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Giant AC-1
by Lester Lin

The Giant AC series of bikes present an awesome display of strength and brawn with it's huge diameter frame tubes, monster like 2.4 inch tires, Herculean looking see-saw shock link, and infinitely braced and gusseted head and seat tubes. It is not hard to believe Giant's claim from their website of having " the drop-in muscle of a big-hit bomber." How aptly put. The very look of the AC gives you the feel that it will pound rough terrain into submission, and eat nasty downhill sections for breakfast. If it doesn't do that, it's equally hefty 65,000 NTD price tag will at least eat your wallet for lunch! However, when they say "The AC combines the versatility of a cross country dualie......." you really wonder how heavy it will be to pedal this beast down the road, much lest up a challenging climb!

Although always curious about the bike, I never thought it would be one that I would be interested in owning. The riding I do in Taiwan is probably much more extreme than what the average cross-country rider does around here, but within the outer limits of what I feel my feathery light Specialized M4 Ned bike can handle. However, my aging joints are always asking if there is a more comfortable ride out there without overtaxing my legs and lungs on the climbs. With 6" of travel you would assume the AC series would bob like an apple floating in turbulent water, and the wind resistance of those 2.4" tires would cost you a couple of gears alone! Nahh, this bike is not for me was my initial thought.

When I found out that our group ride leader, Alan from Alan's Bike shop had a test ride Giant AC-1 from BIKE magazine, I was quick to ask him if I could try this beast on our inner city off road circuit at the gas plant hill. He was glad to oblige, so I rode a hard-tail bike needing repair to his shop, and came pedaling home on this 65,000 NTD AC-1. The bike was quite muddy from a previous ride which made it look like a totally macho testosterone machine. I would probably feel absolutely normal riding this bike down the street in crowded Taiwan traffic doing a full volume Tarzan yell.

Parking the AC next to my Specialized M4 and FSR, it looked like parking a monster 4X4 with the 4 ft. tall tires next to a Honda CRV! I am sure my other bikes were intimidated by this beast that was to share their company for a night. Although I worked until midnight to finish a report I had to do for work, my eyes were checking the clock at 5:30am to see if it was light enough to do my test ride. Finally at 6am conditions looked right, and I was out the door to ride the Taipei Gas Plant hill.

Here are some of my observations:
With the Marzocchi Z1 Drop-off 5" QR20 fork up front mated to those 2.4 inch wide balloon tires, you start checking your radar screen for a big curb to plow into. When you do, the front suspension swallows it whole without even chewing, and the rear 6" travel Rock Shock Pro leaves you wondering if your back tire even noticed the bump. My heart started warming up to this beast after jumping and plowing a few curbs. However, it didn't take more than 200 meters before the ultra low seat position and the weight of the bike had my legs complaining already. I had the preconceived notion that the AC didn't have a whole lot of seat travel. The lack of a quick release seat clamp made me wonder if Giant was trying to hide a very limited range of seat height adjustment. After coming up with an Allen wrench to adjust the seat, I couldn't believe my eyes. As I pulled the seat upwards, more and more seat post just kept coming out of the tube. By the time the seat was so high that I probably couldn't even touch the pedals, I still had not reached the "do not exceed" safety line on the seat post. Lowering the seat post back into the tube, I found that I could lower it so far that the seat was just about on the seatpost. The range of adjustability on this rig was stellar! My heart immediately started to soften towards this beast even more. Moreover, because of the radical angle of the seat post, when putting it to a height where my standard 5'8" frame could comfortably pedal the bike, you find yourself comfortably stretched out for pedaling on the road. In this position, drag of the extra weight and aggressively knobby wide tires is hardly noticeable. You tend to get to a medium cruising speed, and stay comfortably there. Extra speed starts taking exponential effort, so you don't tend to push the level ground speed envelope. Surprisingly, the AC is quite efficient on the pedaling side. In the middle and large chainring, smooth pedaling seems to induce no bobbing or ground suck at all, while the suspension is still totally active. Of course any one can stand and hammer, or just pedal in squares, and you'll be bouncing like you are on the end of a bungy jump rope due to your weight fluctuation on the suspension, but heck, I can make a hard-tail bounce to a lesser degree if I pedal at a cadence that hits the right frequency to bounce the tires when cranking. Put the AC into the small-chainring, and you'll get the inch worm type upward suck on the shock when pedaling hard, but I find this action quite acceptable when climbing, and is very typical of med. high front suspension pivot bikes.

