Horse for the Course: Cape to Cape MTB race

At the end of October I was invited as a guest of Shimano to a very remote area of the world – Margaret River – 277km south of Perth. The invite was to attend the Cape to Cape mountain bike race and put the new 11-speed Shimano XTR to the test.

The brief from Shimano was a simple one: “Provide your choice of frame, fork and tyres, and we’ll provide the rest.” Deal.

  • The course:?57km of Margaret River’s finest singletrack (and much pedalling to follow after)
  • The equipment goal:?A marathon superbike to play host to long-term testing of Shimano 11-speed M9000 groupset
  • The horse:?A Niner Jet 9 RDO with a Fox Float Factory fork, Specialized Fast Trak Command rubber and Shimano/PRO everything else

Given the cross-country marathon nature of the event, I wanted a frame that was going to be efficient, but still with enough trail attitude to put the Shimano components to the test. There were many suitable options on the market, but it was the recently updated Niner Jet 9 RDO that caught my eye.

I was in no doubt that this top-tier full carbon frame was deserving of Shimano’s best gear and while a 2380g frame weight (medium frame) wasn’t winning any awards, the solid reputation, versatility and distinctive aesthetic decided it.

In Australia, Niner is distributed by Rowney Sports, the owner being former pro-mountain biker Paul Rowney. If this name rings a bell, it’s because Rowney is a former Olympian and rode for the Cannondale/Sobe team among others. Rowney recommended putting a 120mm fork on the front, something that slackens the head angle and gives a little more trail confidence. Despite it not being an exact match for the 100mm rear, I took the advice.

xx: xx

A 120mm fork on a 29er marathon bike makes for a comparatively tall front end

With the frame sorted, I went about finding a suitable cross-country orientated fork with 120mm of travel. Given the Fox shock on the back, a 2015 Float 29 120mm Factory with Kashima coat was the natural match.

For 2015, the fork received updates in the form of refined Kashima coating, different oil and improvements to the seal head and damper cartridge tune – all changes to seek reduced friction and improve small bump compliance and plushness. As with the frame, the 1.8kg weight (including thru-axle) isn’t amazingly light, but I was optimistic about its ability to deliver the goods reliably.?

xx: xx

Lastly, rubber was needed. Of course when it comes to a cross-country tread there are a plethora of options from nearly every brand. Specifying tubeless, 29in, lightweight and fast rolling didn’t reduce these options either. In the end, I went with a pair of 2015 Specialized Fast Trak Controls. It had been a few years since I last used these, and I wanted to see how far they had come.

Having handed over our part-kitted steed to Shimano’s people, they finished off the build with a complete XTR M9000 XC race group (including wheels) and new Tharsis XC components from in-house component brand PRO. The result – a respectable, but not superlight 10.83kg total build before pedals.

The race

Although the Cape to Cape race is a four stage event that covers some 220km, our invite was for the 57km third stage, one that includes much of the event’s singletrack and has the reputation as being the day with the most fun. In addition to this, the invitational ‘elite only’ RedBull Showdown would take place the evening before, offering time bonuses for those competing – as well as great potential for embarrassment among the rarely participating media types.

There were certainly a few nerves leading into the weekend and, mainly because a hip injury had kept me from doing any form of distance training for a frustrating length of time, to say I was prepared for this event would be an outright lie.

That wasn’t the only factor preying on the mind either. Speak to any experienced rider about doing an event, and the advice will always be the same – ride what you know. Wear your favourite shorts, be confident in your equipment, and never use anything brand new. Well, I had none of those luxuries.?

Having received the bike just hours before the RedBull showdown, there was plenty to go through in terms of setup. Unfortunately the brand new, unseen nature of everything meant that things were far from ideal – and I quickly became a painful sight to the Shimano employees.

xx: xx

With a false start, further testing is still to come with the new PRO Tharsis XC stem

One of the main setup quirks was with the PRO Tharsis XC stem that, by not using a traditional star-nut and topcap to preload the headset, leaves the steerer tube open for a Di2 battery. Instead, it uses a threaded collar on the outside that’s adjusted with an old headset spanner to preload the bearings.

In theory the design is clean, but it was quickly obvious that the system doesn’t allow for removing spacers from beneath the headset, as that would lead to a raw steerer tube unsafely poking out the top. Another major issue was that without the topcap present, the stem constantly would rock itself just enough off the steerer that the headset would become completely loose. With little more than a hammer and a screwdriver, a star-nut was installed and a much-needed lower handlebar height was achieved and the weird self-loosening headset disappeared. More testing on this will follow.

With just over an hour to get used to the jumps and berms that made up the Showdown course, every short lap resulted in a different mechanical. Whether it was the rear tyre leaking pressure so it burped from the rim, the dropped chain from a poorly set limit screw or the headset that worked itself loose on three separate occasions, my issues seemed endless. Thankfully, with time up, the final test lap resulted in a problem free ride and I was ready to race.

While my fitness was clearly lacking, the bike was not. Jumping on the pedals at the start was met with respectable acceleration, with the relatively lightweight wheels and tyres being a key advantage here.

Being covered in Western Australia’s infamous pea gravel, the surface wasn’t ideally suited to the Fast Trak’s low-profile tread – but few other tyre choices would have been much of an improvement. The corners caused an immediate drift beneath, but berms eagerly awaited every tyre slide, which took some getting used to.

One hour of practise on the new horse and then it's time to race... perfect: one hour of practise on the new horse and then it's time to race... perfect

Short and sweet – that’s exactly what the RedBull Showdown course was

The consecutive jumps, braking bumps and gravel covered terrain immediately put the suspension to the test. It proved confident on landing while still offering a respectable level of small bump compliance to keep the front from washing out – the subtle improvements to the fork’s initial stiction were noticeable.

Not a bad place to stay, huh? we hope to return for 2015: not a bad place to stay, huh? we hope to return for 2015

The view from our accomodation, a 30 minute drive from the race start

The following morning was the main event, 57km accompanied by some 1,800 other riders on a course that makes its way from a winery to a brewery through twisting pine forests. Tough gig, hey?

Having dialled the bike in the night before, I was disheartened to see the ‘tubeless-ready’ rear tyre had lost substantial pressure overnight. After a quick top-up and a serious shake to move the tubeless sealant in the tyre, I was hopeful it would just seal on the move. Thankfully it did the trick, but after the race I got these tyres properly sorted – replacing the leaking valve stem and resting the wheel flat on a bucket fixed the pressure loss.

Efforts to ignore the early groans from my hip occupied the opening kilometres of the day’s riding, a combination of road and firetrails geared to enable gaps form before we hit the custom-built singletrack trails – and offering a chance to fully test this horse.

The first corners were met with reasonable confidence, learning the bike’s capability the night before. The 120mm front fork shrugged off any embedded rock or root, with the 100mm out back following suit.

I certainly seemed to have an equipment advantage among the group I was riding with, with changes in pace from the terrain not proving too energy intensive. Where competitors spun out on loose climbs, the Niner just effortlessly kept traction – technique was a factor for sure, but the bike still climbed with impressive poise.

xx: xx

Helping to provide confident steering precision were the M9000 wheels. While they don’t scream ‘race’ on the scales, they spun so freely that I needed the brakes more than expected. I’d never before seen a well serviced mountain bike wheel spin so smoothly.

At the 24km mark, not too long after reaching the beautifully manicured and flowing pine forest trails, I hit trouble. I shifted for the big ring and waited once again for the XTR’s swiftness… instead I was rudely interrupted by a sudden noisy jamming of the crank.

Shifting was working perfectly until the e-type mounting bolts let the derailleur slip from its position:

Shfiting was working perfectly until the derailleur slipped from its position

Had I just dropped a chain on the new XTR (after setting it up properly the day before)? No, unfortunately that would be too simple.

Instead, the E-type front derailleur hadn’t been tightened fully and the shifting had pulled the entire derailleur downward and into the crank. Without being able to remove the crank to access these bolts, there was nothing more I could do than pull the derailleur up by hand and try to remember not to use the left shifter again. Bugger.

The next 30km or so were done in the 26t chainring – a potential race killer for many, but perhaps a blessing in disguise for me given my injury and general lack of preparation.

Up until this point, the new XTR had been working near-flawlessly and with perfect precision. The rear gears at least continued to work in this manner, requiring the lightest twist of the shifter-mounted barrel adjuster to keep the shifting crisp following a little settling of the new cables.

Something that I and a few other media counterparts experienced was creaking in the 11-40t cassette. While many noted that this all but disappeared as the riding went on, mine got noisier. It’s because of these kinds of niggles that we keep our hands on groupsets – and bikes – for longer term testing, and we’ll be actively looking into a fix for the noise issue.

