The not-so-minor details
Specialized Camber Expert Carbon 29
Incredibly slick construction.
Innovative storage solutions.
Small chain ring won't suit every trail.
We can understand if you don’t ‘get’ the Camber initially. It’s a funny kind of fit – you know, like a nice kid hanging out with the naughty boys, not really sure if pushing over bins is his thing, but still eager for the street cred and enjoying the notoriety? The Camber smooshes together cross-country race focused technology and trail bike attitude. It’s a mix that seems odd… until you ride it.
Now a few seasons into its evolution, the Camber platform has seen some big changes for 2016; it’s now available in both 650B and 29er wheel sizes, with two different travel lengths (130mm for 650B, 120mm for 29″ wheels), and the frame and shock technology has leapt ahead massively. Our test bike is the 120mm-travel Expert Carbon 29er, worth a hefty $7999. The cheese smells good, but how does it taste?
Other Specialized Camber reviews:
Read our review of the 2014 Camber S-Works for an interesting comparison of how the Camber series has evolved: http://flowmountainbike.com/tests/tested-specialized-s-works-camber-29-finished/
Or the Camber Expert Evo, the traits of which have been absorbed largely by the regular Camber series now: http://flowmountainbike.com/tests/tested-specialized-camber-expert-carbon-evo-29/
Who is it for?
Good question. With 29″ wheels and a new version of the ultra-efficient Specialized Brain shock, you could easily think the Camber was designed for the cross-country racer who wanted a little more travel. But the Camber’s wide rims, big-arse rubber, dropper post and cockpit suggest it has other intentions for more rugged riding. The geometry is by no means slack or particularly long, so don’t mistake it for an all-mountain machine either.
And somehow, it all comes together to deliver a scintillating trail bike experience. It’ll conquer lofty climbs, it’ll rip fast descents, but it’s everything in between where the Camber really shines. And yes, we realise that’s a lot of terrain, but this bike is a great all-rounder.
Hoolly doolly! The lines on this bike are some of the nicest going. We’ll touch more on the price tag later (cough) but the frame is gorgeous, and with the features this bike crams into such an outwardly simple appearance, you can see where the dollars have been invested.
The Camber is carbon up front, but out back it’s alloy, and it’s sublimely clean all over. All the cables are managed brilliantly, and graphics are kept to a real minimum, leaving the frame cleaner than a dog’s bowl after brekky. Subtlety is underrated!
The sleek appearance is enhanced by the absence of a traditional front derailleur mount. Specialized launched the Taco Blade front derailleur mount, which mounts off the chain stay bridge, a couple of years ago on their Enduro 29, and it now carries over to the Camber meaning the mainframe is kept free of ugly mounting points, and the rear end of the bike can be made nice and short.
The Camber Expert is one of the selected Specialized models to score a glovebox. The SWAT Door (Storage, Water, Air, Tools) is a compartment INSIDE the down tube. In their quest to absolve riders of the need for backpacks on short adventures, Specialized have turned the bike into a tupperware container.
Leaving all jokes aside, the SWAT Door is fantastic. Undo the clip that secures the panel beneath the water bottle, and you’ll find enough room to stash a huge amount of gear – a tube, a CO2 or two, some food, you could even fit a lightweight jacket in there. We love riding without a backpack, especially in summer, and having the ability to still carry spares, food and more without feeling like there’s possum wriggling about about in your jersey pocket is awesome. Specialized go even further, to the point of including a chain tool underneath the top cap of the steerer tube and hiding a little multi-tool tucked within the forward shock mount. The tool is so well integrated that we didn’t notice it till our third or fourth ride!
We’ll touch on the miniature shock more below, but one secondary benefit is just how much room there is within the front triangle for a bottle, even though the frame also provides very generous standover height. The shock’s Brain unit, down at the rear dropout, gave us pause – it does hang quite low, lower than the chain stay, and while we think it’d be very bad luck to whack it on a rock, we wouldn’t want to find out the cost of doing so.
