Tested: Focus SAM 1.0

A 160mm travel bike with 650B wheels is nudging the upper ceiling of what we’ve come to expect from an all-mountain bike. Would the Focus SAM be too much to lump around the trails while out searching for that ultimate totally gnarly descent?

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SAM in the spirit of all-mountain.
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Clean lines, subtly arranged graphics, a stealth black paint job and parts kit make SAM a hot date for the steamy trails.

Build:

The SAM is a brand new model from the German folks at Focus in 2014, one of two suspension bikes in their fairly tight mountain bike range. Their Super Bud 29er – with it’s equally kitsch name – will cater for the rider seeking a leaner, racier and sharper ride. The SAM, however, is certainly keen and ready for more partying than racing.

Our new great mate, SAM (Super All Mountain) has impressed us with its refreshingly humble approach to hard all-mountain riding. An aluminium frame, simple suspension and a fairly classic frame finish and colour. The linkage driven shock and its single pivot design claims no crazy axle paths, or acronym riddled chain feedback reducing promises, it is about as old school as it comes.

And tipping the scales at under 13kg is a big bonus, that sub 13kg mark is hard to reach when bikes have more than 150mm travel. Sure it is specced well, but this low figure is also testament to the frame weight, long live quality aluminium!

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A single pivot actuated linkage design, with a pivot above the axle like this, is not going to claim to do any fandangled axle path things or change your life, it just works fine.

It may be basic, but in our opinion the perfect execution of this simple design is its strength. The rear end’s lean looking pivot points are secured using a mixture of axles with pinch clamps and the more common threaded variety. And all these fixtures use torx key fittings too. The pivots may be small but the frame receives a nod of approval from us in terms of lateral rigidity and durability.

It really does tick all the construction department boxes, with really big ticks. The internal routing of all three cables; the rear derailleur, rear brake and adjustable seat post disappears into the head tube, as neatly as it gets creating a very clean, clutter-free and smart appearance. A front derailleur mount is present, as are ISCG tabs to keep front shifting options open. The 12mm x 142mm rear axle by Shimano is quick release and one of our favourite methods of keeping the rear wheel secure at all times.

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ISCG mounts are there if you’re bang up for a proper chain guide.
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Neat inputs for your cables. Plus one hole spare for a front derailleur.

It’s also the frame’s stealth finish that turns heads, matte black with subtly located graphics that don’t scream at you. And those classic big welds on the joints will satisfy the aluminium fans out there, no doubt.

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There is no geometry adjustability on the SAM, at least the forks drop down in travel via a switch to sharpen the shape for climbs.

Spec:

Nothing says all mountain like a phat set of rubber, tall and beefy forks and a super-wide handlebar. We could have loved the bike enough without riding it at all, because it had some of our most favourite standout parts fitted to it, like the superb Rockshox Pike, Schwalbe Hans Dampf tyres and Avid Trail brakes to name just a few.

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We clicked with these wheels, a real spec highlight that aids not only just weight but compliance and positive direction.
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Our most favourite product at the moment, the ground breaking Rockshox Pike. Haven’t tried one yet? That’s a shame…
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Avid XO Trail brakes on a whopping downhill bike worthy front 200mm rotor, now that is stopping power!
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Needing no introduction is the super superb SRAM XX1.
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We’d love to test these hoops out for a longer time, they were sweet. And on a bike for $6K? Crazy…

Flawless SRAM XX1, Rockshox Stealth post, and carbon – yes 1620g CARBON – wheels from Reynolds with a generous 23mm internal width were an absolute delight to use. How could we argue with such great kit? But the best thing is that for the dollars, this bike is a really outstanding value. For $6k, it’s a real winner in the parts department.

The little 32 tooth XX1 front chainring was unreal, the lower the better for a bike like this. If you’re concerned about spinning out of gears, keep an eye out for cars, or weirdos on cyclocross bikes as you’re probably on a road or fast fire trail. Save the low range for the real technical climbs that such a grippy bike will allow you to tractor up. We didn’t ever drop a chain either, love this stuff.

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Show us your CEX stem… Awkward name for a stem?

Ride:

One of our first rides on the SAM was three days on a big mountain named Thredbo, beginning with a big backcountry mission on fire roads with climbs that burned like a dragon with hiccups. We felt very comfortable climbing though, the short headtube, flat handlebar and travel adjustability on the forks enabled us to sit or stand comfortably without that awkward tall or too-slack shape that bikes with over 150mm forks can have.

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Let her rrrrrip!

With many bikes actually seeing a reduction in travel with the advent of 27.5″ wheels (for example, the Trek Remedy), it’s great to see Focus catering for the rider who needs more cushy to go harder. And it sure does go hard. The SAM can attack a turn with real confidence, and promotes you to stay off the brakes with its stable position (bolstered by the mega 777mm bars), amazing traction and aggressive geometry. It’s a real slacker, too – with a claimed 65 degree head angle (!!) the forks are raked out way in front of you.  With the Pike delivering such a supple and incredibly controlled action, when we pushed the SAM into big holes and deep rocky sections we received no argument, just speed and sure-footed confidence.

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The Rockshox Monarch Plus bettered our expectations – this isn’t a shock that normally  get us too excited. Many say that the shock is only as good as the frame it sits in, and perhaps this case it applies, the rear end’s action was supple enough to maintain comfort and traction, but also managed the deep impacts with no worries. Switching the three simple modes of compression adjustment is a snack, and we found ourselves riding all but only the tarmac climbs and roughest descents in the middle setting. Just imagine if it was all black, like the Pike, you’d lose this bike in the dark.

Verdict:

Mr. SAM will appeal to more than just bargain hunting aluminium fans, it’s also a bike for the rider who simply can’t get into 29ers but want something that can run the worst terrain down. The sweet balance of low weight and high volume of travel and traction will also make the SAM a killer option for a spot of gravity enduro racing, or all day riding on sections of trail that a downhill bike would normally be required for.

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German made and designed.

It’s a real tenacious ride, finds traction where most can’t and survives the roughest of corners by holding onto the craziest lines you can throw at it. We lerrrrve this bike.

Rider: Mick Ross
Height: 180cm
Weight: 70kg
Tested at: Thredbo, Manly Dam, Oxford Falls, Red Hill NSW
Mick and SAM. No trail, or destination is too challenging for SAM, rest assured that it is a true all-mountain ride.
Mick and SAM. No trail, or destination is too challenging for SAM, rest assured that it is a true all-mountain ride.

Tested: Juliana Joplin Primeiro

As a general rule, women mountain bikers hate sissy looking bikes. We like to ride hard and we want a bike that looks like it’s up to the job. Nothing insults us more than being directed to the latest in a women’s range of bikes and seeing that it’s about as pimped out as a garden variety Toyota Camry.

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Big wheels, carbon frame, high-performance build, women’s specificity – the Juliana Joplin Primeiro is no Camry. She’s way more bad-ass. The Joplin takes on our rockiest local trails like the Batmobile takes to Gotham City.

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The Build

Juliana was originally a women’s line of bikes within the Santa Cruz range. They’ve long been one of very few bikes that are confidently recommended to women below 5’3” who are looking for a mountain bike that fits and performs. As more women are riding, and the Juliana range has extended to encompass as wider range of bikes, it has since become a brand in it’s own right.

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We were consequently surprised to learn that the Joplin shares the same frame geometry as the Santa Cruz Tall Boy. Guys talk about the Tall Boy sizing as being on the small side, meaning it does boast features that certainly justify extending the frame to the women’s market.

The original Tall Boy was only available in sizes down to medium, but a fine-tuned rear suspension design has freed up space where it matters allowing for a small size to be fit in the range without compromising anything major. The head tube is short (at 90mm in the small size) as is the top tube length. The stand over height is reasonably low too, both feet can touch the ground when off the front of the saddle, a tell tale Santa Cruz look.

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In comparison to the medium sized Specialized Rumor Comp we tested recently, the top tube length is 17mm longer, and the seat angle is 2.4 degrees more relaxed. This puts the saddle further back over the bottom bracket making for a roomier ride. Good for riders at the taller end of a specific size, less good for riders who prefer their weight more aggressively toward the front of the bike.

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The Santa Cruz VPP (Virtual Pivot Point) suspension has long been a favourite of many riders due to the nice balance of pedal efficiency and sensitive suspension. The updated design on the Joplin/Tall Boy has been achieved by changing the location of the pivot points, with fine refinements to suit the style of the bike. This makes for an improved pedalling action with less bobbing and a more linear, plush feeling cushion throughout the 100mm of travel.

We’ve become so used to 2x10 and 1x11 set ups lately, which made it look a little doudy and seem a bit like riding with a piano accordion out on the trails.
We’ve become so used to 2×10 and 1×11 set ups lately, which made it look a little doudy and seem a bit like riding with a piano accordion out on the trails.

Paired up with no-nonsense, kashima coated Fox Float CTD front and rear shocks, the VVP rear end provides a ride feel so buttery smooth that inexperienced riders will miss how exceptional this suspension is. We left the rear shock in descend mode (less Propedal or lockout) most of the time for a plush and comfortable ride without noticeable pedal bob, which we don’t often get to do with many bikes. Trail riding bliss.

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The decorative elements, to their credit, caused a number of riders to stop and chat to us about the Joplin who had read our First Bite or seen images on our Facebook page. She certainly is a head-turner.
The decorative elements, to their credit, caused a number of riders to stop and chat to us about the Joplin who had read our First Bite or seen images on our Facebook page. She certainly is a head-turner.

The carbon main frame is one carefully moulded piece of the carbon stuff. You don’t even need to take this bike to the trails to know that it’s going to be stiff and stick to its line with no shuddering flex while providing a very absorbent and compliant ride feel as a result. The care that has gone into the design of the Joplin takes the ride benefits of a carbon frame to another level.

The Parts

Adding to the allure of the frame is the fact that the Primeiro is the highest specced of the three Joplin models available. It’s not so blinged out you’d be afraid to ride it in the mud, but it’s built with performance, class and many hours of happy and versatile riding in mind.

A Shimano XT group covers this rig from front to rear. This is particularly nice to see given how many brands are speccing brakes that have neither the reputation of Shimano stoppers nor the service support in Australia. The XT brakes have a crisp and reliable ride feel and are easy to look after. The reach can be adjusted without fiddling with tools so you can set them up quickly for small hands.