Light rain, a little mud and some grass riding quickly built into a mess by the end: light rain, a little mud and some grass riding quickly built into a mess by the end

The Niner’s suspension design provides an unwanted shelf for muck from the rear wheel

The rain had begun to fall by the end of the stage, creating a gloopy peanut butter-like surface that plugged the tread in the tyres, although there was still plenty of space in the frame and fork to handle it. The conditions highlighted a negative to the Niner’s suspension linkage layout, with grass and muck collecting in the bottom linkage.

After I finished the race in a time definitely not worth gloating about, the guys from Shimano jokingly asked if I had any more troubles following the mishaps from the evening before. They were clearly sad to have asked.

xx: xx

The new nickname for BikeRadar’s Australian editor

Following those past two days of mechanical issues with the new ride, they presented me with my bike case… decorated with a fresh nickname – ‘Dave the wrecker’.

While I was apparently the only rider to have issues, given that I hadn’t assembled my ride this didn’t seem entirely fair. But I later found that I’d also managed to hole a brand new pair of socks in just 57km – so perhaps the nickname was appropriate after all.

Trek X-Caliber 8 review

In 2014, Trek’s X-Caliber (Skye for women) was re-born as a range of entry-level 29er hardtails. Just a year on, it’s undergoing further changes, thanks to what Trek calls ‘Smart Wheel Sizes’ – that means smaller 650b hoops for the two smallest frame sizes, and 29in ones for every other size.

Given our near perfect experience with last year’s X-Caliber 7, the sight of a RockShox branded fork on the new immediately had us smiling – although a corresponding price rise also has to be factored in. So is the new model worth the extra outlay?

Ride and handling: pro-level trail character with superb balance

The handling qualities of the last year’s X-Caliber 7 were a major factor in the praise we showered on it. Borrowing the geometry from Trek’s popular and World Cup-proven Superfly range, the 29in wheeled 7 rides like a performance bike, rather than the entry-level model that it is.

While smaller frame sizes will undoubtedly experience some difference in handling owing to their 650b wheels, our 17.5in-framed test bike immediately – and reassuringly – felt similar to the X-Caliber 7.

Out on the trail, the ride from the x-caliber's geometry shines well above its price :

Out on the trail, the ride from the X-caliber’s geometry shines

The spacious top tube, short stem combination means your weight sits evenly between the wheels, making for balanced handling. Factor in the relatively short rear end and you’ve got a comfortable riding position with easy manoeuvrability when the terrain requires. Meanwhile the wide, well-swept Bontrager handlebar offers plenty of leverage for confident control of the bike.

The front derailleur cable is routed internally through the top tube for a clean look:

The front derailleur cable is routed internally through the top tube for a clean look

Plenty of handlebar height adjustment is available

It’s worth noting that the X-Caliber’s responsive handling and undeviating climbing ability is only fully unlocked once the stem is lowered from its stock position. The bike’s short head tube and a large stack of headset spacers allow for plenty of handlebar height adjustment options.

Rolling freely and with authority, the 29er wheels and large volume rubber take charge on rock and root infested trails. Smaller rocks and ripples in the ground go past unnoticed, with the RockShox XC32 fork doing a decent job at absorbing bigger hits – though sharp square-edged bumps can overwhelm it.

Along with a crown-mounted lockout and coil spring preload, the XC32 fork offers rebound control – something that is missing from cheaper models.

A rock shox xc32 fork sits out front. while there is some flex when pushed hard, the fork works well in most conditons:

The RockShox XC32 fork works well in most conditions, though some flex becomes evident when it’s really pushed

Unlike pricier steeds, the X-Caliber sticks with a standard 1 1/8in steerer and quick release axle. But it’s only when you really push it that flex is felt in the fork – for most trail conditions, and most riders, it’s a non-issue. (It’s certainly stiffer than the 2015 X-Caliber 7’s XC30 fork)

Trek has also done a respectable job in smoothing the X-Caliber’s ride quality. While little compliance is offered by the alloy frame or firm handlebar grips, large 2.2in tyres go a long way towards filtering trail buzz. Combine this with a generously padded saddle that sits atop a skinny 27.2mm seat post, and the ride is by no means harsh.

It’s worth bearing in mind though that while the X-Caliber is capable and eager to go just about anywhere, it does so more slowly than a fancier machine will. Whether you’re hauling in speed for a fast approaching corner, conquering the steepest hill in the area or pumping the bike into the air, you’re regularly reminded of the weight compromises – especially where it’s carried by the wheels – that must inevitably be made with entry-level bikes.

Frame and equipment: well rounded build that’s capable of real riding

As mentioned above, depending on your size the 2015 X-Caliber frame goes through significant changes, or none at all. In the case of our 29in sample it’s the latter, with one exception in the form of brighter paint.

The frame is a fairly no-nonsense build featuring wide tyre clearance, internal front derailleur cable routing, easily serviced threaded bottom bracket and cleanly guided full-length sealed cable housing. Showcasing the potential versatility of the X-Caliber for commuting or light touring, the frame features both fender and pannier rack mounts out the back.

The x-caliber's frame construction is excellent, but not perfect as proven by a little weld slag at the brake mount :

Tiny bit of weld splutter at the rear brake mount. No biggie…

Our sample did have a weld splatter out at the rear brake mount. It’s nothing that affects function, but does show that perfection isn’t to be had at this price.

While we’re on the subject of small quality complaints, our brake hoses arrived a little long and messy. Good bike mechanics will clean this up before it reaches your hands, but if not, don’t accept giant unnecessary loops in the hoses.

The 2x10 setup is rare at this price. the 36/22t ring combination is ideal for general off-road riding, but those that spend more time on the bitumen may be left wanting more :

A 2×10 gearing system isn’t commonly seen at the X-Caliber 8’s price. But is it a good thing?

Given that this is the model above the previously tested X-Caliber 7, it’s no surprise the components are better. Beyond the front fork, the drivetrain is the next most obvious point of upgrade, with this model featuring a SRAM 2X10 system, more commonly seen on higher-end bikes. With 10-speed at the back and just two chainrings on the front, the X-Caliber’s gearing has been optimised for off-road use.

As discussed in our mountain bike groupset buyer’s guide, SRAM is Shimano’s key competitor and a popular choice in mountain biking. The X5/X7 components are an approximate equivalent to Shimano Deore and once set up correctly offer crisp and reliable shifting. It’s still not as fast as more expensive options, but it didn’t miss a beat while being tested.

Gearing wise, the small chain ring and largest cog on the cassette enable you to crawl up even the steepest of climbs without too much stress. On the reverse, the 36T big chaninring is well suited to fast off-road use, though it may prove under-gunned for those looking to put a skinnier tyre on and commute. For such usage, other brands that stick with a triple chainring setup may suit you best.

Not a common sight on a bike at this price. the rims are tubeless-ready, but you still need some bontrager rim strips, tubeless-ready tyres and sealant before you can ditch the tubes:

Quality components where it matters

Something we don’t often sing about on bikes at this price is tubeless tyres. A tubeless setup allows for lower tyre pressures without the risk of flatting, so providing a smoother ride quality and greater traction on the trail. Additional benefits include lower weight and reduced rolling resistance. While the X-Caliber isn’t set up tubeless, it does feature tubeless ready rims that proved nicely off-road worthy.

In order to ditch the tubes, you’ll still need to buy the appropriate rim strips, tubeless-ready tyres and sealant, but it’s the single biggest upgrade you can do to the bike (after decent pedals) and it’s not a huge expense either.

Although the supplied Bontrager tyres are durable and confident treads for many trail conditions, they carry plenty of weight. Upgrading to tubeless with a compatible tyre would see the bike drop half a kilogram (and probably more) in weight.

Shimano's m395 may be basic, yet are perfectly reliable when needed:

We’re big fans of Shimano brakes – even the cheapest models

While SRAM takes care of the drivetrain, Shimano handles the braking duties. This is a common and popular choice, because Shimano’s entry-level brakes set the benchmark with reliable function and solid performance. The basic model on the X-Caliber lacks the precise feel and bite of more expensive models, but newer riders will quickly gain complete confidence in the system.

So we’ve covered what you’re gaining over the cheaper X-Caliber 7, but it’s also worth considering what you get at the next pricepoint up.

In some countries (including the US and UK), the X-Caliber 9 is also available and provides an example of what to expect. It offers an air-sprung fork for greater suspension tuneability and substantial weight savings. Additionally, the drivetrain components see a further upgrade that should aid in long-term durability. Finally, the hubs move to a sealed bearing unit – effectively creating a lighter system that use replaceable cartridge bearings instead of the cup and cone loose ball-bearing system found on the X-Caliber 8 and below.

