Four interesting bikes, one clear winner!
As most of the Moles were honing their racing technique at D2D, I was ploughing a lone Mole furrow (or should that be creating a lone Mole tunnel) on the North Downs. Peaslake to be precise, where Moose Cycles had based their demo day to showcase the range of interesting bike brands that they sell from their South London shop.
And an exotic selection of brands they were, too; from the marvel of German engineering, Bionicon, to the more exotic West Coast brands like Intense and Santa Cruz. They had also linked up with Giant and Marin to showcase their 2010 models.
What had I chosen to ride that day, as I searched for the replacement to the Whyte E5 that I had barely got acquainted with before some light-fingered cretin stole it from the garden shed?
First up was the Bionicon Edison, followed by a Pace RC405. For some ‘big bike action’, third up was a Giant Reign X1, with 170mm of rear wheel travel. Finally, a Santa Cruz Blur LT Carbon was to complete this varied selection. Moose Cycles allow you to book hourly slots for each bike, so you can really give it a good work out on the many trails that exist around Peaslake.
I had been perfecting a test route over the previous week-ends which included some technical climbs and descents, as well as the flowing singletrack that makes that locale such a pleasure to ride in. The day started at 10.30, but I arrived at 9am to complete a benchmark circuit of my chosen 7 mile loop on the On-One Inbred 456. This gave me the benefit of checking out the trails and getting my cycling mojo up to speed before thrashing around on the demo bikes.
My ride started with a long slog up the bridlepath towards the car park (Hurtwood #3, I think) between Pitch Hill and the Windmill, crossing the road and then the shorter but rockier climb up to the Windmill itself. This was followed by the short drop (known to me as ‘Two Headed Dog’) to the road at Reynards Hill and Car Park #13 (?), then a quick diversion to the ‘Bomb Holes’ and ‘Gone in 60 seconds’. Retracing the route (more or less) to the Windmill, I descended via the stepped footpath (ahem) to climb around the side of the Quarry on Pitch Hill. A technical climb here really sorted, for me, the good from the great. Finally, Roller Coaster and the T-trails took me back down to Peaslake.
The Bionicon Edison promises 70-150mm of infinitely adjustable suspension travel, controlled by a switch on the bars. There’s a great video on YouTube that shows you how this system works. With a weight of around 30lbs (13.5kg), and with a Head Angle that varies between 67-73 degrees, I was looking forward to seeing if this provided a bike that could be adjusted to meet all that the Surrey Hills could throw at me, and more!
The first climb set a benchmark of 9 minutes at a steady, comfortable pace. However, there was much ‘faffing’ with the adjustable geometry to arrive at a comfortable climbing position. Effectively, at the more extreme end of the adjustment for climbing, with a reduced fork and steeper head angle, the bike felt like it was forcing itself into the hill. With so much resistance, I had to slacken the angles to a more ‘mid-range’ position.
It felt like I could only effectively use the last half of the range, which left me feeling a little cheated. Up to the Windmill, a moment’s inattention saw me catch the chain ring on a step-up, but a check against the On-One specs reveal that the Bionicon BB height (13.75 inch) is over an inch higher than the 456 (12.5 inch).
Pointed downhill, with the geometry in the ‘relaxed’ setting, the Bionicon felt very controlled and stable. A minor off-line moment on Two Headed Dog was easily and smoothly corrected, and it definitely felt faster on the descents than the On-One, with the rear wheel spending much more time on the ground and following the front wheel, rather than pinging off the steps and rocks. It felt good to be riding full suspension again, though I have enjoyed my summer on the On-One.
The technical climb by the quarry proved too much of a challenge, and I stalled at the same point as I did on the On-One. I was able to remount and clean the second half of the climb, and this was a good benchmark for comparison with the remaining rides. The final singletrack descents flowed very well, again the full suspension was perhaps compensating for my lack of style and giving me the impression of speed and control compared with the hardtail.
With 130mm of rear wheel travel and fitted with a Fox 140mm fork, combined with a heritage forged in the rockier routes of the Pennines and the North of England, I was looking forward to seeing what this baby had to offer. Again, the first steady climb was completed in 9 minutes, and again I caught a pedal on the final push to the Windmill. Was this me, or was this the suspension compressing and catching me out?
I have to say at this point there was no discernible difference between the climbing ability of the Pace compared with the Bionicon. The downhills and bomb holes were comfortably dealt with, as was the descent from the Windmill, and I must admit that I could not detect any difference in comparison with the handling characteristics of the more relaxed downhill geometry of the Bionicon.
It was the technical climb by the quarry where this bike really started to endear itself to me. For the first time after a number of attempts on that day and in preceding weeks, I was able to clean this climb with one, non-stop attempt. After a few minutes to recover at the top, I began to feel that this bike and I were bonding, and it seemed to fly along the singletrack.
The front end seemed to loft easily but in a controlled manner, and though I appreciate it may well be me getting familiar with the trails by now, they really seemed to be tamed by this sharp-handling beauty. Pace use what they call a ‘free-floater’ design, and in a chat with the mechanic from Moose Cycles, he reckoned that this was the hardtail rider’s favourite full susser.
I think what he means is that the extra ‘give’ allows you to maintain good traction without being too ‘bouncy’. That’s obviously a technical description which may pass over some inexperienced riders’ heads! With the next ride on the Giant scheduled more for a laugh than in any real seriousness, would the Santa Cruz Blur knock the Pace off the top spot.