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We swapped the (surprisingly long) 90mm stem with a 70mm substitute for better control on the trails.

A triple chain ring on the front is matched to a 10 speed 11-36 cassette on the rear. Paired up with 29” hoops, the 42 tooth big ring made the bike feel over-geared for trail riding in typical Australian conditions, especially for women. We only reached for it very occasionally on road commutes to the dirt.

On more technical trails we tended to look down and find the chain frequently in the granny ring. Aside from the bad chain line in this gear, it also accentuates the subtle ‘pull’ of the VPP suspension on the chain (it lengthens the chain as it pulls back at the beginning of its travel).

Class all ‘round. There are no down-specced parts hidden anywhere on this bike.
Class all ‘round. There are no down-specced parts hidden anywhere on this bike.

Maybe we’re just being snobby, but we feel a 2×10 set up would make this bike a lot sexier, quieter and be the final touch of awesome that is missing from a build that means business.

In terms of women’s additions to the Joplin, these extend to the bars, the saddle and the crank length. The 690mm wide, Juliana branded bars are thinner under your hands than regular bars at the grips. In theory this reduces arm pump and increases control. They felt weird at first, but they fit nicely in the palm and, like the saddle, quickly became an unconscious contact point when riding. We’d recommend these as an aftermarket purchase to ladies with smaller hands riding with other bikes too.

 The thinner grips fitted to special thin bars (note the decrease in diameter between the brake lever mount and grip) were nice to ride with, but they’re not enough to sell us on the women’s specificity of the Joplin. Lucky the rest of the bike rides so well!

The thinner grips fitted to special thin bars (note the decrease in diameter between the brake lever mount and grip) were nice to ride with, but they’re not enough to sell us on the women’s specificity of the Joplin. Lucky the rest of the bike rides so well!
As a light weight rider, it’s so nice to get full travel out of your suspension, and not something that always works as well as it should. The 120mm Fox 32 Float fork and 100mm Fox Float rear shock used every mm to make our ride even sweeter.
As a light weight rider, it’s so nice to get full travel out of your suspension, and not something that always works as well as it should. The 120mm Fox 32 Float fork and 100mm Fox Float rear shock used every mm to make our ride even sweeter.

The rest of this shining blue performer is adorned in classy parts you’d expect given the price point that also comes attached. Juliana branded WTB Frequency Team i19 rims are laced to DT Swiss 350 hubs for a light wheelset that you wouldn’t want to swap out after taking the bike home.

We found the saddle quite comfortable for all-day rides, although it’s better suited to a more upright riding position.
We found the saddle quite comfortable for all-day rides, although it’s better suited to a more upright riding position.

The frame includes routing for a dropper post, but a Thomson seat post with a quick release collar adds a style of its own to Joplin as well. The external cable routing is nice, neat and points toward the easy serviceability of the Joplin, although we’re not sold on the tight line of the cables around the biddon cage area.

We tore a sidewall on the Maxxis Tubeless Ready Ikons on the very first ride on a debris filled, unused trail. It sealed up quickly and we thanked the sealant gods for being so amenable.
We tore a sidewall on the Maxxis Tubeless Ready Ikons on the very first ride on a debris filled, unused trail. It sealed up quickly and we thanked the sealant gods for being so amenable.

The Ride

As boasted by the marketing for the Joplin, she really is the queen of rocks and roll. The big wheels and buttery smooth suspension meant we pointed her at the steepest, most technical, rocky, straight-line descents we could find. She tackled them so capably we stopped checking for lines before dropping in.

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The same can be said for rocky climbs. The big wheels allow for extra momentum on rocky ups and the suspension soaks up the rough terrain nicely so you don’t get spat around or thrown off line. This not only saves energy but does wonders for confidence in the face of technically challenging trails

Long, open, flowing descents with big wide berms were another type of trail where the Joplin really excelled. Get this bike up to speed and it’s only your eyes that will confirm the speed of the trail passing underneath you, such is the stable and compliant trail feel of this bike.

The massive gear range also points firmly to the versatility of the Joplin. With big wheels, and plush, efficient travel, the Joplin is a handy ‘do everything’ bike. Throw on some bigger rubber and shred the more technical trails, or stay with the racey Maxxis Ikons and take confidence in how capable this machine would be in a 100km marathon.

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At 164cm tall, two centimetres above average for an Australian female, our tester was boarderline between the small and medium sized frames. The slacker seat angle and the longer-than-preferred 175mm cranks on our medium test rig kept us positioned too far back from the front of the bike. This impacted our ability to really muscle the bike around on technical trails and keep things balanced and in control when chasing a rider in front at speed.

This served as a timely education in how fatiguing it can be for women riding bikes that are on the big side. Always check your size when in the market for a new bike and take a few for a test ride if you’re not sure how the numbers translate.

175mm length crank arms were specced on the medium frame, but we found this to be too big for ladies at the lower end of the size chart for this rig.
175mm length crank arms were specced on the medium frame, but we found this to be too big for ladies at the lower end of the size chart for this rig.

The small sized frame is designed to be suitable to riders down to 5’1” tall. Riders needing an extra-small frame size will need to stay with 26” wheels in the Juliana line up for now – which is not necessarily a bad thing. A good fitting frame gives you a hundredfold more advantages to your confidence and riding ability than the size of the wheels underneath it, beautiful as a bike like this one may be.

Overall

At 11.7kgs the rock-dominating Joplin is a tidy and high-performing all rounder for the type of riding the majority of women are doing on Australian trails. As a carbon-framed, immaculately finished dual suspension 29er, it’s great to see the choices it opens up for women who want more than middle of the range running gear or an alloy or flowery looking frame.

This rock-dominating weapon of a ride holds its speed, feels incredibly stable and rewards you for every obstacle you hop, pump or lean into.
This rock-dominating weapon of a ride holds its speed, feels incredibly stable and rewards you for every obstacle you hop, pump or lean into.

While it’s still a rarity to find a women’s bike designed from the ground up, a little more care in the spec for the Joplin could make it hit the mark even better in this way. That said, if you don’t like the cranks or the stem length, it’s nice to know there might be other options specced with the Tall Boy if you want to swap out the seat rather than the extra gears.

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At $6,780, the Joplin Primeiro is not on the cheap side, but the unique and boutique finish, is certainly part of this bike’s appeal. We can only think that the reason for the different paint and its own marketing campaign is to reach a group of women who may not otherwise consider what is an excellent and versatile bike.

The symbols mean ‘Powerful, Beautiful, Natural.’ Now go dance your way through that mean looking rock garden.
The symbols mean ‘Powerful, Beautiful, Natural.’ Now go dance your way through that mean looking rock garden.

Tested: Storck Rebel Seven

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Babies are delivered by storks. It’s a well known fact. Storcks, on the other hand, are delivered by couriers, in a box, or in this case two boxes.

The Storck Rebel Seven came to Flow HQ as a bare frame and build kit. This is a rarity; most bikes leave a factory in Taiwan 90% assembled with only some tweaking, tightening and lubing left to be done by the shop mechanic. While building the Storck from scratch took a while, it also gave us a chance to really appreciate the fine workmanship of the German-made frame. It also gave the whole assembly process a sense of ceremony, or anticipation, kinda like a gestation period.

Yep, it uses dem size wheels. We didn't expect to see so many brands producing 650B hardtails this year, but when they're winning World Cups it's tough to argue.
Yep, it uses dem size wheels. We didn’t expect to see so many brands producing 650B hardtails this year, but when they’re winning World Cups it’s tough to argue.

The Rebel 7 is a single-minded machine; a 27.5”-wheeled carbon cross country race hardtail. We’ll be honest, it’s the first of its ilk we’ve tested here at Flow, so it’s a challenge not to draw comparisons with a 29er hardtail, given that 29ers have been so dominant in the hardtail ranks over the past few years.

The Build:

Marcus Storck looks like a genius, and he is widely viewed as such by many in the bike industry. Behind that mighty forehead lurks a powerful design brain and the Rebel Seven is a very fine piece of work.

The rear end is super neat. We love the brake mount and the simplicity of the axle system (though it does require an Allen key to remove the axle).
The rear end is super neat. We love the brake mount and the simplicity of the axle system (though it does require an Allen key to remove the axle).

At 1.1kg, there are lighter frames, but it has a great finish – both aesthetic and construction-wise – with a reassuringly solid feel, especially through the chain stays and dropout area. It’s clearly a frame built with great power transfer in mind. Tube profiles are broad, especially the top tube, and the ‘super size chainstays’ are deep to resist flex.

The rear is built for stiffness and power transfer, rather than compliance. There's good clearance too for muddy conditions.
The rear is built for stiffness and power transfer, rather than compliance. There’s good clearance too for muddy conditions.

A host of practical features won us over. Smart cable guides with full-length gear housings make for simple setup and minimal maintenance. Sure, internal cables are nice… until they rattle or need replacing. A direct mount front derailleur makes for powerful, crisp shifts, and the use of a pressfit bottom bracket gives plenty of meat to this critical area.

A direct mount front derailleur with full length housing makes for easy setup and maintenance.
A direct mount front derailleur with full length housing makes for easy setup and maintenance.

The chain stay mounted rear brake looks good, especially with the adjustable banjo on the XT brakes allowing a very clean brake line routing to the caliper. Brake calipers with less angle adjustability for the brake line mightn’t look so neat. Given the bike’s purpose, it’s surprising that the 142x12mm rear axle requires tools for removal – in a race situation, most riders would prefer not to carry an 8mm Allen key. That said, the system is low profile and will never give you any dramas.

The bottom bracket area is seriously robust, as is the seat tube / top tube junction.
The bottom bracket area is seriously robust, as is the seat tube / top tube junction.

The geometry features what we’d call traditionally European cross country angles. It’s not common to see a 70-degree head angle on many newer bikes – such quick steering angles are the domain of serious cross-country racers. The wheelbase is compact too, with 425mm stays and 100mm stem on our medium sized bike to provide a decent reach.

Would you like to Super Size that for only an extra 50c?
Would you like to Super Size that for only an extra 50c?

The Parts:

If you’re stacking the Storck up alongside offerings from some of the bigger market players, the value for money won’t blow you away. But keeping in mind the boutique, German, handmade pedigree here, we feel that the build kit is pretty decent…. Except for the grips, which we found too fat and which aren’t lock-ons. An easy swap.