Common advice when buying a starter mountain bike is to spend as much as your budget allows. As we’ve seen in our testing of the X-Caliber 8, that advice rings true in the form of lower weight along with suspension, gearing and wheels that are better suited to the punishment meted out by off-road use. Whatever your budget, be sure to factor in the cost of pedals, as those included won’t let you see what this bike is capable of. ?

Trek Remedy 8 review

Trek’s Remedy is big brother to its popular 120mm Fuel EX trail bike, and Trek is one of the biggest traditional brands around. The latest Remedy 8 rolls on 650b wheels and 140mm of travel, having begun life with 26in and 160mm.

  • Highs: The Trek blasts rough lines and the Shimano kit is strong
  • Lows: Its weight and uninspiring dampers slow it both up and down
  • Buy If: You ride tight, rough stuff and want a bike that will last

Frame and equipment: crunching the numbers

The Remedy’s numbers are totally current, if you take geometry upstarts like Bird and Mondraker out of the equation. Our Large (19.5in) offers a 618mm effective top tube, which in combination with the 70mm Bontrager stem, gives plenty of room for a six-foot rider to breathe. At 435mm the chainstays are identical to Bird’s Aeris, but the Trek’s 1166mm wheelbase reveals a front-centre a whopping 41mm shorter –?meaning you’ll get faster steering and lesser stability when it’s steep.

That head angle is a conservative 67.5 degrees, and while the Mino Link geometry adjustment chip can alter that, it’s only by 0.5 degrees and in the wrong direction – steeper, to 68 degrees. It’s not a bike that feels particularly slack, though a 50mm stem helps you master the 750mm bars.

We found the steering more controlled with a 50mm stem in place of the 70mm standard one:

We found the steering more controlled with a 50mm stem in place of the 70mm standard one

You could get a longer front triangle by sizing up, but as with many frames the seat tubes get unnecessarily tall, especially if you’re fitting a dropper – this has Stealth routing but a standard post, but as it’s already 13.9kg (30.7lb) that may be a blessing. Swap the twin steel rings and solid Shimano crank for a single ring and hollow arms and you could drop nearly 700g easily.

Ride and handling: good in a tight spot

Despite Trek’s DRCV Fox shock having only the basic Evolution damping, its Full Floater suspension chews smoothly through horrible terrain. We sent it through big, fast rock gardens with low tyre pressures expecting hideous pinch punctures, but came through unscathed and impressed.

A downside is the lack of pop if you want to pump through berms, dips and jumps rather than blast over rubble. It’s pretty linear, with little platform to push against.

DRCV has been dropped from the fork, which is now a standard fox 34 float ctd set to 140mm. disappointingly, it only has the basic evolution damping:

DRCV has been dropped from the fork, which is now a standard Fox 34 Float CTD set to 140mm. Disappointingly, it only has the basic Evolution damping

Trek’s ditched the DRCV up front, as it says Fox’s standard forks now have the spring curve it wants. It’s a plush performer and good on smoother ground, but the spiky Evolution damper is unsubtle – use the extra compression damping of Trail on rough, fast ground and it can actually blur your vision.

It’s great in very tight corners, where it snaps through with alacrity, and Bontrager’s aggressive XR4 front/faster XR3 rear tyre combo is confident in anything bar deep mud. The saddle and lock-on grips are good too, so contact points are sorted.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Marin Indian Fire Trail review

Marin describes this as its ‘workhorse privateer XC race bike’ – and if you look between those lines to read ‘traditional, conservative hardtail,’ you won’t be far wrong.

  • Highs: Long, light and lively, with a great drivetrain and fork
  • Lows: Flexy wheels and steep steering make it nervous on tricky trails
  • Buy if: You love steep, hard climbs and smooth descents

Frame and equipment:

Despite the big wheels it’s a handy 11.6kg (25.6lb) and acceleration over smooth ground is rapid and direct through its stiff, if slightly unforgiving seatstays.

It’s 6061 alloy throughout, with triple-butted top and downtubes and a double-butted rear triangle. Varying the tube wall-thicknesses like this is a good way to lose mass, but the Indian Fire Trail still feels plenty tough enough for daily use. It’s only subtly hydroformed and is otherwise a hard, serious, ‘give me triangles or give me death’ sort of old-school frame.

There’s a lot of flex in Mavic’s Crossrides, however, despite the extra strengthening in the 19mm rims of these 29in versions. And while that can help with traction and comfort on rougher ground, it doesn’t help with steering accuracy.

The 100mm Fox Float 32 up front is capable of more, thanks to a tapered steerer and 15mm axle, than the bendy, 2000g-plus Mavics can ask of it. A wheel upgrade could do wonders here. Fox’s Performance damping assembly is a useful upgrade over the basic Evolution design, too, but Schwalbe’s hard compound 2.25in Rocket Rons undermine cornering further, as they can break away very suddenly.

Ride and handling: quick reactions mandatory

When the front goes, the 71.5-degree head angle, 90mm stem and flexy front wheel mean you need lightning reactions to stop it tucking under. The 710mm bars don’t give much leverage for your efforts either.

The upside of the Marin is steering that remains effortlessly light and accurate no matter how steep the climb, and it’s a lively, ride wherever grip is consistent. Minimal standover from that lofty, straight top tube is no help for anything but preventing you reproducing, and it’s a tall, steep bike that can be nerve-wracking on sketchier trails.

If the fork is a highlight, the Shimano SLX drivetrain – with XT rear derailleur – is a less visible bonus, with its performance and weight being very close to an all-XT setup. It’s not much of a downgrade in the real world, and reliability is also excellent.

Ultimately though, this is a machine that’s all about the geometry. Push on and the Marin’s steep, narrow nature is something you’ve got to ride around: you help it, rather than it helping you.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

2015 World Cup Downhill tech predictions

Much like Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport, World Cup downhill racing is the ultimate testing ground for new technology in mountain biking. Based on trends from the 2014 season just past, there are a few things that we suspect will become commonplace in next year’s racing season, a few that likely won’t, and all-new tech that we believe might just appear.?

With the top 10 elite men (and more) finishing the season at the World Championships all on 27.5in wheels, it seems safe to say that the 26in wheel is just about done in all forms of mountain biking – except when tricks are involved. With the wheel size debate seemingly put to rest in downhill for the foreseeable future, let’s look at some other tech predictions.?


Schwalbe’s ProCore tyre system appeared during the season under the likes of Sam Hill. This dual-chamber system uses a special, smaller tube to hold a tubeless tyre bead firmly in place, removing the risk of a pinch flat against the rim.

Schwalbe procore is a new tyre technology that allows for significantly lower pressures, it's something that was well-hidden on sponsored rider bikes in 2014:

We suspect many riders will be using Schwalbe’s new ProCore technology for 2015, although most likely won’t admit it

The benefits of this system go far further than preventing flats – with the ability to run a far lower pressures in the main tyre, it’s possible to achieve greater small-bump compliance, something that frame and suspension manufactures have previously struggled to balance with maintaining pedal-induced movement.?

It’s claimed the system allows for far lighter tyres too, and while this may be true, it does add roughly 200g per wheel, negating much of the savings to be had.

With this technology, it’s possible we’ll see the use of lighter air rear shocks on certain, shorter courses (air shocks suffer heat build-up on longer courses). This suspension technology has been used in the past, but tyre systems such as this could mean the slight difference in small bump compliance could move the responsibility away from the rear shock.?

Adjustable geometry

While not entirely new, adjustable geometry is now being used to tailor the bike to individual courses – for the same reasons that suspension is adjusted to specific conditions.

Adjustable geometry allows riders to tailor the bike's fit to specific courses. pictured is the offset headset used by greg minaar and josh bryceland :

Greg Minnaar’s bike often shows plenty of custom geometry adjustments

The season just past saw bikes belonging to the likes of Josh Bryceland and Greg Minnaar featuring custom offset headsets. Another modification we’ve seen is custom fork crowns that change the trail (fork offset) and/or height of the front end.

Some bikes, such as Brendan Fairclough’s new Scott Gambler, allow for chainstay length adjustment, while other teams use aftermarket options such angle adjust headset cups and eccentric pivot hardware?to experiment with geometry changes.


Where races are being won or lost by tenths of a second, there’s arguably no other discipline in cycling that’s more ready for aerodynamic developments.

It’s not a huge secret that Trek World Racing and Specialized have experimented with aerodynamics, but we’ve not yet seen the benefits of this research beyond basic tuck positioning.?

We suspect we’ll start to see product design taking on aerodynamic considerations and moto-inspired baggy clothing would be an obvious start. Considering Specialized now has its own wind tunnel, we think the Big-S will be the first brand to make serious headway in this area.

