When cross-country hardtails with long travel forks first appeared, no one quite knew how to categorise them. Frame designers wavered between tags suggesting extreme XC and trailworthy jump bike. Most of us are used to the idea of XC hardtails equipped with longer forks than racers use. In fact, a 120mm (4.7in) fork isn't really regarded as long these days.
There's a new breed of fast, light and super lively 120/130mm (4.7-5.1in) forked hardtails that feel so well dialled you wonder how you ever managed with an 80mm (3in) fork. The Maxlight XC120 is one of them.
The XC120 was designed in the UK; the UK is way ahead of the rest of the world in understanding how to get the best from bikes like this. The main frame tube badge says 'Kinesium Custom Drawn Enhanced Tubing'. Other stickers tell us that the tubes are 'Super High Strength Premium Aluminium' and the rear stays are 'Superlight'. There's a 'Hyperformance' tag on the hydroformed top tube too. If you're looking to buy a frame to build your dream bike, all these little things matter.
There's a lot going on in terms of shaping too. The hydroformed top tube is bulge-reinforced just above and behind the taperbutted head tube. The oversized down tube is gusseted below and behind the head tube. The clamp slot on the seat tube faces forward, out of the spray. The hourglass seat and chainstays maximise heel and tyre clearance. Cable and brake hose routing is tucked under the down tube and there are two sets of bottle bosses.
The XC120 is sold as a frame only, but you'll need to put some thought into the fork you choose. With a Marzocchi Bomber XC Retro SL700 fork fitted, set to 120mm of travel, static geometry on our 18in test frame was a lively 70 degrees at the head tube, 73.5 at the seat. Horizontal top tube reach was 22.8in but the low bottom bracket (11.8in) means running a fork shorter than 120mm travel is unrealistic except on easy climbs.
The low bottom bracket was the only glitch in the Maxlight's otherwise impeccable high speed trail behaviour. A low centre of gravity is a good thing in terms of stability, but this is a bike that feels at its best if you run a long fork soft, and pedal-to-ground strikes on bumpy corners and technical steppy climbs were an all too regular occurrence.
If you like hammering hardtails through technical singletrack, as we do, you'll be needing a fatter set of treads than the Geax Barro Marathon 2.1s we had. Fork wise, look for progressive compression, not linear, and you could even opt for 140/150mm (5.5-6in) travel with a 30/40mm sag set-up, although you'll probably be wanting some sort of lock-out or lock-down if you go that long.
Apart from our low BB reservations, we enjoyed our time on the XC120. It's amazing value for money, it's light, it's almost as lively as an XC race bike, but it'll let you ride rough ground far harder and faster than any XC race bike would.