I just spent the past 9 months on a Chromag Primer that I never intended to review. The idea was to put fun and fear back into biking. To freshen up tired trails. To just do something different. This was a project first and foremost to satisfy my own curiosities. I justified this purchase with the idea that I’d use my new hardtail to review parts throughout the year. I figured I’d ride it in the winter, on maybe on mellow rides once in a while. It wasn’t long until I found myself down the rabbit hole of the aggressive hardtail culture. Before long, it was the only bike I really wanted to ride.
I’m going to assume you’re all well aware of Chromag bikes, the small manufacturer out of Whistler, BC who has been turning out lust worthy hardtail frames and innovative components that adorn many top end builds for quite a number of years. In this day and age of over the top full suspension super bikes, Chromag’s line of hardtails maintain a loyal following and my aim was to find out why. With that in mind, I ordered up a Primer, which at the time, was the most aggressive 29er in Chromag’s lineup. I say “was” with a nod to the recently announced and totally mental Doctahawk. Just the same, what we have here is still very aggressive by most anyone’s measure. Based around either 27.5+ or 29″ wheels running a 160 to 170 mm fork, my Primer’s HA measures in at 65º, the reach at 451 in a size M/L (medium-large), the seat angle at 75º, and sports incredibly tight 415 mm chain stays. Mull over those numbers a moment. Most of them are the same sort you’ll find on many modern enduro bikes in the 150 to 170 mm travel range. This is no XC racer, nor does it share much in common with old skool huck-to-flat hardtails. The Primer is the epitome of modern, progressive geometry, hold the rear suspension.
The Primer has evolved over the last couple years and is currently in its third iteration. My frame is a second gen model from early 2018 and differs slightly from the chart below. The most recent version has a 1 degree slacker head angle, 1 degree steeper seat angle, and a few more millimeters of reach in each size. It’s easy to see a hardtail and think “old skool” but Chromag is keeping pace with the latest geo trends like few brands can.
Chromag still builds the Primer, along with several other of their frames, in Canada and not far from their Whistler headquarters. Frames are welded up in advance and placed in stock in raw form. This means you get to choose your color and the sky is the limit on paint options. I spent a good two weeks going back and forth on paint and decal colors until settling on translucent purple and black decals. I had quite a few specific parts in mind for my Primer so I opted for a partial build, including Chromag’s own BZA bars and stem, Scarab pedals, Sequence x-sync chainring, and seat post clamp.
The thing about a hardtail is that the fork is your only suspension. Well, fork plus hips, knees, and ankles for whatever that’s worth. This places fork performance under a magnifying glass of intense scrutiny. Unlike a full suspension bike, as the fork compresses on a hardtail, the head angle steepens dramatically. This means, a fork that stays up in it’s travel is critical. But, traction is also at a premium which means sensitivity in the initial stroke is also critical. I took a chance on MRP’s Ribbon Air after so many rave reviews and have been more than a little impressed. The Ribbon employs dual air chambers that are filled independently allowing the rider to perfectly dial in their initial stroke. MRP’s Ramp control offers on the fly adjustment of the shape of the spring curve to dial in mid-stroke and bottom-out control. This is all on top of external low speed compression and rebound and a long list of other cool features like pressure relief valves to bleed excess air pressure out of the lowers.
Forward cockpit includes 800 mm Chromag BZA bars trimmed to my preferred 785 mm and a 35 mm BZA stem. For grips, I went with Renthal’s ultra-tacky grips for gloveless riding on sweaty days. I’ve been on primarily SRAM and Shimano brakes for the past few years but decided to give Hope’s E4 brakes a go on the Primer.
No lazy head tube decals here, Chromag takes pride in their head tube badge design. The 44 mm/56 mm tapered head tube measures in at 105 mm for all sizes. No internal cable routing here, but Chromag’s nicely designed cable guides keep things tidy. There actually is a short run of internal routing through the seat tube to allow for stealth dropper post routing but it’s effortless to snake a line through that short section. I had completely forgotten how easy it is to wrench on a hardtail with external lines.
We posted a full review of the 185 mm Bike Yoke Revive back in October. I had to run the Revive fully slammed with a low stack-height Selle Italia SLR saddle to hit my preferred 29″ saddle height, but it works. One of the geo updates for mid 2018 was to shorten the seat tube by an inch in the M/L to address this issue. Most anyone should be able to run a 170mm+ dropper post on the Primer now. Holding the Revive post in place is Chromag’s clean and simple NQR clamp.
