Cotic SolarisMAX Review: Stormtrooper Approved
After months of trail riding and bikepacking on his first British “hardcore hardtail,” Logan weighs in on a bike that’s been on his radar for a while, the Cotic SolarisMAX. Read more on that and find out what ultimately led him to buy it for keeps in this long-term review…
Who knows exactly where the term hardcore hardtail came from. Folks who are familiar with the sub-genre might argue that its birthplace is somewhere on the muddy, rutty, and rowdy trails of the Pacific Northwest or the United Kingdom. My bet is that it can partially be traced to the Peak District, an upland area in central England known for its rocky bridleways, slabby descents, and mucky technical trails. I’d also wager that the 20-year-old Peak District-based brand Cotic had something to do with it. I don’t have any hard evidence, but I recall being awestruck by photos of Cotic’s unusually long and profoundly slack Soul and BFe hardtails six or seven years ago.
Looking back, those early bikes probably appear conservative by today’s standards, but there’s no doubt that Cotic was pushing the envelope at the time with their irregularly steep seat tubes and slack front ends. I’ve been curious about this company and their bikes ever since, and I was finally able to get a hold of a Cotic in the early spring to try out. Read on for my full review of the latest Cotic SolarisMAX, the brand’s steel all-around 29er.
Started by Cy Turner back in 2002, “Cotic” came from an abbreviated Cy-cotic (psychotic), the nickname given to Cy during his professional downhill racing career. When that chapter of his life came to an end in 2001, Cy began tinkering with steel hardtails as “a reaction to the fact that hardtails hadn’t evolved and were still stuck in late 90s XC hell in terms of layout, handling and performance.” This was an attempt to make them more capable on the trail, using longer forks and bigger tires, and to find ways of replacing their relatively delicate full-squish counterparts to better withstand the harsh English winter.
“Early FS bikes just dissolved in the British winter,” Cy explained. The first bike he designed was intended as a one-off. Instead, he took out a loan and made a batch of 100, with the hopes he could pay it off by selling them to friends and other interested riders. This ultimately kickstarted a brand that’s now known for its steel hardtails. To this day, Cotic produces nothing but steel bikes—aside from a couple limited edition Ti models over the years and an errant alloy prototype.
Originally released in 2012, the Solaris was the third bike in Cotic’s lineup. The Solaris was the 29er sister frame to their iconic 26″ wheeled Soul hardtail. According to Cy, who also designed both of these bikes, “The idea was the same for both, to create a light and lively steel hardtail with the ability to take longer forks and bigger tyres than a full XC bike, with forward looking geometry to make a great all round trail bike.” Instead of just calling it the Soul 29, Cotic assigned it a proper name, and added the MAX epithet in 2016 to distinguish it among the range. “We did our ‘big bang’ launch of four droplink full suspension frames all at once, and we had two 27.5 bikes and two 29er versions,” said Cy. The MAX was added to the 29er versions to stand for MAXimum versatility; they both could fit 29er or 27.5+ wheels.
- Highlights (Size L)
- Angles: 65.7° Headtube, 74.7° Seattube
- Reach/Stack: 481/629mm
- Bottom Bracket: 73mm Threaded / 58mm drop
- Hub specs: 148×12 (rear)
- Seatpost Diameter: 31.6mm
- Max Tire Size: 29 x 2.6”
- Price: £3,719 ($3,767) as tested
The 2022 Cotic SolarisMAX
The SolarisMax is now in its fourth iteration with the latest geometry (2020-2022 batches) gaining a 0.5° steeper seat tube angle to refine the fit and sizing of their Longshot geometry, an approach that was conceived around a massive, stable wheelbase, and a long front-center designed around a 35mm stem throughout the size range. We’ll dig into that later.
This year’s SolarisMAX batch got a couple of additional refinements, including a pair of bosses under the downtube, which bikepackers will appreciate. That added to the already impressive array of seven bosses on the upper side of the downtube. The new frame also received a lighter, stronger Reynolds 853 seat tube with a new bespoke-looking integrated seatpost clamp and four paint options: Supernova Orange, Midnight Blue, Froggat Green, and my personal favorite, Hubble Purple.
