There was a time I thought I’d always have a steel hardtail. I rode them exclusively for the first 19 years of my mountain biking life, mainly on undulating woodland trails in the Home Counties.
They don’t say “steel is real” for nothing, when done well a steel hardtail can offer a ride that’s responsive, solid and comfortable all at the same time – with a bit more “life” than a good aluminium or carbon frames.
However I did fall off the ferrous bandwagon about four or five years ago, and have been riding aluminium 29er hardtails in a bid to offset the extra weight of the larger wheels and tyres with a lighter frame.
Despite being happy enough with this state of affairs, earlier this year I started to feel the magnetic pull of steel again, and specifically of the Cotic Solaris. So when a used frame turned up at a reasonable price – and in the gorgeous burnt orange colour – it was time to scratch that itch.
Frame and spec
So the basics – the main triangle is Reynolds 853, with a pleasant oval-shaped top tube, supposedly increasing lateral stiffness. The rear end is skinnier 4130 steel and it takes a rather old-fashioned 135QR axle (frustrating, but Cotic have finally seen the light with the newer SolarisMAX).
The head tube is a straight 44mm job and there is neat gusseting at the front of the top and down tubes.
I built the bike up with a Sram GX 1×11 transmission (with Shimano SLX chainset) and Guide R brakes, along with a Reverb seatpost, SDG Formula saddle and some blingy 29in Crossmax XL wheels.
Tyres vary by season but it had a Crossmark 2 on the back and High Roller 2 on the front in the summer, and I’ve now switched to a Shorty front and DHR2 rear.
I don’t usually insist on matching brands front and rear, but Maxxis’ Exo casing tyres are spot-on for the kind of riding the Solaris likes.
I’m using a 60mm Funn stem and 785mm Superstar Lithium carbon riser bar – fitted with DMR’s wonderful Death Grips.
I started out with a 100mm travel Reba, but this only lasted one ride (which included a crash or two) before being replaced with my trusty 120mm Pike, a bit improvement in both geometry and performance.
Form and function
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but I really, really like the orange colour and think the subtle grey-on-darker-grey Cotic wrap on the downtube looks very classy.
It’s very likely the best-looking bike I’ve owned. It’s got a classic look with a few modern touches and frame features where needed.
As with a lot of bikes in recent years, I’ve sized up to large despite only being 5ft 8in tall on a good day. This gives me a reach of about 437mm (hence the 60mm stem) and a seat tube length of 480mm – which would be too long on a FS bike but is manageable on a hardtail – as I’m not going to be taking on really steep trails on this bike.
Other notable dimensions are relatively lengthy 442mm chainstays and a very “XC/trail” 68 degree head angle.
Riding the Solaris
I had ridden the large FlareMAX at a Cotic demo day earlier in the year and loved it, so expected the Solaris to have a bit of the same magic – as the geometries were reasonably similar – and I wasn’t disappointed.
In my opinion the bike lives up to its classic looks, both in terms of being quite special and also being quite XC orientated. In fact it might be useful to start by saying what the Solaris isn’t.
It isn’t a super-slack-and-long shred sled, it isn’t a mega-responsive race whippet, it isn’t what I’d call playful and it isn’t at all “twangy”.
Words I would use to describe it are “planted”, “stable”, “comfortable” and “predictable” – so I can imagine it might be a bit boring for some riders, but for me these characteristics mean that I can ride it faster than any hardtail I’ve previously owned.
The long skinny stays absorb the impact of roots and rocks to some extent, and also provide a comfy landing from drops and jumps – while the reasonably long frame gives it stability in the air. I find it a cinch to angle it correctly for landings too.
Designed to take either 29in or 650b-plus wheels, the Solaris has a higher BB than I’m used to in 29er form, leading to a bit of a precarious feeling when riding steep trails (partly my fault for being on a large of course). But that’s really the only negative I can identify, if you want to call it that.
I’ve mainly used the bike for local woodland XC loops – which also involve a fair bit of bridleway bashing and towpath action – and it has been the perfect companion for this kind of stuff.
Once winched up to speed it hoovers up the miles and definitely offers a less-fatiguing ride than the aluminium 29ers I’ve owned.
On the lumpier local trails at Rivington it can just about keep its footing, with a lovely “smoothing out” effect when ridden fast over the many cobbles found on the hillside.
It’s great for smoother trail centres, but I did find a lap of The Beast at Coed-y-Brenin a bit hard work – the staccato rock sections taking their toll on my arms more than my legs as the hits were transmitted up through the frame.
It’s not unusual to see hardtail reviewers claiming that bikes can keep up with full-sussers on descents. Well the Cotic might manage that on smoother descents, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near my FS bikes on anything a bit rugged. That doesn’t matter though, because I don’t want a hardtail to do that. I want it to be more lively and entertaining on easier trails.
I’d ridden the Solaris for months before I finally got a set of plus wheels sorted out for it – opting for Easton Arc 35 rims on Hope Pro 4 hubs in orange (I’d have preferred blue but the rear hub was cheap) built superbly by Winstanleys Bikes.
A WTB Ranger Tough/Fast rear tyre and Schwalbe Nobby Nic Apex Snakeskin front, both in 2.8in, looked promising in terms of sturdiness and tread pattern – though the rear was an absolute bugger to get sealed, even with my compressor.
I’d only had a quick go on plus wheels before, but had been impressed with how different they felt to 29in and by the way they floated over roots and rocks.
It sounds a bit clichéd to say they transformed the ride of the Solaris, but I’m afraid they did – giving it a more thuggish character by lowering the centre-of-gravity and raising the level of cornering traction (in the dry) significantly.
I did put a hole in the rear tyre on my very first test ride, hanging the wheel up on the edge of a broken pipe as I careered down a muddy chute – but it sealed up quickly and there’s been no bother since.
Luckily the arrival of my plus wheels coincided with the marvellously dry early summer and it’s fair to say that the chubby Solaris breathed new life back into my local singletrack. I could enjoy myself on it in 29er guise, but it was now actually a fun bike to ride.
I’m pretty sure it felt faster than it actually was (going by Strava anyway), but who cares about that when you’re having more fun than you’ve had on a bike for years?
I persevered with the plus wheels in the later, wetter half of the summer – having some great local rides and a memorable trip to my favourite little trail centre Mabie, but not enjoying riding it at the much-bumpier Gisburn.
After a very wet early autumn the trails are now sodden however, and the limited clearance on the non-boost frame and fork mean that by mid-October it was clogging with mud – and time to switch back to 29in.
My first rides back on wagon wheels were actually on the same Hertfordshire trails where I rode my old steel steeds – in freakishly dry conditions.
As I’d expected, it took to these like a duck to water – making them feel easier than on my old 26in hardtails but just as much fun. The big wheels kept rolling, the bike soaked up the roots and little drops and the not-too-slack head angle helped keep the flat stuff interesting.
I’ve not yet got round to doing the bigger XC rides I had planned for the bike, but I’m very confident it’s going to take them in its stride.
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