- Nicolai Nucleon TFR
- £3,699 frame only
- Nicolai UK
German manufacturer Nicolai has been around for nearly ten years, and has built an enviable reputation. All its bikes are hand-made in Germany, and it shows – they’ve got a unique functional aesthetic that sets them apart from just about any other manufacturer.
The Nucleon TFR is something of a departure even by Nicolai’s standards. It’s the company’s first G-Boxx bike, replacing derailleurs and multiple sprockets with a mid-mounted gearbox based on repurposed Rohloff hub gear internals. It’s a step forward from the hub-in-the-middle bikes that Nicolai and a couple of others have been producing for a few years (the original Nucleon dates back to 2000). The TFR is described as an “enduro and freeride bike” – there’s also a G-Boxx equipped Nucleon TST downhill bike. It’s the “enduro” bit that caught our eye – gearbox bikes have some definite benefits for big-mileage, ride-all-day types. But can it justify its wallet-rogering price tag?
It’s hard to know where to start with the Nucleon. Significant bits of it are completely unlike any other bike. Most of the front end is fairly conventional – it’s welded up from Easton FS 7005 tubing on this FR model. There’s also a lighter All-Mountain/Enduro version in Easton Ultralite – the different tubing won’t cost you any more, but you’ll be limited to a 495mm-long fork (which basically means 130mm travel). Nicolai’s trademark drilled plate gussets adorn the front end, and the shock mount is fully adjustable to accommodate different length shocks – you can run pretty much anything on here.
At the back end of the shock, a linkage hanging from the top tube takes side-loads off the shock and gears it up for different travel settings ranging from 4.5 to 6.5in. The linkage is driven by another link to the top of the single-pivot swingarm. So far, so familiar. But pretty much everything south of here could easily be from another planet.
The heart of the bike is the G-Boxx unit. This takes the internals from a Rohloff 14-speed hub gear and repackages them in a new housing designed specifically to build frames around. It occupies the position that you’d usually find a bottom bracket shell in, and in fact there is a conventional bottom bracket in there. Rather than the right-hand crank driving a chain to the rear wheel, it drives a short chain that runs upwards to one end of the Rohloff guts. Then a load of coggy magic happens before your efforts emerge at another sprocket on the left-hand side of the bike. From here a chain drives the back wheel. Most of this stuff is totally enclosed in the G-Boxx housing, which is a CNC fetishist’s wet dream all on its own.
The final drive sprocket is concentric with the swingarm pivot, so there’s no chain growth, no pedal feedback and no chain tension effects on the suspension. That’s all combined with a fairly high pivot location, giving the rear wheel a useful dose of backwardsness in its movement.
At the back end of the swingarm there’s yet more oddness. Because the chain is on the left hand side, Nicolai has repositioned the brake to the right. Rather than just run the caliper backwards, a sliding mount is bolted to the inside of the right-hand chainstay. This runs inside the rotor, so even though the disc is on the right, the caliper is still mounted to the left of the rotor.
The mount slides because the rear axle has to to tension the final drive chain. You don’t have to worry about lining it up as the axle moves, though, just loosen the right bolts and it follows the wheel. The axle adjusters are dead ringers for the back end of a motorbike – loosen four bolts each side, twiddle the tensioner nuts to push the wheel outwards, do the bolts back up.
You might be wondering how the back wheel comes out, and that’s an adventure in itself. The rear hub arrangement borders on genius. There are bearings in the swingarm and a through-axle that threads in from the right-hand side. It threads into the sprocket carrier, which has an expander wedge in it to hold it into the bearing. The sprocket carrier and disc carrier both slide on to splines on the end of the hub shell itself – loosen the expander wedge, loosen the axle and tap it through, and it pushes the sprocket carrier far enough out through the bearing to give you clearance to disengage the hub shell from the splines on either side and pull it out, leaving the sprocket and disc attached to the bike. It’s fantastic. The system also means that the rear wheel has no dish, making it lots stronger than a regular rear wheel.
The whole bike looks totally purposeful. We could list all the little touches and details, like the deep-insertion-headset-compatible head tube, “TFR” logos machined into the suspension linkages and threaded inserts for the swingarm pivot pinch bolts, but we’d be here all day. Suffice it to say that if you’re into overtly engineered bike frames, you’ll be in heaven.
One of the peculiarities of the Nucleon is that a lot of the key components are actually part of the frame, to wit the entire transmission. No need to buy derailleurs, cassette, chain, cranks, BB, shifters etc here, it’s all tucked away inside except the shifter. The gearbox is operated by a 14-click Rohloff twist-shifter. It uses two cables to shift gears, which means that, unlike derailleurs, you’re pulling a cable to shift in either direction so up- and downshifts feel pretty much the same.
The Truvativ cranks are also part of the G-Boxx setup. It’s possibly an indication of how long G-Boxx development has taken that it comes with ISIS Drive cranks – some riders find that ISIS BBs last barely a few moments. The construction of the G-Boxx housing does tuck the BB away a bit more than usual, which should help. Given the tight clearances between the crank arms and the housing, and the modifications to the right-hand crank necessary to use it, using any other sort of crank is somewhat non-trivial. We wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of outboard-bearing setup becoming available in the future, though.
