There are lots of short travel contender for best trail mountain bike honors and a fair few steel framed longer travel options, but the UK’s Cotic are still the only mavericks combining Reynolds 853 steel and short travel in their FlareMax 29er. The 2023 Gen 5 version gets finer sizing grades and significant frame changes to create a stiffer, tougher, better fitting bike but still delivers a uniquely dynamic, organic and charismatic flow state ride.
Design and geometry
The overall layout of the FlareMax hasn’t changed throughout it’s life and the Gen 5 still uses similar extended reach ‘Longshot’ geometry to the 2018 Gen 2 bike and the same 125mm of ‘DropLink’ linkage driven suspension last refined on the Gen 4 bike.
The switch from S-XL to 5 ‘C’ sizes drops reach steps from 25-27mm to 19mm per step though and seat tubes are also shortened to allow longer dropper posts. BB heights are also dropped 4mm with a 65.6 degree head angle and actual seat angles ranging from 75.1 to 75.8 degrees – depending on frame size and seat height.
Cotic’s custom ‘Ovalform’ (the top tube is elliptical) tube set made of Reynolds top of the range 853 weld hardening steel gets a new plain gauge rather than double butted downtube, with a bracing strut ahead of the bottom bracket. Smoother machined linkages pieces and shock mount shuttle are adopted from the longer travel RocketMax/Jeht bikes and so is the stouter alloy chain stay assembly. Gen 5 front ends will exclusively be built by the welding wizards at Five Land bikes in Scotland and there are two new color options, matte ‘Limestone’ or ‘Teal’
Control routing is external (apart from the last leg of the internal seatpost) and the bottle cage hangs under the top tube, but custom Restrap front of frame bags are available. The dropouts are still Syntace X-12 with vertically bolted hangers rather than SRAM T-Type supporting UDH standard.
Components and build
Complete builds options don’t really change and are split into Downcountry with 120mm fork and lighter wheels and tires, or Trail with 130mm fork and heavier duty footwear. Complete bike prices run from £3,599 for the ‘Silver SLX’ DC build to £6,199 for the ‘Platinum Trail’ build with SRAM GX Eagle and a ton of Hope Tech highlights including the awesome Tech4 E4 brakes.
Frame and RockShox shock packages start at £2,099 / $2,299 / €2,000, there are rolling chassis options and Cotic can also create a build based on any existing kit you want to bring to the party which is a brilliantly cost effective custom option.
Ride, handling and performance
Speaking of custom, at 5’ 11” or 180cm with a 745mm BB to saddle top measurement I often sit right on the awkward gap between medium and large size frames. As a result I’m generally pragmatic rather than Princessy about fit, but the new C3 option on the FlareMax Gen 5 genuinely felt like it had been custom made for me. I’ve found myself enjoying less stretched bikes recently and the 477mm reach centered me really well while still feeling I could weight forward when needed to drive the Helm fork hard through the short stem.
Being a long term FlareMax Gen 3 rider, the stiffening effect of the new downtube, bracing pipe and chain stay section was obvious to me as well. There’s a lot more purpose to pedaling feel, letting me properly stamp on the cranks without feeling obvious twist or yaw between the bottom bracket and the rear axle. I could hold an extended, heels down carve with a lot more conviction and precise feedback as well, making the most of the more stable stance from the lowered bottom bracket. Impressively the changes have added barely any weight but significantly increased strength – particularly around the shock mount. So while the frame is heavier than most alloy and nearly all carbon options at around 4.5kg, complete bike builds are often surprisingly comparable on overall weight. As a result, the new FlareMax is still deceptively quick uphill, especially if traction and speed sustain over stutter bumps and janky mess is part of the equation.
For a while I was worried that would make the Cotic too stiff and take away it’s cat-like compliance and micro grip through chattering roots and rocks. A few slippery woodsy sections, flat out bobsleigh style descents and rocky climbs reassured me the FlareMax still has enough inherent flux and flow in the upper section of the frame to keep it’s a deliciously distinctive and fatigue reducing charisma though.
