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Jamis Exile
By Karen Brooks
(Issue #109)

Rider: Karen Brooks
Height: 5'8"
Weight: 120lbs.
Inseam: 33"

The Jamis Exile is one example of a type of bike I've sold hundreds of, but haven't ridden in a decade—a solid mid-level hardtail, a good choice for a first "real" bike or a budget racer. This bike was appropriate for my first test rig at Dirt Rag, as my skill and fitness levels had dropped to barely above beginner after a year of neglect. I hoped to regain some mountain biking prowess atop the sort of steed that many other people would use to learn for the first time.

Jamis' stated goal is to provide the most bang for the buck and the Exile (at $830) is a good example of their efforts. The most stand-out feature is the double-butted Reynolds 520 frame. The trend for bikes in this price range has been to use aluminum frames, often straight-gauge; in the nineties the big, burly look of aluminum tubes became synonymous with mountain bikes, and as the price of the raw material dropped, its use became more widespread. As a result, steel-framed bikes under a thousand bucks became a rarity (the Exile itself was discontinued in 2001). But as some riders have discovered (and some Jamis dealers have pointed out), aluminum is not always the best choice. Thus Jamis decided to bring back the Exile for 2003, to offer a more comfortable, less fragile ride for the money—one that can be ridden all day loaded down with racks of gear as well as taken for a quick trip around the park. According to Jamis, the weight difference between straight-gauge aluminum and double-butted chromoly in a frame is actually negligible; the Exile frame (17") weighs 4.75lbs.

Jamis chose the Exile's parts to give the best performance per dollar without unnecessary bells and whistles. They may not be the lightest available, but it's good to see durable parts rather than lighter (and sometimes more fragile) ones. A Manitou Axel Elite fork provides squish. The wheels are built from Alex TD17 rims with Shimano Deore hubs and WTB 15g stainless steel spokes, and roll on wire-bead Hutchinson Mosquito tires. The brakes are Avid Ball Bearing cable-actuated discs with Avid levers. Shifters and derailleurs are Shimano Deore all around; cranking is done with Truvativ FireX cranks on a Truvativ ISIS Drive SL bottom bracket, with Shimano M505 pedals. Truvativ also provides the handlebar, stem, and seatpost. The grips are WTB and the saddle atop it all is a WTB Speed V Comp.

Jamis goes further than most companies for this price range by slightly altering the geometry and crank length through the line of sizes; this does a lot to make the bike fit better. The frame also sports real, functional rack mounts and even an old-school chain zip (a tab welded onto the drive-side seatstay to hold the chain during rear wheel removal).

On the first few rides, the Exile felt big and sturdy, but not overly so. The only modification I needed was a shorter stem (very common for female riders). The forgiveness of the steel frame was noticeable right away, especially in contrast to my own stiff aluminum hardtail. The weight of the bike (29lbs.), although a good 5.5lbs. more than what I'm used to, was not the factor I initially expected. It was most noticeable when carrying the bike and only affected acceleration on the steepest climbs. Going downhill it felt like a lot of bike to control, and the brakes had a grabby, on/off feel that made picking lines a bit harder, but the combination actually served to reinforce an important lesson in mountain biking: momentum is your friend and should not be squandered. I relearned to ride the brakes less and to just point downhill, letting the wheels and fork take care of the bumps.

The Axel Elite fork helped to control things well, with smooth travel and no noticeable side-to-side flex. Not long ago, a comparably-priced fork would have felt more like a wet noodle, but the reverse arch used on Manitou forks seems to do its job. The spring felt pretty soft, especially considering it was the stock spring (medium, rated for riders of 150-170lbs.), and I had the preload adjuster knob screwed all the way in most of the time. The fork came set up at 80mm, so I performed the pretty simple operation of removing the spring assembly and moving a metal clip on the compression rod to switch it to its 100mm setting. Surprisingly, it felt somehow firmer in the 100mm setting. I realized that the fork tended to dive a bit less when applying the front brake, due to the slightly relaxed head angle and subsequent rearward shift in the center of gravity.

Adjusting the rebound (located on the bottom of the left leg) made a noticeable difference in the feel, although after a while I left it in its wide open position. Manitou's Microlube lubrication ports on the outer legs are easy to use and should help to keep the fork traveling smoothly.

If I had to choose which part of the bike I'd trade, it would be the wheels. At 1088g for the front and 1260g for the rear, they were major contributors to the overall weight. The Alex rims feature an anti-snakebite design that consists of a flattened lip on their edges where tubes often get cut; this made mounting tires quite difficult, especially Kevlar-beaded ones, requiring a floor pump and some silicone lube on the tire bead to pop it out to its proper place. This would be impossible trailside. All that and I got a snakebite flat anyway. However, the wheels did not come out of true despite some crashes on the way to sharpening my skills. The stock Hutchinson tires were a nice choice, but better suited for an area with a drier climate, as they tended to drift some in mud.

Shifting was reliable and smooth throughout the test, although in an ironic twist, I had a hard time getting used to the non-Rapid Rise rear derailleur. The WTB saddle was the most comfortable stock saddle I've encountered; in fact, I liked its narrow but comfy shape better than the women's version I'm currently testing. The only problem with the seating (and the only thing that wore out on the bike) was the seatpost clamp: the plastic seat of the cam mechanism was quite soft and deformed after a few weeks, so that the seatpost kept creeping down; this problem would be easily fixed through your dealer.

Overall this bike is a durable, capable ride for a price that is less than its quality. Available in sizes from 11" to 21" in 2-inch increments (17" tested) and with Radium Blue/Gloss Black paint only.

© 2002 Dirt Rag Magazine
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