local bike shop, knowing I had made the right choice. This time, after many months of deliberation, communication with manufacturers, and research with other owners, I chose the Thorn Nomad MK2, from SJS Cycles in Somerset, England.
Thorn Cycles have been designed and manufactured since 1995, based on the specifications and research from owner Robin Thorn and Andy Blance. Focusing specifically on the tandem and touring market, their name quickly became associated with most well designed bicycles available on the market. Present day they offer 9 different models, 7 of them single rider oriented, and 1 tandem model for those looking to cycle as a pair, and 1 triplet! – Each of these models are specific to the type of terrain, application and planned usage and all are offered with a wide variety of options for individual component upgrades based on your needs, and budget. While they offer most of the frames separately, their ‘complete’ models are a bargain for those looking to have a well spec’ed out bicycle without any surprises. The model ‘Nomad’ has been made since 1996, but received an entirely new design in 2007 with updated components renamed to the Raven Nomad. A few years later in 2010 a new model was released known as the MK2. Let me go over some of the details, and discuss some of the areas where I upgraded components.
Frame - Thorn’s frames have a unique sizing and design to them, built entirely from steel, weighing in at just about 3kg for the frame alone. This is heavy compared to other touring cycles, however the reasons are simple – They wanted this bike to last, while putting up with the most extreme conditions. They pride themselves in using their own proprietary 969 steel which is double butted, seamless, and heat-treated. In the brochure they offer for download they outline very strong opinions as to why they made this choice, while detailing other different frame manufacturing techniques, along with potential issues that could occur. When I was first looking into touring bikes in 2008, I was told that I should be using a steel framed bike should I ever need to repair it by means of welding, yet I could not find any evidence to an aluminum frame ever giving having issues, until Scott from Powercycle.net recently discovered his Koga Miyata high end aluminum bicycle was rotting from the inside out. The frame is the skeleton of the entire bicycle, and I wanted mine to be as strong as possible. Thorn offers the Nomad frame from the factory in two colours, Black and Yellow – I chose the yellow after crowdsourcing photos of the two on Facebook and tallying peoples decisions. Not satisfied, I even went as far as photoshopping the colours onto my old bike, finally a game of ping pong was played in my mind as to “do I really want to ride around on a big yellow thing?”. Fortunately, as soon as I saw the bike while unpacking, I knew I had made the right choice. For those who want something different, for a fee one can powder coat the frame any colour they would like, or choose to have a “wet look” paint application, likely not providing the same amount of abrasion resistance as the powder coating. If you are considering this bicycle make sure you measure yourself properly, as standard sizing (54cm, 19in, S,M,L) do not apply here – they want to guarantee your fit and assuming that one (other manufacturer’s) bikes size will fit you will likely end up in you having an expensive surprise!
There are 3 pairs of water cage bosses and mounting holes for a light on the top of the fork, and mounts for both a front and rear rack. There is also an area to mount disc brakes to the bike for ‘future proofing’, and if that was the case you can also remove the V-Brake bosses. Thorn use 6mm bolts as opposed to typical 5mm bolts that other bicycle manufacturers use, so you may need to drill your mounting adapters to make things fit. This was the case for my racks which caused a bit of frustration, yet I agree with why they chose a thicker, stronger bolt.
For those people who like to get off-road and want a bit more comfort, the Nomad MKII can also be equipped with a suspension fork, offered as another build option. I’ve yet to see anyone in my life who is doing cycle touring with suspension, but if that is what you need to get by, go for it!
Last but not least, Thorn offers an S&S model of the frame, using couplers in two spots of the frame to break down the bike into smaller pieces, useful for shipping. This is an expensive option which was mandatory in their MKI models. I’ve had great success shipping my bicycle, and opted to save the money for touring, yet this technology is being used more and more with other bicycle manufacturers. It does not diminish the overall strength of the frame, yet require one added step of maintenance on a daily basis to ensure they are still cinched tight to each other.
