You may not have heard of Deviate Cycles yet, but that’s about to change. Their latest bike, the Deviate Highlander, rocks 29 inch wheels, 160/140 mm of suspension and is one of the most exciting bikes we have tested this season. We already know high-pivot idler bikes can dominate in the DH World Cup – but can they perform on trail too?
High-pivot bikes are no joke, we’ve already seen their potency on the Downhill World Cup circuit, and bikes like the Deviate Guide and Forbidden Druid have already impressed us in testing. Speaking of Deviate, the small Scottish brand have just launched a new 140 mm bike, the Deviate Highlander, bringing everything we liked about their 160 mm Deviate Guide (high pivot, rearward axle path and superb design) to the trail bike sector, and while doing so, have changed some of the aspects that we thought could be improved, such as losing the gearbox and adding 29inch wheels. With 140 mm of rear-wheel travel, the 29er Deviate Highlander sits right in the sweet spot between short travel rippers and big hit enduro bikes, a bike that on paper at least should be able to rip on any trail. Where the Deviate Guide was a bike that was arguably very niche, in most part due to the inclusion of the Pinion Gearbox, the new Deviate Highlander will be a bike that appeals to a broader audience – without being mainstream at all!
Geometry of the Deviate Highlander
Initially available in two sizes, Medium and Large, the Deviate Highlander has quite generous proportions. While we should not draw any conclusions from numbers in a table, with a reach of 450 mm and 480 mm in the two sizes respectively, the long 441 mm chainstays suggest a balanced bike with a centralised riding position. The 76-degree seat angle sits in with the current crop of test-winning trail bikes and is also ‘straight shot’ so the angle is not really dependent on seat height. The balanced ethos continues to the aggressive but also trail-friendly 65.5-degree head angle, average bottom bracket drop of 28 mm and low stack of 615 mm. There is nothing radical about the numbers so we should not expect any radical behaviour, on paper at least.
|Seat tube||410 mm||430 mm|
|Chainstay||441 mm||441 mm|
|BB Drop||28 mm||28 mm|
|Wheelbase||1.201 mm||1.231 mm|
|Reach||450 mm||480 mm|
|Stack||615 mm||623 mm|
Deviate Highlander suspension design, why use a high pivot?
When it comes to suspension kinematics, the Deviate highlander features a progressive leverage ratio, dropping from 2.7:1 to 2:1 which should provide good support and bottom-out control. However, the main talking point about the Deviate Highlander is certainly the suspension design with the main pivot located high on the seat tube. Why go for such a complex looking system? Using a high main pivot point allows the rear axle (and thus the wheel) to rotate up in an arc with a rearward axle path, meaning that when the wheel contacts an obstacle, it rotates upwards and backwards, instead of upwards and forwards like most low-pivot suspension systems. To use simple terms, when you’re riding down the trail, impact forces generally want to drive the suspension in parallel to the direction of travel, so backwards, not upwards. Therefore, impacts can exert more leverage on a rearward axle path resulting in increased sensitivity and responsiveness. The rear axle of the Deviate Highlander moves almost 25 mm rearward through the 140 mm of travel.
However there is a problem, as the axle moves backwards, the distance between the axle and the top of the chainring grows longer, pulling at the chain which either rotates the freehub or tugs the pedals backwards if the freehub is engaged. This can cause unwanted pedal kickback where you can feel the chain tugging at your feet and restricting the suspension performance. To combat this, Deviate has added a chain idler near to the high pivot, which equalises the distance to the rear pivot as the suspension compresses, eliminating pedal kickback. The idler also gives far more control over the pedaling characteristics of anti-squat. The Deviate Highlander has relatively high levels of anti-rise, which means the bikes rear suspension extends and holds it geometry under hard braking. Anti-squat is also relatively high at 125% in the 50T sprocket at sag, falling rapidly as you move down the cassette. If you want to learn more about suspension kinematics, you should check our suspension design article where we look behind the voodoo of each suspension design.
Why no gearbox?
Eagle-eyed readers or even those who are blind as a bat can see that Deviate has chosen to fit a standard derailleur system in place of the Pinion gearbox used in their longer travel Guide. While there are a lot of good arguments that a Pinion gearbox improves suspension performance and weight distribution, we have observed this is offset by the slower, more laboured shifting. A trail bike should feel lively and fast, and therefore we favour a standard derailleur system to allow rapid, under-load, shifting on undulating terrain. There’s definitely a place for gearboxes in the future, but currently they make a fast bike feel slow.
We were riding a pre-production frame, and since our review, Deviate have further optimised the layup to remove 300 g from the frame weight. Deviate are aiming to release full builds in the future with a sub 14 kg weight. Currently, the Deviate Highlander is available as a frame-only option at a price of £2999 and €3550 throughout the EU.
The Deviate Highlander on the trail
Available as a frame-only option, we were supplied with a well-ridden pre-production test bike for our review, built up with some rugged components. With a Shimano XT 12-speed drivetrain and their new 4 pot brakes, we were expecting rugged reliability and were surprised to run into issues almost immediately. The Shimano 12 speed micro spline freehub failed catastrophically after a few weeks of riding. Now, while parts do break, and freehubs do fail, this is not our first Shimano XT micro spline freehub that has developed issues. At the time of writing, Deviate have not yet announced their full builds, but after some communication they will be using DT Swiss wheels in place of the Shimano options we tested. Deviate have sensibly up-specced the fork on the new Highlander to 160 mm which pairs up with the hugely capable rear-end well. Bike setup was relatively easy, despite the huge tuning capability of the FOX X2 rear shock. Initially, we ran 30% sag, initially dialling in compression and rebound to rider preference and finishing with a setup that was low in low- and high-speed compression, perhaps due to the very progressive kinematic that needed little support from the damper. We didn’t like the cable routing, but our bike was pre-production and after a quick look at the production bike, we can see this has been totally revised. We did, however, appreciate the standard threaded BB and loved the twin-lip wiper seals on all the bearings and idler to minimise maintenance, perfect for those of us who ride in challenging climates.
