Coming off of the REEB SST and having ridden the piss out of my Starling Murmur 29er over the past three years, when Chromag announced its new full-suspension bike, the Darco 29er, my interest was piqued. It’s no secret to readers here that I love how steel full-suspension bikes ride, and it’s been great seeing small brands put in the PR&D on these niche bikes. After some pleading, the fine folks at Chromag shipped me out a stock build of the Darco in size XL, for me to womp around on down in Phoenix while I escaped the ice-capades of Northern New Mexico for a week. Was it love at first flight? Find out below…
If you’re curious about why I love steel full suspension bikes or if this is the first time you’re seeing one being reviewed, I highly recommend checking out the following posts from our Archives before reading any further:
Steel is Real: The Starling Murmur 29 Factory Roosts in the Mountains of Los Angeles
From Coil Back to Air: John’s Pumpkin Spice Starling Murmur 29er
Beautiful Builds: John’s Starling Murmur 29er
An Evolved Steel Trail Bike: REEB Cycles SST Full Suspension Review
An Introduction to the Chromag Darco 29er
Chromag is best known for its long and slack hardtails. For over 20 years, its made some of the most progressive bikes on the market, with a general design proclivity for longer, steeper, and slacker frames than your average mountain bike company is willing to throw coin at. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the Darco ($5,170 complete as shown, $2,995 frame – price pending due to CAD to USD conversion) cuts in line as its first full-suspension following this same cult-like lineage.
Longer: the Darco’s reach on the size XL is 530mm
Steeper: the Darco’s seat tube angle on the XL is 78º
Slacker: the Darco’s head tube angle on the XL is 64º
To debunk the “yeah, but it’s heavy as hell, right?” comments I’ve received since teasing this bike on my Instagram; the XL built with all alloy Eagle GX parts and a 150mm travel RockShox Lyrik with a 120mm travel RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate rear shock comes to 35lbs on the nose as seen here. Compare just about any trail bike, carbon or aluminum to this weight and you’ll find that 35lbs is quite reasonable. For reference, my Starling Murmur with Cushcore, a 160mm travel Lyrik, and carbon wheels weighs 35lbs and the REEB SST I reviewed also weighs 35lbs on the nose. If this Darco were mine, I’d swap in some lighter components and try to get it down to 32lbs or so.
What about the name? It’s an homage to a lost friend of Chromag, who put it so eloquently:
“This bike has been a labour of love for us, and a project with such scope deserves a name near and dear to our hearts. Our dear friend and Chromag mechanic D’Arcy Burke passed away after a courageous battle with cancer in 2020. We affectionately referred to him as “The Dark One”; The Darco is a tip of the hat to our friend.”
Ride in peace, D’Arcy Burke. ❤️
Since we’re already talkin’ angles, I should go ahead and share the numbers. Taken holistically, this bike’s geometry lands firmly in, what I’d consider, the category of a very progressive, and very mountain-oriented, bike. Perhaps the most shocking figure in the list is the 1305mm wheelbase but we’ll get into that later on.
One other nodal of consideration is this bike is made in Taiwan, not Canada.
So Wait One Second… Why Steel?
Because people can be click-averse, I’ll touch on this one point real quick. If you like how a steel hardtail, gravel, or road bike rides, you’ll love the feel of steel full suspension. This isn’t a reach in logic. Steel flexes, absorbs chatter, and has a certain “pop” to it. You can counterweight it in corners and snap out of turns like a spring. If you do crash, it’s very unlikely you’ll break the bike, a notable ding against carbon bikes (even on the first ride!). The bearing cups won’t wear down as fast on steel full sus bikes either, as they can on carbon which results in sloppy pivot points and ultimately trashing your frame. While this isn’t super common, it happens when you don’t service and replace your bearings at least annually or every two years depending on use.
Steel (like all frame building materials) can be engineered through wall thicknesses, butting profiles, butting locations, and tubing diameters to deliver the designer’s intended ride quality. While steel can get a bit tricky in terms of laser sintering/3D printing/or CNCing, as you’ll see below, just about anything is possible these days.
Perhaps the most obvious point to make is while titanium is the only immortal frame material, steel is right behind it. These bikes can outlive their carbon and aluminum inbred cousins for years and years.
Now that bigger brands have stretched the limits of mountain bike geo, they’re funneling their design resources into the e-bike trend and focusing less on trail innovation. All the more reason to support a smaller company like Chromag if you ask me. Those big brands are going to miss out on what I believe will be a legit trend in the mountain bike market over the next few years: the return of the steel full-suspension.
Look at that chain slap pad! What a nice detail!
