Bionicon’s Golden Willow promises to bridge the divide between groomed trail centre and wilderness riding, so it seemed an ideal contender for What Mountain Bike magazine’s Bike Of The Year test.
In theory, being able to go from pedal-powered funicular to something roughly downhill-bike-shaped with a push of a button and a wave of the arse is a brilliant idea, and none of our testers disputed the fact it worked as advertised. The problem is that you end up with the geometry writing cheques that the suspension can’t cash.
Ride and handling: Unique adjustability, but this is of debatable value
Clearly the Golden Willow is something of a unique proposition when it comes to handling. The idea of an adjustable travel fork is not a new one, and many riders will be familiar with the idea of shortening a fork (steepening the head angle and shifting rider weight forward) for climbs and extending it for descents.
Bionicon’s linked system just takes that a step further – as the fork gets shorter, the rear shock gets longer and vice versa. This maintains a sensible bottom bracket height over the full 70-150mm travel range. The rear end travel remains at 120mm throughout.
This works fine, meaning you can head uphill with climb-friendly angles and weight distribution, and with no danger of running out of pedal clearance. When it comes to the descents, it turns into the slackest bike on test. However, many testers questioned the need for quite such an extreme range of adjustment.
It’s highly effective on extremely steep climbs, but you’d be able to get a normal bike up most of them with a bit of technique. In the full slack setting the Golden Willow is entertaining, but encourages behaviour that the air-damped fork and lightweight frame aren’t really designed for.
Frame: Conventional-looking chassis with four-bar back end
Other than the internal hose routing for the interlinked shock and fork, the Golden Willow frame is mostly conventional. There are plenty of straight tubes (the top tube has a curve for standover height on the larger sizes), with a chainstay-pivot four-bar back end.
Packaging the rear suspension is clearly a challenge – on the small test bike it was possible to get the top of the seatstays to nudge the seat binder. Bionicon recommend turning the clamp 180 degrees if you experience this issue.
Tyre clearance is adequate with the 2.25 Schwalbe treads fitted, but there’s not much scope for getting anything substantially bigger in there. Given the added complexity of the travel adjustment system, the Golden Willow’s sub-29lb weight is a pleasant surprise.
Equipment: Fork and shock not on a par with the competition
Bionicon’s proprietary fork and shock are fundamental to the adjustable geometry system. The Double Agent fork is a massive twin-crown unit, unusual on anything other than a downhill bike. The legs are offset well forward, so you can get plenty of steering lock for tight, low-speed turns.
It’s only got conventional quick-release dropouts, though, and inside there’s air damping as standard. Start hitting things hard and fast, and you quickly exceed the ability of air to keep things under control – that’s why most downhill bikes still come with coil shocks front and rear.
The Bionicon’s fork gets overfaced with any kind of spirited riding and the front tyre starts bouncing back off the trail at you with the inevitable consequences for grip. The company sell a retrofitable adjustable oil damping cartridge, and if you’re planning to hit things hard and fast we’d recommend stumping up the extra £110 for it.
On top of the fork is Bionicon’s own integrated upper crown/stem. Carrying on the adjustable theme, a bit of bolt loosening lets you tune the reach and height to your taste. It works fine, although the distance between the stem clamps may limit your choice of bars. And if you’ve ever clouted your knees on a shifter, watch them on the back edge of the upper crown.
The rest of the spec is reasonable for the money, with SRAM X-7/X-9 transmission, Formula RX brakes, Truvativ Firex cranks and DT/Alex wheel package.