Interbike 2004 – Outdoor Demo Day 1
Outdoor Demo is one of the highlights of Interbike. Indeed, for many people Outdoor Demo is the key element – there are brands showing at the Demo that aren’t having a stand at Interbike itself, despite the fact that it costs as much to buy space at the Demo as it does to buy space at both. There’s a growing body of industry opinion that holds that the entire show should be held outdoors near to some trails.
It’s an interesting idea, but we can see some drawbacks. For a start, after riding eight different bikes in eight hours around the fast, loose Bootleg Canyon trails in 30+ degree heat, trying not to stray off the vaguely packed-down line on to the marbles at the edges, the soft sandy berms or the sharp volcanic rocks and spiky bushes that cover everything that isn’t trail, we’re pretty ruined. Particularly since all that stuff about staying on the trail wasn’t a total success. Five days of it? We’ll take the air-conditioned expo centre for half the show, thanks.
But enough of this, you want to know about bikes. We’re just kind of ambling around taking anything that catches our eye for a spin, so there’s a bit of a cross-section here. We don’t seem to have ridden any hardtails today – they’re on the list for tomorrow. One thing that strikes us is that none of these bikes is a duffer. Some are better in particular areas, but for the things they’re designed for they all do the job. It seems that bikes these days occupy a narrow spectrum between “very good” and “flinking excellent”. Which is good news for the bike-buying public – it’s hard to go wrong. But there’re still different degrees of right…
Obviously these are very much first impressions – we’ve had no more than five or six miles on these bikes. But riding them pretty much back-to-back over the same terrain is an informative exercise.
Cannondale’s all-out full-sus XC racer has been around for a while, but for 2005 it’s had a few tweaks. It’s still super-short travel, barely operating outside the soft-tail envelope, it’s still got the funky controlled-flex carbon fibre chainstays and there’s still a rather unsightly lumpy weld part way up the seat tube.
The changes are mainly to improve bottom bracket stiffness for better power delivery. To that end, the BB shell/chainstay junction area has been redesigned and reworked, and there’s a new Si MTB chainset. The new cranks are manufactured in two halves (inner and outer) and bonded together. The crank bolts and pedal threads act as an additional mechanical connection.
It’s certainly no slouch. Everything about it screams “XC RACE!” – flat bars, lockouts both ends, narrow tubeless tyres. The bike we rode had a DT Swiss rear shock with a remote lockout on the bars. Given the appearance of the lockout lever we were mildly disappointed that it didn’t go “Ding!” when we pressed it. Not that we did all that often, except to check that it worked. With under three inches of travel it’s a necessarily firm ride, but you’re still getting enough of a traction and control benefit that locking it out seems almost redundant except on Tarmac. It’s a race bike, though, and locking both ends could make all the difference in that sprint for the line.
For 2005 some Scalpel models will come with Fox forks, but the demo bike stuck with the Lefty. No problems there, it’s a fine fork, especially now that the internals have been rejigged. You get a lockout lever and a rebound adjuster on top of the stem and the action is smooth and capable. All in all, it’s a taut, efficient ride but you have to be working hard to get the most out of it. For a race bike that’s no bad thing…
In a word: Ruthless.
The Prophet is, we’re told, the first bike that Cannondale has made with equal travel at both ends. Which is a vaguely surprising but, we think, true fact. The travel in question is 140mm (5.5in in old money), yielded by a Manitou Swinger shock at the back and a Lefty Max fork with Manitou SPV internals up front. It’s intended to be a lightweight, long-travel trailbike – more capable than a Jekyll, less burly than a Gemini.
The Gemini heritage is clear, though – the Prophet is a classic low, forward single pivot design. Lots of tube flaring up front is intended to send the shock loads in useful directions, while the rear end features a big CNCed yoke at the pivot and chain- and seatstays that are designed to give a bit at the extremes of travel. Bottom out the Prophet hard and the back end is intended to elongate a bit to dissipate the impact.
Between the two halves of the frame sits the shock. The frame design gives a falling rate, which is intended to balance the rising rate of the Swinger air shock and end up fairly linear. As if to emphasise the Prophet’s trail, rather than freeride, intentions the cockpit is fairly roomy, with a lowish front end and a long stem. It does the business in an unfussed way, with the SPV suspension at both ends keeping things steady under power and the low weight encouraging pedalling efforts and imaginative changes of line.
There’s no denying that it does look a wee bit dated, but Cannondale has never really done linkages (except for that multi-chain DH bike) and doesn’t see any reason to start now. And it may well have a point.
