A gear box mountain bike all the way from New Zealand, that offers supple suspension and a silent ride
After riding, racing and testing mountain bikes for decades, this is the first bike where I’ve received instructions on how best to change gear. And there’s me figuring I had a pretty good handle on what all the buttons and shifters do by now…
Need to know:
- 29er enduro bike build around the Pinion P1.12 gearbox
- Rotary shifter delivers 12 gears and offers a 600% range
- Travel on the Katipo is 170mm front, 160mm rear.
- Bike weight is 15.96kg (35.2lb) and with weight in the right place the rear suspension is pitter-patter
- Zero dish rear wheel adds strength and allows for narrower 142x12mm spacing
It’s fair enough though, considering Zerode uses a completely different drivetrain and shift system to the vast majority of bikes. You don’t need to squint to see what form this takes either: a Pinion gearbox replaces the chainset and bottom bracket, a rotary shifter looks like something from a bygone era, then the futuristic drivebelt and tensioner pulley sit where you’d normally see a chain and rear derailleur.
Pinion’s system seals cogs in a CNC’ed aluminium housing and they are permanently bathed in 60ml of lubrication, that’s not that dissimilar to the gearbox in my van. The gear range is a bit broader though, offering a 600% range via a twist-shifter that’s part of the right-hand grip. How does that stack up with a stock set up? Well it offers a considerably wider range than SRAM Eagle, which has a 520% range, although 10-52 Eagle still has an ‘easier’ lowest gear for climbing.
This Deluxe Katipo model has 12 evenly-spaced gears but you can’t shift under load. And having more interconnected cogs increases friction too; although the internet consensus concludes this as around 5% extra drag when bedded in, so not huge. Plus, derailleurs distort the chain to extremes of the cassette and get caked in mud, so smoothness degrades to narrow this gap further.
Zerode also claims extra benefits in terms of overall performance from having a gearbox. Obvious ones are greater clearance and durability, but centering significant weight from the swingarm to the frame improves the suspension action by changing the sprung/unsprung mass ratio. Anyone that’s ever ridden an e-bike will have noticed this effect as additional grip and tracking.
You’ll also notice the extra weight, which the Katipo also shares with electric bikes. It’s not as bad as you think though. The Pinion setup adds around a kilo over a traditional drivetrain, but with select components the build here comes in at a competitive 15.96kg, which is only a hair heavier than the new Yeti SB 160.
A gearbox isn’t the only thing going on here though. There’s also a full carbon frame with 160mm travel and contemporary, yet not too radical, angles. Only two frame sizes are offered where the Large has a 475mm reach, a 73.5º head angle, 435mm chainstays and a well-placed seated climbing position.
The chassis is solid and well damped and also beautifully finished, with tidy hardware and rubberised frame protection in all the right places. Combine this with the belt drive/gearbox and the result is the most silent off-road ride I’ve ever encountered, which is a real hidden bonus.
Zerode uses a single pivot suspension design with a linkage attached to the top tube to control leverage on the Fox X2 shock. But forget any imagined compromises about single-pivot designs not pedalling the best. Since the Katipo has a fixed chainline (beltline?), the brand can perfectly tune pedalling throughout the gear range for a very stable and efficient pedal action.
Rear axle spacing on the Katipo is also different, 142x12mm instead of 148x12mm, which delivers even more clearance at the back end. And remember, there’s no rear mech to slot through narrow gaps or a cassette so the rear wheel uses symmetrical spoke angles, so it should still be stronger than a ‘dished’ build using a wider Boost hub spacing.
There are two build levels, including this pricier Deluxe version with a Fox X2 air shock and 170mm travel Fox 36 fork combo that I’ve been showering with complements many times on tests already.
The rest of the kit looks like it’s been picked by riders who know their onions, including Maxxis rubber, a Bike Yoke Revive dropper and Zerode’s own carbon stem and bar. The carbon wheels with Hope Pro 4 hubs from South African brand South, are a rarity, but I’ve tested and rated them highly previously, so I know they are solid and light.
With a smaller 180mm rear rotor than typical on an enduro rig, Magura’s MT5 brakes aren’t crazy powerful, but one reason they’re potentially specced is the ‘hooked’ lever affords more clearance around Pinion’s shifter housing that can foul other brand’s brakes if you like to run the bite point in close to the bar.
How it rides
Not being the biggest fan of climbing, I was half expecting the extra drag of the gearbox to be a potential deal breaker here, or for the extra weight of the gearbox to make it feel like a tank. I was wrong on both scores.
Even with slightly less smoothness and an overall bike weight of almost 16kg to pedal uphill, thanks to the constant chainline, the Katipo is still decently efficient for an enduro bike. And with the weight in the frame, and the improvement in sprung to unsprung mass ratio, the rear suspension really tracks every ripple and contour, carrying good pace through rough terrain with grip for days in wet conditions.
There’s a tactile feel on the floor, but also plenty of support to push and pump through your feet. There’s also a very even rate of change through the travel, so you always know exactly where you are.
Even with a quite well-damped, supportive suspension and abnormal levels of traction, the Zerode has real poise and centred feel to the handling. The bottom bracket is slightly higher than most, but maybe by having the weight in the right place, it’s still a reactive ride and quick to tilt from side to side. The fact that it’s totally silent across the ground is more icing on the cake.
It didn’t take long, however, to realise exactly why Zerode felt the need to send the shifting instructions with the bike. Because, try as I might, Pinion’s twist-shifter never fully clicked, and I quickly craved the more familiar trigger shifter.
How come? Well, with the twist grip shifter taking up half of the right-hand grip, moving your hand a fraction to shift is a bit annoying. The deal breaker was having to decrease pedal power to change gear though. This aspect is really noticeable on flatter, flowier trails, and multiple times each ride when wanting to smash through gears when sprinting at lip faces to clear longer jumps or to catch quicker riders’ back wheels I could get on the gas.
Yes, shifting is super-fast compared to a derailleur and can be done while coasting, but that’s not how most of us ride. Weighting the bars, grip/shifter and pedals when cranking hard stood up, it’s awkward, verging on impossible, to just ‘go light’ to shift without destabilising balance.
And, even once I got used to easing off and ‘popping into gear’ and how you can fully load the pedals faster than with a derailleur, it never became natural. In this sense, flowy singletrack or even enduro racing with loads of stood-up pedalling while adjusting the tempo and ratios is never going to be this bike’s strong suit.
Which is a real shame on such a brilliant handling bike with superior clearance and that silent ride quality. In the end, it wasn’t the extra drag and weight that that got to me, but the compromises inherent to Pinion’s rotary shifting design.
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