- Nicolai Helius CC
- £1,550 (frame and shock)
- 4-5in travel all-round FS bike
- Custom options
German manufacturer Nicolai is a fairly small outfit, but it has an enormous range of bikes covering pretty much everything you can imagine from the Argon Road to the mental internal-gearbox Nucleon TST downhiller. They’ve all got a distinctively engineered aesthetic in common, though. Compared to some of Nicolai’s work, the “all-mountain” 4-5in travel Helius CC is relatively conventional-looking, but the looks belie the performance…
Nicolai has a reputation for building frames that almost transcend mere engineering and become something approaching art. And no, we can’t believe we just seriously typed that either. But the Helius has lots of neat aesthetic touches that make it distinctively a Nicolai without affecting function, like the elliptical cutaways in the shock linkage that are mirrored in the chainstay yoke. And of course lots of bits that achieve a kind of beauty just by being unrelentingly functional, like the straight run of bridgeless, square section seatstay all the way from six-bolt replaceable dropout to shock linkage.
The frame is made from Easton Ultralite 7005 aluminium tubing, with a slimmed-down head tube up front and refreshingly conventional down, top and seat tubes elsewhere. No flared bits, no gussets and no hydroforming, which these days actually makes the Helius stand out from the crowd somewhat. The four-bar rear suspension assembly is fixed to the front triangle at a pivot behind the bottom bracket and one neatly integrated into the top tube. A welded plate chainstay yoke gives plenty of tyre clearance (although it does tend to collect it on top) and connects to square-section stays. At the other end is a clevis-style Horst link and the aforementioned replaceable dropout. The non-drive-side dropout is quite interesting (and it’s not often you see “interesting” and “non-drive-side dropout” in the same sentence…) – it’s got an extra-deep slot designed to accept a Rohloff Speedhub without having to use a clamp-on torque arm. The slight downside of this is that it makes getting the back wheel in a bit fiddlier than usual, but it’s not really a big deal.
The seatstays are also square-section tubing and follow a direct course from dropout to shock linkage. There are no bridges on them, which means pots of mud room above the tyre. There’s a decent amount to the sides, too. Nicolai claim that 2.3in is the maximum tyre size but there was enough room around the 2.3in Nokian fitted that we reckon you could sneak something a whisker larger in there. To look at the unbraced stays you’d think that the back end would exhibit a degree of unwanted flex, but no-one who rode the Helius detected any. A range of shock mount positions on the linkage deliver between 88 and 129mm (3.5-5in) of travel from a 50mm stroke shock and thus adhering to our favourite low-leverage principles even in the longest-travel setting.
Geometry is fairly short for the apparent size of the bikes. The test bike was a Medium, which measures just under 19in centre-to-top but only has a 22.5in top tube. The angles are quite interesting, too. The quoted numbers have a 69.1° head angle, which is fairly relaxed, and a 73.7° seat angle, which is unusually steep. That’s with a slightly shorter fork than the Marzocchi Marathon fitted to the test bike. So the apparently short frame is actually because the seat’s a bit further forward than usual, not because the bike is actually short – stand up and it feels longer than the numbers suggest. The effect of all this is to put your weight when seated a bit further forward than usual, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Nicolai bikes are made to order in Germany, which means that if the standard spec doesn’t quite suit you for some reason, you can always specify custom lengths and angles. You’ll have to pay an extra £200 for the privilege, though. There are lots of other custom tweaks you can make when you order, including a range of standard colours and a load of extra-cost optional colours, anodising, camouflage paint jobs, chrome decals, extra bosses, different cable routing, a lightweight kit with magnesium linkages, titanium hardware and a slimmed-down, non-Rohloff friendly dropout or pretty much anything else you can think of.
The stock frame with a DT shock weighs 2.8kg (6.2lb). The test bike came in at just under 28lb complete.
Nicolai doesn’t do complete bikes, so you can put what you like on your Helius. It’s designed for 100-125mm forks – adjusting the rear travel also drops the BB height so if you want to keep things on an even keel it’s worth matching the travel at both ends. The test bike came with a selection of middling-sturdy bits – Hope stem and headset, Easton bars, SDG I-Beam seat and post, Race Face X-Type cranks, Marzocchi Marathon fork, DT hubs, Mavic rims, Nokian tyres, Hope Mono Mini brakes and SRAM X-9 transmission. It all worked just fine, although the fork’s not one of our favourites – it’s fiddly to set up because the air valve is underneath the TST compression damping knob and you have to spin it to the locked-out position to adjust the air pressure, then take the pump adaptor out and turn the knob to fully open to check the sag, then if it’s wrong go back to locked out, put the pump and adaptor in… You get the idea. It seemed to exhibit a degree of fore-aft twang, too, which may have passed unnoticed on lesser frames but was highlighted by the solidity of the rest of the bike.
A whole bunch of people rode this bike, and everyone loved it. At rest it looks a bit slack at the front, but that steep seat angle pushes you a bit forward on to the fork and keeps the front end biting in turns. It never feels sloppy or wallowy and it’s easy to keep the speed up. And the Helius punches above its weight on the lumpy stuff, too – if things start getting interesting, just hang back and let the relaxed front end and supple back end suck it all up. The generally low leverage ratio makes for an impressively well-mannered suspension performance – it’s pretty hard to make the Helius lose its composure. Riders commented that the rear suspension was “invisible” – you can’t really tell that it’s there except that you can see bumps that you’re not feeling. But it doesn’t get in the way if you need to put the power down, managing the neat trick of feeling pingy and plush at the same time.
The bike came with a DT rear shock with a (rarely-used) lockout lever. We also tried it with a new RockShox Pearl shock with Motion Control gubbinses in it, which we rather liked. This isn’t a bike that punishes shocks, though. Indeed, it tends to flatter them – we’d be surprised to come across a current shock that didn’t feel perfectly OK in a Helius. It’s a measure of the stiffness of the back end that there’s no discernible difference between RockShox’s conventional shock bushings and DT’s spherical ones. Which of course also means that clever spherical bushings are pretty much redundant here.
Some riders found the front end a bit high, but that’s largely down to setup. On the whole this is one of those fairly rare bikes that everyone immediately liked, regardless of what they were used to riding. It’s a lovely thing, and very versatile. And there’s even a special “travel” version with an extra plate at the head tube – take the back wheel out, unbolt the seatstays, fold the back end forward and bolt them to the headtube and presto – you’re frame’s half the size and ready to pack into a compact bag…
Positives: Beautifully made, brilliant ride, versatile, solid, light, looks good
Negatives: Rohloff-friendly dropout a little awkward
This is the most inspiring bike we’ve ridden for ages. It’s a true all-rounder and manages to be as supple as anything else without taking all the fun out of things. It’s clearly on the pricey side but it’s no more expensive than rival offerings from the likes of Turner or Santa Cruz, assuming that you can resist the lure of the options list. Superb.