The Deviate Highlander climbs like a hardtail
“It climbs like a hardtail”. How often have you read this statement? When talking about a full-suspension bike it’s universally nonsense. The Deviate Highlander, however, is about as near as you will get, but in both a good and bad way. In the middle gears, anti-squat feels well chosen, the bike stands up tall under power and is very efficient during long fire road hauls. On flowing climbs and undulating trails this is an advantage, and the Deviate Highlander zips up gradients with enthusiasm. However, if you find yourself in the big 50T cassette sprocket, the high anti-squat extends the suspension with each stroke, pushing the wheel into the ground and providing a very direct feeling to the power delivery, especially when standing up. Over very loose ground like rocks, this can compromise grip a little and the Highlander starts to scrabble, just like a hardtail. If you’re looking for sofa-like plushness and climbing grip, and frequently find yourself in the big 50T there are bikes that offer more comfort and grip. However everywhere else, the Highlander feels taut and direct, with a true mountain goat spirit when scrabbling up rough and challenging climbs.
Descending is beautifully silent, no chain noise, no suspension clatter, just the ticking of the cables at the front waiting to be wrapped.
The Deviate Highlander is targeted as a do-it-all trail bike, it cannot be one-trick-pony and must be able to smash out long loops too. The 76-degree seat tube, which would have been considered steep a few years back now feels middle of the road, and is well chosen for an all-rounder. While a steeper seat tube would make the bike even more efficient for steep-winch and plummet riding, 76 degrees seems like a good compromise, allowing the saddle to be run at the front of its rails (adding a virtual 2 degrees) for steep up-and-down regions, or in a more mid-back position if you ride predominantly on mellow and flatter trails. On undulating trails, the Deviate Highlander holds momentum really well. The rearward axle path and supportive suspension make easy work of square-edged hits that would normally slow the bike down. The bike feels energetic and potent, encouraging you to keep powering on the pedals. There’s no perceptible drag from the idler, and we are pleased to report that it is silent in function.
Even more impressive is that Deviate is a team of just two guys, who have produced an innovative and intelligently engineered bike that is good at pretty much everything.
When the trail turns downwards, the rearward axle path and chainless feeling suspension result in a buttery smooth rear end that pumps effortlessly over hits without tugging on the pedals. So smooth in fact, that we were frequently VERY surprised to see we had hit full travel. The phrase ‘blurring the lines’ is overused when it comes to trail bikes and enduro bikes, but when thrashing the Deviate Highlander downhill, it feels every millimeter like a longer travel 160 / 160 mm machine, while retaining a playful and engaging personality. Most of this lively feel stems from the balance of the bike which feels sublime, the longer chainstays keep the rider centralised so no big weight shifts are needed when cutting through fast, successive turns. We enjoyed the stable feeling of the bike as it lengthens through G-out turns, but importantly, it’s not too stable and boring, the easy-going geometry stops the bike feeling stuck down and you can still play with the trail and hit cheeky inside lines. This is essential for a good trail bike, and you don’t have to work hard to push the Deviate to your natural speed limit, the superb suspension, easy-going geometry and nice balance result in a bike that is very easy to ride fast, without any surprises. Even after many rides, on different terrain, we really could not fault the bikes descending ability.
One thing that may polarise some riders is the 615 mm stack height which is very low, putting the rider in quite a demanding position. This is great for aggressive cornering on mellow terrain but needs more skill and strength on steep trails and to manual. For those who ride on steep trails or are looking for a more easy-going ride, we would certainly recommend fitting a high riser bar.
The new Deviate Highlander has no gearbox, 29-inch wheels and a little less travel. However, the smaller sibling shows it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.
Deviate Highlander Vs Forbidden Druid
Anyone who has done some research will know that the Deviate Highlander goes toe to toe with the Forbidden Druid. On paper, the bikes are very similar, their leverage ratios, axle paths and the way they dominate on multiple fast hits are identical. Similarities aside, the Deviate Highlander has 10 mm more travel and is a little longer in the wheelbase, stemming from the longer chainstays. Both bikes are exceptional performers and delivered far more composure than their travel would suggest. The Forbidden Druid cornered like a housefly and is a weapon on flowing singletrack, but if your rides frequently take you onto rougher DH tracks, then the increased composure of the Deviate Highlander would be our bike of choice.
Riders considering purchasing a Deviate Highlander, will undoubtedly be looking for something different and probably already understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of a high-pivot suspension system. Deviate has managed to package a super smooth suspension system inside a frame that hits a sweet spot between stability and playfulness. Effortlessly easy and intoxicatingly fun to ride fast, the Deviate Highlander is a superb trail bike for someone who does not want to follow the crowd.
- Rearward axle path feels so smooth
- Balanced geometry
- Very well built
- Low stack demands a riser bar
- Lacking in grip and comfort on climbs in the 50T
- Idler brings more maintenance
Check out www.deviatecycles.com for more info!
Not sold on the high-pivot wizardry? Check out our massive 2020 trail bike group test where we put 15 models head-to-head!
Words & Photos: Trev Worsey