Most of us have dreamed at one time or another of building a bike to our own spec. Trouble is, the price normally puts it out of reach. But mail order specialists Chain Reaction Cycles have enough buying clout to bring component prices down, meaning they were able to put together this custom-specced Kinesis Maxlight hardtail for under a grand.
It's tough building an aluminium mountain bike frame these days. Everyone's at it, and that - combined with the reality that hardtails are old news next to the latest in full sus technology - tends to put frame designers into overdrive. Simply oversizing isn't enough to fuel the acronyms and marketing hype any more. It has to be oversized, hydroformed, multi-profiled and buzz-worded... or it simply won't make it into production.
The Kinesis Maxlight is the exception that proves the rule. Here's a hardtail frame that's distinctly lacking in bulges, flares and engineering cleverness. It's just a good ol' plain vanilla cross-country chassis made from some of the best tubing available - Easton's Ultralite. Unusually, the Easton branding is there for all to see in the form of stamp marks visible through the paint on both top and down tubes. Short of the even lighter scandium tubesets, this is about as light as aluminium frames get. Curvy stays incorporate rim brake bosses - which would enable an even lighter build at the expense of some stopping power - and plug into neat, minimalist dropouts. The head tube is externally butted to shave a few extra grams and, well, that's about it. Just about the only bum note is the fact that the twin reinforcing gussets at the head tube junction aren't open-ended as they should be to properly disperse stress, although it's unlikely to be a problem.
Holding up the front of our test bike and pointing everything in the right direction is a Marzocchi MX Comp fork. There are lighter, plusher and torsionally stiffer forks out there, but its 85mm (3.5in) of firm-feeling travel is a good match for the frame, pattering over the small stuff and taking the edge off bigger hits.
Here's the beauty of custom speccing: you can have whatever your heart desires, so long as your wallet can back it up. For a limited budget, Chain Reaction pulled out the stops to give us the best bang for our buck. A SRAM transmission with RaceFace chainset, Swiss DT wheelset, Hayes El Camino hydraulic discs and Titec finishing components gave us no cause for complaint - and change from a thousand pounds.
There was a time, perhaps 10 years ago or more, when aluminium was the Next Big Thing. Simply throwing an alu frame together and hinting at the material's 'aerospace' credentials was enough to excite interest. These days it takes a bit more effort to make one that stands out.
In many ways it's to Kinesis' credit that they've ignored the current fashion for complex tube profiles and massively over-rigid down tubes, because it gives this bike a character that sets it apart from the aluminium hordes.
The combination of unfashionably slender tube profiles and Coke can wall thicknesses shaves off enough weight - combined with sensible componentry choices - to give the Maxlight Custom a noticeably lively feel on long cllmbs and short, out-of-the-saddle sprints. But more than this, it also counters some of the tendency for a power-efficient, rigid aluminium chassis to feel harsh.
On slow, technical climbs and middle ring blasts the Maxlight has a spring to its gait that's more like the lively feel of titanium or high end steel. Pick the speed up and the alu tubes' inherent rigidity starts to take over, making this a bike that needs to be coaxed and finessed through fast, rough sections. But it rarely feels a handful, and the compact geometry, firm feeling Marzocchi fork and short stem all work perfectly together.
On everything from walking pace uphill grinders to fast, choppy singletrack, the Kinesis comfortably outperforms its price tag and carves out a little niche all of its own. The sizing seems a tad on the small side to us, but that's easily sorted - assuming your current ride fits you well - by matching top tube lengths. The light frame construction probably rules it out for heavy or clumsy riders, but anyone else looking for a versatile race, enduro or all-round trail bike at a bargain price will find a lot to like.