MDE Bikes are based Piedmont, Italy, not far from the Ligurian coastline that arguably saw the birth of enduro racing as we know it. Owner and engineer, Federico Biora, crafts these stallions in-house using his own CNC machines to create the frame junctions, dropouts and hardware, and also to cut and fit the aluminum tubes. In this way, Biora controls every step of the building process from raw material, through the final welding and alignment. The 160mm Damper model has seen years of incremental changes. For 2016, improvements have been based on feedback and testing by Italian enduro champ Alex Lupato. Being made to order helps MDE follow trends closely, and enables the small bike maker to offer custom frames and paint schemes. A frame without a shock starts at €1599 and complete bikes range from €3499 to €4499. Construction Details
• Intended use: enduro race
• Frame: Welded aluminum, I-Link, four-bar type suspension, 160mm travel.
• Rear axle: 135mm, 12 x 148mm or 12 x 150mm configurations available
• Recommended fork: 160mm
• Wheel size: 27.5
• Handmade in Italy
• Sizes: S, M, L, XL (custom available)
• Weight: 29lb 10oz (XL, w/o pedals)
• MSRP: €4599.00 (as reviewed), €1599 frame w/out shock
• Contact: www.mdebikes.com
The front triangle sees a 44mm/49mm tapered head tube, 30.9mm seat tube, and a 73mm BSA threaded bottom bracket. The drive-side of the bottom bracket shell is splined to receive an optional ISCG 03 or 05 adaptor flange and if a top-guide is all you need, one can be clamped to the 34.9mm seat tube. The swingarm has post-mount brake bosses and bolt-on dropouts. Axle widths offered are: 142mm x 12mm as standard, 12 x 135mm, 12 x 148mm Boost, and 12 x 150mm.
The Damper uses a 216x63mm shock with plenty of clearance for huge air cans, as well as room to play with offset bushings (if that's your thing). Cable routing is all external and runs under the front shock eyelet before heading beneath the seat stays to the rear, or into the base of the seat tube for stealth-routed dropper posts. Cable mounts also run under the top tube, in case you think it's 2010 and need routing for a front derailleur or an external dropper. Tire clearance a-plenty provides room for a 2.5" tire and the final, and perhaps the most contentious point, there are no water bottle mounts.
MDE have been the main sponsor of the Italian Enduro Champion, Alex Lupato, for the last two years and it's clear to see he's had a positive input in getting the Damper's degrees up to speed. Compared to the 2015 models and earlier, the Damper has been tweaked in the same direction as most other bikes over the last two seasons, with a steeper seat angle, slacker head angle, longer top tube and a shorter chainstay. Prime numbers include a 65.5º head angle, 74.8º seat angle, 440mm reach (for a medium sized frame) and a 439mm chainstay length. Thanks to MDE’s bikes being handmade to order, the brand is able to offer 'Rider Tuned Geometry' - a custom build option that adds €120 to a standard frame, and allows you to choose reach, head angle, head tube and seat tube length. Chainstay length is fixed, along with bottom bracket height and seat angle.
The Damper uses a triangulated swingarm that rotates about two short links that rock in the same direction. Coined the “i-Link,” the Damper's rear suspension shares similar characteristics with the Giant Reign and Mondraker Dune. The damping is super light and supple off the top, with good progression, and the linkage generates minimal pedal kickback. The short links reportedly help to keep the chassis laterally stiff.
The Marzocchi 350 NCR fork has 160mm of travel to match the frame which is controlled by a Marzocchi 053 S3C2R shock. The fork has adjustable air pressure, rebound and a compression adjustment lever with a cable operated handlebar remote to change between soft and firm compression. Air volume in the forks can be adjusted by adding or removing oil to each fork leg. I also noted the fork has a 40mm offset compared to 42mm or 46mm of most other 27.5" forks, which makes the steering feel a little slower in the car park, but more stable on the trail. The 350 NCR’s torsional stiffness is slightly more than a Pike or Fox 34. The 053 shock also features a compression lever on the body, which toggles damping modes between "Up,” “Ride” and “Down," the Up/locked setting uses a blow-off valve to avoid damage to the shock, or excessive bucking if a large impact needs to be absorbed. The shock has external high and low-speed compression damping and a rebound adjustment.Build Options
MDE say that 80% of their sales are from frames only, but they still offer three different build options. Due to the time of year I tested the 2016 frame, my bike was built with a 2015 kit. Marzocchi will no longer be available and 2016 bikes will be supplied using RockShox Lyrik or Pike forks, Monarch shocks, and Reverb dropper posts. My bike was spec’ed with cockpit and wheel components from another Italian manufacturer, FRM, and their products appear to some extent on all their complete bikes. MDE are also planning to introduce a custom bike builder on their website in the near future.
