27 July 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: Maverick Durance (2007)

What makes a great mountain bike? As is becomes increasingly difficult to buy a bad full suspension bike, the subtleties become more and more important. Of course, the type of riding that a rider prefers, their riding style and the local riding environment will have a huge impact on what works well for that person. Me? I consider myself an all-around mountain biker. I like to go fast as much as the next guy, but haven't raced much since the turn of the century. When I do, it's been longer events (and usually on a single speed). I'm also not much of a shuttle/lift kind of guy- essentially, I'm a wuss who doesn't want to get hurt- plus, I've got a bit of that crusty "earn your turns" telemark attitude.

No, what I do enjoy are challenging trails. My favorite trails include plenty of twists, turns and technical sections (Faulty/Oso/Tree Spring, is an example for the New Mexicans out there)- both uphill and down. I'm also a pretty light guy. I come in at 145lb and, while I am more careful than most, I still do hit stuff pretty hard. So, what seems to work best for my riding style and conditions is a 5in (or so) travel active full suspension bike. Of course, it has to pedal well- technical trails require lots of little trials-y moves, so the bike has to respond well to sudden power inputs and it's nice if it's light and low-maintenance.

Who remembers Paul Turner? In the late 1980s, motorcycle guys Paul and Steve Simmons founded Rock Shox. While the adoption of motorcycle-style suspension for mountain bikes was all but inevitable, Rock Shox was the first bicycle suspension manufacturer to gain wide acceptance. By the mid-1990s, the company had gone public, and six years ago was bought by SRAM. After leaving Rock Shox, Turner and friend Frank Vogel decided that none of the full suspension bikes available suited their needs, so they built one that did. Seven iterations later, the Maverick ML-7 became available. 8 or 9 years later, the design remains remarkably unchanged.

Maverick's MonoLink design is both simple and delicately balanced. Essentially, the bottom bracket floats between the main frame and the rear triangle. I could try to explain it in words, but the animation here is much simpler. Essentially, in combination with a strut that serves as part of the frame, this allows a rearward axle path- roughly parallel to the front wheel's movement. Because the bicycle tends to be moving (forward) when bumps are encountered, the suspension responds by moving up and back, which makes best use of the damper. Because chain tension makes the rear triangle and Monolink want to collapse slightly (like closing scissors), it can be used to resist bob. It sounds simple, but I'm sure that finding the geometry where chain tension resists bob but allows the bike to remain active took a fair amount of trial and error. The test (as recommended by Maverick)? Put the front wheel against a wall and mash on the pedals. I've tried it and, in anything but the big ring, the suspension doesn't move. Pretty cool, eh? Other points? The distance from the bottom bracket to the saddle does change slightly as the suspension goes through its travel, though not enough that I notice it while riding. The damper looks unsupported, but it's no worse than a suspension fork (and is far beefier). It's not a URT (like a Trek Y-Bike), so don't even start that discussion. Finally, standing does stiffen the suspension slightly, but far less so than in earlier iterations as the BB has moved closer to the front pivot.

Of course, not being one of those savants who can discern a bike's ride quality and handling traits by looking at a photo and geometry chart, I have to ride a bike before I know if I'll like it. For 2006, Maverick came out with the ML7/5. At ~5 3/4lb and 120mm of rear wheel travel, it sounded like a heck of a bike. I'd ridden a third generation ML7 and been impressed. It felt eager, like that mischievous friend who's always pushing you to go faster and try harder technical sections. It was time for a new bike, so after riding several more popular VPP bikes, I decided to give it a go. It didn't take much of a test ride to seal my decision. After spending a year on a Medium ML7/5, I loved the bike but was feeling a bit cramped and sold it to a shorter friend. Convinced by a local shop owner to try Ibis' new Mojo, I bought that- seduced by the curves and sexiness that only carbon fiber can provide. The '07 ML7/5 and '08 Durance are very similar bikes- almost identical save for their sizing. Within a month, I was back at the shop and a Large Durance was ordered.