Horst-Link Suspension Design
While my Murmur epitomizes cottage industry framebuilding and the SST utilized laser-sintered components, the Darco has some clever steel details in its Horst link design. Horst link is easily identified by the linkage at the rear axle and four pivot points. When the licensing ran out on Horst, it allowed for many smaller brands to build bikes that ride ever-closer to Specialized’s designs. Based on my observations, I’d wager that Chromag’s Darco adopted Horst, rather than single pivot for a few reasons.
Horst link keeps the bike planted. It doesn’t feel catapulty like a single pivot can in the right or wrong terrain (like steep, rocky steps or chunder) but the predominant effect of the Horst link design is it reduces the impact of braking forces on the suspension, resulting in more responsive traction control. This is known as anti-rise, and in my opinion, it is what makes a Horst link feel so planted when compared to other platforms. The result is a 120 Trunnion shock that feels more progressive and also more capable than a 140mm travel single pivot design. This is accentuated by the rear axle’s collet design, which eliminates binding as it goes through its travel. It’s the little details like this that show how seriously Chromag took the Darco’s design.
Chromag calls this bike a “hardtailer’s full suspension” due to its lower travel number in the rear but I’d argue that a 120mm shock paired with a 150mm travel fork is more than enough. Perhaps if I over-forked it to a 160mm fork, I’d want slightly more rear travel but as it sits now, it’s perfect.
Darco’s Modern Life: Frame Details Like Whoa
Only a few weeks after sending the SST back to REEB and having spent weeks drooling over its details, the Darco showed up and completely one-upped the SST’s detailing. Not that it’s a competition, but I’ve been spending a lot of time nerding out on how stainless and regular Chromoly can be sintered or printed these days. While the SST was a leap forward in the US manufacturing of steel full suspensions (the laser-sintered parts were actually made in New Zealand on the SST), the Darco is a testament to Taiwan’s current capabilities.
When I reached out to Chromag, asking about the frame parts and how they were manufactured, they responded with:
“The steel suspension components mentioned are a mixture of cast and forged parts, we have looked into metal printing and it has some advantages but it is still cost prohibitive at our more boutique scale.”
The main pivot, rear dropout (which utilizes SRAM’s UDH,) and entire swingarm (including that aluminum chainstay!) is meticulously designed, engineered, and fabricated to precision, resulting in one of the most sculpted steel bikes I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to overlook this in the world of CNC-milled aluminum or carbon designs but to have this made from steel, in a 35lb package is kinda mind melting!
Chromag, with the help of its Taiwanese manufacturers, have done more than push the envelope, they jettisoned it forward another ten years of manufacturing.
Then, to up the ante, this particular Darco is clad in olive drab. Are they fucking baiting me? Ugh…
There’s even a loam shelf or caliché tray! And just look at the rocker assembly. The engineering department deserves a Chromoly medal for this design.
Yet, the Darco ain’t all OG Kush bong rips and mushroom chocolates. I tried my hardest to nit-pick this bike and while I have a few minor notes of concern, I only found one real misstep worth mentioning, which happens to be a personal pet peeve. This chainstay bridge! I feel like every framebuilder, large and small, can be susceptible to letting form override function at this crucial frame junction. In my book, these clearances should be equal at all times because goons like me will cram the biggest tires possible into their frames.
I was so curious as to why the bridge was so close and suspected it had to be for a good reason, which Chromag explained:
“Regarding the bridge over the seat stay… – If it were any closer to the seat tube, It would foul the seat tube at bottom out.”
Well, there ya have it. Insert foot in mouth. All this said, I never felt like the rear 2.4″ Minion II WT or the 2.5″ Minion front tires weren’t enough rubber for the terrain I was riding. I just love my 2.6″ Kessel tires!
In warmer weather, I’d run a second bottle cage here, and yes, on the XL, it will fit an additional 26oz bottle, which is huge! If you’d want to take this on a singletrack bikepacking trip, the front triangle can accommodate a rather large framebag. It’s details like this that show Chromag has its finger on the pulse.
Specs: Put the CREAM Where it Matters
How in the hell is this complete only $5,170? It’s because Chromag went with the sturdiest components where they could, built the cockpit and wheels with their own branded components, and put the money where it matters: in the suspension components. There’s nothing worse than mid-tier spec build kits. I’d rather have a mix of low and high tier components. Are the wheels light? Yeh nah mate. Do they get the job done? Nah yeh mate. What about the cockpit? A little stiff for my liking but again… getter done. The Lyrik and RockShox Super Deluxe Ultimate are a perfect place to put some extra money into the parts spec.
That said, if I were to keep this bike, I’d swap out the super stiff cockpit for something with a bit more bounce and run a shorter stem to make flicking the Darco around a bit easier. Right now, this bike fits me like a glove, but I’d like to have a 35mm length stem to make carrying a camera bag a bit easier.
Speccing bikes ain’t easy but hats off to the product manager at Chromag. Well done, mate.
