Giant freely admit that their '07 emphasis was more on road than off. They've refocused on the rough stuff with some superb new bikes for 2008 though.
While other big manufacturers (Specialized, Trek, Kona) are playing around with long running suspension architecture for '08, Giant are sticking firmly with their Maestro system. 2008 will be it's fifth year of running, but it's still one of, if not the best power/plush/stop/go balanced suspension systems around. There are some small changes regarding positioning and rationalising hardware mount points but more on that later.
From what they were willing to say when we prodded them the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" Maestro mantra will carry on through '09 and beyond so don't worry about saddling up on a soon to be obsolete system.
Where Giant have really pushed forward, however, is in their frame manufacturing and construction technology. The Anthem race bike (unchanged for '08) was the first time they really exploited their unique position of getting in raw alloy at one end of the process and producing complete bikes at the other end. Their GLM (Giant Light Metal) facility delivers super precise hydroformed and press formed tubesets straight to manufacturing. Having achieved remarkably tough yet superlight results with the Anthem chassis, they're now rolling and squeezing out their alloy alchemy through the whole line.
Giant have made a big aesthetic shift towards an "honesty in materials" theme. This means moving away from paint and decals to masks and tinted clear coats over raw or anodised frames. The resulting multiple processes and fastidious quality control is very demanding on finishing time and costs but Giant reckon it's worth it.
'X' marks the sweet spot
Giant were one of the first major manufacturers to deliver a 5in travel "All Mountain" bike in its VT line. Based around Manitou's SPV platform damped fork and shock technology it was a great ride, despite a flexy as hell frame, and it's still very fondly remembered by loads of owners. Trance and Reign came next, debuting the superb Maestro linkage suspension system in 4in and 6in travel respectively. They were, and still are, super tough and impressively tight feeling bikes, but they always came out heavy compared to the opposition and either slightly too short or slightly too long for the perfect trail balance.
Enter the 2008 Trance X: 244g lighter in the frame but a claimed 13.7 percent stiffer than the 07 Trance. Now it's only 200g heavier than the Anthem but with a full 5in of travel and a ton of 'attack' attitude.
Shaped tubing derived from the Advanced composite models. More "holistic" approach and (admire the honesty here folks) "more logo space" ties in with a cleaner graphic treatment that lets detailing show through.
The obvious structural change is a bent belly with saddle gusset replacing the previous "glory hole" design, dropping weight and opening up bottle space on smaller sizes.
The totally new tubeset is anchored round a slimmer forged headtube with previous weighty forged sections replaced by extended hydroformed tubes.
The Y section rear helps front derailleur adjustment, the rear dropout angle is cut for double the weld area and straight weld lines have been used wherever possible. Cable lines are dropped for less rub and the gear hanger - a weak point on recent Giants - is beefed up and internally attached.
Suspension changes are structural, not systemic. A more "wrapped round" two piece rocker uses direct screw in shock bolts first sen on the Anthem. A 'Co mount' combined lower pivot and shock mount removes excess attachment hardware. In commendably communist style even the cheapest bikes get a titanium tie bolt on the rocker too. Only trade is that suspension architecture all moves upwards slightly, but the essential dynamics are all kept in proportion. A standard can Fox RP23 damper with custom spec. reduced rebound damping sits just ahead of the slightly bent seat tube. Leverage ratio averages out an impressively low 2.67:1 too (Trance is 2.87:1 while Reign runs 3:1).
That's all the stuff you can find out off the bike, but as ever proof of the results comes from time on trail. For an aggressive All Mountain bike proving grounds don't much better than the trails around the North Star resort in Lake Tahoe California. Seemingly endless twisting, turning, berming, powder sand singletrack with regular rock gardens and boulder traps meant we were in at the deep end from the start. Our Trance X0 test rigs were skimming and floating from the start though.
To be honest hitting trails at 8000ft after everyday life as an English amphibian isn't the best way to showcase how well a bike climbs long grades. Up to the point our vision got tunnelled and our sternums threatened to snap it's certainly a snappy and responsive XC bike. As usual Maestro was pretty ambivalent about what pressures you run too, so you can keep it soft for max traction without it feeling squelchy under power. The much more settled '08 Fox compression/rebound overlap is very obvious at both ends too. Again you can run fork and rear seemingly too soft without any excess dive through the mid stroke or clunking bottom out. Perfect for the already "more travel than you expect" feel of the whole Trance family.
In fact it takes a while to really exploit the can do attitude of the bike. Because it feels so light and agile now the default tendency is to back off slightly into boulder fields or whoops and then feel stupid as you realise that you could have thrapped it straight through with ease. Trying to keep Giant Pro DH riders Jared and Emille in sight for more than 30 seconds soon sets that straight.
In handling terms Giant have kept things pretty conventional, rather than following the short stem, long centre vogue of other manufacturers. Those with a racing past can find stretch if they step up a size, but having tried both we actually settled into a medium really well on technical trails.
Here's the trail notes we jotted between rides, anyway. "The result isn't as sharp steering as other bikes with similar angles, but the whole bike is a lot easier to smear and shift around. This really stands out on random boulder sections where you're trying to swerve the whole bike round rocks without smashing your ankles to bits or mashing your chainrings.
"There's no nervousness up front either, even under hard braking. Combined with a natural tendency to flare the back end just as the front is beginning to go, this makes it safe to really push hard through turns, even if you're a Yorkshireman riding something as alien as sand. The totally neutral, fixed ratio suspension action and longer stem also keeps the front wheel anchored on steep climbs. It does make it slightly harder to manual than some bikes (we'd just come off the Marin trip we'll be writing up next) though."
In short? Totally vice free, with no surprises, but a lot of security and confidence that translates really well to every trail situation and speed level we hit. Pretty much a perfect match for the equally adept and balanced Maestro suspension in it's new 5in "hit stuff hard at first sight" incarnation.
UK spec and pricing are undecided yet, but expect usual excellent Giant value for money on similar builds to current Giant Trance models. One example given was the Trance X entry model which has Fox front and rear and a 28.25lb weight for an $1800 bike.
One detail we did really like was the use of Kenda Nevegal soft compound front and dual compound rear tyres, to make double sure you didn't lose the front end first. Before anyone asks there's ample mudroom to upscale from stock 2.1 to 2.35in rubber too.
The two days at the Northstar resort were focused firmly on Trance X, but there are other significant changes. Trance gets the same lighter frame as X, but shorter shock keeps travel at 4.2in. Reign loses a massive 738g of weight on the same diet plan as Trance as well as upping headtube stiffness by 23 percent. A single spec. womens 'Cypher' version of the Trance X will also be available.
Giant are also bringing their proprietary 'Alliance' carbon top/alloy lower technology across from the road scene via the XTC frame. We didn't get to ride it but the XTC Alliance certainly looked super sweet on both a rider and revenue level.
Those with itchy beards and itchier shirts shouldn't hold their breath waiting for dual wheel sized bikes with integrated gearbox systems offering fixed or single freewheel options though. Well somebody had to ask......
Big thanks to Giant for their patience and shipping us out there. We'll update this story as we get more info but for now www.giant-bicycles.com is the place to watch.
If you're looking for a proper high class US location to feed all your DH, XC and road needs the superb Northstar resort (www.northstarattahoe.com) should definitely be on your shortlist too.