-130-millimeter front travel
-Made in Canada
-Made in Canada
-Limited capability on steep descents
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The hardtail may be the most misunderstood of all bike categories. For example, I probably shouldn’t call hardtails a “category.” Knowing only that a bike has zero millimeters of rear travel doesn’t tell you what it’s meant for. Hardtails, like full-suspension bikes, can span from XC to all-mountain, and they sometimes send mixed signals about where they land on that spectrum. That’s just what happened when we brought in the Devinci Kobain. It’s got a long and low silhouette, 2.6-inch tires and a Marzocchi fork. It seems to be signaling that it is not your average hardtail, and not for your average rider. Also, it comes from Devinci, who is known for full-suspension bikes that are designed to go beyond what their travel numbers indicate. My assumption, then, was that the Kobain would be in the league of the Kona Honzo or the Chromag Surface. Hardtails aimed at the masochistic few whose skills on enduro-level terrain allow them to abandon comfort in favor of precision.
It turns out the Kobain is a little more traditional than all that. Starting with the numbers (as one does), nothing sticks out as unorthodox. Reach is at 470 for a large or 500 for the XL I tested, and the chainstays are at 435 millimeters for all sizes. Up front, you get a 65.5-degree head angle, and that Marzocchi fork stacks 130mm of travel. If the Kobain were a full-suspension bike, these stats would put it alongside aggressive XC/trail bikes like the Transition Spur, YT Izzo and Devinci’s own Django. And that’s right where I’d put its intent as well.
I was able to go into my test of the Kobain without any spoilers, not knowing what any of these numbers were. All I had was my assumptions, which is why it was a shock when I first climbed on to see the front wheel tucked under the bars, not stretched out into next Tuesday. I’ve ridden that sort of ultra-slack hardtail, and it requires some real adjustment. The extra travel they usually offer forces you to lean extra far over the front end to maintain traction and any hope of control. The Kobain, on the other hand, favors a more neutral position, making the climbs less of a battle.
As someone who spends most of his time on a full-suspension bike, it was a treat to settle into the Kobain and spin uphill. It reminded me that the benefit of a bike like this on the climbs is more about its geometry than its suspension, or lack thereof. There wasn’t the unconscious urge to lean forward or slide onto the nose of the saddle. Part of that is the steep-for-a-hardtail 75-degree seat tube angle. Because the frame doesn’t sag under your weight, it doesn’t need an ultra-steep seat tube angle cramping the cockpit and making undulating terrain feel unnatural when in the saddle. I was automatically in the sort of climbing posture that I could comfortably stay in all day. Not too slack, not too slammed. If there was a part of me that expected the Kobain to have been too aggressive, I put it out of my mind the moment I got to the top of the first hill on my first ride.
That, of course, meant adjusting those expectations on the descents. Going back to the comparison with today’s batch of modern, capable short-travel trail bikes, the Kobain was built with versatility in mind. That balanced experience on the uphill meant it wasn’t just point-and-shoot on the downhill. If I ever let things get too far out of control, I couldn’t just rely on the front end to save me. To be clear, that’s not an indictment of the “entry-level” Marzocchi Z2 fork. In fact, I was really impressed by how poised that fork is, even when I was putting this bike in over its head. It’s not easy to engineer front suspension do all the things that we ask of it. We need it to be soft enough to make quick-hit bumps disappear and stay glued to the ground, but firm enough not to dive when we’re in the steeps. It’s a big reason that brands can charge $300 and up for just a fork’s damping assembly. But the simple, open-bath damper on the Z2 has a wide range of compression adjustment, and I was able to find the elusive balance so that, within reason, I wasn’t bottoming it at every g-out or rock roll. What really forced me to dial it back a bit was the fork’s moderate travel. Just like on the undulating terrain, the Kobain is happiest when I stayed centered between its wheels on the descents, meaning I was still putting significant weight on the rear wheel instead of leaning forward and letting the unsuspended back end lightly bounce through the rough stuff. My riding style shifted towards doing more rear-wheel steering when the terrain allowed it. I found myself picking the front end up out of turns and just riding lighter in general. Especially when the trails were not especially steep, this made for the sort of ride that I would want out of a hardtail. It encourages you to stay neutral but mobile over its center, equally ready to lift up over an obstacle or negotiate an off-camber turn. It was only in long, sustained steep descents that the Kobain was overpowered, but if it were built exclusively for them, it would detract from the versatility I found in it everywhere else.
Now, I haven’t forgotten what is possibly the most unique aspect of the Kobain. It is made in Canada. That’s normally something reserved for boutique products aiming for the cachet of being made “by riders, for riders,” or something similarly romantic. But Devinci is a little more low-key about it. For years, they’ve been manufacturing their aluminum Spartan enduro bikes, Wilson downhill bikes, Minus fat bikes and their suite of e-MTBs in-house. Just because they’re hand-made in North America, doesn’t mean they’re charging small-batch prices. Extending that to affordable bikes like the Kobain and the full-suspension Marshall is pretty rad.
And they didn’t skimp on the rest of the build to earn that “affordable” classification. The above mentioned Marzocchi Z2 fork, full Deore 12-speed kit (including often skimped-on brakes and cranks) is just about what you’d expect from an $1,850 hardtail, though it would normally have been made in Asia. Even more impressive is the $1,400 Deore 11-speed version. It’s an affordable bike with massively broad applications on the trail. The value that Devinci built into the Kobain perfectly suits the intention of the bike itself.
Photos: Chris Wellhausen