In a word: Versatile
Titanium full suspension bikes don’t have a great reputation. “Ti’s too flexy,” says conventional wisdom, “You can’t make good suspension out of flexy stuff”. Well, conventional wisdom is, as is so often the way, only partly correct. Noodly tubes are a bad thing if you’re trying to make a suspension bike. Deliberately flexy stays aside, you’re looking for as stiff a construction as possible so the moving bits only move in the directions that the pivots constrain them, rather than wibbling off in other, less predictable, directions.
But titanium isn’t necessarily the wrong material for the job. Wimpy little Ti tubes aren’t ideal, but the front end of Litespeed’s not-quite-five-inch-travel Niota is made of whacking great flared lengths of 6Al-4V titanium. The bottom end of the downtube is so flared that it’s not far off the width of the bottom bracket shell. It all makes for a suitably steady platform to hang the moving parts off.
Given the space constraints created by the tyres, chainrings and rider’s heels, we’re not completely sure that Ti’s the best stuff for making back ends out of, but the Niota’s slim behind is acceptably stiff. You can get a little ping out of it on the exit to corners, but that just lends the bike a rather pleasing hardtailness.
Bikes are inevitably products of the designer’s environment, and the Niota reflects its East Coast heritage with a steep, tall stance. Combined with some Kenda tyres of the shallow-knob, not-quite-a-semi-slick persuasion, this made it something of a handful on the open, loose, fast trails at Bootleg Canyon. You could tell it’d be happier in the woods with lots of tight bends and roots and stuff, and we like to think that it chucked us over the bars in a fit of pique. It was probably just us being rubbish, though.
In a word: Woodsy
GT i-Drive Five
After the successful introduction of GT’s 4in travel i-Drive XC platform last year, the company has extended the design up to 5in to create the poetically-named i-Drive Five. It’s essentially the same system, with a double set of standard headset-sized bearings allowing the swingarm to pivot from a bump-friendly high location while pulling the BB gently to and fro to counter the pedal feedback that would otherwise result.
It’s not just a stretched IDXC, though. The Five is a new frame from the ground up. The back end’s been beefed up considerably, and the front triangle cunningly uses the same hydroformed tube shape for the top and down tubes – one’s just the opposite way around to the other. Some neat detailing like the “vents” in the swingarm pivot forging give the Five a unique and very GT look.
A particularly neat feature is the modular dropout system. Rather than a replaceable derailleur hanger, the Five has a completely detachable dropout, in the style of a Santa Cruz Heckler. The dropouts on both sides are cold-forged units. This approach has a bunch of benefits – the hanger is stiffer for better shifting accuracy, the non-drive side unit combines the dropout and caliper mount in a single forged piece to minimise alignment issues and the possibility exists to upgrade the back end to a 12mm through-axle setup in the future.
The demo bike had a RockShox Pike fork up front. If you can ignore the rather unsubtle graphics, the Pike’s got a lot going for it. You’re getting 115-140mm of travel, a 20mm through-axle, burly chassis and RockShox’s new Motion Control damping system. It certainly delivers an impressively composed ride, being particularly good in the many high-speed compressions that litter the Bootleg Canyon trails – while some long forks will over-travel in the dip and then rebound, unweighting the front end in an unpredictable fashion, the Pike moves just enough. The back end is a similarly staunch ally, pedalling well even with the Fox RP3 shock set in its minimum ProPedal position. Handling is classically neutral and predictable – it’s not going to spring any surprises on you, nasty or otherwise.
In a word: Tenacious
Linkage suspension pioneer Dave Turner is helming the company that bears his name to ever bigger and better things. It’s making quite a few bikes these days (rather than one at a time in a garage), but Turner’s managed to retain a niche-brand cachet. It helps that the bikes are so good, of course.
For 2005 the Turner range has been rationalised to offer bikes in 1in travel increments, so there’s bound to be one to fit the bill. The pure XC race Nitrous is superlight with barely 3in of travel, the new Flux replaces the old Burner XC and gets 4in, UK hard-riding favourite the Five-Spot stays the same but gets an air shock and the new Six-Pack adds another inch of travel and a whole pound of extra metal in the frame compared to the Five-Spot. The Six-Pack is for “scary stuff”, reckons Turner himself. So, discretion being the better part of valour, we took the Flux for a spin instead.
