With more and more brands selling complete mountain bikes direct to consumer, we decided to check out three of the latest options from Intense, Bird, and Sonder, to put each brand’s service – and bikes – to the test. Over to James Vincent for the review!
Words & Photos: James Vincent
The face of retail is changing. Sorry, err, ‘e-tailing’. Whether it’s clothes, groceries, or concert tickets, nowadays many people enjoy the convenience of shopping with the swipe of a thumb on a smartphone, or a tap of keys on a laptop. Inevitably, as time goes on, we expect to be able to buy everything online and have it shipped straight to our door (at a discounted price of course). That includes bigger and more complex things. Things like bikes.
But us mountain bikers are a touchy-feely lot. And I don’t mean the fist bumps and high fives at the end of a ride. I’m talking about differences between bikes that can be so minute that some riders don’t notice them until they’re pointed out. Things like hidden ISCG chain guide mounts. The difference between running 20 psi instead of 23 psi in your front tyre. How the little hook on certain brake levers just feels right. Or how a head tube that’s 20mm taller completely transforms your riding position and comfort on the bike.
Sure, we may like the idea of buying a bike online, but the question remains: is it possible to distil that awesome hands-on feeling into a series of geometry charts, marketing blurb and eye-catching photos, stuff them down a digital pipeline and then get the good time vibes shipped directly to your front door, all for the sake of saving a chunk of change?
Plenty of manufacturers seem to think so, and the list is growing year on year. There are the big well-known brands like Canyon, ROSE and YT Industries that have been doing the direct thing for a long time.
Then you have brands such as Commencal and Intense – brands with long histories of selling through independent bicycle dealer networks that have recently gone direct to cut out the middleman and dropping their prices significantly in the process.
On top of that, there are the younger and smaller UK upstarts like Airdrop, Bird and Stanton, for whom selling online is an ideal, cost-effective way of accessing a much larger customer audience than they could otherwise.
The three bikes we’ve got here on test are all broadly similar. They’re up-to-date, 130–145mm full suspension bikes designed to cover a wide spectrum of UK trail riding, and each one is built with a SRAM 1x drivetrain and RockShox suspension package. Yes, there are some variations in spec and geometry, but the big differences lie in how each manufacturer approaches the direct sales model.
So without further ado, let’s dive in to find out a little more about how each of these brands operate and, more importantly, how their bikes ride.
Bird Aeris 145 GX Eagle
- Price: £2,757 (as tested)
- From: Bird Cycleworks
Based near Swinley Forest [co-incidentally this issue’s Classic Ride – Ed] on the outskirts of the M25, Bird Cycleworks is run by a couple of long-time riders and racers, Ben Pinnick and Dan Hodge. Bird has only been around since 2013, making the company itself a relative newcomer to the industry.
Brimming with youthful enthusiasm, Pinnick and Hodge haven’t exactly been twiddling their thumbs over the past five years. The current line-up boasts a 130mm-forked hardtail (Zero TR), a 150mm-forked hardtail (Zero AM), a 120mm travel trail bike (Aeris 120), a 145mm travel all mountain bike (Aeris 145), and a big 150mm travel 29er enduro bike (Aeris AM9).
The bike we’ve got here is the Goldilocks option, and is the second generation of Bird’s most popular full suspension model: the Aeris 145.
Overall: With the Aeris 145, Bird has fully embraced the ‘longer, lower and slacker’ ethos. Combined with a tough welded alloy frame and a supple RockShox suspension package, this is an enduro-capable bike that flies down the steepest and most technical of trails, instilling a ton of confidence while doing so.
Intense Primer Expert
- Price: £3,499
- From: Intense UK
Intense Cycles is one of those brands that has just got IT, whatever IT actually is. Bursting onto the scene in the early 90s, Intense and its owner Jeff Steber have always done things a little differently to the mainstream. So when news broke towards the end of 2017 that Intense was going direct sale – only in the UK, you could almost hear the collective gasp. For a boutique company that’s occupied a higher-end niche of the market, the move was a surprise to many.
Just over a year ago, an Intense Primer Expert was selling for £5,300 in a bike shop. For 2018, this bike (admittedly with a couple of spec changes) is selling for a staggering £3,499. It’s also now shipped free of charge straight to your door (with a torque wrench included in the box to straighten the bars), and because Intense Cycles UK only lists what it has in stock in its warehouse, orders are dispatched within 24 hours of you clicking the ‘buy’ button.
Overall: The Intense Primer is one of the best pedalling, most eager and nimble trail bikes I’ve ever ridden. It’s a delight to ride, urging you to go harder and faster than you thought possible. The big surprise is that it’s no slouch when the trail points back down either, changing direction with ease and handling more challenging trails than really should be possible for a 130mm travel 29er.
