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Trail

Tested: Deviate Highlander

Redefining a forgotten category

Basics

-140-millimeter rear travel, 150 front

-29-inch wheels

-Carbon front and rear triangle

-Available as frame only

-Sold consumer-direct from the UK


Pros

-Exceptionally versatile

-Smooth and stable in the rough

-Outstanding technical climber

-Built for longevity

Cons

-Not a fast climber

-Some drag in the idler (without removing seals)


Price

$3,000

Brand

Deviate Cycles


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As a wise man once said, “Idlers… So hot right now.” Be it a slight misquote, the notion still stands, and for good reason. In the wake of the Horstlinkian Explosion, the high-pivot, idler-equipped suspension layout has established a surprising foothold. In its contemporary format, evolved from the gravity end of the spectrum, later speciation occurred throughout the enduro, and even trail niches. Showing surprising versatility, these suspension and drivetrain mutations stand to pose a real threat to the current status quo. This is exactly the aim of the Deviate Highlander, of U.K.-based Deviate Cycles. To become the “ultimate one-bike quiver.” But of course, that’s exactly what most mid-travel trail bikes aim to do. And the crazy thing is, a lot of bikes actually perform up the challenge. Dare I say it, but most modern mid-travel bikes (140/150 millimeters) can be ridden on just about any terrain and handle it well. The real question then becomes; where does a specific bike excel, and for what type of rider? 

Deviate Highlander

In the case of the Highlander, a single-high-pivot-point, linkage-driven suspension design, answering that question is surprisingly clear cut. Excuse the oxymoron, but the Highlander is for gravity junkies that love to climb. Yeah, let’s mull that one over. In fact, maybe we should invent a new category for just such a bike. Let’s see, how about—All Mountain?

Deviate Highlander
Available as a frame only, the Highlander can be specced bare, or with a variety of Cane Creek or Fox shocks. The DB IL is perfect for lighter trail duty or flow trails, while a coil shock makes a noticeable difference with traction for the steep and rough tracks. Photo: Samuel McMain

In layman’s terms, the Deviate Highlander climbs well. First and foremost, there’s very little pedal bob. With an air shock, it’s barely noticeable, so much so that I never once felt like I wanted to use the climb switch. With a coil shock, the slight bob is more noticeable, but it’s only the first few millimeters of travel. In practice, this creates gobs of traction, something that the Highlander already has in spades. 

Deviate Highlander
Accessing shock hardware and linkage is tight, but on the other hand there’s plenty of room to run just about any shock you want. 

Coupled with the rearward axle path of the single pivot design, this makes the Highlander a formidable contender on the roughest of uphills. I’ve cleaned several technical, wet, slippery rock-slab climbs on the Highlander that I have never cleaned before. In chunky sections, the rear wheel feels free to track over the terrain like an articulating rock crawler, drastically cutting down on unwanted slippage and simple hang-ups. 

Deviate Highlander
Despite having heaps of space inside the front triangle for storage, the Highlander has a crazy low standover and seat tube. That’s a 200mm post, for reference. Feel free to size up and run a longer dropper. 

Perhaps my favorite climbing beta on the Highlander is that both the effective and actual seat angles of the bike are 76 degrees, meaning that no matter what seat height you run, the seat angle will still be 76 degrees. Most frames tout super steep effective seat angles, which actually end up much slacker the more you extend your seatpost. 

Deviate Highlander
There are two extra bottle-spaced-mounts, as well as hidden threaded hole for addition mounting, like this tube strap and its custom mount.

Where many “trail bikes” lean toward the peppy, responsive end of the “good climber” spectrum, the Deviate Highlander is more like a rock crawler. It’s better suited for slower, calculated efforts that reward clever line choice and precise handling, rather than brute force explosions that rely on momentum. It’s not to say the Highlander doesn’t have some pep in its step, it’s just more of the quiet, brooding, scheming type. Why waste effort when you have traction?

