THROWBACK THURSDAY: 1993 MANITOU SYSTEM FS REVIEW

When a sellout is a good thing

Selling out. The concept raises feelings of abandonment and disgust. When Elvis sold out his rock and roll roots for the flash and glitz of Vegas, the rockers moaned. When peace-loving folk singer Cat Stevens converted to Islam and then joined in the chorus of those calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, his longtime fans groaned. How about when the respected actor/producer John Houseman showed up on the tube pitching Big Macs and fries for McDonald’s? It’s not so far-fetched that the greats of mountain bike design would sell out; after all, most of the pioneers of the sport are so tied into the mega-conglomerates that a cold wave in Taiwan makes them sneeze. However, Doug Bradbury of Manitou fame wouldn’t sell out. Or would he? The truth is that Bradbury has sold out, and it could be the best thing to happen to mountain bikers interested in actually possessing a Manitou. The minuscule Manitou production facility has been bought out by corporate giant Answer Products. How did it happen?

IN A DIMLY LIT WORKSHOP

In the old days, Doug built his magic singletrack machines in the cold, dimly lit workshop adjacent to his home in the mountains outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Doug’s precious time was split between building aluminum frames and making his own elastomer bumper fork. The frame and fork were highly touted, but the output of a one-man production company was severely limited. That all changed at the ’90 Park City, Utah, NORBA National when Doug was introduced to the folks from Answer. At the time, Answer Products was keeping busy selling their A-Tac stems and Accu-Trax forks. Both Doug and Answer realized that the days of a high-dollar, rigid fork were quickly coming to an end. Answer was interested in obtaining a suspension fork; Doug was tired of making them. When the fork won a gold medal under Juli Furtado that year, and John Tomac continued using them, how could any deep-pocket company resist? In ’91, Answer Products took over the production and marketing duties for the Manitou fork.

Manitou’s stem looks plain from on top, but underneath it is completely milled out. Reinforcing gussets on the top and down tube and collars on the head tube help ensure durability.

Doug couldn’t have been happier. Fork sales rocketed, production zoomed and Doug was free to do what he loved best—building frames. And what frames! Without a doubt, the Manitou is one of the best-handling bikes ever made. It was inevitable that Doug used his newfound time to develop a fully suspended Manitou. While Doug plugged away in the hills of Colorado, the guys from Answer Products kept track of his progress.

Longtime MBA wrecking crew member Toby Henderson pushed our test bikes harder than most riders.

TWO DIFFERENT BIKES

Over the winter, Answer Products made a deal with Doug to produce his latest suspension bike. With profits from their motorcycle division remaining steady, and sales of their mountain bike accessories continuing to climb, Answer decided to jump into the sport with both feet this year. The Manitou suspension bike will now be manufactured in Answer’s facility in Valencia, California. When news of the buyout first hit, many people cringed at the thought of some big-dollar, non-bicycle company taking over production of the finely crafted mountain bike. Would Manitous still be Manitous if they weren’t made by Bradbury?

We decided to visit the Answer facility to take a look at a pre-production  ’93 Manitou suspension bike and find out just what Answer would be offering.

Pre-production woes: The ’93 Manitou fork will have adjustable pre-load dials on the bottom of each leg, lighter fork crown and stronger brake arch. Custom-made Manitou hubs, with wider flanges for increased strength, are also available in Answer’s option package.

The first point that Answer stressed is reassuring. Answer isn’t allowed to do a single thing to the bike without Doug’s express permission. The Answer folks readily admit that they aren’t bike guys and that Doug is one of the best.

Doug’s impression of the situation? “I don’t have any trouble with it. They’ve got a lot of experienced welders who have spent years welding all their motorcycle products, and they’re putting a lot of money into the frame jigs. They’re really enthusiastic about mountain bikes, and you can bet that I’m doing a good job keeping my finger on them.” 

THE BIKE, THE BIKE, THE BIKE

Unfortunately, there won’t be any large-scale production of the rigid frame that scored so highly with MBA test riders over the last five years. As for now, Answer is only taking over production of the fully suspended bike. Luckily, the original Manitou frames (without rear suspension) can still be had, since Doug will continue making custom-sized Manitou frames.

