by Andi Sykes and Wil Barrett
March 8, 2017
The Alchemy Arktos is a bonafide superbike. But does the performance live up to the looks? We've been riding one to find out.
Alchemy Bicycle Company is a U.S-based design and engineering company that specialises in building fine bicycle frames. We’ll excuse you if you’re only just hearing the name now for the first time, as Alchemy has mostly made a name for itself producing high-end road bikes. Now based out of Denver, Colorado, the Alchemy brand was first founded in 2008 in Austin, Texas, where the company started out producing handmade metal frames crafted from alloy, steel and titanium.
Since moving to Colorado and expanding its operations, Alchemy has been growing its reputation for working with carbon fibre. In fact, the company won the prestigious ‘Best Carbon Construction’ award at the North American Handmade Bike Show back in 2013 when it debuted its flagship aero-road bike, the Arion. Fast-forward to 2017, and Alchemy now offers a broad range of road, gravel and cyclocross models with stock, semi-custom and full custom options available.
More recently though, it’s been getting into dirtier business. Alchemy produces two mountain bike models, and both are handmade from carbon fibre. There is the OROS – a carbon XC hardtail frame that weighs in at only 1200 grams – and there’s this;
We first came in contact with the Alchemy Arktos back at Interbike in 2015, where it left many with their jaws on the floor. It’s a striking machine that shows Alchemy’s proficiency in working with carbon fibre, but it also represents a significant departure from previous projects that the U.S frame builder has been involved in. For a start, the Alchemy Arktos is the brand’s first-ever full suspension bike. And despite the enormity of the project, the guys didn’t hold back. The Arktos boasts modern features, a burly profile, and 150mm of rear wheel travel that’s delivered through the specially designed SINE rear suspension system. More on that later.
With 150mm of travel you would think that the Arktos would have the in-vogue ‘E’ word stamped all over it. On Alchemy’s website however, the company states that this is more of an all-mountain or ‘aggressive trail bike’. That isn’t to say that you couldn’t take on an Enduro or two, but it’s clear that Alchemy doesn’t want people to have the impression the Arktos is a gravity orientated bike. Instead, this is pitched as a long travel trail bike for all-round riding.
It’s not surprising that a bike from a prestigious road frame manufacture has a high price tag, and the Arktos certainly has one. As one of the more expensive frames available on the market, the Arktos plonks itself firmly into ‘superbike’ territory. Along with top-end models from the likes of Intense, Yeti and Santa Cruz, this is not a bike aimed at beginners or for those on a strict budget, and Alchemy isn’t making any concessions otherwise. The frame alone (with shock) retails at no less than £3400. It’s worth noting that we’ve been testing the more expensive ‘Arktos Custom’, which uses a front triangle that is made in the U.S. This offers a slightly lighter overall frame weight and you also get a dizzying array of colour combinations to choose from.
If that’s a little to rich for your budget, then Alchemy also produces a full-Taiwanese version of the Arktos that comes in £500 cheaper at £2900. All Arktos frames are available in sizes from Small through to X-Large.
As already mentioned, our version of the Alchemy Arktos is the U.S made model. Or at least, it’s partially U.S made. Unlike the road frames that are 100% U.S made, the Arktos pairs up a front triangle that’s laid up in the Denver facility, while the swingarm is handmade in Taiwan. Given that the swingarm design is identical throughout the size range, this move has presumably been made by Alchemy from a cost & volume perspective.
In terms of geometry, the Arktos isn’t bearing the same kind of reach numbers that some of the European and Canadian brands are currently pushing. With this in mind, it’s worth adding the numbers up to see if you can size up if you fancy a little more cockpit room.
In our case, we went with a Large. Standing at 175cm and 178cm respectively, both Wil & I typically fit most brand’s Medium size bikes, but we wanted a little more length from the Arktos, and so chose to upsize to a Large. Reach comes in at 431mm, which isn’t exactly uber long like many new-school enduro bikes are going for. As a direct comparison, the reach on the Medium Intense Recluse we recently tested sits at 438mm, while a Large Recluse runs in at 460mm. However, the angles on the Arktos are a little more familiar with what we’re seeing from other brands in the same travel bracket, with the head angle measuring in a suitably slack 66° and the seat tube at 73.5°.
While the Alchemy Arktos is a relatively new frame a few of you are going to be looking at the bike and having a slight pang of Deja Vu. Those swooping lines and that distinctive rear triangle all look very similar, don’t they?