Giant Reign X1
Was moving from the Pace to this ‘All Mountain’ beast a move from the sublime to the ridiculous? I had originally booked an Intense Spyder 2 for this 12.30 slot; but sensing that the Pace, Intense Spyder and Santa Crux Blur were too much of the same thing, I opted for seeing how a long-travel bike would cope with the ups and downs of life in the Surrey Hills. It certainly looked impressive, with it’s coil shock, big forks (Fox 36 Vanilla R, according to the specs, I can’t remember now) and relaxed angles.
The seat post was too short to raise the seat height to one comfortable for climbing for my leg length, and was a good indication of how this bike was intended to be ridden. Despite the position, which could easily be cured by a longer seat post, the climb was completed without me feeling that the frame was made of lead (weighs around 34 lbs I believe) and I completed it in 10 minutes without exerting myself unduly.
Though not scientifically accurate, this indicated to me that the bike was able to make it uphill, just don’t expect to keep up with your mates on their more trail-oriented rigs.
The shorter technical drops were completed without any perceptible benefit from the additional travel, and the initial singletrack sections were knocked off with as much aplomb as I had managed with the shorter travel steeds. It was the steppy descent from the windmill back towards Pitch Hill where the Giant started to show its capabilities.
The additional travel and ‘All Mountain’ set-up really ironed out the drops and lumps, giving me the proverbial armchair ride for this section. It acquitted itself very well on the short technical climb, getting further than I’d managed on both the On-One and the Bionicon. The On-One I think suffered from the perennial hardtail difficulty in maintaining traction on the rough surface, and I suspect that I was still fighting the geometry and adjustment with the Bionicon.
I was actually very impressed with the Giant, and felt that this was a bike that really did merit the description ‘All Mountain’. However, my view is that unless you’re regularly tackling jumps and drops of several feet—and I don’t—then this is too much bike for the way that I ride the local trails.
As Matt, the mechanic in my LBS summed it up, it’s probably better to be under-biked for the 5% of the times that I attempt a bigger drop or tackle a Welsh rock garden, rather than being over-biked for the 95% of the time that I’m tackling my local trails. That said, a fitter, younger rider than myself could take this all over the North Downs without too much trouble.
It handled the singletrack sections very well, too. The range of travel again smoothing out my eccentric line choices and last minute panic braking. It certainly didn’t feel like a big bike on these trails, and again seemed to be as taut and ‘chuckable’ as the shorter travelled machines.
As I returned it to the Test HQ, it was handed on to the next lucky rider; a young lad about my son’s age, wearing baggy gear topped off with a ‘piss pot’ helmet. I suspected that he would have felt more at home and wrung more performance out of it than I did.
Santa Cruz Blur LTc
I was really looking forward to this one. I’ve admired Santa Cruz bikes for some time, and although I would probably not purchase the carbon-framed version, I was expecting to be wowed by this baby. I’m used to the VPP set-up which is similar to that on my old Whyte.
It started well, proving the fastest up the climb by 25 seconds, in 8’35”. However, I suspect this was mainly due to me giving it a final lash for the last bike of the day, as in terms of perceived effort I knew I was pushing harder than I had on the previous tests. It handled the climbs and drops with aplomb, and did not suffer too much in comparison with the armchair ride that the Giant had offered on the steppy descent from the windmill.
I was disappointed not to clean the technical climb by the quarry, having not made it as far as I did on the Giant! I guess we can put this down to fatigue as I’d been riding more or less all day by this stage. Even so, I’d expected the stiffness of the carbon to work well with the VPP system to deliver a smooth and controlled ascent.
Maybe I was expecting the bike to do too much, but it seemed to be scrabbling for grip and just didn’t seem to have that ‘stickability’ that the Pace possessed. The singletrack descents that followed, however, were a treat; with the bike handling very well on the, by now, familiar trails. It certainly matched the Pace for handling through the singletrack, but any extra magic from the carbon frame and the VPP suspension was lacking.
As I rolled down the final steep section into the car park, fatigue prevented me from unclipping in time and I fell unceremoniously onto my side, in full view of a couple of bemused walkers just returning to their car after a Sunday afternoon stroll.
First off, a big thank you to Moose Cycles for an excellent day. The hour long slots on familiar trails really gives you a chance to assess what these bikes have to offer; and the coffee and cake sampled between rides helped maintain the energy levels on what was a pretty ‘full-on’ day of riding.
I reckon I covered around 35 miles of good trails in about 6 hours or thereabouts. The Giant was a fun ride, but as I said earlier, too much bike for me. The Bionicon was… interesting. Technically it was impressive, I just didn’t think that the technology delivered the benefit that I was expecting. Overall, the handling of this bike was good enough, but there is a bit of a weight penalty for all that technology, and for me the handling was not as precise as some of the other bikes tested.
Fatigue was setting in when I rode the Blur, but I was expecting it to revive my flagging limbs, and unfortunately it didn’t. It was a great bike, but not outstanding, and at £1800 (frame/shock only) for the alloy version (£2300 for the carbon version), it did not seem to be value for money.
I’m sure that the Orange 5, Lapierre Zesty and Specialised Enduro are all great bikes, as many of the Moles will attest, and if I had more time there are others out there that are all worth a look. However, I have an insurance cheque for £1700 in my bank account, so taking advantage of the extra 10% discount that Moose Cycles are offering for the fortnight after the demo day, I have now ordered a Pace XC405 in a tasteful khaki for the sum of £1125.
Once it’s complete, expect to hear more about how I’m getting on with it on this site.