When I set out to write this ride review I figured it would probably be the only one done on an actual Bradbury Manitou, but I was sure I would find some reviews or writeups done on an Answer bike. However, much to my surprise there really isn't one out there, well aside from the original reviews in MBA and whatnot. Then again, more often than not people begin their post, or thread about a Manitou by saying "...and this one isn't even cracked, I plan to keep it that way so it'll mainly be a display bike". Ok, feeling of surprise rapidly dissipating.
This post will have to do double duty as a ride review of what I personally hold to be somewhat of a grail bike but also a bit of a retrospective on my time mountain biking in LA as this will be my last time riding there for the foreseeable future.
Back in 1998 or maybe 99 my father and I bought a pair of Mantis Pro-Floaters and built them up as a father/son project. I had the first generation bike and built it up with a host of tricked out parts. Although I wasn't riding a ton back then I put some miles on the bike and remember loving it and resorting to words such as 'telepathic' and 'amazing' when describing it. I ended up having to sell it to pay for my last semester of college and always wanted to get another one. So, a few years when the opportunity to pick one up came up I snagged it. For some reason though I have not built it up. Why am I telling you this? Well, I feel that I have somehow elevated my memories of that first Pro-Floater above what it actually could have been and believe that if I built it up now I'd be disappointed. I would... I know that because a few months ago I bought just such a Pro-Floater to use a parts bike. However, before I stripped it down I took it for a ride on this very same trail that I reviewed the Manitou on. The verdict, it sucked something fierce!!! So, now you can imagine how I felt getting ready to climb onto THE bike I dreamt of as a teenager and had spent the last 20+ years building up in my mind. To me the Manitou FS is/was the equivalent of Stephanie Seymour or the Lamborghini Countach (Porsche 959 if I have to be honest) of my adolescent imagination, and we all know you're not supposed to meet your hero or fantasy or drive the dream car of your youth. You're bound to be disappointed.
Maybe it was a high level of endorphins, the great weather or just a bit of solitude in an otherwise insane week, but the bike and the ride were killer. Everything worked, the climb was easy, the descent was smooth and flowy and the bike wasn't the steaming pile of dog shit I was worried it might be. Seriously, it was a total blast!!! I am so impressed, even a full three weeks later I can still remember thinking that this was too good to be true.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a modern FS bike that can do anything. At best this is a modern hardtail with big fat tires and poorly set up disc brakes. But, if you put it in the context of 1992 and compare it to the bikes of that generation I bet it would shine brightly! As for me, it was all I could have hoped for. Going up the long five mile climb up to the Ken Burton saddle I couldn't help but feel a bit nostalgic. I recalled my first few forays into the San Gabriels back in 2003 when I moved to Los Angeles. I recalled hiking this area and marveling at the open vistas in the backcountry on one side and the expansive and shearly overwhelming views of Los Angeles on the other side. I never saw anything like it growing up in central Pennsylvania and now this was my playground. Over the years the hikes gave way to trail running as I get into long distance running and Brown Mountain and Ken Burton became my regular training runs. Then came the Station fire and my subsequent move to the South Bay trading the mountains for the ocean and running for sailing. It would be five years before I would come back to this area, this time mostly on a bike.
Fast forward another five years, one trail restoration and dozens of bikes I find myself one last time at the top of the mountain I had come to call home. I've been there in the dawn of many mornings, all the way into the late nights. In the scorching LA heat, in thick fog, pouring rain and even snow. It's been my rapid retreat into the quiet and peaceful space that over the years I've come to appreciate and seek out as often as I could. It's where I would meet some of my best friends and overtime become center of my newly rediscovered love of biking. Though not the most challenging climb or descent it offers a hard earned 15 miles of riding, packing great views, refreshing scents of wild basil and lavender and the occasional bobcat, deer or even mountain lion. It's everything folded into one neat package and it was five minutes from home. This is where I would come to test bikes and so it's only fitting that the last test I would do before leaving LA would be right here.
