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The Six-Month Test: GT Zaskar 100 9r Pro

2012 GT Zaskar 100 9er Pro

In recent years, GT Bicycles has been the Rodney Dangerfield of bike brands—they don’t get enough respect. The company continues to roll out hard-working, high-value bikes that are too often overshadowed by marquee brands.

Case in point: the Zaskar 100 9r Carbon Pro. This four-inch, full carbon XC 29er measures up favorably to similarly minded bikes on the market (think Trek Superfly 100 or Niner Jet9 RDO), but when it was introduced earlier this year it was overshadowed by sister company Cannondale’s splashy launch of the Scalpel 29er. That’s too bad because, while the Zaskar 100 will serve a slightly different consumer than the Scalpel and other pure race bikes, for the right rider, the Zaskar 100 9r is absolutely worth a look.

THE FRAME
GT bills the Zaskar 100 9r as a full-up rethink of this platform rather than an upsizing of its 26er kin. That’s a line that many companies tout, but in this case there’s merit to the claim. The carbon shaping is dramatic, with large down tube and bottom bracket volume, sculpted reinforcement on both ends of the shock, and a roughly hexagonal shape at the front of the top tube that pinches down to a flatter oval at the rear for a bit more vertical compliance. Keeping with the times, GT has built in a tapered head tube.

The big changes are to the back end. The rear triangle now clamshells around the front and all hardware is outboard, which, combined with a new carbon bridge piece between the two sections (GT calls it a “dogbone”), adds significant lateral rigidity. They’ve gotten this bit right, as overall the Zaskar 100 9r feels firm and efficient, and a few testers specifically remarked how there was zero of the rear-end wiggle they’d noticed in some other full-suspension 29ers. We still find the I-Drive suspension, which puts two concentric pivots above and forward of the bottom bracket, a bit convoluted looking, especially the mounting post for the front derailleur. But it’s hard to argue with the platforms efficacy.

The top tube length is short and the riding position notably upright for an XC bike, which some testers found pleasingly easy on the back and others complained made for slightly squirrely handling. That faint nervousness in the front end could also be related to the high-up rider position in the cockpit (not unlike the Cannondale Scalpel, incidentally), which gives a sensation of sitting above the bike rather than inside it. As on the Scalpel, however, the unorthodox stance doesn’t detract from the ride as most testers were impressed with the quick, nimble feel of the Zaskar 100 9r. The biggest complaint was that, while it lacks the plushness of some other suspension designs in its travel class (the Jet 9 RDO, for instance), at 25.9 pounds it’s also a bit heavy to be a flat-out hyper-efficient race bike. In other words, it straddles categories.

GT Zaskar 9er Pro RearThe sculpted rear triangle and "dogbone" make for good stiffness. Shame about the wheels.

THE PARTS
Shimano XT continues to get our nod as the ultimate performance-for-price mountain bike components on the market, so GT’s choice to hang the bike with this drivetrain really helped us warm up to the Zaskar 100 9r quickly. At first we lamented that the bike didn’t have XT brakes as well, but in the end the Formula R1Xs won us over, especially with the pucker-inducing stopping power of the 180mm rotor up front. Most of the other accoutrements are of equal caliber, including an icy-smooth Kashima Fox 32 Float 29 fork, a Fox RP23 shock (though we’d have appreciated Kashima here, too), nicely machined cockpit bits and pieces from Crank Brothers, and our top-choice WTB Silverado saddle.

Component-wise, the only thing that really slows up the Zaskar 100 9r is the wheels, DTSwiss M1800s. First, the good: these things are definitely rigid and strapping enough for beating on, and the choice of thru axles (15mm front, 142x12mm rear) was appreciated. However, they are burly to excess: Since the four-inch suspension can’t really handle big ledges and drops, the bike doesn’t need all-mountain wheels like these, which end up feeling heavy and slow. We swapped to a lighter set of hoops (Easton EC90s) and were amazed how much more lively the bike immediately felt. We’re also put off with wheels like these that need proprietary rim strips, which you have to purchase for additional money, to be set up tubeless. To GT’s credit, they seem to have realized the misstep as the 2013 Zaskar 100 will ship with lighter and UST-ready Easton EC70s.

THE BOTTOM LINE
The Zaskar 100 9r Carbon Pro surprised us. Many of our testers approached this bike dismissively, but after a few rides were expounding on its virtues: how it climbed hard and fast, how the rear end stayed rooted and tracking even in tricky uphill terrain, and how it was comfortable enough to ride for hours at a time. Though it’s not spec’d to throw down as an XC race bike, which is in part why it doesn't cost as much as an all-out racer, it would easily hold its own in marathon-style and endurance events. (In that respect, the underside top-tube mount for a bottle cage is worth a mention.)

As we found out, with some light wheels the bike transforms from Scion FR-S to Acura ES—it might even be an IS F if you switched to a full XTR package—though, ride quality notwithstanding, it’s never going to be, say, a BMW M3. The truth is, though, while it may not compete head-to-head with the likes of a Specialized S-Works Epic 29er, at around half the price ($5,500) it’s not really intended to. Rather, the Zaskar 100 9r, with its comfy tall position, mostly smart spec, and easygoing trail manners, is a great XC bike for bigger guys who ride hard and fast and perhaps dabble at the races. It’s not cheap enough to be a workingman’s full suspension 29er (the Expert and Elite models come closer), but it will stand up to years of tough, fun trail work. So how about a little respect?

—Aaron Gulley



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