Deviate Highlander
The twin-lip seals around the idler caused some friction for the test bike, which was noticeable which pedaling. Removing them solved the issue (they are in addition to shielded bearings), but that’s not recommended by Deviate. 

Despite all the praise I sing on the Highlander, there is a “but”. The test rig suffered from slight friction in the drivetrain stemming from the idler. There are two twin-lip seals in there, and even when greased they caused noticeable drag that sucked a few watts out of each pedal stroke. I’d like to say it wasn’t instantly noticeable, but it was, and I ended up removing the seals after consulting Deviate. Removing the seals instantly gave the Highlander a more lively feel, similar to the difference between riding DH casing rubber versus trail casing. However, removing the seals isn’t recommended by Deviate for the long term, and they’re working on a permanent solution. 

Deviate Highlander
The rear mech line runs internally through the seat stay, which the rear brake stays external for the whole journey. 

I must say though, after a few months of Pacific Northwest winter riding without the seals, any grit I’ve exposed the bearings to have done no noticeable damage. Deviate designed the bike with wet rides in mind. They are from the U.K. after all. Every pivot on the frame has a grease port, including the hard-to-access lower link which has grease ports accessed through the ISCG tabs. 

Deviate Highlander
The lower shock linkage hangs below the downtube. But, as evidenced by the untouched anodizing, that doesn’t seem to be a concern. Grease ports for the link can be seen here as well. 

I ran a 150-millimeter fork for testing, which puts the Highlander’s head angle at a not too hot, not too cold 66 degrees. It feels nearly as confident straight-lining into the abyss as a full-on enduro shred sled, and it’ll do its fair share of monster trucking when the time comes. But on that token, the Highlander isn’t as focused on flat-out speed as it is versatility.

The Deviate Highlander isn’t a short bike, but it’s not the sort of behemoth we sometimes see stretching out of western Europe. The wheelbase measures 1261 millimeters in the tested XL size, and the rearward axle path extends the chainstays from an unsagged 440 millimeters back an additional 25 millimeters on full compression. A moderate 499-millimeter reach (gosh, when did that become moderate‽) makes for a very balanced bike that feels centered front to back. 

Deviate Highlander

Its strengths show on technical, raw terrain. It’s a bike that maintains momentum exceptionally well when gravity isn’t the whole equation. The rearward axle path helps the rear end to float over square edges, a quality that helps boost traction and maintain momentum in rough, holey (and unholy) terrain. The handling doesn’t get overly floppy at low speeds or in low-angle tech puzzles, and the slightly steeper and shorter (compared to an enduro bike) geometry makes for a more well-rounded ride. It’s really quite refreshing after riding more aggressive bikes with super slack geometry that, honestly, doesn’t work very well on anything other than steep blacks. 

But that’s not to say the Highlander is a run-of-the-mill, super duty trail bike either. While it excels in its climbing ability, it is a bike aimed primarily at descenders. Just descenders who crave the ups like they do the downs.

Deviate Highlander

The ideal rider of the Deviate Highlander would be someone who always takes the side lines, even if they’re longer. Someone who sessions the crux of the hardest climb until they clean it and firmly believes that the chunkiest, most bomb-hole-laden, rock-strewn descent around is “flowy.” This rider might run CushCore XC inserts because, you know, weight savings. And while they wear a fanny pack, it probably has a water filter inside because their rides run deep into backpack territory. Their “short ride” is probably long enough to compete with the a LOTR extended edition, and their “long ride” might just outlast the complete trilogy. 

Deviate calls the Highlander a trail bike, but I think they’re wrong. No, I think it’s meant for bigger and better things than just trails—it’s a bike meant for grand explorations, misbegotten epics and bikepacking ventures that are better left to groundpounders. It’s a bike that screams of the sublime romance that lies in the original folds of our sport. The Highlander is a realest mountain bike, through and through.

Find it at: deviatecycles.com/highlander

Photos: Samuel McMain