Well, that’s hardly surprisingly given that David Earle (the main man at the Sotto Group) helped to design the Arktos. Earle has an impressive resumé in the mountain bike world, with 20 years of experience working for the likes of Santa Cruz, Specialized and Bontrager. Prior to his entry into the mountain bike industry, Earle spent two years at Lockheed Missiles and Space, and spent three years as a Design Engineer at Creative Machining and Design.
During his time with Santa Cruz Bicycles, Earle spent significant time developing the VPP suspension design. More recently, Earle’s Sotto Group design house was responsible for the Yeti Switch suspension platform that first debuted on the original SB-66. His expertise was also drawn on for the Orbit Link found on the brand new DMR Sled that launched at Core Bike in January 2017.
For Alchemy, Earle designed the exclusive Sine suspension. This platform relies on a main frame, a one-piece swingarm, and two small CNC machined alloy links that join the two together. In essence, the Sine suspension design is not totally dissimilar to Yeti’s Switch platform, but instead of the linear rails for the lower pivot, the Arktos employs a more conventional link. It is absolutely tiny and is hidden by the beefy swingarm, but it’s there.
The Sine platform is named as such due to the shape the suspension curve makes on a graph – it looks like a Sine Wave. The idea of this design is to create a regressive initial movement, a progressive mid-stroke and slightly regressive again in the end-stroke. It also looks like a sweet kicker on a trail;
In theory, Sine should mean that small bumps are eaten up, while allowing the suspension to sit nicely in the middle of its movement. With the slightly regressive ending stroke, Earle wanted to get around the inherently progressive nature of air shocks, so that the rider could access full travel more easily without the ‘spike’ that can sometimes come with some suspension designs. Or at least, that’s the theory.
Up front, we’ve got a Fox 36 Float to match the rear Float X shock. The 36 comes with 160mm of air sprung travel, super slippy Kashima coating, high and low-speed compression adjustment, rebound adjustment and a 15mm thru-axle. Despite all the coloured dials, the 36 are a pretty simple fork to set up, and Fox’s online setup guide proved to be pretty close to what we needed in the end.
Other notable features on the carbon frame is a conventional 73mm threaded bottom bracket shell, internal routing and some really hefty looking suspension hardware that uses expanding collets to keep everything snug over the long run. With its 1x specific design and hidden lower link, Alchemy has made the Arktos as clean and uncluttered and possible. It certainly looks good, and of all the test bikes we’ve been riding lately, the Arktos was certainly a machine that grabbed loads of attention everywhere it went.
Saddleback, the distributors of Alchemy in the UK, built our review bike with top of the range components. The resulting build is the stuff of dream bike lore – a money’s no object bike. Well, perhaps if you don’t count the Deore XT drivetrain and brakes.
ENVE is very well represented on our test bike, providing the wheelset, stem and handle bar. Carbon is the word here. The lightweight ENVE M60 rims spin on Chris King hubs and are shod with versatile and relatively fast-rolling Schwalbe Hans Dampf tyres.
With Fox suspension front and rear, you might think that we’d be running Fox dropper post but this isn’t the case. Plugged into the seat tube is a lovely stealth-routed Thompson Elite dropper post. Interestingly, it’s been attached to a Fox handlebar remote, which features a 1x specific lever that sits on the underside of those carbon bars.
Rotor – another one of Saddlebacks brands – provide hollow REX1 crank arms and a narrow wide Q-Ring. For those of you unfamiliar with the Q ring, it is Rotor’s version of the oval chainring that’s equipped with optional mounts so that you can adjust the ‘timing’ of the oval to suit your riding style. This was my first time using an oval ring, and after a few pedals I soon got used to the feeling and am now seriously considering to upgrade my other bikes.
One thing we did notice is that clearances do look to be rather minimal. The upper seat stay is quite beefy, and may cause heel-rub issues for those with chunkier shoes and a heel-in riding style. Also, the chainring sits very close to the swing arm and although it never happened during our review, it does look like small stones, grit and other trail debris could easily get jammed in. This is possibly just an issue with the Rotor REX1 crank and Q-Ring, but something worth bearing in mind.
Clearance around the rear tyre isn’t quite up to UK standards either. Again, this didn’t cause trouble while riding, but on one snowy day in a pine needle covered forest, I did need to unblock the rear wheel when wheeling the Arktos up the trail. Alchemy states the Arktos is good for up to a 2.4in tyre, though it’ll get a little snug back there depending on the tyre/rim combination.
On the trail, our Large test bike proved to be great fit for myself, though Wil’s little legs struggled with the minimum saddle height. Part of this is due to the Thomson dropper post, which sits quite tall even when the collar is slammed down into the seat tube as far as possible. Though a shorter seat tube would be nice to open up compatibility with longer travel dropper posts.