Frame material

Norco is one example of a brand testing carbon prototypes through the downhill season:

Norco was one brand testing a carbon prototype in 2014. Who will it be for 2015?

Carbon frames in downhill racing are nothing new, but with the rushed-introduction and testing of many 27.5in wheeledbikes during the season, it’s very likely we’ll see some of those models make the shift to a prototype carbon version. The GT Fury 27.5 – the bike of Gee and Rachel Atherton – is a perfect example. We suspect we’ll see it tested in carbon next season.?

While many of the big brands offer carbon fibre, there are some notable exceptions that’ll stick with modern and progressing technology in aluminium production – Giant being a notable example. Giant claims that its Glory frame is already lighter than many of its carbon competitors. Other brands can’t justify the mould and production cost of carbon when the aluminium version is competitive.

Data acquisition

Throughout the season, we saw teams such as Lapierre using data telemetry systems at each race, to customise the suspension to the track and retrieve detailed data.

While there’s no doubt the biggest of teams are using similar technology in the bike design process, it’s likely we’ll see more of this technology being used at races to help the team mechanics and suspension sponsors learn more about each track and consequently help their riders before race day.?

Power meters are likely going to become more popular within the downhill scene. pictured is gee atherton's srm from the 2014 season:

Gee Atherton’s SRM

On top of the suspension-specific data, many riders, including Danny Hart and Gee Atherton, are starting to use power meters during race situations. This power output data is invaluable for analysis to find places on track where riders could be pedalling harder, or where gear choice could be improved. Power meters also have potential to help in suspension tuning, especially on flatter courses where pedalling is crucial.

Linking this information together with high-definition video (from a GoPro or Shimano camera, for example will allow riders, team managers and coaches to carefully analyse practice runs and improve areas of weakness.


Air suspension is already common on front forks, with the RockShox Boxxer and Fox 40 Float filling the ranks.

We've seen air-sprung rear shocks used in downhill before, but riders always choose coil springs for 'serious' courses:

Air shocks occasionally appear in downhill but only for shorter, less-severe courses

However, it’s a different story at the rear of the bike. It’s been noted for a few years now that pedal-filled, open courses allow riders to experiment with a lighter-weight air rear shock, and the likes of Schwalbe new ProCore technology may make this even more possible, but it is still far from a normal occurrence.

The likes of Fox’s not-yet-ready RAD shock on many of its sponsored riders’ bikes prove there’s still plenty of development being put toward coil rear shocks and there’s little doubt they’ll continue to be the standard for real downhill courses.

Dropper seatposts?

It’s been seen before, but we don’t expect to see it gain popularity in 2015. Past courses such as Pietermarzberg, South Africa have seen riders experiment with adjustable posts, but few riders have taken them into race day. We suspect this technology will keep its place in enduro, but until GPS-based electronic adjustment exists, we can’t see it taking off in downhill.?

Electronic shifting

Shimano airlines used compressed air to move the derailleur, perhaps electronic shifting will offer the 'high-powered' shifting the shimano engineers dreamed of: shimano airlines used compressed air to move the derailleur, perhaps electronic shifting will offer the 'high-powered' shifting the shimano engineers dreamed of

Remember Shimano’s short-lived AirLine shifting system? Electronic shifting certainly offers great potential advantages, especially compared to air-powered shifting…

In many cases, downhill racing is used as a testing bed for mountain bike technology, but electronic shifting was introduced this last season in cross-country (and won on) in the form of XTR Di2.

With no front shifting and the minimal gear range needed in downhill, the benefits for electronic in downhill is to simplify the cable routing and reduce shift effort or hand movement, but it’s something we can’t imagine happening for 2015 (although feel free to prove us wrong, Shimano!). Perhaps we’ll see SRAM’s new X01 DH group turn to an electronic wireless version for 2016??

Do you think we have it wrong? What do you think will be the ‘next big thing’ in downhill racing tech?

Buyer’s guide to mountain bike groupsets

Groupsets are the collections of parts that makes up a bike’s gearing and braking. This comprises the shifters, crankset, front and rear derailleurs, chain, rear cassette and brakes.

Just like our buyer’s guide to road bike groupsets, this guide is designed to explain the components of a groupset, and the different options offered by the two main manufacturers:?Shimano and?SRAM.

Where its more common to see complete groupsets on a road bike, the multiple extra tiers in mountain bike components mean bike brands usually mix and match parts from various groups, and in some cases, different brands too.

Because of the wildly varying prices and mix-matched groupsets of hardtail and dual suspension bikes, we’ve decided to leave out estimated price ranges for this guide. With that in mind, it’s worth pointing out that a mountain bike is a technical product and we don’t recommend choosing a bike based on its drivetrain components and/or groupset. Rather, use this as a guide to help educate yourself on the key differences between the groups.

Components of a groupset


There are three types of front crankset found on mountain bikes. Commonly, the type of crankset fitted will depend on the bike’s designed use, pricepoint and even wheel size, with bigger wheeled bikes (such as 29ers) often having lower gearing available.

The first is the triple – the old classic. It consists of three front rings, the largest often being a 42- or 44-tooth outer ring. The middle ring is usually a 32 or 34 and the smallest, inside ring, is often a 22- or 24-tooth. This setup offers the largest range of gears, but there is some noticeable cross-over of available gear ratios.

The second type of crankset and, and one’s that common on modern mountain bikes, is a double. This uses a smaller inner ring (24- to 28-tooth) to allow for a lighter bottom gear to make climbing steeper slopes easier, while the larger outside cog offers a gear that’s generally well-suited to faster riding, this is usually between a 36- and 42-tooth size. It’s lighter than a triple and offers a better angle for the chain in order to use all the gears. A double features less gear ratio cross-over compared to a triple.

There’s also a more recent trend toward a simpler setup, with just a single ring of the front. This was already popular in gravity-based mountain biking such as a downhill, where large gear ranges aren’t needed and chain security (that is, no dropped chains) is more important, but the trend has expanded and now even some cross-country bikes use a single chainring. This is generally between a 30- and 38-tooth chainring size and is matched to a larger gear range in the rear. By removing the front derailleur and relevant shifter, a single-ring setup (often referred to as 1x or ‘one by’), offers a greatly simplified, lighter setup.

The crankset spins on bottom bracket bearings that are housed or threaded into the bicycle frame. Bottom brackets are available in a staggering array of configurations – you might find our?complete guide to bottom brackets?useful.


Cassettes come in a huge range of sizes and speeds. Like the crankset, cassette choice is often determined by the bike’s intended riding style and price.

Aside from for downhill riders, who often use road bike cassettes, most mountain bikes favour a cassette with a wide spread of gears to make climbing easier. The most commonly found ratio range on standard bikes is an 11- to 32-, 34- or 36-tooth count.

Generally speaking, the large 36-tooth cassettes are reserved for 10-speed drivetrains; the 32 and 34t setups more commonly appear on 8- and 9-speed drivetrains respectively.

Recently, SRAM has released an 11-speed cassette designed to work specifically with single-chainring cranksets. This provides massive gear ranges – the smallest cog is a 10-tooth and the largest is a dinner-plate sized 42.


The groupset brand and number of gears dictate the chain. The more expensive chains often have smoother, more durable and corrosion-resistant coatings than their cheaper counterparts.

Additionally, some more expensive chains have the pins and plates drilled to remove weight. A chain is a wear item though, and is cheap to replace, so the one included with a bike isn’t worth stressing about.


Derailleurs are the components that move the chain between rings at the front and across the gears of the rear cassette. Each brand offers its own design, but the principle is generally the same, with a cable connected to the shifters doing the pulling.

There’s an exception to this – Shimano now offers electronically-actuated derailleurs at the top level, XTR Di2.


Mountain bike gears are changed using gear levers that sit next to the brake levers at the handlebar. Each company offers its own design, and while they all shift gears, they each have a particular way of doing it.

Current shifter types: left is shimano's rapidfire trigger system, in the middle is sram's trigger shifter, and on the right is sram's grip shift :

There’s three common shift options these days, one from Shimano and two from SRAM.

By far the most common is Shimano’s RapidFire – a design that uses two levers, one on top of the other.

Push the larger (bottom) thumb lever away from you on Shimano and the rear mech shifts the chain upwards on the cassette (to a lighter gear). When the smaller, inner lever is pulled with either your index finger or pushed with your thumb (it can go either direction), the chain is shipped down the cassette (to a harder gear). RapidFire is designed to allow multiple upshifts at one time, so the further you push the larger thumb lever, the more gears you’ll shift (to a maximum of three).

The left-hand shifter operates the front derailleur. The larger thumb lever moves the chain onto the larger chainring, the small lever moves it to the smaller ring. Cheaper Shimano shifters, such as those below Alivio offer a slightly simpler setup, in which the small lever only works by pulling it towards you with your index finger.?

