Three grand buys you a fair bit of mountain bike, even in these straitened times. At this price you have your pick of full-suspension travel and intent, from cross-country race whippet to all-mountain bruiser.
Spec levels at this price are respectably above mid-range, and nudging into high-end in some cases; you can even score a frame built from the wonder material du jour – carbon fibre. Yep, three big ones add up to a whole load of full-suspension fun.
Or you could buy the Charge Cooker Ti. It’s a 29er hardtail with (mostly) mid-range kit and no springs or pivots at the back at all. And that begs the question – why would you?
Ride & handling: xxx
Charge have worked hard to prevent the Cooker’s big diameter wheels from slowing the handling, with a tight wheelbase, short stem and relatively steep head angle helping to keep the front end tight and responsive in fast-changing singletrack. It works.
Throw in the easy rolling of the big wheels and the supple ride quality of titanium tubes and this is a surprisingly effective bike even on the kind of choppy, rock- and root-strewn trail that would normally cry out for full suspension.
It works up to a point, anyway. While the price ticket’s reasonably competitive for a titanium hardtail, a few spec niggles let the side down. The RockShox Reba RL is one of its more basic units, with a single air chamber and adjustable compression and rebound damping.
Charge Cooker Ti 29er hardtail
All boxes ticked, right? Well, yes, on paper. The problem is that we struggled to set up our particular example to work well on both small stuff (the kind of roots and rocks and trail undulations that are just there all the time) and bigger, faster hits (the kind that have you wincing in anticipation).
Set up to be low-speed plush, it simply stopped rebounding on fast, rocky trails. Which left us, in effect, with a short, mostly rigid fork in situations where we really needed a longer, plusher fork.
With more air the situation improved on the big stuff, but at the expense of small bump sensitivity. Which is how we left it, on the basis that we’d rather sacrifice low speed comfort than high speed control.
Having spent more time on the same fork on another (long term) test bike, this could be seen as a limitation of the Reba solo air’s design. The problem is that the frame is so good, it’s crying out to be pushed hard.
Our fork held it back, and on a bike with an asking price of nearly £3k that’s was a shame. We were reaching for the brakes earlier and more frequently than we’d expect, which slightly diminishes the fun factor.
Frame & equipment: xxx
In fairness to the Cooker, it’s far from the only hardtail with a price ticket well into four figures. However, most hardtails at this price are made of some form of carbon composite (or what Charge refer to, rather disparagingly, as ‘plastic’). But that plastic is sexy, increasingly sophisticated and can create frames that are remarkably light and stiff.
The Cooker, on the other hand, is made from titanium – a material touted as being high-tech, sexy and generally amazing back in the 90s, when carbon technology was comparatively clunky.
Titanium has many good properties, including corrosion resistance – hence the naked tubes – and a reputation for a comfortable, resilient feel that makes the vast majority of aluminium hardtails feel about as comfy as a jackhammer in comparison. It’s also expensive, tricky to weld and generally a bugger to work with. Which is why you won’t find many titanium hardtails out there, either in the shops or on the trails.
That’s a shame, because the oft-touted comfort of titanium tubes is something you really can feel, even on a frame built to be as torsionally stiff as the Cooker’s. Massive down tubes are de rigueur on mountain bikes, but even by current standards the Charge’s backbone is impressively chunky.
It’s flared for extra rigidity at the head tube and bottom bracket junctions; Charge have even added an open-ended gusset up front to prevent unscheduled arboreal embraces from ending in tears (and, more importantly, a broken frame).
Tubes are flared at the bottom bracket for extra rigidity
We give it extra brownie points for using Tange’s double-butted titanium tubeset. Butting – thickening the tube walls at the ends for strong junctions, while thinning them in the middle for low mass – helps drop weight, but it’s not easy to do with titanium. Most titanium hardtails either keep quiet about butting (which usually means there’s none), or openly use plain gauge tubes.
A butted frame should be lighter and ride better than plain gauge. Can we tell the difference? Not really, but the result feels good.
We had unexpected trouble with the crankbrothers seatpost. We couldn’t tighten it enough to prevent the saddle from rattling in the clamp, even after breaking a (crankbrothers) multi-tool while trying.
We do like the amber wall tyres, though, which were specially created for Charge. They add a 90s vibe that suits the bike and, we suspect, will strike a nostalgic chord with many of the Cooker Ti’s target riders.
You could buy a very capable full-suspension bike for the same money as the Charge Cooker Ti, but that’s not really the point. A titanium hardtail is a considered choice – a statement, if you like, that goes against the tide of modern be-pivoted carbon and aluminium designs. You will know if you want one. And if you do, this is a quick-reacting XC bike with perhaps a dash more style than substance. Just put aside some cash for a potential fork upgrade.