Cotic have been teaming up with similarly low volume, handbuilt suspension brand Cane Creek for a long time and the Cane Creek DB Air IL damper works great with the Droplink kinematic. The steel flow naturally smooths the initial stroke but even without using the ‘Climb Switch’ that adds compression and rebound damping to calm down a stomping pedal stroke the FlareMax feels stable and efficient under power. The whole stroke is easily tuneable through separate high and low speed compression and rebound adjusters as well as internal volume bands too, so while it feels great with a stock setup, there’s tons of tuning potential for tweakers. The bike I was riding also had a custom tune on the Cane Creek Helm fork too, which added some more sensitivity to better balance the rear end while still retaining it’s excellent mid-end stroke performance. You can go up to 140mm travel or down to 120mm with a SID Ultimate on the deservedly very popular ‘DownCountry’ builds which also use lighter Hunt XC Wide wheels.
The Hunt Trail Wide wheels I used underline the surefooted feel of the Trail option though, or you can opt for Hope wheels and other Lancashire lathed treats including brakes, bars, headsets and finishing trim. The Wolfpack tire options on the Cotic build buffet are well worth looking at if you appreciate easy speed and an energized vibe over damped, gluey grip, or you can choose various WTB treads if you’d rather.
While the slim steel frame with exposed control lines will always be a divider cosmetically, it’s blissfully easy to work on if you’re swapping brakes or servicing dropper posts. Cotic’s paint is amazingly tough too – the Gen 3 bike I’ve been hammering for three years now still looks remarkably fresh. Cotic also have a superb reputation for above and beyond customer service and are always happy to talk you through options or have you visit their new Peak District HQ if you can’t get to one of their regular demo events.
As a long term Cotic fan you might expect me to be positive about the FlareMax5, but when I turned up for the test ride I was actually really worried that the pressure on Cy and his team to build a tougher version for increasingly aggressive riding habits might have killed it’s signature steel flow. It’s definitely a stiffer bike through the pedals and turns now and more reassuringly solid underfoot to send off surprise drops. The visceral, sinewy steel vibe that makes it so charismatically addictive as well as distinctively grippy and deceptively fast is still very much there though. While I’ve been keen on Cotic for years, it’s been great watching even more reviewers and riders raving about the FlareMax recently too. Not just as something ‘different’ in an increasingly generic, homogenised bike landscape but as a genuinely competitive performance player against carbon and alloy options from all sizes of brands. Refined fit means even more people can find a happy place physically as well as emotionally on the Gen 5 too.
The ‘feel good factor’ the FlareMax Gen 5 delivers on the trail is multiplied by the fact that despite being a tiny company they support a ton of advocacy, trail building, inclusive event and other noble deed initiatives. Semi Scottish frame building, bike building in-house in the UK and using steel as a material reduce Cotic’s eco impact significantly compared to shipping complete carbon or alloy bikes around the world too. Best of all you don’t even have to pay a premium for beautifully UK built steel frames and hand assembled, custom option bikes compared to cookie cutter mass market carbon clones either.
- Surface: Loam, slop, sticky mud, roots, rocks, gravel, bike path, bit of road
- Weather: It was actually almost warm and not that wet
- Trails: Natural Peak District rock and roots bridlepath and cheeky woods sections
Tech spec: Cotic FlareMax5 Trail Gold XT
- Discipline: Trail
- Price: £4,849
- Head angle: 65.5º
- Frame material: Custom Ovalform Reynolds 853 steel mainframe with alloy chain stays
- Fork: Cane Creek Helm29 130mm travel
- Shock: Cane Creek DB Inline Air 125mm travel
- Sizes: C1, 2, 3 (tested), 4 and 5
- Weight: 14.6kg (C3)
- Wheel size: 29in
- Chainset: Shimano XT 32T, 170mm chainset with bottom bracket.
- Rear mech: Shimano XT
- Shifter: Shimano XT
- Cassette: Shimano XT 12-speed 10-51T
- Brakes: Shimano XT disc brakes with 203/180mm rotors.
- Tires: Wolfpack Trail 29x2.4in tires
- Wheels: Hunt Trail Wide 29 V2
- Bars: Cotic Calver 780mm alloy bar
- Grips: Cotic Calver Lock on
- Stem: Cotic SHORTERSTEM 35mm
- Seatpost: 170mm dropper
- Saddle: Cotic