Pinkbike has never reviewed trials bikes for the same reason there aren't many dirt jump bike reviews on the site. To find someone who is a good enough rider in that discipline to push the bike far enough to really understand it, and who can then relate that into brisk, amusing and enlightening copy is a Venn diagram with a very, very small overlap. Add on top of that how niche it is in the sport overall and I think anyone reading this hoping we're going to burst into all-out trials coverage should probably take a deep breath. Several years of riding street trials back in the late 90s/early 00s doesn't qualify me for much, it would qualify me for even less if my competition results were available for ridicule...
Jitsie Varial 24" Hybrid Details
• Wheel size: 24"
• Frame Material: Aluminium
• Wheelbase: 1045mm
• Reach: 470mm
• Chainstays: 370mmm
• Head-Tube Angle: 71.5°
• Weight: 9.53kg (w/o pedals, claimed)
• Sizes: one size
• Price: €1,150
• More Info: jitsie.com
I started thinking about trials bikes last autumn when France locked down for the second time. We had one of the strictest lockdowns in the Western world - in full lockdown we are allowed one hour of exercise per day, within a 1km radius of our houses. In the first lockdown last spring I tried cutting trails into the olive groves around our house, but even with far more space than most people have access to, it still kinda sucked. So come lockdown vol. 2 I started thinking about what would be the best bike for the moment. I had just three criteria: it had to be affordable; you had to be able to ride it wherever you are (hence BMXs and dirt jump bikes not making the cut) and it had to be simple to run and maintain. That left me reminiscing about my formative riding years when my friends and I could be amused for an entire day by a stack of abandoned palettes. Maybe a trials bike could be the ideal lockdown bike?
Certainly it ticked all the boxes. Priced at €1,150 on Jitsie's website, the Varial 24" Hybrid I have here with me isn't even the cheapest bike they make, if you want a pure trials bike, rather than this street/trials hybrid (hence the name) you can drop that down to €1,000 for complete bikes with the same frame their team riders use at WC-level. As for where you can ride it? Well, anywhere with more than a few meters of open space - I'm currently stacking old firewood palettes outside my house to make some basic obstacles. Finally there is simplicity, and a fully rigid, singlespeed bike built to take a beating ticks that box for sure. After all, you don't want to be nipping out for spares all the time during a pandemic. What's more, it all weighs less than 10kg.
Construction and Features
Long-established in the motorcycle trials world, Jitsie initially entered the bicycle trials world as a parts and clothing manufacturer. They filled out their range of products to the point where they realised that it only made sense to add a frame to hang them all from. The Varial is a bespoke affair, with the entire build apart from brakes, tires and chain made in-house. It is a point of pride for Jitsie that their World Cup riders use the same frames they sell on their entry-level bikes, just tarted up with as much carbon and drilling as they can add.
That means that the frame does not feel like an entry-level bike, something immediately apparent from the wild-looking exposed section in the headtube. As you head back through the frame it strikes you as very simple, but well-thought out. Cable routing is clean and external, the bottom bracket is a 68mm ISIS unit and the headset is a simple 1 1/8" semi-integrated affair. The integration between the crank and the bashguard is worth noting - a far cry from the cheap, mix and match FSA cranks/DMR Ring Thing combo we used to run back in the day.
Where the bike diverges from what we use daily in general mountain biking is at the wheels, drivetrain and cockpit. Trials bikes always have a fixed rear wheel with a freewheel at the crank for instant pickup to give maximum control, plus it means a larger, more robust freehub body as failed freehubs can by catastrophic in trials. Just be careful with your fingers as you roll along, because rather than just the rear wheel rolling, the chain is always in motion if the bike is moving and will gladly take a finger off (my brother had a friend who did this when we were younger - Hi Wayne, if you're reading this).
Clockwise from top left: That cutaway headtube; The crank and bashguard and simple and clean, hiding behind them is the freewheel; For my money, that's a pretty wild-looking cockpit, fortunately it feels much more normal when you're riding; The cutaways in the rims to save weight - that is a rim strip underneath keeping the tube inside the tire.
The front hub has a bolted 100mm axle - although not a thru-axle, which is my one gripe with this bike. Over the last 15 years or so I have come to love and appreciate the reliablity of thru-axles and going back to an open dropout is worrying and I have to remind myself that my old Kona P2 fork had an open dropout, plus a QR, and that never let me down. At the rear is an own-brand 116mm fixed hub with the same bolted axle system. Trials puts a different set of stresses on the wheels of a bike and drilled out rims are the norm. Once again they are an own-brand affair with a 32mm width at the front and 48mm at the rear - back in the day this was a trick reserved for high end bikes and adventurous home-tinkerers, so it is nice to see at this price point.
