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Azonic Saber/Xtension Xplore Bike Review
by Lester Lin

The Azonic Saber (the market name in the USA) and the Xtension Xplore (the market name for the rest of the world) continues to woo bikers with a passion for dirt trails, challenging terrain, roots, rocks and steep chutes and jumps, yet still have to muscle their way up hills.

About a year ago, I wrote a review about the Xplore vs. the Xplore. In that review, I rode the the same Xplore in two different configurations. The first configuration was in the 5" travel mode, and the Syntace adjustable neck in the low angle, giving the bike a more XC oriented geometry. Then I rode the same course with the Xplore in the 6" rear travel mode, and the VRO neck and handlebars in the upright mode, giving the bike a more freeride oriented configuration.

Since then, just about the whole group of my friends slowly started to buy the Xplore frame as their bike of choice. No doubt about it, I loved this bike. But I had a Giant XcX, (one of Giant's best trail bikes that never really hit high on the popularity scale) that I truly loved. Less than 4" of rear travel mated to a Black 80 - 100 mm travel fork, that was later changed to a Psylo 80-125mm U-turn. At 13.5 kg's, the bike was both light and versatile for the abusive trail riding.

On and off, I got to ride the different improved generations of the Xplore as they were introduced onto the market. These minor tweaks included a stiffer rocker arm, new Gussets, and various other improvements. This frame kept getting more and more enticing. However, I always felt that the frame needed a front head angle that was just a bit more slack than the relatively steep 69 degrees. Every time I tested this bike, when the terrain turned steeply downhill, I found myself wishing for a bit more rake on the front fork. This feeling was mirrored by a number of Xplore owners, and riders that I had talked to.

When I was informed that the designers of Xplore had finally relented, and modified the head angle slightly steeper, I placed my order for a frame.

My setup uses a Psylo U-Turn fork, a Shockworks rear shock with a reservoir that has adjustable rebound and compression dampening, as well as the ability to lock out the suspension. With the lockout capability, I never feel the need to use the 5" option on the Xplore. 6" caters to my soft arse on the bumps, and when locked out, who cares how many inches of travel is back there??? Using lightweight rims with disc hubs, and Hayes disc brakes, my bike weighs in at about 14.75 kgs. With the ability to U-Turn the front fork down to 80mm, and lock out the front and rear shock, this bike is very comfortable to make the long 600M elevation climb up Wudz Shan. The geometry and riding position are just perfect, and the lockouts give a stiff efficient platform for the long climbs. When turning downhill, the U-Turn gets extended and both front and rear shocks are unlocked. Then this baby shines again! Choosing the medium frame gives me a geometry that is shorter and easier to manoeuvre. It is the perfect fit for my 5'8 build. Compared to the first generation med. frame Xplore, the difference is night and day! Before, the medium sized Xplore seemed to have an unusually steep head angle. I felt terribly uncomfortable on that bike in steep terrain. However, the new angle makes me happy to call this bike my very own. I find myself carelessly looking for more challenging lines, or just letting the brakes loose and enjoy the feeling of speed while eating through root strewn rocky trails while letting the capable balance of the front and rear suspensions do an elegant ballet floating over the rugged terrain.

The extra two inches of rear suspension compared to my 4” travel XcX allows for an extra 10-15% more speed at the same given skill level. The biggest difference is that my feet feel firmly planted on the pedals, as opposed to the bucking feeling that the shorter suspension allows to escape through. The ability to drop your seat down the straight seat-tube down to the lowest levels to a crouching tiger descent position, bolsters your confidence greatly with the angle that provides. The design that allows you to extend the seat up high for full leg extension climbing makes the uphill grind a reasonable exercise in defying gravity. Try riding a bike that does not allow you to put the seat either low or high enough, and you will quickly understand what I am talking about.

The extra 1.25 kg’s extra weight compared to my old XcX is hardly noticeable with the excellent adjustable geometry when climbing. The 2” additional travel bonus makes up for the extra grams 10 fold to the positive side.

Much to my dismay, I had no choice but to buy the Shimano 2003 Rapid Rise XT rear derailleur, instead of the standard derailleur. This means that your shift lever works in reverse to what this old dog is used to. You thumb shift the gears when looking for the higher gears going downhill, and index finger the shifters on the road uphill. I quickly got used to it, however, it always feels good when I get to ride the regular old style derailleurs It's like putting on an old pair of comfortable shoes.

Rear Shocks: The old school rear shocks like the Rockshox Pro, the ShockWorks, and the DnM (all with reservoirs), allow all the traditional tuning to find your sweet spot in dampening for both compression and rebound. Locking out the compression dampening gives you the solid climbing platform that anyone with a brain wishes for.

Then, releasing the compression dampening gives you the fluid plush ride you expect from a 6" travel bike. Generally the rebound adjustment on all three of these shocks is ample to find your desired sweet spot. You can also opt for a bit of a stiffer ride with less bobbing and no lockout by setting more dampening on both the Compression and Rebound. Tune it the way you like it. BMW firm, or Cadillac plush, you decide.

