Review: Knolly Podium

written by: T. Walbridge

photographs by: A. Riser

INTRODUCTION

Knolly Bikes is a small frame manufacturer out of Vancouver, Canada. Located very near Vancouver’s North Shore and just a short drive from Whistler, Knolly’s offerings naturally reflect the rugged terrain that British Columbia is known for. Knolly’s freeride bikes have been recognized with top honors as some of the most capable and durable on the market. Knolly does all of their design and CNC work in-house and their frames are welded in the USA at SAPA. The Podium is Knolly’s first foray into the downhill racing market and they have come out swinging with a purebred race machine. The Podium boasts 8.4″ of travel through the implementation of Knolly’s patented Four by 4 suspension system coupled with modern race geometry. If you’d like to learn more about the Podium and what Knolly wanted to do with its design check out our Designer Chat with Noel Buckley.

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By the numbers, the Podium has the specs that a lot of racers are looking for with a bottom bracket height of 13.9″, a wheelbase of 47.2″ in size medium, and head tube angle of 64 degrees. Long, slack, low, and stable are certainly some key design elements here all wrapped around an 83 mm bottom bracket width and 12×150 mm rear hub that you would expect in this class of bike.

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The Podium can also be defined by what it is not. Knolly chose to omit their familiar adjustable geometry offerings and instead spec’d the frame with the minimum hardware and weight required. This frame is stripped down to the bare elements required to go downhill as fast as possible. Perhaps the one concession made to adjustability is the use of a full 1.5 head tube allowing the rider to fine tune through the use of different stack height headset cups or angled headset cups.

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But flashy design elements and progressive geometry alone are not enough at this price point. Considering the MSRP and elite status of this frame, most buyers will expect a little more. To that, the Podium employs the extensive use of CNC parts for the suspension linkage, replaceable dropouts, and ISCG tabs.

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Taken a step further, all pivots use exotic INA bearings which are claimed to provide a considerably longer service life those more commonly used in the cycling industry. I can’t imagine even the most jaded bike snob to be anything short of impressed at the overall package. In the flesh, the frame is stunning and oozes build quality. It is also worth mentioning that the cable routing is clean considering the complex linkage it must pass through. However, you will have cable rub no matter how careful you are with cable length and routing unless you use a protective film.

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If I had to nit-pick, and I never can resist, the heft of my wet painted medium frame at 11.48 lbs with a Fox RC4 shock and 400 lb steel spring seemed heavier than most for a modern race frame. Speaking of the paint, mine seemed a little soft with various small chips in it right out of the box, including some on the head tube. Fortunately, a quick swap to an RCS Ti spring had the frame and shock weight to a more respectable 10.90 lbs and lead to a total build weight of 36.5 lbs. Perhaps the extra weight will pay off in long term durability but, this is the age of 9 lb race frames and so I find this detail worth noting.

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BUILD and SETUP

I planned out a build to get the most of out of this bike in the places that I ride the most. I chose to run a Fox RC4 damper out back which is one of the three stock choices along with the Rock Shox Vivid and Cane Creek Double Barrel. I found the Fox damper easy to setup with each click making a noticeable performance difference. I settled on about 1/2 turn of the bottom-out resistance adjustment from full open with 140 psi in the boost valve. Rebound was set to 8 clicks from full open with low speed compression set to 3 clicks and high speed compression set to 6 clicks from full open. I wanted the rebound as fast as possible through the chatter but it was taking a bit of riding style adjustment to control the fast return speed on steeper jumps due to the Podium’s long wheel base.

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Out front, a 2010 Boxxer World Cup keeps things planted. The Boxxer seems to prefer frequent tear downs to keep running smoothly but rewards the rider with excellent performance in the lightest package currently available. To keep the front end as low as possible, I settled on a flush Cane Creek Double Xc II headset and a Straitline 50 mm direct mount stem. The front end ended up so low with this configuration that I went with 25mm rise Chromag Fubars OSX bars to find my balance point. If you like a low front end, you’ll love the head tube on the Podium. With the flush mount headset and my fork crowns dropped 20 mm, my actual head tube angle settled at 64.5 degrees. Moving the fork crowns back up a bit or using an external cup headset would bring the head tube angle to the claimed 64 degrees.

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Shimano Saint brakes consistently reign me in from the blinding speeds capable on this bike exhibiting zero fade even on the 3400′ descents at the Whistler bike park. The drivetrain is a mix of SRAM and Shimano. SRAM got the nod for shifting duties with an X0 shifter and X9 short cage derailleur. Shimano provided the nearly indestructible Saint cranks to which I bolted on a 36t Gamut Racering and protect with an E13 Lg1+ chain guide. Twenty6 Prerunner pedals provided ample grip and clearance in a lightweight package.

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The cassette started life as a stock 9 speed Dura-Ace 12-27 road cassette. I replaced the 3 largest cogs with spacers allowing for a 6 speed setup with a 12-19t spread. This resulted in a 115g solution with every gear you need for a proper DH course. Near the end of this test cycle I did manage to break the longer low limit screw that had to be retrofitted to enable this setup.

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For my wheel set, I laced up Mavic 823 UST rims to Industry 9 classic hubs with DT Competition spokes. I chose this wheelset for it’s excellent durability, ease of tubeless setup and the positive engagement of the Industry9 hubs. It has been put through some serious abuse that goes along with big jump lines and steep rocky mountain riding.  They continue to ask for more punishment day in and out.

