"How hard can it be?"
Second only to "Hold My Beer," no phrase is a better indication that one is about to attempt a task they may have severely underestimated. And it's a phrase that Hope Technology co-founder Ian Weatherell is heard saying on a regular basis. Perhaps never more notoriously than after it was suggested that Hope, machinists of aluminum and engineers of bits (not parts, bits) set out to design and manufacture their own full suspension frame. Clearly it’s not impossible, right? New bikes get made all the time. How hard can it be?
"Going back 12 years we've always been playing and drawing bikes, and the bike has changed depending on what we were doing at the time. It's gone from a downhill bike to more cross-country. We had all sorts of ideas, and then about three years ago we decided it was maybe time to just make one." The words of the project's lead designer Guillaume Leon may appear nonchalant, but his tone is that of an engineer. It conveys the gravity of the endeavor they've now officially completed.
The Hope HB.160 began as an experiment. An exercise in what can be accomplished if a brand who also manufactured essentially everything but suspension, tires, and a few drivetrain bits, sought to build a complete bike with little regard for industry standards. And more importantly, with just as little regard for market demands. They wanted a bike that suited the specific riding style that evolved among Hope Technology employees.
"Making a bike is a bit like making a meal. Everybody has different tastes, and if you find something that everybody likes, probably it's a bit tasteless." Leon characterizes the HB.160 much the way the rest of the Hope crew would. It’s the bike they want to ride. Ian Weatherell and fellow co-founder Simon Sharp came from a trials background and had a taste for steep, technical terrain. That happens to describe the terrain in Briançon, France, Guillaume Leon’s home town, and where we were invited to test out the new HB.160.
At first glance, the 160-millimeter, 27.5-inch HB.160 would seem like a normal modern all-mountain bike, but it is anything but. Hope was not bound by convention and assumed no standard. If they saw a reason to change something we take for granted, they changed it. So much so that the HB.160 will be offered only in a complete, and only with one build kit. Because if you like Hope’s bike, chances are you like their components. But more than that, you probably like the unprecedented ways they combined the two.
The rear brake on the HB.160 is radially mounted, meaning its post-mount-style bolts sit parallel to and equal distances from the radius of the rotor. To go from 160 to 180-millimeters, there’s no offset and no angle necessary. Just two identical 10-millimeter spacers move the caliper straight out. It’s simpler and more precise. The bottom bracket is just as unique. Hope’s press-fit design actually makes a traditional press-fit bottom bracket tolerable. And the HB.160 sizes that concept up to fit their 30-millimeter spindle cranks. As the standard 30x42x7 bearings wear, you can press them out of the insert, or replace the insert altogether.
Perhaps the most impressive example of Hope’s outside-the-billet thinking is the rear hub. Their first goal was to make a zero-dish wheel, and one of the first steps was to move the drive side out 3 millimeters. Sound familiar? That’s precisely what Boost 148 does. By chance, Hope just happened to develop it independently and actually a little sooner. On the non-drive, they moved the rotor surface closer to the spokes. Since they knew exactly what caliper would be used, they knew exactly how much clearance they needed, and they used all of it. This wasn’t done to push the non-drive flange out instead to bring the non-drive dropout in.
Hope built the HB.160 around a jaw-droppingly narrow 130 millimeter spacing. Between the hub flanges, there’s just a 51-millimeter spread, 10 millimeters narrower than a Boost hub. But the drive-side flange is just as far from the hub center, giving you the same stiffness as boost but with perfectly even spoke tension. Zero-dish wheels aren’t new. Cannondale does it on their A.I. bikes. But they had to push the drive side out even further, and Hope felt 3 millimeters was enough. The drastically asymmetrical rear triangle gives you significantly more clearance through tight sections, if only on the non-drive side.
Also jaw-dropping is the rear hub’s 17-millimeter through-axle, which took surprisingly little redesign to accomplish. Traditional through-axles usually pass through another axle that that the bearings run on. The hub on the HB.160 simply forgoes that secondary axle and runs its bearings on the through-axle itself. And of course, Hope made their own chainstays, so they could make the through-axle whatever size they wanted.
The Rear Triangle
The alloy chainstays are machined, not tubular. Hope could have outsourced a tubular stay from a nearby manufacturer as they did for the seatstays, but the quality of material and precision of manufacturing possible with CNC machining brought them back to what they know best. They machined each stay separately, and when they went to weld them together, they found that the deformation from the welding cost them the precision they set out to achieve. Instead, they’re bonded together using a method commonly used in aircraft. That word “bonded” is frightening to those who remember things like bonded carbon frames, but in failure testing, the bond actually lasted longer than the tabs themselves.
