Mountain biking got its start in the garages of passionate tinkerers determined to explore the outdoors in a whole new way. Those early innovators did it for the fun of it , but wound up sparking what has become a huge global industry. And even though there’s plenty of profit-driven, ‘big business’ stuff going on in this little passion project we call mountain biking, it’s still mostly made up of people who simply do it for the love of the sport. Perhaps that’s why we get so excited when new bike companies are still popping up, even when it seems like the market is saturated with choices--it’s proof that, as big as the big boys get, the grassroots culture that birthed our beloved sport is still alive and well.
Still, it’s a tough market. There are a ton of insanely good bikes out there these days, to the point that, even though there’s more choice than ever, it’s actually tough to get a crap bike. Anyone bold enough to bring a new full-suspension mountain bike to market, better make the thing legit. That’s why industry veteran, Tim Krueger, reached out to kinematic-celeb Dave Weagle for a suspension design when starting Esker Cycles. If history has shown anything, it’s that bikes with Weagle’s magic touch succeed. Krueger witnessed it firsthand while working at Salsa when revamping suspension bikes to utilize the Weagle monkey-motion. Krueger went on to start Advocate Cycles, with a mission to donate 100 percent of profits to advocacy, and is the man behind Terrene tires as well.
If hearing that Weagle is behind Esker’s suspension platform ignites curiosity, wait until you hear the cool part: The Elkat, Esker’s first suspension bike, debuts a brand new platform, dubbed Orion, which is a dual-link system specifically designed around modern mountain bikes with wide-range single-ring drivetrains. We don’t need to do the deep dive on Orion here, but kinematically, it’s supposed to deliver excellent pedaling efficiency, while still allowing the suspension to remain active enough to deliver a smooth ride, essentially separating pedaling and braking forces from suspension activity. I like to refer to this as the hover-bike effect, because when executed well, like has been done on Weagle’s DW-link and D.E.L.T.A. platforms, it allows the rider to pedal full power through rough sections so smoothly and efficiently that you feel like you’re hovering right over stuff. Orion features a good amount of anti-squat, has a supple beginning stroke and linear-feeling rate, with some regressive curve to counter the progressive nature of air shocks.
So, does the Elkat and its fancy new dual-link suspension design offer something new? Yeah, it’s pretty cool. The 150-millimeter-travel 27.5er utilizes the second-to-longest shock length in the metric-sizing standard, which helps to deliver a sensitive, deep-feeling travel. It’s a lot of stroke for a relatively small travel number--we’ve seen bikes with 165 millimeters of travel using shorter shocks. But the longer the shock, the more oil capacity you have, which allows for better damping control.
But long shocks don’t ramp up as much. They have lots of mid-stroke travel, so they can tend to bob a ton when pedaling. That’s where Orion comes in. As advertised, the Elkat pedals efficiently, and does a good job at separating pedaling forces from suspension activity. There’s no pedal feedback to speak of, and because of the sensitivity of that long shock, the hover-bike effect is even more prominent than other Weagle designs I’ve ridden. When pedaling hard, that is. The harder you pedal, the less the bike bobs, but when you try less, the bike isn’t as concerned about staying bob-free. Overall, the suspension has a unique mix of having a traction-making magic carpet level of smoothness and sensitivity, without the laziness that normally accompanies those attributes. When you put the power down, it energetically responds to pedal inputs and lunges forward, almost as if it has multiple personalities. It’s a bike that motivates you to get on the gas uphill, and pin it back down.
I can’t get much more specific about suspension than that, because the shock tune has been updated since we received our test bike. After my first few rides, I felt the suspension was just a bit too active for my liking, so I was pleased to learn that the compression tune will be slightly firmer to quiet that some. We’ll report back after getting an updated shock.
As for geometry, the Elkat has contemporary numbers, without pushing any crazy limits for a small-wheeled 150-mil-travel bike. Reach for a size large is 460 millimeters, while the seat and headtube angles sit at 76 degrees and 65.5 degrees, respectively. Chainstay length is 425 millimeters, and wheelbase for the size large is 1,208 millimeters. All these numbers add up to a crisp-handling, easy-to-maneuver bike that’s good at just about anything. It’s not overly aggressive in any way--it’s just a mountain bike. Which, as it turns out, is just how Krueger describes it. “We’re not trying to call it ‘trail’ or ‘all-mountain’. We just think it’s a mountain bike.”
Which really gets down to what Esker is: a group of passionate mountain bikers making bikes for the love of it, not the market share. The company launches with the Elkat and a steel hardtail called the Hayduke, a carryover from Krueger’s Advocate Cycles brand, but there’s much more to come. “In the next three years, we’ll have several more Orion-equipped suspension bikes in the lineup, ” says Krueger.
So where do you get one, and how much are they? Esker wants people to buy its bikes because of firsthand ride experience, not because someone told them to. So, they’re launching a demo tour and partnering with retailers who can commit to having demo bikes in stock. Bikes can be purchased through those retailers, or directly off Esker’s site. The full-carbon Elkat is available as a frame-only for $3,000 with a Fox Float DPS shock, and starts at $4,000 for complete builds. Rather than offering several builds, it’s operated more like car, where there’s a base model, and anything is upgradeable. You can even delete some things if you don’t want them, like if you already have a seat you love, you can order the Elkat without one.
Even though the market is crowded, it’s nice to see a new name in the game. Esker Cycles has the passion, attention to detail and ingenuity to carve out a place for itself. If every Esker rides as nicely as the Elkat, I have a feeling they’ll be lots of buzz around this new passion project.
More info available at Esker’s site.