SRAM offers two systems, trigger and Grip Shift. The trigger system is the more common, and features two thumb levers that sit in a similar position and work in a similar way to Shimano’s RapidFire. Where RapidFire gives you the option to use your index finger, SRAM’s triggers are operated by pushing of the thumb only.

The other system from SRAM is Grip Shift which has lost mainstream popularity over recent years, but still holds a loyal following in cross-country racing where multiple shifts without moving your hands are considered benefits. Grip Shift is a handlebar grip (or throttle) that twists in either direction to change the gears.


Over a decade ago, brakes were simple items – cable-operated rim brakes were the common option, but now they’re a rare sight, kept for the very cheapest machines. Most mountain bikes now feature disc brakes, in either mechanical or hydraulic (fluid-based, like a car or motorbike) formats. Mechanical disc brakes are found at the entry-level, while hydraulic discs area staple on any enthusiast or performance-level mountain bike.

Disc brakes place a rotor (a disc rotor) at the wheel’s hub, with a brake caliper that clamps onto this rotor. There are many benefits to disc brakes on mountain bikes, such as improved stopping power (especially when wet), improved brake control (modulation), less maintenance and no issues with buckled or worn rims.

While most groupsets do offer brakes, it’s common for mountain bikes to have brakes that don’t match the rest of the groupset. This is occasionally done because of price or the perceived ‘best option’ from the brands.

Price vs benefits

Like most components, groupsets vary in price a great deal. So what benefits do the more expensive groupsets bring?


Keith?Bontrager?famously once said of bicycle parts: “Strong.?Light.?Cheap. Pick two.” A lighter bike will always accelerate, climb and brake better than a heavier one, but without giving up strength, something has to give. Whether you’re looking at groupsets,?wheels?or even complete bikes, reduced weight is often the major contributor to increased cost.

Generally with mountain groupsets, the more you spend, the lighter they get. Often the performance of the groupset plateaus at the second tier, with reduced weight being the reason for the extra expense. For example, the difference between Shimano’s top two tiers, XT and XTR, is around 230g (excluding brakes), while the difference between SRAM’s top-range XX1 and second-tier XO1 single-ring options is closer to just 30g (excluding brakes).

These weight differences are the result of more expensive materials and refined, or more time-consuming, manufacturing processes. In addition to further machining, hole-drilling and high precision, more expensive components often use materials such as carbon fibre, titanium, lightweight aluminium and ceramic bearings to achieve the pinnacle in low weight.


If you’re spending more money on a groupset, you’d expect it to outlast a cheaper option. Durability does improve with price, but our experience is that durability also plateaus at the second-tier options, and in some ways, actually starts to decline at the very most expensive option.?

The more expensive technical components are built with greater precision, refinement and materials that lend themselves to greater longevity. This is apparent in derailleurs and shifters, where the cheaper options will develop play and slop overtime, whereas better parts often remain like new.?

Wear items, such as cassettes and chainrings, however, are often the reverse of this. Cheaper options are made of heavier, but more durable steels, while the more expensive versions are made with lighter, but softer, aluminium and titanium metals.


In addition to the benefits of reduced weight, more expensive groupsets find other ways of increasing performance. Most noticeably, higher priced options provide a smoother, more precise and quicker shift between gears. This includes reduced effort at the lever, something that becomes apparent once you’ve been on the bike for a few hours. It’s an area where electronic gears are going to set a new benchmark; ultimate precision and speed at the simple push of a button.

Another performance example is increased crankset stiffness to provide crisper shifting and more efficient power transfer from the pedals to the rear wheel. This is achieved with more complex designs and materials that increase strength and stiffness, but don’t add weight.?

Braking raises an entire new list of benefits as prices goes up. Simply put, the more expensive brakes are stronger, offer better feel and control, stop you with less hand force required and will be more consistent when used for long periods of time.

Additional features

Besides offering extra gears, it’s common for the more expensive groupsets to offer additional features, however subtle they may be. An example of this is the tool-free adjustable brake lever position on Shimano’s SLX, XT and XTR.

Both shimano and sram offer clutch-style rear derailleurs, these greatly reduce chain slap noise and the risk of dropped chains through rough terrain:

Both Shimano and SRAM offer clutch-equipped derailleurs – look for these on any performance-level bike

Clutch-equipped rear derailleurs, such as Shadow Plus from Shimano or Type-2 from SRAM, are another example. The clutch offers enhanced control of the chain, keeping the drivetrain quieter and with less chance of a dropped chain over rough terrain. ?

In reverse of this, gear indicators are a feature often lost as the groupset price increases. The theory being that more experienced riders use gears based on ‘feel’ and don’t need numbers or indicators to help them.

Discipline-focused options

With mountain biking spanning so many individual disciplines, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that what works perfectly for climbing steep hills in cross-country may not be ideal for descending cliff faces in downhill.

This is why discipline -specific groupsets now exist for the more extreme riding styles. We’ll cover these below in the individual brand hierarchies.

The major brands and their groupset hierarchies

On the trails there are two major brands making these parts, the first, biggest and most widely used is Shimano, the second is SRAM.


Japan’s Shimano offers the widest range of groupsets for mountain biking.

The range starts with the most budget?Tourney, which is usually found on kids’ and entry-level bikes. While it’s included in the mountain bike groupsets, we don’t consider Tourney to be off-road worthy outside of occasional and light use. Tourney is a 6- or 7-speed system (six or seven gears at the rear) combined with a triple crankset.

Next is?Altus, which is sold as a 7-, 8- or even 9-speed system. No matter how many gears are featured out back, this group is always supplied with a triple crankset.

Acera follows, and starts to introduce corrosion-resistant materials such as stainless steel on certain components.

Shimano alivio gets a total revamp for 2015. the 9-speed groupset offers hydraulic disc brakes, multiple gearing options and a lighter/more durable crank design. we're already seeing this dirt-ready group on some base-level dual suspension bikes:

For 2015, Shimano Alivio is looking like a respectable entry option in regular off-road riding

Shimano Alivio sits just above Acera and introduces a few performance features such as RapidFire Plus shifters with push/pull trigger action. Like Acera, this 9-speed group is available with a triple ring crankset only. We consider Alivio Shimano’s starting point if you’re seeking a focused mountain bike.

Next in line is Shimano?Deore, widely considered to be the Japanese company’s first performance-ready off-road groupset. It’s 10-speed and shares many of the designs and technology of the higher priced groupsets. Deore is offered in both double- and triple-crankset options and also spells the introduction to the clutch-style rear derailleur.

Long considered the workhorse group in Shimano’s mountain offerings, SLX is a third-tier offering from the Japenese giant. Generally speaking, SLX offers many of the features and function as the upper-end XT, but at a higher weight and marginally lower shift quality.

Just as shimano 105 is the workhorse of road groupsets, slx is the same to shimano's mountain bike groupsets. slx offers nearly all the features seen in shimano xt, but cheaper materials mean it carries some additional weight and a marginally slower shift:

The workhorse of Shimano’s mountain line-up, SLX is arguably the best value option

The first of the discipline-specific groups, Zee, is Shimano’s entry-level gravity groupset, a cheaper version of Saint (see below). Available only with a single-chainring crankset, Zee is designed for fast and rough downhill riding. It’s built heavier (and sturdier) than the similarly-priced SLX offering.

Shimano?XT?sits one below the professional-level XTR. This 10-speed group has nearly all the top-end design features as the range topping XTR and offers all the performance most riders will ever need, but at a weight penalty compared to XTR. XT is available with either double- or triple-ring cranksets.

Saint is shimano's top-level downhill focused groupset. built with professional downhill racing and extreme freeride in mind :

Shimano Zee and Saint are both designed for gravity-focused downhill and freeride type riding

Sitting as a top-level offering for those who race downhill is Saint. Saint, like Zee, is gravity-focused groupset that is built incredibly strong to handle the abuse of freeride, downhill and other extreme forms of mountain biking. Only offered with a single-ring crankset, Saint also has additional chain retention features.?

XTR?is the pinnacle of Shimano’s range and is often used for racing purposes. For 2015, it offers 11-speed gearing with either single-, double- or triple-crankset configurations. XTR combines top-end design with lightweight materials such as high-grade alloys, carbon fibre, and titanium. It’s common for XTR to offer features that no other groupset level receives, such as multi-shift release when downshifting.

XTR is split into two separate groupset offerings – Race and Trail, with the brakes, rear derailleur and crankset options being the difference. Race is all about absolute weight savings, where features such as tool-free brake lever adjust and Ice-Tech brake cooling fins are removed in favour of saved grams. Trail is the more ‘everyday’ and feature-packed option, where a few additional grams get you greater brake power, adjustability and even chain retention.