Then there is the cockpit. A 730mm bar sounds fairly standard, however a choice of 90 or 100mm rise is more than twice what you're likely to find at a DH race. Then the stem is a massive 120mm long with a 35 degree rise. Couple with the 470mm reach it all sounds wild, but in practice the bike feels fairly normal if you focus on the contacts points rather than the shape.
One of the things that appealed to me with the hybrid bike as opposed to a competition bike were the brakes. I assumed that in 20 years the world of trials would have moved on from Magura HS-series hydraulic rim brakes. They have not. In many ways it makes sense - if what you want is the most precise control of the bike possible with few other considerations, then a rim brake will always be the better solution. But, I have bad memories of sliding down Hopton Castle DH track in the rain on a set of HS33s that could not find any purchase on the rims... So I prefer discs and this bike comes with a set of workhorse Shimano MT400s with 180mm Jitsie lightweight discs. On my regular mountain bikes I would probably complain about the lever shape (Levy and Kaz have in recent reviews), but when I can run them as far inboard as I need as there is nothing else on the handlebar, they seem to be pretty good so far and hard to fault at this price point. Finally there are the tires, it comes specced with Kenda K-Rad 24x2.3s, a common street/pumptrack/dirt tire. On a more compeititon-focused bike it would likely have heavier, stickier meat for maximum rock-crawling grip, but these are a better all-round option, especially if you want to cover any kind of ground on the bike.
If I am being completely honest, I never used to enjoy riding trials that much. Growing up in the flat, central part of the UK we fell into riding trials as there wasn't much else we could do nearby. Throw on top of that an incredible generation of UK trials riders around the time, like Martyn Ashton, Martin Hawes, Chris Akrigg and the Tongue brothers, and it seemed like the thing to do. At that age, not being very good at trials took away a lot of the fun for me, though. Watching my younger brother and friends progress faster than me was just soul-crushing and left me staring at the magazines each month dreaming of riding downhill. This year I turn 39 and at this age there is no hope or expectation that I could actually be any good at trials, and that is very liberating. If this bike means I have something to do on a bike for a few hours each week, regardless of the level of lockdown, time I can spend working on my strength and riding technique, then it is worth every single penny to me.
As I said at the start, I don't know enough about trials bikes to offer any in-depth perspective (plus I don't review for PB any more because of commercial conflicts with my work as a photographer), but the Varial was easy enough for me to jump on after 20 years away. Straight out of the box I just needed to pop in the front wheel, bolt on the pedals, inflate the tires and tighten the stem. I need to remember to buy some inner tubes at some point, which is a bit of a culture shock. I may pop on a set of Formula Cura brakes I have lying around so my wife can use the bike too (Formula levers are ambidextrous, while Shimano require a hose change to switch sides) and some lock-on grips when the time comes as I hate gluing grips, but overall it feels like a well-sorted package to me. I do need to point out that Jitsie are not alone here, when I was looking into trials bikes, the most interesting thing about this €1,000 price point is the choice - brands like Clean, Inspired and Crewkerz all offer bikes around it.
On my first ride I was hopping around on the backwheel and saw my shadow on the ground. It was surprising how big a movement it was - I'd say it is similar to pulling hard out on the trail. When I stop and think about how often I am pulling like that on an average trail ride, I think the answer is 'not often.' So you are doing that movement far more frequently and intensively than you would be otherwise, ideal preparation for trail riding. Certainly that first, brief ride left me with pretty intense muscle soreness across my shoulders the next day. Then there is the balance, the finer points of riding on flats, the technique of moving the bike around as precisely as you can. It is all good stuff, mix in a bit of running and I am pretty confident I have a good lockdown routine ready to keep me in shape that does not require a Zwift membership, no matter how bad things get. For me at least, that is moving an important part of my life under my own control once more.
There is a hidden joy to trials too - you start to see the world differently. A few days after receiving this bike I was chatting to a friend in town while we stood next to a rock. I realised that the rock was about the right height to hop onto for me (hopefully), I then started working out how I'd get off again. And that is a gift. As you move through the world logs, rocks, steps, walls, curbs and anything else you can think of start to morph from vague shapes to challenges, obstacles and playgrounds - much in the same way that a trail rider will try and spot a route down every hill.
Even if we don't lock down again here in France, those things are still a good addition for any rider, I started thinking about trials bikes for lockdown after seeing an Instagram post from French marathon animal, Micka Brunello, playing on one and figured if it's good for a marathon racer, maybe I was missing out. After all, here is an entire bike that is completely ready to ride for less than the price of a high-end fork or shock. I truly believe that as good as that upgrade may be, that most riders would be better for putting that money into a trials bikes and waiting until next year for new suspension... Plus, trials does not seem to have been caught up in the current cycling boom and while most of the industry is pulling their hair out at the supply chain problems covid has caused - these bikes are sitting in warehouses. Besides, N+1, right?