Run-of-the-mill this ain’t. Specialized have long worked closely with FOX to develop truly innovative suspension, and the Camber carries on this tradition. Travel is 120mm, but it’s probably the most efficient-pedalling 120mm you’ll ever ride. Just like the World-beating Epic, the Camber gets Specialized’s Mini-Brain shock technology, with a few tweaks to make it more suitable for trail riding rather than racing.
The shock uses an inertia valve, located in the reservoir near the rear dropout, which keeps the suspension firm under pedalling forces but opens up when there are impacts from bump forces. You can tune the sensitivity of the Brain via a simple five-position dial – we settled on position 3 and left it there, which we’ll delve into more later. What’s also new about the Mini Brain is the introduction of position sensitivity, so that the Brain only engages at around the sag point (25% of the way into the travel) meaning that the shock remains supple and sensitive over the really small bumps.
The usual hassles of suspension setup have been lessened with an Autosag rear shock too. You simply inflate the shock to 300psi, sit on the bike in all your kit and depress the red valve, and your sag is set! Of course you can go firmer or softer if you wish, but in this instance we didn’t feel the need to make any further pressure adjustments. With such a small shock body, we definitely have some concerns about heat on really long descents – will the shock get hot and and start rebounding like a pogo stick in the Alps? We haven’t got the hills to test it unfortunately.
All this technology is fitted into an FSR four-bar suspension system. This configuration needs no introduction, but the latest incarnation is really something special, with a compact linkage that drives the shock directly, rather than having any pivoting at the rear shock eyelet. The FSR system is well known for its performance under braking; if 120mm is all you’ve got, you want it working for you all the time, especially when you’re on the anchors.
While the Camber’s asking price should, in our mind, at least get you a carbon fibre handlebar and a few higher-end bits and bobs, Specialized have actually done a great job speccing the Camber. There are no weak points in the spec at all.
34mm fork: Specialized did the wise thing and accepted the small weight penalty of larger diameter fork legs. The FOX 34 may be from the second-tier Performance range, but by Minnie Jessup’s beard it is a slick piece of kit – the small bump performance is sensational, even without the Kashima coated legs found on the high-end Factory series of forks. We like the way Specialized have gone the extra mile and had the fork painted a custom glossy black too. Small touches make big differences.
Specialized kit all over: Like a permaculture farmer, Specialized are pretty much self-sufficient. The drivetrain, suspension and brakes are just about the only components not from the Specialized farm. They provide the wheels, tyres, cockpit, grips, dropper post and saddle. And we love every single item of it.
Whopping rims: Who’d have thought we’d finally see the day that a 120mm-travel 29er trail bike came stock with super wide rims? We’ve been touting the benefits of wide rims for ages, but so few brands have been brave enough to spec girthy hoops as a stock item. Bravo to Specialized for doing so! The Travese rims are 29mm wide internally, which allows you to run much lower tyre pressures without fear of burping the tyre or any of that vagueness normally associated with low pressures.
Great rubber: Maximising the benefits of the wider rims are the excellent Specialized Ground Control and Purgatory tyres, both in a 2.3″ width. This is an awesome combo. The bike is ready for tubeless use, naturally too.
Much improved dropper post: Specialized’s IRcc Command Post is a massive improvement over their previous Command Post, and the SRL under-the-bar lever is our favourite dropper lever. The action is very light.
Tiny ring: SRAM’s X1/X01 drivetrain needs no introduction. We initially baulked at the miniature 28-tooth chain ring, but after half a dozen rides, we’re actually pretty happy with it! If your home trails are flat and fast, or you ride a lot of fireroad, then you could consider going up to a 30 or 32-tooth ring, but don’t rush to do so. Give the 28 a go first.
The appeal of the Brain shock system is that you don’t have to worry about making any adjustments on the trail. You select the level of Brain sensitivity and then leave it alone – there’s no flipping levers for climbs etc. This does mean a bit of experimentation is needed to work out the best setting for you and your trails. We suggest finding a short loop that you’re familiar with, something with some climbs, some rough sections, some smoother pedally bits, and then do some laps! We rode the Brain shock in every setting before eventually settling on the middle of five positions and leaving it there. This provided more than enough pedalling efficiency for our tastes, but without making the Brain feel too choppy, or making the front and rear ends feel mismatched. We adjusted the fork to the middle compression setting too, as this was a better fit with the rear end.
