We first rode Giant’s Anthem X in late 2008. The freshly minted bike was, on the face of it, a makeover of the existing short-travel Anthem platform – 100mm at both ends, same lightweight build and race-winning credentials.
But it was better than any of us expected, combining the liveliness of a race-worthy bike with a degree of comfort and control that saw it snapping at the heels of many of our favourite trail bikes. And that, ultimately, was what allowed the Anthem X1 to walk away with What Mountain Bike magazine's coveted 2009 Bike of the Year Award.
The 2010 Anthem X4 is cast from the same mould – Giant have concentrated on tweaking the carbon Anthem X Advanced instead, so the aluminium framed X bikes are unchanged save for a few componentry tweaks – and that's fine by us.
Ride & handling: Standard-setting handling and suspension performance at an affordable price
In every riding situation you can throw at it, the Anthem X4’s perfect poise and supple-yet-taut rear end deliver bucket loads of confidence, inspiring constant up-shifts, later braking and bigger grins. Racers might bemoan the lack of a remote lockout but it’s not really needed.
The suspension – at both ends – simply gets on with the job of isolating the rider from the worst of the hits, allowing 100 percent of your effort to go into propelling the bike forwards.
An XTC (Giant's race hardtail) rider may have the advantage on smooth surfaces and in a sprint, but there’s no doubt in our minds that the Anthem X is a faster bike overall. The beauty of it – and this is the point that makes this bike stand out – is that this race-worthiness doesn’t come at the expense of rideability.
Throw it down a steep, rocky chute and the Anthem X won’t flinch. Point it up a saddle-nose grinder and it’ll come back for more. Take it for a day-long epic and you’ll want to keep riding into the night. Probably.
It's one of those rare bikes that quickly become invisible on a ride, allowing the rider to concentrate on pedalling, steering and braking without ever having to worry that some aspect of the bike’s performance is going to get in the way.
The Anthem X remains almost certainly the best trail full-suspension platform you can buy – and in this form it’s also eminently affordable.
Frame: Unchanged since '09 – if it ain't broke...
As one of the world's biggest bike manufacturers, Giant's access to cutting-edge technology is unparalleled. The Anthem X4's clean lines hide subtly hydroformed tubing that puts aluminium where it's needed for strength or stiffness and removes it where it's not.
The frame structure is light enough to out-svelte its rivals even with a relatively impoverished spec, but stiff enough to withstand serious abuse at the pedalling coalface. The box section down tube with its curved front end – and the slender top tube – both bear more than a passing resemblance to the Anthem X4’s XTC 1 stablemate, although there are subtle differences.
The business end is home to a tweaked version of Giant's cross-platform Maestro suspension system, which aims to separate pedal and bump forces by creating a 'virtual' pivot around which the rear wheel can move. We’ve all heard similar claims from other manufacturers, but Giant do seem to have got this sussed – pun intended.
The detail is well thought out, from the tiny cable tie mounts on the shock rocker to the very precise weight-shaving shapes of the linkage assemblies. A low centre of gravity, sealed cartridge pivots and some elegant curves complete a thoroughly refined and very competent suspension setup.
At the rear, Giant’s cross-platform Maestro suspension setup endows the deceptively simple swingarm with a floating – or ‘virtual’ – pivot point. This gives the Anthem X4 an exceptionally well-behaved rear end that remains active in all situations and, crucially, all but unaffected by pedal input or brake forces.
Equipment: Quality Fox fork and shock plus confidence inspiring bars
Separating bike and rider from the trail is a pair of Fox shocks in the form of an F100 RL fork up front and a Float R at the rear. Setting up for different rider weights and riding styles is straightforward, and the rear shock’s middling compression damping tune strikes a good balance between filtering out unwanted bobbing and maintaining small bump compliance.
We like the wide riser bars, which suit the Anthem X platform’s confidence-inspiring feeling of ‘can do’. And there’s little that we’d change on the componentry front. A Shimano Deore and SLX-based transmission provides benchmark shifting performance, own-brand finishing kit looks good and works well, while Mavic rims shod with Michelin treads provide a fast-rolling – if undergripped in the wet – wheel package.
The only spec decision that looks a tad stingy is the basic Shimano hydraulic disc brake package. Performance is adequate, if not exactly earth-shattering, and the chunky callipers, brake levers and basic rotors won't win any awards for aesthetics. But they work, and that's all we ask of them.