The MBT Test Crew likes factory-direct mountain bike manufacturers and here's why: We have our own in-house mechanics so assembling and tuning a brand new bicycle is daily routine so when we can save hundreds, sometimes thousands off the asking price of a given bike to do this, we're all for it. This isn't to say we're not big fans of local bike shops either: After all, when you need some expertise in a pinch, help with sizing, require an odd part to get back on the trail, they're simply priceless.
That said, meet the Airborne Guardian. Not to worry if you find yourself confused about who Airborne is, they're a relatively new company with a lineage that can be traced back to the Huffy brand believe it or not. They've gotten very serious about mountain biking and devised a business model whereby consumers hit up their site, select the model and size from their catalog, pay via credit card and wait for the delivery man to show up at the door. We're no strangers to this plan, having tested models from Ibex, Woodstock, Motobecane and Sette in the past. Sadly we've seen many of these brands go under well before their time but encouragingly, it's rarely because of the quality of the bikes themselves.
But not to get sidetracked, we're talking about Airborne here and we have a pretty strong suspicion you know who these guys are because since having opened their doors for business last year, we've been flooded by requests for a full review. Like always, when we receive such requests, the first thing we do is reach out to the companies in question in effort to try and borrow a demo model for purpose of testing/ photographing. After several of our requests went in with no reply, it was looking as though the Airborne review wasn't going to come together. Then word came in a few weeks ago that a friend of a friend had ordered a Guardian 29er thanks to a blowout sale Airborne was having on their site in the weeks following Interbike. Never ones to pass up an opportunity to please our readers, we were on the scene like one of those snotty detectives in CSI.
What is it?
The Guardian is, as Airborne professes, their budget-minded hartail 29er XC offering. It consists of a hydroformed 6061 aluminum frame equipped to a RockShox XC28 fork (3" of travel with lockout), SRAM X3 & X5 drivetrain (27 gears- 3x9) and Tektro Auriga hydraulic disc brakes. Like the upper classmen in Airborne's line (like the two Goblin 29er models), the Guardian uses the same in house branded bar, stem and seatpost as well as the quality Selle San Marco saddle and Kenda Small Block 8 tires. Cranks are Truvativ E400s and Weinmann Disc-Bull double walled wheels round out the spec sheet.
All told our size medium (18" frame) bike weighed in at 30.75 pounds and a unit identical to ours can be had for $599.
This is a good bike for individuals easily intimidated by the plethora of tuning options found on most modern upper-echelon bikes. There is no shock to fiddle with and the RockShox fork is preload adjustable only (with turn-key lockout for those grinding climbs or occasional pavement use). What this means in the real world is you simply dial in the recommended sag per body weight via the fork's preload adjuster, fine tune the seatpost to where you feel comfortable, fill the tires with air and get out on the trail. It really doesn't get any easier.
Aesthetically it's tough not to adore the white bits- Airborne specs their own seatpost and bulge bar in white, which just so happened to be the color of the RockShox fork legs. Add a white graphic on the underside of the red downtube and you have the look of a bike that costs dozens of times more than the Guardian's retail.
In the saddle the bike feels a bit tall, as most 29ers will to riders accustomed to the more compact dimensions of a 26" wheeled bike. The reach down to the pedals is such where the rider feels "inside" of the bike as opposed to sitting atop it. The sensation of being stretched out is further accentuated by the XC-style flat handlebar (lacks rise and sweep). In the garage it feels a bit awkward but bike tests don't take place in the garage. We took the Guardian to a few local riding parks and here's what we discovered.
Bring on the Trails
Start in a low gearing combination and the Guardian blasts off with surprising conviction. Airborne claims to have put countless hours of engineering time into their model line and it's apparent here thanks to the bike's unprecedented weight distribution. In the saddle the bike never feels too light up front (washes out in corners) or too light in the back (tire spin outs during hard pumps) but instead feels poised to handle whatever comes its way. Don't mistake stability for sluggishness either; once you get the Guardian up to speed, it has very little trouble maintaining its rhythm.