Our tyre pressures with the wide rims were just 18/19psi. Even with such low pressures, we only felt the rear rim bottom out with a clang once.
Finally, we stuffed the SWAT Door with a few spares – a tube, a CO2, some bars – so we knew we’d have all we needed for each ride. It’s nice being able to leave all that stuff with the bike, rather than having to hunt around for it all in the garage before each ride.
Despite our initial misgivings about the Camber’s confused identity, we meshed with this bike well. From the moment we jumped behind the wide 750mm handlebar and grabbed a hold of the soft waffle-pattern Specialized grips, we knew we were going to get along well with the Camber. The cockpit is aggressive, the front tyre looks ready to bite deep into the dirt, everything feels very confident, sturdy and built for fun.
It’s a real singletrack monster. Once you’ve mastered the riding position (get forward on it!) it becomes a matter of trying to find the limits of the Camber’s grip. We found that the Brain had a real effect on the bike’s cornering performance, which was interesting. In the fully open position, the Camber had a tendency to understeer, but with a few clicks of Brain adjustment added, more weight was naturally transferred to the front wheel as the rear suspension stayed up higher in its travel. This had the effect of greatly improving grip in flatter corners in particular.
The acceleration benefits delivered by the Brain are obvious. Even with the rolling mass of big tyres and wide rims, the Camber gets up and running out of tight corners like a scared rabbit. If you happen to blow out a corner or take a dud line, your mates aren’t going to drop you.
Over the years we’ve found some Brain equipped bikes felt a little dead – they’d make bunny hopping or manualling/jumping a bit unpredictable. This is definitely not the case with the new Camber and we found it much easier to pre-load the suspension and play with the trail than we’d expected. The latest Brain shock does its job of increasing efficiency without intruding when it’s not welcome. It was only very occasionally, over fast, repeated hits, that we’d feel the suspension get a little harsh. But truly, it was rare that we detected any ‘negative’ impact of the Brain on the bike’s ability to soak up impacts.
Going up! It may share the same suspension technology, but don’t expect the Camber to climb like the spritely Epic. With a short 60mm stem, you’re not in a very aggressive climbing position for hammering out of the saddle. That said, you won’t find many bikes that can tackle a technical scramble better than this. With loads of rubber on the ground at low pressures, gearing that delivers plenty of torque, and the Brain suspension keeping the power going to the rear wheel rather than the rear shock, the Camber absolutely devours tricky climbs. It’ll maintain climbing momentum where other bikes would stall out.
On the descents, the Camber exemplifies just how much a stiff fork, good rubber and a wide cockpit can elevate a bike’s confidence beyond what its travel would suggest. It chews up rough terrain at high speeds. On those ugly, slow-speed descents that threaten to eject you over the bars, the Camber is super adept at just keeping the wheels rolling and not suddenly snagging and spitting you out the front door. The exceptional control available with the XT brakes plays a part here, offering perfect modulation. It’s only when things turn steeply down that you’re reminded that you’re still rocking a 68.5-degree head angle!
What we’d change:
The price? As incredible as this bike really is, $7999 is a large wedge. Maybe with the falling Aussie dollar we’re just going to have to get used to seeing big ticket prices. We’d also ask the bike shop to chuck in a spare chain ring, maybe a 32-tooth, just in case we had plans for a marathon race or two. Otherwise, we’d change nothing! The Camber is brilliantly well put together.
Who’d have thunk it? Category-leading efficiency doesn’t have to be restricted to cross-country race bikes! The Camber’s innovative suspension saves you time and effort on the trails – less thinking, more riding, more efficiently. Mix that with good geometry and a truly progressive parts selection, and you’ve got a bike that is ideal for blasting singletrack. The clean design and brilliant incorporation practical storage is just the icing on the cake.
We’ll be hanging onto this bike for a while longer now too, as it’s going to become the test vehicle for the new Ohlins RXF 34 fork as well.