Conceived on the steep, ultra-technical trails of Vancouver's North Shore, Cove's Stiffee was one of the first hardtails to combine hard-riding potential with a frame light enough to ride all day. Available as a frame only from UK importers Silverfish, we built ours with a selection of trail-ready kit to find out whether the original hardnut is still one of the best.
Squint at the Stiffee from a distance and you'd be forgiven
for wondering what all the fuss is about. With an understated profile, an absence of strengthening gussets and no 'look at me' features vying for attention, it's the very essence of minimalist engineering. But make no mistake - the devil is in the detail.
Take a closer look and you'll spot the Stiffee's secret weapon: top and down tubes that morph gradually along their length from square section up front to round section at the seat tube and bottom bracket. Sure, plenty of other bikes have copied this design, but still visible under the Cove's paint job at the head tube end are the tubing stamps that give the game away - this is Easton's RAD tubing. The original square-to-round section tubeset was revolutionary when it first appeared, and it's still one of the best set-ups for combining surprisingly low weight with incredible strength and stiffness. The Stiffee isn't heavy by any means - thin-wall tubes see to that - but even with no gussets, it'll stand up to hard use. The careful engineering continues at the rear, with snaked stays and elegant, curved dropouts. There's plenty of mud clearance, and a full-length gear cable housing running the length of the seatstay helps keep crud and grit out for smooth shifting.
Keeping the front end planted and tracking in a straight line is the same RockShox Revelation U-Turn fork that graces the front of the Whyte 19 Trail. Despite its relatively low weight, it's plenty stiff enough for a frame this rigid, steering accurately and providing enough rock-swallowing travel to help keep you out of trouble.
The beauty of buying a frame is that you can build it any way you want. And the trouble with buying a frame... is that you can build it any way you want. Our spec choices - blending a Shimano XT transmission with Hope brakes and hubs and RaceFace finishing kit - were a deliberate attempt to blend all-day practicality with enough big-hit potential to keep hard riders happy. Of course, your mileage may vary, and the frame would certainly warrant burlier kit if that's what you fancy.
With its spacious cockpit and trail-friendly build, our test Stiffee provided a comfy perch for an all-day epic. But getting comfortable as you spin out of the car park is the easy part - it's staying comfortable for the long haul that's harder. The Stiffee achieves this delicate balancing act extremely well, blending the Santa Cruz's stiff responses and a hint of the Whyte's eager character, but without the Orange's blunt rigidity. In a way, it's the best of all worlds, and it's largely thanks to the balance of stiffness and resilience offered by those Easton RAD tubes. It's all down to those thin walls and big profiles, you see - a winning combination.Point the Stiffee uphill and the lightish build and eager frame make for a willing climbing companion. It's not as whippety quick as the Whyte, but neither is it as ploddy as the Orange. Our choice of tyres proved to be grippy in the dry, although we'd be tempted to opt for something chunkier in wet conditions.
Turn up the volume and it's more of the same, as you get snappy acceleration courtesy of a light wheelset and that stiff chassis combined with taut, intuitive handling. The Revelation fork is a good match for trail-specific components, but the frame could definitely handle something beefier. Swap the triple chainset for a double and plug in a fork with a bolt-through axle, and you'd have a perfect set-up for messing about in the woods. And that's the Stiffee's appeal. Despite its modest looks, it's still one of the most versatile hardtail frames on the market. Whatever riding you're into, chances are you
could build a Stiffee to match it.