2018 Zerode Taniwha
Size Tested: Large
- Drivetrain: Pinion C1.12 Gearbox
- Brakes: Magura MT Trail Carbon
- Fork: Cane Creek Helm
- Rear Shock: Cane Creek DB Inline
Travel: 160 mm rear / 160 mm front
Blister’s Measured Weight: 33.6 lbs (15.24 kg) without pedals
Reviewer: 5’9”, 155 lbs.
Test Location: Boulder City, Nevada
MSRP: $9,500.00 as built / $5,000 frame and drivetrain only
Interbike’s Outdoor Demo was held at Bootleg Canyon, in Boulder City, Nevada, which is a little bastion of awesomeness about 25 minutes from the Vegas strip. There’s a mix of fast and flowy and legitimately techy terrain that’s a pretty decent venue for a demo.
Normally, Blister tries to get as much time on a bike as we realistically can so that we have time to play around with setup, get comfortable with the fit, and hopefully reveal any durability issues that might arise. But for obvious reasons, spending an hour or so on a bike at Interbike’s outdoor demo doesn’t give us the time to give a bike our usual treatment.
That said, there’s a lot of value in riding a bunch of different bikes, back-to-back on the same trails. Traits that might not be obvious when the bikes are ridden weeks or months apart become evident.
So in other words, back-to-back comparisons on great trails are useful, but don’t take this as the final word on these bikes, especially when it comes to maintenance and durability issues.
So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at the Zerode Taniwha
Zerode does things a bit differently, and the Taniwha (pronounced Tani-fa) is the latest and greatest example of this. For those who aren’t familiar, Zerode is a small company based in New Zealand that has built its reputation around bikes that incorporate gear boxes. So that means no derailleurs, no cassettes, and the shifting mechanism is tucked away, mostly out of sight.
Of the bikes I rode at Interbike, this one was, without question, the most unique in how it’s put together. There aren’t many gearbox bikes on the market, and this was my first outing on a trail-oriented gearbox bike. And there’s no denying that there are some distinct advantages, but it’s not without some downsides.
So how does that all balance out in the grand scheme of things?
Zerode offers the Taniwha as a frame only, or with a few different build kits from a small number of retailers. The bike I rode wasn’t exactly the same as the complete bikes Zerode is offering, but it was fairly similar to the top-of-the-line “signature” build that Cycle Monkey offers.
Suspension on the Taniwha that I rode was handled by Cane Creek, front and rear. A Helm fork and a DBAir IL rear shock worked surprisingly well. I say surprisingly, not because those are bad units, but because they’re so adjustable that I often find myself struggling with setup a bit — normally it’d take me quite a few rides and a decent amount of guessing and checking to arrive on a favored setting, but for a short ride like this, I’m just taking a stab at it based on Zerode’s recommendations. Zerode got it pretty close though, so at least in this particular instance, I was pretty happy with how the suspension performed.
The Taniwha was rolling on some Derby rims laced to Project 321 hubs, and mounted with WTB Rubber (Convict front, Trail Boss rear) — solid wheels, although not my absolute favorite tires. Magura MT Trail Carbon brakes took care of stopping duties, and while those brakes aren’t particularly common in North America, they work really well.
A 175 mm 9point8 Fall Line dropper post, an SQ Lab 611 Active Ergowave saddle, and a Syntace bar and stem rounded out the cockpit. The saddle is a bit of a unique shape, but it worked alright for me, and the Fall Line dropper is fantastic. No complaints there.
Which brings us to the drivetrain…
The Taniwha’s gearbox is a C-Line series unit made by Pinion, which is a German company that’s independent of Zerode. It’s a fully enclosed unit that sits in the bottom bracket area of the frame and offers 12 gears (although Zerode offers a less expensive and slightly lighter 9-speed version as well).
The unit is fully enclosed, so it’s essentially impervious to mud, water, and other messiness that tends to gum up drivetrains. And for that reason, it’s designed to be essentially maintenance-free. The box has some oil in it, which Pinion says needs to be changed once a year, but for the most part, maintenance is minimal.
The Pinion’s gearing is roughly equivalent to a triple ring drivetrain setup — it offers a 600% range. So comparing it to a modern 1×12 drivetrain, the Pinion gearbox offers a climbing gear that’s the equivalent of a 30 x 54t, and it offers a descending gear that’s the equivalent of a 30 x 9t. In other words, that’s an easier “easy” gear and a harder “hard” gear than a 12-speed Sram Eagle drivetrain (which offers a 500% range).