Cornering is decent for a 29er, again attributable to that rider positioning that demands almost no adjustments when the trail's direction changes. Climbing too is extremely efficient. Suspension platforms have come a long way but it's tough to argue with the purity of transferring power through a hardtail.
The Kenda Smallblock 8s are a good all-purpose spec, especially at 2.1" width where rolling resistance is kept to a minimum. Here in the East Coast we typically prefer something a bit more aggressive (the Bontrager XR2 for example) to help cope with abundant greasy roots but the Smallblocks are a sensible choice for their ability to adapt to just about any conditions.
Descending isn't quite as polished though even if the 29" hoops do take a lot of the insecurity surrounding careful line selection out of the equation. It's difficult to get the Guardian to hang up on high-speed clutter; the bike just likes to roll up and over. Of course that back-stretching XC riding position and lack of rear suspension do create the situation for a bone-jarring, chain slapping dance once the speeds start picking up. Combine this with the minimal padding of the Selle saddle and you'll likely find yourself grabbing a handful of brake whenever possible to keep the tempo in check.
Speaking of, we're really grateful Airnorne was able to spec a hydraulic disc brake set at this price point. A few years ago bikes at this retail level came with V-brakes! The Tektro Aurigas don't offer the crispness or spot-on modulation of many of the more costly offerings on the market but their stopping prowess is far more impressive than any manual disc configuration you're going to find and exponentially better than even the finest V-brakes of yesteryear. With 160mm rotors, we suspect this particular setup would have been better suited to a 26" bike but again, beggars can't be choosers. So long as you're cautious not to get in way over your head and expect the brakes to bail you out time and time again, you'll find the Tektros plenty adequate at hauling the Guardian down from speed.
Shifting from the SRAM group never gave a hint of objection. SRAM's cost efficient offerings have typically proven quite reliable and of higher quality feel than the competition's similarly priced offerings. We're positive Airborne took this into account when piecing together the Guardian. Also it should be noted that while its pricier big brother (The Goblin) forgoes a triple chainring setup for the 2x10 configuration, we were actually pretty surprised how well the 3x9 works in this application. Some 9ers we've tested in the past felt strangely out of sync in the drivetrain, as if the gaps between gears were exaggerated and low ranges weren't quite low enough to power the larger wheels but that wasn't the case here.
In all it's pretty tough to argue with Airborne's formula for success here. The fact that they sidestep the middleman (the bike shop) in dealing factory direct results in savings that can be immediately felt by the consumer- regardless of skill level. Reviews like this always put us in a bad position because supporting this method of business is akin to turning our back on the shops who help us in more ways than we can highlight here but at the same time, there will always be riders looking for the absolute best bang for their hard earned bucks and there's no denying that you're getting strong specs for the price here.
Of course on the flipside there are two downsides to going factory direct: One is that you have to take a leap of faith on the sizing chart. In a perfect world you would know someone with a few Airbornes and you could demo theirs to determine precisely what you need before ordering. However, considering the difficulty we had just tracking down one for this review, that's wishful thinking at best. More likely you'll have to do as much online research/ sizing chart studying as possible and hoping for the best. There's some adjustability between stem and seatpost but there's no correcting for ordering the wrong size frame.
Secondly there is the assembly factor. To date we've yet to encounter a do-it-yourself bike that arrived as user friendly as the now defunct Ibex. Granted in the case of the Guardian, little more than locking the front wheel into place and some fine-tuning of the front brake pads and cables was in order, the potential for a bike in need of some mechanical know-how is definitely there. Sure you could ask your local shop to do you a favor and build/ set it up for you for a few bucks but we know that some shop owners consider it an insult to buy elsewhere than expect their mechanics to service it.
However, all told with a bit of mechanical savvy, a strong grasp of your bodily dimensions/ sizing needs and a very short budget, Airborne has probably got the bike you've been waiting for ready to be shipped to your front door.