In an age of carbon ubiquity no titanium bicycle could be considered run-of-the-mill. Even so the Enigma Excel is far from your run-of-the-mill titanium bicycle. Peter Maniaty explains why.
When I first laid eyes on the Enigma Excel my immediate thought was “please don’t crash this thing, Pete.” Then I remembered it was titanium and relaxed; well, a little. What an exciting machine. More Jaguar exciting than Ferrari exciting mind you, but exciting none the less. A simply magnificent piece of hand-crafted bicycle-ness that I couldn’t wait to ride, even if I knew I’d be punching well above my weight. It was hard not to be impressed with the way it was prepared and delivered to my door either. Everything was immaculate, as I guess you’d expect from a bike that will set you back close to five figures, if not more.
The Enigma Excel is the flagship in a range of more than 20 titanium and steel bikes produced by Jim Walker’s family-run business in the town of Hailsham on the south coast of England, with production facilities in both Britain and Taiwan. Hand-made from ultra high grade AL6V4 titanium (alloyed with 6% aluminium and 4% vanadium, referred to as Grade 5) it’s around 20% stronger and 17% stiffer than the standard Grade 9 alloy used in most titanium bike frames which boasts just 3% aluminium and 2.5% vanadium. This allows for thinner and lighter tubing and I can certainly confirm it is extremely light, weighing in complete at a tyre width under 7kg.
Scour the world and you’ll find Enigma is one of few companies who build Grade 5 titanium frames. Why is it so rare? “It’s extremely difficult to manufacture a seamless tube set from this alloy,” says Engima’s justifiably proud Australian importer, Tony Brown. “It’s a bit of nightmare for all but the finest of craftsman.” Given the expertise and expense required to weld into seamless tubes most manufacturers simply don’t bother. Instead, of the handful of rivals who do offer Grade 5 frames, all come with welded seams. But as Brown explains this essentially misses the whole point.
Every Enigma frame is made using an approach called Enigma Shaping Technology (EST) and the Excel is no exception. It features double-butted seamless titanium tubing and, not dissimilar to the way carbon fibre lay-up is variable, different wall thickness are specified at different stress points in the frame – a process which adds strength in key places and saves weight in others.
Tipping the scales at 1,300g (55cm frame) the geometry of the Excel frame is compact with some of the more noticeable design elements including a 9-degree sloping oversized top tube and ovalised ‘Exogen’ ultra formed rear stays. The welds and attention to detail throughout are nothing short of exquisite.
The review model boasted a mirror polished finish with bead blasted decals and, offset by the brooding matt black ENVE 2.0 Sport carbon forks, looked spectacular. If you prefer a little less bling the frame is also available in a more subdued brushed finish. Either way it oozes pure class. Not a sticker in sight.
So it’s 10 out of 10 for looks. But how does the Enigma Excel ride? In a word, beautifully. I wouldn’t call it a racing bike – although I’m sure you could use it for that and perform quite admirably – but it’s far from slow and the ride is certainly nothing like some of the ‘dead’ titanium frames I’d been warned about by my riding mates. Rather this is the kind of bike you could ride all day, day after day, and enjoy every moment whether climbing, descending or simply cruising. In fact, for precisely this reason Jono Elliot (organiser of the annual Mt Wellington Challenge near Hobart) recently chose the Excel’s road disc sibling, the Evoke, for his attempt on the 2014 Transcontinental race, a non-stop and unsupported epic from London to Istanbul.
From a componentry perspective few expenses have been spared with the Enigma Excel. Shimano Dura Ace 11-speed groupset. ENVE 2.0 Sport carbon forks. Pro Vibe 7S handelbars. Enigma saddle with titanium rails. Mavic Kyrsium SLS wheelset. Extra light Mavic Yksion Pro tyres. You can tell considerable thought has gone into every detail; it all marries wonderfully.
Even with a stout 31.6mm carbon seat post completing the impressive Excel package, the vibration damping properties of this bike are excellent. In some ways it reminded me of the 2014 Bianchi CV Infinito I reviewed late last year and adored for the same reason. But while undoubtedly silky smooth the ride is far from boring – it would appear the higher grade titanium alloy has certainly done its job.
Putting some real pressure through the front end – specifically the integrated head tube which is hand-machined from solid AL6V4 titanium, as is the bottom bracket – I found handling good without being laser sharp. Having spent the bulk of my recent years riding on rigid and super-precise carbon frames, the steering felt less direct than I was accustomed to at first. But by the end of the first ride I’d adjusted and as my confidence grew there were no issues whatsoever. Of course, if you do ever get things wrong through a corner the Excel will likely fare considerably better than a carbon equivalent (or you!); durability being another of titanium’s great appeals. You’ll still cry, though, crashing such a magnificent machine.
So who should consider the Enigma Excel? Well, you’ll clearly need some money in the bank account that’s for sure. But beyond this it’s a bike for those who want more than just titanium; riders who appreciate the finest levels of craftsmanship and have no qualms whatsoever paying for it. Whilst built to within the tiniest margins of error no two frames are ever exactly the same, which in an age of mass-produced everything surely carries considerable cache. I’m reliably told only about five Enigma Excels are sold in Australia each month. If you get the chance to make one yours, you’ll be part of a select group indeed.
This is the highest calibre of titanium bicycle, it’s for connoisseurs; those who ride more than race, and like to savour every pedal stroke in a journey rather than man-handle their twitchy steed in a tunnel-visioned charge for the destination. It may be a nightmare of a bike to build. But it is a pure delight to ride. Not to mention look at.
Quality: Exquisite attention to detail everywhere, finished with a superb level of componentry. Enigma titanium frames come with a lifetime warranty.
Performance: Stiffer than you’d think without compromising on comfort. A wonderfully smooth and balanced ride that’s quick enough without aspiring to be an aggressive racing machine.
Value for money: Depends how you measure value, really. It’s not cheap in the context of most other bikes on the market. But it’s not like most other bikes on the market, titanium or otherwise.
Overall: A magnificent bicycle for riders who appreciate the finest levels of craftsmanship and are looking for something that truly sets them apart.
Frame: 6AL4V titanium alloy, seamless
Fork: ENVE 2.0 Road carbon
Head Set: Enigma
Stem: Enigma Carbon
Handlebars: Pro Vibe 7S alloy
Saddle: Enigma Ellipse (titanium rails)
Seat post: Enigma Carbon
Shift Levers: Shimano Dura Ace
Brakes: Shimano Dura Ace
Front derailleur: Shimano Dura Ace
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Dura Ace
Cassette: Shimano Dura Ace 11sp
Chain: Shimano Dura Ace
Crank: Shimano Dura Ace 53-39
Bottom Bracket: English threaded BB
Wheels: Mavic Kysrium SLS
Tyres: Mavic Yksion Pro
Price: $11,500 (frame only from $5,050)
Distributor: British Imports www.britishimports.com.au