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Unicorn Hunting

Sep 8, 2021 at 12:43
by Will  
Zerode Katipo Trail on the Fossil Flats in Devils Den State Park

The end of the hunt...

Weird times. Weird bikes. Wild rides.

While unboxing a beautiful full suspension titanium masterpiece two months ago I had a revelation. I was suddenly done fixing-up broken bikes, riding worn out tires, and generally making things work that nobody else wanted. It was time to step up. Time to go big or go home. Surely my wife would agree with a new philosophy of doing things the right way.

But wait. What’s the deal with that titanium trail bike in the box? Well… truth be told, that unboxing was from its third trip back to the factory for frame repairs. (Yeah, that’s what I said as well.) Right next to that frame box in my workshop was a pile of worn out wheels, stretched chains, rebuilt derailleurs, and mismatched shifters. Suddenly there was no way I could bring myself to do one more janky build-up on such a beautiful frame. And I mean like Aston Martin beautiful. The American factory had bent over backward to repair/replace the frame - with no questions asked – and gone well beyond any reasonable expectation. I was confident this would truly be the last bike a person would ever buy. It just wasn’t going to be me. It was going to get a new, and very happy owner. I may have cried a little, but somehow you just know when it’s time to move on.
Working from a blank sheet for the first time ever, I created a list of things to find in the right bike. And like the Indian matchmaker lady on Netflix would say, “You expect perfection. That is very simple, but not easy to match.” Nevertheless, finding the ideal bike seemed easy compared to constantly carving out $40 and $200 from the family budget for a new shifter, chain, grips, lube, chainrings, cassettes, pedals, and BikeFlights fees to ship the frame back to the factory. Again.

The list was straightforward and all about reliable performance. I came up with a rugged, sub-35-pound trail bike with decent travel, progressive geometry, and some way to reduce the routine headaches that seemed to pop-up on every ride. Most importantly, I needed to find a bike without a 6-month waiting list or wasn’t backordered until after the plague.
After selling N+1, N+2 and a few major organs, my wife was convinced that I was serious, and we agreed to begin digging. After going through a jillion PinkPike test, huck to flat videos, and reviews, I was ready. I had a bag of cash for anyone that could deliver a mid-tier Stump Jumper, Ripmo AF, or Hightower. But alas, none of these were available. Anywhere. At any price. And by golly, I was not handing over 5-grand for a used bike. Not this time. No Sir.

Somehow, I started looking at gearboxes as an alternative to derailleurs and then things got interesting. A quick run through the dozens of OEM partners on the Pinion website uncovered pre-production bikes, European only bikes, and hand built magic bikes only available in Narnia. After too many hours of poking through the interweb, out popped the Zerode Katipo from Rotorua, New Zealand. This appeared to be an up-to-date full squish trail bike with a Pinion gearbox and a Gates Carbon Drive. What!? No way…

Fate being what it is, I was on my way to see family in Vermont where possibly the only Zerode bike at a dealer in the United States happened to be gathering dust. The stars were truly aligned; my 86 year-old Dad was going to take me on a terrifying ride across Vermont to see this mythical creature. And he did. And it was amazing. It was the wrong model, the wrong size, the wrong gearbox, and had the chain instead of the belt drive. But it was incredible. I rode it a mile and was blown away. And I should have just bought the darn thing right there and then. But $6K is a lot for a bike that’s not just right.
So, we packed up and headed back to Arkansas empty handed. With another big surprise, I discovered Zerode Bikes USA was about to get a shipping container including exactly what I was looking for. Several weeks later I had no disposable income remaining and my new Katipo was ready for a shakedown ride.

Lest you think this was a simple matter of strapping on the handlebars, fork, seat, and wheels, think again. Installing the parallel shifter cables the wrong way took over two hours. Doing it right took another set of cables, a painful YouTube video in German with subtitles, and another hour of work. The gearbox and the belt drive are outwardly simple, but devilishly complex to get exactly right. Because I bought the frame and drivetrain only, this was a necessary “field activity.” For almost anyone, I would strongly recommend buying the whole enchilada pre-assembled by Zerode USA up in Vermont.

But was it worth it? Was this early adopter decision good or bad? Are the gearboxes and belt drives as bad as some say they are, or as good as other say? In a word, yes.

There are several drawbacks the internet prepared me for:
First, is drivetrain inefficiency. Sure enough, there is an impression of drag you notice when climbing with your buds. I seemed to lose about 5% of my speed going uphill, which could not have been beer or donuts. However, the Pinion engineers assure me the gearbox drag will be greatly reduced after 500 to 1,000 kilometers or so. (This is also when the Shimano/SRAM engineers want to sell you a new chain. And chainring. And cassette.) Pinion says "the longer the better." We shall see... For what it's worth, in a brand new gearbox I detect zero resistance in gears 1-3. Gears 4-6 you can feel a slight pushback. Gears 7-9 have at least a dozen watts of "what the heck is that?"
A second issue is the twist shifting. It can be challenging to figure out how much and which direction to twist when preoccupied with upcoming features. I missed shifts 5 or 6 times on my first 10 mile ride in the woods. however, after trying out a few different grip combinations and about 12 hours of riding, it became instinctive: Pull over going up. Push over going down. (Strangely, the opposite of my wife's Nexus geared Ebike!) Several weeks in to this change, the twisto-chango gear swapping is far smoother than my previous XO1 and XT 11 speed experiences.
If you do research on the Pinion gearbox, you'll hear about the need to stop pedaling to shift gears. That's pretty much not true. Like any derailleur bike, you cannot shift gears while laying down heavy pedal strokes. While some would have you believe that you have to stop for coffee to shift gears with a Pinion, it's not like that at all. Upshifting works with almost no pause or let up. Downshifting requires a softer touch. The 4-3 shift seems to be the one that needs a complete, but very brief letup on the pedals.
The final "drawback" results from a deliberate product choice: The 9-speed gearbox has a 576% range. While that's a terrific range, it delivers relatively big jumps between gears. While I wouldn't recommend keeping a race pace with those big gaps, it makes for a pleasant ride through the woods. With 9 distinct gears, each has a unique purpose: 1 is the wall climber, 2 is the punch up, 3 is the grinder, 4 is the casual climber, and so on to 9, the murder-death-kill gear. I'm sure the 12-speed gearbox with 600% range would be better for fine tuning, but I'm a simple minded fellow.

On the plus side… oh geez, where do I begin? The results of all the changes are clear when you ride the Zerode Katipo: Sketchy black diamond rock garden descents now seem overrated. Jumps that used to scare the bejeepers out of me feel smooth and effortless. Railing around big berms feels like you’re buckled into a roller coaster. High speed bumps disappear under the rear wheel - which never seems to break loose. Ridiculously steep climbs that I could never clear before are now just spinning and winning.

For context, the Best Trail Ever on Fitzgerald Mountain near Bentonville, is a legit black diamond 3-mile test of riding skill with a side order of thrill. With minimum talent or fitness contributed by me, this bike rode that trail clean on the first try. That experience alone is the dealmaker for this old man.

The Katipo’s namesake is a venomous arachnid from New Zealand and I’m sure it would be proud of this bike’s ability to climb like a spider.

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BigFatDaddy avatar

Member since Aug 25, 2021
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