The full-suspension bike shares the same Easton ProGram frame tubes as its rigid sibling. The suspended framesets will be available in 16-, 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-inch frame sizes, unpainted, and including a Manitou fork, seatpost and front derailleur for around $2675. Several option kits will be available that will include such items as a Manitou or Answer A-Tac stem, Hyperlite handlebars and a custom-built Manitou front hub. Answer is looking into producing complete bikes with a Shimano XTR gruppo sometime next year.

Like nothing else: Rarely will you find a bike as impressively designed and built as the Manitou suspension bike. The milled-out rear fork clamp is a work of industrial art. The Manitou fork brake arch has been redesigned to decrease torsional twisting and, while it looks larger, it is actually lighter than last year’s arch.

Angles on our test Manitou suspension bike came in at a 72.5-degree seat (Answer claims 73) and a 70.5-degree head. The bottom bracket sat at 12.25 inches, chainstays at 16.25 inches, top tube at 23 inches and the wheelbase at 42 inches. Our 18-inch test bike was actually more like a 19-inch frame when measured from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the effective top tube. The bike weighed an amazing 25 pounds.

SIMPLE SUSPENSION

Everyone knows about the Manitou forks. Filled with elastomer bumpers, they go up and down. No oil, no coil springs, no adjustable damping clickers. Like the current Manitou fork, the prototype ’93 fork uses elastomer bumpers, and it goes up and down, but after that it’s a whole new product. Starting from the bottom up, the ’93 Manitou fork has adjuster knobs underneath each fork leg that can be dialed in to add more preload. The knobs on our forks weren’t calibrated, but the production units will be. The chromoly fork tubes are now double butted to keep the stiffness up and weight down. The slider is built from an Easton E9 aluminum tube. The fork crown is no longer slotted, and its underside has been milled for decreased weight. The webbing that comes about as a result of the milling helps to maximize rigidity. Manitou’s fork brace has been totally redesigned to further reduce the fork’s torsional twisting. To make the brace stouter, it was shortened by 1.5 inches, which was achieved by mounting it above the cantilever brake bosses where it used to be. The redesign of the crown and clamp is expected to take almost five ounces off of last year’s setup. For increased rigidity, the fork has increased overlap between the slider and the stanchion tube.

Rear suspension duties are performed by a pair of Manitou forks that use a shorter elastomer bumper and provide a claimed 1.9 inches of travel at the rear wheel. The seals and bushing between the front and rear suspension units are interchangeable. Owing to the triangulation of the rear end, Doug was able to get away with using Easton E9 aluminum tubes for the rear fork legs and sliders.

Without a doubt, the most magnificent part of the bike would have to be the rear fork crown and chainstay pivot bridge. Every person who looked at the bike asked the same question when they saw the intricately sculpted pieces: “They’re not going to make the bikes like that, are they?” Yes, they are. Answer is making no bones about their intention to produce one of the most detailed mountain bikes ever made. The new rear frame section is hand-machined, thus expensive and time-consuming to produce, but that’s the way Doug wanted it, so that’s the way Answer is going to make it. 

OTHER NOTABLE FEATURES

The Answer production bike will no longer sport Doug’s signature asymmetrical rear end. Manitou’s hand-laced rear wheel and machined hub, which had always been dish-less with 145mm of spacing for increased strength, is now back down to the standard 135mm size. Up front the ‘93 Manitou has also dropped Doug’s oversize 115mm spacing and moved back down to the standard 100mm size (Doug’s custom-built Manitous will still use the oversize dimensions). This was a good move by Answer, because it would be unwise to force customers to shop for custom-built hubs.

Nice touches include the gusseting on both the down and top tubes and a dirt repelling neoprene seal where the seatpost enters the frame. A reinforced seat collar and head tube help add to the bike’s durability factor.