Handlebars – Equally important to the sizing of the frame is the choice of handlebars you wish to use while riding. Thorn allows you to customize your build using a variety of options such as Drop Bars (which I used on my Surly Long Haul Trucker, and enjoyed, but found myself not using the majority of the bars), Straight bars (similar to a mountain bike, offering a wider positioning of the arms), Butterfly / Trekking bars (these are a unique bar arrangement which give your hands multiple riding positions, something I was looking for, but have their issues in regards to brake lever placement, and strength of the bar as it is very long), and their own in house ‘Comfort Bars’, which were designed by a senior physiotherapist to provide maximum comfort while riding long distances. Similar to straight bars, they offer an 18 degree bend putting the riders wrists into alignment with the forearm and the elbow. While only offering one hand position, they proclaimed that it was an extremely comfortable position and that separate bar ends were not necessary. You get your choice of grips and recommend the Ergon GP-1 grips – however I didn’t believe them and went and ordered the Ergon GC-3 grips, with a large bar end for another riding position. After a month of riding the bicycle, I’ve used the bar ends once, and plan on downgrading to their recommended grips. I found the Ergon GC-3 bar ends are too wide for proper riding, not to mention that if your bicycle takes a tumble, you risk breaking the bar end off (like I did!)
Thorn also offers a handlebar extender, a valuable addition that I DIY’d on my older bicycle by adding an extra stem and some tubing from a bathroom towel holder to the steering tube, in an attempt to remove clutter on the handlebars when mounting components, currently used to hold my rather large and bulky handlebar bag. The extender is small and lightweight, and comes with endcaps that can be used to hide paperwork the hollow space inside should you wish to have some privacy when crossing borders or end up losing your bags, but still have your bicycle. It’s not specific to the thorn, and will fit on any bicycle, providing you have enough space on your steering tubes. Most photos I have seen on the internet show ample space for nearly any size of rider with the Nomad’s. It was cheaper to buy a new extension than to build my own this time around.
Wheels and Rims – Thorn offers 2 different types of rims with the Nomad, both from the rim manufacturer ‘Rigida‘. Their expedition quality, recommended, and my chosen model is the “Andra 30” while the other lighter weight option that doesn’t offer as much strength and limited tire sizes is the “Grizzly“. Both are black anodised and come with an option to have a carbide braking surface sprayed onto the rim (known as CSS – carbide super sonic) from a plasma jet at 5 times the speed of sound which is then ground smooth. The downside to this is that you need to use special (SwissStop Blue) brake pads for this option, but in return receive ultra long service life out of the pads and rims. There are reports of cyclists on the internet who are still using the original set of pads after 25,000km of touring and spoke very positively about them. From what I understand, is that once the CSS surface does finally wear off, only then does it start to affect the rim like one using traditional pads. It’s a moderately expensive upgrade, but I opted go jump at this component upgrade for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be caught in a situation trying to replace a rim in a foreign country, especially with some of the other components I have the wheels laced onto – Brake pads are smaller to carry with me than an extra rim that can support my specialized hubs. I will have to admit I was concerned by the fact that Thorn chose to use only 32 spokes to build their wheels, as opposed to the 36+ that seems to be commonplace on more well known touring bicycles, but was set at ease after a few minutes of research. Thorn hand builds the wheels themselves as opposed to a mechanical process using Sapim double butted stainless steel spokes. Still, I had to perform minor truing adjustments once I assembled the bicycle.
With tires, Thorn provides an impressive array of options, ranging in size, weight and durability. With wider tires often comes at a drawback of diminished rolling speed and great weight, but do allow one to ride through more rugged terrain, often at a lower pressure on the tires. I previously rode on 1.5″, 1.75″ and 2.00″ tires on my Surly Long Haul trucker, but this time went for the theoretical maximum this bike can reasonably handle – 2.25″. I know what I like with tires, and they just happened to have found an old cache of Schwalbe Marathon XR tires, known in the touring circle as the ‘be all end all’ of bicycle touring tires offering excellent grip, an aggressive tread, and unrivaled puncture protection on the rolling surface and the sidewall itself. Schwalbe discontinued these tires in 2009 for unknown reasons, replacing them with their “Extreme” model which in my mind hasn’t been tested thoroughly for long term expeditions as the product line is still in its infancy. I wasn’t willing to experiment and went with what I know, knowing that one day I’ll have to try something else, but fully expect to get 25,000km out of the pair. The tubes are downhill tubes and the rims have been drilled to accept Schrader valves, as opposed to the common ‘Presta‘ road bike style of valve. I made this decision knowing that the Schrader is much widely accepted around the world as they are common place on automobiles, adding another option for inflation should my bicycle pump fail as it has in the past.