Shimano also offers XTR in its latest electronically-operated?Di2 design. This system does away with traditional cables in favour of a system that’s actuated by motor driven mechs powered by a battery, which can either be frame mounted or hidden within the seatpost, seat tube or steerer tube. The advantage of the electronic system is consistent gear shifts and very low maintenance. Another perk of the XTR Di2 is sequential shifting, in that both front and rear derailleurs are operated with a single control, and the system decides whether to shift at the front or rear for the next closest jump.

The downsides are mainly the cost, but there’s also a minor weight penalty and remembering to occasionally recharge the battery.

The Di2 groupsets shares the same crankset, cassette, chain and brakes of the respective mechanical groupset.

Shimano’s groupsets are designed to work with each other (providing they share the same number of gears), so for example, you can easily upgrade Deore with a mix of SLX and XT parts.


SRAM’s mountain groupset range is split into two, with single-chainring groupsets (with a ‘1’ featured in the name) separate to the double and triple options. Currently SRAM’s highly popular single-ring options are only for performance-level bikes. Like Shimano, SRAM offers a discipline-specific option too, in the form of X01 DH.

While SRAM’s recent success story is its dedicated single-chainring groupsets, the brand was and still is a strong advocate of double chainring setups over triples. SRAM calls this 2X10.

Another detail to be aware of with SRAM is trickle-down technology. The cheaper components from SRAM are often the same as more expensive options from a few years prior. As well as to this reuse of technology, it’s common for SRAM groups to be very close in function, with material changes accounting for the weight differences. An example of this is that X9, XO and XX SRAM 10-speed shifters all feature identical internal parts.

SRAM’s mountain groups kick off with X3, a 7-speed gear system with technology that’s trickled down from the top. It’s comparable to Shimano Altus in price.

X4 is next in the line-up with 9-speed shifting. Compared to X3, the X4 components feature more metal for better durability. X4 isn’t offered as a complete groupset, and so it’s common to find SRAM X4 parts mixed with those from other brands.

X5 is sram's first full groupset and it's a high-value option for those seeking 10-speed gearing. sram introduces its 2x10 gearing at this level :

SRAM X5 is the entry point into 2×10 shifting

X5 is the first official groupset in SRAM’s line-up. This groupset is popular with bike brands as it offers upper-level features such as a double-chainring crank and 10-speed gearing.

X7 is a 10-speed group, and like Shimano’s Deore, is SRAM’s first groupset that can handle regular and proper off-road use.

Sharing many design and internal features as the top-level offerings, SRAM X9 is a popular choice on mid-priced bikes. A 2×10 groupset, X9 features plenty of alloy, giving it a substantially lower price compared to X0.

X1 is sram's new budget single-ring groupset. it shares much of the performance and features as xo1 and even xx1, but less carbon fibre and more aluminium means a higher weight:

It’s going to become a popular choice for 2015 – SRAM X1 is a new lower-priced single-ring option for all forms of mountain biking from cross-country riding to enduro racing

The entry-level into SRAM’s single-chainring groupsets is X1. X1 is an 11-speed groupset that will only work with a single chainring, afforded by the massive 10-42t cassette. Introduced for 2015, X1 offers nearly all the same features as X01 and XX1 but at a higher weight.

Long considered as SRAM’s best option if you don’t race, X0 is a 2×10 groupset that introduces carbon fibre for weight savings, among a few other small features.

Arguably the most popular single chainring groupset on the market, X01 offers all the features of X1, but more expensive materials and manufacturing processes substantially reduce weight.

X01 DH is a purpose-built groupset for downhill racing and is available as either a 7- or 10-speed setup.

SRAM XX1 is the groupset that kicked off the whole single-chainring phenomenon. It remains as SRAM’s pinnacle off-road groupset and is popular among everyone from gravity-seeking enduro riders to gram-counting cross-country racers. With approximately 30g separating X01 and XX1, it’s mainly for those who just want the best.

Sitting as a cross-country race specific groupset, XX is SRAM’s pro-level 2X10 offering. Since the release of XX1, XX isn’t used or seen as often.

Mountain bike groupsets by cost and discipline:

SRAM and Shimano groupsets by cost and discipine

Cotic Solaris frame review

Cotic’s Soul was the original posh steel hardtail revival machine that has since been much copied by several similar UK micro brands. Cotic made the obvious jump to 29in wheels relatively early too – and we were impressed when we first gave the Solaris frame the once-over back in 2012.

But plenty of water has passed under the mountain biking bridge since then – indeed, the Soul frame is also now available in an up-to-the-minute 650b re-rub. So does Cotic’s 29er now feel like a classic original, or has it been outclassed by the competition?

  • Highs: Stable, long wheelbase geometry and comfortable stretched position without sacrificing front-end stiffness
  • Lows: Dutiful and dull in feel rather than dynamic and agile. No chainguide mounts
  • Buy If: You want a stable, accurate 29er for roaming adventures

Frame and equipment: same difference

There are obvious similarities between the Soul and Solaris, including a steel frame with sloped top tube for low standover and wishbone back end, clean graphics and long top tube, short stem style geometry. Cotic hasn’t just taken the Soul drawings and stretched them though.

The complete bike is based around an equally solid and mile proof shimano xt groupset, which is offered in triple, double or hope narrow/wide single ring configurations:

The Solris is based around a rock-solid Shimano XT groupset

The ovalised top tube is bigger in diameter and 10mm longer to work with the standard issue 60mm stem. The down tube is double butted at the head and it gets the fat 34.9mm seat tube of the BFe hardcore hardtail, in the lighter weight 853 steel, for stiffness and shimmed dropper post compatibility. The seat tube is kept straight for easy seat dropping but that leaves the back end relatively long. We would definitely tick the 780mm bars option on Cotic’s build kit and then possibly chop it down, rather than opt for the 710mm flat bars of our test example, which looked and felt out of place.

Ride and handling: more solid than soulful

Apart from the bars everything about the Solaris fit felt sorted. The elongated top tube and layback seatpost mean it’s still got a decent reach with the 60mm stem if you are pulling up a long drag. It’s got a solid feel through the pedals and a tall bottom bracket reduces the chance of pedal strikes on rocky and rutted trails. The long front and back ends keep things stable rather than snapping out at either end and the turning centre is where you expect too. The stout tubes give plenty of feedback so you know what the tyres are doing early and the 120mm X-Fusion Slide fork is a predictable and trustworthy performer too.

To stop flex in the frame making the steering vague, cotic has oversized the seat tube and top tube diameters on the solaris compared with the soul:

To stop flex in the frame making the steering vague, Cotic has oversized the Solaris’s seat tube and top tube diameters

The steel tubeset is undoubtedly more forgiving than alloy, but the hunt for predictable accuracy has squeezed some of the life out of it compared with some peers. Where Niner’s ROS 9 seems to melt impacts and trail trauma and the Singular Buzzard feels pretty lively and keen under power, the Cotic thuds along with a noticeably less dynamic feel.

There’s little of the micro compliance that helps the tyres find scraps of traction at the ragged edge either, and we had to drop pressures significantly lower than our normal 30psi test level to put some smoothness and grip under its wheels.

While the steering is quick enough the long wheelbase and rear end make it hard to hustle through tight trails and it’s certainly not a whip or flick machine. The tall bottom bracket also makes it feel slightly precarious rather than planted if you’re drifting.

Specifications as tested:

  • Size tested: L (also available in S, M)
  • Weight tested: 12.34KG / 27.2lb
  • Frame: Reynolds 853 maintubes, Cotic butted chromoly steel rear
  • Fork: X-Fusion Slide, 120mm
  • Shock: N/A
  • Max tyre size: 2.4in


  • Chainset: Shimano XT
  • Shifters: Shimano XT
  • Derailleurs: Shimano XT
  • Chain: Shimano XT
  • Bottom Bracket: Shimano XT
  • Cassette: Shimano XT


  • Front: Stan’s ZTR Arch EX rim, Hope Pro 2 Evo hub
  • Rear: Stan’s ZTR Arch EX rim, Hope Pro 2 Evo hub
  • Tyres: Continental Mountain King II, 29×2.2in


  • Brakes: Magura Marta, 180/160mm rotors
  • Bars: Race Face Ride, 720mm
  • Stem: Cotic forged, 60mm
  • Grips: Velo, lock-on
  • Seatpost: Cotic layback, 31.6mm
  • Saddle: Cotic cro-mo
  • Headset: Hope
  • Pedals: N/A

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Kinesis Sync review

For well over a decade after its early 90s heyday, titanium was seen as the ultimate ‘light as alloy, springy as steel material for hardtails’. Kinesis has matched those raw strengths with the latest must-have features to create a superb bike for skilled riders who like their singletrack tight and techy (we reviewed the 650b version last year).