For those of you that just don't want to mess with blue and red dials, then take a look at the shocks with a brain such as the Manitou Swinger. The Swinger gives you the the amazing platform feel when climbing. On the road, who cares. However, for off road climbs, you can't beat the shock with a brain feel. On the downhill descents on the other hand, it makes a 6" suspension feel like a 3" suspension. Well, not exactly. There is the element of the "PLATFORM" level ride that the brain tries to achieve, but definitely at the expense of plushness. Personally, I prefer the old school shocks. I'll take my rear travel ala Cadillac.

All in all, if all my other bikes were vaporized, and all I was left with was my Xplore, I could probably grow old and be happy on my Xplore. It's a bike with multiple personalities. All of them pleasant, and easy to fall in love with. You can equip it light, and you can equip it heavy duty. It won't disappoint. When your riding style changes, change a wheelset, or change the fork, or change the tires, or change the rear shock. The basic frame has the right stuff to enhance them all. I've had the joy of riding the Xplore in many different configurations. For what it's worth, I'll give you my take on the different hardware that I've tried on this frame:

Front Shocks: I have ridden the Xplores equipped with Psylo, Fox Talas, Fox 125mm (non-adjustable travel) Sherman, and Z1 forks. For my 175 lb. weight, the Psylo does fine for me. No air to mess with, fully functional rebound and compression adjustments, 40mm of travel adjustments, and a reasonable weight makes this a great all around choice. Yeah, it's not the stiffest. It's not the plushest. It doesn't adjust down the lowest. It's not the lightest. But it is the cheapest, and does the whole range of what I want reasonably.

The Fox Talas is definitely the Cat's Meow with a Doberman's bite on your wallet. The plushest, the lightest, and stiff. It definitely moves the performance level up a few notches, But with the anal hassles of messing with air ....

The Z1 with ECC is the ultimate for getting your front end WAY down for the climb, if you can keep the ECC in working order. However, you probably need that extra efficient climbing position to push that extra weight up the hill, and when you have to carry the bike on your shoulders up those nasty climbs, the added weight gets heavier by the foot.

For you big strong gorillas though, you probably don't care, and will appreciate the trademark big M's stiffness, and spring rate, while begrudging the premium price.

The Sherman is the ultimate in stiffness. However, the limited range of travel adjustment, and it's tank like weight leaves me happy to let the big jump boys like Arnold, Rambo, and General Patton to enjoy the Sherman.

Front Stem: The designers of the Xplore like to exalt the virtues of the Syntace VRO handlebar system. By loosening two Allen Screws, you can raise and lower the handlebars to suit the terrain you are riding. For me, I prefer to allow the front fork to do that job, and stick with a standard riser bar and neck. I don't like messing with tools on the trail if I don't have to.

Tires and Wheels: Our group uses everything from 2.2 inch tires to 2.5 inch. If all you ride is downhill, go for the biggest and the fattest sausage tires you can find! However, for all around usage, my vote goes for those WTB 2.3 Aqua's, with the Conti Vert Pro as a close second. I was always well satisfied with the Continental Vertical Pro 2.3's I had grown to love. However, I got these WTB Aqua tread 2.3 inch tires for a great price, so that is what my new ride is sporting now. I absolutely love these tires. They grip well, bite into the turns, and the Aqua treads hold their own, when in the.....well, in the Aqua. Actually, in wet terrain, I find them noticeably superior to the Conti's.

I use a light Xero XC wheelset by Formula in Taiwan. They are not resistant to folding, but otherwise have held up to the general pounding that my low level skills can give them. 517 or 317's would be fine for me as well. However, my heavier riding buddies have migrated to more Freeride oriented Sun Ringle rims, and equivalent Taiwan made wheels. As a result, they are packing more weight, along with their Z1 forks, 2.5 inch tires and Hussefelt cranks with bash guards. That extra weight becomes quite evident on long climbs and portages, but to each his own. Those guys are strong. Despite my insistence on keeping the weight down, a stronger front rim IS one of the first areas that I would consider beefing up on my beloved Xplore. On some slow technical descents, there are times when I bail instead of muscling the torque on my handlebars to make a turn, for fear of folding my front wheel ....

Brakes: I was able to get a set of Hayes disk brakes with the Carbon levers on the cheap. With visions of superlightness at a bargain price, I was really jazzed to get these. Unfortunately, the hose length on the front brake was not long enough to work with a 125mm fork. So I had to migrate my standard Hayes brake from my old bike to my Xplore, and used the new Carbon lever brake on my rear. My vote is definitely to recall the Carbon Levers, and vote in a new governor. My advice is stick with the standard Hayes aluminium alloy levers. The geometry of the carbon levers tends to pinch your other fingers when doing one finger braking, and for some reason, they have a very flexy feel under hard braking. Save your money, pack a few extra ounces, and stay with the old proven standard.

At the end of the story, no matter how you equip this stellar frame, you can hardly go wrong. The bike has so many different possible personalities, and it will be up to you to determine what unique characteristics you, your creativity, and your wallet will create. If you are shopping around for an all purpose bike, I give this bike 5 flamin turds.

Xtension Xplore - Azonic Saber Bike Photo - Click to Enlarge Xtension Xplore - Azonic Saber Bike Photo - Click to Enlarge Xtension Xplore - Azonic Saber Bike Photo - Click to Enlarge Xtension Xplore - Azonic Saber Bike Photo - Click to Enlarge