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Verdict: 
Fast, stiff, lively aluminium frame that is really a lot of fun to ride
Weight: 
8,500g
Contact: 
www.stoemper.com
Stoemper Darrell Disc frame
9 10

Stoemper specialise in handmade steel and aluminium road and cyclo-cross bikes, and they're all handbuilt by Todd Gardner in Portland, Oregon. The bikes have a very clear mission statement, and it's set out in bold on the website: "Designed to be raced the shit out of."

If you're wondering where the name Stoemper comes from, it's a Flemish term for someone who mashes a big gear. Y'see, the two founders of Stoemper love their bike racing and hard riding, and there's a healthy dose of Belgian influence since one half of the business is based in Belgium, the heartland of cycle racing, and this finds itself into the character and personality of the brand and the frames.

I reviewed their steel framed Taylor earlier this year and was thoroughly impressed, but it was the Darrell I was more enthusiastic to test. Because while there are a new breed of steel framebuilders springing up across the UK and US, there aren't that many that also work in aluminium. It's a tricky material for a small operation to work with.

The Darrell was built up for this test with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset with a 53/39 chainset and R785 hydraulic disc brakes, with 160mm rotors on Reynolds Assault Disc wheels. The custom painted FSA K-Force seatpost and stem are a good demonstration of the attention to detail possible with Stoemper, and entirely optional. A PRO handlebar and Turnix saddle and a set of 25mm Michelin PRO4 Service Course tyres complete the build, and it weighs in at 8.50kg (18.73lb).

Ride and handling

I found the Darrell Disc offered a lively ride feel, with a performance that is undoubtedly fast, but beautifully crisp and alert. The short wheelbase produces a very responsive ride and it's easy to move around the road and negotiate corners.

In short it's a lot of fun to ride, one of the most fun bikes I've ridden this year. Other bikes might have been faster, or smoother, or quicker up hills, but the Darrell is simply a hoot to ride.

The geometry hits the sweet spot, relaxed but responsive and nimble when you need it. You can choose custom geometry but they also offer 11 sizes, and you might find you fall onto one of those sizes quite neatly. The bike tested was a 56cm with a 160mm head tube, 73.5 degree head angle and 73 degree seat, 413mm chainstays, 978mm wheelbase, and a 70mm bottom bracket drop. That produces a bike that feels stable and surefooted on descents, on on greasy mud-covered descents the hydraulic brakes provide an astounding level of control and confidence, allowing you to navigate such roads more safely.

Aluminium hasn't been a material much in favour with anyone putting together a high-end build for many a year, partly because there's not a lot of choice. Mainstream manufacturers reserve the material for their budget road bikes, though a handful such as Cannondale and Specialized are pushing it back to the top, but it's been the smaller brands such as Kinesis and other independent framebuilders offering the most choice if you want a high-end aluminium frame. And with a good one now weighing close to 1kg, and costing less than most carbon alternatives, why wouldn't you?

The Darrell is a good demonstration of how good aluminium is, and why it simply shouldn't be so readily disregarded. When you ride a bike as good as the Darrell is, it's easy to wonder what you're really missing out on, because the truth is you're really not missing out at all. There's still a place in my heart for aluminium it turns out, riding the Darrell against a backdrop of carbon test bikes really confirmed this.

There's definitely no lack of stiffness compared to many carbon frames. Pedalling reveals very direct power transfer and stomping up hills shows the Darrell, despite it's weight, to be a very keen climber. It's taut and direct and feels lighter than it actually is. You can smash along the road and it responds keenly; the Assault wheels give it great momentum at higher speeds and the disc brakes provide seriously impressive speed control.

The disc brakes are entirely optional. You could spec the Darrell with regular rim brakes if you wanted, but the disc brakes really open up the performance on the descents. Here the stiffness of the frame and that beefy Enve carbon fork really lets you rip down the descents with tons of confidence. You'd be hard-pushed to find a bike that is more fun on the way back down.

The Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset is a wonderful thing, slick shifting and the brakes are stunning. I've ridden mostly 140mm rotors this year, but the 160mm rotors certainly give a noticeable boost in power, especially at the front. I'm not the heaviest rider but the extra braking power for negligible weight increase was nice to have.

Any notion that the Darrell is going to be harsh and uncomfortable is quickly dispensed with, and on my first five hour ride on a winter sportive recently the Darrell provided adequate comfort, such that I felt about as fresh and relaxed as one can after 130km of the Cotswolds' finest hills.

The 25mm Michelin Pro 4 tyres are without doubt a good contributor to the comfort, and the 27.2mm carbon fibre seatpost is another factor in just taking out the harshness of any smaller vibrations rippling through the frame to the contact points.