The linkage is essentially a Horst link. There was a period during Hope’s decade-long brainstorm when linkage designs were getting out of hand, but with trends calming down and the patent lifted on Horst, it was the most logical choice. Hope wanted a fairly progressive leverage curve and relatively supportive pedaling performance. They consulted a third party kinematics expert, but they had gotten nearly exactly what they wanted on their own.
The Front Triangle
But of course, I’m building up to the story of the front triangle. It wasn’t assumed from the beginning that the HB.160 would be carbon, but it makes an odd sort of sense. After all, the heart of a carbon frame is its mold, which is machined out of aluminum. Hope had to buy a bigger machine to do it, but a brand like Hope would never see using bigger machines as a downside. The mold takes a week of machining to complete. Per side.
Producing the molds in-house had some unique benefits. Midway through development, Hope chose to adjust the size of the bottom bracket and some of the pivot inserts, and it was as simple as firing up the brand new machine and shaping some new components for the mold. Even in the short time between our rides on the bikes last month and the launch this week, Hope shortened the length of the seat tubes. But throughout, the overall shape of the frames has stayed the same. There were no aluminum test mules. Hope went all-in on their chosen design.
Their carbon sage is Chris Carter, known as Olympic Chris around the Hope office. Boardman was the British cycling team’s carbon engineer during their near complete sweep of every track category during the 2012 London Olympics. He’s directed the fine details of their carbon manufacturing, and trained the three technicians in the Hope office, currently producing the frames as I write this. That production will be relatively limited. Hope is estimating about 500 frames will come off the line per year. They’ll be rolled out first in Great Britain by September, then soon after in Germany, all through select dealers. We can expect to see them stateside sometime in January. U.S. pricing hasn’t been set, but the HB.160 will be going for $7500 Pound Sterling, which converts to just over $9600 U.S. So the bar was set high as I set out on my first rides on perhaps the most unique bike I’ve ever ridden.
Finally, the Ride
And that’s the longest intro I’ve ever written before getting to the ride impressions. But honestly, most of this bike’s story is backstory. How it rides is more simple. It rides precisely how it was intended to ride, which, in a word, is precise. It nails the narrow mark between long-travel trail bike and lightweight all-mountain. There’s a sturdy pedaling platform, made sturdier by the relatively steep seat angle. It’s got the potential to be the perfect backcountry endurance machine.
I found one curious shortcoming though. I’ve been riding an Eagle drivetrain for well over a year now, and I’ve been spoiled by the range. We rode with Hope’s own 11-speed 11-48 cassette, but it’s just beyond what the stock SRAM non-Eagle derailleur can handle. Enough so that in the smaller cogs, there was a fair bit of chain slap. So Hope will be specing the HB.160s with their 11-44 cassette, whose range falls just short of that of SRAM’s original 10-42t 11-speed drivetrains. And the unique hub is not compatible with an XD driver. This was hard news for me to take. It was heavy baggage to carry while evaluating this incredible machine. But a drivetrain is just one aspect of any bike. There was a lot more to talk about, and a lot of fun to be had. That fun started at an alpine bike park in the south of France. I would find a way.
The HB.160’s wheelbase isn’t as long as many other bikes in its travel range, which is by design. The soft, rooty, often wet trails of the UK require a lot of quick adjustments and last-minute decisions. Compared to even the most nimble of long-legged trail bikes like the Trek Remedy or the Rocky Mountain Altitude, the HB.160 was a remarkably more spry machine.
Briançon’s Serre Chevalier bike park is relatively new. It has a healthy share of steep, rocky fall-lines as well as the requisite sweeping berms and slightly too-short tabletop jumps. I felt remarkably comfortable on those steeps, especially when being chased by journalists far faster than me. As is the case with any trail that gets a lot of traffic, there were multiple line choices, and I found myself picking a different one on each run. Though I’m partial to especially long bikes, the HB.160 was delightfully easy to stab off slow-speed drops or skid into pockets when taking an inside line around a turn.
That geometry also made it quite a blast on the mid-sized jump lines. On one run, I inadvertently inspired a train of nose-bonk-to-manuals behind me on a the small, jibby hit at the bottom of the trail. It’s clear the bike really wants to have fun. And there’s no doubt it’s thanks in part to the unique rear wheel and rear triangle design. The increase in stiffness was subtle, but the more comfortable and more aggressive I got on the HB.160, the more impressed I was.
It wasn’t until I loosened up enough to dive full-speed into Briançon’s alpine rock gardens that I got the HB.160 out of its comfort zone. The bike’s slack head angle and stout feel are no indicators of a limitless potential. Being used to bigger wheels, I had to adjust my bloodlust when straightlining at high speeds. But as its creators plainly state, this bike was not made to please everyone. Riding the HB.160 is an experience as unique as the bike itself. I could sense, when watching designer Guillaume Leon shredding his local terrain, that this bike turned out exactly as Hope wanted.