Viral Derive Review: Titanium Pinion Smart.Shift Hardtail 29er

Yesterday, John walked us through the electronic shifting Pinion C1.12i Smart.Shift gearbox in an in-depth review, and today, we’ll be looking at the bike it was installed on, the Viral Bike Derive hardtail. You know we love hardtails at The Radavist, and this one did not disappoint…

When it comes to the ultimate in versatility, it’s hard to beat a hardtail. They really are the best tools for the job in most cases. Gravel riding (and racing), bike touring (and bikepacking races), all-day double track expeditions, and even the almighty sub-24-hour-overnighter. If you like riding mixed terrain, the hardtail is an ally that, in my opinion, is starting to come more and more come into vogue with the drop bar “gravel” crowd.

As such, many brands are putting more thought and energy into bikes that were often neglected in their lineup. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of capable hardtails reviewed here at The Radavist, all of which offer something unique to the space. You can add the Viral Bikes Derive to that list.

All In: Viral Bikes

Steve Domahidy co-founded Niner Bikes in 2004, creating a brand with a specific modus operandi, beholden to a fledgling innovation: 29″ wheels. Much like Niner’s early days, Viral Bikes, Steve’s current company, is a foray into developing an entire bicycle catalog focused on questioning drivetrains. With over 30 years in the business, Steve has seen trends come and go, but as Niner proved — and continues to prove, I might add — some trends quickly become tradition. He’s seeking to push the paradigm.

Viral exists to incorporate Pinion gearboxes into bicycle taxonomies we all understand and love. The brand’s focus is to go all-in, 100% dedicated to gearboxes. Steve’s been riding them for over eight years and feels like they haven’t caught on in America for a number of reasons, one of which is that the grip shift sucks big time. The Smart.Shift fixed that issue by utilizing an electronic trigger shifter.

Another reason is that a lot of cycling journalists just don’t “get it.” Steve theorizes it’s because they’re not dedicating enough time to become habituated to the system to fully see its benefits. Well, I don’t consider myself a journalist, but I set out to “get it.”

We had an hour-long conversation about the Smart.Shift Pinion C1.12i system and throughout the phone call, I could feel the enthusiasm Steve has for gearboxes. It’s not just a marketing schtick for him. In his mind, they really are superior to derailleurs and cassettes, especially if you’re touring-minded.

Like Niner, Steve feels that there’s a sea change coming to bicycle drivetrains for “adventure-aligned” bikes and as Niner proved time and time again, he’s onto something. Remember how ahead of the curve the Ros 9+ was? Now that was a bike!

Intent: The Derive

I first met Steve at Argonaut Cycles, where he co-patented the brand’s carbon layup assemblage procedure along with Ben Farver, the company’s founder. Remember that killer GR3 gravel bike that Petor loved so much and landed the “Top Gravel Bike” in our 2023 Radavist Awards? Steve had a big hand in the geometry and design of that bike.

Track record and context aside, we all know that passion does not equal excellence by default. It takes a real concerted effort to develop something unique and meaningful in this world, especially in a crowded space, in times like this in the bike industry! However, as much as we’re feeling the dregs of a late capitalist society, it still rewards innovation, which requires pushing the envelope with a clear vision. During my architecture education, we were taught that all good designs begin with a stated intent.

Steve looked to Guy Debord’s 1956 piece ‘Theory of the Dérive’ for inspiration when he began designing the Derive. One line stood out to him in particular and proved to be the intent for this hardtail mountain bike:

“…an unplanned journey through a landscape in which participants drop their everyday relations and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”


If you can sum up bicycle touring with one quote, that about nails it.

I reviewed the size XL Derive as a 6′ – 2″ tall human with a 36″ inseam and an 81 cm saddle height. This build as shown, minus the bottles, weighs 33 lbs on the nose…