Steel is Surreal
The SolarisMAX frame is constructed using two types of steel tubing. The chain and seat stays are made out of heat-treated cromoly for better bending and shaping capability, and the front triangle is made from Reynolds 853, which is 40% stronger than chromoly and enables tubes to be thinner and lighter while retaining the same strength. In summary, because 853 is so much stronger than cromoly, Cotic used thinner tubing in the triangle to keep the weight down and get a nicer ride from the thinner sections. And let me say, they nailed it.
Before I go on, that leads me to a heady claim, one that I’ve trumpeted around campfires in close company, and one that I’m now typing in an airport bar after two IPAs: steel hardtails can offer a better ride quality than Titanium hardtails (weight aside); with the right design and tubeset, steel bikes ride better than titanium ones. Argue all you want, but after riding a lot of different bikes, I’ve found those that embody the perfect blend of spring, sass, and supple are steel. Granted, I’m not talking about just any steel. As mentioned in my Farlight Faran review, some companies and smaller builders pay close attention to tubing combinations, thicknesses, shapes, and sizes. And when executed correctly, they can add up to a surreal ride. One that can comfortably replace a full-squish bike for trail mountain bikers and one that makes a magic carpet ride for ATBers.
Cotic seems to have found this magic formula with the SolarisMAX. Cy mentioned that they experimented with a lot of different tubing materials and thicknesses before committing to this tubeset, which is the same tubing used on most of their bikes. I found the result to be nearly flawless. The SolarisMAX is one of the most comfortable riding hardtails I’ve tried, offering a smooth feel that seems to minimize fatigue on long rides but maintains a springy feel that’s stiff where it matters. It’s not overtly slow either. I’ve ridden snappier frames, but the SolarisMAX retains a productive pedal feel that accelerates quickly and is generally lively on the trail. In a lot of instances, it seems like companies make a sacrifice at one end or the other. My Nordest, for example, is stiffer and quicker, but noticeably more harsh at the same time. Cotic perfected a blend that makes it responsive and spry yet comfortably compliant.
When I first unboxed the SolarisMAX, the minimal wishbone seat stays and the bridge-less S-bend chainstays had me worried that the frame might be a little wiggly, so to speak. That’s not the case at all. The SolarisMAX frame isn’t the stiffest I’ve ridden, but it’s very responsive, and I wouldn’t want it any stiffer. I’m guessing that the short stay bridge on the non-drive side helped shore up the rear end, but I also think Cotic did their due diligence to dial in the tube weights and butting to achieve this balance. The ovalized top tube is another nice touch. It’s hard to say how much it plays into the bike’s excellent ride quality, but considering that two of the best riding steel bikes I’ve tried have an ovalized 853 top tube, there might be something special there.
Cotic states that this bike clears 29 × 2.6 or 27.5 × 3.0” tires. It came with larger WTB 29 × 2.6 tires, and as you can see in these photos, it’s pretty tight. Granted, they’re WTB 2.6” tires, which actually measured closer to 2.7, but still, there isn’t a ton of room. Being a professional bike critic, my first reaction was that they should have made a custom yoke for this bike, both for tire/mud clearance and aesthetics. But who knows, that could have thrown off the frame magic. And no one wants to stop that. I would simply be aware that if you’re interested in this bike and want to run 2.6” tires, smaller ones like the Maxxis Icon or Rekon would fit much better than larger 2.6s. I ended up running Teravail Ehline 2.5” rubber in the back with plenty of room. It measures about 2.5” knob-to-knob on the 30mm internal width rims.
The 2022 Cotic SolarisMAX is available as a frame only, rolling chassis, or complete build with one of four kits. The bike I was sent for review is closest to the Gold SRAM GX Eagle model that retails for £3,719 ($3,767—no VAT for exports). However, mine came with a RockShox Revelation Fork instead of the SID. Here’s the full kit as I had it:
- Frame Cotic SolarisMAX (large)
- Fork RockShox Revelation (130mm)
- Wheels Hunt Trail Wide, XD
- Front Tire WTB Vigilante 2.6, TCS Light
- Rear Tire WTB trail Boss 2.6, TCS Light
- Crankset SRAM Eagle GX
- Derailleur SRAM Eagle GX
- Shifter SRAM Eagle GX
- Cassette SRAM Eagle GX 10-52
- Bottom Bracket SRAM DUB
- Handlebar Cotic Calver Bars, 780mm, 25mm rise
- Stem Cotic 35mm
- Grips Cotic Lockon
- Headset Hope
- Brakes SRAM G2, 4-piston
- Saddle Cotic
- Seatpost Bikeyoke Divine 160mm
Generally, the Gold SRAM GX Eagle build is okay, with nothing absolutely off-putting. The BikeYoke dropper is a nice touch, and the GX Eagle drivetrain and Hunt wheels are good enough. I’m not a fan of SRAM G2 brakes, as they are usually noisy and seem to eat pads quicker than others. I also replaced the heavy WTB tires about mid-test as I find them a bit sluggish.
