Review: Tomac 98 Special Comp

It’s the middle son of a three bike 98 Special family, and it’s intended purpose is long-haul, aggressive trail riding of the all around variety, as you might guess by its 98mm of rear wheel travel.

By Joel Kennedy

Tomac 98 Special Comp
Rider: Joel Kennedy
Height: 6’5"
Weight: 230lbs.
Inseam: 36"

My first memory of seeing John Tomac was on the back page of a BMX magazine in the mid 1980s. He had affixed an Oakley sticker to his bare chest and baked himself in the sun, which resulted in a fish belly-white logo on a beet red background. A true professional if there ever was one, who of course went on to dominate the XC and downhill circuit for 10 years in a way that will probably never be duplicated. He also won U.S. road racing championships in ‘88 and continued racing that discipline with 7-11 and then Motorola on into the early ’90s. Without a doubt, he’s one of the most accomplished cyclists of our era.

His long time partner in design is Doug Bradbury, one of the early pioneers in mountain bike specific components and founder of Manitou. Doug built the first Manitou suspension fork in 1990 and John rode fork number three to a World Championship victory that same year. Eventually, Doug licensed the Manitou name to Answer products and continued working in research and development for them until ‘97. In early ‘98, he and Johnny T partnered up again to form Tomac bikes with the idea of making race ready frame sets that looked as good as they perform.

The emphasis is on full suspension, because as John puts it, "I couldn’t believe how much faster and more aggressively I could ride [on full suspension]." He was talking about the original full suspension Raleigh that he rode competitively back in ‘93. My point being, these two guys are as familiar with suspension technology as anyone in the biz. Now that they have created a full line of bikes with their combined experience as input, we mere mountain bike riders should take a look at what they have done.

I’ve been riding an XL (20" seat tube) Tomac 98 Special Comp for a few months now and the time has come to describe it to you. It’s the middle son of a three bike 98 Special family, and it’s intended purpose is long-haul, aggressive trail riding of the all around variety, as you might guess by its 98mm of rear wheel travel. With that amount of travel the bike maintained many of the desirable characteristics of an XC machine; quicker accelleration and good climbing properties, yet was comfortable and predictable enough to take the edge off of some serious hits. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve found the best of both worlds, only that it’s a combination that made riding this machine a lot of fun.

The parts package on the Comp is a good pick that worked well and put the price at a suggested retail of $2,095. A disc only Manitou Black Elite coil fork with adjustable 80 or 100 mm of travel led the way down the trail and smoothly took every hit. Magura Julie hydraulic disc brakes had great one finger stopping power with no annoying vibration or squealing. They were attached to wheels built with Shimano XT hubs, black 15 gauge spokes and Mavic X223 rims wrapped in IRC Mythos XC tires. I will add that the wheels are still straight. Shimano Deore shifters naturally mated with an LX front and XT rear derailleur, and the Truvativ Stylo XR ISIS cranks were flexible but turned the chain without any problems. The bars, stem, saddle and seatpost are all Tomac signature parts and in my opinion the bars were a little narrow, the stem was longer than necessary, and the saddle was too light for my weight category. They all were adequate, but to get the most out of the test period I swapped them with a few of my own parts to get an optimal fit. This bike does not come with pedals.

The front triangle of the frame is double butted aluminum alloy tubing with a long (25" actual) curved top tube (size XL only) and a small gussett on the down tube. The head tube angle is 70° and the seat angle is 72°. The chainstays are 16.76" long and the wheelbase is 43.66".

The swingarm is made of squared stays that are welded to machined yokes at the dropouts, brake arch and chainstay bridge. This supposedly increases the lateral stiffness without increasing the overall weight, and definitely adds a detailed look to the finish. I’ll say the rear end is stiff, and the sealed cartridge bearing pivots, especially the large main pivot located slightly above and forward of the bottom bracket, contribute to this. Most of the better pedaling full suspension bikes I’ve ridden also use this main pivot location because when the pivot is within the radius of the chainring, the effects of the pedaling forces are minimized.

Tomac calls the rear suspension design a four-bar linkage, but I’ve seen this same design called a "non-Horst link strut design," which seems a little more accurate to me. The 98 Special has the rear pivots on top of the rear dropouts (non-Horst) and runs the shock in line with the seat stays, incorporating it as an actual frame member (a strut). Instead of a rocker arm there is only a short, "T-bar swing link" connecting the top end of the seat stay to a pivot point on the seat tube approximately 6" above the main pivot. It’s there to strengthen the swingarm laterally as well as affect it’s path as it moves through the suspension’s travel. Pedal induced feedback is limited with this design, and when you want an inactive suspension, just flick the blue lockout lever on the Fox Float L rear shock.

The first thing I’d like to say about the performance of this bicycle is that it liked to be ridden in the big ring. There is exceptional power transfer from the pedals to the rear wheel as demonstrated during the rail road grade sections of my commute. I had less trouble than usual staying on top of big gears and would often shift into the highest gear, stand up and hammer, which is something I don’t normally do. On the flip side, I also enjoyed crawling up hills in the granny gear and managed to keep the front wheel down and guiding me where I actually wanted it to go, instead of skipping all across the trail like a drunk staggering down the street. I’ll attribute the hammering to a stiff rear end and long top tube, but also to a good geometry choice. Same with the low speed riding. A comfortable riding position, smooth pedaling and a not too slack head angle allowed me to do convincing imitations of a climber.

I raced this bike a little and felt pretty good doing it, but the best times were had on the long technical rides that I’ve done this year. You know the ones where you repeatedly assess the section ahead of you and doubt that you can make it, yet dig deep and somehow end up surprising yourself. Solid equipment does make that sensation a greater possibility. It’s made me think the 4" and 4" format is something that riders should look at more closely, especially those of you who are technically proficient hardtail riders. You get a machine that can take the sting out of tough situations without sacrificing the ability to climb. It’s also a lot more responsive than a bike with just a little more travel in the rear. The long and low profile of the 98 Special combined with 4" of travel is great for jumping roots and rock gaps when you’re ripping down a hill. The same goes for doing slower steep sections with step down scenarios; I had plenty of room to move with lots of body English.

In the end, I look back on the past few months of riding and remember frolicking like a deer on this bike. It wasn’t light (30lbs.), but it was very quick and as I’ve mentioned before there’s alot to be said for having a substantial machine beneath you, especially one that likes to be pedaled at high speed. A lot of the Tomac literature talks about going fast, racing and a passion for the highest performance. The evidence I’ve discovered suggests they’ve done a pretty good job of backing up those claims. Color; orange with white only, Sizes; S (16.5"), M (18"), L (19"), XL (20").


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