Even weight induced bobbing can be all but eliminated by dialing in some extra rebound and compression dampening on the Rock Shock Pro shock. This shock scores high on my list. The amount of adjustment available on this shock would make a piano tuner think he was in heaven! My favorite feel on this shock in the 6" position was to have ZERO compression dampening, and ample rebound dampening so you don't get kicked into the air when the shock is coming back on the rebound. This makes for the ultimate in comfort. Quick to eat the bumps, and smooth on the rebound. The Rock Shock Pro, Giant's suspension geometry and silky smooth sealed cartridge bearing pivots make my rear end feel like a Taiwan Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon dance through the trees even on the roughest terrain. Short of a down-hill bike, I have never experienced such plushness on a free-ride bike. This is the feel that my bum has been dreaming of! When thrashing down rough rocky paths, or the Taiwan style hiking stairs carved into the hillsides braced with 90 degree logs, the rear suspension does the ultimate in soft cushioning. You start forgetting about the rear end, because the suspension is doing such a good job. I have tried other long travel free-ride type bikes where you wonder why you are pedaling that extra weight around. Their extra 1 to 3 inches of rear travel don't feel so much different from a 3.75 inch cross country lightweight bike. However, the AC begs you to pound it, so it can prove the worth of it's extra weight, and it proves it with finesse. My Kudos to Giant for a rear suspension that is acceptably efficient, but as plush as a stack of down filled pillows. Your back, your butt, and your knees will love this bike on the rough stuff Just tell your heart and legs to work a little harder for the comfort of the rest of the body.

The fork:
My experience on Marzocchi shocks has been limited to a four hour ride on a 4" travel Brodie Dualie at North Shore along with an all day stint at Whistler Mt. switching between a Kona Stinky Deluxe, Rocky Mt. Pipeline, and Norco VPS. All Zokes equipped. At that time I liked the shocks, but was so stoked on the awesome terrain that I didn't pay as much attention to nuances of the specific hardware I was riding.
Recently, I have logged a lot of time on Psylo XC and Psylo SL 125mm travel forks on trails I was well accustomed to riding on a '99 SID XC 80mm fork. I really appreciated the extra travel, but even more so, the excellent stiffness and dampening especially the SL. However, you always wonder if these measure up to the benchmark Marzocchi feel. Well, if you are looking for style, the Zoke wins hands down. The ultra-beatiful Made in Italy fork keeps the tradition of the Italian flare that makes them famous with names such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pucci, Prada, Spaghetti, Lasagna, and Pizza........ All joking aside, it is really a truly beautiful fork that outclasses PSYLO styling the way an Armani suit outclasses a polyester Sears last season clearance special. But not all of us have the money to burn on Armani suits, or Ferrari's, right? The question is which one would get the Consumer's Report Best Buy rating? Well the Marzocchi has this mystical fluid sound when going through it's travel and coming back up. The more rebound dampening you dial in, the more intriguing the sound. It is almost mesmerizing, whereas the Psylo sounds like......well, a shock. We'll rate the Zoke with an excellent on sound quality, and the Psylo with a half circle acceptable for you audio buffs.