THE ULTIMATE SUSPENSION TEST

When it came time to get the Manitou dirty, everyone wondered if it would be able to compete with last year’s rigid frame. As much as we like rear-suspension bikes, we are still devoted to rigid frames mounted with suspension forks. Before we even rode the bike, though, we put the Manitou through its most important test. There are three simple tests for rear suspension bikes that will give a buyer an indication of how they will ride before you even throw a leg over them.

Test one: Apply the back brake hard and have a friend push up and down on the seat. Does the suspension still work? If a rear suspension system locks up under hard braking, it will be of no use during kamikaze descents or in entrances to bumpy corners. The best solution to eliminating brake lockout is a pivot at the seat stay/chainstay juncture. The Horst Link, so called because it was developed by AMP Research designer Horst Leitner for the Mongoose suspension bikes several years ago, links the rear triangle so as to isolate the movement of the swingarm from the brakes. The Manitou’s lower shock mounts act as a pivot (Horst Link) so the suspension will continue to work under hard braking.

Test two: Position the pedals in a horizontal plane so that they are parallel to the ground. Now push down on the saddle as hard as possible and see if the pedal backstroke. Rear suspension bikes that have a high chainstay pivot put a torque reaction into the drivetrain which causes the pedals to backstroke every time the rear suspension compresses. On some suspension bikes the torque reaction is so great that the pedals will rotate almost 180 degrees backwards. This can effectively work against you if you are pedaling through a rough section. By virtue of its low pivot (just behind the bottom bracket), the Manitou doesn’t produce any pedal backstroke, but has a small amount of forestroke, where the torque reaction is in the direction of pedal rotation.

Test three: Put the front wheel against a wall and have someone hold you up as you stand up and crank the pedals as hard as you can. While you are pedaling against the wall have a friend push up and down on the suspension. Does it move? If your bike’s suspension will not move when you have the pedals loaded, that means that the suspension will be reluctant to absorb bumps when you are pedaling. Chain torque on the top run of chain will pull the rear of the swingarm either up or down, depending on the location of the swingarm pivot. High chainstay placement will pull the swingarm down and effectively lock out the shock’s ability to move, while lower swingarm pivot placement will pull the rear wheel upwards, compressing or “bio-pacing” the shock. There is a window of opportunity to eliminate the chain torque by positioning the swingarm pivot in line with any one of the chainrings. This aligns the chain’s top run with the pedaling forces to neutralize the jacking-up or sucking-down effects of chain torque. By virtue of its design, the Manitou’s active suspension worked even as a rider was hammering into the wall, just as it would constantly do over the bumps.

As active as the Manitou’s rear suspension is, it’s not totally active. Ideally, any bike’s rear suspension should not be influenced under pedaling loads. With the chainstay pivot located directly behind the bottom bracket, the Manitou’s rear shocks are compressed under pedaling loads beyond that provided by the rider’s weight, due to the chain torque pulling the rear end together. For the Manitou’s rear suspension to be totally independent of the pedaling forces, some relocation of the swingarm pivot and the Horst Link would have to be achieved. With the swingarm pivot moved up, at least level with the granny gear, and Horst Link dropped from the seatstays to the chainstay, the Manitou could become totally neutral. That’s more than a mouthful of engineering dilemma, though. With the minimal rear wheel travel of the Manitou, most of these torque problems are minimized.

STOP MAKING SENSE 

We had to figure that Doug would design his bike with active suspension. Doug is a motorcycle guy at heart. When we were testing suspension bikes at Moab last year, we remember how he would always go off and try riding the bike with the brake on, while everyone else would immediately head for the big jumps. While we were just having fun, Doug was thinking. Another form of testing he does is to ride his motorcycle on a particular trail, then ride it again on his mountain bike. He wants his bicycle to work just like his motorcycle. You can hear the wail of agony from Marin County already!

“It just makes sense. If it’s not active, why have it?” Doug asks as he defends his design. “Suspension systems should be active because the ground they ride over is active. I didn’t design the bike as a dual-sport model. It’s meant to be ridden hard over rough terrain. It may ‘bio-pace’ [an extreme version of the dreaded frame flex] in the parking lot, but it’s not a road bike; it wasn’t meant to be ridden in the big ring on flat terrain. Once you tune your pedaling cadence to the bike, the bike and rider will become a complete package. The harder you ride, the better it works!”