These can go. Thankfully a new set of grips is the only change we'd recommend out of the box.
These can go. Thankfully a new set of grips is the only change we’d recommend out of the box.

We’d have expected to see a Rockshox SID on the Rebel Seven, but while the Rockshox Revelation has a small weight penalty, its performance is very hard to fault. It’s a stiff steering option, and in conjunction with the Crank Bros cockpit it makes for a front end that goes exactly where you point it.

A 100mm-travel Revelation handles things up front. It's a real set and forget fork - there is a compression adjustment / lock out, but we never felt compelled to use it
A 100mm-travel Revelation handles things up front. It’s a real set and forget fork – there is a compression adjustment / lock out, but we never felt compelled to use it

Shimano provide the deceleration with immensely powerful XT brakes. We’d ideally drop down a rotor size up front to a 160mm (rather than the 180mm fitted) as the bigger rotor sometimes had too much bite for the bike, overpowering the tyres. Still, that’s a much better problem to have than the opposite!

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DT M1700 wheels set off the frame finish nicely and while they’re not the lightest wheelset, they’re stiff and reliable. They’re ordinarily a tubeless ready wheel, as are the tyres, though unfortunately ours didn’t come with the tubeless rims strip in the box. As we’ve stressed below, adding some more compliance to the ride is something we’d look to do, and going tubeless is the best solution.

Schwalbe's Racing Ralphs are a safe bet for just about all conditions.
Schwalbe’s Racing Ralphs are a safe bet for just about all conditions.

A matching Prologo saddle is a classy touch, and the Shimano 2×10 drivetrain is a wise choice, giving riders enough gears to get this light machine up just about anything.

We don't see that many Prologo saddles, but we think they're great.
We don’t see that many Prologo saddles, but we think they’re great.

Ride:

It had been a while since we last rode a bike as single-mindedly cross-country focused as the Rebel Seven, let alone one with little wheels (ok, mid-sized wheels technically… but 26” is so 2012). While we’re still dubious about all the claims that a 650B wheel offers ‘the best of both worlds’, there’s no denying how quickly these wheels get moving. This bike gets up and going faster than a dobberman chasing a commuter cyclist. The short chain stays, stiff wheels, crisp shifting and direct power transfer tell you to get up out of the saddle and click up a few gears out of every corner.

The frame is quite low and the wheelbase on the short side, so it's an easy bike to throw about.
The frame is quite low and the wheelbase on the short side, so it’s an easy bike to throw about.

At less than 10.5kg, the Rebel 7 is incredibly easy to move around. There’s no lethargy to the steering, it can be lifted and popped over every undulation in the trail. Thankfully it still doesn’t feel overly twitch, the wide (well wide given the style of bike) bar gives everything a touch of stability, as do the grippy tyres.

There’s definitely a knack to riding this style of bike, and coming off bigger wheels and longer travel it takes a little bit of smoothing out your riding style before you find some flow. The Rebel 7 isn’t happy if you plough and the chainslap against the carbon stays lets you know loudly if you’re riding roughshod, rather than floating. Sit-down riders (or regular dual suspension riders, like us) will soon be beaten out of their lazy ways.

The Crank Bros cockpit is stout and stiff. We approve of four-bolt stem and decent width bar.
The Crank Bros cockpit is stout and stiff. We approve of four-bolt stem and decent width bar.

While decent rubber and 100mm-travel fork provide a little more forgiveness than some other cross country hardtails, there’s still nothing particularly soft about the Storck. The large diameter 31.6mm aluminium seat post is at odds with the trend towards narrow, 27.2mm carbon posts – there is not a lot of give under your butt. As we’ve noted above, we didn’t have a tubeless conversion kit handy, but setting the Storck up tubeless is a wise move, so you can drop the pressures lower than we dared without fear of pinch flats.

It's a fun looking bike, and it's playful on the trail too. But it will punish you if you're sloppy!
It’s a fun looking bike, and it’s playful on the trail too. But it will punish you if you’re sloppy!

As you’d hope, the Storck is a fantastic climber, particularly in situations where sharp accelerations are needed, like getting up ledges or steep pinches. Get your timing wrong though and the rear wheel will kick back and skip, get it right and it shoots up any incline like a lizard up a tree. On the flipside, high speed descending requires a good nerve; the sharp head angle needs a firm hard on the tiller to avoid the front wheel tucking. We had a couple of hairy moments hitting sand at pace before we got back in the swing of things. Getting the bike off the ground and floating over the worst of it is the way to go, and the Storck is happy to oblige, its short wheelbase a pleasure to bunny hop.

Overall:

While the window of appeal for the Storck Rebel 7 is narrow, it hits the mark for those who know what they want from a cross-country race bike. Its construction is a true highlight, and when it comes to that critical aspect of acceleration, the Rebel 7 feels like it has an afterburner. We’d love to try the Rebel 9 (the 29er brother of the Rebel 7) by way of comparison to get a better feel of the trade off between weight, acceleration and abilities in technical terrain afforded by the two wheel sizes.

New Long Term Test Bike: BH Lynx 4.8 29

Here at Flow, in amongst the stream of test bikes that come and go, we always like to have a couple of bikes on hand to serve as long-term test mules.

These are the bikes that we use to review products and components. We’ll keep them in service for between six months and year, riding them as much as we can. The logic is that we become very familiar with the bike so we can better determine how, say, a new shock or set of tyres effects the ride quality.

BH Lynx 4.8 29 long term

Here’s the latest addition to the Flow stable – the BH Lynx 4.8 29. We delivered our first ride impressions of this bike a few weeks back and it’s fair to say our opinion was pretty positive. Since then we’ve acquired a bare frame and built it up with a whole host of new (and some used) parts, most of which we’ll be delivering a full test write up on soon.

At present, the BH is decked out with the same XX1 drivetrain that we’ve been running for the past nine months. Suspension is all Rockshox, including a Monarch RT3 shock and Reba RL 120mm fork. We hope to get our hands on the new SID when it appears back in the country too.

We’ve just installed the new SRAM Roam 50 wheels, which we’ll be giving a good hard testing over the next few weeks, and shod them in new Specialized Purgatory and Ground Control rubber. Again, we’ll be testing these tyres over the next few months, so expect a review soon-ish.

Specialized also provide the dropper post, with a 100mm-drop version of the Command Blacklite post (we had to opt for the 100mm version as the interrupted seat tube design of the BH wouldn’t work with the 125mm version – it was too long for our test rider).

Over the past few months we’ve been predominantly using two bikes as the sleds for our product testing – the Yeti SB66C and Trek Superfly 100 Elite – so it’s great to bring the BH into the mix as well, as it sits quite nicely between these two bikes in terms of riding style.

BH Lynx 4.8 29 long term 2

The weight of our BH Lynx test bike, as you see it in the photos with Shimano XT pedals, dropper post and bottle cage, is an impressive 11.47kg.

While you’re here, why not check out some of our other bike tests too? 

Pivot Mach 429 carbon17
Pivot Mach 429 Carbon
Trek Fuel EX 9.8 2919
Trek Fuel EX 9.8 29
She's a slacker. Long, low and with very relaxed angles.
Whyte 146 s
On the whole, the EI system is integrated vey cleanly. The battery is the only element which really jumps out at you as being a little obtrusive. We're betting that next year it'll be internal.
Lapierre 314 EI

Tested: Pivot Mach 429 Carbon

Wrongness is easy to define – it’s just not right. But rightness is something a little harder to pin down. What we can attest to is that the Pivot Mach 429 Carbon has maximum rightness, precious little wrongness, and deserves its status as one of the dreamiest bikes on the market. Let’s take a look at the ledger.

 

Pivot Mach 429 carbon15

The rightness:

 

It’s one bad-arse machine

From the moment we slung a leg over the deep curve of the broad carbon top tube, the 429 Carbon spoke to us. It said ‘I’m not afraid.’

‘But you’re just a cross country bike,’ we told it.

‘That’s just a front,’ the Pivot conspired. ‘I’m actually a bad-arse trail shredding machine. Here, let me show you.’ And it did.

The 429 is a deceptive beast. With 100mm of travel front and back, 29″ wheels and typically cross country-oriented angles, you’d be correct in assuming the Pivot’s aim in life is to whip across smooth trails at speed. It does this ridiculously well, just devouring the miles. It would be the perfect machine for a marathon.

But to limit the 429 to mellow, undulating marathon terrain would be a travesty. When the going gets rough, the Pivot is all too happy to roll up its sleeves and go nose to nose with the bigger bikes. A combination of superb suspension and unflappable frame stiffness lets you plough through lines that would cast other bikes aside. Wide bars and a low bottom-bracket height keep you feeling grounded, like you’re in the bike rather than perched on top of it. It encourages you to get off the brakes and off the ground.

Pivot Mach 429 carbon43
Behold, the DW link rear suspension system.

DW-link suspension

Few suspension systems can hold a candle to the DW-link. Under pedalling forces, the performance of the Dave Weagle designed suspension is second to none, making it a real drawcard for this bike.

Other dual-link suspension designs may look similar, but Dave Weagle vehemently guards the patents surrounding the exact suspension configuration of the DW-link. We can see why; it’s a magic combination. The 429 Carbon pedals without any perceptible suspension-bobbing, yet the rear wheel stayed firmly glued to terra firma, even when we pedalled it through the rough. It simply motors up loose climbs. From the smallest trail ripples to walloping big hits, the Pivot’s rear end is ready.

Stiffer than a frozen carrot

In the bike industry’s war on weight, frame stiffness is often the first soldier to take a hit. But a floppy frame is the enemy of confidence – when you command a bike to go somewhere, you want it to respond like a well-trained German pointer. We were delighted to discover that, in this arena (frame stiffness, not dog training), the 429 Carbon is a category leader.

Just have a look at this thing. The head tube, the down tube and the chain stays are simply enormous. The rear end is tied to the mainframe with stout links and capped off with a 142x12mm axle. Does it flex? No sir, it does not.

Pivot Mach 429 carbon27
Look at those chain stays. They’re almost as thick as Chris Froome’s arms! This is a very stiff rear end.

