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by James Huang
February 4, 2020
Photography by James Huang
Viathon made a big splash when it announced its presence to the bicycle world back in April, leveraging the cost-efficiency muscle of its parent company, Walmart, into a line of carbon bikes that seemed just too inexpensive to be true. But as it turns out, the R.1 Red eTap AXS road bike flagship isn’t just a ludicrously good deal; it’s a really good bike, period.
That a mainstream mega-retailer like Walmart would be interested in entering the enthusiast bicycle market feels in and of itself like a very strange thing, but if you push that part of the story aside for a moment, the idea behind Viathon is hard to argue with. By creating its own brand and going direct to various manufacturing partners — and by utilizing the well-established Walmart distribution network and online portals — Viathon contends that it can get more high-quality bikes into the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to afford one through the traditional channels.
The Viathon R.1 might not be considered “cool” by established enthusiast cyclists, but the fact remains that it’s a solid machine for a superb price.
For now, the brand only sells carbon bikes — one road, one gravel, and one hardtail mountain model — and even though the least expensive build is very nicely equipped with a complete Shimano 105 disc-brake groupset, Knight aluminum wheels, and Zipp finishing kit, its US$2,000 retail price still represents a big jump from the bikes you normally find inside a big-box store like Walmart. But holy cow, do you get a lot for your money across the Viathon range, and whether you choose the flagship model I tested here or the entry-level build that costs less than a third as much, the same frame and fork are used throughout. That means the ride quality discussed here applies to the $2,000 model, too.
“For the R.1 I wanted to create something that could do it all, at least from a road perspective,” said Viathon brand manager Zach Spinhirne-Martin. “I wanted a high-performance driveline with an oversized and stiff head tube, down tube, bottom bracket and chainstays — as an ex-racer I still want a bike that jumps out of corners — yet comfortable for long, six-hour-plus rides. Having been a buyer and having been lucky enough to test almost everything on the market for the previous ten years, I had specific benchmarks set for performance, geometry, and handling quality that I wanted to emulate. Also, having lived in Park City in the mountains for the prior 5-6 years, I had developed an affinity for a more stable, Italian geometry vs. some of the older American crit bikes that I grew up racing.”
Sounds like a familiar story, no? Well, between that and the narrow technical guidelines put forth by the UCI, what results is a carbon frameset that may satisfy all those requirements Spinhirne-Martin laid out, but also one with a pretty generic shape.
The frame breaks no new ground in terms of design or construction; it just gets the job done.
Up front is a fairly run-of-the-mill oversized front triangle, with the U-shaped down tube and subtle Kammtail-profile fork legs with a blended crown providing a nod to aerodynamic efficiency. The top tube slopes only modestly, the head tube sports an integrated headset surrounding a 1 1/8-to-1 1/4in tapered steerer, there’s a modestly sloping top tube, the chainstays are predictably chunky, while the seatstays — which are dropped, of course — are comparatively spindly. Cable routing is internal with entry points on the top surface of the down tube (just behind the head tube), there’s a completely normal external seatpost collar, and Spinhirne-Martin resisted the urge to spec some fancy-looking integrated “cockpit”.
“I was asked about developing fully internal cable routing, but in 2017/early 2018, I had not seen a really well designed system that didn’t affect steering or that didn’t require a one-piece bar and stem. I’ve never been a big fan [of those] because they lacked the ability to adjust the handlebar angle. I personally like to run my bars slightly up compared to most, so that the tops are slightly angled back which allows me to lean into them when climbing, etc. And they are a shop nightmare as you never have the right length/width combo for fitting purposes.”
That may be music to many shop mechanics’ ears, but that enthusiasm may also be tempered by Spinhirne-Martin’s choice of a PF30 press-fit bottom bracket shell down below — arguably the most problematic of all the various press-fit variants on the market owing to its oversized diameter and narrow bearing spacing.
The tall and fat chainstays are matched to slim-profile seatstays – which are dropped, of course.
“I used a classic English-threaded bottom bracket on both the mountain and gravel bikes, but for the road, customers really care about weight and the BSA system just weighs more with the threaded alloy insert,” he explained. “So to get around the creaking and servicing issues, I specced higher-quality bottom brackets on all models. This provides a bottom bracket with very high-quality bearings and large contact points which should help reduce the creaking issues down the road that I’ve experienced with less expensive PF30 BBs. I’ve got a year and a half on the original prototype, and the bottom bracket hasn’t been an issue for me.”
As for the carbon itself, Viathon frames are made in Taiwan by VIP using a mix of Toray fibers (“75% 30T carbon, the remaining is 24T (mostly), T700, 3K, and so on). Claimed frame weight for a 54cm sample is just 870g, including the rear derailleur hanger, seatpost clamp, and various hardware.