To actually turn the wheel, the Taniwha uses a single-speed drivetrain with a small chain tensioner just behind the bottom bracket. The gear equivalencies I just mentioned are based around a 30t chainring and a 30t cog at the rear wheel, but by changing that ratio, the gearing can effectively be made easier or harder.
Shifting is accomplished by a Gripshift-style twist shifter that uses two cables. I’ll get into the functionality of the shifting below, but it’s worth noting that at least for the time being, a twist shifter is the only option on the Taniwha. Zerode did indicate, however, that Pinion is aiming to release a trigger shifter option sometime next year that’ll be backward-compatible with current Pinion gearboxes.
Fit and Geometry
Fit on the Taniwha is a bit tricky since they only offer three sizes. The Large I rode has a reach measurement of 445 mm, and an effective top tube length of 604 mm. That puts it slightly on the small side of most modern Large sized bikes. If you bump down to a size Medium, the reach and top tube measurements drop to 420 mm and 575 mm, which means the Medium is a bit smaller than most other companies’ Mediums these days, and might be more accurately called a small.
Sizing on the XL bumps all up to a 475 mm reach, which is a relatively big jump from the Large. The practical reality of that people in the ~6’ ballpark might find themselves between sizes. For me at 5’9″, the Large I rode was a bit bigger than the Mediums I’d normally ride from most other companies, but of the three options, it’s certainly the size I’d go with.
In terms of the rest of the frame’s angles and measurements, the Taniwha is more or less in line with most other bikes in this travel class.
A 65° head tube angle is fairly normal among 160 mm travel bikes these days, and it offers the stability you’d expect on a bike like this. And a 74.5° seat tube angle keeps the rider forward while seated, which makes steep climbs a bit more manageable.
431 mm chainstays are also fairly average for a bike like this; long enough to provide a bit of stability, but short enough that the bike doesn’t start to feel too boat-ish.
The one number that jumps out at me a little bit is the bottom bracket height — at 352 mm, it’s on the tall side. That’s not unheard of by any means, but it’s taller than most of the popular bikes in this category. I’d say “average” is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 340 mm for 160 mm travel bikes, so the Taniwha sits about 12 mm or ½” higher, which is a big enough difference to be noticeable.
My first outing on the Taniwha was down one of Bootleg’s rockier trails, which, for those that haven’t been to Bootleg, means it’s a really, really rocky trail. And two things became immediately apparent: (1) the suspension is very noticeably different, and (2) the shifting was going to take some getting used to.
Gearbox System & Unsprung Mass & On-Trail Performance
There are a number of selling points for the gearbox system, the most obvious of which revolve around durability and maintenance. But the gearbox also means that a lot of the weight at the rear wheel is removed — the cassette and the derailleur are gone, with just a single lightweight cog in their place. Depending on how much money you threw at your drivetrain, this means that somewhere in the ballpark of 700 g (about 1.5 lbs) has been removed from your rear axle.
Any bike nerd will tell you that removing unsprung mass is a good thing, and the derailleur and cassette fall into that category of unsprung mass. That means the bike’s suspension isn’t supporting the mass of those components unlike, for example, your seatpost which is sprung weight. More to the point, it means that when you hit a bump, and the force of that bump compresses your rear suspension, that force also has to move the mass of the derailleur and cassette.
Here’s an easy way to think about this: your arm is going to act like the chainstay on the bike. Your shoulder is the pivot near the bottom bracket. So stick your arm straight out, and hold something pretty light, like a pen, in your hand. Now rapidly move your arm up and down, which is basically what your chainstay is doing as the bike tracks over bumpy terrain. Now hold something heavy in your hand — maybe a book. It’s harder to move your arm up and down quickly, right? Or more accurately, it’s a lot harder to change directions from “up” to “down” quickly — the extra mass and momentum of the book means it takes more effort to reverse directions.
The same principle applies to your rear suspension — the more weight there is sitting out at the end of your chainstay, the harder it is for your suspension to wrangle that extra mass and keep it tracking the ground accurately.
And I’ll admit, this was a principle that I’ve always understood on a theoretical level, but I’d always been a bit dismissive of it in terms of actual, real-world applications. I can’t say I’d put a ton of thought into it, but I mostly operated on the assumption that the forces going into the suspension were significant, and 700 grams isn’t that much mass, so how much difference can it really make?
