The Slacker was always meant as a platform to test and learn from. So when we got a chance to test the new Rockshox Zeb fork, we used it to build a bike unlike anything else out there right now.
Rockshox are pitching the Zeb as a "whole new breed of fork, designed to challenge the limits and take on the world's toughest enduro tracks." Which is, of course, marketing guff. What we've got here is a Charger 2.1 RC2 damper, Debonair Spring, SKF wiper seals and so on. In that sense it's much like its little brother, the Lyrik Ultimate. But the real step up is in the chassis: 38mm as opposed to 35mm, and it's beefed up in every respect. A bigger, deeper arch, stronger dropouts and am anodized CNC crown. That's given Rockshox the freedom to push travel out to 190mm. And that puts the Zeb into Boxxer territory. Which got us thinking...
Rockshox are launching the Zeb today but we've had a set on order for a while. And straight away we were faced with a tough call: should we order a 160mm set and stick them on an Edit v3, or is there something more interesting we could do? After all, the Zeb does have quite a bit of Boxxer DNA in there... A quick scan of the specifications confirmed it: the 190mm Zeb would be a good fit for the Slacker. And so the idea of the Slacker Freeride* was born.
These are interesting times. Bikes and they way we ride them continue to change rapidly, and with every 'next best thing' there's another shift. We've got trail bikes (sorry, Enduro bikes) that are almost downhill bikes, downhill bikes that are only suitable to race World Cups, but then World Cup tracks are getting smoother and faster. Not to mention heavy e-bikes with more and more travel. Where will the Zeb fit into all of this?
While the big brands surely expend a lot of effort into trying to figure it all out, categorising their range and trying to get the 'messaging' right, we take a different approach. After all, we're only making the bikes we want to ride anyway. So for us the Zeb was an opportunity to build a version of the Slacker with the potential to be even more fun than usual...
*Don't Call It Freeride
I know, I already did that. Maybe just to get a reaction. We try really hard not to get drawn into the MTB industry's game of Bullshit Bingo. But sometimes you just need a word to express something and Freeride fits the bill. And even though it might not be Freeride in the old-school-hucking-off-cliffs sense, what we found ourselves doing with this bike is not far off. You can just ride anything on it. And to be fair, we probably haven't seen bikes like this since the glory days of Freeride. Only now we have suspension that works.
Wharncliffe is perfect for a bike like this. Or perhaps we should say a bike like this is perfect for Wharncliffe. Steep, tech, lines that reward commitment and speed. A mix of flowy trails and natural features, with layers of new trails overlaying the older, classic lines. Even the old-school features with sketchy run-ins and blown-out landings came into play.
What's It Like To Ride?
It's too early for any detailed feedback; we've not had enough time with the fork or the bike to get into it. And as with all things Slacker, we're not even trying at this point to think about production or bringing an actual bike to the market. It's just about experimentation, learning and having fun with it. The fork itself is obviously capable; we know that the internals are much the same as the Lyrik Ultimate which we rate already. And the extra strength and stiffness are bound to translate into more confidence when you're pushing hard or trying to hold a line (or hucking to a short, rocky landing, as Andy can testify).
Although the Slacker is not intended to be a race bike, it is definitely a downhill bike at heart, and that means no concessions made to pedalling efficiency or riding uphill. This is not the same thing as a 'heavy' build on an Enduro bike. And my guess is that's where most Zebs will end up - on the front of long-legged Enduro rigs with coil shocks and DH brakes. No doubt we'll hear from brands telling us they're just as fast as downhill bikes. Someone might even have a stopwatch to 'prove' it. Downhill bikes that you can pedal up hills. And there's no doubt that bikes like that are sick; many people build their Edits that way. But what we can tell you right now is that they are nowhere near the same as a proper downhill bikefor riding down hills.
Downhill wheels. Downhill tyres. 200mm of dedicated, active travel from a long-stroked DH coil shock and all-you-can-eat grip. The kind of strength and stiffness that only a downhill frame can offer; low standover and a genuine DH drivetrain with 7-speed block and full bashguard. Just... with a single crown fork.
So What Have We Learned?
The Zeb is a sick fork, no doubt about that. But we knew that already. And we know that a fork like this will continue to blur the boundaries. It seems unlikely that many people will do what we've done and fit them to downhill rigs, unless it's for a particularly bike-parky race track. But maybe they should. With more and more uplift-assisted riding spots these days, maybe we should look past making pedally bikes stronger and go back to making bikes that are just rad to ride down tracks again. And it's worth noting that the Zeb will be at a more accessible price than a decent dual-crown fork so if we were able to put the Slacker into production, it might help us to make the price better too. How about a sick build on an Edit and a Slacker for the same price as a dentist's carbon enduro bike?
We don't know what the industry will do with it. A good guess is more of the 'this bike can do everything!' hype. And lots of e-bikes with Zebs up front. The Zeb is going to generate more options for brands to play with. We'd just like to see brands seize that opportunity to make bikes that are more fun to ride and give riders the opportunity to be more creative. If we're going to succeed in getting the Slacker into production, we need to find riders who understand a bike like this and want to get behind it.
As Homegrown As It Gets
If you're following The Slacker Project you'll know that we're trying to develop a downhill bike from scratch, and to do it our own way. It makes no commercial sense and if Airdrop existed just to make money, we would probably not be doing it. In fact, we wouldn't do half the things we do. But guess what... Airdrop is not just about growth and profit. All three of us designed this bike together. We worked hard to pay for the prototypes. To produce this blog post, Andy built the bike and did the riding, James and I took the pictures and I wrote the words; the whole company is involved. Yes it cost us some time and I'm sure we could have done something more profitable than this, but then what would Airdrop even be for if we didn't get out in the woods and ride bikes? And how many brands can honestly say that everyone who works there actually rides the bikes?