20 April 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Giant Anthem X2 mountain bike

Before last fall, it had been about five years since I'd been aboard a Giant-branded bike. I remember my '03 VT1 being a fantastic bike for the time- a 5in full suspension bike that put the Specialized Enduro it replaced to shame (in terms of both efficiency and plushness). It (and the Spez) were some of the first bikes to really work well in what's called the trail segment- light and efficient enough for all-day riding with a good amount of suspension to keep things interesting, comfortable and fun. The VT was the first bike I'd ridden that filtered unnecessary trail 'noise' from the rider without the feeling of disconnectedness that seem inherent to many plusher bikes. Especially in rough sections and at speed, the Giant was like a good assistant- I knew that it was working away to smooth out the bumps, but kept me informed and in control. Our time was limited, though, as I was soon seduced by a beautiful orange Maverick ML-7 and the VT was soon in a friend's employ (where it remains).

I would encourage riders unfamiliar with the brand to take a look at Giant's 2009 range. While sometimes perceived as a value brand (no shame in that), the company is one of (if not the) largest manufacturers of bike-shop-quality bicycles in the world. Own a recent Scott, aluminum or mid-range carbon Trek or entry-level Colnago? Chances are, it rolled out of one of the Taiwanese-owned company's factories. For well over a decade, they've building pro-level road and mountain bikes (anyone remember the ONCE pro team?) and their composite and aluminum construction capabilities are among the best in the world. The company's engineers are clearly very skilled- the performance of their current Maestro platform is a reflection their ability and hard work. Like many competing suspension designs, the Maestro uses a pair of short links between the front and rear triangles to achieve a conceptual (virtual?) floating pivot around which the rear axle moves. Like Weigle's DW*Link, Giant's links rotate in the same direction- VPP bikes (Santa Cruz, Intense) use counter-rotating links. What does this mean to the rider? Nothing, really- all of these designs have the ability to perform terribly or become a maintenance nightmare if executed poorly. When done well, however, these floating pivot designs can be tuned to react well to large and small bumps while ignoring chain- and rider-induced suspension movement. They can also be massaged to racer-boy stiffness or freeride plushness- it would be a mistake to assume that all floating pivot frames ride similarly.

New for 2009, the Anthem X series (0, 1, 2 and 3 in order of descending price) is a slightly longer travel (4in) evolution of the company's race-oriented Anthem (currently represented only by the 3.5in travel carbon fiber Anthem Advanced). While it falls under the "Competition" category on the company's website, the Anthem X is, to me, a far more versatile platform. Designed by Giant with Vermont's annual Mount Snow mountain bike race in mind (one of the more technical and difficult courses on the professional circuit), the Anthem X not only has slightly longer travel than the Anthem, but is less twitchy and happens to be the company's lightest aluminum full suspension frame to date. As such is probably better suited to not just technical races but also to the kind of riding that most of us do on a regular basis.

An what kind of riding would that be? Well, riding. Most mountain bikers can't be pigeonholed into one market-friendly type of riding. We enjoy long days with friends in the backcountry, fast after-work hammer sessions, knitting circle-type chitchat and the odd race (or season of racing). Locally, that means anything from fast & buffed foothills riding to loose, technical rockiness. Until riding the Anthem, I was convinced that there was no question that a 5in travel was best suited for this sort of thing. After six weeks on an Anthem X2 generously lent by the regional Giant rep, I'm starting to wonder.

While its the second least expensive bike in the Anthem X range, the Anthem X2 is in no way a cheap bike. At $2,600-2,900 (retailers set prices), its not particularly inexpensive either. Taking a look at the spec, though, the X2 is one heck of a deal and would do any expert-class racer proud. Unlike similarly-priced bikes from many companies, Giant haven't hidden any cheap components anywhere on the Anthem X2. The drivetrain (including crankset!) are all from Shimano's fantastic, reliable XT group. Ditto for the brakes. The hubs are bikefix pick WTB LaserDisc Lite units laced to Mavic hubs using honest-to-goodness double-butted spokes. Finishing kit is from Race Face's Evolve XC line and the fork is a $700 Fox 32 F100 RL. Leaving the frame aside, it would be very difficult assembly this pile of components for $2,600, making the Anthem X2 a heck of a deal and a much better value than many of its competitors.

