Early this fall we took some time out to head to Bionicon’s home base in the south of Germany on the Tegernsee, a lake where Bavaria backs up into the mountains, to try out their newest Enduro bike on the terrain it was designed for. Our visit also gave us a chance to spend some time on and off the bike with the passionate engineers who developed their uniquely linked front and rear air suspension systems. They showed us around on the trails and in their headquarters where all of their bikes and suspensions systems are designed and assembled. Plus, we got a bit of the story of the development of their bikes and where they were focusing next.
Follow me past the jump for a look inside the company and hands-on with the tech, as well as some of our impressions and pictures from riding both their 26″ and 27.5″ Edison EVO enduro bikes up some of the steepest gravel roads passable and down some of the steepest and most technical singletrack we’ve ever pedaled to the top of…
We spent a couple of day with the UK distributor (while he has in town) and the local design engineers to get a feel for the ride of the Edison EVO in both of its new iterations. We covered the new bikes in depth back at the end of the summer when they were introduced, and tried to convey how the linked suspension system worked from the info we were given. To put it bluntly, when someone explains the system with diagrams and geometry numbers, it seems unnecessarily complicated. Riding it on the other hand, is ludicrously simple. Once the suspension is set up for your weight and ride preference (just like any other air full-suspension bike.) All you do is press and hold the control switch and lean forward like you would a fork lockout with travel-adjust (many of which actually incorporate Bionicon’s patents), and the bike is in climbing-mode. Press and hold again, and transfer your weight back onto the saddle, and you are back in descending-mode. The transition between the two is smooth and infinitely adjustable. But it actually happened so easily that when testing it out in the parking lot, it took a few back-and-forths until I realized that I had done it right from the start.
Once you are in the climbing-mode, you realize that the handlebar is surprisingly low to the ground, even more so than a XC bike, while the rear end feels even higher. This works because both the fork and rear shock each have two independent chambers. By leaning forward into climbing-mode you essentially empty one of the chambers in the fork, letting the air move into the second extra shock chamber extending the shock and lifting the rear end. By lifting the rear, the swingarm moves into a position changing the leverage ratio of the shock that further reduces pedal bob, so improving climbing efficiency while keeping some suspension action. Switching back to descending-mode, you just reverse the operation emptying the extra shock chamber and elongating the fork cartridge. The key to the system is that since the chambers that swap air are independent of the primary fork and shock chambers, the movement doesn’t alter their independent setup or suspension tuning.
My somewhat unexpected reaction after riding the 160mm orange 27.5″ demo fleet bike and getting back to the shop, was that this had been the steepest ride I had ever ridden to the top of. Although that doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, it is a testament to the functionality of the bike on some grueling terrain. The gravel road climb we took up (a ski slope access road) peaked out over 30%, but climbing was never an issue, outside of my elevated heart rate. In climbing-mode the bike just shifted my weight forward, and the bike climbed slowly but steadily up, without the need to even slide forward on the saddle. The suspension still felt supple, and the bike chugged up the mountain when you stood up and sprinted. And it really was a good hill: 350m in about 2.5km. But from the top it turned into another ride altogether. We actually had to hike-a-bike the last short section of alpine cow trail to get to what amounted to a rocky technical downhill singletrack that you would most likely only ever find or attempt at a lift-served trail center. There were routine wheel-high natural drops over rocks and washed out roots that the bike never balked at, and plenty of loose off-camber singletrack, carved into the steep hillsides. I was actually a bit reluctant myself on a couple of super tight exposed switchback descents with meter tall drops in the apex, having been slightly caught off-guard by the ride since I had easily pedaled to the top. It was a bit more than I had expected.
Having survived on the single crown 27.5″ bike, I asked the guys at Bionicon if I could try out one of the dual crown 26″ bikes the next day on the same trail, to see if I could feel the difference. The head suspension designer was busy with work so he lent me his personal bike, and I pedaled it back up the same gravel climb. His 180mm black 26″ bike had a decidedly more downhill bike feel to it. With softer DH-spec tires and a more plush suspension tune, the bike didn’t feel as easy to get up the hill as the day before. The position still felt fine, the bike just felt heavier and a bit slower climbing. (I was very curious to see how much more it weighed after the ride.)
To really appreciate the atypical climbing-mode position, you just have to mash on the control switch while climbing and the bike gently, but rapidly slides back into descending-mode. You quickly remember how brutal a struggle it is to pedal a long-travel bike up a hill. But then just push that button back in, lean forward, and climb like the bike was designed.
On the first ride, the 27.5” bike seemed capable of handling anything I pointed it at, up or down, and I moved it through about 90% of the suspension travel. It felt like what I think a freeride bike should feel. The 26″ bike definitely felt more like a DH bike, able to bomb down anything and roll over anything in its path, and I bottomed out its longer travel once or twice while pushing a bit harder. Part of that is the impression of confidence that comes looking down a dual crown fork at the trail, but certainly the softer suspension setup, sticky tires, and knowing the trail ahead all boosted my confidence. Both bikes were clearly capable of going downhill faster than I was willing to push them on a first ride, Somewhat amusingly my ride times on Strava for key climbing and descending segments were within a few seconds of each other, even with the very different feelings on both bikes.
Neither bike felt exceptionally light, so the slog up was a definite workout. But little effort was lost on the suspension climbing, and the forward shift kept me sitting comfortably. I wouldn’t say either climbed like my full-suspension XC bike or even my hardtail, because honestly the riding position was much more comfortable. It was slower going because of the added weight (and the soft DH rubber on the 26″ version), but by reconfiguring the geometry for the climb I never once had to get out of the saddle, and didn’t have to think for a second or expend any effort to keep from sliding off the saddle. And since neither fork nor shock were actually locked out, the suspension stayed pretty active rolling smoothly even on the bits of steep rocky climbing.
