Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dirtblog Review: 2012 Giant Anthem X-29 0...

Consistency is typically a good thing in mountain bike racing. I've always had good luck during a second season on a bicycle design I liked the first season. So, after having a successful and very enjoyable 2011 on my Giant Anthem X-29 1, will my experience on its successor, the 2012 Anthem X-29 0, be as good? Will the switch to RockShox suspension components and a SRAM drivetrain enhance or detract from the ride? I set out a little over a month ago to learn the answers to these questions. Along the way, I was surprised by a few things, but ended up stoked by most of the bike overall.

Giant's Anthem - Quality, Performance, Value

At the heart of the bike, the frame of the 2012 Anthem X-29 is essentially the same as the 2011 version aside from the darker grey anodizing. Looking closely, it seems as if the graphics are even the same color as in 2011, but the change in frame color makes them look darker... Interesting.
This shot gives a good perspective on the Anthem X-29's awesome tube shaping. Check out the down tube and top tube!

The frame construction is a display of Giant's mastery of alloy construction and it features a variety of welding techniques, depending on the requirement of the specific joint. Tubes are drawn in-house in Giant's own factory, giving the company the freedom to develop complex tube shapes and profiles. Each tube of the Anthem X-29 frame is highly manipulated, from the box section downtube, to the bent seat tube with an integrated pivot knuckle at the tube midsection.
Fantastic welds and more great tube shaping. Also note the clean derailleur cable routing.

Frame handling is a unique blend of quickness and stability. It has a quick pedaling efficiency, a low bottom bracket and is very light to turn at the bars, so you can really slam through tight singletrack, but it's also got relatively long chainstays, so it's not afraid to drop into a fast downhill with guys on bigger bikes. It's a fast bike that gives you the feeling you can ride it hard with confidence. It won't let you down.

A Pivot Meltdown...

That said, similar to the 2011 bike, I had consistent pivot loosening issues on the first five rides. On the Anthem, like most full suspension bikes, it makes sense to check pivot tightness regularly. Riding with a loose pivot can ruin parts quickly. Unfortunately, less than three weeks into my relationship with my new Anthem X-29, in the process of tightening one of the lower main pivots, the pivot cap cracked and broke. Since I was two days out from my first race of the season, I took it into Cycle Works and we pulled the pivot cap from my 2011 Anthem and installed it on my new bike so I could race while we called Giant about a new part.
The new pivot cap installed...

When the new part arrived, it arrived as part of a 'complete pivot and bearing replacement kit', which I was told I was going to have to buy in its entirety, since the cap that broke was "not under warranty", and that was the only way the cap was available... OK, so this is a bike that, at the time was three weeks old. And the fact is, that pivot was loosening consistently (which would be consistent with a pivot cap that was in the process of cracking). The rest of the pivots had settled down.
A bunch of parts I hope to never need to use, but I suppose it's good to have them.

But I ended up paying more than $30 for a whole new set of main pivots and bearings for my three week old Anthem X-29 0. I used one pivot cap and the rest of the parts are sitting on my work bench.

Spec Changes for 2012

Giant's product managers addressed key spec deficiencies on the 2011 bike in the areas of bar/stem and tires. The 2012 bike comes specced with the excellent Schwalbe Racing Ralph 2.25 tubeless-ready tires, instead of the 2011 bike's Maxxis CrossMark 2.1s. Nothing against the CrossMark, but the Racing Ralph is perhaps the premier Midwest 'all-arounder'. That said, in preparation for a rocky race recently, I put a Maxxis Ardent 2.4 on the front so that I could charge the rocks a little harder without fear of nailing the rim. I love the Ardent 2.4 too... It's a little heavy, but it corners like it's on rails and is super stable in the rough. You can trust that tire. With that on the front and a 2.25 Racing Ralph on the rear, you have a fast, trustworthy combination. Think Dakota Five-O. I am... already.

Handlebar spec. on the Anthem X-29 0 goes to a one-inch rise bar with a generous 9-degree back sweep (plus 5-deg up-sweep), compared to last year's flat, 5-degree sweep bar. This was a great change. I had to toss last year's handlebar immediately, but this year, the stock bar is a keeper. The stem/spacer combination also allows for notably more vertical height adjustment than the 2011 bike -- a positive overall change for riders on the upper-end of each frame size.
The new Giant Contact riser bar improves ergonomics significantly compared to the flat bar specced on the 2011 bike.

Rollin' RockShox in 2012 

I have to admit to being initially wary of Giant's move to RockShox suspension components on the Anthem X-29 0 for 2012. Since I'd been riding virtually nothing but Fox suspension for several seasons prior, I had become very used to the distinct "Fox feel." Once you drink the Kool Aid, it's hard to voluntarily jump off the wagon, but I did, and I have to say, it's not bad.

I had the most reservations about the rear Monarch RT3 damper, but ironically today that's the component I like the most. It's a very high quality piece that offers effective damping adjustments, a great working platform (for the few times you want it on an Anthem) and overall, simply gives the bike a great composure and 'feel' out on the trail. Initially, I chased pressure and rebound damping settings a bit, but today I don't feel there are any situations that last year's RP3-equipped bike out-performs this year's bike.
The RockShox Monarch RT3 rear damper features a built-in sag indicator, making set-up a piece of cake. Air pressure, compression/platform damping (blue lever) and slow speed rebound damping (red dial) are user adjustable.