Fortunately for those ordering this bike, Cotic allows you to change components via their online form, so some of the parts can be tailored to your fit and preference. I’d probably go with the Gold XT build for £3,599 ($3,607) if I were picking from scratch.
Geometry and Handling
As mentioned above, the SolarisMAX is designed around Cotic’s Longshot geometry. The linchpin of this radical design philosophy is engineering the frame’s lengths and angles around a short 35mm stem. The intended upshot is an ultra-stable platform that inspires confidence and composure without sacrificing a lively and playful disposition. The result is a bike that’s longer in every way—reach, chainstay, and wheelbase—which is different from anything I’ve tried, and is honestly very eye-opening.
As you can see in the comparison chart below, out of the most progressive steel hardtails we’ve reviewed, it’s only rivaled in length by the Chromag Surface Voyager. Note that these measurements are based on a 130mm fork on the SolarisMAX. It’s also capable of running a fork with 120 or 140mm of travel.
|Bike Model||Headtube Angle||Wheel Base||Reach / Stack||Chainstay Length|
|Marin Pine Mountain||66.5°||1186||455/635||430|
|Chromag Surface Voyager||65.5°||1225||487/642||425-440|
It took a couple of rides to get used to this geometry, but in the end, I fell in love with it. I honestly didn’t read about the Longshot philosophy until after I’d formulated an opinion, one that eerily echoed Cotic’s sentiment. This bike is extremely confident and composed, both going up and down. It has a knack for long and steep grinds and patient technical climbs alike. The long chainstays help maintain traction whether you’re in or out of the saddle. And surprisingly, even with the slack headtube, it doesn’t wander or feel twitchy by any stretch of the imagination. It’s perhaps one of—if not the—best climbers I’ve ridden. My favorite types of climbs and rides are cerebral and involve rooty and rocky situations that you have to think through and work out on the fly. The SolarisMAX handles this style of riding incredibly well, yet still manages to be adept when moving fast.
It has a similar vibe on descents. It wants to move quickly but it also remains collected and precise in more rapid technical situations. Descending faster stretches took a little more getting used to. I found myself repeating “ride the fork” and “chin over stem” to beef up my modern riding style game. Bikes like this one beg for a forward stance that’s different from old-school bikes. There’s no over the rear wheel, grip it and rip it riding anymore. The SolarisMAX rewards riders who position themselves over the fork, trust the bike, and confidently tackle challenging terrain at the front of the cockpit. When ridden correctly, it can climb up anything and descend like a progressive full-suspension bike, as long as your legs are up for it.
Given the longer chainstays and low stack height, one might expect this bike to feel overly planted and grounded. However, this is another don’t judge a bike by the numbers scenario. I found the SolarisMAX to inspire hops, jibs, and outright fun on most trails. It’s not as playful as some bikes with shorter chain stays, but it’s not dull, either. It wants to go fast, but it also feels much more agile and nimble than I expected. Similarly, it corners and handles fast technical descents really well. I found it to be meditative on quick, rocky sections, dancing around and through them. It also tracks in corners really well.
Fit and Function
I ultimately fell in love with this bike and bought it. Aside from all that’s been mentioned above, another contributing factor was the fit. The only other bike that’s besotted me like this is my Nordest Sardinha II, which shares a longer-than-normal reach and a low stack. Being a long-legged, taller rider, I think the added length of this bike offers somewhat of a goldilocks platform for both fit and feel. The SolarisMAX’s steep seat tube and slack front end make it much more capable than the Nordest on challenging terrain, however. It’s a do-all trail bike, but the geometry nuances allow it to handle just about anything. And that all adds up to it feeling great on longer bikepacking rides as well.