Until you ride a bike with this amount of frame stiffness it’s hard to appreciate just how much it adds to the bike’s performance. The Mach 429 Carbon settles into a corner and rails hard, and when it does drift, it’s even and balanced from front to rear. Stomp the pedals and yank on the bars and the whole bike reacts as one, launching forward – there’s no disconnect between your hands, the pedals and the rear wheel. When you land a nasty drop or come down from the stratosphere a bit crooked, the bike doesn’t squirm or twist, so its suspension is free to work to full effect. Time and again, the feeling of indestructibility really brought a smile to our faces.

Sensibly pimped

It’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed, and the Pivot is unlikely to be caught looking shabby with this build kit. Top-of-the-line Fox suspension graces the 429, and we highly recommend you take the option of a 120mm-travel fork, rather than a 100mm-travel version we had on our test bike. With a longer travel fork, the bike would blitz the descents even faster.

Pivot Mach 429 carbon29
The Pivot is well dressed: XT, Stans wheels and cockpit that’s gives the bike more stability than Mugabe’s government.

Pivot has used components that enhance this bike’s abilities in the rough. A 740mm-wide bar and an 80mm stem mightn’t be the usual fare on a 100mm-travel carbon 29er, but they just bring the Pivot’s descending abilities to the fore. Big-bagged Kenda rubber helps too, though we can’t say we agree whole-heartedly with this tyre choice. Not being tubeless ready, the Slant Sixes caused more than a few headaches and sessions with the track pump.

Wrongness:

 

Spaghetti

The clump of messy cables clustered above the shock is a persistent frustration for us with Pivot bikes. A blight on the Pivot Mach’s otherwise clean lines, these cables bend and flex and rub against the shock body, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. We’d love to see Pivot run its cables internally through the down tube and along the chain stays, cloistered away from muck.

Pivot Mach 429 carbon36
Clean lines, only tainted by the cabling above the shock. We’d prefer the gear and brakes lines were routed through the down tube.

Tight squeeze

If you’re a thirsty fella, you’ll be frustrated by the tight fit for a water bottle. Trying to extricate a full-sized 750ml bottle from the compact mainframe while riding is akin to wrestling a Frisbee back from a determined Staffy. On a medium-sized frame, even a 500ml biddon tends to catch on the shock’s ProPedal lever. Install a side-loading bottle cage to make the process a bit easier.

In the balance

 

A tornado of awesomeness, the 429 Carbon blew us away. The more time we spent on this bike, and the more we ogled it, the greater our appreciation for its abilities and its attention to detail. The 429 Carbon fills you with confidence, it transcends the boundaries of what a cross-country bike should be capable of and is guaranteed to make you faster. It’s all kinds of rightness.

Long Term Test: Trek Superfly 100 Elite

On a long ride or during the wee small hours out on track at a 24hr race, it’s not unusual to get a song stuck in your head. Traditionally it’s something dire, like Peter Allen’s ‘Rio’. But on board this bike, the groove is strong; feel the soul, channel the year 1972. It’s Superfly.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 11
It’s business time. As you see it, covered in mud from the JetBlack 12hr, with a bottle, tube, CO2 and tyre lever, the Superfly weighs in just over 11kg.

We took possession of this sleek number back in late January as a long-term test bike and as platform to carry out a review on SRAM’s XX1 groupset. Almost seven months in, we’d like to think we’ve given our Superfly the kind of life that Trek intended.

There’s a reason we’ve shot our Superfly like this, all caked in mud, with a water bottle, race plate and spare tube/C02 strapped under the saddle. This is how she’s done a fair bit of riding – the Superfly is at home on the racetrack.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 12
Looks even better from this side, huh?

In the last few months she’s raced the Capital Punishment marathon, the Willo Enduro, the Mont 24hr, the SRAM Singletrack Mind Taree 7hr and the JetBlack Sydney 12hr. She’s also accompanied us on our travels to Alice Springs and Tathra, plus ridden hundreds of kilometres on our local trails in between. No one can say this bike has hung about!

Alice Springs masthead
The Superfly LOVED the trails around Alice Springs. So did we.

Out of the box – what’s it all about?

The Superfly 100 is built from Trek’s OCLV Mountain carbon, with alloy chain stays. The frame weight (including hanger and seat post collar) is claimed at 2.1kg for a medium frame, making it one of the lightest dual suspension platforms out there. The geometry figures are cross country through and through: a relatively steep 70 degree head angle, 100mm of travel at both ends, and top tube length built around running a 90mm stem for a medium-sized frame.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 2
Plenty of room for a full-size bottle, and easy access to the shock CTD lever too. Perfect!

The attention to detail and build quality is pretty special – the smoky carbon finish is hot and the graphics matched our fluoro Flow stickers perfectly. Cable routing is fully internal, and large ports make threading the brake and gear lines a simple affair. There’s some neat armour for the down tube to guard against wombat strikes, and the chain slap protection is muchos comprehensive. As an experiment, we didn’t so much as tighten or check the tension of a single suspension pivot bolt during our build, just to see if any dramas would emerge down the line.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 22
Nice of Trek to match the Superfly’s highlights to our Flow stickers.

Building the beast:

Aside from the frame itself, the suspension, the headset and (seriously good) saddle, there’s barely an original part on our Superfly 100. This isn’t a criticism of the original build kit, not by any means, just a reflection of what items we were testing and our personal preferences. (See at the very bottom for our tweaks and why we made them.)

Stock as rock, the Superfly weighs in at under 11kg, decked out in full Shimano XT, with Bontrager RL wheels and Bontrager components. That’s a mighty fine effort – you could take it out the door and race it the next day very happily.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 4
XX1 is the perfect match for this bike. It’s so light and quick that we never found ourselves grovelling for lower gears. Seven months of riding, not one dropped chain!

We, being spoilt and pedantic, made a load of changes. First, off went the Shimano and on went an XX1 groupset. The brakes were swapped out too, for a set of Avid X0 Trail brakes with 160mm rotors. Yes, these are kind of overkill for a cross country bike, but they weigh the same as the Shimano XTs and mesh nicely with the SRAM shifter.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 28
Fitting XX1 to the Superfly required a change of wheels to a set up that would accept the different freehub needed for the 10-42 tooth cassette.

To fit the XX1 monster cassette we needed a rear hub that was compatible, so we replaced the wheels with a set of Bontrager RXLs, which use DT rear hub internals and can accept an X-Drive freehub body. The scary skinny XR-0 tyres went under the bed never to see the light of day, and in their place we fitted up some grippy Bontrager XR-2 rubber in a far more sensible 2.2″ width, running them tubeless with Bontrager’s own sealant. The stem was flipped (as the head tube is actually rather tall), the steerer tube chopped, and badda-bing badda-boom we were ready to roll! With a set of Shimano XT pedals, the complete bike tipped the scales at 10.5 kg.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 20
Slammed, flipped and chopped. We wanted the front end low on the Superfly for a better climbing position.

The Ride:

This is a fast, fast bike. Everywhere – not just in a straight line. We never wanted or expected the Superfly to be a particularly plush or forgiving ride – we wanted it be fast off the mark, responsive to every stab at the pedals. It didn’t disappoint; with the suspension set to around 25% sag out back and with the FOX CTD shock left in the Trail mode, the Superfly takes off like an scared rabbit. It’s no ground hugger, and we enjoyed the way the suspension always seemed to have enough support to really push against when you wanted to pop the bike into the air or dig the side knobs into the dirt round a corner.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 24
We ultimately decided that the Trail position was best with the FOX CTD fork, giving a supportive ride.

The singletrack performance is bloody excellent. Typically we’re adamant about the need to keep the rear end of a bike short, and the Trek is actually on the long side, with stays of 450mm. But somehow it just works. It could be a product of the G2 geometry (Trek’s custom fork offset) or perhaps just a result of the low weight of the whole package, but Superfly flicks from corner to corner like a young Schumacher. It never failed to leave us with a grin, even 22 hours into the Mont 24hr race.

When you’ve only got 100mm of suspension it’s good to know you’re using it as intended. As such, we did a fair bit of experimenting with the fork and shock settings and pressures. Dropping the rear pressure and speeding up the rebound gave the bike a slacker head angle and more supple performance, but the pedalling efficiency wasn’t so good. Plus it just didn’t feel right – this bike needs to feel taught, lively. We played with the fork pressures a lot too. In end the the setup we liked was to run the fork on the firm side. Following the FOX recommended setup (using their own IRD App) yielded a bike that felt too soft in the front end for our liking – we wanted it a bit firmer, especially as the head angle is already quite steep.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 16
The rear axle is a 142x12mm, all tied together with a seemingly over-sized skewer. We don’t know why it needs to be so big when other brands get by with smaller, neater arrangements.

The penalty for the frame’s low weight is a little bit of flex through the rear end. Compared to a lot of cross country dual suspension bikes we’ve ridden, it’s barely an issue, but when riding the Trek back to back with other stiffer bikes, it did become apparent. Would it turn us off the bike? No sir.

Durability:

Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous how little maintenance we’ve needed to give our Superfly. If it were a child, DOCS would be knocking on the door, such is the neglect. Aside from washing it and throwing a bit of chain lube at it in between race laps or rides, we’ve literally done nothing to it since the very first ride.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 7
The rear shock mount bolt was pretty much the only teething niggle we experienced with the Superfly. A dab of Loctite sorted it and that has been perfect ever since.

If we go searching for issues, then the rear shock bolt became loose on the maiden voyage, but we applied a dab of thread lock and it hasn’t budged since. And the o-rings holding the down tube protector in place broke the first time we looked at them, so we replaced them with bits of inner tube. There’s also a little bit of creaking beginning to emerge, but it’s nothing a two-minute clean and lube wouldn’t fix. If you’re looking for a reliable machine, this is it – when it comes to effort to reward ratio, it’s the equivalent of winning $100,000 from a scratchie.

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 9
Down tube protection adds peace of mind when the rocks start flying. The o-rings securing the guard broke, so we replaced them with little bits of inner tube.
Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 17
A few gouges in the carbon of the seat stay the result of a night ride sans lights in Alice Springs. Lucky Trek make them tough.

We did drop the bike onto a particularly nasty piece of Alice Springs granite of the supremely pointy variety. It gouged the carbon of the seat stay, but we’ve been watching closely to see if it would cause a problem and to date everything is hunky dory. We’ve got no doubt the impact would’ve caused inoperable damage to many other frames, so bravo to Trek’s Mountain Carbon.

