The Up Side
The Elkat floated up rough climbs perfectly. Only the most perfectly made DW-link bikes could match it. It's definitely not the best at sprinting or mashing, but it's grippy, comfortable and efficient. The ultra-short chainstays and respectable seat angle don't hurt either.
The Orion linkage had a way of floating over terrain better than nearly any bike with the Elkat’s numbers, especially one with 27.5-inch wheels. But the geometry is on the conservative side, meaning this bike is about precision lines. Those who want a bruiser should at least size up.
Dollar for Dollar
The Elkat's $4,000 entry point is commendable for full carbon and a passable spec. But Esker's site allows you to choose exactly the upgrades you might want on top of that. It's like saving $8 a month by not having ESPN because really, the only reason you got cable was for the Scientology Network.
We probably shouldn't be too surprised that Dave Weagle is still coming up with new linkage designs. It's kinda what he does. He probably even has a couple more warming up in the bullpen as you read this. What should surprise us is that those new linkage designs are still really really good.
The newest is called Orion, and it debuted alongside the Esker Elkat. It's essentially a dual-link design, but the lower link pivots around the bottom bracket. That made some of our veteran testers wince a bit. Most pivot/bottom bracket cohabitations we've seen have made compromises to durability and simplicity. But Esker has a pretty nifty system going. The threads that lock in that pivot are reverse, so it's self-tightening. And the locknut that holds it all together is itself locked in by the bottom-bracket cup. And it's not the kind of bearing that requires preload adjustment or attention. If it's tight, it's tight. And every Elkat will come with its proprietary socket wrench if you should ever need to open it up.
The idea behind Orion is to optimize for the forces associated with wide-range one-by drivetrains. But because most bikes are designed around one-by, the idea was to do it better. In no uncertain terms, it does. And by "better" we mean that it perfectly isolates drivetrain and suspension forces. When mashing out of the saddle on our test loop's many sharp and shelfy gut punches, the rear wheel never hung up, no matter how poorly timed the mash. That's in contrast to the Santa Cruz Bronson, which still has some of its firm-under-load VPP DNA. We've had the isolated feeling before on DW-link bikes, especially on the Ibis Ripmo. But the Esker is a 27.5-inch bike, it's the very first go at the Orion platform, and still, each tester felt the same thing without needing exhaustive setup or any trial and error. It's too soon to say Orion is destined to eclipse the DW-link, but there's definitely something happening here.
And it's happening on the descents as well. One tester who started his ride without reading Esker's spec sheet finished his ride thinking this was at least a 160-millimeter bike. It manages its 150 millimeters of travel that superbly. Small-and mid-sized hits were swallowed up as if the Elkat were a much bigger bike, and the frame's stout-feeling chassis compounded that effect. But it had a trail-bike-like familiarity, which was to a fault in some ways.
We tested a large-sized frame with a short 460-millimeter reach and really short 1,208-millimeter wheelbase. We all agreed it's best to size up on the Esker, especially if you're between sizes. The last section of our long-travel test grounds had us jumping between white-knuckling and red-lining, and a longer stance would have put the front wheel in a more optimal position. The size we tested had an easier time choosing lines, and line choice was definitely crucial, but the Elkat's suspension and chassis were so capable, it's worth opting for more speed and less precision.
It's also worth opting for the 160-millimeter Fox 36 fork over the base build's 150-millimeter 34. In fact, you'll be doing a lot of opting when you buy your Esker. The consumer-direct brand has a refreshing "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" approach to build kits. You start with the not-that-bad (in both cost and quality) $4,000 kit, and you build upon it. Our test rig was $5,900, but just $4,450 will get you what we think are the bare essentials, including a DPX2 shock, a 36 Performance fork and XT four-piston brakes. But that's with an 11-46 SLX drivetrain, and there is a bit of sting in the $300 upcharge for GX Eagle or $1,000 for X01.
We brought the Elkat in as a bit of a curiosity, expecting its appeal to come mainly from being an outsider. But there's nothing niche or exclusive about what this bike brings to the table. We can't wait to see what Esker will do next.
