GT ZASKAR: MORE THAN JUST A BIKE
How a classic from mountain bike's golden era continues to evolve
By: Nick Claire
Over a span of three decades, the GT Zaskar has seen a progression in its design and application. Early on in its development, this bike became “the ultimate all-around bike,” as Hans Rey described it. It’s the only bike to have won a World Cup in the trials, XC, downhill and slalom classes. It won in every category, with one frame that was only tweaked with different setups and components for each of the different disciplines. Can you imagine that happening today? That was a rhetorical question, because of course you can’t imagine it. Technology has brought us to a point where the thought of even riding a hardtail XC bike on a pro downhill segment would leave most of us mortals quite apprehensive. The evolution of mountain biking disciplines has forced the Zaskar to evolve as well, leading GT down the path to the new Zaskar LT. As for my love of the Zaskar, it wasn’t until I was given the chance to ride one that I became a fan and, ultimately, the owner of an incredibly rare version here in the U.S.
HANS’ CONTRIBUTION IN THE EARLY DAYS
Back in the late ’80s, GT signed one of the original freeride gurus, Hans Rey. It wasn’t until 1991 that the German-born trials rider would get his first taste of the Zaskar, which became synonymous with his name throughout the ’90s. Hans was featured in a string of VHS tapes, including skills videos and fun free ride stuff, released in the ‘90s that undoubtedly had a significant impact on the mountain bike community. The Zaskar was the bike Hans used in his innovative videos, and this was another beam of light shining on GT—just one more thing that kept the Zaskar at the forefront of the ’90s mountain bike scene. Mountain biking was evolving fast, though, and many other companies were seeking the “next big thing.” Downhill was becoming a category that needed a more dedicated bike, so full suspension came into the picture.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
GT was in a unique situation, being one of the early innovators in the sport. Nowadays, we have nice and neat ways of categorizing the different styles of bikes, in part because specific disciplines have evolved so far, all thanks to competition pushing new boundaries. Thirty years ago, we were very limited compared to what we have now. At some point it was necessary for GT to evolve with the changing market. It seemed unavoidable that GT needed to make a specific bike out of the Zaskar. The model didn’t necessarily fit into one specific style, though. Instead, it evolved through the 2000s, influenced by the popular trends of that era. Iterations included a 26-inch full-suspension version, a hardtail 29er and a 100mm-travel full-suspension carbon XC-style bike that brought the bike up to the early 2010s. Still, they were models that could be ridden in multiple environments, not just one.
By the mid 2010s, GT decided that the market was calling for an XC race machine. GT went through a couple of versions until finally arriving at the 2017 Zaskar Pro carbon. The ’17 was brought up to date with modern standards, such as Boost spacing and a more 1x-capable frame. It is the bike I currently own, and, in my opinion, it’s a hidden gem as a cross-country race machine. The model stayed exactly the same until 2020 with just a few paint-scheme alterations.
I GOT A UNICORN
My introduction to the Zaskar happened when I was riding with my friend Bill Baker, who had a ’20 carbon Zaskar. He let me take it for a spin up the hill. I was impressed with the acceleration and instant power transfer compared to the $12,000 full-suspension XC bike I was testing at the time. I was torn between getting a hardtail or full-suspension for XC racing and immediately realized the hardtail was something I wanted to start using.
Naturally, being a test rider, I’m aware of geometries, different fork offsets and the difference a slammed stem can make. Even tire pressure or a mid-sole cleat is noticeable, but I got a different feeling from this bike. There were a number of reasons the Zaskar stuck out to me, including its lightweight and rigid frame. The handling and acceleration were exceptional for XC racing. That, paired with my favorite lightweight components, put it on my list of favorite bikes.
I dare to equate it to the day Jimi Hendrix first played a Stratocaster. There was a certain magic, along with that sometimes ill-advised “I might need a new bike” notion that cyclists don’t always fight hard enough. It was a perfect fit for me, though. Many of us know how easy it is to claim we need a new bike, but the feeling was strong after my initial ride. I asked how I could get one of these Zaskar frames, and Bill claimed GT had to special order it for him, because the Zaskar wasn’t available in America. He mentioned that he still had his previous frame, which was identical to the new one and still in great shape, but no word on if he could sell it to me. Twenty-four hours went by, and like some sort of pseudo Santa Claus, Bill called and said I could use his older Zaskar frame if I wanted to build it up. He claimed that the frames we had were the only two in America that GT gave anyone.
THE MISSING ZASKAR
The fact that I had one of only two current carbon Zaskars seemed pretty cool, but it also made me wonder why the bike wasn’t available in the U.S. According to GT product manager Patrick Kaye, the XC hasn’t been as relevant in the U.S. as it has been in Europe for the past few years. He said that they have a Czech distributor with an XC team that uses the Zaskar in its UCI World Cup races, but that’s it. “Without GT having a factory World Cup cross-country race team, it’s a bit of a harder push to gain traction without that marketing approach behind it,” Patrick claimed. He went on to mention that certain markets that were able to have a race team were able to leverage the bike better in their regions. We talked about hardtail cross-country bikes being a dying breed in the World Cup races, creating a limited market for them.
CAN’T FORGET THAT TRIPLE TRIANGLE
GT has always used a unique triple-triangle design, whether it was on its road bikes, gravel bikes or mountain bikes. Patrick Kaye explained that the triple-triangle design was meant to disperse the shock of the trail away from the seat tube. That design gave more vertical compliance and minimized the harshness the rider would feel. Oddly enough, that design is about 30 years old, and Patrick said, “It’s interesting that now we’re seeing low seatstays becoming a design feature on a lot of hardtails. So, what we were doing 20–30 years ago is now relevant in today’s market.”
In 2020 GT redesigned its triple triangle, which is almost like “the Nike swoosh to GT,” as Patrick put it. So, the current triple triangle is not connected to the seat tube. Instead, it’s connected to the top tube, which Patrick described as more of a floating seatstay. It’s designed to alleviate shock from the trail better than ever before. It acts almost like a leaf spring and helps spread the trail chatter throughout the frame.
BACK TO ITS ROOTS
GT has decided to take the Zaskar in yet another direction for 2021, although it’s more of a harking back to the heyday of the Zaskar. The new Zaskar LT is meant to be a bike that can do a variety of things more comfortably than the previous XC model. Although its position isn’t as forward as before and has a little heavier aluminum frame, it could still be a great option to go race XC. Factory GT-sponsored rider Wyn Masters recently raced the LT in the Southern Enduro Mashup series in the UK, taking second place. Not bad for a hardtail. Wyn is a phenomenal rider, so there is that, too. According to GT, back in about 2018, certain distributors in Europe were asking GT for extreme hardtails similar to those that had been hitting hard in their markets. They were urging GT to pull the trigger on this new trend, and as GT saw that market grow, it was a no-brainer for them. It was also a great opportunity to keep the Zaskar relevant, as well as bring it back to America.
I have to admit that it was bittersweet for me, as no sooner had I fallen in love with the XC race bike, GT went and changed the model. That sadness lasted until I saw the promo for the new LT, which actually had me excited about extreme hardtails. Even if I don’t get one myself, I was awakened to this new trend and excited for a bike that can get people in at a lower price point. Additionally, it brings back a simplicity and minimal maintenance factor that I feel will get many people excited. In fact, one reason this hardtail niche emerged was because of the wet conditions and horrible mud in the UK. The GT was a better and more affordable option for many people. With the world experiencing supply issues and inflation on the rise, the timing worked out with the LT to help ease the sticker shock for many. Plus, it brings the Zaskar closer to its heritage of being that all-around bike and makes the one I have even more special.