Viral Bikes Derive Quick Hits

  • Made in Taiwan — learn all about Taiwan’s manufacturing here
  • The size XL reviewed here weighs 33 lbs on the nose with pedals and bottle cages.
  • Viral Bikes triple butted titanium tubeset to cut down on weight
  • Designed around a 120 – 130 mm suspension fork or the Viral Bikes Carbon Boost MTB Fork $490
  • 27.5+ (3” tire clearance) or 29” wheel compatible, tailor this trail machine to your own desires
  • Pinion C1.12 gearbox delivers 600% gear range, that’s 15% more gear range than the new SRAM 1×12 drivetrain
  • Manual Gearbox comes with Gates belt drive, front and rear cogs, CNC cranks, DS2 shifter, lockring tool, rear cassette spacer kit, and first-year oil change
  • SmartShift Gearbox comes with Gates belt drive, front and rear cogs, forged cranks, TE1 trigger shifter, battery, charger, wiring kit, locking tool, rear cassette spacer kit, and first-year oil change
  • 31.6mm seat post, compatible with internal dropper post routing.
  • 148mm Boost rear hub spacing
  • IS41 upper/ IS52 lower headset bearings
  • 4.25 lbs. for medium frame (no gearbox)
  • $4,795 frame and drivetrain kit
  • $7,000 starting price for a complete
  • $9,000 complete as reviewed here in a blingy, balleur outfit
  • Each bike can be built with specific gear-inch requirements and to suit your use case


I’ll briefly touch on the frame construction, which appears to be very solid with top and down tube gussets at the head tube, a chainstay yoke, tightly overlapping welds, internal routing, and a special Pinion attachment yoke that looks very bomb-proof. The family-owned, Taiwan-based company that makes these frames is one of the best titanium manufacturers in the world.

* based on a 120mm travel fork, unsagged

Run the Numbers

The Derive is what I would consider a moderately modern geometry hardtail. The seat tube (75.5º) and head tube (66.5º) angles, visible in the above drive-side photo, should be an indicator of that. Not too steep, nor slack, with appropriate reach numbers. Since the Derive, in its current geometric phenotype, allows for 27.5+ or 29er wheels in the three larger sizes, it has a bottom bracket drop that is high  (47 mm) when compared to other similar bikes, say the Esker Japhy, which touts a 65 mm bottom bracket drop. The next generation Derive will ditch the 27.5+ wheels and go all in on 29er wheels. At which point, the bottom bracket will drop.

When it comes to bottom bracket height or drop, every millimeter determines how a bike will ride, along with the rest of the bike’s geometry. There are other factors to consider, too…

About Frame Stiffness

If a bike has rack and cargo bosses and is marketed towards bike touring, bikepacking, and expedition or overlanding-style rides, then by nature, it ought to be stout-feeling. For example, flexy frames get flexier when loaded down. If a bike is intended to be ridden fully loaded, it ought to be stout, especially if making a bike for the masses. Some of the frame stiffness is undoubtedly thanks to the Pinion gearbox yoke.

Now, I personally like it when a bike is flexy when loaded down, but that’s a story for another day!

Add to the mix the necessity for belt drive bikes to have stiff rear ends for both unloaded and loaded riding and touring, and suddenly, you’ve got a titanium bike that is stiffer than, say, a Moots Womble, Sklar Pack Mule, Singular Gryphon, or even that Revel Tirade I liked so much. None of those bikes would be very good belt-drive bikes. If the rear end flexes too much with a belt drive, it’ll cause the belt to skip.



Unloaded Versus Loaded Riding

In my Smart Shift review, I briefly discussed riding the Derive unloaded and loaded down. Now, I’m not one to load a bike up and take it out on an overnighter as a default, but I felt like since the Derive is designed for extended bike tours, I should at least take it out on a sub-24-hour overnighter.

But first. Let’s talk about some titanium myths.

Titanium is a very stiff metal. Yet, it can be engineered through butting profiles and wall thicknesses to be incredibly compliant. It’s a big reason why I lauded the Moots Womble and why I’ll never sell my Sklar Pack Mule. It’s always why I got bowled over by the Singular Gryphon. I love flexy titanium frames. Especially when they have some weight strapped to them.

Whether or not titanium dampens ground resonance is a long-debated quagmire that I won’t go into here. Still, a titanium seatpost, bars, or frame will leave you a lot less beaten-up feeling at the end of a long day if they’re designed for flex and not stiffness.

I knew that the Derive would be on the stiffer side of the titanium spectrum, and that’s one reason why I opted for my favorite 2.6″ tires, the Teravail Kessel, in a tough casing. I like riding comedically low tire pressures (shut up, KYLE!), and you might have noticed this in some of my bike reviews. Knowing the Derive would be stiff to accommodate the belt drive, I wanted to slightly soften the ride in other ways.

It’s also why I opted for a hardtail configuration over the Viral carbon rigid fork with a 120 mm Rock Shox Pike. I spent some time configuring the high, and low-speed compression to reflect the terrain I ride: steep, loose, rocky, and fast.