While Out Stormtrooping
The first time I saw someone bikepacking on the Cotic SolarisMAX was in photos from Cass and Neža’s trip on the Dark + White Peak Peek route (linked in related grid below), which just so happens to be in the UK’s Peak District. I assumed Neža was struggling up those steep climbs with such a long and slack unwieldy bike. Boy was I wrong, for all the reasons I outlined above. This bike performs just as well all packed up as it does unloaded.
Getting down to the nuts and bolts, the Cotic SolarisMAX has all the makings of a great bikepacking hardtail. First, it has plenty of bikepacking-friendly mounts. As mentioned, there are seven on the upper side of the downtube spaced for standard cages with the capacity for two water bottles, if needed. Or you could use those for a bolt-on bag, for which there’s plenty of space. There’s also a pair under the downtube. If I were splitting hairs, I’d like to see the addition of rack mounts, but that’s certainly not a deal breaker.
More importantly, the SolarisMAX is designed around a 120mm fork, which is a sweet spot considering the efficiency and performance that these forks offer when paired with well-conceived geometry. In my opinion, anything longer than 130mm—which is what I have on the SolarisMAX—can be a bit much for big endurance rides and bikepacking. While suspension forks continue to improve, there’s no denying that as a fork’s travel gets longer, the bike’s pedaling efficiency proportionally gets worse. Additionally, there’s something to be said for the geometry shifts that occur. A hardtail is essentially a fulcrum that pivots on the rear axle. As the fork compresses, it steepens the head and seat tube angles, lowers the stack height and bottom bracket, and even shortens the front-center. With longer forks, these variabilities increase, creating bigger swings in the bike’s geometry. Shorter travel forks—100-130mm—don’t allow as much variation, keeping the bike’s geometry intact throughout the ride and helping riders maintain a relatively consistent body position that may benefit pedaling efficiency and comfort.
That was a bit of a tangent, but it’s important to point out, and it’s the reason why progressive short-travel hardtails like this one are a thing of beauty. Pairing an efficient fork with a highly capable geometry makes the SolarisMAX both capable and optimized, resulting in an excellent bike for rides like the Colorado Trail and Dark + White Peak Peek. And, it even seems suitable for mixed-terrain rides when shod with the right tires.
I rode it on a couple of trips involving just as much gravel as singletrack. It pedals great when loaded, with no noticeable disadvantages. It also tracks really well, which in combination with the frame’s beautifully engineered compliance, lessens the fatigue on longer rides. The SolarisMAX is obviously built for singletrack, but I’d have no qualms taking it on a dirt-road-centric route too.
On my first bikepacking trip on the SolarisMAX, I ran across a Star Wars club meet up in the national forest. I convinced a Stormtrooper to pose with it. I later struggled for an analogy—other than the correlation between stars and solaris—but ultimately landed on the fact that bikes that I consider near perfect don’t come along very often, and neither do photo ops with a Stormtrooper.
- Model/Size Tested: Cotic SolarisMAX, size Large
- Actual Weight: 29.71 pounds (13.48 kg)
- Place of Manufacture: Taiwan
- Price: £3,719 ($3,767—no VAT for exports)
- Manufacturer’s Details: Cotic.co.uk
- Perfectly engineered tubeset that blends supple/compliant with a punchy and responsive ride
- The geometry is dialed, making an incredibly stable and confident trail bike that climbs well, descends like a beast, and pedals well on long backcountry rides… this is especially true for taller riders or those who appreciate modern, long geometry
- Great set of bosses on the triangle and underneath
- Hubble Purple color way is out of this world
- No rear rack mounts might frustrate some folks
- A little more tire clearance would be ideal for larger 2.6” tires
- In a perfect world, I’d love to see this bike with a sliding rear dropout for singlespeed capability or to shorten the chainstays
In closing, as mentioned, I purchased this bike after reviewing it, which pretty well sums up how impressed I’ve been with it. Cotic positions the SolarisMAX as a progressive 29er hardtail created to be an everyday trail bike, and I think that hits the nail on the head. If the geometry of this bike works for you like it does for me, it makes an excellent choice for bikepacking, trail riding, and everything in between. It’s built to handle any trail you point it down, and it’s versatile enough to take you on any kind of adventure you can dream up.
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