I've been a Nicolai owner since summer 2004. At that time, I knew little of the company but was intrigued by the reported quality of the frame and the ability to add custom options. I went with a Helius FR with a 1.5 HT. They quoted at the time 6.5" of rear travel on that frame.
That build was a heavy one, complete with a Manitou coil shock and a single-crown 180mm fork, as well as Michelin DH tires (2.5s). As you might guess, it railed on the way down, yet I managed to pedal all 36+ pounds up every trail, and one of my local favorites begins with 3,200' of climbing. HIgh speed descents, drops, you name it -- the bike exceeded my abilities. I attribute that to the excellent suspension design and the progressive geometry. (In hindsight, that Manitou coil & shock were far from the greatest suspension, but the fact that the Nic did well with them is a testament to the design.)
Fast forward a few years, to 2009. I really needed to do a drive-train overhaul, but I took the opportunity to lighten things up...a bit. My new build was not a light one, but I now clocked in at just a hair under 33 pounds. I was now running a DHX Air shock and Fox Float 36 160mm fork, along with lighter tires. I felt I gave up little on the descent and became a bit more efficient on the ascents.
Where is this going and why do I seek forgiveness?
I admit it: I saw some advertisements for a company that shall remain nameless advertising a new frame that boasted up to 140mm of travel and complete builds coming in at 23 pounds. That really hit me hard -- 10 full pounds less than my current build? Tell me more.
I even put down a deposit for a pre-order. Delivery was a month out, but you know how things go with small companies, so I was expecting things to take a little longer.
I decided to REALLY go for it -- light wheels, 2x10 drivetrain, other light components.
Well, weeks turned into a month and then even more delays. By this point, I had every part of my build waiting...except a frame. With the exception of a front derailleur and headset, all these parts would fit my Nic. During a short illness that kept me off the bike for a week, I decided I'd take on the project of rebuilding the Helius. After all, I reasoned, I'll need to strip it down to sell the parts.
Built up the Nic.....and it came in at 25.75 pounds. Wow! Shocking! That's damn light; it would undoubtedly be better on the climb, but would it still hold its own on the descent?
Yesterday was the first time I had the chance to shake it out on the trail. That day's ride starts off with just 2 miles of climbing and 1,600 vertical feet gained. Yes, it's an average of >15% grade. I wasn't going for a record, but I happened to notice an incredible time toward the end. I made the top in 32:30, where I used to do this in the mid-40s. (No, the reduction in bike weight is not the only reason, but it helped; a large part is fitness.) Great!
The bigger question for me was how would it do on the descent?
In a word: amazing! I feel like the bike has been transformed. It felt so capable and so playful -- everything I wanted. I was popping from side to side, where before I would hold a solid line. The bike ate up everything I threw at it -- but we're only talking trail-riding....no "freeride" or "DH light." Haven't gotten to any of that stuff...yet. I have no doubt the bike with this lighter build would not be as bomber for that sort of use, but when I am honest with myself I know find I enjoy grunts of climbs followed by very fast, XC/AM/trail descents. Rocks and roots and drops are OK, but I'm no longer going big to flat landings.
I used and AngleSet and 150mm fork to slacken things out a bit (66.5 HT angle), and I went with a Fox TALAS. It's nice to be able to make things steeper for a long climb, although the jury is still out on long-term performance vs a simpler fork (eg the Float series). Yay for 1.5 HT!
The bike is about 1.5-2 pounds heavier than that other one I would have built up...but based on the handling I wonder if that other bike might be too light on the trail.
I got home and canceled that pre-order. I fell in love, all over again, with the Nicolai Helius FR.
This is a small homage to a very versatile bike that can be built up for DH use all the way down to cross-country racing. How many bikes can claim to be relevant going into their 7th season, and with such versatility?
Here's a pic in the close-to-final configuration...though still with the DHX Air (got a 2012 RP23 on there now). I'll shoot another pic if there's interest.
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