Why? Well, I touched on several good reasons above. The short answer is that the Durance is the most flattering bike I've ever ridden. Period. I like a bike that makes me look good, and the Durance one of the best (off road) climbing bikes I've ridden- regardless of available travel. This is the bike that has convinced me, beyond a doubt, that well-designed suspension can aid in traction and provide the rear wheel with more traction and for longer than any hardtail. When the pedals are goosed (say, to get up a steppy bit), the bike squirts forward rather than bogging down. This means that I clean more climbs than on any other bike I've ridden and look good doing it. Well, maybe I don't look good doing it, but at least I can do it. If I can't, though, I have no one but myself to blame. Because the rear suspension doesn't rely on any damper trickery to resist bob and because of the rearward axle path, it remains active and responds very well to small and medium-sized bumps. The progressive spring rate means that I've never felt any hard bottoming (despite regularly using the bike's full travel) and while it's not as plush as the Commencal Meta 5.5, it's a bit less race-y than Pivot's Mach 5 and perfectly at home in Moab (though the company does make the plusher 6.5in travel ML8).

Downhill, the ride is more akin to a Mercedes Benz than a Cadillac or MINI. The suspension communicates enough of what's going on under the wheels to allow the rider to make the right decisions, but doesn't bother with unnecessary details. While it doesn't feel too race-y, it is composed and, with properly matched and set up suspension fork, I'm constantly amazed not only by how well the suspension is working but also how fast I'm moving. More than anything else, the bike is quietly capable and composed under most any riding conditions I encounter- it almost never feels overwhelmed. Bump up the air pressure by 5psi and it becomes a race bike- as light as most bikes out there and just as fast.

The Durance certainly has a rearward weight bias. This, combined with a relaxed head tube does require some adjustments to riding style. Rather than being steered, the Maverick likes to be guided- it's what we like to call a "steer from the hips" type of bike. While this would intuitively hurt its climbing ability, it doesn't seem to. The biggest problem tends to be in tight uphill switchbacks, where it seems best to remain seated, lean in the direction of the turn and goose the pedals. The front wheel will usually pop up and (with practice) come down pointed up the trail. It's weird, but it works. The rearward weight bias and relaxed geometry work best with an adjustable-travel fork- the Rock Shox Revelation is a great match for the rear suspension and Maverick's own DUC 32 is an impressive fork that will really reward tinkerers with the patience to play with its shim stack. Nobody I know particularly likes how a Fox TALAS feels on the Durance.

In theory, because the rear brake is attached directly to the swingarm, there can be some brake-induced suspension movement, but not enough that I've been able to detect it. As with most suspension designs, the effective chainstay length does change (though far less than most). As a result, once or twice a month, I feel the pedals kick back when hitting a big bump. Because it's so uncommon, I'm not sure under what situations it happens. When it does, its a surprise, but not enough to really cause any problems.

The biggest problem with the Mavericks, by far, has got to be the front shifting. Because there's no seat tube where a front dérailleur could use one, the company mount a braze on flat bar road front dérailleur to a stick. It's at a funny angle and not being used as intended, but with a bit of patience, it can be set up to work well enough. The trough in which the front shift cable runs is also too small for most liners, so there can be a bit of drag there too. The hot tip is to break open a section of Shimano 4mm shift housing and remove the interior liner. Because the housing liner is such a small diameter, it fits in the trough and works much better than the liners from V-brake noodles. The damper, while proprietary, is simple and well built. Spares have to come from Maverick and the little o-rings on the fixing screws at the bottom of the damper body have a tendency to get pinched, resulting in some oil weepage. It's not the end of the world, but it could easily be addressed in the next redesign. Keep the damper boot in place and the seals will last ages (especially with the breather holes facing away from the rear wheel). If the wiper (like the one at the top of your fork leg, but bigger) is damaged, though, it's a nightmare to replace- if your shop has good tools and suspension experience, have them do it (and try to pay before they start the job). The four 6001 cartridge bearings at the Monolink seem to pit within the first few rides, but you won't notice until you pull them out- oddly, they don't seem to have any impact whatsoever on performance.

