In late 2016, REI announced a complete revamp of its cycling program, including a new flagship bike brand, Co-op Cycles. The move signaled the company’s desire to up both the caliber of its cycling offerings and its credibility in the bike market. “We heard from our members that we have to make bikes and bike gear that are both high value as well as up to the high quality of everything in our stores,” Paul Calandrella, REI’s director of cycling strategy, said at the time.
Though it’s easy to pay lip service to the idea of improvement and to create a marketing scheme to support those claims, it’s not as simple to follow through. But at its inception, the co-op launched a collection of all-road, drop-bar bikes: the ARD series, which won commendation in the industry. After, the company followed with a range of adventure touring machines—the ADV series—proved equally as popular. With those bikes, as well as a completely overhauled apparel and softgoods program, REI illustrated its commitment to becoming a one-stop shop for cyclists. “It’s not about competing with local bike shops. We aren’t trying to be a replacement for a specialty store,” Calandrella says. “But we do feel like it’s our responsibility to serve all of our customers’ needs.”
But the co-op wasn’t done yet. Earlier this year, REI unveiled the DRT 3 series—the company’s first line of full-suspension mountain bikes. Comprised of two models, the DRT 3.1 ($2,199) and DRT 3.2 ($2,799), the DRT 3s are aluminum trail bikes built with middle-of-the-road travel for all-around versatility. They use a Horst Link suspension, one of the most trusted designs in mountain biking (also employed through the years by Specialized, Ellsworth, Turner, Norco, Scott, Intense, and European brand Cube, among others). The idea of this rear linkage is to provide a neutral-to-firm ride that isn’t affected by braking forces. The brainchild of Austrian engineer Horst Leitner, the design was the culmination of decades of work in motorcycles. Once introduced to the mountain bike world in the late ‘90s, the Horst Link became the driving force in the widespread development and growth of full-suspension mountain bikes. In 2015, Leitner was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport. The upshot, the DRT 3.2’s suspension design is time-tested and thoroughly reliable.
Beyond the dual suspension, the DRT 3’s defining characteristic is its plus-size tires: The added girth of the 2.8-inch rubber provides more traction, stability and flotation than a typical (skinnier) mountain bike tire without all the heft and rolling resistance of a full fat bike. “This bike really addresses the Co-op Cycles progression story,” says Ilya Brukhman, lead designer on the team. “We wanted to build a bike for people who might have been riding a hardtail before but were ready to take on more technical terrain and also anyone after a softer, cushier ride.”
Engineered to fit riders from 5’0” to 6’3”, the largest three models of the DRT 3 have 130mm of rear travel and a 140mm fork built around 27.5-by-2.8-inch tires, while the smaller two models get 120mm of rear travel and 26-by-2.8-inch tires. It’s rare to see 26-inch rims on anything other than fat bikes these days, but the size was a conscious choice to assure a size that would fit most riders. “We were committed to the large contact patch of plus-size tires for the confidence and fun ride they provide,” Brukhman says. “But as we tested geometries, we felt that 27.5-plus compromised the fit and experience for smaller riders. That’s why we went with the smaller rims.”
How the DRT 3.2 Rides
A month ago, REI offered me the opportunity to test ride the DRT 3.2. For the past 15 years, I’ve been writing independent bike reviews at Outside magazine, a job that has entailed riding and reporting on some 80 new bikes annually (including the ARD 1.4 at its inception). I jumped at the offer to ride the DRT 3.2 because I was curious to see how Co-op Cycles’ take on a full-suspension mountain bike stacked up.
The first thing I liked about the DRT 3.2 is the clean design—a muted, martini-olive paint job set off by a couple pimento-red rings and a simple, reflective logo. “We want the bikes to fit a variety of uses, so we purposefully pared back the color and graphics,” Brukham says. “It mimics the bike concept as a whole: everything you need, nothing you don’t.”
But that description stretches beyond the graphics. The parts are pure, quality-for-the-money selections that reflect a design team that knows what they are doing: a SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain (which gives the widest gear range possible for the least amount of complication, weight and cost), high-value RockShox fork and shocks and Shimano brakes (the most reliable on the market). To top it off, you get WTB wheels and tires, which not only work great, but make tubeless conversion an inexpensive snap (just add valve stems and sealant). While many brands and bikes go for the ultimate bling—cost be damned—the DRT series, and all Co-op Cycles models I’ve tried, are about creating the best ride experience possible without the sticker shock so common across the industry.
I rode the DRT 3.2 for just over two weeks and covered over 100 miles and nearly 20,000 feet of elevation gain in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains. That included everything from wide-open rocky tundra and loamy, rooted alpine forest to loose and chundery rock gardens and fast, buffed-out desert track. We even got a freak (for the desert Southwest) full day of rain, which let me check out the bike’s manners in the mud and slick. The wide tires provided stability and solid grip, the easygoing geometry and X-Fusion dropper seat post made for confidence-inspiring descents, and the suspension felt plush and forgiving even when the rides stretched on for hours. Compared with many bikes these days—which have grown so long, low and slack that they can be too specialized for everyday use—the DRT 3.2 felt balanced and neutral enough to handle anything from dirt roads to technical singletrack. And though I probably pushed the bike beyond its design intent, including climbs to 12,500 feet and some incredibly chunky, rock-hewn descents, the DRT 3.2 kept up just fine.
While so many brands invest in developing featherweight carbon superbikes, it’s refreshing to come across a durable, alloy bike that delivers a great ride at a sensible price. Of course I’d prefer more adjustments on the suspension, burlier tires, and a lighter overall bike weight (my medium tipped the scales at 31.7 pounds), but those are tradeoffs you make for the low cost. None of those things hindered me from riding everything I wanted aboard this bike, and anyway, compared with the competition, the DRT 3.2 is both less expensive and better spec’d for the money. It’s a bike that will help you advance, whether that’s going from bike paths to trail or from intermediate singletrack to truly technical terrain, and you won’t have to take out a mortgage to improve and enjoy the experience.