For the front wheel, Thorn offers 4 different options of hubs, in a variety of colours (polished aluminum silver, and black, red anodised aluminum). While each of the hubs is expedition quality, I chose a Schmidt SON 28 Polished Silver Dyno Hub. This hub has the ability to output voltage while riding my bicycle, which I am using to power lights for riding in the darkness, not to mention charging my many electronic components. A separate post is coming on this setup. When riding with the Schmidt Dyno hub there is naturally going to be some loss in efficiency, but Peter White explains it best:
One way to think about the added drag of the Schmidt is to compare it to climbing a hill. Well, a really not so very steep hill. When the light is turned off, the drag from the hub is roughly equivalent to climbing one foot every for mile you ride. With the light turned on, it’s about the same as climbing five feet every mile.
It makes more sense to discuss the rear hub in the next section:
Drivetrain and Hubs -
Laced to the rear wheel is a truly remarkable piece of machinery, the Rohloff Speedhub 500. On the market since the mid 90′s it offers a supreme riding and shifting experience for nearly any situation. This is an internally geared hub which offers a 526% range of spread across 14 gears. If you wish to change the gearing around to your liking, you would change the front chainring, rear sprocket, or both. Some of the benefits to this system is that you do away with a traditional derailleur that is prone to bending, breaking, and jamming up. Additionally, with the omission of a cassette, there are less sprockets to get dirty and grimy with every day road junk, as all the gearing save for the one rear sprocket is encased inside the sub in a bath of oil. It is virtually maintenance free short of an oil change every 5000km, and a cable replacement if it ever wears out, and one simply needs to flip the chain ring and sprocket at 15,000km or so to get another long set of trouble-free riding before replacing the two components at the low-cost of under $40. I chose the 40 toothed chain ring with a 17 tooth rear sprocket, recommended by Thorn to reduce wear. I notice a small loss of lower gearing from my Surly Long Haul Truckers 11-34T rear cassette, but Rohloff explains in detail in their user manual how one gets the same range of gearing with their 14 speeds as a 27 speed derailleur based system does. When riding, the hub emits a low sound depending on which gear you have chosen. The hub has been trouble free since day 1 so far, quickly shifting from gear to gear with a flick of my wrist as the grip shifter is mounted next to my right handlebar. I can even shift when completely stopped at a light to start in a reasonable gear! I noticed because of this I shift way more often than I used to, and my legs and body appreciates the easier starts in a much reasonable gear, as I found it quite difficult to prepare for a rapid departure when riding in the city. Naturally chains stretch, but the Thorn Nomad MKII’s eccentric bottom bracket simply needs to be unscrewed a tiny bit and adjusted to achieve proper tension. This eliminates any slipping gear issues.
The gear shifting occurs unit is controlled by a small box at the rear on the left side known as the EX box controlled by a small triangular shifter beside the the handlebar grips. It connects to the hub itself and pulls wires to select the chosen gear. Older versions of the Nomad offered a similar solution yet had cables going directly into the hub. Even though I’ve never seen one of the earlier models in person, I feel this is a worthy upgrade to be added to a new model of bicycles. Being the paranoid one, I ordered a new set of shifting cables anyways – although Murphy’s Law will dictate that I never have any problems with my shifting cables just because I am hauling the extra weight around with me wherever I go.
