Viathon Bicycles made waves at its launch earlier this year as a premium bike brand incubated under an unlikely source. We tested the brand’s top-end M.1 Mountain Bike for 6 weeks to gain an understanding and some first-person perspective on singletrack trails.
It’s the middle of the summer. I’m in GearJunkie’s Minneapolis office, a small blade in hand, ready to unbox a bike. A group of employees gathers around, pecking in to see the “Walmart bike” that’s arrived with measurable anticipation.
Reports of a top-end race build with a $6,000 price tag cast a cognitive dissonance across the office. Why was one of the world’s most budget-driven companies focusing on the upper echelon of the bike world?
Viathon was created to shift consumers’ thinking. That’s according to brand manager Zach Spinhirne-Martin, who wrote a white paper and a business case in 2017 to bring Viathon to life.
“I pitched the idea to my management as a way to more quickly enter the market and change our perception,” he said.
At the GearJunkie office, we cut zip ties and packing tape. I lifted the bike from its box, the staff leaning in for a first look.
Review: Viathon M.1 Mountain Bike Review
Two days later, I’m pedaling steep singletrack above Lake Superior. It’s noon on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I came to ride Copper Harbor and the IMBA-ordained network in and near Marquette.
The Viathon M.1, a carbon hardtail with 29-inch wheels, chatters over roots then sluices through a berm. The terrain varies from flowy cross-country trail to downhill-inspired gravity tracks. I ride over ladder bridges and into dense trees.
Going uphill, the shifting is buttery smooth. This is courtesy of the SRAM XX1 Eagle drivetrain and its golden chain. A RockShox 120mm fork and speedy Continental tires respectively absorb and grip the ground. Internal cable routing keeps the frame clean and streamlined.
From its sleek frame on up, the M.1 cuts few corners: Stan’s Crest CB7 carbon wheels, FSA carbon cockpit, Fizik saddle, Ergon grips, and a RockShox dropper post.
I weighed the M.1 later with a handheld scale. Red digits displaying 22.7 pounds blinked alive, quantifying the size-large bike as bona fide feathery for its class.
Viathon Mountain Bike Test
Copper Harbor grants massive descents on rocky hills. In Marquette, a trail network overlays the infrastructure of a mining town, with outsize pipes and brick walls crumbling in the trees.
I hit small drops and jumps on multiple runs. A famous trail, “Eh Line,” swooped on dirt banks and over gaps.
Though a cross-country bike, the Viathon gave confidence and control through almost every session on the U.P. It’s marketed as “one of the lightest, fastest mountain race machines that money can buy,” and that claim seemed hard to dispute by the end of my first week.
Viathon takes pride that “every model — indeed, every finished bicycle — is at the top of its class for weight, technology, and quality.” The M.1 is among a small 2019 line that includes road and gravel models, as well as two additional high-end mountain bike builds specced lower and with prices starting at $1,998.
For the M.1 XX1 Eagle, Viathon dropped its original $6,000 price recently to $4,998. Add up the component costs, frame, and build, and budgeting that kind of money might make sense for the committed rider.
Brand manager Spinhirne-Martin said a search of similar Trek, Specialized, or Canyon bikes will net a conclusion that “they are all significantly more expensive for a similarly specced product.”
Spinhirne-Martin came to Walmart after 10 years working in the industry at Competitive Cyclist. He noted, “I’ve ridden and owned basically everything they sell over that time: Yeti, Santa Cruz, Ibis, Ventana, Pivot, Open, Pinarello, Wilier, Cervelo, Ridley.”
For many consumers, budget concerns are only part of the equation. When spending upwards of $5,000 on a bike, a decision matrix includes variables from aesthetics to brand affinity. Performance, comfort, speed, agility, and other characteristics require in-person evaluation, which is tough to prove for a brand like Viathon, which is available only online.
I wondered, who is the target audience for Viathon bikes? Racers? Wealthy enthusiasts? “For the M.1, it’s the generalist MTB enthusiast,” Spinhirne-Martin said. “It’s for someone who wants to ride the whole mountain, up, down, and everything in between.”
Spinhirne-Martin said he came up with this bike while living in Park City, Utah, between 2011 and 2017: “The bench-cut trails with tons of climbing lent themselves to a light, efficient climber with a bit more up front to smooth out the fast downhills.”
Why a 29er?
Some of the editors at GearJunkie wondered why Viathon launched with a 29er hardtail as its flagship mountain bike. Hardtail race XC bikes seem to be going away in favor of short-travel, full-suspension options.
The company cited industry data. Hardtail mountain bikes with front suspension, Viathon notes, are the second-largest category, according to NPD. They are a close second to full-suspension in terms of dollars, but hardtail mountain bikes make for a significantly larger share in terms of units sold.
Further, a hardtail is a great entry point for a new rider looking for high-quality performance, Spinhirne-Martin said. He explained, “It has less setup and maintenance than a downhill bike, and as an entry point into the industry, this makes an ideal start for us to grow on.”
New Kind of Walmart Bike
For bikes, Walmart has historically been an “opening price point mass vendor,” as Spinhirne-Martin put it. In other words, it was in the business of making inexpensive bikes made for the mass market. Performance or race-ready bikes are not a part of the stock in most Walmart stores or online.
But the company has connections to the industry, including the support of trail networks — notably, the network around Bentonville, Arkansas, near Walmart headquarters. Brothers Tom and Steuart Walton are passionate cyclists, and the Walton Family Foundation has helped build the Bentonville area into a world-class destination for mountain biking.
Viathon is wholly owned by Walmart. It’s a private brand being managed within the e-commerce merchandising team based in San Bruno, California. “We are not focusing on the connection but not hiding it either,” Spinhirne-Martin said.
At its inception, Kevin Quan Studios assisted in designing frames. The Viathon fulfillment center is in Carlsbad, California. Marketing strategy comes out of Sun Valley, Idaho, with the CrankTank firm.
I asked how it was all going and how many bikes have been sold. But the company would not release sales data. I asked about the response to the brand launch from customers and the bike industry. Viathon responded, “Really positive! All of our reviews show the quality of our bikes, including frame design, production, and specs.”
Having spent some time in the saddle, I have to agree. Viathon builds a quality bicycle at a competitive price. With a feathery weight, effective geometry, and componentry to rival the best bikes on the market, the M.1 is a relevant consideration for serious riders with a cross-country bent.