What do you get if set out to make the best steel bike possible for the money, even if that means fitting a good rigid fork rather than a poor suspension fork? Something like the Charge Duster Rigid a challenging, but seriously rewarding ride whose intensely demanding character can become an infectious itch.
Steel has now become such a niche material for building bike that we'd best explain why you might want to ride a metal that most manufacturers consider obsolete. Steel is heavier and not as stiff as an aluminium alloy frame but a good steel frame definitely has a distinctively smooth, sprung, 'twangy' feel.
Tange Infinity (TI) isn't as finely tuned as the Tange Prestige used for the top line Charge Duster High and the frame-only option, but definitely stays on the sturdy side of the flex index. The bonus is that you get a complete bike for the price of most separate steel frames and you won't be spending every cleaning session looking for cracks.
A neat gusset under the throat reinforces the custom machined head tube, while a forward facing seatpost slot keeps water out. Slim steel tubes mean loads of tyre and heel clearance too. There are no carrier bosses which restricts its cargo-hauling/utility appeal, but you do get twin bottle bosses.
Suspension forks are so cheap now that rigid cost savings are almost negligible. That's certainly the case with a nice, subtly tapered fork like the Charge's. Spring/accuracy balance is excellent though and obviously you've got none of the maintenance issues of a suspension fork.
Dual-piston Tektro disc brakes are surprisingly well modulated if slightly wooden feeling, while the Dual Tread Compound Kenda tyres are noticeably stickier than basic versions. The Truvativ chainset is par for the course and we love the multi grouptest winning Charge 'Spoon' saddle and super secure twin bolt seatpost. A more flexible old school inch-diameter handlebar and stem suck out more rigid fork rattle than an oversize set-up would too.
Back in the day, all bikes were rigid and biketests were all about the nuances of micro shock transfer and handlebar buzz. We still rode down the same trails and descents yet it was generally slower and harder on body and mind, yet in many ways more rewarding. That's exactly the 'good old days' haze the Charge drops you straight into.
Riding it on our own the first few times, the wrist thumping (luckily the fork flex takes enough sting out to worry about jarring or impact fractures) ride under braking, and the way the front wheel fires off in all directions can feel tiresome and speed sapping. Get your eye in or mix it up with a group though and your perspective will change. For a start you'll realise that you're not going much slower than the others at all, unless descents are long and rough enough that you end up shaken blind.
You'll also get a thrill from holding your own in the pack purely through your skill at placing the tyres accurately, floating the front wheel over stuff, flicking the back end around and using your body as smart suspension to suck up the bumps. You'll come back aching a lot more but you'll feel like you've had a proper workout for just an hour's ride round the local woods.
The Charge is a great tool for sharpening your skills too. Its muscular steel feel shrugs off the worst wallops and shimmies and springs enough to prove it's not any aluminium anvil, but it doesn't tie itself in knots if pushed hard through technical trouble. It's the lightest bike here by a long way which helps it surge up to speed or pull away from the others easily on climbs. The steering (set up for direct suspension fork switching if you want) is nicely balanced you'll be amazed how snappy and precise it feels without any telescopic slop. It obviously doesn't dive and chuck you into corners like a suspension fork can, but the sharp, incisive direction changes are consistent and crystal clear - even mid corner or fighting hard across a fast off-camber.
- Sturdy steel frame gives strength without sting or excess weight
- Pin-sharp rigid handling is perfect for honing skills and riding pride
- Uber-comfort saddle and Kenda DTC tyres are highlights
- It'll shake the hell out of less skilled riders
- 8-speed transmission
- No real spec advantages compared to sus fork bikes