- Vario Ikso RC
- £1,099 (£749 RC frame only, £799 SL frame only, £1,450 SL complete bike)
- 0845 6020565
Vario is a French brand that’s been in and out of the UK for years. Amongst those that have heard of it, Vario’s known for being very, well, French. Which in the context of mountain bike design tends to mean “quirky”.
The Ikso we’re looking at here is a 2004 bike. It’s actually been superceded for 2005 by the longer-travel Oxyd, but Ikso bikes and frames will continue to be available while stocks last. We’re looking at it here as a kind of taster of what to expect from Vario and the Oxyd, which uses essentially the same suspension design. We’ll be having a go on one of those as soon as we can.
With 80mm of travel and a claimed frame-only weight of 2.5kg (5.5lb), the Ikso is firmly in the XC full suspension camp. The frame’s surprisingly stoutly built, though. Up front a big bobbin-shaped headtube takes integrated headset bearings. The front triangle is largely conventional, with a beefy shock mount and one pair of bottle bosses. We’re not sure how vital the box gusset at the downtube/headtube junction is, but what bike would be without one these days?
The swingarm pivots off a pair of generously-sized bearings positioned slightly forward of the bottom bracket at about middle-ring height. The arm itself has sizable forged pieces at the front of the chainstays and seatstays, with the front mech mounting to a tube welded between the two.
So far so straightforward – there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen before. But rather than going with a simple swingarm-and-shock design, Vario has come up with a thing they call the Dynamic Link System to drive the shock.
There are plenty of bikes out there that are essentially single-pivot designs with linkage-driven shocks – all those “faux-bar” bikes for a start. Then there’s things like Giant’s VT bikes that use a linkage to tweak the rate curves to work well with a particular shock. The Ikso, though, offers something a bit different. If you look at the “bellcrank” link between frame and shock and project a link upwards through the frame and shock pivots you’ll notice that it points pretty much at the saddle. The idea is that if the rider’s centre of gravity goes forward of this line, their weight will try to extend the shock and so resist its tendency to wallow and bob. Bumps and stuff under the back wheel should still move it, though.
The RockShox BAR shock is mounted at an angle in the frame. Aside from making room for the bottle bosses and getting weight lower down and more central in the frame, this position also gives the suspension quite a significant rising rate. But more of that later.
We’re not that taken by the cable routing, which relies on two short lengths of under-the-BB cable housing to join the front and back of the bike. There’s a pair of cable stops under the down tube about an inch up from the BB in a position almost guaranteed to collect water and short, constantly-mobile cable loops are often troublesome. We had a degree of trouble sorting out the front shifting, partially down to the cable routing, partially down the the swingarm-mounted mech moving relative to the chainrings as the suspension compresses but mostly because access to the limit screws is blocked by the top swingarm forging. Then again, plenty of other bikes have the same issue and we’ve got a reasonably honed technique for getting around it.
We were pleasantly surprised by the clean lines of the Ikso. Vario bikes we’ve looked at in the past (and in fact some of the current ones) have been actually quite ugly, but this one is pretty simple and clean looking. It’s also got a good open front triangle for easy shouldering, if you find yourself needing to do that sort of thing.
The RC is the cheapest Ikso, although there’s only the £1,450 SL above it for 2005. The spec’s pretty respectable for the money, with Hayes HFX-9 hydraulic discs, 105mm Marzocchi EXR Pro fork, Deore transmission, Truvativ Firex cranks, Alex rims and Maxxis Dy-No-Mite tyres. Bar, stem, seatpost and saddle are all Vario-branded stuff but it all seems solid.
Somehow we managed to get off on the wrong foot with the Ikso. It was probably the burst of nasty weather that coincided with the test period, combined with loads of suspension faffing – it took us a while to find the shock pressure sweet spot that made the back end do what it’s meant to and the legendarily long Marzocchi break-in period kept the forks stiff and notchy for ages and made the bike sit all heads-up and floppy. Then the bike started making a clonking noise and a rearward looseness that sounded and felt like a duff shock bushing but which we eventually traced to the linkage bolts all coming loose. Fortunately we noticed before they all fell out. That would have been embarrassing at best.
Eventually, though, it all settled down. We did the bolts back up and they stayed put, the fork bedded in and we got the back fettled so we could start paying attention to what the thing actually rides like. While on paper the stated 70.5° head/73° seat/23in top tube geometry looks entirely conventional, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Those are the quoted numbers for the Ikso frame, but they’re not right for all the bikes – the EL came with an 80mm SID Race, the SL a 100mm Duke Race and the RC here has a 105mm Marzocchi EXR Pro. And Marzocchis are generally long for their travel. So the RC is considerably more laid-back than the EL.
The in-line seatpost also pushes the seat forward, making the bike feel like it’s got a steeper seat angle and a shorter top tube. 23in isn’t over-generous on a Large frame, so there’s not a great deal of scope for making it feel shorter. The upshot of these two things is that you end up with quite a relaxed front end but with lots of weight over it, which makes for some interesting handling characteristics. The RC needs a firm hand to keep it going straight on climbs, and you’ll definitely be wanting to shift your weight a bit rearwards on descents.
The suspension design works as advertised, though – get out of the saddle on smooth surfaces and it’s very steady indeed, not characteristics that we usually associate with low-single-pivot bikes with conventional shocks. Even sat down it’s not too bobby, largely because the substantial rising rate makes it hard to get the back past mid-travel without hitting things really quite hard. In fact, we hardly managed to bottom it out at all. On a short-travel bike we’d quite like to get all the travel, but as it is we were relying on the fork on fast, bumpy descents. It feels good and solid, though, with a suitably stiff back end.
On the flipside, the Ikso is an impressively tenacious climber. The back end might choke on big hits but it’s supple on the little stuff and finds traction in all sorts of unlikely places. Combined with the suspension stability under power, the Ikso displays a terrier-like reluctance to let go of whatever it’s holding on to. The tyres hooked up well even on some very slimy stuff, and it was only really the budget-spec 29lb weight that held it back.
Overall, though, it’s not at all bad. Hats off to Vario for doing something a bit different that’s actually worthwhile…
Positives: Gallic flair, actually works, reasonable spec for the money
Negatives: Doesn’t seem at home with these forks, slightly portly, we’d prefer a more linear suspension actionVerdict
The Ikso platform is a very promising one, and the suspension design will also be found on the longer-travel 2005 Oxyd. We like the feel of the bike but we’re not sold on this particular spec package – the long fork kicks it back and makes the rear travel feel inadequate, the seatpost pushes you forward and makes the steering a bit nervous. With a shorter fork and a longer cockpit we’d be very taken by it. But again, it’s a fundamentally sound design, and well worth considering if you’re looking for a frame-only deal. We’re looking forward to trying the longer-travel Oxyd that should be happier with this amount of fork travel.