As mentioned above, the reach isn’t as long as other brands are going for. As such, riders over the 185cm mark may struggle to get the length they need from the X-Large frame size. As it is though, our Large felt very comfortable right from the off, though we did lower the front end by removing some of the spacers underneath the ENVE carbon stem.
Setting up the Fox 36 proved to be simple, and we were able to verify our settings with the new Quarq ShockWiz to see how our own settings matched up to what this clever little device suggested we should be running.
Alchemy suggests running the Arktos at 30% sag front and rear, which we did. The Float X rear shock has been tuned specifically for the Arktos, and it’s equipped with a larger volume LV air can that’s designed specifically for longer travel bikes. To help increase starting-stroke suppleness, there’s an EVOL air can, and Fox have setup the damper with a Medium Compression tune and a Low Rebound tune from the factory.
Setup at 30% sag, we immediately found the rear suspension to be overly soft and wallowy. Feeling like it was filled with marshmallows rather than air, the shock was smooth and supple, but sat too far into its travel and would blow through much faster than we wanted. After a little fettling, we discovered that the specially tuned shock supplied with the Arktos comes setup with a medium sized volume spacer inside the air can.
With the given shock size, we had the option to fit in one of two larger volume spacers to reduce the overall air volume inside the Float X shock. Back in the workshop, we swapped in a larger spacer, which saw an immediate and dramatic improvement. The bike now sat higher in it’s travel and had the necessary ‘pop’ to clear trail obstacles, gaps, doubles, and fellow riders in an energetic manner.
With the larger spacer now fitted, the Arktos came to life with a much more playful feel than it’s 150mm of travel would have you believe it to be. With the Sine wave handling small bumps, the mid stroke feels supportive and gives enough ramp up for those times you want to take to the air.
My only concern with setup is for heavier riders. At 85kg loaded up, I’m unlikely to be the heaviest rider swinging a leg over an Arktos frame. However, I was running the largest volume spacer inside the Float X shock, so there’s no room to decrease volume further for those riders over 90kg who would need the added progression to avoid bottoming out.
Our conclusion is that Sine suspension design will be better suited to smaller volume air shocks. The combination of the EVOL air can with the LV volume on the stock Float X creates a very supple and mostly-linear feel already, which combined with the slightly regressive nature of the Sine leverage curve, produces too much linearity for the last 3rd of the travel. A standard volume rear shock would help alleviate this problem, and would likely work in better harmony with the Sine leverage curve.
Suspension setup aside, it must be said that the Arktos feels extremely stable sprinting out of corners into jumps, and once in the air, it seems to stay up there for the longest time possible. There were times when I carried so much speed into a jump that I was landing way further down the trail than I had before. Thank goodness for that extra travel to what I’m used to – it kept me out of trouble more than once!
Getting the Arktos up to speed takes very little effort no matter if you are heading downhill or if you are on a more flowing trail. It pedals remarkably well, and it does so whether you’re in or out of the saddle. Earle’s attention to detail on the leverage curve for the Arktos has produced a highly efficient machine.
However, there were situations that we found the bike to lose speed faster than we’re used to. As it turned out, the rear Chris King freehub was causing excessive drag that felt like the rear brake pads were rubbing on the rotor. Normally King hubs require a decent bed-in time before they’re free and smooth, but our test bike had a particularly draggy freehub.
We also experienced one or two moments where the freehub failed to engage – which is an issue that we have never encountered with the normally bombproof Ring Drive mechanism. Some further investigation unveiled the problem, which turned out to be incorrectly spec’d grease inside the hub’s guts. There was a small batch of Chris King hubs that experienced this issue last year, and a strip and rebuild with the correct oil remedies the issue.
So, the Arktos can descend, jump well, plus the long travel can make up for missing skill when hitting things faster than we should, but what about the other areas on a trail? What about the twisty stuff and climbs?
Originally I had issues with climbing as the rear suspension sat too far in to its travel. But with with the larger volume spacer in place, the Arktos sat comfortably into the sag point, while remaining at a more sustainable ride height on the technical stuff. Once pointed up hill, climbing on the Arktos is a breeze. The combination of the roomy cockpit and active suspension design makes for a comfortable and rapid ascent. With the correct suspension tune there is no front end wandering, even on the steeper climbs, and technical rocky terrains is gobbled up with ease.
From our time with the Arktos, it became abundantly clear that suspension set up really is key to getting the most out of it, and more so than other full suspension bikes. Because of the Sine-shaped leverage curve, the Arktos really needs you to have it bang-on 30%. Run too little sag and the bike can feel overly springy. Not enough sag and it wallows and blows through the travel. In both cases we’re only talking 10-15psi either side of the ideal setting, so it pays to spend the initial setup time getting it right.