Back to what's important, the Manitou. As I said before this bike is really just a slightly more compliant hard tail. Yeah, it's got shocks and linkages and all that, and it all works... but you never really feel like the bike is moving underneath you, it just sort of takes the edge off. This is most obvious while climbing. Going up brown is for the most part a seated endeavour with a few opportunities for out of the seat climbing. However, I took every opportunity I had to attack the hill and try to prove to myself that this bike would squat under power and that I would have very little to no traction advantage. I was sure that the 2.1 tires (I normally ride 2.25s here) would be defeated and that I would come away saying "I told you so" to myself. Not the case. With every attempt to punish the bike for not being a hardtail I felt encouraged that it was actually trying to make my life easier and not take away from my efforts. It really made the climb easier and in a few spots where I know I can't stand lest I lose precious traction it allowed me to stand and power right through loose and steep sections like never before. I only remember being able to do that on my Cunningham and that may have been after some rain when the ground was pretty packed down. A couple times I did feel like the rear end was wondering a bit laterally while under load, almost felt like the tire was rolling over on the bead. I guess there is some inherent flex in the design. Going back and reading some reviews of this bike from BITD the magazines all quote Doug in saying he set out to design a bike that would be great all around and would excel at climbing, not just descending. They all pointed out that the bike was really stiff except under really heavy load and only most on hard pack. So, in retrospect my feedback on the climb should really come as no surprise.
The windy and tight singletrack of Ken Burton though was really the fun part. As good as the bike was going up Brown, it was twice as good going down the back side. Though it was my first time on the bike I felt I had more confidence than most of the time and my gaze was comfortably ahead of the bike and less focused on where exactly my tires would land. The two plus inches of travel may not sound like much, but when you spend the majority of your days on bikes with zero, it's infinitely better. You can pump the bike into a turn and use the compression to carve deeper and hold the line better than most bikes I can recall all the while the bike still feels stiff and under control.
Say what you will about the relative quality or difficulty of east coast vs. west coast trails, but you just don't get these vistas back east, nor do you get the epic 5k climbs. I think that's what I'll miss most when it comes to biking.
I've always liked Manitou forks. Going all the way back to when suspension was still a new concept, I still remember people describing the RS-1 as a fork that is slow but takes big hits and the Manitou 1 as a good all around fork, that won't soak up anything major. I guess I never quite needed to take the big hits and so I eventually ended up getting a Manitou 2, after spending two years on a Scott Unishock, yeah I said it... The trick with these forks is to keep them dirt free and well lubricated, otherwise the fragile stanchions get scratched and rust and then everything grinds to a halt. These rear forks received a dark anodized treatment, not quite as sophisticated as the teflon impregnated ones on the first generation Answer bikes but still a bit better than the polished legs used for the forks. So, the performance out of the gate on a freshly rebuilt setup is nice, but it'll no doubt degrade rapidly if not properly maintained. Still better than an early air/oil cartridge. I do recommend always running a stiffer elastomer than you think you should or do a bit of mix and matching. I've actually started running longer bolts in my shocks and using a larger rebound bumper than the 1/4 - 1/2" unit used in most early Bradbury and Answer forks. In some cases I've actually used the full 1 1/2" bumper from the main stack with good results. It makes the fork rebound a bit faster than normal which is good in most cases. A little damping would be great, but I'll leave that experimentation for later.
I tried to stay close to the builds that Doug did originally. He seemed to prefer Grafton brakes and Cook Bros cranks, so that's what I went for here. As I've mentioned before I always recommend using eye bolts on Graftons, and specifically if you're running narrow rims as you can get the pads good contact with the rims without going past center on the arms. Leverage is your friend when trying to setup cantis.
People (Eric) always complain about Merlins or Manitous being all monochromatic and boring, I say keep it classy! I enjoy a good black and white movie and in turn love a classy and simple bike. Sure a splash of color can be fun, but on these bikes I always tend to go with silver or black components.
Look at all that travel!!! I was flying too, so you know this fork was giving it all it had.
I wish more companies would re-issue some of the vintage tire designs. The Smoke and Dart are cool and all, but not my preferred combination under most circumstances. Still it was fun getting this pair dirty and I guess they're at least better looking than some modern blackwalls.
All in all this turned out to be a great bike. Something I think you can easily ride all day or just turn in a short shred session. While it doesn't excel at any one thing in particular, broadly speaking it's a great bike. A good all around combination of performance in terms of power delivery and suspension capability, combined with light weight (24.6 lbs as build) and all wrapped up in a pretty exciting package. So, while you can have most of that in an Answer made bike and for less than half price, you get none of uniqueness and special qualities that make this bike stand out above a sea of other suspension offerings. I say if you can, go for broke and snag one of these!
Much like my time in CA all good things must come to an end, and so this bike must also go to it's new owner. Unlike the Pro-Floater I am very excited to get my personal Manitou FS done and I think I may actually ride it. It may not become my go-to bike, but I can see it getting into a regular rotation. I sure hope FTW can slot me in for a head tube replacement as my FS #1 won't get away with a little bead.