I got a little carried away with this build and went full XX1. 175 mm cranks mated to a press-fit BB are still spinning like day 1 with not a single creak. There’s no option for a BB mounted chain guide and while I could probably run a small seat tube mounted top-guide, I’ve had zero issues with chain retention. I’m running a 32t Chromag Sequence chainring and a gold PC-XX1 chain for a little extra pop. The BB on the Primer is low! and my Chromag Scarab pedals bear the scars of a season’s worth of smashing.
Out back we continue the theme of indulgence with that giant gold XX1 Eagle cassette and an all black XX1 derailleur. For wheels, I wound up using the Primer as the test platform for the Race Face Arc carbon rims and Race Face Vault hubs that we reviewed last summer. Nothing punishes a rear wheel like riding a hardtail aggressively. The Arc rims passed the initial durability test with flying colors but I moved on to running a Cush Core in the rear with 19 to 20 psi.
It seems funny to call out a fender in a build spec but I’m going to do it anyway. Ground Keeper makes some bad ass custom fenders with a ton of super cool stock designs or they offer the option for you to design your own. Their Space Mountain fender was perfect for keeping the mud spraying off that front 2.5 DHF II out of my eyes and my bike looking dialed.
The Primer is designed to accept both 27.5+ and 29″ tires. Chromag’s Yokel provides massive clearance at the chainstays to fit fat rubber. Since I elected to go with 29″ , the clearance for my rear 2.4 DHR II is substantial. But, with 415 mm (16.3″) chainstays something has to give and the 2.5 Aggressor that I had planned to run bottomed out on the back of the seat tube. The 2.4 DHR II just barely fits when new but the space opens up a little as the knobs wear down. The tire in the pics below is done and dusted and ready for the trash bin, it’s still a tight fit.
Remind me to never use the phrase “climbs like a hardtail” to describe a full suspension bike again. The only thing that climbs like a hardtail is a hardtail. Direct power transfer, occasionally with traction to match. Climbing mellow trails and fire roads is actually a very pleasant experience on a modern hardtail. The Primer’s 75º seat angle is always 75º, there’s never any wallow or sag and there’s never a sense of hanging off the back of the bike. Chromag has since updated the seat angle to 76º which will no doubt make for even better climbing. But, even at 75º I can’t say I’ve ever taken issue with the climbing position. When things turn technical, loose, rooty, and rocky, that’s when climbing gets interesting. That direct power transfer makes it easy to break traction if you pulse the pedals. The Primer will climb anything you point it at but it requires a smooth cadence and more active body positioning. For quick, steep climbs and ledge-ups it helps to nail the speed and gear selection. Wet roots were my kryptonite at first but as time passed I found myself shifting my weight and adjusting adjusting my torque to keep my tires hooking up. That’s the theme with riding a hardtail, being more keyed in to the terrain you’re covering, shifting your weight, calculating your pedal strokes.
After years of riding full suspension, the first few trail rides highlighted the fact that I had gotten used to descending with rather stiff legs, letting the suspension do much of the work for me. The Primer, being a hardtail will have none of that. My feet were promptly and completely ejected from the pedals on several occasions during the first few rides. That said, it didn’t take long before my legs were re-trained to flow with the bike. With that, not only did my feet stay with the pedals but I started using that direct interface to the trail surface to my advantage. Once you get the hang of riding a hardtail, every dip in the trail can be pumped and every root and rock can be popped. It’s not that it’s out of control hyper but thanks to the short chainstays and no suspension every effort is magnified compared to a soft tail. Any time I’m riding the Primer I’m looking for side hits, jibs, and weird little moves. Maybe that doesn’t make it the fastest way down the trail but it’s certainly one of the funnest ways down.
I love rock rolls (who doesn’t??) but going into this experiment, the thought of doing some of the more committing lines had me spooked. I took it easy at first and maybe it’s the Whistler DNA, but quickly found that the Primer shines in the steeps. Over the course of the summer, I ticked off nearly every rock roll I’d ever done on my long-travel fully and a few new ones. You do have to cover the brakes with a little more restraint to avoid skidding and rough run-outs demand soft knees but the Primer feels right at home in the steeps. I also need to call out here how out absolutely brilliant the MRP Ribbon is at staying up its travel without giving up traction and feel. Once I got the Ribbon dialed in, the amount of confidence I had in the front end to charge down near vertical faces was key to my overall opinion of the Primer. Being able to spin up the Ramp Control on the fly and knowing that the fork would be up in it’s travel was the difference between riding the line and walking away on a couple occasions.