Wrapping up:

It’s a fairly glowing review we’ve given the young Superfly, but don’t for a second think it’s unjustified. There are better all-rounders (try the Fuel EX 29er on for size) but we wanted something more single-minded, and the Superfly is just that. After seven months of riding, we’re just as thrilled with the Superfly as the day we pulled its glossy, shiny shape out of the big cardboard box.

Other changes we’ve made over the test period, and why we made them:

Trek Superfly 100 Long Term 21
We opted for a slightly wider bar on our bike. Most people will be very happy with the stock 690mm Bontrager RXL carbon bar, but we like ’em wider.
  • Enve stem, 90mm – Just because…
  • Enve post – Just because…. wouldn’t you too?
  • Pro Tharsis bar – We wanted something a little wider than the stock 690mm Bontrager bar, and the Pro Tharsis at 710mm is an old favourite. It gave the bike a more roomy, comfy feel on the descents.
  • Roval Control Carbon Trail wheels – These have been a test item that we’ve continued to run, mainly because of their wide 21mm internal width (compared to 19mm with the RXLs), which gives more support to larger volume tyres. We really like the RXL wheels, but we’re suckers for a wider rim!
  • Schwalbe Racing Ralph 2.25″ Snake Skin tyres – These are actually an older set of tyres we installed after slicing our Bontrager XR-2 rubber during a race. The Bonty rubber is lighter and just as grippy, but we appreciate how tough these Snake Skin versions of the Racing Ralph are.. There’s nothing worse than a sliced tyre in a race!
  • Frame Wrap – With the XX1 drivetrain, chain slap is barely an issue, so we removed the original chain slap protection and installed some lightweight Frame Wrap instead.

The Superfly in action:

Tathra

Alice Springs

Fresh Product: 2014 BMC Trailfox 29

In years past the BMC trailfox’s do-anything, go-anywhere versatility has been likened to that of the Swiss Army knife. The new trailfox is now based on 29- inch wheels and in that sense it has definitely grown up. The new trailfox is more powerful, potent, and wild. In short, it’s a Swiss Army knife with a very big blade.

TF01_XTR
Trailfox 01 XTR

Back to its Roots

To efficiently climb mountains and then experience the thrill of the descent: from the very beginning, this has been the motivation behind mountain biking. Already an exemplary climber, the BMC trailfox has long had the potential for conquering demanding descents. And now, after years of evolution, the latest generation of trailfox is uncharacteristically capable, especially because of its 29-inch wheels. Developed in conjunction with world-class Enduro riders, this 150mm Fully is designed with all of the original demands of mountain biking in mind, demands which overlap perfectly with those of today’s ever-growing Enduro scene.

Trailfox 01 XX1
Trailfox 01 XX1

Proven Technology

BMC brings proven technology to the new trailfox, like our Big Wheel Concept (BWC) geometry and our APS suspension system. After countless tests with different wheel sizes, our engineers once again opted for 29-inch diameter wheels as they provide the greatest potential for the trailfox, which has 150mm of travel. While many manufactures have shied away from the combination of 29-inch wheels with long travel and short stays, and some have even declared it impossible, BMC has used its engineering expertise to prove the contrary.

Trailfox SLX
Trailfox 02 SLX

Agile and Confident

The combination of a slack steering tube angel, lower center of gravity, shortened cockpit and specially developed handlebars provides for ultimate control, even at high speeds. The big wheels guarantee riding stability on rapid descents, unmatched rolling characteristics on technical sections, and phenomenal grip on sketchy terrain. Add to this the trailfox’s short chain stays and the formula for success is complete: the trailfox delivers unprecedented agility, and an uncanny ability to effortlessly navigate challenging trails.

Trailfox 02 - XT
Trailfox 02 – XT

An Efficient Climber

With regards to its downhill capability, the trailfox has decidedly evolved — but without sacrificing any of its esteemed climbing prowess. Its 29-inch wheels reduce rolling resistance and increase grip while its APS suspension ensures perfect power transfer through enhanced traction thanks to its anti-rocker features. The complete carbon frame weighs in at scant 2490 grams, including cable guides, rear axle, and frame protection.

Trailfox 03 SLX
Trailfox 03 SLX

Love for the Details

During the development of the new trailfox extreme attention was paid to the smallest details to ensure a sleek appearance with high-functionality. The integrated chain management keeps the chain securely connected to the drivetrain, and a low stand- over height offers crisp handling yet with room enough to mount dampers with a reservoir and a water bottle. And if just one chainring is to your liking, the front derailleur bracket can easily be removed. Thanks to the optional ISCG mount, a standard chain guide can be easily mounted.

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 2.16.19 PM Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 2.16.38 PM Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 2.16.51 PM Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 2.16.03 PM

A Complete Package

Aside from trailfox TF01, which is built on a full carbon frameset, BMC also offers more cost-effective versions. The trailfox TF02 has an aluminum rear end and carbon front triangle, while the TF03 offers a full aluminum version of the trailfox. With the new trailfox series, BMC covers all price points and therefore offers something for everyone who shares the passion for the original motivation for mountain biking.

Long Term Test and Video: Yeti SB66 Carbon

This Yeti was never actually meant to be a ‘long term test bike’ – but after a few weeks on board, we decided we’d do all we could to avoiding giving it back. So, here it is, almost a year on and going mighty strong, we give you the Yeti SB66 Carbon, the most desirable 26″ all-mountain bike in the cosmos.

 

Oh, hello super bike.
Oh, hello super bike.

Fact: the name SB is derived from the term ‘super bike’, good call, Yeti.

The SB66 came to us as a bare frame – a blank canvas – opening up amazing potential to build the sweetest bike ever. It was to be a test mule, where the Flow team would fit bits and bobs to it for reviewing. And since the beginning, it has seen many different parts, varied road trips, enduro events and loads of totally sick airtime. The best thing about long-term test bikes is that we are able to muck around with setup options, like cockpit, fork travel and rear shock tunes. Plus, the assessment of durability can come into play, which is somewhat hard with regular bike tests.

How did it fare? Do you really need to ask?

Suspension – the old switcheroo:

The SB66 Carbon runs Yeti’s Switch Technology suspension system – you’ll note the nice turquoise eccentric pivot just above and behind the bottom bracket. So what’s it all about? See if this makes sense:  As the bike moves through its travel, the fully-sealed eccentric ‘Switch’ rotates, moving in one direction in the early parts of the travel, before ‘switching’ its rotation deeper into the suspension movement. This allows the system to achieve what many dual link bikes (such as DW Link, Giant Maestro etc) accomplish, but without the linkages.

The Switch Technology allows the SB66 to have a rearward axle path to counteract suspension movement under pedalling forces in the early part of the stroke. The tension that pedalling puts on the chain helps to stiffen the suspension, and that’s what gives the Yeti a real spritely and efficient feel. Later in the stroke at around about 100mm into the travel, the turquoise coloured eccentric pivot cleverly switches direction, shortening the chain stays to limit the effect of  chain growth.

This allows Yeti to give the SB66 an axle path that allows for both pedal efficiency at the top, and then the ability to use all of its travel without excessive pedal feedback when the time is right.

IMG_3988
A perfect balance of frame stiffness and solid pivot axles gives the rider confidence in the Yeti’s stability at times of need, like when you’re completely out of control and about to compress so hard your eyes pop out.
IMG_3965
There’s that cheeky little patented switch pivot, responsible for the SB’s efficiency and plushness. An adaptor mount for ISCG tabs is available if you choose to run a chain guide, but we’ve been loving this Wolf Tooth ring that requires no guide at all. Clean, neat and quiet.

 

Up and down on the SB66 at the Flow Rollercoaster Gravity Enduro - Stromlo.
Up and down on the SB66 at the Flow Rollercoaster Gravity Enduro – Stromlo.

The bike responds exceptionally well under power, the rear shock is visibly stable when mashing away on the pedals. We found ourselves using the FOX Propedal adjustment in the mid-range to light setting most of the time, even when descending.

It’s quite unassuming in its action though, whereas some rear suspension bikes have quite obvious anti bob/squat/energy robbing bizzos, the SB66 just feels very neutral. It looks like a single pivot from a distance, but on the trail it feels a lot more like an FSR or a DW Link bike, with a perfect amount of suspension activity when climbing and under brakes to maintain great traction.

Any durability concerns have long since faded. After almost a year of riding, we removed the shock from the bike and the suspension up and down to determine how the Switch Pivot was faring. It’s still silky smooth, top marks there.

IMG_3955
From jumping in Stromlo puddles at the Flow Rollercoaster and straight into the photo studio.

Confidence plus:

We love the way the SB66 takes big impacts in its stride, particularly how it handles big impacts even when already deep into its travel. Pushing the bike hard into the trail, or pumping down the backside of a rocky step to gain speed feels great.

The Yeti holds excellent momentum when ploughing through repeated impacts and the way we set up the bike in terms of component choices definitely lends itself to the more aggressive end of the spectrum, so letting off the brakes and hanging on tight became the norm. The SB66 prefers to be ridden with real gusto, much harder than its predecessor the Yeti 575 – the rear suspension feels so supportive and balanced. It’s not one of those bikes that reacts to every single little thing that it rolls over, hence why it can be ridden really rough without it squirming or feeling mushy and vague.

A temporary 2012 model FOX shock - RP23 in place of the FOX CTD shock which had some issues, but nothing we couldn't sort out.
A 2012 model FOX shock – we used an RP23 in place of the FOX CTD shock which had some issues.

Teething issues:

Initially when we first took the Yeti out into the woods, we found the rear suspension feel to be surprisingly choppy and the early part of the suspension travel very insensitive. Compared to the aluminium SB66 we had ridden prior, it felt surprisingly harsh – quite the opposite of what you’d expect from a carbon bike. We persisted with it though, mucking about with air pressures but with no luck, the bike just felt wooden. Slightly frustrated we sent the shock back to Yeti and the diagnosis was that it was a bit of a dud with too low air pressure in the Boost Valve. We actually replaced the shock with an  older model FOX RP23 which made the bike feel amazing and smooth like it should be.

Some of the neatest rock and chain slap protection we've ever seen, in all the right places and smartly integrated.
Some of the neatest rock and chain slap protection we’ve ever seen, in all the right places and smartly integrated. Water bottle mounts are under the frame. This not too much of an issue for the hydration bag wearers, but it makes for very awkward water bottle use.

