The latest bike from UK-based micro brand Empire is just as structurally innovative and eyecatching as their AP-1 downhill frame. We caught up with designer Chris Williams and his MX-6 all-mountain prototype at Stainburn trail centre to see what true innovation rides like.
Plenty of companies claim to use cutting-edge construction techniques but few are as in your face about it as Empire. The AP-1's curved I-Beam mainframe members are created using high-tech sand casting. For the MX-6, Chris has switched to mainly CNC machined construction for a lighter weight appropriate for the 150mm-travel market.
The headstock, ‘spine’ (bottom bracket, pivot mount, ‘seat tube’ and rear half of top tube) and swingarm are all intricately, deep web CNC machined in single sections. The down tube and front top tube are now oversized rectangular tubes, though. This is after the original wholly machined front end proved too flexy and then – once side plates to remove the flex were welded on – too heavy.
Empire experimented with a machined front end but eventually settled on oversized rectangular tubes
With a target weight just below 7.5lb, the MX-6 is still on the heavy side for a 150mm frame. It’s on par with the likes of Nicolai’s Helius AM but 300g heavier than the Orange Five that Chris openly admits heavily influenced its design. Seeing as the single-piece swingarm alone starts as a 40kg 6086 aluminium alloy billet (it eventually ends up weighing just 994g), you can see how much swarf went for recycling to create this bike.
“Not many people want to do machining projects like this," says Chris. "I don't have a death wish, I just wanted to do something that wasn't available from anyone else.” With a background working on prototypes for Ford and then developing a cast swingarm for maverick UK motorbike innovators CCM, he’s well qualified to push the boundaries.
Two years developing the AP-1 taught Chris a lot too, and also influenced his recent decision to move away from dealer-based distribution to selling the MX-6 direct. “I tried doing conventional dealer selling and I’d love to continue to support the shops that supported me but there's just not the margin to do it because the bike is so expensive to make," he says. Final frame prices are yet to be confirmed but Chris is aiming for sub-£2,500, with a complete bike with custom upgrade options at £4,000.
The single-piece swingarm starts as a 40kg 6086 aluminium alloy billet
There’s still some work to do on the prototype first. The optional front mech mounting arm is still being finalised and the seat tower is still the same 27.2mm diameter piece as on the AP-1. A 30.9mm or 31.6mm seatmast is on the way for greater dropper post compatibility. However, the 66.5-degree head angle and 142x12mm dropouts (with spacers available to take 135mm quick-release setups) are bang-on for a contemporary trail bike.
Our initial riding impressions were awkward (and therefore some of the riding shots look equally so) because the prototype was equipped with a full-length seatpost. Add the bottom-stopped seat tower and saddle height was about 3in higher than we run on our road bikes, let alone the rocky descent line of Stainburn. With the post and saddle stuffed in a backpack, though, we could properly get to grips with the MX-6.
With a 14.14kg (31lb) complete weight for the bike with a relatively lightweight SRAM X9, RockShox Sektor, Hope/Stan's wheelset and custom ‘Empire’ Hope brakes, it’s easy to move about on the climbs or uphill. The very wide pivot stance of the needle roller bearings mean the single pivot has to sit above the big ring, which means a lot of pedalling lockdown.
Custom 'Empire' Hope brakes add the finishing touch
With the 39-tooth single ring and a custom-tuned RockShox Monarch shock it’s okay under power, but we’d expect a lot more chain tug and feedback from the high pivot with a smaller chainring. Chris’s decision to deliberately design flex into the swingarm “to add feel and compliance” can also be felt as a rubbery chain sensation when you’re grunting the big gear round slowly.
This flex also needs adjusting too when you start carving berms on the way back down. As Chris says, it adds traction and compliance in chatter-bump situations but there’s a tendency for the back end to load up as you drop your shoulder and then twang back up as look for the exit. That’s a trait shared with much-loved cult bikes like the old Commencal Meta 5 and the Whyte 146 though, so it’s not a deal breaker if you like a more lithe than laser-accurate ride.
Although the prototype is crying out for a shorter stem and a tapered steerer fork to match the head tube, the slack head angle and long rear end add the stability and confidence you’d hope for. The high pivot payback for constipated small bump reaction under power is a very smooth action when you’re walloping into square edged boulders. The bike handles drops well too, as long as you’re ready for the kickback and keep it straight and fast so the swingarm is trailing rather than twanging sideways.
Our tester Guy putting the Empire MX-6 through its paces, sans seatpost
The MX-6's shock length and geometry can be altered by changing the shock shoe bolted onto the swingarm, while aesthetic individuality can be boosted with a choice of 16 different hard anodised colours from the same Radcliffe anodising plant that Renthal and climbing hardware company DMM use.
We’ll be following the frame right through to the launch of production versions in February in Mountain Biking UK, What Mountain Bike and on BikeRadar. For now, while the flex and weight won’t suit everyone, and there are still some finishing details to iron out, the bottom line is that if you’re after a truly unique and proudly British engineered frame then the aptly named Empire has to be on your shortlist.