By Jon Sharp
Most bicycle reviews follow a specific pattern--even most of the ones I've done. First, there's the typical introduction--witty and only slightly informative. Next thing is the talk about the frame, followed closely by a list of components. Only after working your way through all this are you, the reader, rewarded with the information you came for: the actual review of how it rides. So, in the spirit of shaking things up, I'm not going to follow this order at all. Here it is, the Look 986.
The first thing I remember from my first ride of the Look 986 was just how fast I felt. The 986 is a rocket. Acceleration was amazing. As a result, I found myself wanting to sprint up every climb, power out of every corner, and hammer through the straight sections. It is hard to go at an easy pace on a leisurely ride with the 986.
Acceleration is so instantaneous due to a few factors. For one thing, the wheels are light and stiff Mavic Crossmax SLRs. They aren't the most forgiving of wheels with their aluminum spokes--which don't absorb impacts as much as steel-spoked wheels--but they make up for it in how fast they spin up and how durable they are. Also, although the SLRs are tubeless wheels, the 986 came with Continental Supersonic tubes (which are extremely light at 100g and very, very thin) and Continental Supersonic Speed King tires--also very light (400g). Though labeled as a 2.1, the tires looked and felt more like a 1.9. All this equals not much. Or, rather, it means there's very low rotational weight--something that dramatically affects how quickly you can speed up.
The other thing that made a big difference with the 986's wonderful acceleration was, of course, the carbon frame. Though the frame is light--about 2.6 lbs (1200g)--I don't think that's what really mattered the most. It's been engineered so that it is just stiff enough, and just springy enough, to snap to attention whenever you apply the slightest increase in power to the pedals.
Being a race-oriented bike, I was worried that the quick handling would make the bike twitchy. Fortunately, Look built a very stable machine. Again, the wonderful characteristics of a well-designed carbon frame are apparent here. The 986 corners well and handles tight singletrack with aplomb. Even so, I never felt like the handling was too tight for downhill sections. Of course, overall, the bike weighs very little. This, too, helps with powering up climbs, and hammering around corners.
What makes it light? Everything. If you haven't yet checked out the parts spec, here are some highlights. SRAM X.0 shifters and rear derailleur. Avid Juicy Ultimate brakes. FSA K-Force Light crank set, complete with ceramic bearings in the bottom bracket. FSA OS-99 stem and K-Force light handlebar. RockShox Reba Race fork. Perched on top of the integrated seat-mast is a Fi'zi:k Gobi saddle. That, folks, is a high-end list of parts.
Okay, it's probably been killing you to wait for an explanation of the seat-mast bit, so I'll dive into that now. Let me go through it in typical FAQ fashion. Yes, in order to lower the seat, you'll probably need to hack off the seat-mast at the desired height. (You might be better off having a shop sweat this part out, though.) Yes, there is some vertical adjustability in the form of spacers that can increase the height of the seat up to about 1.25 additional inches. The point? Well, this design definitely stiffens up the seat-stay/seat-tube/top-tube juncture--or, rather, it stiffens up where the seatpost would normally be. Does it make for a much lighter seat-to-frame connection? Well, no, not really.
As it turns out the seatpost-like part weighs just about the same as a typical seatpost. However, it provides for a bit more flexibility in how it attaches to the frame. For instance, this seatpost cannot slip down into the frame. So, there doesn't need to be any kind of a binder bolt. In addition, instead of a stiff post being clamped into a stiff frame, there are actually elastomer inserts between the frame and seatpost. (The 986 comes with three different sets of elastomers with different hardness levels so you can fine-tune your ride.) The end result is a little bit of damping and a little bit of added comfort. This is by no means a soft-tail, nor is it anything like a suspension seatpost. The rider cannot, in fact, feel movement. All it does is take a little bit off the edge off some of the bumps and damp some of the vibrations. It makes for a very comfortable hardtail, though. What does Look call their version of this design? The E-post.
What about mud clearance? I was surprised at how much it had. After a few pinch flats with the ultralight tires and super thin tubes (I like to run my tires pretty low), I put on some 2.3 Hutchinson Bulldog UST tires. Plenty of room. I then proceeded to muddy the bike on a particularly nasty set of trails. And when I say muddy, I mean really muddy. The Look 986 looked embarrassingly messy and grimy. Yet, I plowed through and it lived to see another day--a much cleaner day after a bit of work on my part. Does it handle mud? Check.
Is it durable? Well, after riding a full suspension bike a lot in this same time period, I ended up riding the 986 a little harder than I should have. I heard many a rock get flipped up into the down-tube. I had many a chain-slap-strewn descent. The frame? Looks as beautiful as ever. Evidently, Look thought about that when they finished the frame. Yes, the Look 986 is made to be ridden. And ridden hard at that.
The frame is constructed with what Look calls monobloc. This is similar to the monocoque way of building carbon frames--as opposed to tubes and lugs. There is a built in gusset of sorts where the down tube joins the head tube. Looking at it, it is easy to see why the front end feels so solid. There is so much carbon at the top, down and head tube junction. Look uses an integrated headset for the 986 as well. As with other carbon frame makers, Look likes to tout how comfortable and yet stiff a carbon fiber frame can be. Indeed, I wasn't let down with the ride of the 986. The bottom bracket is stiff, as is the front end as I mentioned. With both the construction of the frame, and the comfort provided by the E-post, I found the ride to be nothing short of hardtail bliss.
A few things I loved about the bike that I should mention: First, the remote (handlebar-mounted) fork lockout. This was so perfectly suited to the rest of the bike. As I would approach a steep ascent, I'd pop the lock into place and sprint my way up the climbs--releasing it moments before the trail leveled off. This, to me, has become a must-have for any race-worthy light-weight hardtail. Second, I really loved the Gobi saddle. I've always been a fan of Fi'zi:k's saddles, and this was no exception. It's a very comfortable saddle. Third, I liked SRAM's integrating clamp for tying the brake levers and shifters together in one clamp. Yes, Shimano has been doing this for years, but not always has it been up to the user to decide if they wanted to go this route. It clears up some space on the bars and keeps things neat and compact.
What I didn't like was the super-lightweight foam grips. Though very light, they were too narrow. I have fairly small hands and I felt like they (my hands) barely fit on the grips. I found most of my mountain gloves too bulky and switched to using my road gloves for all subsequent rides. Some things are worth the weight penalty and I would lose no time tossing out these grips for some wider, more comfortable ones. I also wouldn't have stuck with the SRAM X.9 front derailleur. I mean, if you're going to put on lousy grips to save some weight, why not slap on a Shimano XTR front derailleur? Or, for a race machine such as the 986, even a road front derailleur would be fine and save a lot of weight at the same time--not that I had any problems with it. It would just be another way to save weight.
Summary: The Look 986 is so much fun to ride. Every single ride--well, except for the one that left me with two pinch flats in less than three miles--left me with a huge grin. It isn't best suited for long stretches of rough downhill--though it handles it better than most hardtails--and it won't soak up the bumps like a full-suspension bike, but the Look 986 loves to climb and it loves the speed. If you enjoy hardtails and want one that will be super fast, super light, and as comfortable as any hardtail I've ever had the opportunity to ride, then start saving your money now. If you race and want to eliminate all excuses for not landing on the podium, check out this bike. The Look 986 will set you back about $5500 [!].
Jon Sharp is a contributing editor at GearReview. He wants to be buried in a carbon fiber casket with ceramic bearings. Read more at his blog.
For more information, contact:
Look Cycle USA