Unloaded: Plow Ahead

Some bikes leave a good first impression. Other bikes require inquiries, problem-solving, or adaptations to your regular riding behaviors. I ride a lot of bikes each year, and identifying each bike’s nuances is part of the fun of bike reviews. Dialing in suspension, finding the right tire pressure, and even brake lever positioning is a dedicated dance with each new bike that comes into my possession.

I pedal all my bike rides from my front door and have a number of curb cuts and shitty jib lines I enjoy on the ride across town to the trailheads. This time also allows for adjustments before getting into the good stuff. The Derive set up easily and felt like a familiar friend on that first pedal. By the time I was done on my loop, it left an exceptional first impression.

Climbing with the steep-ish seat angle was a breeze. My loop has eight steep and tight switchbacks, one of which is near impossible, and two others require real effort to clear. I could clear the ridable switchbacks with ease, thanks in part to the geometry and the “crawl mode” gearing. I just scooched forward on the saddle and spun right up them.

Descending is where this metallic gargoyle came alive and exclaimed, “ZUUUUUL!

When describing the sensation with a friend, they used the term “plow,” and I made a mental note as this is an entirely accurate description of how the Derive descends. The 2000+ gram Pinion gearbox’s weight is low. Lower than the hub axis. It’s the lowest thing on the dang bike itself. As such, you can use this weight in your favor, flicking the comparatively light chassis around like a croc flings that unsuspecting antelope in its jaws at the last watering hole of the dry season.

Time after time, I found myself plowing through the most familiar terrain with stability, seeking more and more speed. The only times I was brutally awakened out of this euphoric, adrenaline-fueled dream was when I would dive into rocky outcroppings like I do on a 140 or 160 mm trail bike and immediately move through the available travel. Still, for a 120 mm hardtail, the Derive held its own.

Contextualizing all this, part of this “flickability” has to do with the bike’s higher-than-normal bottom bracket, which is contrarian compared to the trend of lower bottom bracket drops. Personally, I like a slightly higher bottom bracket for a hardtail. My Retrotec is comparable, and part of the fun in riding that bike is that it feels like a 29er dirt jumper.

The higher the bottom bracket, the more stable — or twitchy — the bike will be. Stability is a vessel’s ability to course-correct under the slightest input. This is the actual definition of stability as applied to bicycle geometry. A traditional cyclocross bike is stable with its tight wheelbase and higher bottom bracket. XC racing geometries are stable.  Meanwhile, people often conflate stability with a long wheelbase and low-bottom bracket bike. Road bikes or touring bikes with longer wheelbase and lower bottom brackets are not stable, they are predictable, planted, and sure-footed. 

Once I adapted my riding technique to the Pinion Smart.Shift, I was ready to take the Derive into the mountains on an overnighter.

Loaded: The Triangle of Weight Distribution

Elated with how the Derive rode unloaded, I began strapping bags and a handlebar harnesses to the frame, added an additional 5 PSI to the fork to set 20% sag, and a little more air to the tires, bringing the rear to 22 and the front to 20 PSI (thanks, Kyle!). On my initial pedal around the block, I did the hip sway and arm sway side-to-side flex test and was impressed to see the bike not even budge. No flex.

The same test on my Sklar tourer results in a flexy movement best described as a dog wagging its tail. I might add, it’s a big reason why I love that bike so much!

My friend Onur and I pedaled up into the mountains, following a favorite day ride route through the foothills along singletrack and over numerous ridgelines to our camp. The gearing spread on this ride was more than adequate; as I crawled up pitches, I usually walked and maintained a high cadence and lower heart rate.

What I noticed was what I call a “triangle of weight distribution” – wherein the gear on the handlebars and saddle on the highest part of the bicycle, are counterbalanced by the weight of the Pinion at the lowest part of the bike.

On other bikes, using stuff-sack-style bags makes the rear end feel heavy and the front imbalanced. Jumping or stuntin’ never feels comfortable with an imbalanced bike. This is a big reason why I like racks and panniers because they keep the added weight of camping gear lower. But with the Pinion’s weight down low, I was hitting the same lines I’d hit on my Murmur at full speed without hesitation.

