By Lee Klevens
Tester: Lee Klevens
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Sizes available: SM, MD (tested), LG
KHS has a solid track record with their downhill/freeride rigs. For a few years now, they’ve also been building a line of longer-travel cross country full suspension bikes, dubbed XC Trail, to meet the demands of people who want a bike they can pedal efficiently, but that can also handle more challenging terrain. I was given the chance to test the middle-of-the-road version of the XCT line-up, the XCT 535.
Upon opening the box, I was greeted with a very bright blue and yellow, 6061 aluminum frame. On the front of the bike is a 130mm-travel RockShox Tora 302 Solo Air fork with lockout and rebound adjustment. The matching travel 130mm rear end is a straightforward four-bar Horst Link design (licensed from Specialized), controlled by an X-Fusion O2-RC air shock, also with lockout and rebound adjustment. Cartridge bearings are present at all of the major pivots, which is always a nice thing to see for long-term durability and serviceability.
This test began when most of the east coast was buried under way too much snow to ride, so the first chance I got, I lowered the saddle, threw some flat pedals on the XCT, and took it to Ray’s Indoor MTB Park for some fun. We became acquainted pretty quickly—right away I was able to clear the small jumps with ease. Throughout the day, everything went fine as I worked my way through the different lines and eventually cleaned each and every one of the challenging obstacles that I usually ride on my personal rig. The 69° head tube and 73° seat tube angles, the 23.1" top tube (effective), and the short rear end (16.7" chainstays) give the 535 nice, predictable handling. Predictability is always a good thing, especially at Ray’s.
Back on the home trails, I realized that I needed a higher handlebar to be more comfortable on longer rides, something easily solved. On dirt I found the four-bar Horst Link rear end on the KHS to be really smooth. I’ve ridden other bikes with the same set-up and have always been pleased with this design. Simple, serviceable, and more to the point, supple. The Horst Link suspension not only lets the rear suspension work more effectively, it also helps to keep the suspension active when the rear brake is applied, which is particularly helpful in rough, twisty singletrack when you are constantly braking and accelerating. It’s definitely one of the more fully active designs out there.
The X-Fusion O2-RC air shock performed quite well for me. X-Fusion has been building shocks for other companies for several years and is now quietly entering the market on its own. The rear suspension was easy to set up and felt nice and plush set at 20% sag (about 100psi) with the rebound dialed in about halfway. I only used the lockouts on the X-Fusion and on the Tora fork when climbing hills on the road. All other times, I preferred to let the suspension remain active and take advantage of the fact that the careful placement of the main pivot helped to keep pedal-induced bob to a minimum. On the road when hammering on the pedals, I noticed a bit of flex in the rear end, but on the trails I never had a moment where I was really bothered by it. Traction was always good over rocks, dirt, and mud, due in part to the 16.7" chainstays as well as the 2.1" Kenda Nevegal tires. I enjoyed riding the 535 over a variety of terrain, although I never jumped anything really huge or raced it down super-rocky downhill courses. I did, however, find it fun to be able to pass my friends by taking the rough line and letting the 5" of suspension carry me through the rocks.
I had a harder time setting up the front end. Running the Tora 302 with the recommended air pressure for my weight from the guide printed on the fork, I found the ride to be way too harsh with nowhere near enough sag. When I dropped the pressure down to a point where I actually had 20% sag, the front end still felt a bit too harsh for me when compared to the rear end. I ended up dropping down to 25% sag (about 105psi) and the fork finally felt more plush, but had a tendency to stick down a small amount (about 5mm) when un-weighted. Even with less than the recommended pressure, I never realized any more than just a tad over 110mm of travel from the fork. The 535 was still a blast when bombing down local trails on it. The Tora’s 32mm steel uppers helped to keep the front tire going where I pointed it.
Tight singletrack sections were a blast on this bike and getting up and over large obstacles were less difficult, thanks to the tight wheelbase (43"), short rear end, and of course, the 26" wheels. The Hayes Stroker Ryde hydraulic brakes weren’t the most powerful hydraulic brakes I’ve used, but they worked well enough for the entry-level of the Stroker series. I did appreciate the 7" rotor up front adding to the stopping power. Climbing hills on the almost 32lb. 535 wasn’t all that bad, partly due to the WTB Speed Disc rims, which really helped to keep the wheel weight down. It is notable that I never had to put a spoke wrench to the wheels after the initial build. The Shimano drivetrain did just what it’s supposed to do, as always, and the low-profile rear derailleur taken from the Shadow series was nice to see on this SLX model.
The 535 has a little brother, the XTCT 525 ($1500) and a bigger brother, the XCT 555 ($2200), which also share the same frame.