I Am What I Am
The Zerode Taniwha is a head-turner. In today's age of sub-options of niches of benefits of difference and reinvention, turning heads trailside says a lot. Particularly for a Kiwi brand that hasn't been readily available in the States and certainly hasn't had a heap of marketing dollars thrown its way either.
A sidelong glance at the carbon-framed, 160-millimeter-travel, 27.5-inch-wheeled Taniwha could leave wide-eyed scrutinizers flummoxed as to where the electricity is hiding.
It isn't hiding. A pair of robust, "Mad Max"-esque cables enter the low-slung cylindrical drum of the Pinion C1.12 gearbox, evoking an image of a moped from the '90s or a spaceship from the future. One thing's for certain, it doesn't look like now, even if now is wrought with change.
Geometrically, the Taniwha isn't pretending to be anything other than what its travel implies: a shredder. Our size XL test bike had a roomy-though-not-ridiculous 475-millimeter reach, a 65-degree headtube angle, steepish 74.5-degree seat tube, shortish 431-millimeter chainstays and a sprawling 1,236-millimeter wheelbase. It's a modern ripper built with highly particular top-notch parts that Cycle Monkey, Zerode's U.S. distributor, stands behind--as should be the case for $9,500.
Unsprung mass. Sounds almost naughty, doesn't it? Regardless, diminishing unsprung mass has quite the effect on the Taniwha's rear-suspension performance. The lighter, lower-inertia rear wheel lessens the forces traditional suspension battles to overcome. This is courtesy of repositioning the derailleur, cassette and extra hub weight into the central Pinion gearbox. As a bonus, our Taniwha's singlespeed hub allows for stronger, symmetrical wheel lacing. Feedback from the now-lighter rear end can be directly transcribed by the shock--even more so with the simpler suspension design the Taniwha touts. Zerode claims the sum total of this has led to an optimized wheel path, an optimized sprung-to-unsprung ratio and ideal weight placement.
It is What It is
Zerode wasn't kidding about unsprung mass. The Taniwha conforms to all terrain at any speed with a level of sensitivity, response and devotion that I'd never expect from an air-sprung shock. The Cane Creek DB Air CS was potentially a positive culprit, but there's more to this than just the high-end rear damper. I crept shamelessly gingerly down a steep, loose, fist-sized boulder chute at a speed so haltingly slow I was certain I'd be sentenced to a mandatory foot-down reassessment of things. I awaited the static, locked feeling of rear suspension battering its skidding way over boulders, a feeling I'm accustomed to on many full-suspension designs when it's time to rely on geometry alone to hardtail my way through things. The stuttering never started with the Taniwha. I had full-on, embarrassingly good traction, like I gained a bonus bike within the ride-pace continuum--slow-speed specific: the hot new category. It was different enough that I couldn't refute it, there it was. I'd glazed over when hearing about heightened sensitivity earlier. I'm engrained in a slow speed = rightful self-punishment mentality. The Taniwha proved otherwise. It had uncanny traction, regardless of speed.
This phenomenon was just as present at high speeds. The Taniwha faithfully kept pace through hard hits and chattery sections. In a word, it felt calm. It's an eerie feeling, as though the rear of the Zerode is focusing more intently on the ground than other bikes. A myopic unflinching sensitivity. Myopic in the good way. It's constantly closely analyzing the ground creating unencumbered, smooth reactions to everything.
What giveth also taketh. That sensitivity translates just as well on the ascents, making the Taniwha an adequate, even decent, climber. But there is a softness to the suspension. Climbing with the shock open reveals a lack of mid-stroke support. The harder I pedaled, the deeper I sank with the fork buoyantly nosing upward. I made note of steeper climbs, experimenting with fore/aft weight placement over the frame. But the Taniwha liked to fall through its sensitive softness, regardless of front-to-back rider bias while ascending. This is the flipside of lessening unsprung mass. It increases sprung mass, and it takes some getting used to. Even when running the recommended 30-percent sag, Travis Engel, Bike's gear editor, who also spent time on the Taniwha, had to aggressively tune his low-speed compression to combat it. Using the Climb Switch lessened the effect quite significantly, but the softness seemed to echo through it.