Q&A with Tim Krueger, president, Esker Cycles
Esker Cycles launched with the Elkat, which debuted with Dave Weagle's Orion linkage. Did you plan from the beginning to use one of Weagle's concepts or was it one of several designs you considered in the early stages of designing the Elkat?
Dave Weagle and I have known each other for some time now, and worked together on a few projects in the past. I initially approached him about working on a bike brand in November of 2014, and the initial concept was quite a bit different from where we landed with Esker. Sometime in 2015 we decided to use Orion, as there were huge benefits in bringing it to market once one-by drivetrains were widely accepted, and bikes being built one-by-specific were becoming standard at that time. From there, we had sort of a leg up on what would traditionally happen in bike development in that Weagle and I knew each other, had worked on other projects together, knew what each other liked and didn't like, and I had owned or ridden almost all the other bikes he had done for his other partner brands. So with Esker we were able to sit down and have a real conversation of: “I like this bike because of this, and I don't like this other bike because of that," and really narrow down what we wanted from Esker from the start. This probably saved us a few rounds of prototyping, and we were all on the same page from the start.
In contrast to some of the ultra-progressive (read: ultra-long and ultra-slack) bikes we had this year, the Elkat's geometry was remarkably accessible. Some of us even said conservative, but definitely not in a bad way. What was the motivation behind combining such a capable chassis and linkage design with such familiar geometry?
So here is the big deal with Esker. We make mountain bikes. I'm not trying to create some marketing speak about quiver killers here, but the reality is that we didn't want to make extremely segmented bikes; we wanted to just make mountain bikes so all of our bikes will always be good all around. I feel there is value out there in what some companies are doing with making XC, XXC, XC trail, trail, all-mountain, enduro, etc bikes, but that wasn’t us. We didn't want to tell our customer that they needed six bikes to ride all the different types of riding they wanted to do. So, back to us making mountain bikes. All of our bikes can be ridden all over the mountain, and you won't see us using segmenting terms to describe our bikes. Sure, our Hayduke steel hardtail will give you a different experience than the Elkat carbon suspension bike, but there is no reason either of them cannot be ridden all over the entire mountain. That's what it came down to for us. Rather than ultra-segment the use cases of all our bikes, we say they are mountain bikes for the whole mountain, and that the difference between models will be about what that experience is, but we don't want to use segmenting to falsely sell more bikes, or tell a customer they cannot go there because they don't have the right equipment. How many bike companies right now could tell you the word 'enduro' is not on their website anywhere?
That brings us to geometry. We didn't want to push the geometry too far toward one particular style of riding, it had to be good over all types of terrain and areas. We definitely tailored the geometry to the travel and capability of the Elkat, as the Elkat is our bike for that longer-travel-mountain-bike experience, yet can still be ridden everywhere.
The way Esker specs its bikes is pretty unique. It seems like every build is a custom build. Does that mean every bike is made to order? Where are the bikes assembled?
Yep, every bike is built to order. We have a starting-level spec that we feel is the best value for a high-end mountain bike, and then from there customers can upgrade parts as they desire. One thing we do that not every company does: We have ridden each and every part that we offer. We have done countless miles of test riding, and we only offer parts that truly hold up to mountain bike use. There are a lot of cool parts out there, but also a lot of junk, so we help our customers by only offering items that we can fully back, and say we have tested and approved. Starting out, our build partners are SRAM, Shimano, Fox, RockShox, Raceface, Cane Creek, Wolf Tooth, Industry Nine, DT Swiss, MRP, eThirteen, Ergon, Terrene and Maxxis. As we go, we may add more, but only after thorough ride testing. And even from the companies we work with, not all products may be available if we find something that doesn’t add up, or is not compatible with the rest of the bike or parts. We also have the ability to delete some small parts, say if the customer has a specific saddle they love and already own. And from time to time, we may also make our own parts if something specific is needed that is not found on the market. Our goal is to provide each and every customer a bike that is guaranteed to give them a great ride, and not stick them with any cheaped-out parts from a stock build that need upgrading right away. We will be assembling the bikes in Minnesota and Montana, and if parts are chosen from our standard build offerings, bikes will be delivered to customers in seven to 14 days. Some custom things, such as nerding out on Industry Nine spoke colors, may take up to 30 days.