Here's a rarity: a sub-£1000 bike where you get to choose your own spec. Spanish-based Massi's unusual approach means you can order pretty much whatever your heart desires from your local Massi dealer and the bike will be delivered within a week. That's pretty impressive service at any price.
With our nominal budget of £850, we left all the speccing decisions to the guys at Massi. Our ready-to-ride Casta turned up with a Magura Odur fork, a Shimano Deore-based transmission, Magura Julie hydraulic discs and a full complement of Massi-branded finishing kit, right down to the tyres and clipless pedals.
With a noticeable lack of fancy tube profiles - or the acronyms that often accompany them - the Massi is an exercise in old-school hardtail functionalism. A thin-walled, cross-ovalised down tube provides the rigid backbone off which to hang everything else, while an open-ended gusset reinforces the vulnerable head tube area and cables run in tidy, shoulder-friendly fashion along the top of the top tube.
At the rear, the chain and seat stays curve smoothly into elegantly sculpted, cutaway dropouts. The tidy finish is compromised ever so slightly by welding that errs on the chunky side of solid, but it's the cantilever brake bosses that are likely to raise most eyebrows. Yep, if you're mad enough to want to switch over the discs for rim brakes - which would, admittedly, save a few grams - both the fork and the seatstays feature the bosses to make it possible.
The Magura fork is an unusual choice that, for the most part, works well. We like its smooth and willing performance in the rough. We're not so keen on the fact that different rider weights can only be accommodated by switching the spring and/or internal spacers. You'll only have to do it once, but there's no getting away from the fact that initial setup of this fork is about as fiddly as it's possible to make it. Once it's done, at least the external lockout and rebound damping adjusters make life a little easier.
The compact geometry of our test bike combined confidence-inspiring clearance over the top tube with a noticeable weight-forward stance. It's a tight-feeling setup that will split opinion. On the one hand, acres of space between your delicate bits and unyielding aluminium makes for a lively, chuckable feel that exuberant riders will love. On the other, the compact dimensions may feel too cramped for riders used to stretching out along the top tube. If you're in any doubt, it may be worth plumping for a slightly larger size than you may usually ride.
The light tubeset and tight triangles encourage bursts of hard effort, skipping through choppy sections of trail with just about the right blend of comfort and agility. The fork's a willing, if ultimately slightly uninspiring, accomplice in all this spirited joie de vivre, trimming the edge off square-edged hits without ever really managing to smooth the smaller lumps of trail detritus. The overall effect is about right - on-tap speed with just enough shock absorption to keep the rider's fillings intact and vision blur-free.
What lets the side down is the Casta's front-end geometry, as the steering has a subtly floppy feel to it. The main culprit is an unusually slack head angle, but it's aided and abetted by the frame's short top tube. Out of the saddle grunts and slow speed technical manoeuvres show up this tendency for the front wheel to flop to one side and stay flopped. It's easy enough to compensate for and it's barely noticeable at speed, but good geometry should eliminate it.
The advantage of Massi's build approach is, of course, that you can make your own component choices. Any niggles we have with our test bike's kit are relatively minor. The brakes arrived set up with the left lever operating the front brake, which doesn't comply with British Standards and will confuse many riders, but Massi can build to BS spec on request. And the Massi-branded clipless pedals are a nice touch, but Shimano cleat users should beware, as although your cleats will clip in easily, release is notchy and unpredictable. If you want our advice, we recommend that you stick with the supplied cleats.
It's rare that a bike at this price offers the buyer so much control over the final spec. It'd be easy to get carried away and spend too much though, and fork setup niggles aside, our test Casta strikes about the right blend of frame and component performance. There's a 'but' though, and it's a fairly sizeable one, as that slack head angle isn't doing the handling any favours.
Buying a size larger than your usual setup should take care of any top tube length niggles, but there's not much you can do about a head tube that's attached to the rest of the frame at what, to all intents and purposes, is an angle that doesn't work very well. If Massi addressed this one niggle then they'd have a very good bike on their hands.