My tire selection for all around riding is somewhat unorthodox on a downhill race bike. While I have a couple sets of dual-ply tires for conditions where they are absolutely necessary, my primary tire setup consists of Schwalbe’s 2.5 Gooey Gluey Muddy Mary in Freeride casing up front with a 2.5 Triple Nano Wicked Will out back. These tires are absolutely massive and notably larger than a Maxxis 2.7. The Freeride casing on the Schwalbe tires is only slightly thinner than many full dual ply tires on the market while allowing a slight weight savings and comparable traction in many situations. Very little Stans sealant is required for these tires to reliably seal on 823 rims which makes installation almost as easy as using a UST tire. Over the course of 25 days of riding including 9 days in the Whistler bike park and several days on the razor sharp rocks that adorn our Utah trails, I have not encountered a single reliability issue. The down side to a this setup is that the tires are quite sensitive to even slight variances in pressure. After a bit of experimenting, I settled on 35 psi (but not 34 or 36 psi) as the best balance between traction and compliance while avoiding squirming or burping.

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RIDE IMPRESSION

Enough about design philosophy and fancy parts, lets talk about how this frame rides. Over the past the month or so I’ve logged no less than 25 days on the Podium thanks in part to 16 days straight of riding in Whistler and the surrounding area. I started my break-in period on the ultra-technical downhill trails at Deer Valley resort and our local Utah trails. After that brief warm-up it was off to the Pacific Northwest.

The Whistler bike park affords a rider the opportunity to really get to know his bike. Dropping in on steep and committing lines, the commanding rider position inspires confidence and control. I found myself being rewarded for a low and forward position instead of riding off of the back of the bike in all but the steepest situations. This allowed me to go faster and change lines quickly with more traction and more overall control than I was used to. The cockpit definitely makes the rider feel like they are “in” the bike rather than “on” it.

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The Podium has one of the stiffest rear ends that I have ridden to date and exhibits an astonishing reluctance to flex or deflect from its line. This frame’s stiffness combined with it’s low stature translates into stability in even the worst situations. It also measures in with a bottom bracket height of 13.9″ which while no longer considered radically low, is definitely down there for an frame with 8.4″ of travel. Fortunately, the excellent mid-stroke support of the suspension design helped me get extra pedal strokes in even in the roughest terrain. Coupled with the ratcheting capability of the Industry 9 hubs, I found opportunities for propulsion in situations I did not expect to based on the spec sheet. I tend to ride a lot of bikes with shorter chainstays and tend to like a poppy feel which had me feeling a bit apprehensive about the 17.6″ chainstays and long wheel base on the Podium.

With its emphasis on stability, I was admittedly a bit concerned about how the Podium would feel on short radius jumps or cornering in the tight turns with its long wheelbase.  For my first few trips through the jump lines, I dialed in slightly more rebound damping to control any “buck” at take-off.  However, I quickly found that with a slight adjustment in body position the Podium would fly straight without the need for what would otherwise be an over-damped rebound setup.  As for the tight turns, I found that with proper line selection I could fly through any apex on the hill at full speed.  Usually, this meant taking an “in late, out early” approach to cornering but occasionally there was no option but to dive in early and back into the turn, either way, the Podium is happy to oblige.

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In my opinion, that nimbleness and balance between “pop” and “plow” is the defining characteristic of this frame. The Podium is stable enough to allow the lazy rider to hang off the back-end and let the suspension absorb every obstacle in its path and yet nimble enough to pop off of steep lips into whips and tables almost like a 7″ bike. For a better idea of how the suspension articulates through its travel check out the suspension animation video.

Where a full DH bike can sometimes feel like a chore on Whistler’s A-Line, the Podium was a blast boosting jumps. This makes it not only a serious race rig but the perfect platform for the bike park rider who focuses on the tech trails but still places a lot of value on performance through the jump lines. I will note, however, that the low rotational weight setup that I have been running greatly contributes to the bike’s adaptability in these situations.

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IMPROVEMENTS

  • There weren’t any large issues with the Podium but there were a couple worth mentioning.
  • The paint I felt could be a bit better for a bike of this caliber.
  • The rear shock eyelet is rather wide. When changing springs out you have to remove the rear shock hardware. It would be nice if they utilized smaller width hardware at the shaft end.
  • The main pivot bolt on the non-drive side seems a bit out of place aesthetically compared to the rest of the bolts on the bike.
  • It’d be nice to see the frame lose a little bit of weight to make it a bit more competitive with the competition.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, while I might still like to see a lighter Podium with adjustable chainstays for tighter courses, I honestly believe that Knolly has a winner here. This bike does what it was designed to which is go really fast downhill. It’s not the lowest or the slackest or longest travel but it is balanced, refined, and extremely effective. It is also very well constructed with impeccable welds, beautiful CNC work, and the highest quality hardware. This is one frame that should deliver reliability season after season. In the hands of the right rider, it has what it takes to be in the winners circle. As a play bike, many will be happy ripping around their local trails with this rig. Don’t plan on pedaling up unless you’ve got legs of steel but as long as there is a chair lift or shuttling nearby, expect nothing but big grins aboard this machine.

Head back to the main review page for more information.