Of course, a bike can't be a value if it doesn't ride well. In my initial bikefix Quickie review, I described the Anthem X as taut and racy with the Fox RP-2 rear shock's Propedal damper switched on and with the Propedal off the kind of bike that I could ride all day. After six weeks aboard the Anthem X, I stand by much of my initial appraisal. With my loaded weight (155lb) in the rear shock, Propedal on and about half that in the fork, the Anthem X2 feels like a race bike- eager and ready to hammer. I found that dropping the air pressure by 5psi and switching the Propedal off made the blue and black Giant more of an all-around ride- comfortable and competent in the rough while efficient (but active) out of the saddle. Five fewer psi seemed to be the lower limit for efficincy but made the Anthem X2 feel like it had far more than its 4in of suspension travel. I had high hopes for the Fox F100 fork (heaven knows why, given my previous experiences) and on smooth trails and in parking lots it feels great. Unfortunately, on rougher terrain and at higher speeds its suspension is still overdamped and hasn't reached the level of performance that RockShox has been at for four years (and Marzocchi was at -briefly- four years ago). At factory-recommended pressures, the F100 was a bit harsh on the small stuff and I was unable to use all 100mm of travel. With less pressure, the Fox was no better on the small stuff and became disturbingly dive-y (though I was using all of its travel). I can't blame Giant for spec'ing the fork that the market wants and at least they're easily sold or reworked for better performance. The Anthem X2 is another bike whose rear suspension is let down by a Fox at the front, which is unfortunate but also an indicator of just how good that rear suspension is. One of these days, I hope that Fox will build a fork equal to their reputation. Until then, the F100 does at least look good (the Anthem X0 and X1 both come with 100mm RockShox SID forks).

With 150psi in the rear shock, the Anthem X2 reminds me a good deal of my VT1. Like the VT, it does an excellent job of communicating what's going on under the rider without necessarily transmitting it. I've heard this sensation described as disconnectedness, but would have to disagree. On the Anthem X2, I felt fully aware of the connection between the bike and the trail yet was comfortable enough with the suspension to let the bike deal with all but the biggest bumps and worst line choices. The best description of the Giant would be that its smooth and composed- in my testing, I found very little would unsettle the rear end. While it didn't always feel fast, the Anthem X2 was more often than not going fast.

In my initial review, I mentioned that the steering felt twitchy and that a longer-travel (120mm) fork might mellow out the Giant's handling a bit and make it easier to control. It turns out that most of the skiddishness that I felt was coming from the bike's stock Michelin XCR Dry2 tires. I found it very easy to outride these race-oriented tires' cornering ability, and their tendency to understeer required a fair bit of attention to keep the bike headed in the right direction. A tall front end (thanks in part to a very tall headset spacer) worsened the problem by making it difficult to weight the front wheel properly (note the flipped stem in some of the later photos- this made a big difference). With a tubed 2.1in WTB ExiWolf tire on the front, the bike's handling improved dramatically. Given my aversion to tubed tires in general, I soon fitted my own Shimano XTR tubeless wheels and a pair of Geax Barro Mountain 2.3in tires. The combination saved over a pound of rotating weight from the stock wheelset (plus sealant-filled tubes) and increased the Giant's versatility quite a bit. The fast-rolling but fat tires made the Anthem X much more confident on rough trails and improved cornering even further (there was more than enough room for 2.3s front and rear). Running a Schwalbe Smart Sam (f) / Racing Ralph (r) combination didn't save any more weight but provided a great-cornering, fast-rolling race day combination. A still knobbier 2.3 (like Continental's Vertical) would be perfect for big days out- backcountry epics over a combination of terrain.

Other niggles? While the open frame would seem ideal for portaging, the triangular top tube with its underside cable stop will make any shouldering pretty painful- sit it on a thick pack strap or the bike across the shoulders and it should be alright, though. The WTB saddle didn't make my bum happy and was shelved after a couple of weeks for something more epic-appropriate. The generic clamp on grips (something I'm not a big fan of to begin with) had hard plastic bands that were very uncomfortable (even Mountain Bike Action mentioned them being uncomfortable- and MBA likes everything) and made the already narrow bars feel even narrower. Not a big deal and a very cheap fix. In an odd ergonomic blunder from Shimano, I didn't feel like the XT brake and shift levers worked particularly well together. With the brake levers well positioned for middle finger braking, the shifters felt too far from the thumb and index finger; with the shifters in the right spot, the levers didn't quite feel right. Its a personal preference issue, though, and I prefer to have my middle finger at the lever hook- others may not have the same complaint. The braking and shifting were otherwise excellent.

