Editor’s Note: See c_g’s introductory post here on this full suspension bike.

Nicolai Helius AC 29″er – Short Term Test: by c_g

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OK, it has been two eventful weeks on board NICOLAI´s first production 29″er full suspension platform – the Helius AC 29″er. The bike is designed to be a true All-rounder – excelling in epic rides equally as in technical conditions.

In this short test period I have been blessed with the opportunity to ride the NICOLAI every day and even do two alpine adventures to test the bike on. Furthermore we had wide variety of trail conditions from torrential rain and mud fests to bone dry trails (which was very welcome for the simultaneous tire testing going on) and so my ride impressions are rather complete on this bike.

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FRAME BUILDING: Like I said in my intro – I had never been too much into NICOLAI´s love for aluminum and them entering the 29″er market only last Eurobike had only just shifted my attention their direction. To be fair – NICOLAI had been doing 29″er frames for very long time, but always as pure custom builds – the Argon CC and RoCC 29″er and the tested Helius AC are their first standard geometry production 29″ers.

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When I had the opportunity to really inspect the bikes during Freiburg Collective and see how immaculately manufactured and designed they were I grew interested though … they really are as beautiful to the eye as they are from a technical point of view. But would it prove equally as good while riding?

Even after the test period I found very few details I´d change in the bike´s design. One these details was the straight rectangular seat and chain stays that caused me on some occasions (particularly when pedaling in technical sections) to hit my heels on the stays – not too badly though, and after some time I seemed to have adjusted to it, but a bit of bent tube shapes there would better the situation and avoid unwanted contact altogether.

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It is very uncommon for a modern day alloy frame to have absolutely no bending on any tube or hydro-forming, and some may argue that there is constructive potential missed. However; Nicolai is a engineering driven company, and as such they firmly believe that any straight tubing will always be the shortest and strongest connection between two points. If it were not for the occasional heel contact I´d agree, and by riding impressions I have found no reason to doubt this execution.

FRAME FLEX: There is no flex in this frame – anywhere. Everything is built (one might say overbuilt) to transfer the utmost in pedaling force and steering input directly to the wheels and so it comes as no wonder that the Helius AC really is one of the most precise bikes I have ever ridden. This counts double for it being a full suspension bike. That applies for the massive front triangle which is superior in stiffness and precision, and the multi linked rear. Though the testing has been too short to verify long term durability – the shear size of the bearings and bushings, and the precision manufacturing applied, makes me believe there won´t be much trouble in the future in this aspect either.

My test frame was equipped with an Maxle rear (available as an up charge option) adding extra stiffness (not sure it is needed but I had it anyway). This did make the rear wheel mounting somewhat elaborate, since the wheel was not self centering, and threading the axle was sometimes challenging my patience.

5 NicolaiSUSPENSION ACTION: The suspension design with the mounted Rock Shox Monarch RT3 shock creates a suspension platform that is not the most sensitive but the most stable I have ridden up to date. I am very sensitive (if not to say anal), about rider induced suspension action, and the Helius AC (despite its 120 mm max travel) really rides like a hard tail in almost every setting. Only when fully open and rebound to the lowest – would there be very little action under rider input. This applies equally to seated pacing as to hammering standing. Of course this comes at the cost of small bump sensitivity, (which I don´t mind all that much), but not at all by sacrificing shock absorption capacity. When riding the Helius AC hard I frequently found myself using up all its travel without ever coming to the point of bottoming out. Interestingly the suspension action was very subtle, and active to anything but the small chatter, yet super linear – I never felt it to sink in too deeply when riding ditches, or depressing too much under weight shifting, or ramping up on big hits. I am not sure to what extent the suspension design is the cause or more to the shock´s set up, but in combination the Helius AC 29″er was the very first full suspension bike I felt like the suspension was assisting me when riding 100% of the time and not only for a part of my riding.

The only thing I could see changed when it comes to suspension action would be to go for a lighter damping on the shock to allow for a bit more sensitivity when desired by the rider. As it is, the bike rode so stable that I never ever needed to go to the strongest platform setting. The 120 mm Reba on the frame thus felt a bit too active when set up as usual and I chose to reduce the negative pressure to balance with the stable rear.

I did try out the other shock mount settings which alter both the effective travel and the bike angles and ended up liking the 120 mm and 108 mm best. But that really was less because of the differences in suspension feel and more due to the change in rider position and altered angles (since the fork remained at 120 mm all the time). Besides, why go with less travel when even the longest travel already gave me such an efficient and stable ride sensation?

8 Nicolai frontHANDLING & STEERING: So the suspension is good, but how about the handling? Like our past tests have shown the Euro manufacturers often attempt to mimic 26″er handling when designing their 29″ers, which often leads to exaggeratedly stable or agile bikes but rarely the golden middle grounds.

How did the steep angles (72°/74°) and the longish CS (463 mm) add up? First of all the Helius AC climbs like a mountain goat. It requires very little weight shifting when climbing and can be paced up confidently almost every ridable ascent. I love to climb and so this gave the Helius another big plus on my list. I climbed the bike both seated and standing and it is great in both types of riding, though in my opinion it favors the seated mode. The 118 mm long head tube plus the external head set did create a slightly tall front, but I never found this to be an issue – neither for ergonomics or efficiency, nor for climbing. The very neutral suspension sure helped making the climbing even more enjoyable, too. (The only bike that climbs as willingly that I have ridden lately was the BULLS Tirone – also with long chain stays, but this bike suffered from its overly stable steering).

Interestingly the Helius did not steer slow at all. In fact it was one of the more agile and nimble steering bikes I have ridden, yet the superior precision (assisted by the thru axle wheels back and front) kept me in control all the time. This agile front and slightly long rear lent to ever so slight feeling of imbalance, but it took me less than one ride to adjust and learn to really love the way it steered. The thing I credit the HELIUS AC most with is that it had me enjoy every ride regardless of what the character of the ride was – it always provided the sense of confidence to tackle any section willingly yet never made me feel bored.

But even more so, the bike handled so naturally and with such an ease that it would manual and allow for wheelies whenever needed. There is one particular log that I hardly ever clear on the first attempt on any full suspension 29″er, but with the Helius it was no issue at all … WOW!!

By being a true “Do-It-All” bike the Helius AC gives up a bit of a competitive edge though: While some bikes simply make me chase my own lap-time intuitively, on board the Helius AC that thought never even crossed my mind … maybe because I was simply having too much fun riding it through all kinds of terrain :). But don´t mistake this with a touring bike – the Helius AC can well be ridden fast and aggressively.

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Verdict: So was it the perfect bike in my opinion? By ride feeling, handling and suspension action – YES. In these respects it has been among the best bikes I have ridden up to date.

To me the combination of superior climbing stability yet maintaining an agile single track-loving feeling, really sets the Helius AC apart from most other full suspension bikes I have ridden. Couple that with the stable yet very capable suspension and excellent steering precision and what you get may well be your dream bike (it came very close to being mine :)).

Only when it comes to weight, would I say that there must be potential to go lighter without sacrificing too much of the other qualities. If Nicolai managed to lighten up the Helius AC frame a bit – it would get a perfect score.



PS: Personally I have entered this test with some curiosity and skepticism, as I felt NICOLAI had been a company that was being hyped a bit too much. But the ride really made me change my mind. By this brief test I have been lead to really giving them credit not only for their attention to detail and their sense for creating a well executed machine but also for creating the near perfect ride – for me that is. I am definitely keeping them on my radar for more 29″er news.