Geometry and component choices:

Geometry wise, the SB66 is long, with our medium frame stretching over 61cm in top tube length. We like this as it can help widen the bike’s range of usability. Fitted to the medium frame, a stem length over 70mm the position will make the riding position very open and roomy, and steering won’t be too nervous or twitchy when the climbs begin. For longer and calmer rides, we’ve fitted an 80mm stem and 700mm bar for a more cross country feel. Currently we’ve opted for a short 60mm length stem and a 740mm wide PRO Tharsis bar – this setup is more suited to the bike’s intended riding style, giving you a stable, centred position for high speed confidence.

IMG_3986
Big volume tyres, wide rims and low tyre pressures in conjunction with a sturdy cockpit and stiff legged fork. It doesn’t get much better than this. The Rockshox Pike is a wonderful fit for this bike and leads the way into rough terrain with real big balls.
Wide, low and bloody fast.
Wide, low and bloody fast. Almost as fast as Jared Graves.

With a 150mm travel fork, head angle is 67 degrees which is in line with the contemporary 26″ all-mountain/enduro/aggresive trail bike. It can shred hard, but still feels great to ride all day long up and down all sorts of trails. We did experiment with a longer 160mm FOX 34 fork, but in the end we preferred the slightly sharper steering provided with a 150mm fork.

We decided to ditch the front derailleur and run the FOX D.O.S.S. post lever under the left side of the handlebar.
We decided to ditch the front derailleur and run the FOX D.O.S.S. post lever under the left side of the handlebar.
Ok, ok putting ENVE wheels on any bike lifts it to another level, and these AM wheels with a bit more width and volume enabled a big tyre to be run with fairly low pressures.
Ok, ok fitting ENVE rims to any bike lifts it to another level, and these AM wheels with a bit more width and volume enabled a big tyre to be run with fairly low pressures with no drawback. Did we say we like the new Rockshox Pike?

Unlike so many bikes in this category, the SB66 will be remaining as 26″ (for at least a while)  keeping the ‘old school’ wheel size fans (like us) happy. So, in the end after all we’ve thrown at it, the SB66 keeps on trucking and confirms its reputation for being one seriously desirable bike. It’s almost $4000 for just the frame – holy crap that’s a lot – but hey, you buy a Yeti for more than its ridiculously good looks, right?

Tested: Specialized Rumor Comp

When Specialized’s new women’s 29er trail bike arrived at the Flow office, we were so excited we ate lunch sitting on the floor next to it. You can’t ride on an empty stomach and we didn’t want to waste any time getting to know this new machine.

IMG_0387
A Specialized Camber with just the right amount of a female twist – the Rumor.

As we rolled the mid-range Rumor Comp out the door we already had two questions begging to be answered: How would a women’s specific design, in both frame and component choices, add to our trail riding experiences? And in what ways does the design reflect the relationship between research into high level women’s racing equipment and bikes at the entry to mid-level of the market like this one?

Finding out was both a pleasure and a privilege. The size of a set of wheels is one thing, but it’s new technology and manufacturing practices that continually redefine the ride experiences they offer. Lucky our lunch was a big one.

The Design

Specialized found that a lot of their female consumers were gravitating toward their Camber model, so they set about making a women’s specific version of this popular 110mm travel trail bike.

The biggest difference is the standover height and a women’s specific part selection. The geometry and handling characteristics of the rear end are very similar. This what we found when we recently reviewed the S-Works Fate Carbon 29 – a female version of the Stumpjumper 29” hardtail.

Low enough standover height for a bike with 29" wheels is a tall challenge.
Low enough standover height for a bike with 29″ wheels is a tall challenge that Specialized has stepped up to.

The V-shaped top tube, which utilises a combination of aluminium forging techniques, is key in allowing shorter female riders to pilot a 29” dual suspension trail bike. This means the frame can do away with all the extra material we see around the same area of the Camber, saving a good amount of weight.  It also stops the top tube from collapsing like a beer can under your shoe at a party.

Subtle graphics with real style.
The standover is not only low, but low where it counts – where you will be positioned if you have one or both feet on the ground. In fact, the stand over is so low, it only grows a small 3.7mm between all frame sizes (from 707.3mm in the small frame to 711mm in the large).

The technology isn’t available yet to achieve this using carbon fibre, but you can bet people are working on it. In addition to the ride experiences this design affords shorter riders, it’s a powerful example of how women’s frame designs are not just adapting existing technology, but really driving it.

Another area where we can see small frames driving new technology is at the head tube, which is a short 90mm in the small sized frame. In order to fit front suspension with a tapered steerer to a bike with a shorter head tube, Specialized have asked RockShox and Fox to redevelop this part of their forks (it helps to have massive buying power). The end result for users is improved frame geometry, snappy steering and reduced need for stems so bent you can’t read your Garmin.

Aside from a low top tube, a short head tube is imperative for good standover height.
Aside from a low top tube, a short head tube is imperative for good standover height.

Because of the smart engineering discussed above, the bike as a whole fits 29” wheels and 110mm of front and rear suspension without looking compromised or squished. Long chain stays (449mm) and a low bottom bracket height add stability. The minimal looking FSR suspension design and internal cable routing provide a sleek, uncluttered finish.

The Gear

Another area where this bike is exciting in terms of innovation and usability is due to the addition of ‘Autosag’ to Specialized rear suspension for 2014. We talked a little bit about this in our recent review of the Stumpjumper FSR Expert Carbon. The Rumor also shares the use of a block mount, which integrates the shock to the frame with a simple elegance.

The biggest benefit of Autosag is that it takes the confusion out of suspension set up for riders who haven’t gone to tech school. You can set and forget, and get stuck into the trails. Some riders may want to tweak this based on personal preference, but it isn’t necessary for a great ride feel.

We found the Autosag valve on our RockShox Monarch RL air shock tended to rattle loose while riding, and would dump all the air from the rear shock if we bumped it. Keep an eye out for this on the first few rides and do it up nice and tight.

Specialized proprietary technology here, the Autosag. This make setting up the bike for your weight so very easy.
Autosag (grey coloured valve) is basically a very clever hole. Pump the rear shock up to 275psi (for the Rumor), sit on it in all your riding gear, and depress the Autosag valve. This sets the sag and air pressures for an optimal ride experience based on your weight. The shock simply depresses until it covers this hole. It’s delightfully simple.

The Rumor Comp boasts a incredibly well thought-out part selection for female riders; Women’s Enduro lock-on grips that suit smaller hands, custom tuned RockShox front and rear suspension, a Specialized Body Geometry Jett saddle, narrower bar width and appropriate length cranks and stem. Refer back to our review on the Fate for the impact this has on ride experiences and budget.

The custom-tuned RockShox Monarch RL rear shock was nicely paired with a RockShox Reba RL up front to provide a consistently smooth ride feel. We also appreciated being able to comfortably move through all the travel without having to send them off for post-purchase tweaking.
The custom-tuned RockShox Monarch RL rear shock was nicely paired with a RockShox Reba RL up front to provide a consistently smooth ride feel. We also appreciated being able to comfortably move through all the travel without having to send them off for post-purchase tweaking.

We are also impressed with the high performance of the moving parts given the sub $3000 price point of the Comp. A 2×10 drive chain is specced to provide ample gearing across all terrain types. A SRAM X9 Type 2 rear derailleur keeps the chain silent throughout the ride and provides smooth, snappy shifting. A X7 front derailleur was ample on the front. We never dropped a chain during the test period.

The Avid Elixir 5 SL brakes provide strong stopping power. The reach is easy to adjust to fit any hand shape on the fly allowing quick and simple set up. Paired up with 680mm bars and a stable, manoeuvrable frame geometry, we found the Rumor enabled exceptional error correction skills if we took a bad line or went into a corner a little too fast.

The very popular Jett saddle is standard.
The very popular Specialized Jett saddle is standard, winner!
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We can’t overstate how highly we rate a user-friendly spec for female riders of all types.

The Roval 29 wheelset matched to Specialized Hi Lo hubs is also well-specced for the intended use of our test rig. We found they tended to drift a little wide entering corners but we quickly got used to this after a couple of rides and it was no longer a problem.

This may discourage some women upon test riding the Comp, but our advice would be to stick with it for a few rides, then upgrade to a lighter wheelset if it still doesn’t feel how you want it to. It’s not a reflection of the bike, it’s just a weight thing, or a 29” wheel thing.

A winning combination of playfulness and confidence-inspiring stability allowed us to milk our favourite trail networks as the playgrounds they are.
A winning combination of playfulness and confidence-inspiring stability allowed us to milk our favourite trail networks as the playgrounds they are.

With the addition of a dropper post and a lighter, higher spec all ‘round, the $4199 Rumor Expert is worth the extra cash if these are upgrades you’re considering from the outset.

A small rubber stop under the down tube prevents the forks bumping the frame under load, or the bars twisting and scratching the top tube in a crash. And even the smallest size frame fits a full size drink bottle. Usability is important, and key to this bike’s appeal.
A small rubber stop under the down tube prevents the forks bumping the frame under load, or the bars twisting and scratching the top tube in a crash. And even the smallest size frame fits a full size drink bottle. Usability is important, and key to this bike’s appeal.

On the Trail

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Hitting up some familiar trails, the Rumor felt comfortable and instinctual. The low standover and balanced design of the bike meant we assumed a natural riding position without even thinking about it. We didn’t have to force ourselves to keep our weight where it mattered for maximum traction or stability. It rolls so quickly over moderately rough stuff we were off the brakes a lot more often as well.

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For us, the only drawback to the stable, confidence inspiring build was the Specialized Ground Control 2Bliss Tyres. They’re great on loamy trails and we like that the bike is specced with a fatter 2.3” tyre on the front and a 2.1” on the rear. We found them a little skatey on grainy over hardpack surfaces like Stromlo and Bruce Ridge in the ACT. They also didn’t offer much traction on uphill sandstone obstacles around Sydney.

While playful descents were a highlight of our rides on the Rumor, we were impressed with its climbing characteristics as well. Not only does this mean more confident descending, but you don’t get any sensations of lost energy while climbing.

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At 12.9kgs (with pedals), the Comp is reasonably light for a bike of this spec, but it is always going to be slower up the hill than something more whippety. But it never ‘felt’ slow. The weight was only noticeable on more technical climbs making us more deliberate in the way we muscled the bike around.