An interesting thing I've noticed: on last year's Fox-equipped bike, I had to run the rebound damping all the way out (fast), or it felt way too slow. This year's Monarch RT3 damper has perhaps a narrower range of damping adjustment, but I am running it more in the middle of the adjustment range (at five clicks in from full-fast). This is a sign to me that the engineers at Giant and RockShox have done a good job of working together to develop the adjustment range of their dampers.
Race #1 at Swanson Park in Bellevue. I finished 10th overall in cat 1, 5th in cat 1 40-49 (tough class)

Similar to the rear, the SID 29 RCT3 fork is a solid performer, especially for how light it is on the scale. It features 15mm MAXLE through axle lowers to maximize steering stiffness and handling precision. It works too. For while you can see a bit of flex front-to-rear through the fork under heavy braking, the lateral, or side-to-side stiffness the fork displays is top-notch.
Despite its lightweight credentials, the 100mm travel RockShox SID 29 RCT3 fork is a true performer in the rough.

Another thing I love about RockShox forks is the ability to fine tune spring rates with tunable positive and negative air springs. Want your fork a little plusher off the top? No sweat, just dial up a little more negative air spring. Want it a little stiffer, or softer at the end of the travel? You can do that too. Just adjust the positive pressure accordingly. I've found it works well to keep pressures relatively balanced and I'm actually running slightly less than recommended pressure (95psi pos/neg) for my weight to achieve the full 100mm fork travel.

The SRAM Drivetrain

Initially, I was thinking the switch to a SRAM X9/X0 drivetrain from last year's Shimano Deore XT group was a mistake, but as the parts have broken in they're working much better and are functioning smoother. I particularly like the Elixir 9 brakes for their smooth modulation, light action and fantastic power when they're called upon. The 185mm front rotor is a great spec choice on Giant's part that I think all 29-inch mountain bikes should come with. It just makes sense.
Avid Elixir 9 brakes are solid performers. 185f/160r rotors are an excellent spec.

The 2x10 drivetrain is a keeper too. I've heard a couple of journalists complain about the 26/39 crankset's ratios being too tall for a 29"er, but when coupled with the bike's 11-36 cassette, I've found it's got plenty of gears for the stuff I'm climbing. Here in the Midwest, I rarely use the 26, but know that when I go out to Colorado, or up to the Dakota Five-O, I'll spend plenty of time in that little ring. I can't wait...
The carbon/alloy 2-ring SRAM X0 crankset is stiff and fairly light. Shifting is excellent with the X9 front derailleur. Note the clean routing for the rear derailleur cable and disc hose.


If I was disappointed with any area of the Anthem X-29 0 spec, it would definitely be the wheelset. Last year's bike came with a similar wheelset, but the rear wheel was laced with a DT 350 hub. This year loses the DT hub in favor of a Giant-branded "Tracker Performance" hub that is absolutely nothing spectacular. I would expect this hub to appear on bikes in the $1,500-$2,000 range, not on a bike costing almost $4,000. It adds up to a wheelset that easily breaks the 2,000g barrier, making what would be a lightweight bike much more of a pig than it needs to be. The wheels aren't even tubeless compatible, so to make them so, you've got to add additional weight in rim strips. Further proof they're off-the-back...

I was doing the math recently, and even without going to full-bling carbon fiber rims, simply upgrading to a nice set of Scandium alloy rim Bontrager X-Lite TLR Disc CL29 wheels would drop almost a pound (<400g) from the weight of the bike, with tubeless compatibility out of the box, at a MSRP of around $899. I'm sure the build quality of the Bontrager wheels would be much better as well, based on past experience. It would be a very worthy upgrade, and is one I'd love to be able to make at some point soon.

The Overall Verdict

Despite my pivot woes just three weeks into my relationship with my new Anthem X-29 0, I still love the performance of the bike overall. And while I'm disappointed that Giant as a company, is more interested in covering its costs than having satisfied customers, it's good to know the pivot hardware is relatively accessible and inexpensive (how's that for looking on the bright side?). I'm fortunate... I race on the Cycle Works/Moose's Tooth team. If I had paid the Giant's full $3,800 retail price though, I admit I would have been much more disappointed at having to pay an extra $40 for a complete pivot replacement kit. Thank you to Kris and Nathan at Cycle Works for getting that taken care of for me. I am not disappointed at all with Cycle Works whatsoever.

Okay, so with that all said, I think the switch to RockShox/SRAM has been largely a good one. I like the 2x10 gearing a lot for the type of riding I do and the ergonomics and integration of the SRAM matchmaker clamps is excellent. It keeps the bars clean and uncluttered. The suspension performs well for me overall too, and provides useful 'real world' damping adjustments.