However, one thing I did find myself missing, particularly when loaded down was the springlike feel of the rear triangle coming out of fast, flat corners and berms. All of my bikes have a flexy rear end and it’s something I’ve come to utilize when exiting these turns. With the Derive, I felt very “locked into” those lines, rather than exploding out of them on a spring. When I’d put weight over the flattened rear end, it pushed back instead of conforming. It’s a hard sensation to describe. But again, this is needed for a optimum belt drive experience.

Is the Pinion Smart.Shift (and the Derive) Worth It?

If you’re still here after my rambling, thank you. I intentionally left the answer to this question succinct in the Smart.Shift review because I think it’s a two-part response. The system itself is significant. It solves a lot of issues with traditional drivetrains in a low-maintenance package. Even with the 250 Nm limit on shifting under load, by the end of the review period, I’d completely adapted to riding it. I found myself putting away other bikes for the time being and focusing just on the Derive. Doing so helped a lot.

Yet, I do feel like the Pinion presents a series of subjective questions without objective answers.

For instance, when I talked to Steve, he seemed to be an “all-in” kinda guy, stating he’d been riding gearboxes for over eight years. For me, I appreciated the Smart.Shift system a lot more once I quit riding the other mountain bikes in my current posession. Does that mean switching between a bike like the Derive and a full-suspension bike with a derailleur would dissolve that “honeymoon” experience?

The human body is incredible at adapting its movements. It only took three or four dedicated rides on the Derive, without riding other bikes, to feel “normal.”

After wrapping this review, I went out on my Retrotec on the same loop, and the bike felt more “aloft” than it normally does. I was over-clocking some jumps as I’d gotten used to hucking the pedals side-to-side with the added heft of the Pinion. Was it a bad thing? No. It was just me getting reacquainted with an old friend.

But I can’t help but wonder if I owned a bike like the Derive, how it would affect the frequency I pick my other bikes? Would I simply stop riding my hardtails and tourers? Possibly… For me, the positives outweigh any negatives and the riding experience is so unique and intriguing that I found myself wanting to ride it more and more… and more.

TL;DR and the Take-Away

We live in an era when people want to find the “magic bullet” – pardon the analogy – to solve all their bike-related use case issues. I still think a hardtail is inherently more “versatile” than any gravel road bike in that it objectively handles the same use cases better. Almost every day, I interact with someone looking to make their gravel bike “more capable,” while trying to make it “better for singletrack or rough doubletrack” and to me, this struggle is like fitting a square peg in a smaller, round hole.

I also might add here that a drop bar touring bike like the Stargazer is inherently more capable than a gravel road bike and I feel like the industry has done a great disservice in the marketing of road bikes as gravel bikes. But I digress!

Bikes like the Derive uphold the approach that it’s better (ATMO) to be slightly over-biked than very under-biked when it comes to fully-loaded touring and excursion riding. Especially in rugged terrain. It has rack mounts and cargo bosses, can be ridden with a rigid fork or with a 120 – 130 mm travel fork, fits two different wheel and tire sizes (resulting in different diameters and thus, the higher than normal bottom bracket) and can be built or specced to suite any rider’s needs.

This, my friends, is a true “quiver killer.” It is the “jack of all trades” and the “magic bullet.” It’s a bicycle with virtually no maintenance, is capable, adaptable, and holds its own in the rough stuff. I’ve struggled throughout this review to not write something that reads like a McDonald’s Happy Meal advertisement, as Travis so comedically put it, but ya know what? Some bikes deserve it.

If you’re an all-in kind of person or are looking for one bike to do all the things, the Derive might just be the bike for you.

Or if you’re dedicated to drop bars, check out the Viral Wanderer



  • Pinion Smart.Shift is instantaneous, uses an electronic trigger shifter, and (mostly) shifts under load.
  • Geometry works really well with the added weight at a low center of gravity
  • Titanium is immortal
  • Sliding dropouts make belt adjustment a cinch (using the Gates App!)
  • Frame construction is solid
  • Climbs incredibly well, descends even better
  • Can be over-forked to 130 mm
  • 29 or 27.5+ (get one now if you like that; the next generation will be dedicated 29er)
  • Minimal branding
  • Not beholden to belt drive only, Pinion gearboxes can be ridden with a chain


  • Beholden to a Pinion gearbox only (mechanical or electronic)
  • Expensive to buy the frame and gearbox up front
  • Not the lightest frame, nor the flexiest, but is designed for fully-loaded touring


See more at Viral Bikes.