But once dialled in the rear wheel tracks well, with no notable bob or wallow, and gobs of traction on the loose stuff. It really is a suspension platform that shines going up as much as it does coming back down.
I’ve already touched on the length of the bike, but the best way to describe the overall feel is ‘neural’. Alchemy has ensured that the Arktos is extremely well balanced, with the riders weight firmly planted in the centre of the frame. This allows you to shift around easily to weight up the front or rear of the bike rather than always sitting in one extreme or the other. This suits the supple suspension design, which allows you to remain seated for more of the time and eat up miles and miles of choppy terrain. There are certainly bikes out there with more aggressive geometry sheets, but the Arktos reminds us what a well balanced and unbiased geometry can be cable of.
Designed for a warm, sunny and dry climate, the Arktos does have some rather tight tolerances that I would want to keep an eye on in prolonged UK winter riding. In particular the distance between the swingarm and chainring is quite tight, and while I had no issue during testing this could be an area where stones or grit could build up and cause cosmetic damage.
Another area which I would like to keep a close eye on is the main linkage point where the shock mounts. The way the linkage and shock moves, there is only the smallest of gaps between the shock shaft and upper link. Again, this never caused an issue in our time with the bike, but I worry what would happen on a particularly muddy, gritty ride and how that gap could clog up and wear on the shock body.
As for the components, well, it’s all top notch stuff. Everything from ENVE looks stunning and works as well as it’s price tag would suggest. Shimano 1×11 shifting is mint, and the brakes required zero faffing and simply worked from start to finish. No complaints there.
This was my first time using the Thompson dropper post and my time with it was all good. The cable operated lever from Fox is well made and the action (of both the lever and seatpost) was smooth and predicable.
Three Things That Could Be Improved
- Clearances. Tyre, Chainring and shock clearances would suit UK conditions better if they were increased.
- We would love to see different size Arktos frames come with more suitable shock sizes. There’s only so much volume that can be reduced in the LV air can, and heavier riders will struggle to get the necessary progression to avoid bottoming out.
- A slightly shorter seat tube would increase compatibility with 150mm dropper posts.
Three Things We Loved
- You feel like a millionaire while riding this bike. It’s beautiful, exotic and highly comfortable to ride.
- Stability and control. The Alchemy Arktos feels stable at speed and gives you the confidence to hit jumps and drops and not really worry about where you land. Power, pop and plough.
- The clean lines and simple design are really refreshing. Some people might be put off by the lack of bell and whistles, but we love the clean look.
The Alchemy Arktos promises to be a high-end long travel trail bike that can track over and gobble up any imperfection it comes across. And it does all of that with aplomb.
It’s a bike that loves flat-out speed and staying glued to the ground, and while it doesn’t have the same super-long and raked-out geometry of bikes like the Kona Process and Mondraker Foxy, it seems to manage just fine thanks to its balanced riding position. It’s definitely more trail bike than enduro bike though, and if you’re more 50:01 than Strave KOM killer then the Arktos likely won’t suit your riding style.
But once the suspension is set up correctly, you have a bike that sits nicely into its travel and begs to be let off the chain. You’ll find yourself covering the brakes more than you actually use them, as the bike carves through technical sections with ease.
The Artkos isn’t cheap, but then it is a high performance machine that’s designed to offer a comfortable, balanced and highly refined ride quality.
Alchemy Arktos Specifications
- Frame // Carbon Monocoque Front & Rear Triangle, 150mm Travel
- Fork // Fox 36 Factory Series, 160mm Travel, FIT HSC/LSC Damper, QR15
- Shock // Fox Float X Factory Series
- Hubs // Chris King, 110x15mm Front & 148x12mm Rear
- Rims // ENVE M60
- Tyres // Schwalbe Hans Dampf 2.35in,
- Chainset // Rotor REX1, 32t Q-Ring
- Front Mech // N/A
- Rear Mech // Shimano Deore XT 11-Speed
- Shifters // Shimano Deore XT 1×11
- Cassette // Shimano XTR 11-42t 11-Speed
- Brakes // Shimano Deore XT 180mm Rotors
- Stem // ENVE AM Carbon
- Bars // ENVE Riser Carbon 760mm Width
- Grips // Renthal Soft Compound Lock-On
- Seatpost // Thomson Elite Dropper 31.6mm, 125mm Travel
- Saddle // Astute Mudlite V2
- Size Tested // Large
- Sizes available // Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
- Weight // 13.34kg (29.4lbs)