Rebound Dampening:
It is important to note that the left and right fork are individually adjusted from the bottom, meaning when adjusted right, the rebound should be totally symetrical on both sides. Not so on the Psylo, where the rebound control is the job of one leg. The Zoke rebound adjustability wins hands down over a Psylo XC, but the Psylo SL with Rock Shock's Pure Dampening becomes a bit harder to decide. My novice experience would have a hard time telling the difference in rebound quality if I were blindfolded and earplugged.

Compression Dampening:
Zokes and Psylo XC: WHAT COMPRESSION DAMPENING? Unless you want to play mechanic and get your hands dirty, you'll have to live with what you've already got once you are on the trail. The SL is just so adjustable in this arena all the way to locking out the fork. For those that like to fiddle with adjustments during the ride, the PSYLO SL wins hands down here.

On the trail:
Again, if we disguised both forks (in the equivalent of putting Pamela Anderson and Goldie Hawn in identical snorkel hooded Arctic Parkas so you couldn't see their figures), I would probably lean a bit towards the SL for it's excellent feel going down rocky broken stairs. Probably an even draw on all the other terrain. Note: I didn't do any SICK drop offs, break neck speed fire-roads or dual slalom whoopdee doos. I did the gas plant trail with a variety of roots, rocks, steps, steep technical, and short fast bumpy down hill sections on a trail that I know intimately. The biggest jump was only 18 inches. I'll leave the "Big Hit Bomber Jump Testing" to the guys that know no fear.

Price:
Need I say? If the money is coming out of my checking account, Hello Psylo SL, Goodbye Z1 Drop-off. It's just a $330 vs. $600 type decision. I don't get drenched in sweat and covered with mud for the fashion side of this sport. Plus did I mention the SL is a couple ounces lighter?

Climbing:
Now that I have piled on the accolades, let's get to the Achilles heel of the AC. How does it climb?? On the road, as the slope turns upward, you cannot fool gravity. 30+ lbs. is 30+lbs. Of course you feel the extra weight compared to those skinny XC bikes. However, as long as you are not trying to break land speed records, you don't feel any sucking effect from pedaling. If you don't pedal smoothly, you'll think you are on a trampoline. However, it is not the power robbing pedal induced suspension sucking and bobbing. It's your poor pedaling habit. As said earlier, a few tweaks on the rear shock, and you can make the bouncing all but disappear. Also, if you put the rebound adjustment on to maximum, the shock will suck down, and give you a virtual lock-out.

Traction on the climbs is fantastic as long as you're wheels are on dirt. I am not a great technical climber, and the AC really didn't give me any extra magical help when climbing over roots, and slippery rocks. I spun out as usual, where more skilled climbers can sometimes keep on going. However, there was one technical place where I have only cleared once while climbing before that I cleared easily on the AC. Maybe there is some Crouching Tiger magic!

In this kind of off-road technical climb, the weight actually seems less burdensome than when climbing on the road. It's when you get off to push, or carry the bike that you get back to the reality of the extra weight. When carrying, the weight is nicely balanced when you grab the top tube. The triangle opening is enough to sling the bike on your shoulder, and in general, despite the weight, is not a bad bike to carry as far as geometry and hand hold positions. The only bad thing I could say is that the cable routing under the top tube makes for a little bit of discomfort for your hands.

Conclusion:
All in all, this is one of the most enjoyable bikes I have ridden off road for a long time. For the Gas Plant ride, I put it on par with my love of the Mt. Cycle San Andreas. The SA wins on the climbs, but the AC wins on the plush comfort of the ride. I would probably like an AC with a lighter wheelset, narrower tires (2.1) and narrower handlebars with a cheaper Psylo SL fork to ease the pain on the pocketbook. I don't need the extra heavy duty wheels for my level of Taiwan riding, and the wide handlebars are a little bit difficult to weave through the tight trails. However, if just rating the frame design, I think that Giant has done one heck of a job to put out a super plush yet efficient rig. This moves off-road riding comfort to a new level. If I am to look for a longer travel softer riding bike for my aging body, the AC will be high on my list of candidates. Quite a change of heart from my first impression eh?