Drops are another element of riding that had become progressively more difficult to comprehend in the absence of suspension. Chromag doesn’t categorize the Primer as a hucker. If hucks to flat are your thing you might want to take a look at the super beefy Stylus. That said, the Primer is down to party as long as there’s a little slope to the landing. The little 2 to 4 footers littered throughout the trails of the PNW and coastal BC were absolutely no problem and not really much different from a full suspension rig. Point the bike, stick the landing, go a little extra soft in the knees and ride it out. I haven’t sought out any really big hits but a few 6 to 8 footers have gone down and its all been just fine.
Jumping was yet another area that I really couldn’t get my head around. I mean, I own a hard tail dirt jumper. I’ve owned many for that matter. But dirt jumping entails launching to perfectly groomed landings. In the woods there are rocks and roots and holes and all kinds of natural booby traps that I presumed were unsurvivable without a suspension crutch. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a little weird getting used to popping off of lips without much kick to them without loading up the rear suspension and relying heavily on the shock rebound to generate lift. But once I got the hang of timing and popping, I think I accumulated more air miles aboard the Primer than any bike in recent memory. Literally, the most insignificant features can be boosted to the moon with no suspension to suck things up. And the 29″ wheels, 2.5″ rubber, and 160 fork take most of the sting out of harsh landings.
What’s not to like?
It’s probably clear by now that the Primer left a huge impression on me and I’m now quite a fan. But there’s always room for improvement, right? There were a couple small things that I ran into. First, I wanted to run a 2.5″ Aggressor on the rear but with the chain stays being so short, the tire actually contacted the seat tube and would not spin. Even the 2.4 DHR II that I ran had barely a few mm’s of clearance. I love the 415 chainstays but big rubber is a must for me and either tilting the seat tube forward or adding a few mm to the chain stays might be a good idea. I have a feeling this is at least partially addressed already with the mid-2018 update to the 76º seat angle. Another nit-pick that was again addressed in the mid-2018 update is the seat tube length. I like being able to get the saddle completely out of the way when riding an aggressive hardtail but in order to run the 185 Revive dropper, I had to be extremely selective of my saddle choice. An inch shorter seat tube would be greatly appreciated. Other than that, there’s not much complain about.
Wrap it up
I fear that I’m sounding like yet another lunatic riding the long-travel hardtail hype train. And maybe I am. But, I had a great time with this bike and it opened my eyes to a style of riding that I hadn’t fully grasped until now. Sure, I rode hardtails back in the day, both XC and long-travel hardtails. But, those bikes also had geometry from back in the day and that’s a critical difference. In fact, until I rode the Primer, I don’t think I had near the appreciation for how much geometry, outside of suspension, is responsible for making our current generation of bikes so good. Even more importantly, I had a lot of fun. A LOT of fun. Absolutely zero claims for being the fastest or the raddest, but definitely having as much fun as anyone out there. So there you have it. If fun is what you’re after and you’re even just a little hardtail-curious, the Primer is a solid option.
Frame: Chromag Primer, size M/L – MSRP $1650 USD / $1900 CAD
Fork: MRP Ribbon Air, 160 mm, 41 mm offset
Headset: Cane Creek 40 series
Stem: Chromag BZA, 35 mm
Bars: Chromag BZA, 800 mm, cut to 785 mm
Grips: Renthal Ultratacky
Saddle: Selle Italia SLR
Post: Bike Yoke Revive
Clamp: Chromag NQR
Brakes: Hope Tech3 E4 203F / 180 R
Cranks: SRAM XX1 carbon, DUB
Pedals: Chromag Scarab
BB: SRAM DUB press fit
Chain: SRAM XX1
Cassette: SRAM XX1 Eagle
Derailleur: SRAM XX1 Eagle
Wheels: Race Face Vault Hubs, ARC 31 carbon rims, Sapim CX-Ray spokes
Tires: Maxxis Minion DHF 2.5 Fr / Minion DHR 2.4 Rr