Most of PB's “vintage” bike articles are odes to a model that was so remarkable, so innovative and so absolutely brilliant that it deserves a rousing eulogy. This isn’t that kind of article. Behold the Klein Mantra: the scariest bike to ever roll on dirt.
Birthed in 1996, the Mantra was one of the hottest, most lusted-after models of its time. But let me tell you, from first hand experience, the Mantra was, and still is, a bike to be feared. Should you run across a Mantra (and there are still plenty of them floating about), whatever you do, DO NOT attempt to ride one down any kind of hill. Not if you cherish your collarbones. Consider this a public service announcement with a backstory.It Started Out So Well...
Let’s start at the start, with the bike’s designer, Gary Klein. There might not be a nicer person on earth than Gary Klein. Sincere, soft-spoken and undeniably brilliant, Gary Klein earned a degree in engineering from MIT and was, arguably, the guy responsible for pioneering fat, aluminum tubes on bicycles back in the `70s (you could make the same argument for Charlie Cunningham, but it’s a close call either way). My point here is that when it came to crafting bikes, Gary Klein was no fool. He made ultra-light, wickedly fast aluminum road bikes and by the mid-80s, was cranking out very cool mountain bikes as well.
When mountain biking truly boomed in the mid-90s, Klein hardtails were the hottest things on the trail. Tinker Juarez rode one. There was always a Klein hanging in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. And if you wanted the raddest bike on the planet, you picked one of his hand-built, piece-of-art frames on which to hang all those ultra-expensive, very purple and often poorly-executed CNC’d parts. Klein mountain bikes, in short, were the shit.
...Then Came the Mantra
By 1995, however, the tide was turning. Hardtails such as the famed Klein Adroit were still king, but full-suspension bikes were undeniably on the rise….which is kind of remarkable, because if you look at those early crops of full-suspension bikes, there were buck-toothed, sway-backed, web-toed, flipper-limbed abominations as far as the eye can see.
Most early full-suspension rigs were heavy, crudely-executed diving boards full of so much ugly that just looking at them could kill your inner unicorn. And yet…there were plenty riders and engineers (usually the ones who’d cut their teeth riding moto) who could see the potential in suspension. If, they argued, we could just create bikes with more travel, while also making them lighter, more efficient and stiffer…if we could do all these opposing, seemingly mutually exclusive things, we could have truly great bikes. There were also plenty of people who looked at all those Ifs and said, “Screw it. I’ll just go ride my ultra-light, ultra-reliable hardtail, thanks anyways.”
And then Klein dropped the Mantra like some kind of candy-coated bomb. Let’s consider the facts: The bike doled out (on paper, at least) a then-astounding 5.3 inches (135 millimeters) of rear suspension, yet weighed about 24 pounds when decked out in XTR. In other words, it weighed less than most XC hardtails yet somehow boasted as much rear travel as a freeride bike. Ticket price for that first top-shelf Klein Mantra Pro? $4,000.
Klein mountain bikes were famous for both their wicked-sharp handling and their ability to scoot up a fireroad; this was clearly what Gary Klein was aiming for with the Mantra as well. Short (16.38-inch/416-millimeter) chainstays were mated to a belly-dragging, 11.7-inch (297-millimeter) bottom bracket height. Did I mention the 41.21-inch (1046-millimeter) wheelbase? It was sporty as all hell.The Unified Theory
By now, you’ve probably also noticed that the Mantra was a member of the URT (Unified Rear Triangle) tribe. In other words, the bottom bracket was fixed to the swingarm. The idea here was that you could stop the bike from bobbing around on climbs by simply making the suspension “lock out” the moment you got out of the saddle and started mashing the pedals. Your weight essentially countered the swingarm’s ability to compress the shock. It worked in the sense that the bike did, in fact, climb like a hardtail when you were out of the saddle.
The URT design also lacked the many pivots that tended to poop the bed on more complicated designs. It was also durable and relatively stiff. And, last but not least, the Mantra Pro made so many other full-suspension bike out there look like they were cobbled together by well-meaning, developmentally-delayed toddlers who’d somehow been handed TIG welders and piles of scrap aluminum.
Gaze now at the marvel that was the Mantra Pro—it had a “Torque Control Bream fuselage", for chrissakes! Torque Control Beam? That’s some Star Trek shit right there. The Klein looked about a thousand times “radder” than everything else on the market and one can never underestimate the massive selling power of perceived rad-ness. Could you get other full-suspension bikes in a “Blastberry Chameleon” fade paint job? Not a chance.
Hell, Klein even cooked up their own dual elasto-cellular shock. Whuh? See that thing in the photo at the top of the page that looks like a nuclear missile silo aimed at your nethers? Yeah, that thing—that’s the Klein Suspension Cylinder. They made it themselves and it housed “Two parallel Elastocell springs and a Fluid Logic Damper that provide more cushion and less bounce than other conventional bike shocks.” A whole lot of people read that bit of marketing gloop, frowned in confusion…and immediately slapped down their Visa cards to get themselves some of that.
Say what you will about the Mantra today, but back in 1996 when production units rolled out, this was a bike that looked like it was designed by the very hand of God or Ganesh or Thor or whoever happens to be your deity of choice. All signs indicated instantly awesome times out on the trail. You’d ride the Mantra. You’d shame the lesser mountain biking hordes and you’d head back to town for a microbrew and a trip to the tattoo parlor to get inked up with a totally unique Kokopelli or tribal-design arm band. You’d bro out with your bros. You would become the Undisputed King of Dirt.
