Short Term Test – Intro: NICOLAI Helius AC: by c_g

NICOLAI is a brand with an almost mythical reputation for their awesome execution, attention to detail with an air of being near indestructible. They are only working with aluminum and make every frame specifically by order … so each bike is basically one of a kind. NICOLAI had always been on my horizon for their design and execution but them not offering a 29″er until late 2010 and me not being too much of an alloy fan … we just never really crossed tracks.

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That did change when during last year´s Eurobike NICOLAI introduced their Argon CC RC 29″er hard tail (shown here) and announced the Helius full suspension platform as an upcoming 29″er as well. It took a while – until Freiburg Collective actually, till we first saw that Helius AC 29″er bike live and get a very quick spin on it – see the event report here.

Now we have been given the opportunity of a world exclusive short test – short for Twenty Nine Inches, not for other mags -and ride the Helius AC for a bit over 2 weeks.

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The Helius AC is Nicolai´s interpretation of a high performance Trail-/All-around bike with a true four bar linkage suspension. The Helius AC 29″er is no different is and designed to be agile, yet confidence inspiring, efficient to tackle any ascent, yet forgiving and stiff enough to master any descent with confidence. Neither aimed at pure racing or hardcore technical riding only but a All-Mountain bike in the true sense of the word. Sounds like a lot of marketing slang to you? By these claims which basically describes my riding style, NICOLAI have put up the bar very high for themselves in terms of how I want to feel riding that bike. Personally I often find it easier to achieve a use-specific characteristic (say Race-/XC-oriented or Trail-bike handling) than one that will do good on anything.

Is the NICOLAI Helius up for that? Well will see, but first let´s take a closer look at the bike before we get to take it out in the dirt.

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Like I said the NICOLAI Helius AC is based on a four bar linkage suspension with a rocker link connected to the top tube. There are four settings, where the 200 mm length shock can be attached to achieve 120, 108, 100 or 90 mm of travel. The tech sheet says the lowest setting is 103 mm but I remember having read someplace it was 90 mm which somehow makes more sense to me – I plan to find out when riding.

The one outstanding trademark every rider will immediately comment on and that NICOLAI is famous for, is the immaculate and wonderful machining and execution of every little detail on their frames and the Helius AC 29″er is no different. To save you the continuous repetition I will say it once and for all: Each detail of this bike is a piece of machining and production mastery that searches for a rival – be it the CNC machined parts (all in house), the welding or the anodizing and paint. All that with the industrial air Nicolai purposefully nurtures being more engineers than designers – no hydro-forming or excessive bending as is so common for modern alloy frames … in fact, there is not one single bent tube on the entire frame!!

The front triangle is executed in round tubing with the addition of some reinforcements on the head tube junctions and the top tube/seat tube junction, not to forget the shock mounting via two welded on plates. The rear is all in straight rectangular tubing and elaborately machined dropouts and a machined yokes – the right drop out being interchangeable.

The basic contact points to components are a tapered head tube (beautifully machined), a pretty standard BSA 73 mm width bottom bracket, a 31.6 mm seat tube diameter (30.9mm on size XL), a 135 mm width rear dropout spacing (my sample frame came with a MAXLE through axle system) and an IS 2000 brake mount (approved up to 203 mm rotor size!!!).

Tire clearance is said to be around 2.4″ and by what I see there is plenty of room for all tires currently available.

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When talking about the geometry (see the Helius AC page here ) – the numbers look a bit on the steeper side looking at the 72° head and 74° seat angles but coupled with rather longish chain stays of 463 mm. Interesting combination … which sounds like Nicolai trying to get both agile handling and very stable climbing combined in one geometry. Will that concept prove its worth on the trail and will the weight distribution not potentially be too far forward?

The frame I received is Medium which translates to a 600 mm effective top tube and a 485 mm ST length center to top. Interestingly Nicolai chose to keep the stand over clearance identical on all sizes by only modifying the seat tube extension above the top tube which makes for a rather tall size Small and a low size Large. Bottom bracket drop is a moderate 30 mm (without sag).

Nicolai does not give a big deal about weight – openly saying their bikes are “built to last and be as precise as can be” and so the Helius AC 29″er also does not aim to be a weight weenie frame. Nicolai´s sales front-man, Stephan G., communicated a bare frame weight of ~ 3.1 kg (6.8 lbs), which seems right considering the bike built consisting of XX drive train and brake components, rather basic wheels and a Reba XX (20 mm Maxle, 120 mm) fork and the complete bike weight (incl. pedals) of 13.2 kg (or 29.1 lbs)

The Helius AC´s frame is built around 120 mm forks (526 mm axle to crown length) which by employing a 118 mm head tube and a external headset sounds like the front might not be the lowest one.

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All cable routing is external and fixed by removable clamps (did I already mention their beautiful machining?) and full length enclosed in housing – I love that in our often foul weather and serviceability sure is a whole lot easier than with any internal routing! On the right chain stay there is a nice screw on plastic piece that functions both as chain stay protector and cable guide.

But all this German Engineering sure is expensive some would say …. and YES the quality material, precision in-house production and attention to detail does have its price but at € 2099.- for the frame (w/o shock but incl. VAT) that seems more than justified. Including is your choice of colors (even mixing different colors on front triangle, chain stay and seat tube is possible). At up charges one can order an anodized part kit ( € 50,- the sample frame has them in blue). Anodized frames cost an additional € 400.- while full custom geometries come at an extra € 600.-. As a form of personalizing your NICOLAI frame you can also have the rider´s name name engraved into the seat stays for € 99.-. There is a myriad of other custom options which I´d refer you back to Nicolai (www.nicolai.net) to discuss when ordering your personal frame. As I already mentioned; all frames are produced by order and so a 6-8 week long waiting list is what you face when ordering a Nicolai today.

I don´t know about you, but I am really curious to find out how the suspension feels, how the bike handles and whether the nice looking package delivers as positively as it looks. Give me 2 weeks and I´ll come back with my impressions.

Until then … RIDE ON,

c_g