I set the Damper up in my normal way: I instantly swapped the 750mm handlebar for my preferred 780mm width and a slightly higher 30mm rise, the remote adjuster for the fork was an added nuisance during the change. I adjusted air pressure in the shock to give 30% sag in the rear suspension and 25% in the fork. I then tried to find balance using the handlebar height and stem spacers to place 45% of my weight on the front wheel in a standing position, on flat ground (measured with bathroom scales
). Out of the gate and into the first ride the XL frame was a great fit and roomier than many other bikes I had been on previously. The bike pedaled smoothly on the fire roads and it was hard to find a harsh feeling during the bottom-out test. I also noticed a worrying amount of flex in the cranks, so these were swapped to Hope Cranks after the initial test run.Climbing
The aluminum frame and 160mm of travel didn't hamper the bike's climbing speed, and it demonstrated great forward propulsion under power. I like to push hard on the climbs and find I get lazy if my gearing is too easy, so I changed to a 36t chainring. I found that caused a little bit more suspension bob compared to the 32t supplied - a change which also improved the suppleness of the suspension. Depending upon the swingarm’s pivot location, a bigger chainring can produce less anti-squat, meaning more pedal bob, with chain tension having less effect on the suspension movement.
The 488mm reach combined with a 50mm stem makes this one of the longer bikes available and provided plenty of room to the fore to keep my lungs open, the steep seat angle positioned me well over the cranks and gave way to a solid downward pedal stroke. The not-too-short chainstay also helped to keep me centralized, and the front wheel on terra-firma. Giant's superb Reign shares many characteristics with the Damper, but the steeper seat angle and slightly longer chainstay makes the MDE outperform it on steep climbs. (The Giant can put a taller rider too far over the back wheel, causing too much suspension sag, and making it wallow and wheelie.) My main measure of a bike’s climbing prowess comes from the need to flick the compression damping adjust on a climb. The constant need to flick the switch to maintain a good climbing geometry can be bad news, but I rarely reached for it – thumbs up.Descending and Technical Handling
The Marzocchi 053 S3C2R shock was superb and performed remarkably similarly to at Fox Float X (using a large volume spacer) as comparison. The Marzocchi fork, on the other hand, was a letdown - feeling like it was binding. I gave it a chance over a few big rides to bed in, silicone sprayed the stanchions to help them loosen up, but this never came, and the bike rode way too high at the front. I tried lower and lower air pressures to get the correct ride height, but when this was achieved the fork was then far too soft under impact. Swapping to a tuned Fox 36 gave a much better balance.
A superb descender, the Damper did everything I wanted a 160mm bike to do. It had a great fore/aft balance, It reacted quickly to big holes and stayed on top of them, but still sat well into corners. I took the Damper to a race in Madeira where the heavens decided to open, oiling the clay and root to give ice-like grip. Using the Fox suspension (4x orange spacers in the 36 fork and the largest volume spacer in the Float X shock) I ended up with 40% sag at the rear and 35% in the fork, this would turn many a bike into an out of shape pannacotta but this Italian sweetie gripped like hell, continued to ride high in the rough, pedalled remarkably, and still took the big hits like Nate Diaz in UFC #196.
One of my favorite characteristics of the Damper’s chassis was its feel through rough rocks and roots it felt like the ideal balance between stiff and supple. Carbon frames may well be lighter than aluminum equivalents, and engineers always tell us how they've 'engineered flex' using different lay-ups, molds, resins, but personally, the feel of a good aluminum frame is always the winner to date. Aluminum may have more flex, but it feels more controlled and smooth, rarely springy, and that allows the bike to perform better through rough, across off-camber and absorb vibrations.
• Fork frustration: The Marzocchi 350 NCR fork wouldn't bed in. It felt like the bushings were too tight. This made the fork stiff and unresponsive, I swapped to a tuned Fox 36 which transformed the bike's balance. The second problem with the 350 was the handlebar mounted compression adjuster. Really? Did anybody ever ask for this, ever?
• Handlebar hindrance: I don't want to continually beat the "handlebar too narrow" drum but 750mm wide on an XL bike in 2016 is too narrow. It's easy to change, but what a waste of an otherwise great carbon handlebar.
• Crank concerns: The FRM cranks were super light, but also super flexy. After the first ride, I changed them out to a pair of Hope Cranks, when pressuring the pedal's at a standstill, I could see the arms flexing - even under my 72kg weight.
• Saddle sadness: The WTB saddle was comfy and fitted well when seated, but I found it too wide. It got in the way when moving around standing up, maybe my adult hips should be wider than 31"?
• Dropper dismay: The 125mm travel Marzocchi dropper post performed without issue, a smooth action and an easy to use, ergonomic lever. My issue came with the layback on the sear clamp (the same can be found on the Specialized Command post). With the trend towards steeper seat angles, this is taking a step backwards.
|For a frame that's hand-made in Europe, the Damper is competitively priced and backed up with a solid performance on the trail. My test-ride was let down by componentry that couldn't keep up with the pace of the chassis, but with the correct build, the MDE could happily take on the best 160mm bikes in its class. - Paul Aston|
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About the ReviewerStats: Age: 30 • Height: 6'1” • Ape Index: +4" • Weight: 161lb • Industry affiliations / sponsors: NonePaul Aston is a new addition to the Pinkbike Technical team and is a racer and dirt-jumper at heart. Previously competing in World Cup DH, now he's attacking Enduro and has been since before it was fashionable. Based in the UK, but often found residing between mainland Europe and New Zealand allows him to experience a huge variety of terrains and trails.