As for smaller obstacles like logs and small rocky ‘ups’, the large wheel size of the Rumor rolled over these easily with a bit of leg strength alone. We constantly meet women in skills clinics whose main aim is to clear this type of obstacle on the trails. Not because they want to cameo in the next Danny MacAskill video, but because it’s preventing them from holding on to a group on social rides.

The great thing about the Rumor is it allows these women to enjoy a wider variety of trails with increased enjoyment from the outset. This would be our main reason for encouraging this type of rider to consider the Rumor over a bike with 26” wheels or the mid-size 27.5”.

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Overall

The Rumor puts women on a level playing field with guys who are able to jump on a trail bike and confidently ride it from the shop door to exciting trails without having to tweak a thing.

The stability of this 29” trail bike, combined with the thoughtful, robust spec make it a great value option for new riders. It gives a real boost to the variety of trails these ladies can enjoy, providing a great platform for discovering how much fun mountain biking can be. A base model Rumor has just been realised for $1999 as well.

The other rider type that will enjoy the Rumor are women who just want to cut loose and play. The low standover means you can really throw the bike around and the long wheelbase, wide bars and powerful brakes help to keep you out of trouble if you botch a landing or mis-judge a corner. This bike begs you to have fun whatever ability level you bring to it and is guaranteed to help you lift your skills to the next level as a result.

It’s exciting to think that more girls will discover mountain biking through a rig that caters for them as well as this one does. The mind boggles at the ways future bike designs may also be impacted by this rapidly expanding section of the market as a result.

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THE TEST:
Test rider: Kath Bicknell, our test rider for this review, is 56kg and 164cm tall.
Suspension: 20% rear sag and around 15% up front.
Tyre pressure: 22psi rear, 20psi front.
Test conducted: Locations included Stromlo Forest Park and Bruce Ridge, ACT, Manly Dam and a few secret trails in and around Sydney.
Other notes: Autosag doesn’t set rebound for you. Take your time to wind the rebound dial to each extreme, ride a rocky section of trail to learn what it does, then find a middle ground that suits the ride feel you enjoy.

Flow’s First Bite: BH Lynx 4.8 29

It’s nice to have your expectations exceeded once in a while; isn’t that why people always say, ‘under promise, over deliver’? That’s not to make out that the new BH Lynx 4.8 29 didn’t look promising, just that it sure as hell over delivers.

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She’s a funky looking thing, and that is a big part of its charm.

We’ve only spent one day riding the latest from BH, but even those few short hours gave us enough time to form a very, very positive impression of this bike. At the same time, those few short hours weren’t nearly enough to let us explore the full capabilities of this stunning new 29er.

It wasn’t long ago that we tested the BH Lynx 6. It was a good bike – spot-on geometry, excellent suspension – but it was only 90% of the way there. This beast, however, is a great bike, it’s the full monty and then some.

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It has the same superb Dave Weagle-designed Split Pivot suspension as the Lynx 6, but travel is kept to an efficient 120mm, the shock housed deep within the belly of the gorgeously curvaceous carbon frame. The lines are unconventional to say the least, but wouldn’t dare call it ugly, and the cables run largely internally to let the frame shapes shine.

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Carbon to the max, only the upper link is aluminium. Up close the frame is pretty, and beautifully finished.

Casting an eye over the geometry chart got us excited. The head angle resides at a casual 68-degrees, which when combined with a big wheel should equate to plenty of confidence. The bottom bracket is slung low as well, another good sign for stability. But it was the tight rear end measurements – with the chain stays only 430mm long – that really got us  going. Long stays are fun killers, and so often a drawback on 29ers. At a smidgen over 17-inches long, the rear-centre measurement of the BH is as short as we’ve ever seen on dual suspension 29er.

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To cram the rear wheel in, the seat tube is crazy slack, but once we had the seat post adjusted up to our regular riding height the reach from saddle to bars felt perfect. It must be noted that we did change the cockpit out before our test ride. The original 90mm stem and seriously out of place 670mm handlebar looked determined to sap all the fun from the bike, so off they went and in their place we fitted a 70mm stem and a 730mm bar. This was PERFECT. The only other tweak we’d make would be a dropper post (there’s cable routing provisions) and maybe some different rubber.

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BH utilize DW’s Split Pivot design, with a concentric pivot around the rear hub axle. This is all in aid of decreasing the stiffening effect that the rear brake can have on the rear suspension.
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Where is the shock? Tucked into a nice carbon rabbit hole, that’s where.

The entire bike tipped the scales at 11.95kg, which is simply brilliant given that the Shimano XT running gear and brakes are a tad weighty. Smart tweaks or deep pockets could get this puppy down to the low 11kg range – it’s a thought that tempts us to try….

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Sleek lines and internal routing options for an adjustable seatpost.

We’re not going to give you too much of a run down on the way it rides just yet; we’ll save that for the full test once we’ve had more time to get acquainted. But we’re not afraid to tell you that we’re a little smitten. Hold tight for more soon.

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The FOX remote shock lever is one hundred times neater than the previous one, but the way the cable moves back and forth against the carbon frame as the rear shock compresses raised some concern with us. But, time will tell.

Tested: KTM Myroon 29 Cross

Motorbike riders across Australia will wet themselves over this orange and black machine, and KTM Bikes Australia can probably expect to sell a mountain of them on that fact alone! The KTM brand has such a fine reputation in the world of motocross, enduro moto and on-road motorcycling – it’s a brand that attracts fanatical loyalty. One look at the KTM softgoods catalogue will show you what we’re on about: if you wanted to, there are enough KTM accessories and clothes that you could make your entire life black and orange.

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KTM Myroon 29 Cross.

However, KTM moto and KTM bike are actually completely separate entities, and their bikes are not just some cheap-o rebadge frame or hair-brained design wet dream like we’ve seen from other automotive companies in the past (eg Porsche and Ferrari!). No, KTM Bicycles have been making bikes solely for over 40 years and the brand has multiple Austrian and European titles to its name. But enough about the brand, more about the bike.

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You just can’t go past those traditional KTM colours.

Design and construction:

The Myroon 29 Cross is a sub-$4000 race-ready machine. On spec alone, it’s a competitive little beast, ticking all the boxes: carbon frame, FOX fork, DT wheels and full Shimano XT running gear. If you were so inclined, you could build it on a Friday, race on the Saturday and know you’d be worry free.

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We loved the set-and-forget nature of the FOX CTD fork – we just left in ‘Trail’ mode the entire test and found it supple yet supportive and efficient.

Taking a closer look at the frame reveals some really nice, well-thought out design and aesthetic features. The line of the top tube melds nicely into the seat stays that culminate in some sweet 142x12mm dropouts. Tucked neatly away between the seat stay and chain stay, the rear brake caliper position just enhances the smooth lines, as too do the internally-routed cables. A press-fit bottom bracket and requisite tapered head tube ensures stiffness where it matters while the elegant gentle curve of the seat stays should allow some vertical compliance. The seat tube isn’t curved like on some 29ers, but actually joins the down tube in front of the bottom bracket, allowing the rear wheel to be tucked in nice and close. It’s all very neat!

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Tucked neatly away between the seat stay and chain stay, the rear brake caliper position just enhances the smooth lines.
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Note where the seat tube has joined the frame – just in front of the bottom bracket. This allows more room to move the rear wheel forward.
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The frame reveals some really nice, well-thought out design and aesthetic features.

The Gear:

We cannot fault the spec at all, aside from the foam grips, which have a large bulge directly under the palm that we found uncomfortable. When you’re racing, the very last thing you want to consider is a mechanical fault or a miss-shift mess with your rhythm, and the Myroon looks after you in this regard. Front shifting in particular was excellent with the direct-mount XT front mech banging out crisp changes on the twin-ring crankset. While we didn’t go tubeless, the wheels are tubeless ready, so just whack in some valves and sealant to make the bike lighter, smoother and even more reliable for racing. We loved the set-and-forget nature of the FOX CTD fork – we just left in ‘Trail’ mode the entire test and found it supple yet supportive and efficient.

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Lucky it’s a cheap easy fix if you don’t like grips.
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Ritchey bars and stem combo rounds out some very good spec on the Myroon.
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Shimano XT gear works flawlessly and the brakes are perfect.

On the Trails:

When we hit the trails, a few sizing quirks became apparent. Once again, we cannot stress how important it is to get a test ride on a bike before you lay down your hard-earned cash! Our test bike was a 17” (the size we’d ordinarily run) but we really needed a 19” in this instance.

To get the right seat height we had the post on maximum extension, and the 584mm top tube felt cramped. By way of comparison, a Trek Superfly in the same size is almost 20mm longer in the top tube, so we’d say that KTM should consider lengthening their frame. The steep 70-degree head angle enhanced this feeling, meaning the front wheel was right underneath us and it was actually possible to brush the front tyre against our shoe. (We do run our cleats quite a rearward, so this may not be an issue for every rider). Going a bigger size would’ve given us more breathing space and made for a more confident ride.

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Putting aside the sizing dramas, the Myroon delivered everything we expected.

While most of the frame proportions are tight, at the same time, we found the head tube too tall. The 120mm-long headtube is almost 20mm longer than most of the competition, and with the large cone-shaped spacer of the Ritchey headset we just couldn’t get the bar position as low as we wanted it. The only fix here is a stem with more drop (negative rise) or changing the headset upper assembly.

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A great climber and good XC racer.

Putting aside the sizing dramas, the Myroon delivered everything we expected. The light DT X1600 wheels and speedy Continental tyres (the stock spec is actually with Schwalbe Racing Ralph rubber) picked up speed like a scared rabbit, and the steep geometry gives the kind of instant responsiveness that cross country riders crave. It’s doesn’t give you the descending confidence of some bikes with more ‘new-school’ 29er geometry (ie longer top tubes, shorter stem with a slacker head angle), but for its cross country racing purpose, it’s ideal, climbing with great precision.

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The DT X1600 wheels come matched with Schwalbe Racing Ralph tyres (our test bike had Continental).

In Conclusion:

Our sizing gripes with this bike can be avoided by carefully selecting the correct frame for your height and riding style. If we’d been on a 19” frame we’ve got no doubt our confidence and comfort would’ve been greatly increased (though the problem of high bar height would’ve remained). Overall – especially at this price -we’re sure we’ll be seeing many more of these striking machines at cross country and marathon races across Australia in the coming months.