Being motocrossers ourselves, we have to admit that any bike that scores well on the three tests will stand a good chance of scoring high with us (assuming that the bike is any good, the shock works, the thing doesn’t stink and it isn’t a flexy flyer). We believe that active suspension systems are the best. The non-active bikes are doing two things: heeding the road bike mentality that calls for bikes to be rigid under pedaling loads, while still answering the call of consumer desire for suspension. It was the bicycle people who initially made the case that bio-pacing was bad, so the majority of designs followed suit. Excess biopacing is bad, but having a rear suspension system that doesn’t work all the time doesn’t represent the ultimate in design, either. With their history of dealing with suspension, motorcycle people like Doug are now offering the most accurate assessment of the needs of suspension bicycles.

THE MANITOU’S REPORT CARD

Even though the bike we tested was a pre-production prototype, Doug said it was virtually the same bike they will be offering for ’93. We soon found out that “virtually” doesn’t mean “exactly.” When we first got the bike, our group of 150- to 170-pound riders complained that the forks were set up too soft, which also minimized the effectiveness of the preload adjusters. Once we slipped stiffer, red-colored bumpers in, we were set. Unfortunately, not long after we got underway and started dialing in the adjusters, one of them broke and just spun freely. Bradbury said that the problem was the result of over-tightening the adjusters which dislocated the locating pins. He already had a new design in production, which uses a snap ring to keep everything in one piece.

Beyond the fork problem, we did little else but enjoy the Manitou. Test riders said that though they could hear the rear end flexing (after being ridden through a stream we could hear a scrubbing noise from the brake pads contacting the rim under hard pedal loads), it never reached the point where the bike’s handling suffered. Just as it was with last year’s rigid Manitou, everyone came away praising the bike like no other. No one could praise one aspect of the bike’s handling over another. “Totally balanced” was the most repeated phrase.

As a result of the pivots and links, on smooth, steep climbs there was some bio-pacing felt. Some riders liked the way the rear end worked up and down over the bumps, while others longed for a more direct drive without the bounce. Again, the Manitou has less to worry about because it has less suspension than most other rear-suspended bikes. Like any urethane bumper’s spring rate, the rear bumpers exhibited initial softness before quickly turning stiff. The rear forks soaked up big impact bumps as well as the front forks are known to do.

One dilemma that faces buyers and builders of rear suspension bikes is, “How much travel?” The Manitou suspension bike doesn’t have much rear wheel travel – the claimed 1.9 inches of rear wheel travel is at least a half-inch too optimistic, but even in MBA’s little population we have test riders who want no travel in the rear while others demand three inches. The Manitou rear suspension system is clean, light and takes the edge off of bumps. It doesn’t gallop through craters like a bike with tons of travel, but it doesn’t wallow at speed, either. It’s a dilemma but not a compromise.

WHAT DO YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?

We have said on numerous occasions that Doug Bradbury’s name should be as heralded as any Northern California “pioneers” in terms of what he’s achieved in both the art of frame-building and design. For years the Colorado craftsman has continued to churn out fantastic bikes while politely bowing out of the surname wars. Doug is dedicated to making history with his bikes, not his signature.

With the advent of his fully suspended Manitou, it’s now fair to say that he has surpassed all those who preceded him. While the Marin Hall of Fame collection still cranks out their respective rigid steel frames, complicated suspension systems and cobbly crafted aluminum bikes, Doug has added a very workable suspension bike to his legacy of rigid performers.

Answer plans on making the bike available to a select number of dealers starting this fall. You can see the bike performing on the NORBA National circuit under team rider Travis Brown, who is currently running sixth in the points series. Travis’ top finishes are further testimony to how well the bike performs. If you are looking for one of the most unique, best-working and well-crafted suspension bikes on the market, look no further.

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