Shifting the Taniwha's Pinion gearbox is just like shifting a Rohloff hub. I've spent plenty of trail-riding, bikepacking and commuting time with a Rohloff XL drivetrain. Regardless of the discipline, so long as you're not in a hurry, things click along in a consistency that you adapt to over time. Somewhere in the gearbox ether, somebody once said you can shift under load. This is not so. Shifting under load throws gearbox and Rohloff drivetrains into gear-jam purgatory. It takes a lot of force on the shifter for it to be even possible, so it won't happen accidentally. Just don't do it. Dry shift. This is where Pinion and Rohloff shine. Stop pedaling, shift, start pedaling. Legs can keep on spinning so long as no force, really none, is applied to the drivetrain.
Though the Pinion twist shifter takes some force to move, it allows you to grab as many gears as your wrist may reach. This didn't seem necessary, as the shifts between the C1.12's 600 percent are 17.7-percent jumps, a bit bigger than SRAM Eagle's average of 15.8 percent. So, I preferred one-at-a-time winding through things over double-shifts, but maybe old habits die hard.
Pedaling the Taniwha is different as well. The rear wheel is light and quick to spin up, though you're pushing along a low, significant central mass. It makes for a mix of an easy but not sprightly feel--it's as though you're quickly pushing against something then resisting speed. After adjusting, the here I am central feel becomes an asset as the low-slung weight is predictable and planted, keeping the tires glued. You can hang off the front and counter-steer easily into corners, the bike dutifully follows tracking smoothly over subtleties. Landing is controlled and assuring. Overall, the low-ish 352-millimeter bottom bracket feels lower than the number implies with the bike's weight surrounding it.
Gearbox drag is noticeable when spinning the cranks quickly, particularly in higher gears. At slow speeds or low torque, I felt drag-free. Part of this could be that there is such a deep well of low gearing available. Easy is really, really easy. Almost too slow to maintain balance.
Neil Flock from Cycle Monkey explained that the reason more drag is felt at higher speeds is the shafts within the Pinion gearbox are moving faster against the seals, which have a dynamic friction value. Pedal faster and the shafts have traveled that much farther across the seals, creating that much more drag overall.
When coasting downhill, there's no drag. Start to pedal and you can feel that you're turning over the input shaft's spur gears, it's a perceptible on/off feeling that's noticed if it's a prolonged, but not steep downhill, when you're occasionally throwing in pedal strokes to maintain speed.
The Taniwha shines at higher speeds, steeper descents and on longer rides. Hunting around throwing in extras and quick laps trying to make the most of a dwindling time window, it can feel like a struggle bossing the big bike around. Finding a longer ride to settle in on an extended climb, then enjoy all aspects of a varied descent feels rewarding. On longer, out-there rides, there's also a smug satisfaction knowing you don't have a derailleur hanger flapping in the breeze, eager to flirt with an irksome rock face.
Putting on the Big Kid Undies
With the central weight down at wheel level, it can feel a bit like things are heaped over the svelte Derby carbon rims, even though they boast a wide 35-millimeter internal-rim width. So, we fixed the problem. Why? Because we're Bike Scientists™ and can't help doing things that we really shouldn't.
We put 2.8-inch toothy tires on the Taniwha. It was splendid. The softness of the suspension was balanced by untamed rebound in the big tires. Everything seemed more honest; this is a bike that can use some heavy-handed throwing around and the big tires liked it. Supple suspension met smoother-riding tires, which sounds like too much but felt meant to be. The low-slung Pinion became properly propped and supported, it no longer felt like central weight with anemic limbs, the bike became a complete package and was more playful without feeling any heavier. More taste, less filling, mission success.
The Bontrager 2.8-inch 27.5 XR4 Team Issue tires measured 2.7 inches on the Derby rims, and we measured greater than 6 millimeters of clearance everywhere surrounding the tire on the XL frame and also surrounding the tire within the fork arch and crown, even when fully compressed. That said, check with mom before trying alone at home.
So who's 'Senderella' for now that she's put voluminous rubber on her carbon slippers? And who's she for without the voluptuous treads? Either way, the Zerode Taniwha is a bike for somebody who prioritizes utmost suspension performance beyond all else. You get a meticulously tuned, downhill-bike-worthy suspension feel in a 160-millimeter chassis. And like that downhill bike, you have to pedal it, which won't be the end of the world but definitely won't be a highlight. Along the way, you can sidestep a lot of drivetrain maintenance and shrug off broken derailleur hangers while developing a calculated, methodical shifting technique. It's a different bike that's absolutely certain about one thing: It's different.
Interested in learning more about the Pinion gearbox? Read about its inner workings here.