After riding the Taniwha, I’ve changed my mind. It makes a difference. Like, a significant, and immediately noticeable difference.
The rear wheel on the Taniwha is just glued to the ground. Riding down the super irregular rock at Bootleg, the rear end of the Taniwha tracked the ground better than any other bike I’ve ever been on, including full-blown DH rigs with perfectly dialed coil shocks. Traction in all situations was impressively good — there was never that sensation of skittering around a corner because the rear wheel was skipping off of bumps and losing traction. And to reiterate my previous point, that’s with a Cane Creek DB Inline rear shock on the Taniwha, and while that shock worked well for me, I’m 100% sure I could get it to be even better with some time to tinker around with air pressures and damping settings.
But what’s also noteworthy is that, on any other bike I’ve ridden that really felt glued to the ground, that feeling was largely a result of the shock settings, and it usually came at the cost of poppiness or playfulness. So, for example, the Trek Remedy that I spend time on earlier this year — it does a really good job of keeping the back wheel on the ground and hooked up. Not quite as good as the Taniwha, but quite good. But the difference is that the Remedy achieves that via its shock technology, and the bike loses a lot of its playfulness because of it.
The Taniwha, on the other hand, achieves that bump-sucking prowess by removing some weight from the rear axle, which has nothing to do with the shock tune. And on the trail, that means that you don’t sacrifice any playfulness or ability to pop — I’d say the Taniwha was actually a fairly playful bike, and it was happy popping off of even relatively small obstacles.
The skeptical part of me wondered how much of the Taniwha’s suspension characteristics were due to the reduction in unsprung mass, and how much of it was just the suspension design and rear shock tune. But the DB Inline didn’t have any kind of special tune, and the linkage design on the Taniwha isn’t breaking any new ground. It’s a linkage-driven single pivot that is, overall, moderately progressive. While the suspension design seems well thought out, it’s not dramatically different than any number of other bikes on the market. My point being, the Taniwha’s suspension was noticeably better at tracking the ground than any other bike I’ve ridden, and I think the reduction of unsprung weight is 95% of the reason for that.
And I should also mention that, while the Taniwha’s suspension was noticeably different over smaller bumps and in situations where it was tracking over irregular ground, it’s also entirely competent in other situations as well. It felt supportive in corners, it didn’t wallow into its travel, and it handled bigger hits gracefully. On more significant impacts, the lack of unsprung weight wasn’t as noticeable, but the Taniwha still performed well — it’s just less noticeably different than other good bikes in this class. One huge difference though — the Taniwha is really quiet. No derailleur means no chain rattling around. Now let’s talk about shifting.
The way the Taniwha gets rid of all of that unsprung mass is to make it sprung mass in the form of a gearbox. In terms of on-the-trail performance, the gearbox has a bunch of upsides, but also a bunch of downsides. We’ll start with the good: there aren’t any dangly derailleurs to smack on rocks, you can shift when you’re not pedaling, and the weight is low and centered on the bike. The downsides? The gearbox is heavy, and it really doesn’t like to shift under load.
And what that means, at least for me, is that it’d take me a while to learn how to ride this bike effectively. An example: my normal shifting technique as I come into a climb would be to carry as much speed as possible, and pop down through my gears one at a time as I slowed down, eventually landing on whatever gear I was able to sustain for the duration of the climb. But this doesn’t work very well with the Pinion gearbox because it doesn’t like to shift under even relatively moderate amounts of load. So there’s two ways to get around that: either get all of your shifting done as you’re approaching the climb (which is annoying, because it doesn’t maximize carrying momentum up the hill), or get good at momentarily releasing tension on the chain when you shift. That basically means timing your shifts with slight backpedals, which is do-able, but takes some practice, and the steeper the climb is, the trickier it is.
On the descent, however, the issue is far less noticeable. For most descending scenarios, there’s not enough consistent load on the chain to make shifting difficult. So once the trail points downhill, a lot of my gripes go away. And actually, this is where the ability to shift without pedaling becomes really handy — I kept forgetting it was an option, but on the occasions I remembered to do it, I’d pedal away thinking “huh. That’s pretty neat.”