Huzzah! Right?Descent Into Hell
Not exactly. The Mantra rode a whole lot better on paper than it did on dirt. True, it scaled climbs like a mofo. It even boasted good traction when you hunkered down on the seat and muscled your way up hills. It was way ahead of the competition on that score.
But on descents? Oh, dear Lord…. It was as if the bike had been dreamed up, designed and built on top of desecrated Indian burial grounds. The Mantra was possessed of an unholy grudge against anyone brave or dumb enough to climb aboard. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting the Mantra Pro was a “bad” bike on the downhills. I’m telling you it was an evil
bike. There’s a difference.
For starters, there was the whole URT thing. The problem with a bike that “locks” its suspension when you ride out of the saddle is that you ride out of the saddle whenever you are going downhill. In other words, when you wanted the rear suspension to act like a rear suspension, it was off taking a lunch break somewhere while you were getting your teeth rattled out of your head. It was a shit idea.
But that’s not the bad part. Not only did the Mantra sport a fiendish auto-firming rear suspension, the bike also had a tendency to simply buck you off the front of it. Hit the front brake at high speeds and the front end (with its whopping three inches/75 millimeters of travel) would dive, the swing arm would hinge forwards, completely extending the rear shock, which radically reduced the wheelbase and created the steepest possible head angle at the absolute worst possible moment... It was hard to fully appreciate all of this, of course, because you were now busy flying over the handlebars. There was no shortage of f*ckery afoot.
I’ve lost count of the number of outstanding riders—guys who raced downhill at the semi-pro and professional level—who were unceremoniously flung from the stink-bugging bike. It was as if every Mantra bitterly resented being ridden and was merely biding its time before it drew first blood. The first time I piloted a Mantra, I was floored by how well it ate those uphill miles. It was 1998, The Mantra was an undeniably gorgeous bike. Moreover, the rear tire felt as if it was glued to the fireroad climb.
Then we dropped down this trail we called Cheating Death. Cheating Death plummeted straight down the side of Sullivan Canyon and it was so steep that our V-brakes would heat the rims to blistering temperatures and we'd occasionally blow out the sidewalls on our tires. It was a treacherous, heart-in-your-throat kind of descent. And I’d cleaned it every time I rode it. On hardtails. On that first descent aboard the Mantra, however, I was bucked off the bike no less than three times before I got halfway down. My co-workers were grinning evilly as they waited for me. Getting tricked into riding the Mantra was a kind of rite of passage at the magazine—a hazing ritual akin to waking up and finding that one of your "friends" has Super Glued your hand to your crotch.
In the years that followed, I did my best to steer clear of every Mantra that crossed my path, but the bike would rear its brutish head at damn near every Trek press camp (Trek owned Klein). During those press launches each editor would try his best to avoid his turn on the thing, clambering atop any dreadful Gary Fisher Level Betty or Trek Y-Bike in sight. As in any game of Russian Roulette, however, there comes a point when you find yourself pointing the barrel of a gun at your temple, knowing full well that there's a bullet in the chamber with your name on it. At times like that, you just prayed you wouldn’t break a body part that couldn’t be mended.
These were the dark days for Trek, when they were an absolute powerhouse in road cycling, but were developing plenty of dirt models that were woefully behind the eight ball. Oh, sure, the Mantra was updated over its six-year lifespan. It’s not as if Klein and its parent company weren’t trying to make it a better bike.
That MCU-spring was quickly replaced with various coil and air-sprung shocks. Less expensive options floated out, as did sexier carbon versions, and in an array of dazzling paintjobs, because no one, to this day, offers bikes with better finishes than those old Kleins. But, it was all just so much lipstick on a pig. The basic, bucking bronco design never changed.
Klein retired the Mantra after the 2001 season, replacing it with the Adept; an ultra-light, Klein-flavored version of Gary Fisher’s Sugar design. The Adept had less travel than its predecessor, but didn’t hate the mountain bikers piloting it, so it was a monumental improvement. Soon after, Klein offered the Palomino—a Klein-badged version of the Maverick ML-7. Klein made those early Mavericks, so it was an easy transition. For a few years, the Palomino did an admirable job of what the Mantra was supposed to do—climb like a scalded goat-monkey and descend with respectable grace.
But, it was all for naught. Trek pulled Klein from American and European bike shops in 2007. Like Spinal Tap
, Klein remained big in Japan for a couple years and then it was all over. I have no real evidence here, but I can’t help but think the Mantra (and the inevitable second-classing of the cross-country hardtail) put a nail in the coffin of that company. It’s not as if you could ever say that Klein produced slip-shod bikes. Every model with that name printed on the top tube was still a well-executed bike. The Mantra proved, however, that a well-executed nightmare of a design is still a nightmare.
Of course, there are riders out there who will disagree with me to this day—collector types who cherish the five or six Mantras hanging in their attic showrooms. I still see the occasional Mantra flying up a trail and then being ridden gingerly down the other side. People call them “nimble”. They argue that it takes “an experienced and skilled rider” to handle the descents on a Mantra. To each his or her own, I guess. There are, after all, also plenty of people who like to swallow flaming swords or juggle chainsaws before retiring to bed each night. Like the Klein Mantra, these things are an acquired taste. My advice to you, however, is this: Don’t ride one down a hill. And if you do, be real careful when you squeeze those brake levers. I’ve ridden plenty of bikes that I haven't liked in my nearly two decades of testing bikes for a living. There’s only one, however, that continues to terrify me—you’re looking at it right here.