Notably, Viathon is careful to point out that the R.1 was developed specifically for this project, and it’s supposedly in no way an open-mold frame. However, the company also makes no specific claims as to aerodynamic performance, stiffness benchmarks, or class-leading ride quality.
That’s not the point here.
Viathon isn’t messing around with house-brand components, and these medium-section HED Vanquish 4 carbon clinchers are a major highlight of the spec as far as I’m concerned.
What the Viathon R.1 frameset lacks in originality or novelty, it makes up in value, and while the brand is obviously very much new-school, its approach to spec is decidedly old-school, with name-brand stuff throughout in lieu of the house-brand route that nearly every major brand has adopted these days.
In the case of my top-end R.1 model, that includes a complete SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless electronic disc-brake groupset, HED Vanquish 4 carbon clincher wheels wrapped with 25mm-wide Continental Grand Prix 5000 tubeless tires, a carbon railed Fizik Antares saddle, and Zipp’s flagship SL Speed carbon fiber seatpost, SL Speed carbon fiber stem, and SL-70 Ergo carbon fiber handlebar.
In other words, lots and lots of carbon fiber, and while Viathon doesn’t advertise as such, buyers even have the ability during a post-order follow-up call to customize stuff like handlebar width and stem length, crankarm length and drivetrain gearing, and even saddle and tire models (within a certain prescribed range).
The Zipp SL Speed stem is a massive carbon fiber thing, and it feels as stiff as it looks.
If you think the pricing for the big mainstream brands is out of control, you’ll be happy to hear that the Viathon’s direct-to-consumer business model means an R.1 with all the fixings retails for a hair under US$7,000. Actual weight for my 52cm test sample is an impressive 7.36kg (16.23lb, without pedals, converted to tubeless).
There are the usual caveats with that straight-to-your-doorstep process, though. Viathon’s shipping box design is admittedly impressive, with excellent anchoring, proper padding where needed, and ample spacing between all the various parts. And as promised, it’s nearly assembled straight out of the box, with buyers only having to install the handlebar, seatpost, and front wheel using the bundled tools (which include a preset torque wrench).
That’s how it’s supposed to go in theory, anyway. My tester required a bit of “massaging” to get rid of a bit of rotor rub at both ends, the front derailleur needed to be repositioned, and the handlebar tape job wasn’t quite perfect. Still, for savvy buyers that are handy with tools, all of that is pretty easily remedied.
Tubes are installed at the factory, but the rims are pre-taped for tubeless, and valve stems are supposed to be included with each set. You’ll have to supply your own sealant, though.
As with most direct-to-consumer brands, however, there’s still the thorny issue of service and warranty, which, in Viathon’s case, is handled by a third-party contractor based in San Diego. Best to keep the original box on hand, just in case.
Enough of all of this; how’s the thing ride? If you’re waiting for some big reveal (“It’s amazing!” “It’s terrible!”), you’re going to be let down a bit. The R.1 might not wow you, but nor does it disappoint, either. The fact of the matter is that it’s a really good road bike, plain and simple.
As promised, the chassis is notably rigid, with superb responsiveness when you apply the power, and an especially stout front triangle that feels snappy and eager when you muscle the bars around. It’s an outstanding climber, and also a great sprinter. Simply put, stiffness just isn’t an issue here.
The oversized dimensions down low yield the efficient pedaling feel you’d expect.
Likewise, Viathon has done a good job with the fit and handling. The positioning is suitably aggressive, and the handling appropriately quick and nimble, not stable or neutered. Viathon intends for the R.1 to be a proper road racing bike, and it feels like it. In fact, it feels awfully familiar.
Just as Viathon hasn’t broken any ground with the frame design, the geometry of my 52cm is practically a carbon copy (no pun intended) of a Specialized Tarmac. The stack and reach are identical, every other linear dimension is within a couple of millimeters of the Big S, and even the head tube and seat tube angles are almost identical, too. If Viathon consciously chose to copy someone’s numbers, it’s hard to argue with the one they chose to mimic.
Ride quality is more of a mixed bag, which isn’t surprising given that that’s the one thing that even bigger brands often take time to dial in. The rear end of the Viathon R.1 is admirably composed, with good bump absorption and a firm, but compliant, feel. At the other end, though, those big tube cross-sections, the massive stem, and the paper-thin bar tape make it feel like you’re piloting a jackhammer. On reasonable pavement, it’s not that big a deal, but if dirt roads are in your usual riding vocabulary, be prepared to max out the officially approved 28mm front and rear tire clearance and trade up to some more generous cushioned bar tape if you care at all about the nerves in your hands.
Spec-wise, it’s safe to say that Viathon hasn’t left a lot of room to complain. The SRAM Red eTap AXS stuff shifts and brakes nicely, the HED wheels are noticeably fast while still being pleasantly manageable in crosswinds, and the Continental GP5000 tires have already been shaping up to be some of my new favorites. Solid stuff all around, as expected.