Giant made a big ballyhoo about their new wheel program at the start of the 2012 model year, but it really missed with me, as every wheelset they introduced was for road bikes. Mountain bikes were left out entirely, and based on my experience with the 2012 Anthem X-29 0, wheels are where Giant really needs to step up its game, because 1) few components affect the feel of the ride of a bicycle more than wheels, 2) they are getting flat out beaten by Trek, Specialized and almost every other company on the market on their high end bikes because the wheels Giant specs simply aren't as light, or high-performance as those on the bikes of their competitors.

I hope to get a new job soon so I can afford to get a better set of wheels for this bike. It will greatly enhance my love for it, because while I like it a lot now, every time I ride it I wonder how much better it could be if it weren't weighed down by the boat anchor wheels it's burdened with.

Thanks to Cycle Works in Lincoln, Nebraska for the opportunity to ride and race the Anthem X-29 0 during the 2012 racing season. While I received the bike to review at no charge, I was not paid for my review and as always, worked hard to keep my review fair and objective. I welcome your comments and feedback.


Guitar Ted said...

Hey MG:

Nice write up. I feel similarly about the Monarch. The bike does look better than last year's rig, I think.

Giant's wheels for 29"ers have always puzzled me. I have to agree with your assessment of them. That said, the newest carbon fiber version, called the Anthem Advance, does come with carbon wheels, (This summer), and it looks as though Giant is finally getting with the program.

Talk soon!

MG said...

Thanks for your note and thoughts, Guitar Ted. It's encouraging (for next season at least) to hear Giant is stepping its wheel program up. It looks, for me at least, like my 2012 Giant will likely run some handbuilt wheelset thrown together of whatever front hub I can convert to 15mm (probably my Hope), laced to whatever I can find that's light (probably a Stan's). Then I'll probably run a Crossmax on the rear for some races... I wish I could afford a new wheelset. But then I wouldn't be able to go to any races.

Fun stuff... Talk to you soon, my friend. Thanks again for checkin' in.


Jackson J said...

Great write up! Just got the same bike. Disappointed in the wheelset as well...

I'm gonna get a wheelset built up with DT Swiss 240s.

You wouldn't by chance know which DT Swiss hubs I would need? i.e., 135mm 9 or 10mm rear, 6-bolt 15mm front?

Anyhow great read thanks

MG said...

Hey Jackson,

Thanks for checking in and congrats on your new ride. You'll be stoked with the move to DT-based wheels. They'll really wake the performance of the bike up.

As for axles, you'll need a 10mm QR version for the rear and a 15mm through axle for the front. You'll be all set...

Best of luck!

Blue Turtle said...

This bike is a perfect ride. I can tell by the photos and through your reviews. Bookmarked!

J. Harp
writer @ diamondback mountain bike reviews

MG said...

Thanks J.,

I am definitely digging it. I won my first race this past weekend, in fact, which I'll report on soon. It's definitely a bike you can use to your advantage.

Thanks for checking in, and for following my experiences with the bike.


Ziga said...

That is a swell review Jackson, I was pondering whether to get this bike or look elsewhere, rode the demo and appreciate your experiences. Thanks for helping me decide. Ziga

Brandon said...

This is my first 29er and my first 2x10 drivetrain. I live in Colorado and compared to the 3x9 on my 26er, I found the 26 tooth inner chainring to be too big for the more challenging extended climbs around here. Imagine my disappointment when I found that the crank uses an 80mm bolt pattern for the inner chainring and physically can't accommodate a smaller chainring because the chain would hit the bolts. Companies don't even make 24t rings for that bolt pattern. So to get one, I had to buy a whole new crankset. I picked up the 24t/38t version of the same X0 crank, with the 64mm bolt pattern. It set me back nearly $400 but at least I can go all the way down to 22t if need be. Hopefully it won't ever come to that. :-)

I know that full suspension 29ers are much more prevalent across the country than they used to be but why would Giant equip one that isn't really suited to areas like Colorado and Utah? It's bizarre for this type of bike. And with the 24t/36t crank, your lowest gear is 7.7% lower but only lose 2.6% from the top, so it's not like that crank would be poorly suited for flatter areas of the country. Maybe it was another cost cutting measure?

MG said...

Thanks for your thoughts, @Brandon. You definitely have a great perspective. Heck, when I lived and raced in Colorado (98-00), I ran the lowest gears I could find, which at the time were a 22-32 on a 26"er, which is pretty low. But that said, there are times on extended climbs when you're in that gear for an hour or more consistently. I get it...

That said, and this isn't an endorsement or a slam against Giant, but the truth is they develop their bikes to work best for 80-percent of the market, IMHO. That means for you, that it's going to seem slightly over geared, compared to your 'ideal'. For a product manager, that's a hair-splitting decision, because you end up alienating somebody with either choice (among those who care). I'd bet they simply decided to piss off as few people as possible, and go with the larger big ring. Because here in the Midwest, or out west in California, that's the preferred setup.

I'm not saying you're wrong, or that Giant was right. It was just a decision, and I doubt it had anything to do with price.

I'm stoked you're happy with your setup now that you've made the switch though. I've been back on a steel hardtail this season (a Singular Swift) and while it's a phenomenal bike, a dualie is always going to be easier to ride fast for a really long time. I've really enjoyed the challenge though!