Up and Down, and Up and Down, Again: Riding the Darco
It doesn’t take a geometry wizard to tell that the Darco is going to ride like a rabid javelina going downhill but my fear was that it would flop like a tortoise on acid going up. Slack front ends are fun on the descents but tend to get really wheel floppy when climbing the steep stuff, particularly tight switchbacks and pesky rock gardens. This is mostly due to where your hands are relative to the front hub. As you steer with your shoulders, the front end takes a little bit to adjust to this input. So the slacker the front end, the floppier the bike feels.
Where the Darco addresses this is with the steeper seat angle, which you then steepen even more by scooching forward on your saddle. In the above photos, I’m practically on the nose of my saddle, getting as close over the front of the bike, while maintaining enough weight over the rear hub to keep the tire from spinning out. This makes even the steepest, loosest, steppiest trail features easier to manage. If the seat angle were a couple of degrees slacker, it’d be harder to counteract the slack front end.
Meanwhile, going downhill with the long-travel (200mm) Reverb dropper down, the bike rips through even the sketchiest chunder fields like a coked-out coachwhip snake. Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun riding new-to-me ch0nk on a new-to-me review bike in some time!
But it ain’t all pinto bean bliss and tomatillo tang on the Darco. The same factors that make it a great climber and a ripping descender cause it to get hung up on undulating and flatter rocky terrain. On South Mountain, there are a few rock gardens where the spacing of the gaps in the boulders are juuuuuust wide enough that the front wheel hits a ledge as the back wheel gets caught in a hole. I could clear this on my Starling (1298mm wheelbase) going at a good clip, but on the Darco, I kept getting hung up. I thought three lousy centimeters wouldn’t make that big of a deal, but sure enough, there were a lot of moments in this rocky barf zone where the wheelbase was perfectly aligned with boulder gaps. This is exceptionally nit-picky but is worth noting: long bikes are harder to maneuver through flat-ish rocky terrain.
Yet, they are incredibly stable in the slabs and the bike is super easy to flick around on random rock jibs and booters. I found it very easy to get the bike upright to float over a side hit and yet still swing the rear end around to course-correct. I’m a big feller, and it’s hard sometimes to feel a synergy with big bikes like the Darco but hot damn, this honeymoon phase of the review period feels like bliss.
Murmur vs. SST vs. Darco: It’s All About the Downtube, Baby!
Now, comparing the Darco to the SST, the most notable difference when you negate the longer travel of the Darco is its smaller diameter downtube. The Darco has a down tube specced from 38.1 seamless CR-MO, which compared to the SST’s 44.5mm downtube, is substantially smaller. My Murmur also uses a 38.1 mm downtube, which is probably why the Darco rode so familiar.
If putting the Murmer up against the Darco, the Murmur is jibbier and more playful due to the single pivot and 140mm rear shock, while the Darco feels very planted with the 120mm rear shock on a Horst-link design. Is one superior to the other? That’s highly subjective but I like the jibbier feel of the Murmur more just based on my riding style and terrain. Yet, the Darco has a unique ride quality I’ve yet to experience on a steel bike.
I really think the Darco is a breakthrough in that it’s available without wait times, is more affordable, and feels like it’d be in line with any big brand’s catalog if the “Industry” ever goes in that direction!
TL;DR and the Takeaway
The Chromag Darco is a big bike, designed to take on lightening fast descents and techy climbs with its modern angles. Chromag produced it in Taiwan to make it more affordable and to take advantage of Taiwanese technology, resulting in the most refined steel full suspension bike yet. It’s specced with solid components and weighs in at 35lbs on the nose for the XL I reviewed as a 6’2″, 190lb rider with long arms and long legs. It’s specced with a proper fork, shock, and a long travel dropper.
Priced at $5,170 as shown or $2,995 for a frame, available in olive drab or a slate grey and five sizes (S, M, M/L, L, and XL), the team at Chromag threw all its 20 years of design prowess at this one. On a scale of one to ten in terms of how hard it will be to send this back, I’ll give it an eleven.
- Geometry is dialed for all-mountain riding and enduro racing
- Even with the long, slack, steep geometry it climbs and descends with ease
- Parts spec is affordable, placing the money where it matters
- It is by far the most advanced steel full suspension on the market
- Available now without a wait
- Want a more bling version? The Darco comes in titanium too!
- Overcoming the stigma that steel full suspension bikes are heavy
- Replacing bearings on a Horst-link is more involved than a single pivot
- Its length can be cumbersome in flat and crowded rock gardens
- Bike racks don’t like the length either!
- Sending it back is going to hurt!
- Made in Taiwan, not Canada (my personal opinion, take it with a grain)
I’d like to thank the team at Chromag for sending me this bike. It’s been a real joy and I cannot recommend the Darco enough! Got questions? Concerns? Critiques? Drop ’em in the comments! Check out more info at Chromag Bikes.