And as for that PF30 bottom bracket, I’ll have to admit that my test bike stayed quiet, although that’s hardly confirmation of long-term success. Even if Spinhirne-Martin’s assertion that the bottom bracket cups he specifies are of better quality than many others holds true (my test bike just has regular ol’ SRAM DUB cups), my experience is that creaking issues are more typically sourced to the frame itself, not what’s pressed into it.
The oversized bottom bracket shell is unfortunately designed for PF30 press-fit cups in an effort to keep the weight low. However, many PF30-compatible cranks aren’t even optimized around that shell’s narrow width, so you’re still using big aluminum cups, anyway. I would have much preferred to see a standard English-threaded shell here, for a variety of reasons. Weight isn’t everything.
In any event, my lone component gripe concerns the Zipp seatpost. I have always despised cylindrical single-bolt seatpost head designs that rely solely on friction to secure the saddle position, and the Zipp one is one of the worst I’ve encountered. If you’re one to constantly fiddle with your saddle angle, do yourself a favor and ditch this thing right away as it’s nearly impossible to make fine changes without resorting to a hammer, grease and/or carbon paste, and copious amounts of swearing. Sorry, Zipp, you usually don’t disappoint me too much, but this thing is truly loathsome.
Marithe and Francois Girbaud.
These were all popular brands of clothing when I was an awkward high school teenager on Long Island in New York, and I remember them all well mostly because seemingly everyone around me had them — and I never did. You see, my immigrant parents were far more focused on pragmatism (and my schoolwork) to bother; if my clothes fit and there weren’t any holes, that was good enough as far as they were concerned, and as any kid around that age could attest, it’s tough to not fit in.
Instead of collapsing under the social pressure, I developed a strong sense of go-your-own-way DGAFism early on, and looking back, I’m a much better person today as a result (and besides, looking back, those pants looked ridiculous).
If you care what name is on the down tube, you probably stopped reading this review long ago. But if function is more important to you than flash, there’s a lot to like here.
It’s a similar story with this Viathon from where I sit. There’s nothing particularly cool about it, no heritage to speak of here, no glamorous marketing story, no gimmicks, and definitely no “soul”. But the fact of the matter is that it’s a really good bike, at an exceptionally good price — a tool for a purpose.
I suspect that for more than a few riders, that’ll be more than good enough. Screw the cool kids, and let your legs do the talking. Chances are you aged better than them, anyway.
Viathon in no way pegs the R.1 as an aero machine, but the down tube sports a subtle “U” shape, anyway.
The fork crown blends in nicely with the bottom of the head tube area.
The internal cable routing is convertible between electronic and mechanical setups.
Two bottle mounts are standard, with the down tube including three holes in case you want to run a single bottle further down on the frame.
The sloping top tube is subtly flattened and quite broad to help boost front triangle torsional stiffness.
The grey-and-black paint scheme is a bit dull, but also perfectly inoffensive. Viathon now offers a flashier copper hue as an option.
Kudos to Viathon for using a standard seatpost clamp on the R.1.
Viathon officially approves the R.1 for use with tires up to 28mm-wide (25mm-wide ones are shown here).
The front brake hose needs to be trimmed carefully to avoid rubbing on the front of the head tube.
Although the 28mm tire clearance is perfectly ok, it’s worth noting that many other high-end disc-brake road bikes can now easily accommodate 30mm or even 32mm ones for extra versatility.
A small hatch on the underside of the bottom bracket shell makes it easier to feed shifter cables through the frame.
The boxy head tube area is wonderfully stiff in terms of steering precision, but it also serves up a pretty harsh ride.
The fork looks spindly, but is surprisingly stout.
SRAM’s Red eTap wireless shifting technology continues to impress.
Although this fact isn’t advertised on the Viathon web site, buyers can choose their preferred gearing during the follow-up call they receive from customer service after placing an order.
Viathon doesn’t offer a power meter option for the SRAM Red eTap AXS build, but at least the cranks can be upgraded after the fact without replacing the arms themselves.
As with the cassette, buyers have the abilty to choose their preferred chainring sizes.
The SRAM hydraulic disc brakes are smooth and powerful.
Continental’s new GP5000TL tires come stock, although you’ll have to do the tubeless conversion yourself if that’s how you want to run them.
The Zipp SL Speed carbon fiber seatpost is topped with a Fizik Antares saddle with carbon rails. Want a different Fizik model? Apparently you just have to ask. Either way, see if you can get a different seatpost while you’re at it, because this one is absolutely terrible.
Fizik supplies the bar tape as well, although not everyone will get on with the minimal amount of padding.
Actual Shimano thru-axles are a rarity, but nice to see here. They clamp securely and are easy to adjust, but the bulky lever design scrapes the edges of the hooded dropout.