At the end of the second ride I was quick to get both bikes on a scale to see how much heavier the downhill 26″ bike (14.8kg/32.6lbs w/ pedals) was than the enduro 27.5″ (14.7kg/32.4lbs w/ pedals.) I was pretty shocked to see just 100g/3.5oz difference. The builds were pretty much the same on both bikes, so it was clear that it was a near even trade-off of 180mm dual crown 26″ fork vs. 160mm single crown 27.5″ fork, and lighter 26″ wheels and DH tires vs. heavier 27.5″ wheels with lighter tires. The greater lesson for me was probably how big an impact a few psi in the suspension would make in the feel of the bike, plus a reminder that soft, heavy tires like to go downhill more than uphill. I think if I were to buy one of these bikes I would tend to go for the bigger wheeled version and be sure to spec light wheels and tires first and foremost.
My overall thought on the Edison EVO as an enduro bike though is still up in the air. Until I move into some really steep mountains, it doesn’t seem like I would really benefit from the Bionicon system. The bikes climbed unbelievably well on super steep stuff. But I seldom have the need to ride an almost 15kg bike up a 30% incline, which is where it really shines, and most enduro bikes are already tolerable for short 15% sections. That being said, if I lived at the foot of the mountains like the Bionicon folks do, I can’t think of a bike better suited for exploring trails those steep tracks that would otherwise go unridden.
Have a look at our previous post for 26″ and 27.5″, 160mm or 180mm travel model pricing and spec.
Back in the Bionicon design and assembly headquarters we got to see some of what get built in their shop. While a lot of their forks are modified stock products from their suspension partners with their cartridges added, Bionicon did design and have their own 160mm travel dual crown fork made from the ground up. A unique feature is the use of straight legs with inline thru-axle drop-outs and offset built into the steerer clamps for better turning clearance. Of course all of the suspension cartridges are designed in-house and set up by Bionicon. But a really key feature on their fork are the two lubrication ports in each leg of the magnesium lowers that let a rider keep the sliders and bushings properly lubed to ensure smooth friction-free suspension movement. Bionicon is trying to work with their suspension partners to incorporate them on the other forks, but has so far met resistance to develop new, unique lower castings.
With their own castings come their own quality control and Bionicon makes sure that all lowers and clamps are within 5/100ths of a mm to pass. They check all the parts in the assembly stage and pair those at the edges of their acceptable range together to ensure smooth, stiction-free running of their forks.
At the heart of their suspension is the two independent-chamber fork cartridges and the piggy-back extra shock chamber. We showed some digital renderings of the extra chambers in our last post, but the actual cutaway in their shop makes it a bit easier to understand. The long cartridge drops down in the fork leg and air moves back and forth from the top, second chamber to the piggy-back chamber that just threads on to a standard rear shock. Air flow is just a loop through the bar-mounted control valve/switch in the top right.
Bionicon has all of their cartridge and shock parts contract manufactured from a mixture of European and Asian producers. Parts are all sent to their German HQ where all assembly, service, and warranties are handled. That way quality control and setup is all in-house, and Bionicon can make running changes when they update suspension design or custom tuning.
The piggy-back shock chambers, which they call B-Odo, are all assembled here with their tool-free design that simply threads on to the end of a Magura built air shock. The standard shock was actually designed for Magura by Bionicon’s in-house engineering team, and incorporates a great deal of suspension tunability that the stock shock does not take full advantage of. Designing suspension systems to allow rebound and compression tuning flexibility to perform exactly how the end-rider wants certainly seems to be one of the strong suits of Bionicon’s engineers. I got the impression talking with them in depth for a couple of hours, that they should be working with a DH race team to realize the potential of some of their ideas.
We also got the chance to talk with the design and sales team about some of their ongoing and future projects. We already introduced you to B|labs a couple of weeks ago and their new chainrings and chain guides. It looks like there will be more of that to come, so we’ll keep our ears open. We had a chance to take a look at the previous 3 iterations of their all-mountain/enduro bikes to see the steady move to this lighter, stiffer, modular frame platform. Bionicon also had some success in the past with a cross country version of this adjustable suspension system, but were dogged by extra weight, flexing, and not enough perceived benefit for the XC rider. Their frame designs and the suspension have come along way in the last 2 years or so, and they hinted that they might be working on a mid-travel 29er that could bring XC like weights and climbing abilities with all-mountain or even enduro descending prowess. We talked about how, while I couldn’t see adding a 180mm bike that could climb mountains to my quiver, a 140-150mm XC/AM bike might be a different story. If they build it, I guess we’ll have to go back and ride some more.
One of the nicest things about visiting with Bionicon was definitely the extended family feel, right down to the big family lunch. The mother of one of the company owners is there almost everyday preparing a warm bavarian meal for everyone, and the engineers all stopped what they were doing to come sit down and have lunch together. The father of one of the Bionicon guys was even there the second day we visited mowing the lawn. Plus, not only does everyone who works there live within riding distance of the office, but there was an obvious culture of regular company rides. Each afternoon I showed up there was a line of bikes ready to go out for an afternoon ride, and when I rolled back in after a ride the people who couldn’t skip out of work early were getting suited up for a quick pedal on the way home.
In their great location in the outdoor rec resort of Rottach-Egern, Bionicon has a showroom attached to their operational headquarters. They have a sizable demo fleet that they rent out to the public who come to ride in the surrounding mountains. They kind of live on the idea that it is a bit difficult to get people to buy into the Bionicon linked air suspension system by just talking about it, but rather all you have to do is ride one of their bikes up a mountain and then back down to understand its potential. That’s definitely something we can get behind.