The Knolly Warden first struck me as a highly refined freeride bike of old, harkening back to the days of New World Disorder, seven inch travel bikes with a front derailleur, roof drops off the middle school portables, and hard plastic body armor. Its industrial good looks, polished head badge, and crazy linkage immediately caught my attention, but something about it made me think that it wouldn’t be comfortable in anything other than big mountain locales, being lugged up chutes on your back only to come bombing down a ridgeline at mach 10. Maybe it was because of Knolly team rider James Doerfling’s continued insistence on throwing himself down the most heinous first descents he can find, or Knolly’s Vancouver roots, but I didn’t think it could possibly compare with my 5 inch travel 29’er for the trails I ride day in and day out. Nonetheless, you can’t judge a book by its cover, so when we got our demo bikes built up with Fox suspension, SRAM Eagle, and Magura’s MT7 brakes, I was excited to try them out, but not entirely expectant of what was to come.
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What is Knolly?
Knolly is the brainchild and namesake of Noel Buckley, an engineering physicist from B.C. Noel began to dabble in mountain bike design when a broken arm kept him off his bike for an extended period back in 2001. The freeride MTB movement was just beginning, and he lived and rode in the midst of it. His time on the couch, combined with a restless and inquisitive mind, led him to design and manufacture the V-Tach - a long travel bike that was burly enough to undergo all the abuse you could throw at it, but which had a seat tube long enough that the bike could still be pedaled to the top of any mountain you wanted to bag. It was a bike that helped elevate mountain biking to where it is today; by combining a purposeful and deliberate design with extremely high quality manufacturing, the V-Tach progressed Knolly in their effort to “design the best suspension mountain bikes in the world,” a mission on which they continue.
Four years and 40 fulfilled frame orders later, the time was ripe for Noel to make the move to designing mountain bikes full time. Knolly bikes, pronounced “Noel-y,” is named after Noel’s handle on MTBR.com, and became an entity in 2005. The V-Tach was followed by the Delirium, which was designed as a trail bike but was often built up as a freeride bike. It was the bike that pushed Knolly out of the tenuous start-up phase and solidified it as a small independent business on a path towards where they are now.
Today, Knolly has a fully fleshed out line of high performance full-suspension mountain bikes, ranging from the 130mm travel Endorphin, touted as “the trail sniper,” to the latest iteration of their 170mm travel, freeride and DH friendly Delirium. But we are here to talk about the Warden. The Warden is Knolly’s “all-mountain boss,” or in other words, their do everything, ride everywhere enduro compatible machine. The alloy version has been around for three years, and is the culmination of Noel’s aluminum design and engineering expertise. Although Noel has ventured to say that his alloy bikes match the caliber of any carbon bike out there, albeit with a slightly different feel, he fully appreciates the potential benefits of carbon fiber. He didn’t want the move to this new frame material to be a hurried one, and the result is impressive. It is a bike that Noel says is their “finest work. Ever.”
So How Does it Ride?
I began my first mellow ride on the Warden fairly uneducated about the company and the bike. I knew of Knolly’s reputation amongst their loyal following as a solid workhorse of a bike, but not much beyond that. When I first sat on the bike, set in the “slack” geo setting, I was surprised by its comfortable and upright pedaling position. I didn’t put the bike through the ringer on that excursion, but it was cemented in my mind as a very nimble and very poppy bike, more fun on flowy, low grade trails full of corners than lots of other bikes in the “enduro” category. It pedaled comfortably and maintained traction extremely well. This results from a highly active suspension, which on fire roads led me to flip the climb switch on the Fox Float X2, but which made technical trail climbing a breeze. I had yet to break out the geo charts to compare it against my current bike, a medium Santa Cruz Hightower, but the Warden’s awesome low-speed handling made me assume that it must have a shorter reach, effective toptube, and wheelbase than today’s crop of long and low enduro machines.
The next day I took the Warden out on an all day sufferfest. I spent the morning spinning up fire-roads, for which I again found it worthwhile to flip the climb-switch, and climbing up rooty, steep, switchback riddled trail. On these sections I disengaged the climb-switch in order to tap into the bike’s deep well of traction. So deep that I daresay the bike climbs technical trail better than my shorter travel, big wheeled Hightower, which seems outlandish. Part of this is because the 27.5” wheels make it is easier to pick the front wheel up and over obstacles and make fast little steering adjustments. The biggest factor though is that the rear wheel just stays on the ground, delivering forward propulsion as long as you are able to lay down the power, which is no problem given SRAM’s awesome Eagle drive train.