And, of course, confounding the situation is the twist shifter, which is something I haven’t spent much time on since sometime in the late 90’s. Yes, you can dump a bunch of gears in either direction really quickly. But I also find that I have to move my hand inboard on the grip to make a shift, which feels unnatural. And I find that it can be a little trickier to accurately shift a particular number of gears. With a trigger shifter, I can accurately tap it four times, with a twist shifter I find myself over or under shifting with some frequency. Some people still love twist shifters, but it’d take me some getting used to, and I’d certainly welcome a well-executed trigger shifter.
So the long and short of it is, the shifting would take some getting used to. I don’t see any of the issues as insurmountable or deal breakers, but as someone who’s used to a different system, this wasn’t a bike that I could just hop on and feel right at home. I kept missing shifts, and I found myself in the wrong gear a lot. But I’m confident that more time would solve that issue.
One thing I didn’t have an issue with was drag. Some time ago, I owned a set of the old Truvativ Hammerschmidt cranks that had an internal planetary gear. On those, it was fairly noticeable how much drag there was in the “bigger” gear, and for me, it was a deal breaker. Based on that experience, I was worried that’d be an issue with the Pinion gearbox, but at least in the ~2 hours I spent riding around on the Taniwha, I didn’t notice any noteworthy drag (noteworthy meaning: more drag than a “normal” drivetrain produces). I did a couple of short climbs up a paved bike path where extra drag in the drivetrain likely would’ve been noticeable, but I don’t have anything untoward to report.
Putting the suspension and shifting aside, the Taniwha rides like a competent, modern bike. It’s stiff, stable at speed, and quiet (I know I already mentioned the quietness, but it bears repeating). The taller bottom bracket was nice on some of the trickier technical climbs at Bootleg, but I think I’d be wishing for something a bit lower on flowier trails where cornering prowess mattered a bit more. But aside from that, the geometry of the Taniwha feels right in line with most of the modern enduro rigs on the market.
It doesn’t feel like quite as big a bike as the burlier options in this category (e.g. Pivot Firebird, Giant Reign, GT Sanction), but the Taniwha is certainly more on the “Enduro” end of the spectrum than the “Trail” end of the spectrum. On that note, take a look at our 27.5” comparison to see where we placed the Taniwha against a slew of other bikes.
In terms of climbing and pedaling efficiency, I’d call the Taniwha “fine.” It wasn’t fantastically good, but it wasn’t terrible either. For a 160 mm travel bike, it’s fairly average. I did notice, however, that it does a great job of maintaining traction on steep, loose climbs. In large part, I’m going to (again) credit the suspension for that.
The Taniwha is one of the more interesting bikes that I’ve ridden in quite a while. The incorporation of the gearbox not only makes for a … “different” shifting experience, but it also has a dramatically noticeable effect on the suspension performance. The bike isn’t without its downsides (it’s fairly heavy, the shifting takes some getting used to, and it’s really friggin expensive), but the upsides are real. The drivetrain is virtually maintenance-free, it offers a huge gear range, you can shift without pedaling, the bike is super quiet, and the reduction in mass at the rear axle makes the rear suspension perform ridiculously well.
There are a few categories of riders that I think the Taniwha clearly makes a ton of sense for. Ride in sloppy conditions where drivetrain maintenance is a persistent headache? Yup, the gearbox will be your savior. Ride tight, rocky terrain where you’re constantly shearing off derailleurs? Get rid of the derailleur! Heavily prioritize suspension performance, and want to find a way to minimize unsprung weight? Ok, you get the point: the Taniwha is perfect for a few niche-y categories.
But is it the answer for a broader populace of riders? Maybe — it just depends on where priorities lie. The weight and expense are obviously going to limit the reach of a bike like this, and the fussiness when it comes to shifting under load might be a deal breaker for those who log a ton of climbing vert, particularly on climbs that involve constant shifting. But I could see this being a fantastic option for places like the Pacific Northwest, or maybe Great Britain — i.e., places where there’s a lot of wet-weather riding and the maintenance benefits will be noticeable. Places where the trails are rough and rooty (and frequently, wet and rooty), where the suspension performance and stick-to-the-ground traction really matters. And maybe places where there are frequently fire-road climbs that are a bit more accommodating to the gearbox’s shifting idiosyncrasies.
If any of that rings a bell, and if you put more value on descending performance than lightweight climbing prowess, the Taniwha brings something to the table that’s legitimately different, and in many aspects, legitimately better.