  • Highs: State of the art taut, muscular, accurate, responsive and speed-skimming singletrack weapon
  • Lows: Ti cost, bumpy at slow speeds and not as confident as slacker angled bikes
  • Buy if: You’re the local singletrack guru after a responsive speed machine

Frame and equipment: old material, new tricks

Like steel, titanium tubes can be made into a very springy, twangy frame or something more solid and powerful in feel, and Kinesis has definitely gone for the latter, developing the tube profiles and geometry to give a tight, agile ride. While some Ti frames twist and fumble grip like a first time chopstick user, tracking precision and traction communication through both the beefy 34mm-legged, unicrown 120mm travel X-Fusion Trace fork and 142×12mm axle rear end is impressively clear.

The sync's frame calibrations provide an agile 650b-ish character :

The Sync’s frame calibrations provide an agile 650b-ish character

Press the pedals and there’s no doubt you’re not losing power through the big press-fit bottom bracket or stout stays either. The direct mount rear dropout lets you remove the B knuckle from Shimano’s derailleurs and makes a dramatic difference to shifting precision, and the tapered top tube, post-mount brakes and internal cable routing add to the Sync’s distinctively state of the art character.

Ride and handling: velocity vitality

Add a highly competitive complete bike weight and the Sync surges forward with inspiring purpose whether you’re punching out of a corner or charging the crux move on a steep techy climb. There’s enough length in the frame to keep your lungs full even with a relatively short stem.

While it thumps and bumps more than titanium fans might expect at slow speeds, adding speed ‘wakes up’ the inherent spring of the material, which skims off sharper edges like a planing boat as speed increases. The more speed you can add, the more pronounced this float becomes, making the Sync an addictively muscular and deeply rewarding ride.

Putting the power down soon brings the sync's ti flex to life:

Putting the power down soon brings the Sync’s Ti flex to life

There’s real traction through the Continental treads too. That’s particularly useful because the Sync has been deliberately designed to be as fast and responsive through the bars as it is through the pedals. The short front centre and relatively steep head angle doesn’t have the lazy, surefooted swagger of some slacker machines, particularly on fast and loose trails. But the relatively long back end and properly low bottom bracket mean there’s no obvious shortage of overall drifting and carving stability if you learn to trust it.

Its ability to turn in tight and hold it hard without lurching under or shunting straight on is a real gift on more twisty trails and particularly climbing turns.

The overall handling character is much closer to a 650b-wheeled bike, but with the extra roll over smoothness and speed sustain of 29er wheels. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the small version of the frame is built around 650b wheels to preserve its responsive balance and overall dynamic. It’s worth noting that the Kinesis IX wheels and Strut carbon bars work really well with the Sync too, so collar and cuffs componentry certainly isn’t a compromise.

Specifications as tested:

  • Size tested: M (also available in L)
  • Weight tested: 11.55 / 25.46lb
  • Frame: 3AL/2.5V titanium alloy
  • Fork: X-Fusion Trace RL, 120mm
  • Shock: N/A
  • Max Tyre Size: 2.4in


  • Chainset: Shimano XT, 38/26T
  • Shifters: Shimano XT
  • Derailleurs: Shimano XT (F), Shimano XT Direct mount (R)
  • Chain: Shimano XT
  • Bottom Bracket: Praxis PF30
  • Cassette: Shimano XT


  • Front: Maxlight IX rim, Maxlight hub
  • Rear: Maxlight IX rim, Maxlight hub
  • Tyres: Continental Mountain King II, 29×2.2in (F), Continental X King II, 29×2.2in (R)


  • Brakes: Shimano XT, 180/160mm rotors
  • Bars: Kinesis Strut carbon, 750mm
  • Stem: Easton Haven, 70mm
  • Grips: SDG ODI, lock-on
  • Seatpost: Kinesis UD carbon, 31.6mm
  • Saddle: SDG
  • Headset: Kinesis/FSA

Pedals: N/A

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Halfords launches 13 bikes brand

Halfords has today unveiled an all-new brand addition to its cycling portfolio – 13 Bikes (yes, that’s the name) has introduced 15 new bikes exclusively to Halfords stores in a range that features road, hybrid and mountain bike models.

What’s the story behind that name? It’s down to superstitious racers and the tradition of flipping the race number for rider 13, supposedly to twist the bad luck associated with the number.

Certain design elements are carried across all of 13’s bikes, one of which is the attention to detail paid in terms of aerodynamics. Each of the road bikes have spent time in a wind tunnel, and hybrid models also feature deep section aero rims and aero tweaks throughout. Even the mountain bikes get 30mm deep aero styled rims.

We take a closer look at the range below…

Road bikes

The 13 road range consists of five bikes – two alloy and three carbon framed – each available in four sizes ranging from a small at 51.5cm to a 58cm XL. The entry level bike is the ?499.99 Intrinsic Alpha and, even at this price point, the alloy frame and fork have both been designed to cheat the air so you’ll find a dropped rear triangle, slippery triple butted tubes, and smoothed welds. ?

13 bikes intrinsic alpha: 13 bikes intrinsic alpha

Braking is taken care of via TRP 820/822 aero calipers are positioned behind the fork legs and under the chainstay to once again reduce drag (the cables are routed internally too). These brakes feature on all of the bikes in the range.

The Alpha is the only bike in the range that doesn’t make use of a deep section aero wheelset – instead it gets a shallower aero rim to keep the price down. ?The tyres are 23mm models from VeeRubber and the claimed complete weight for this model is 10.7kg/23.6lbs.

Spend ?749.99 and you’ll get the Intrinsic Beta, which shares the same frame as the Alpha but gets an upgrade to a full carbon tapered fork. The transmission also takes a step up with 18-speed Sora kit from Shimano. ?This model also gets an aero wheelset that makes use of own brand deep section alloy rims and a 20/24 spoke count. The tyres are now Vittoria’s Zaffiro III, and the claimed weight is 9.5kg/20.94lbs.

13 bikes implicit beta: 13 bikes implicit beta

The three carbon fibre framed models are called Intuition, and range from the ?999.99 Alpha model to the flagship Gamma at ?1,799 with the ?1,399 Beta model sitting in between.

For a penny under a grand the Intuition Alpha uses a full carbon frame and fork, the former having a claimed weight of 980g. There’s a 20-speed Shimano Tiagra transmission that’s paired to an FSA Gossamer pressfit 30 compact chainset. The Alpha uses the same alloy aero wheelset and Vittoria tyres as the top end alloy bike.The claimed weight for this model stands at 8.6kg/18.96lbs.

13 bikes intuition alpha: 13 bikes intuition alpha

The mid-range ?1,399 Beta carbon bike keeps the same FSA chainset but pairs it to Shimano’s latest 105 kit. ?The saddle goes from being an own brand model to Fizik’s popular Aliante Delta model and the wheels are upgraded to a carbon rimmed, deep section set with an 18/24 spoke count. Tyres also take a step up to Vittoria’s ever popular Rubino offerings. It tips the Halfords scales at 7.9kg/17.41.

13 bikes intrinsic beta: 13 bikes intrinsic beta

The top end bike is the Intuition Gamma, it gets a lighter frame and fork than the other two carbon models, with Halfords claiming a figure of 835g. The Shimano transmission takes a step up to Ultegra level with the top end bike also gaining the chainset from the 6800 group. Apparently it’ll take 7.7kg of lifting to get it off the ground.

13 bikes intuition gamma: 13 bikes intuition gamma

These bikes look promising and we can’t wait to get a leg over them – but we couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed by the lack of disc brake support. When quizzed on this, the designers at 13 assured us that a disc road bike is in the pipeline.

Mountain bikes

Four alloy hardtail mountain bikes comprise the 13 launch series, each of which uses 650b wheels. The range starts at ?499.99 with the Incline Alpha and tops out with the ?1,399 Incline Delta.

The same alloy frame is shared across the range – meaning even the cheapest models gets internal cable routing and smoothed welds. The design team finalised geometry on the bike after extensive testing, much of which was undertaken by a four-cross rider so the Incline should have quite some character. Each model is available in four sizes, ranging from a 16”small to a 21” XL size.

The entry level Alpha gets a full 27 gears via a mix of Shimano Alivio/Altus kit and a Suntour XCM chainset. There’s an air-sprung Suntour Raidon fork complete with a lockout, and braking duties are handled by Clarks’ Exo hydraulic discs. The Alpha shares the own-brand deep section rims used across the range. Grip is provided by WTB’s recent Trail Boss Comp tyres. Own brand finishing kit means a 680/720mm bar and 70/90mm stem depending on sizing. The total claimed weight is 13.9kg/30.6lbs

13 bikes incline alpha: 13 bikes incline alpha

For an extra ?250 there’s the Incline Beta, which gets an upgraded fork, brakes and transmission over the Alpha.? Suspension is provided by a tapered RockShox XC30 fork, and gearing moves to a 2×10 Shimano Deore set-up.? It saves 200g over the Alpha model.