Sonder Evol GX Revelation
- Price: £2,399
- From: Alpkit
The latest development from homegrown success story Alpkit, the Sonder Evol joins a healthy and esoteric lineup of hardtails, gravel bikes, adventure machines, and road bikes. Within Sonder’s bike range you’ll find titanium, carbon, and aluminium, as well as a strong bias towards bikepacking – hardly a surprise given its parent company’s outdoor roots.
After delivering the well-received Transmitter hardtail, Neil Sutton (Sonder’s head honcho, lead designer and all-round bike fiend), decided it was time to build something with bounce. Enter stage left: the Evol (‘love’, backwards by the way).
You can buy an Evol frame with shock for a frankly ridiculous £899. Complete bikes start at a similarly keen £1,599 for the SRAM NX1 Recon build, and go up to £3,299 for the XX1 Eagle Pike build. Each Evol is available in four sizes from Small to X-Large and in three different colours.
Overall: That’s what this bike is all about. Fun. It’s a bike built for hard knocks, ragging around and acting like a hooligan on. Take it on a bigger, more pedally day in the hills and you’ll be rewarded with good times all the way as it climbs to the top before soaking up most of what you can throw at it on the way down.
Right now, the bike industry is in an unpredictable state of flux – and I’m not just talking about bottom bracket standards. The fiery debate around buying online vs. supporting your local bike shop is one that is unlikely to go away for some time, because regardless of which side of the fence you stand on, there are many pros and cons for each. Should you buy a bike locally or online? Well, I’m afraid that decision, regardless of what I think, is entirely up to you.
The reality, however, is that the internet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And so, like many other companies, these three brands have embraced the ease of online shopping to provide a new level of convenience and flexibility for the customer.
As for the bikes on test here, they all share a lot of similarities that see them fall within the broad spectrum that is The Trail Bike™, though they each go about it in quite different ways. The angles are all within a degree or two of each other, the specification is all pretty similar, but the sum of their individual parts adds up to a big difference on the trail.
Right from the outset, Bird’s mantra has been longer and slacker, and the Aeris 145 embraces this theme. A very long and well-thought-out bike that’s amazingly well suited to fast, modern British trail riding. On the right terrain and under the right rider, it absolutely flies, and it would be my pick of the bunch for flat-out enduro racing.
But it requires, no, it demands that you completely adjust your body position and riding style to get the best out of it, otherwise you end up feeling like a fast, but slightly out of control, passenger.
The Intense Primer is also fast, but in a totally different style. In spite of the 29in wheels, it loves changing direction, and thanks to those big wheels it covers the ground amazingly efficiently. Lightweight and good looking, this bike could go either way – make some careful component choices to drop some weight and you’ve got a bike you could take endurance racing.
Alternatively, fit some wider bars and more aggressive tyres (particularly at the front), and you’ve got the ideal bike for 99% of the riding that you’ll find in the UK.
Finally, the Sonder Evol is a fantastically fun bike, proving that not everything has to be longer, lower and slacker than everything else, and that fun does not always mean speed.
It’s the bike to grab for messing about with your mates for a quick blast in the woods, but it won’t let you down if you decide to take it for an occasional big day out. And thanks to its clever combination of solid in-house components and big-name suspension, gears and brakes, the price is very keen indeed.
Enjoyed that one? This article was from Issue #118 of Singletrack Magazine, and you can read the full feature and loads of other fantastic stories right here.
And if you’re interested about the direct-to-consumer approach, make sure you check Antony’s thought-provoking article: ‘The Direct Approach: How the way we buy bikes is changing‘.
|Brand:||Bird, Intense, Sonder|
|Product:||Aeris 145, Primer, Evol|
|Price:||£2,757 (Bird), £3,499 (Intense), £2,399 (Sonder)|
|Tested:||by James Vincent for 2 months|
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I Bought a Consumer-Direct bike 6 months ago thinking it was a great idea – amazing spec bike for a measly £4800!!! – what could go wrong?! Well i’ve now been without said bike for 4 months due to the only part the manufacture makes – the frame – failing on me.
A constant trail of ‘logistical’ issues according to them and i’m still waiting. And a service centre only contactable via email only leaves you feeling frustrated due to them never replying.
I think a proper look/research into all the direct buy manufactures should be done, taking real life customer feedback not just journalists, so that we as consumers can see who will actually give a toss when things go wrong.
Mas Mas, i can see where youre coming from. I only have experience with Bird, but they coudl not be more helpful, or easier to contact, I guess it depends on each brand, just the same as each individual bike shop.
Bird and Sonder can still be bought from the Warehouse/shop though so not uniquely consumer direct
Also these are not particularly cheap – you can get any of the equivalent big brands at similar spec for the same money (or less as they tend to discount). Plus you are dealing with people who have been making bikes for 30-40 years – like giant, spesh, trek etc. Given that the only long established brand here, Intense, used to break all the time I am questioning the implied bargain here.
I agree with masmas too – the suppliers are always going to bend over backwards for a journo or industry person.