I calculated the cost of a traditional derailleur based touring bike vs a Rohloff equipped bicycle over the course of riding 150,000km, and it turned out that the Thorn Nomad was a much more cost-effective and a better return on my investment with the frequency of parts that need to be replaced. Of course I haven’t accounted for “acts of god” where everything goes all haywire, and we generally try not to think about those things too much until they happen – but it seems like it will be able to get me around the world virtually trouble-free. Thorn is adamant that it will provide many years of trouble-free service they offer a guarantee that if it fails they will drop ship a new wheel and assembly to you anywhere in the world. It wasn’t until the bicycle had arrived did I realize I wanted to invest in a chain guard. Hebie, a German company makes an ABS cover which protects the chain from road grime and dirt, something I find important especially when traveling through dirty areas. It keeps the chain properly lubricated and deflects the majority of road junk so that your chain, which truly is the weakest link lasts longer and gives many more KM’s of service. I found out after the fact that they only offer a guard in the 38 or 42 toothed chain ring versions, both options that Thorn and Rohloff offer. Oh well, maybe next set of parts? I’ll have 25-30,000km to see if I want to do it based on the fantastic service lifetime with the parts. Finally, with the chain I opted for the base model KMC-K51 chain, not concerned about putting a lot of money into a higher priced SRAM chain.
It may be of note that one of the driving factors into going with this system was this write up by Thorn Cycles titled “Living with a Rohloff” available for free download. It’s an interesting read detailing its usage over the course of multiple tours and scenarios.
Because not all bodies are created equally, you are also given the opportunity to change around the crank lengths for added comfort. I went with the standard 170mm, as I’m a fairly average sized guy and have experienced no issues. Behind the crank is the bottom bracket which for a tidy sum can move from the Shimano bracket to a Royce branded unit which has replaceable bearings. The math doesn’t make sense for me in the long run, when I can replace 3 bottom brackets for the price of the upgraded unit and still get the “new parts” feeling.
The Thorn Nomad MK2 comes with the ability to have disc based brakes bolted on, which some people prefer for superior wet weather stopping ability. Thorn doesn’t recommend that any touring bike use this system for stopping due to the fragile nature of the disc, and the lack of available parts around the world. I agree and went with their base model of V-Brakes from Shimano. The brake levers, while a bit short for my liking are easily in reach while riding and the bike stops on a dime even while fully loaded descending from 15% grades. I was told to expect squealing from the brakes due to the CSS surface, but have yet to experience any of these issues. My Surly Long Haul Trucker with it’s cantilever brakes squawked an awful lot while using Kool Stop Salmon brake pads, so I’m used to it (It also can act as a good warning system so as to not sneak up on pedestrians!). Adjusting the brakes both at the pad level and at the lever area is as simple as adjusting two bolts, and the cables are routed nicely against the frame keeping them out-of-the-way safe from being destroyed from day-to-day activities. Thorn offers for the heavy pocketed individuals an upgrade on the V-Brakes to Shimano’s flagship XTR brake models, which supposedly offer a superior braking experience, and little to no adjustments from the initial setup. I figured my money was best spent elsewhere.
Seat and Saddle – I moved my Brooks B17 Imperial that I had on my Surly Long Haul Trucker over to this bicycle, knowing that it was fully broken in and a functional saddle. Thorn offers a wide variety of saddles, which everyone seems to have their own preference. Not only that, upgrades abound relating to the type of seat post you would like, ranging from plain steel, all the way to carbon fibre which helps soften the feeling your bottom takes when you hit bumps and the like. I’m expecting to get a bit bruised here and there throughout the course of this trip and went with a tried, tested, and true Thorn seat post.
Pedals - As with a saddle, pedals are a riders personal preference. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in nearly 20 years when I bought my first touring bike and simply went with the ultra-cheap platform pedals, and this is the same type this time around. No cleats to snap or break, or get clogged from dirt, as I regularly ride through mucky conditions trying to find a place to stay at night. I ride in regular hiking boots, and if I want to have a bit more power, I simply slip my feet through Powergrips straps, which allow my body to give power to the bike throughout the entire 360 degrees of pedal motion.
