Buckley had versatility in mind when he designed the Fugitive, with two different models based off the same aluminum frame. The 'standard' Fugitive gets 120mm out back from a trail-oriented shock with 50mm of stroke, whereas the slacker LT version is given 135mm from a 55mm stroke shock, and the option of running a coil-sprung Fox DHX2. It's also an interesting combo of compatibility and forward-thinking, with riders able to bolt on a front derailleur, any type of chain guide, wide tires, Di2... you get the picture, along with 157mm rear hub spacing and modular frame components to be used on other platforms.
Knolly has never been known for producing fly-weight machines - that's just not their thing - so the 7.1lb frame weight (with a Fox DPS shock) isn't unacceptable for a bike that's destined for a rough and tumble life in the dirt, and you can expect complete bike weights around the 30lb mark.
Intended use: trail / all-mountain
Travel: 120mm (Fugitive), 135mm (Fugitive LT)
Fork travel: 120mm - 160mm
Wheel size: 29''
Frame construction: aluminum
Head angle: 66.5 - 65.2
Reach: 477mm (large)
Sizes: sm, med, lrg, xlrg
Weight: 7.1lb w/ Fox DPS (claimed)
Fugitive MSRP: $4,356 - $6,915 USD
Fugitive LT MSRP: $5,285 - $7,462 USD
Frame only MSRP: $2,100 - $2,663 USD
More info: www.knollybikes.com
It's hard to believe that the Fugitive is Knolly's first big-wheeler, and while Buckley readily admits that he pretty much has to have one in the catalog, he cites the wholesale shift to 27.5'' wheels as one of the reasons that it's taken this long to get a 29er up and running. ''For small companies like us, the move to 27.5 was pretty big,'' he replied before pointing out that his relatively modest operation has limited resources compared to many other brands, but that wasn't the only reason.
''And I just wasn't stoked on 29ers at the time because, frankly, the geometries were terrible up until maybe the last year or so. And I think that with the acceptance of what we've always done,'' he explained while pointing at the Fugitive's drastically offset seat tube, ''is absolutely critical to be making a 29er work correctly.''
Cable guides on the Fugitive don't just guide the lines in and out of the frame, but also gently squeeze down when tightened to eliminate rattle.
And it's also a step that took two full years to make, which is roughly an eon in our strange little cycling world where it seems to be a constant race to debut something - anything - shiny and fresh. I'm no small business expert, but I'm pretty sure that two years without any fresh offerings isn't a helpful thing, and Buckley puts a lot of credit on Knolly's fans for sticking around: ''Just imagine not having a new product for two years; nothing cool, and telling our existing customer base, who are all very loyal, 'Just wait, it's all gonna be good in 2019.' That trust was there. That's probably our biggest asset, our customer base who know that, yes, when it comes out, it's going to be f*cking good.''
''There so much new stuff on this bike, from a development standpoint, for our company. It's the single biggest step we've ever made as a company. Way more than taking on the Warden Carbon,'' explained Buckley.
The Fugitive isn't just an important bike for Knolly because of its long gestation, but also because it's constructed from the building blocks that will form the company's fifth-generation platform. Previously, Buckley would focus on a single bike, made for a single purpose, and see it through to production before moving onto the next project. That approach doesn't make sense anymore fiscally or time-wise.
Instead, a lot of the bespoke frame components used on the Fugitive will be put to work on other platforms as a way to save money and time. ''Nothing is cookie-cutter here. I could go to China and get two full carbon models for the same amount of money that we paid for this bike in terms of tooling,'' he said with maybe just a hint of exasperation. ''We could have gone with an open-mold dropout, open mold clevis, open mold chainstay, open mold yoke... and it wouldn't look like this. Here's what we did do: custom dropout, clevis, chainstay, yoke, and the cost to hydroform this tube,'' he said while pointing to the wildly curving downtube, ''is almost the same cost to open a carbon mold.''
''We developed this as a platform for what's ultimately going to become a new model range. So that huge cost will start to amortize itself over those frames. And on top of that, the industrial design was done here and, I don't know if you agree or not, but in my opinion, it's by far the best we've ever done.'' The exasperation has been replaced with a beaming smile.
See that curvy downtube? It's no easy feat to make an aluminum tube look like that.
But is the world ready - again - for high-end aluminum bikes? Or is the consensus that carbon is the only real option if you want a dream machine? Buckley and Paul Nash, Knolly's General Manager, believe that there's not only room for both, but also that their aluminum frames are better all around than a relatively inexpensive carbon model. ''We've pushed the boundaries of the quality of aluminum frames so that if you don't have to have carbon, and you look at the bike in terms of ride quality and manufacturing quality, then ours wins out over a low-end carbon frame,'' Nash said in response to that question. ''The titanium fasters, the quality of the bearings, the quality of the bushings, even the quality of the pieces used on this frame, they're all part of the package.''
''The seat tube is one of the most complicated tubes that we've ever made. It's a radically hydroformed tube that took about four attempts for the bender to get it because it's just so extreme,'' added Buckley.
Nearly hidden details include a load of titanium pivot hardware, smart cable exit points, and 157mm hub spacing.
But a carbon frame is surely going to be lighter, right? And as much as some of us talk about weight not being a factor, I'd argue that it's at least part of the equation for a lot of riders.
''A carbon frame is approximately three-quarters of a pound to a pound less than an alloy frame, depending how it's made and whether they do or don't cut any corners. But then you buy some brands that have 'premium carbon' and less expensive carbon; if you buy the lesser carbon frame it's actually heavier,'' countered Buckley.
