We really loved GT's confident, comfortable i-Drive 5 last year, but for 2008 they're using a whole new 6in platform in two different dress ups - the freeride Sanction and the all-mountain Force. We can't fault the value, but unfortunately we're less convinced by the overall ride so far.
Chassis: complex design made to look elegantly simple
The Force follows the typical 'bike of two halves' layout of GT's long evolved i-Drive bikes, but the actual structure is all-new. The current craze for hydroforming is evident all over the bike. Obviously curved and blown maintubes lead to impressive monocoque sections at the front of the swingarm. These tie the front end of the rear sub frame together and link the main pivot and shock mount. The stays are multi-shaped with replaceable dropouts bolted onto curved terminals.
Cold forged and machined sections join up the rest of the frame, with the bottom bracket hanging between the two halves to create the 'floating drivetrain' effect. Considering how complex the design is, GT have actually done a very good job of making it look neat and tidy, and there is plenty of useful mud clearance and reasonably neat cable runs too. Unfortunately there's no room for a conventional water bottle, but pretty much every rider we know uses a Camelbak or something similar these days so that's not the issue it used to be.
Ride: Great on the flat can get interesting when things get steep
It's not just the kit that immediately creates an XC feel, the whole Force ride feels focused to flatter, faster riding.
For a start it's a long way off the ground. This means you can stay pedaling even when it's stroking right through on rocky desert terrain. It teeters around on top of more technical, slow speed terrain though, rather than feeling connected into it, which is the first time we've ever felt that about an i-Drive. We repeatedly checked shock pressure and travel to make sure it was right, but even running deliberately soft, it still felt the same.
The angles are distinctly XC-oriented as well - a 69 degree head and just over 73 degree seat angle are benchmark figures on lighter, shorter travel 5in bikes, making for a quick turning, responsive bike with plenty of emphasis on the front wheel.
But on the steeper, rockier trails, the fluid 6in rear end can easily get you into situations where you'd rather not feel that far over the front. Add in the extra height and the slightly hesitant feel of the light but long leg fork and we had several real moments coming off drops, hitting sandy corners or trying to blast through rocky sections off the brakes. The lighter weight kit and thin tyres - that need higher pressures to bounce off sharp rocks not burst on them - don't help when you're hammering either.
The obvious answer is to back off slightly, and if we weren't pushing hard the Force cruised quite contentedly. That does seem to be missing the point if you're in the market for a 6in bike though. While it's light for its travel and price, the relatively short top tube means there is less breathing space than on a standard XC bike.
Traction has always been a real i-Drive strength though, with consistent ground connection over every ripple, rock or step-up. The pedal feel is slightly soft as a result, but a flick of the ProPedal lever can stop that anyway if it really bothers you.
Equipment: Sound package but fork feels 'stretched'
Whenever we start a model year we always look to GT as our high value benchmark, and 2008 looks like no exception. Even though they've had to carry all the development costs of a completely new chassis it's still a decently well specced ride.
Even down at £1,500, you're reaping the benefits of the latest fettled Fox forks. While damping is totally revamped and confidence noticeably better, we still reckon that the 140mm (5.5in) Float feels slightly stretched in structural terms.
It certainly doesn't feel as connected and aggressive in its trail stance as their 120 or 160mm forks, especially on the Force.
As usual we've no complaints about the performance of Shimano's LX transmission, and using larger rotors has boosted the power of the brakes to acceptable mountain proof levels. The rest of the equipment is more XC than freeride in focus too, with relatively light Ritchey cockpit kit and WTB wheels shod in Kenda's ubiquitous Nevegal tyres.