Charge Duster Eleven £1600

Retro-styled steel hardtail

BikeRadar score 4/5

Demonstrating a flagrant disregard for the 'stiffer is better' mantra, Charge’s Duster is an unashamedly retro slant on the classic steel hardtail formula. Built from Tange’s once all-conquering Prestige heat-treated tubeset, its ultra-skinny pipework is there specifically to make the frame a more comfortable ride.

The Duster is available in a range of specs to suit varying wallet thicknesses, but we only had eyes for the Shimano Alfine 11 hub-geared variant. Heavy big-ring mashers, risk takers and long-haul tourers may not be best suited to the Duster Eleven. But for covering large distances swiftly, quietly and in great comfort, it’s a tough act to follow. Fun and capable beyond its quirky spec, it’s worth serious consideration for fast, fluid riders looking for something different to the norm.

Ride & handling: Comfort, sorted handling and stealth-quiet gears make for rapid singletrack progress

With its 100mm-travel (4in) fork, relatively low weight and traditional looks, the Duster Eleven doesn’t offer any radical surprises in the handling department. That's a good thing. The geometry seems a tad slacker in practice than Charge’s claimed numbers, but overall this is a bike that isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel.

It goes where you point it without fuss, pedals up hills eagerly and comes back down them without any nasty surprises. It’s a distillation of more than 30 years of hardtail development. If there wasn’t more to it, it’d be easy to dismiss this bike as an over-priced oddity. For this kind of money you can score a full-suspension bike. Why would you want an anorexic-looking hardtail with weird gears instead? 

For two reasons. First, those skinny tubes deliver a ride quality that’s sublime in both comfort and sheer get-up-and-go. The zing of the slender, thin-walled pipework counteracts the extra weight around the rear hub, giving the Duster Eleven a spring to its step that only the very best of the steel and titanium-framed competition can match. Yes, it’s that good.

Second, Shimano’s Alfine 11 setup works very well with such a comfortable chassis. Its smooth, stealth-quiet power delivery enables any trail to be tackled at surprising speed and with beguiling fluidity. This is a bike that’ll give most full-sussers a run for their money through fast-changing sections of technical singletrack. Given its retro simplicity, it’s likely to slap a grin on the face of any hardtail aficionado.

Frame: Better suited to long days out than long-distance touring, its light build demands some care and finesse

Tange Prestige isn’t a name that trips off most riders’ tongues these days, but back in the early ’90s it was a revelation. The heat-treated steel allowed thinner tube walls, lower frame weight and far better ride quality than most other steel tubesets of the time. Twenty years on and it’s as good as it ever was.

Still, the Duster’s defiantly slender tubes are visually jarring next to even the comparatively svelte ferrous-framed competition, let alone the aluminium norm. We’ve all become accustomed to bigger diameter pipework over the years and, as a result, the Charge looks positively anorexic. 

The twin open-ended gussets at the head tube junction are the only visible concession to modern bike design, adding a dose of protection against damage from hard front-end impacts. Charge tell us that many potential Duster Eleven buyers want to fit racks for long distance touring duties. The fact that the frame’s slender stays don’t have rack mounts should tell you it’s just not built for that kind of heavy-duty, long haul load-lugging. 

If you fancy dipping your toes in the murky waters of singlespeeding, the Duster Eleven’s eccentric bottom bracket makes a switch to a single chainring and sprocket straightforward. The off-centre mount makes it easy to take up chain slack, eliminating the need for a separate chain tensioner or horizontal drop-outs. Just bear in mind that  this iteration of the Duster frame has cable routing that really only suits hub gear and singlespeed duties.

At £1,600 it’s the same price as the range-topping, SRAM X9-equipped Plus. Although that may seem a bit high for a bike with only 11 gears, the Duster Eleven matches its derailleur-equipped sibling in all the important areas. Truvativ finishing kit provides comfy and durable contact points, while a RockShox Recon Gold fork gives 100mm of easily adjustable, supple and controllable air-sprung travel.

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.

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