At $2,150 (painted), the Durance isn't cheap. While all but the first few have been made in Taiwan (like Santa Cruz), there's a lot of proprietary stuff going on here and quality has improved as a result. For an extra $150, though, I would highly recommend the hard anodized finish. Beyond being lighter than paint, hard (type III) anodizing is chemically different than normal (type I) ano and far more durable. The resulting greenish-grayish finish isn't to everyone's liking, but it is bombproof. You won't find cables scratching (let alone rubbing through) this finish- you can even take sharp tools to it without making a mark. After a year's use, my ML7/5 looked like new, and the Durance is the same- there isn't even any visible wear inside the integrated headset cups. I can't say that I like the company's build kits- they're somewhat pricey, inconsistent and the bikes build up far heavier than they need to. The company realizes that this is a shortcoming and is working the issue. The best bet may be to have your shop use QBP's Bike Builder to get OEM parts pricing on a build that you like. The frame has to be shipped to QBP to get the best deal, but it's worth it if you can wait. Because of the reclined seat tube, the cockpit feels normal but most seatposts will result in saddles pointed directly where they have no business being pointed. USE's Sumo, Syntace's P6 and some Bontrager posts seem to work best. Every Maverick has a laser-cut stainless head badge hand-etched with the bike's individual name (rather than a serial number). Mine's Zelda.

For 2008, the Durance has had a handful of tweaks. Most notably, the travel has been increased to 140mm. Charlie has been riding the new version (right) and will no doubt let you know what he thinks. There is also a very sexy light blue color available- almost enough to tempt me away from the hard ano. If I could only have one mountain bike for after work rides, races, lift-supported days and backcountry epics, the Durance would be it. In fact, it is it. In a world filled with many good mountain bikes, the Durance is one of the very few great frames. If you're shopping for a full suspension mountain bike and your budget can stretch to it, get on a demo before committing to anything else.




Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review. The Durance is on my shortlist but I can't decide between it and Ibis Mojo. Can you refine the decision? I'm about 5-9, 160#, ride mostly New Jersey and New York singletrack. No hucks but do tackle very rocky, rooty trails. Need something agile enough for tight steering, strong enough for the many, many rock gardens here, and light enough to climb steep hills while remaining seated (its just my style).

Not sure when or where I can demo a Durance around here so it may just have to be the Mojo but would be tickled to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

bikefix said...

Anonymous, Thanks for your comments. As much as I wanted to like the Ibis, I didn't care much for it. It was difficult to get it to work as well as the Durance on small bumps or under power. The carbon shows scuffs alarmingly quickly. The bottle cage mount is in the Giardia position (under the down tube). It's 1/2lb (frame only) heavier. It squats (rather than lunges) under power. That said, it is prettier and a bit plusher (5% more?) downhill. If you want a DW*Link bike, I feel that the Pivot Mach 5 is a better bike than the Mojo, though not nearly as good as the Durance. As a former East Coaster, I'd recommend the Durance there as well. Hope this helps! mb

Anonymous said...

If you're considering an Ibis Mojo vs a Maverick Durnace please contemplate the lower bottom bracket ht of the Maverick -- the Mojo seems to just tip over in turns comparatively.

The Durance has plenty of clearance for anything a 6" bike should be able to tolerate with moderate skills off the bench. The Ibis will require some Trials experience. The Maverick is stiffer all the way around and the DUC32 is just about the most vaunted suspension fork in its class and weighs 1-2 pounds less than competitors despite it's superior riding characteristics.

The Mojo is a geat bike: but I'd only ride it as a back up bike in AZ or CA where it didn't matter to me if the pivots got destroyed by tiny bits of sand and glass.

I've been riding my Durance for 48 months and only cleaned the main bearing pivots once in a parts washer at an auto repair shop (cost = nothing).

Everything on the maverick is so easily home-serviceable it's stupid. I can rebuild a rear shockk in under 10 minutes.

The Durance is one of those great bikes that will be encompassed by the Spot brand, re-branded and re-sold to you as a 12,000 bike. Hold on.

Buy a used one now in your size and make yourself happy for the next 20 years.

-- f9a

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. It's helped me justify a new rig. Question for Charlie: I love the pic of your tricked out durance. WHat saddle do you have on it?