''So now you've got that differentiator in terms of weight. You've definitely got the carbon look. We think we can build a better bike out of aluminum than you can with a cost-value carbon frame. So, for the same cost, we think we can make a higher performing bike. It might weigh 200-grams more, but if you could put everything in a brown paper bag on the trail, you'll have a better experience, and get better value, with our product.''
But what about the Warden Carbon
? Buckley readily admits that shaving an extra few hundred grams wasn't a priority when he was designing the only carbon bike in Knolly's catalog.
''We're like 'Hey, we'll be happy if it's mid-pack in weight, carbon-wise,' but we want it to be durable, so we set some targets that were a fraction of what the industry thinks is okay for failure rates. It won't be as good as alloy; I don't care what anyone tells you,'' he went on to say of his own carbon machine.
The Fugitive looks every bit the Knolly that it is - the FOURby4 suspension ensures that - but it's also a much swoopier, flowing layout that its predecessors, largely due to more attention to the industrial design side of things. ''I've actually put 100-grams of weight on this bike to make it look better,'' Buckley said, an admission that you probably wouldn't hear from many company heads. ''We've got to this point where bikes are so crazy light and strong.''
Depending on the shock you choose to spec, the dual-four-bar layout can deliver either 120mm or 135mm of travel.
Being a Knolly, the Fugitive was only ever going to get the FOURby4 layout that Buckley's used for all his bikes. Cue the ''Why does it have extra links?'' question that always pops up because, well, it looks like it has extra links, doesn't it? Buckley would argue that they're far from being ''extra,'' however, with this explanation scooped right from their website: ''It allows us to decouple the performance aspects of the rear suspension, which means we can fine-tune each bike to match its intended purpose. Put simply - the lower linkage controls the rear wheel axle path, and the upper linkage controls the shock progression.''
The Fugitive's suspension layout does get tweaked with a snip more anti-squat to improve its on-power performance, although that's not a phrase that Buckley is a big fan of: ''Yeah, it's got more anti-squat, but that's not a term I like. I think it's more complicated than that. Yeah, it has the best pedaling dynamics, but it still maintains traction.'' Traction has always been Knolly's calling card, and it's made most of his bikes incredibly adept technical climbers, but too much anti-squat only hurts that cause.
You've got two choices at the lower shock mount: slack or not even labeled because the bolt probably won't ever go here.
''We're learning how to evolve what's turned out to be an extremely versatile suspension platform,'' he said about one of the few dual-four-bar layouts on the market. ''I can make it work like any other design; I can put tons of pedal feedback and chain tension into it if I wanted to make it super snappy on pavement and in the parking lot, but we choose not to because we choose traction over that. If you have a huge increase in chainstay growth in a short amount of travel, that's where you get phenomenal pedaling performance on pavement, but it also destroys traction when you're traction-limited.''
Buckley has long-used the forward sitting, ultra-slack seat tube arrangement that he says is key to building a good 29er due to clearance challenges that come with big wheels, and we're now seeing that same thing pop up more and more as long-travel 29ers are the hot item right now.
You'll find room for a Di2 battery and access to your internally routed dropper post underneath that orange bolt-on cover. And if you happen to travel back in time with your Fugitive, there's even a port for your front derailleur cable.
''Geometry has involved; extended front-centers, and keeping the back-end short. A lot of that, and the 157mm rear-end is critical to that as well because it allows us to keep the chainstays really short,'' Buckley said of the wide hub spacing that he planned to employ two years ago, long before it was the norm. In fact, a major player in the drivetrain world straight-up asked him why he wanted to make a bike that didn't fit their parts.
Despite the 157mm spacing, 430mm chainstays, and room for 2.6'' rubber, there's just 1.5mm less clearance at each of the rider's heels. Buckley went so far as to machine a groove into the clevis pivot section that joins the ends of the chainstay so that the weld would protrude less.
Jump forward two years and 157mm hub spacing is potentially going to become the norm on the most forward-thinking frames. Buckley is thinking about the future: ''From my perspective, being an engineering person, if we're going to make this step to ditch the 135mm and 142mm rear-ends that have worked so well for so many years... I mean, I think you'd be hard pressed to tell Industry Nine that they can't build a 142mm, 29'' rear wheel strong enough, right? They'd probably call BS on that. But if we're going to make a step, why make a small step, and why not use something that already exists?''
The other numbers are modern, too, with a 477mm reach for my large-sized test bike that's incoming, an adjustable head angle via a two-position lower shock mount that goes from 65.25 to 66.5-degrees depending on the spec, and a tight 430.5mm rear-end.
Are we coming back around to people wanting high-end aluminum frames? I don't know if I'm convinced that we're quite there yet, but a scan through the comment section of any carbon bike review often reveals some disappointed folks, justified or not.
I think Nash sums it up well: ''We've heard from other consumers that, quite frankly, they're sick of having their carbon fiber bike in getting replaced.''
Aluminum breaks as well, let's not forget, but when you're paying for a lighter weight, stronger, and supposedly more advanced carbon frame that fails, it stings a bit. Nash and Buckley aren't just talking reliability, either, with the latter insisting that a well-made alloy frame will also ride better than an inexpensive carbon one.
''I don't believe in cheap carbon. We want high-end alloy and carbon, and our opinion is that a better-made bike is a better ride,'' Buckley replied when I asked how he was going to get around the fact that perception has carbon being the superior material. ''Forget what material is involved; the better alloy will ride way better, and be a better value, than a cheap carbon bike.''
So, would you consider a high-end aluminum frame instead of carbon for your next bike?