After six weeks' hard riding, I am still impressed by the Anthem X2- maybe even more so than I was initially. Giant have done a great job at putting together an extremely versatile mountain bike with no major compromises. In less rocky parts of the world, the Anthem X could be the perfect bike for most riders. It manages to be amazingly competent in a wide variety of situations with only very minor setting (I'd personally run the rear shock at 150psi for all but actual races) and tire changes. Even here in New Mexico, it was more than able to keep up with longer-travel bikes on all but the roughest terrain- with a more competent fork it would do even better. As usual, I'd swap out the Fox fork for something else (probably a RockShox Reba or maybe a Magura Durin- though heavier riders may not mind the Fox) before leaving the shop and grab some of my favorite tires and grips at the same time. The Shimano XT group will perform reliably for ages and the wheels, while a bit heavy, will happily do the same. Tubeless wheels would be nice, and Mavic's light-but-strong Crossmax STs would be a great match for the everyday rider, maybe something lighter for the racer- but not everybody's on board with tubeless (yet) so I can understand the decision on Giant's part. Regardless of price, few bikes have impressed me as much as the Anthem X2. Taking price into account, I can't think of a better bike for 80% of riders in less-rocky areas- and even a good chunk of riders here in the desert. Yes, it's that good.

marc

www.giant-bicycles.com

11 comments:

The Bikeworks Crew said...

funny thing regarding the fox fork.
check on velo new's review of 2010 fox models unveiled at sea otter. Every model has been tuned for "full travel at correct sag." Weird, there's nothing wrong with current model fox's, but somehow they've managed to fix "nothing wrong" for this year.

Faceless Ghost said...

Great review. I'm about to buy a Giant Anthem X, and I'm interested in your comments about the fork. The only major performance upgrade on the Anthem X1 over Anthem X2 (as opposed to weight upgrades) seems to be the Sid Team Fork. I could scrape together the cash for an X1, but the X2 seems like a better buy. Given your experience with the X2, would you consider the $650 price difference money well spent, or would you consider the Fox Fork adequate?

bikefix said...

'Ghost,

What would *I* do? Talk my local shop into swapping a Reba with remote lockout on to the Anthem X2 (they'll move the Fox plenty easily) and order up set of Crossmax STs with their MP3 warranty with the $650 difference.

If you're closer to 200lb than 150, you might be happy with the Fox as it sits. You can always have it rebuilt with 5wt or 2.5wt oil- that makes a big difference (not great, but much better) and shouldn't run more than $50. Again, throw some tubeless wheels and tires on it and sell the OE wheels to a worthy junior racer for $150. The SID is supposed to be a great fork (Dan from Bikeworks likes his), but there doesn't seem to be much weight difference between it and the newly redesigned Reba- one of the most underrated forks out there. Not the that the X1 isn't, but X2 really is a great deal. Let us know what you do...

marc

Adrian said...

I live in Florida and we ride very tight twisty single track over very rooty, rocky ground. We have no long climbs but lots of very technical, steep ups and downs. I dont race and mostly do all day rides with freinds. I am having having a hard deciding between the Trance X2 and the Anthme X2. Which bike would you imagine is better suited to my area? Having ridden the Trance X and the Anthem X what is yout take on the better trail bike.

bikefix said...

Adrian,

Though Charlie has spend more time on the Anthem X than I have, I was plenty impressed with that bike as well. The Anthem X has quicker handling than many bikes in its category. I've never been to Florida (let alone ridden there), so can't say for sure. For New England riding, though, either would work well. If your rockiness is like ours (fast & loose), the Anthem X might be the way to go (especially if you plan on taking it to places like Moab, Fruita or elsewhere). If racing might be in the cards, the Anthem X would probably be a better choice. Hope this helps,

marc

Faceless Ghost said...

Marc,

Thanks for the input. I ended up going with the X1, but only because Giant sponsors the team I race for on the road, so I paid significantly less than retail for the bike. At full retail, I think your suggestions are excellent and probably make more sense than paying extra for the X1.

Faceless Ghost said...

Also, the X1 matches my team kit, which certainly influenced my decision :)

I think it's worth mentioning that the stock X1 is more than a pound lighter than the stock X2. Other than the previously discussed fork issue, performance should be almost identical between the two bikes. For most riders, the weight difference is probably not worth paying for, but for racers, it's a pretty big deal.

robert said...

How tall are you and what size bike did you ride? I'm 5'11" and trying to decide what size to purchase. I demo's a medium, but thinking a large.

bikefix said...

Robert, I'm 6'0 and found that the large fit me well... What you should do, though, is take the time to use the fit calculator on sites like wrenchscience or competitivecyclist to get an idea of which Giant size will give you the right cockpit size with a 90-110mm stem. That way, you'll be more confident in your decision and know where to start, fit-wise. marc

Dad Napolitano said...

I just ordered a 2010 X2 after seriously considering a Titus Racer X '09 left over and a Specialized Epic. This bike got EXCELLENT reviews all over the web, so I'm going with the majority and you can't argue the spec package. I'll probably upgrade the wheels after one season and that's it . Great Review!!

bikefix said...

Dad,

It'll be an awesome bike- I really enjoyed riding it. Look to us when it's time for wheels...

marc