13 bikes incline beta: 13 bikes incline beta

The Incline Gamma stands at ?999 and gets a 130mm RockShox Sektor fork with a 28 spoke front wheel to match the 15mm Maxle. The transmission is once again 2×10, but this time is from SRAM’s X9 range. This model gets Avid’s DB3 brakes with 180/160mm rotors. Claimed weight is 11.2kg/24.7lbs.

13 bikes incline gamma: 13 bikes incline gamma

The Incline Delta is 13’s top end mountain bike at ?1,399. For the cash you’ll get SRAM’s X1 1×11 transmission, a 130mm RockShox Revelation RL fork and Avid Guide RS four-pot brakes. The total claimed weight for this one is 9.9kg / 21.8lbs. We were excited by this model and have ordered one in to test – it’ll be with us next week so stay tuned for our first ride review.

13 bikes incline delta: 13 bikes incline delta

Unfortunately the Incline frames don’t have routing for a dropper post but the 30.9mm seat tube means fitting a lever operated dropper shouldn’t be an issue.

Hybrid bikes

Five new hybrid offerings come the market as part of 13’s initial offering – the Intuitive range, which is closely related to 13’s mountain bike line, and the Implicit series, which sits closer to the road side of things. Like the mountain bike frames, detailing is impressive with the use of internal cable routing and smoothed welds present in even the cheapest models.

The Intuitive range starts at ?429.99 with the Alpha model. There are 24 gears from Shimano’s Acera ?group plus a basic suspension for from Suntour and mechanical disc brakes from Tektro. Once again those shallow profile alloy aero rims make an appearance but this time they’re wrapped in 40mm touring rubber from Vittoria. According to Halfords it’ll weigh 14.2kg/31.3lbs.

13 bikes intuitive alpha: 13 bikes intuitive alpha

For ?499 there’s the Intuitive Beta, which upgrades to hydraulic disc brakes from Tektro. The transmission also gets bumped up to Shimano Alivio level meaning a range of 27 gears. It shifts a bit of weight too, at 13.8kg/30.42lbs

13 bikes intuitive gamma: 13 bikes intuitive gamma

If you’re feeling more spendy then there’s the ?899 Gamma, which is a very interesting bike. The Gamma drops derailleurs altogether and instead comes with a Shimano Alfine eight-speed hub gear. The Gamma also does away with suspension in favour of a carbon blade fork. 13 has also chosen to spec the Gamma with deeper section alloy rims similar to the ones found on its road models. Stopping duties are taken care of by Shimano’s reliable Acera brakes and the Gamma rolls on Vittoria’s semi-slick Voyager touring tyre. All in all this looks like a great option for the fast and maintenance shy commuter. The claimed weight for the Intuitive gamma is 12kg/26.5lbs.

13 bikes intuitive gamma: 13 bikes intuitive gamma

Two more bikes complete 13’s hybrid stable, comprising the Implicit series and featuring aero friendly frames, rigid blade forks and narrower tyres. The ?499 Implicit Alpha build manages to include Tektro hydraulic discs and an 18 speed Shimano/Microshift hybrid transmission. There’s a 28 hole wheelset that once again makes use of 13’s shallow depth aero rim. It looks like a top value machine and gets a pretty swanky paint job too. 13’s claimed weight for the Implicit Alpha is 11.4kg.

13 bikes implicit alpha: 13 bikes implicit alpha

For an extra ?200 there’s the Implicit Beta, which swaps out the Tektro brakes for more popular Shimano hydraulics and uses a carbon fork in place of the steel/alloy model used on the Alpha. The chainset is upgraded to a higher model from FSA’s line-up and gearing is now from Shimano’s workhorse Tiagra components. 10.9kg/24lbs for this one.

13 bikes implicit beta: 13 bikes implicit beta


Last but not least is the Innate Alpha Cyclocross, badged as a ‘crosser but treading the boundary of gravel/adventure road/whatever you wanna call it, it comes with 16 gears from Shimano’s Claris group, Tektro Lyra mechanical discs and a 32 spoke wheelset. It rolls on 35mm Vittoria Adventure Trail II tyres and nips under the ?500 mark by a penny – and is a bike that should get a lot of people into ‘cross. Claimed weight is 12.2kg/26.9lbs.

13 bike innate alpha: 13 bike innate alpha

By Emma on September 18, 2014 | Mountain Bikes
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Zealous Division review

Andy Gowan, one of the co-designers at Zealous, was working for Trek/Gary Fisher when they introduced the first mass production 29ers over a dozen years ago, but a decade later he still hadn’t seen one from anywhere that combined the steamroller smoothness with the chop and change agility he still loved his 26er for. So he started designing his own…

  • Highs: Inspiringly accurate, stable steering and snappily agile high velocity hardcore hardtail
  • Lows: Unforgivingly stiff and heavy by alloy frame standards
  • Buy If: You want a flat-out fun big- wheeled BMX for blasting technical trails

Frame and equipment: divide and conquer

The keystone of the Division is the ‘Eclipse’ seat tube, which uses a stirrup-shaped twin lower section. This lets the rear wheel slot right in above the bottom bracket for super-short chainstays without creating a wonky seat angle. While a 2.3in knobbly or 2.4in semi-slick is the most practical fit limit, the open hoop means that it’s almost impossible to clog with mud.

The rear wheel tucks right up inside the stirrup-shaped base of the eclipse seat tube to create a super-short, yet mud friendly rear end:

The rear wheel tucks right up inside the stirrup-shaped base of the Eclipse seat tube to create a super-short, yet mud friendly rear end

Licensed versions of DMR’s universal axle ‘Swopout’ dropouts sit at the far end for maximum stiffness and upgrade potential. A 44mm head tube way out front of the sloping top tube and lazily curved main tube give 110-130mm stroke tapered fork capability too.

Ride and handling: hammer time

The Division rides as distinctively as it looks, with no trace of twist or vagueness in feedback from the front end. A relatively low bottom bracket means the bike hunkers down onto the trail with brooding authority too. There’s absolutely zero flex in that short tail and power barks and crackles from pedal to rear wheel like a rally car exhaust.

The division's super short rear gives great agility and power delivery…:

The Division’s super short rear gives great agility and power delivery

Jab the go pedal or drop it through the gate at the top of a descent and all hell breaks loose. Forget subtle nuance, smoothed impacts or squirming compliance – the Division is almost demented in its determination to get to the bottom by the fastest, straightest route possible. If you ride like a passenger then it will kick the crap out of your knees, punish your palms through the skinny grips and shake your brain in your skull like a maraca.

You need to get used to the rearward weight distribution trying to pivot the whole bike round on the back wheel under power. It’s that whip round turn potential and belligerently accurate attitude to attacking the trail that gives the Division its premier league technical trail performance though. It genuinely pumps jumps and rollers, slingshots berms and pops off drops like a smaller wheeled bike but with all the speed sustain, grip and surefooted traction of a 29er.

The result is a ferociously fast, infectiously involving and fantastically rewarding ride for those riders who have the skills to really make the most of it. Despite the hefty frame weight, undiluted power transfer means it will hustle up climbs or cut between black runs with impressive efficiency.

Specifications As Tested:

  • Size: M (also available in S, L and XL)
  • Weight: 12.46kg / 27.46lb
  • Frame: Custom alloy
  • Fork: MRP Stage, 130mm
  • Shock: N/A
  • Max tyre Size: 2.4in


  • Chainset: Shimano SLX/Black Spire, 32T
  • Shifters: Shimano SLX
  • Derailleurs: Shimano Zee (R)
  • Chain: Shimano SLX
  • Bottom Bracket: Shimano PF BB91
  • Cassette: Shimano SLX, 11-36T


  • Front: WTB Frequency i23 TCS rim, Hope Pro 2 Evo hub
  • Rear: WTB Frequency i23 TCS rim, Hope Pro 2 Evo hub
  • Tyres: WTB Vigilante TCS, 29×2.3in (F), WTB Wolverine TCS, 29×2.3in (R)


  • Brakes: Shimano SLX, 180/160mm rotors
  • Bars: Renthal flat bars, 740mm
  • Stem: Renthal Duo, 50mm
  • Grips: WTB, lock-on
  • Seatpost: RockShox Reverb Stealth
  • Saddle: WTB Silverline
  • Headset: Cane Creek
  • Pedals: N/A

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.