Light – This came as a surprise when the bike arrived, but apparently I got a free light with the bicycle! It’s a B&M Lumotec Halogen light that receives its power from the Schmidt SON Dyno Hub. 2.4w puts out an awful lot of light, and allows me to see, not to mention be seen while riding in the dark. There are other lights on the market that are brighter and use LEDs, but I will use this until it combusts and then think about what I want to use next. Thanks for the free light Thorn!
Bell – Another freebie, this time on the left side of the Handlebars. It’s a basic bell, not intrusive, and makes a pinging noise. Not much to say about it – but did want to mention it since I didn’t order it, and I didn’t get charged for it. Great!
Racks – Thorn offers their own custom-built “Expedition” Racks, with 6mm mounting holes, but I wanted to go with what I knew and loved already – The Surly “Nice Rack” series, for both the front and the rear. These 3lb hunks of steel are made to take a beating, have various areas to hang your panniers and strap equipment to, not to mention little bonuses such as a top platform on the front rack, and a rear curvature that can be used as a handle to hoist the bike around rather when its loaded down.
Fenders – I couldn’t afford the high-priced SKS offerings that Thorn advertised, and opted for some cheaper priced ‘Planet Bike Hardcore’ fenders that were wide enough to fit my 2.25″ tires. They work wonderfully, although I was hoping to get them in Yellow as they had advertised on their website. Unfortunately the distributor was out of stock and they said they were not being manufactured anymore. Maybe too much yellow is a bad thing?
I brought my water bottle cages, lock, and bike pump over to the Nomad, again these are personal preference for every rider. I added a Click-Stand to the bike, a unique unit to hold your bike up using components similar to tent poles. So far it works! I’ll be sure to write a review on it once I’ve had more time to test the unit out.
For more information about what else I have on the bicycle you should check out my Equipment page.
The Ordering Process
Working with SJS Cycles was nothing short of excellent. I maintained a conversation with their staff over the period of a few months, asking questions and making sure I had all the information I needed before I jumped in to make an order. Each time we spoke they were courteous and answered my questions without any snarkiness or holier than thou attitude. They’ve covered nearly everything with their downloadable brochure, and the questions I had were typically about longevity of components, sizing, and asking them to elaborate on why they recommended specific products.
After a brief telephone call providing a deposit, they set to work building my bicycle, finishing it less than 5 days later and putting it into two boxes all the way over to Canada. While shipping was expensive, as was the import duty fees, it was still cheaper than purchasing it in store in the UK, due to the excessively high VAT tax rate. It arrived 17 days after the initial order, on time with their estimate of it being 3 weeks from time of order. Mind you this was in January, where as their busy season is from March onwards. Some people can expect to wait much more if they wait to order during peak season.
The bike itself was packed lovingly with ample styrofoam, tubing, fork and rear drop out protectors and a generous helping of plastic poly wrap. I did suffer some shipping damage, where the handlebars were placed up against the chain ring, and proceeded to rub against the Ergon Grips causing some damage. At first I was concerned, quickly moving to not caring as I knew they were bound to get nicks and dings anyways after the first ride. It took a while to put together the bicycle, carefully reading all the manuals for the components that they included in an envelope for my safe keeping along with a small vial of Yellow Touch up paint (nice touch!) for the inevitable scratches that will occur. I’ve already used the paint, and it matches!
It took about 10 rides to become fully comfortable on the bike, first with the new riding position, and the way the handlebars were laid out. Shifting came within the 2nd ride, and I’m still working out how to deal with taking corners in the same sleek manner that I used to do in the speedy Surly Long Haul Trucker. When loaded down with all of my gear, the bike feels sturdy and stable, and doesn’t have any frame wobble when going down hills. I noticed a bit of flex in my previous bike, not worried in the slightest, but simply aware that it happened. With the Thorn, nothing of the sort. It’s a tank and certainly is an upgrade to what I was riding before fully exceeding my expectations and thoughts on how it ride.
I’ll be keeping this document “open” as a living document to make updates as I go through the first 1000km of touring in the event that I find more components that didn’t work out as expected, or other thoughts.
You may wish to read how the bicycle is holding up (at the 17000km mark) here: Let’s talk gear (and how it’s faring out!