Look’s 986 carbon fiber hardtail is a go-faster race weapon that demonstrates that non-suspended bikes still have their place if speed is your main goal.
Now that all-mountain bikes are sprouting six inches of full suspension travel, it was a bit odd to see French frame and component maker Look debut its US$5,500 986 carbon hardtail for 2008.
After several hours in the saddle (perched atop an extended seat tube), it appears an ultra lightweight carbon hardtail has its place in the hallowed halls of desirable bikes for those seeking a unique, ready to race machine.
Ride & handling: Look be nimble, Look be quick
A smartly designed mountain bike allows its rider to ably and adroitly commandeer ruts, rocks, roots and sand intuitively. For some riders, full suspension eliminates the need to flick the bike around such obstacles because it's faster to just let the suspension take care of things. Not so on a hardtail, especially a 21-pounder (with pedals!) like the Look 986.
But, the same reason for the 986's light weight - an extensive use of carbon - also provides the stiff-but-supple ride, cutting down on the teeth chattering that typically accompanies most aluminium and some steel hardtails.
Look provides ample mud clearance but also an extra squirt of frame flex in the rear. Our large sample, like its small and medium brothers, came with a rather racey (and traditional) 71.2-degree head angle and 72.2-degree seat angle. The long torso crowd will appreciate the 986's long top tube.
This traditional cocktail of tried and true spec makes for some delicious trail time, as we found the 986 easy on the climbs and responsive on the descents.
Loose gravel climbs and rock garden descents were a challenge on the Look, mainly because we've been spoiled with letting a fully suspended bike do the work.
Every hardtail, regardless of its geometry or weight, needs to be finessed instead of pushed, and once we got into a rhythm, the Look was the perfect companion on most climbs and every firetrail.
A mixture of fire roads and singletrack is the ideal terrain for the Look, and that describes most race courses, its natural home.
Look's ePost offers a fair amount of welcome buzz squelching; not suspension, but something to take the edge off and keep the bike managable.
The highlight of riding the Look 986 in highly technical terrain boiled down to weight. We felt the lack of rear suspension was worth the trade off, when comparing the 21-pound Look with our suspended buddies' 30-pound plus rigs. No contest, if you have the legs and lungs to back it up.
Frame: High modulus carbon with swoopy and boxy forms
There will be two camps established because of the 986's carbon extended seat tube, which needs to be trimmed to dial in one's optimal saddle height. For those serious enough to drop US$5,500 on a bike of this caliber, it shouldn't be a problem. Look makes it simple enough, providing instructions, a proper cutting guide, and its patented ePost with various durometer rubber elastomer spacers.
Our saddle height - 79.7cm - meant we'd have six inches of carbon seat tube plus another four with the ePost. This contributed some welcomed comfort over the rough stuff, which allowed us to concentrate on the terrain before us.
Shouldering the 986 will be somewhat painful though, thanks in part to the rear brake hose guide routed under the top tube.
Equipment: Carbon bits and pieces for bling, light weight
The SRAM X-0 shifters and drivetrain were a bit finicky throughout our four-month test cycle. The front shifter was stubborn, and wouldn't let us pop into the large chainring without a fight, which may have been due with the original setup, which we quickly rectified. The rear shifter played nicely with its derailleur, always providing the shift when needed.
The RockShox Reba fork was reliable, responsive and trouble free. We were certainly the envy of our riding buddies with the remote lockout which, even with our bigger hands, was easy to use on the fly. There's probably nothing more gratifying than keeping one's hands on the grips through all conditions, but having the ability to lock out the suspension on false flats and killer climbs.
Despite a constant barrage of baby heads and rock gardens, the Mavic CrossMax SLR wheels held their trueness with aplomb. Kudos to Mavic for including the spoke and hub tools, and for keeping the spoke nipples above the rim.
Continental’s Supersonic Speed King tyres are a favourite of cross-country whippets, but they’re not suitable for heavier riders who would be better with Conti's Mountain King 2.4s. Nominally 2.1s, the Speed Kings actually measure closer to 1.85 and just don’t provide traction when needed.
Despite experimenting with various inflations, we still lost descending confidence on anything but hardpack fire trails. We also suffered three pinch flats in two days of epic riding. Keep them for racing and fit something fatter for general riding.
FSA provided the cockpit and drivetrain. Look is smart for choosing an aluminium stem and carbon bar, but the carbon K-Force Light crankset took an awful beating with the rock gardens.
Avid's Juicy Ultimate disc brakes were a bit of a pain to bleed and dial in initially, as usual, but the carbon levers felt just right, and we had no trouble relying on two-fingered braking throughout most of our testing, even the ginormous descending in North Lake Tahoe.
The new Look Quartz clipless pedals weren't as intuitive to start; we're exceedingly spoiled by Time, Shimano and crankbrothers, but once we got the feel, the Quartz pedals proved more than capable in most conditions, and are holding up nicely despite our abuse.
Verdict: Sweet debut from France
Are you a weight weenie with a need for speed? Do you enjoy scorching up climbs before everyone else?
Look knows how to engineer and make supreme carbon frames. This is top-grade spec for the price compared to the ultra lightweight carbon hardtails starting to dot the horizon. For Look, it has every reason to be pleased with its dirt debut.