The rest of the kit on the test bike was a sort of light-freeride setup – Fox 36 forks, Hope M4 brakes, Fox DHX3.0 rear coil shock. The Hope stem, lightweight Easton bar and seatpost, XC rims and Conti Gravity 2.3in tyres looked a little more enduro in intent, but even with their weight-shaving influence the whole bike came in at a scale-threatening 38.6lb. That’s a lot of mass. It’s not too offensive for a freeride bike (although if you were serious about your freeriding you’d be running a stouter wheel package and adding yet more weight) but definitely on the portly side for all-day work. The lighter version with a shorter fork, an air shock and the optional lightweight bolt/pivot kit could probably drop 4-5lb or so, but there’s still clearly a weight penalty associated with gearbox bikes. Nicolai’s got prototypes with magnesium alloy G-Boxx parts and other trickery, so the weight will come down in future.
One thing that’s unlikely to come down is the price. A great deal of work goes in to these frames, and that’s reflected in the cost – at £3,699 frame only (although that does include the transmission and rear hub) this is the most expensive frame we’ve ever ridden. Built up as you see here, you’re not going to see a great deal of spare change from 5.5grand…
The first thing that strikes you when you throw a leg over the Nucleon is how normal it feels. Although billed as a freeride bike, in geometry terms it’s quite conventional. A 69degree head angle isn’t particularly slack on top of a 6in travel fork, and the 23.5in effective top tube (on the Large bike) is fairly rangy. The listed seat angle is very laid back at 67degrees, but that’s because it doesn’t run to the bottom bracket – the lower end of it is set forward a bit so it leans back more. The “effective” seat angle is fairly conventional – the main effect of the more laid-back tube is to make the apparent cockpit length vary more with seat height than you might expect.
Start pedalling, though, and the unconventional aspects of this bike start to make themselves noticed. The lower few of the G-Boxx’s 14 gears feel pretty grindy – you can tell that there’s a whole extra set of cogs being brought into play at some point, leading to a slightly odd sensation of changing down into an “easier” gear and getting something that at first feels harder to pedal. We gradually decided that they’re not hindering your efforts too much, they just sound a bit unappealing – we half expected some freshly-ground coffee to emerge from an intricately-machined spout somewhere. Long-term Rohloff users tell us that the gears all smooth out after a few months, and if the mechanism’s claimed lifespan of over 50,000miles is true (and judging by early Rohloff hubs, it very probably is) it’ll be worth the wait.
Shifting is smooth, but coming off derailleurs requires you to relearn changing gear a bit. The overall gear range depends on the final drive ratio (a range of rear sprockets is available to tune it to your needs), but generally it’s about the same as with a typical 27-speed derailleur setup. Rather than three overlapping ranges, though, you get 14 evenly-spaced gears. At first this feels very gappy – shifting from one gear to the next is a bigger jump than shifting one sprocket on a cassette. For the sort of use to which this bike is likely to be put, that’s not a big deal – you’re probably not looking to maintain a 90rpm cadence along rolling trails on it.
Like derailleurs, you can shift while pedalling (although you have to back off on the pedals a bit more than you’ll be used to). Unlike derailleurs, you can also shift without pedalling. This is a boon when setting off, and also in tight, technical situations – you don’t need any space to get a new gear, you can just trackstand for a moment, click into whatever you think you need and set off again.
Despite the weight and travel, it doesn’t feel like a big bike. Part of that’s down to the relatively agile geometry, and part of it is down to the weight being concentrated in the middle rather than the ends. It all combines to make a bike that’s keener to change direction than you’d expect. It’s actually quite nimble, but it won’t scare you at speed.
Suspension performance is great. The concentric final drive and swingarm pivot means no pedal kickback, letting you just grind away and let the trail go by under the back wheel. It’s particularly noticeably absent off reasonable-sized drops and up square-edged lips, swallowing either without throwing you off your stride. The downside of no pedal kickback can be a tendency to wallow under out-of-the-saddle efforts, but a bit of air in the Fox DHX shock’s Boost Valve soon sorts that out. And to be honest, you’ll probably want to avoid hard out-of-the-saddle efforts on a bike this heavy anyway…
Bulk has its benefits, though, and the Nucleon’s uniquely concentrated mass makes for a bike that, once you’ve got it rolling, sees very little reason to stop no matter what the trail throws at it. It’s got momentum to spare, it flies straight and it’s got the suspension performance and ground clearance to charge through pretty much anything. Climbs can be a chore, but descents never fail to be a blast.
Positives: Awesome construction, great looks, totally unique, very rare, works a treat
Negatives: Staggeringly expensive, heavy, ISIS bottom bracketVerdict
Let’s get this out of the way first – there’s no rational way in which anyone can justify paying this much for a bike. But then, the same is largely true of anything that costs much more than £1,500. Buying decisions at this level aren’t made rationally, though, and for some people the Nucleon TFR will be worth every penny just on rarity value and pure techno pimpery. Stuff made as intricately and on such a small scale as this never comes cheap. It’s a damn good bike too, which obviously helps. In this incarnation it’s a wee bit heavy – acceptable for huckers, but even in the lighter-tubed version we think it’s still rather portly for all-day, all-mountain riding. It’s still a total hoot to ride, though. The G-Boxx system definitely has tons of potential and we very much look forward to seeing the next iteration of this bike…