It’s remarkable to think that Turner’s suspension design has remained substantially unchanged for at least a decade, and it’s still more than a match for most stuff out there. A flavour-of-the-year Fox RP3 shock with three-way adjustable ProPedal damping holds the back end up, and the Flux was more than happy with minimum ProPedal – virtually no bob and super-plush bump-eating. Combined with a pleasingly stout RockShox Reba fork up front, the solid feeling of the Flux was an inspiration. The Turner is gimmick-free – just a straightforward, tried and tested design that works.
In a word: Lovely
You could be forgiven for wishing that Kona’d do something new with its full suspension line. But its venerable “faux-bar” system has generally worked pretty well, only getting out of its depth on longer-travel applications. The ready availability of clever shocks, though, has given the design a new lease of life, and most of Kona’s FS bikes go up in travel for 2005.
We had a spin on a Dawg. The Dawg was originally introduced with 4in of travel as a “backcountry epic” bike, but the travel and the description never seemed to quite fit. The new 5in travel incarnation, though, seems like just the ticket.
The demo bike was an entry-level model, so suspension components were of the budget persuastion – Fox Float R ProPedal shock, Marzocchi EXR forks. On bikes that inherently pedal well, we often find that ProPedal shocks just rob small-bump sensitivity and don’t do much for pedalling (because the bike pedals well anyway). The Kona design, though, is know for being very plush but prone to sogginess under power. And here ProPedal works very well – with plushness to spare, sensitivity is maintained, but the new damping lends the Kona a sprightly air that we’ve never really associated with long-travel bikes from the brand.
The cockpit is short, great for manouvreing but not all that efficient for climbing. It’s not bad, but if you like to get your teeth into a climb the Dawg won’t really encourage you. It’ll happily get to the top in its own time, though. And coming back down the legendary Kona handling is present and correct. It likes to jump, too, and comes complete with a big squooshy saddle that somehow manages to automatically wedge itself between your knees for extra stability in the air.
In a word: Trustworthy.
Riding Cove’s Hustler straight after the Dawg was interesting – we’ve seen the Cove rather disparagingly referred to as “just a posh Kona”. You can kind of see the point – both bikes have Canadian heritage, very similar suspension designs, super-sloping top tubes and the same amount of travel.
Plenty of bikes look vaguely similar but are actually very different, though, and while the Kona and the Cove are clearly occupying a similar sort of functional position in the bikisphere, Cove’s offering is indeed a tad more posh. You’re getting proper Easton RAD tubing in the front end, cartridge bearings at all the pivots, a cool swoopy shock linkage (that rather unfortunately blocked access to the shock valve on the demo bike) and made in Canadaness, if these things matter to you.
It’s a somewhat different ride, too. The suspension design is certainly helped by ProPedal – the Hustler comes equipped with a Fox RP3 so you can choose how much you’d like. We found it most favourable with full ProPedal switched in. Without looking at the numbers it’s hard to be sure, but the Hustler feels a little longer and a bit more aggressively-angled. It’s certainly a more involving ride, but combined with a characteristically Cove aura of unstoppability so things never get out of hand.
In a word: Stout.
We’ve saved the craziest until last. Maverick’s ML-8 is an evolution of the legendary ML-7 suspension bike. If you’re not familiar with the ML-7, it uses a unique Monolink suspension design that puts the bottom bracket shell in a big forged link hanging off the bottom of the frame, with the swingarm on the other end of it. The bottom half of the rear shock is rigidly attached to the swingarm, so essentially the swingarm slides in a straight line up the shock shaft. Meanwhile the BB nudges around to counter chain growth.
On the 4in travel ML-7, the design yields a unique combination of traction-grabbing ability and trail smoothing with the added benefit of a degree of feedback through the pedals about what’s going on under the wheels. It’s not feedback in the sense of discernible movement, just hints of bumps finding their way to your feet. We really like the sensation – it’s a world away from some full sus bikes that just Hoover everything up and leave you feeling like you might as well ride a road bike.
The key difference with the ML-8 is an extra two inches of travel, pushing it up to a full 6in. That balances nicely with the Maverick DUC 6in travel fork up front. It’s a magnificent fork that already seems to have attained “modern classic” status. Getting the extra rear travel has involved extending the bit of the Monolink between BB and swingarm. The upshot of this is that the BB doesn’t move much more than on the ML-7 but the wheel moves a whole lot further. So you’re getting the same degree of communication but a much wider range of things you can just pedal through.
The bottom half of the rear shock is actually a tube welded on to the swingarm, and the front end is now a welded semi-moncocque. It all makes for an impressively solid bike and an awesome ride.
In a word: Uncanny.