Occasionally you can find yourself on a corrugated surfaced road and the ride can become a little choppy, a reminder that aluminium doesn't provide the same damping qualities as a good carbon frame, but it doesn't happen often and when it does it doesn't negatively hamper the ride to a great degree. It doesn't hum along roads like the steel framed Taylor, instead it fizzes and buzzes along the road.

If you want a ride that isolates you from the road surface, there are better choices than the Darrell. If you want one of the most engaging, exciting and intuitive rides, the Darrell ticks all those boxes. A lot of people like to have a good feeling for the road surface that is passing under their tyres, they want to feel that contact with the road, few frames do it as well as a well crafted aluminium frame. It's fast too, belying its 'heavy' 8.5kg weight.

Design your own bike

Stoemper build each frame to order so you can specify it anyway you want, that's the beauty of a custom hand built frame and the reason it appeals to so many. Why settle for what a manufacturer has churned out when you get involved in the specifics of your own frame? It's an appealing prospect, and reason for the growth in independent framebuilders springing up all over the place.

The Darrell is made from triple butted 7005 aluminium tubes with a 42.6mm diameter down tube and 34.8mm diameter top tube. The rear stays are similarly oversized and curve in and out around the rear wheel to provide necessary heel and tyre clearance - there's space for 27mm tyres here.

The head tube is a majestic thing, machined from a solid billet of aluminium (as are the bottom bracket and dropouts) and adorned with the company's unique Godzilla headbadge. The cables and rear brake hose are routed internally, and here Todd has shown some marvellous attention to detail: the way the Di2 cable pops out of the chainstay and passes through the dropout on its way to the derailleur is just lovely. Talking of nice details, because the Darrell has quite a few of them, certainly more than most production bikes, there's the Godzilla headbadge and, elsewhere, knuckledusters and lightning bolt decals.

As well as welding the frame, Todd also paints them. Yes, he keeps himself busy. A paint job of your choice is included in the price, and that includes the custom painted Enve Disc fork, which gives the bike a splendid aesthetic. The custom painted FSA stem and seatpost match the frame nicely, and are a demonstration of the sort of finish you can expect from a custom frame builder like Todd.

There are conventional quick release axles and I found no brake rub - a sign of flex - from the discs when hustling the bike up steep climbs or sprinting down the road. You could choose thru-axles if you prefer though - that's the beauty of a custom handbuilt frame, you can have pretty much anything you want.

Conclusion

That weight, while it is higher than a non-disc Darrell of a similar build would undoubtedly be, rivals some of the carbon fibre disc-equipped bikes we've had in for test this year, such as the Orbea Avant and Cannondale Synapse, showing there's little weight penalty in the aluminium frame. Disc brakes will get lighter, they did in the mountain bike world where they're now standard.

The benefit of the disc brakes overcame the weight penalty though, and didn't negatively impact the performance and captivating personality. Yes the Darrell is expensive but you're getting a custom handbuilt frame and there's very little choice if you want a decent aluminium frame, much less if you want a custom frame.

The impressive performance and ride quality will appeal to those cyclists who value a lively and involving ride, and is a worthy rival to any carbon fibre frame. Granted it's not outright as compliant as very good carbon frames, it's not even the fastest, but it's go a gutsy character that really rubs off on you.

It's hard to ride the Darrell and not have some of the Stoemper spirit rob off on you. In the Darrell they've built a frame that can be smashed up hills, along potholed lanes, attack your mates up hills, take the lead on fast and flowing descents. It's bold of character and suit those cyclists who like to take the bike by the scruff of its neck and wring every ounce of performance out of it.

The Darrell frameset costs £2,200 including the Enve carbon fork and a custom paint job, with a delivery time of around 8 weeks. They offer a choice of 11 stock sizes along with the full custom treatment.

Verdict

Fast, stiff, lively aluminium frame that is really a lot of fun to ride

road.cc test report

Make and model: Stoemper Darrell Disc

Size tested: 56cm

About the bike

State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.

"Here at Stoemper we produce mighty fine road and cyclocross racing bikes. Each one is hand-built by Todd, and all processes are done in-house, from making our own head tubes to welding and painting. Our geometry is a fine blend of Euro and American race geometry to make sure you go as fast as you want to. Tried and tested at the highest level, and looking good doing it."

Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?

"Ah, aluminum. It's light, it's stiff, it's fast. And yet, not overly harsh. We feel aluminum is a fantastic material. Lighter and stiffer than steel, it lends itself to performance. This is our Darrell.