When the trails turned downhill, all the unsubstantiated preconceptions I had about the Warden’s geo were immediately whisked away, because this is a bike that does in fact hold true to its BC background. It is very composed at high speed, and the extremely active Four by 4 suspension, combined in this case with a 160mm Fox 36 RC2, keep your tires planted firmly on the ground. The bikes consistent, progressive shock leverage curve results in an extremely predictable feel throughout the bike’s travel, with no wallowing at any point in the stroke. What this also means is that you can very easily pre-load the suspension and bunny hop. I’ve been riding big, fast 29’ers for the past year, but this playful suspension design, combined with 27.5” wheels, had me jumping over root beds and rock gardens that I’ve become used to just plowing over. I did refrain from the urge to jump all the hard stuff a handful of times, just to see how much of a monster truck the Warden could be, and it didn’t disappoint. The six inches of lithe travel were ready to react, and did so with a smooth and calculated grace. Not only that, but it was exceptionally quiet, almost muted, throughout everything that I threw at it. And I’m not referring only to decibels, but to the feel of the bike itself. It was able to dampen chatter, both internal and external, in a way that I don’t recall experiencing on any other bike.
About that suspension design..
As Noel was keen to tell us, his patented Four by 4 suspension is a large part of what makes Knolly’s bikes a joy to ride. I’ve reported back on how it feels on trail: extremely active, predictable, and poppy, with traction out the wazoo - although for this six inch bike you’ll want your climb switch flipped for fire roads. At first glance, it may look like the well known horst link, but in fact, there is an extra linkage actuating the shock which makes it a truly unique suspension platform. Noel will tell you that this design allows him to tune different characteristics of each bike’s travel much more independently than would otherwise be possible; the three biggies being traction, pedaling, and braking. I’m not an engineer, and won’t pretend to be for the purposes of a bike review, but I have ridden a lot of bikes, and will re-iterate that this bike has an unmistakably consistent and predictable feel on trail, and that it is an absolute pleasure to ride.
In regards to the geometry
When I finally did get around to comparing frame geometries, I found that despite the Warden’s solid slow speed handling and comfortable pedaling position, it is just as “progressive” as anything else out there. I am 5’10” with a 30” inseam, and the medium bike that I ride has the exact same 437mm (17.2”) reach as my Evil Insurgent did, which is 22mm longer than that of medium Santa Cruz Nomad. The Warden’s effective toptube and wheelbase is a half inch shorter than the Insurgent’s, and the head-tube angle is about a degree steeper in each geo setting, which helps account for the Warden’s comfortable pedaling position, but is no significant detriment to its descending performance. All in all, this is a very well rounded “enduro slayer,” one that is just as happy on an hour long jaunt on mellow trails as it is on all day grinders in the backcountry, seeking out big lines like Doerfling does. Like I said earlier, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Odds and ends
As previously mentioned, Noel regards this bike as Knolly’s “finest work. Ever.” It obviously rides very well, both up and down hill, but to justify a $3,295 price tag a bike has to do more than ride well. In this day and age, they all do. Let’s do a quick round-up of the highly polished design features that make this frame the diamond in the rough that it is.
- A carbon frame manufactured with a highly secret “internal mandrel” layup process. This means no inflatable balloons compressing the carbon layers at potentially different pressures, but a solid internal mold that eliminates almost any potential cavities (read: weak spots) in your carbon frame. Lots of carbon bikes use full coverage paint jobs to cover up inconsistencies and irregularities in the carbon fiber. Not Knolly - all raw, all the time. If there are any inconsistencies whatsoever in production, the frame is scrapped.
- Un-interrupted seat-tube. Even small riders can usually get away with a 150mm or sometimes even 175mm dropper post.
- Water bottle cage mounts. Some may scoff at this, but for a sub two hour ride, it can be all that you need, as well as the difference between running a small hip-pack with a spare tube or a full hydration pack.
- Extremely quiet and well designed cable routing, able to be run either internally or externally. An interchangeable molded rubber grommet system tightly cinches down any cable configuration you could possibly run… and it’s all included. If you want to run Di2 electronic shifting, there is an integrated battery port in front of the bottom bracket, which doubles as an easy access port when routing regular cables.
- Threaded bottom bracket: A small but important detail.
- Extremely high quality bearings that last more than one season, and titanium pivot hardware that you won’t find loosening up on you after two rides.
- Clearance for 2.6” tires.
- And a whole lot more.
Suffice it to say I really like this bike. From the immaculate attention to detail and build quality, to its incredibly fun and playful nature, it is a superb example of the modern “enduro” bike. In fact, I might even be inclined to agree with the Pinkbike pundits in saying that “freeride ain’t dead,” because as Doerfling continues to show us, this bike will take anything you could possibly care to throw at it, and much, much more.
If what you are after is a fully capable six inch travel bike that won’t scoff at days in the bike park or after work sessions on the local trails, than the Knolly Warden Carbon should be on your shortlist. It descends trails like its heritage suggests it should, but it is also a joy to pedal, something that not all of its competition affords.
Speaking of affording this bike, it is expensive. If it sounds like something that you need to have, but are on a limited budget, I would recommend seriously considering the equally polished alloy Warden, which will run you $1,351 less, and is just as good a bike. But if you are looking for Knolly’s “best bike ever,” a bike designed by an engineering first company, a bike in which every minute detail has been taken into consideration, then look no further than the Warden Carbon.
Happy trails, Dan at Fanatik
Curious about the build I rode? Check it out in our build gallery.
Want to build up your own? Head to the Fanatik Bike Builder