Tester: Mike Cushionbury × Age: 47 × Height: 5’10” × Weight: 155 lbs. × Inseam: 32”
One thing is for certain, the new Viral Skeptic is not your ordinary hardtail. And before you get huffy about that weird looking black box nestled in the bottom bracket junction, it’s not an electric motor but a 12-speed internal gearbox made by German company Pinion. Add in some titanium tubing painted hot pink, 27plus wheels, a 140 mm travel DVO fork and a Gates CenterTrack belt drive and you get one tough (and unique) customer.
Viral came to fruition last year as a rebrand of Domahidy Designs, which was founded in 2014 by namesake designer and engineer Steve Domahidy, who is also a co-founder of Niner Bikes and still holds a share. “Viral is a small company I just launched last year after throwing out two years worth of work on Domahidy Designs—I rebranded it to Viral but effectively started over,” he says.
The Taiwan made frame is beautifully executed with clean welds and a seat tube port to accept an internally routed dropper post. Geometry is all-mountain slack with a 67 degree head angle. Mate that to 3.0 inch Terrene Chunk Light tires (it will also fit standard 29 inch wheels) and you get a confident, kick-out-the-jams trail feel. Additionally, because the gearbox is at the bottom bracket junction rather than the traditional position of the rear hub, the bike feels ultra stable and much more lively than you’d expect. No complaints in the handling department, and the trail feel of titanium is a welcome throwback to the glory days of the magic metal.
Obviously, the biggest attention grabber is the gearbox. There are 12 tightly packed gears with a range of 600 percent. That’s a 100 percent increase in range over the new SRAM Eagle and wider than Shimano 2×11 XT and XTR. Gears are evenly spaced at 17.7 percent (standard drivetrains vary widely), and multi-gear shifts are as instantaneous as a single shift. It’s also worth noting that front and rear cogs can be swapped to different sizes if the gearing is too high or too low for your riding conditions. Another advantage is that the gearbox, while adding about a pound and a half over a high-end geared system, is virtually maintenance-free—all you have to do is change the oil (which is very easy) every 6,000 miles or once a year, whichever comes first.
Does a wider gear range, no derailleurs to fuss with and almost zero maintenance sound too perfect? There is one quirk to the system: Like all internal drives, it can’t be shifted under load. Upshifts can be achieved by partially reducing power, but downshifts need a full momentary pause—trying to jam a gear change won’t work because the shifter locks out. It’s not difficult to adapt to but can become bothersome on technical east coast climbs where momentum, power and, often, forced shifts are key to getting up and over stuff. On long, consistent climbs the shifting is less noticeable. The more unpredictable the terrain the worse it gets. You’ll need to plan your gear selection well in advance of sections that need short bursts of power and shifting.
Allowing Domahidy, who is a huge fan of the Pinion, to retort, he says, “In my experience, having ridden the drive- train for well over a year now, I can shift in a split second, even on an uphill, with little loss of forward momentum, and on extreme elevation changes it’s a benefit as I’m able to shift multiple gears at a time with zero drawback for doing so. That’s a compelling argument yet one I’m still not sure about in the long run. But, he also added that the Skeptic is an all-mountain hardtail aimed at the consumer who simply doesn’t like maintenance or has a bad habit of destroying drivetrains. It has a five-year warranty on the frame and Pinion box. He also added that buyers are using it for bikepacking because of the totally sealed drivetrain and belt drive system.
Maybe Domahidy is onto something here, since the first production run of Skeptics sold out. And one thing’s for sure, no matter how skeptical you might be, it’s certainly not your ordinary all-mountain bike.
Full specs and geometry can be found here.
Price: $4,999 (frame with Pinion 12-speed P1.12 gearbox and shifter, Pinion aluminum cranks, Gates CenterTrack belt and cogs, tools and oil for first oil change)
Sizes: S, M (tested), L, XL