"Aluminum is not an easy material to work with, but in the hands of the right builder it can be both compliant and still transfer power. It can sail over cobbles, or take the bunch sprint, or power up climbs both long and steep. In short, aluminum is rad. Our frame – tapered head tube with an ENVE fork. Triple butted 7005 aluminum main tubes, S-bend seat and chain stays. And gorgeous paint. We believe this is one of the best custom made race bikes available."

Frame and fork

Overall rating for frame and fork
 
9/10

Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?

Really beautifully made with lovely attention to detail, and well finished with the custom paint job of Godzilla head badge a highlight

Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?

Triple butted 7005 aluminium with a tapered head tube machined from a solid billet of aluminium - as are the dropouts and bottom bracket, with oversized main tubes and a 27.2mm seatpost

Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?

Short wheelbase provides lively and fast handling, much like a race bike, and with 11 sizes available and custom geometry available if you want it, the geometry can be tailored - it's geared towards hard and fast riding in this spec however

Riding the bike

Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.

Not at all uncomfortable. Yes, there is more feedback than a good carbon frame, but it's not harsh feedback, it provides a far greater feel for the road surface than many carbon frames, which is appealing. I'm making comparisons with a carbon frame because it's carbon frame money,

Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?

Bags of stiffness through the front-end and bottom bracket certainly

How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?

Excellent for sprinting.

How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Lively at lower speeds, stable at higher speeds.

Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?

It's lovely in the descents, where it's easy to gauge the speed and how far you can push the tyre because there's such good feedback from the road surface to your hands and bum

Which components had the most effect (good or bad) on the bike's comfort? would you recommend any changes?

The disc brakes were fantastic, really a highlight of the whole bike, and not a sign of brake pad rub from the Enve fork either.

Rate the bike for efficiency of power transfer:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for acceleration:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for sprinting:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for high speed stability:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for cruising speed stability:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for low speed stability:
 
8/10
Rate the bike for flat cornering:
 
8/10
Rate the bike for cornering on descents:
 
9/10
Rate the bike for climbing:
 
8/10

The drivetrain

Wheels and tyres

Controls

Your summary

Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes.

Would you consider buying the bike? Yes.

Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes.

Rate the bike overall for performance:
 
9/10
Rate the bike overall for value:
 
8/10

Anything further to say about the bike in conclusion?

The impressive performance and ride quality will appeal to those cyclists who value a lively and involving ride, and is a worthy rival to any carbon fibre frame. Granted it's not outright as compliant as very good carbon frames, it's not even the fastest, but it's go a gutsy character that really rubs off on you.

Overall rating: 9/10

About the tester

Age: 31  Height: 180  Weight: 67

I usually ride:   My best bike is:

I've been riding for: 10-20 years  I ride: Every day  I would class myself as: Expert

I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo cross, commuting, touring, mtb,

 

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

7 comments

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60kg lean keen ... [75 posts] 2 years ago
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matthewn5 [1079 posts] 2 years ago
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Why "Darrell"?

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arrieredupeleton [584 posts] 2 years ago
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When you're testing frame and fork items, would it not be better to have a set or two of wheels as a 'control'? I know Hi Fi reviewers are always consistent in using the same stuff like speaker cable etc. I think it would add to the review if you could isolate the differences derived from the frame from other components - I appreciate this is harder with groupsets but changing a set of wheels isn't a hardship is it? The debate about standardisation of discs and calipers is a whole separate article!

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Matt_S [297 posts] 2 years ago
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Bike looks lovely.

Not sure how you could "race the shit out of it" though, given it's not legal for road racing, and it would probably struggle in a 'cross or mtb race with those tyres.

 39 Maybe they're talking about that Strava racing.  26

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PJP [18 posts] 2 years ago
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Judging from the aesthetic and the rest of the Stoemper line, I'd say they were all named after guitar players.
Dimebag Darrell, of Pantera (and later DamagePlan) fame died almost exactly 10 years ago.
Ronny - Wood
Angus - Young
Eddy - Van Halen
Not sure about Taylör, though.

After the knuckledusters, Godzilla and general America-F*** Yeah attitude of the company, that'd be my guess.

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DirtyLyle [15 posts] 2 years ago
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Yeah, pretty sure the guitar thing is true. Dave, the other founder of the company, is a huge Taylor Swift fan so it's probably named after her.

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step-hent [726 posts] 2 years ago
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DirtyLyle wrote:

Yeah, pretty sure the guitar thing is true. Dave, the other founder of the company, is a huge Taylor Swift fan so it's probably named after her.

Haha! I was guessing Hound Dog Taylor...