The Test:
Test Rider: We had two test riders for this review, Pat Campbell and Chris Southwood. Pat is 172cm tall and 75kg, Chris is 172cm tall and 64kg.
Test track: We conducted this test at Manly Dam and some other secret trails around Sydney.
Suspension setup: 15% sag.
Tyre pressure: 30psi front and rear (a little high to avoid pinching).
Other notes: We ran the bike completely stock, but consumers’ bikes should come with Schwalbe Racing Ralph tyres, not Continental Race Kings as on our bike.

Tested: Specialized Women’s S-Works Fate Carbon 29

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Specialized S-Works Fate Carbon 29

As a female rider, the most frustrating part of the 26” vs 29” debate has nothing to do with the pros and cons of wheel size. It’s the part where people rave about the benefits of 29ers, then conclude with some kind of comment about how they’re not suited to smaller riders. Or women. Then tell you to wait another year or two so you can reap the benefits of the 27.5”/650B wheel instead.

When a bike does hit the market with a female friendly geometry, the spec is all too often mid-range or man-shaped. Tweaking the bike with high performance in mind blows the budget or means compromises are made in areas of weight, fit, performance and sex-appeal. It does feel a little unfair.

Specialized, however, have been ahead of the market in women’s design innovations for a long time. The S-Works Fate 29 we reviewed demonstrates the exceptional ride experiences that are possible when you build a race-ready hardtail around women’s needs at the top of the game. We were curious to learn more about the choices that had been made in femme-ing up the Fate and how these translated to the trails.

The Design and Construction

The key design difference between the Fate and the men’s equivalent – the Stumpjumper – is standover height. Aesthetically we see this with the big dip in the top tube, and the extra triangle near the seat post. This allows for production of the Fate in a size suited to female riders of below average height. The 15” model has a stand over height of 715mm and top tube length of 545mm, which will be music to the ears of riders who find a standard 16” frame devastatingly big.

The big dip in the top tube allows for better standover height.
The big dip in the top tube allows for better standover height.

In most other areas, the geometry of the Fate and the Stumpjumper are not that different. In several places where female riders benefit from a smaller, tighter design to boost bike handling and performance, Specialized see the advantages of this in unisex designs aimed at the cross-county and marathon racing market, too.

Basically, the lower standover has been achieved without compromising the fit and performance of the bike everywhere else. We like that. It keeps the Fate racy and familiar, not relaxed and upright, as is often the trend in recreational women’s rigs.

A low bottom bracket height keeps the centre of gravity low and adds to rider stability on the bike. The chain stays and wheelbase are shorter than average, which adds flickability and snappy handling.

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A low bottom bracket and short chain stays gave the Fate a more playful ride.

The head tube is quite short and coupled with an 80mm-travel RockShox SID World Cup 29 Brain fork to keep the bars nice and low. The fork is an interesting number; it uses Specialized’s Brain damping (developed in conjunction with FOX) bundled into the chassis of a RockShox SID World Cup fork. The shorter fork reduces the need for awkward looking negative rise stems – or increases their impact for riders who want the handlebars closer to the ground.

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The RockShox SID World Cup with BRAINs.
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The short headtube helped get the correct fit without the need for a big negative rise stem.

When we jumped on the Fate it felt instantly ‘right.’ The frame design, as a whole, felt balanced and responsive, and meant we could really throw the bike around the trails as a result. This is not just due to the geometry, but the smart choices made in the build.

The Gear

At a quick scan, the Fate glitters with top of the line bling. It runs a Shimano XTR group with custom SRAM XX chain rings attached to Specialized S-Works OS cranks. This is matched to Roval Control SL 29” Carbon hoops; a higher-end model of the Roval Control 29’s we reviewed recently. We expected to see through-axle skewers here for extra stiffness and were surprised to see Titanium quick releases instead. That said, the Roval hubs use oversized axle end-caps that Specialized claim make the fork just as stiff as a bolt-through setup.

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Straight off the shop floor the S-Works Fate comes with all the bling you’d ever need.
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Roval Control SL 29” Carbon hoops.

Looking closer, everything we’d normally change to adapt a high-end unisex XC rig for female use had been done for us: A light weight women’s Jett Expert Gel saddle (with Ti rails), a slightly shorter Syntace stem (75mm on the Medium frame), and 660mm S-Works Carbon XC flat handlebars that are two centimetres narrower than those specced on the Stumpjumper.

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Syntace 75mm stem and light weight saddle (with Ti rails) are just some of the features that make the S-Works Fate a top-of-the-line model.

The Fate runs slightly easier front gearing than the Stumpy (36/22 compared to 38/24). And we really liked that the crank length changes with each frame size and seem rider appropriate.

We felt very cared for by this build. It does the thinking for riders who don’t know which changes will increase comfort and performance, and, more subtle adjustments aside, takes the pain out of additional ordering for women who do.

On the Trail

You know that feeling when Christmas arrives and Santa has delivered twice as many gifts as you hoped for? That’s what riding the Fate feels like. It’s snappy, playful, lightening fast in response to each pedal stroke and blew our best times up climbs out of the water. We missed rear suspension on some particularly rocky tracks, but it responded so well as we pumped, leant and pushed it through a variety of terrain that it made us fall in love with riding all over again.

Our first adventure was the three-day, 265km Sani2c stage race in South Africa, an event that was sure to put the bike’s racy aspirations to the test: Fast fire roads, buff, twisty, singletrack, floating bridges, long mud bogs, long gentle climbs, steep technical ones, a long run of river stones and fast, furious descents.

The Fate sunning itself in the afternoon glow of South Africa.
The Fate sunning itself in the afternoon glow of South Africa.

The compliant carbon weave, along with thin tubing for the seat stays and directly below the seat post, absorbed the varied terrain exceptionally well. The stiffness-to-weight ratio of the frame, and the fast-rolling, carbon wheelset meant every pedal stroke was rewarded with motivating forward momentum. When competitors booked massages for sore legs and backs between stages, we lubed the chain, checked the tyre pressures and hung out in the food hall.

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Some thinner tubing in the right spots gave the bike a more comfortable compliant feel.

Curious to push the Fate through more technical terrain, our next stop was some popular race loops back in Oz. Instead of really working the bike through corners like we’re accustomed to, this one held its speed effortlessly, exiting familiar corners far quicker than we expected given that this is an area where some 29ers are prone to struggling. In tight, twisty sections of the track, the dialled geometry of the bike really stood out, out-performing the high-end 26” duallie we’ve used on these trails most recently.

The wheelbase on the Fate is in fact shorter than that of the 26” bike we’ve been riding recently, which goes a long way to explaining why we didn’t have to consciously adjust line choices or cornering technique. We found ourselves eagerly looking up the calendar just to see what this bike could do in race conditions and what we could do on it, as a result.

The light weight and soft compound of the S-Works Fast Trak 2Bliss ready rubber made for excellent, grippy traction, and was particularly noticeable as we mowed down technical sandstone climbs. These treads are well suited to typical Australian loose-over-hardpack conditions, although thin sidewalls make them best reserved for special occasions.

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Good rubber makes a big difference to your ride and the Fast Trak’s were spot on for traction and control (just be careful on rides with sharp rocks).

Given that after bike fit, getting suspension dialled is the next difficult issue for female riders, we had high expectations of forks. The 80mm of travel worked well for the Fate’s intended use and we never found ourselves wishing for any more. Unfortunately, our 55kg tester was unable to set it up to provide for a plusher, more responsive ride feel as we’d hoped. They performed well in smooth terrain but were harsher than expected along smaller bumps and braking ruts. This poor small-bump compliance meant we never really engaged the Brain damping, running the fork in its ‘full open’ setting the whole time during our test. If this were our own bike, we’d be investigating some ways to get some internal tweaking done to make the fork more reactive on small bumps.

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If you’re a light person we recommend you spend time with your local bike shop to get the forks dialled perfectly.

The only other negative we experienced was that the enamel was prone to chipping, something that appears to be an anomaly of our test rig. This was aggravated by changing the seat height during transport and by using tape or stickers to attach spare inner tubes or course profiles to the frame. While these reservations are important to mention, neither would be deal breakers if we were looking to buy the Fate.

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We noted some enamel chipping – maybe caused by us, but something to keep your eye on.

Overall

Instead of burning energy constantly playing catch up, the Fate allows its pilot to pick and choose where and when to play her cards. Energy expenditure is rewarded rather than wasted, allowing for smart, strategic racing, better recovery, and the confidence that comes with both.

The biggest market for the Fate is obviously the women’s XC and Marathon racing scene. It is equally suited to riders who enjoy the feel and manoeuvrability that comes with using technology and design innovations that are at the top of the game. If you rely heavily on suspension for confidence on technical trails, it is probably not for you.

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Due to the absolute lack of competition for a women’s specific, race-ready build straight off the shelf, we see the Fate as a being a bike that disrupts brand and shop loyalties as well.

In terms of price, $7999 is what we’d expect for a bike at this level. It’s almost justified by the motivation the Fate adds to your hunger for riding and the hundreds of dollars saved by not having to radically alter the cockpit and contact points. ‘Expert Carbon’ ($3,999) and ‘Comp Carbon’ ($2,999) models are available for women wanting to reap the Fate’s rewards for a more modest spend.

THE TEST:
Test rider: Kath Bicknell, our test rider for this review, is 55kg and 164cm tall.
Suspension: 75psi front
Tyre pressure: 22psi rear, 21psi front.
Test conducted: Locations included Stromlo Forest Park and Bruce Ridge, ACT, Yellowmundee NSW and through the rocky, sandy, thorny and varied terrain of South Africa.
Other notes: The fact that the Fate climbs so blindingly fast and accelerates without hesitation meant we often wished for slightly harder gearing on fire roads and descents. Whether this is a product of years of riding harder gears stocked on unisex bikes is hard to tell.

 

Tested: Cube LTD Race 29

Cube is a 20-year-old German Bike Company that only recently made a name for itself on Australian shores. Cube has quickly gained local acceptance with a large range of performance mountain and road bikes at very competitive prices. One of Australia’s better known and more successful XC racing teams; Team TORQ is sponsored by Cube and so the 29” Cube’s are often seen at the pointy end of the field. We took the new Cube Ltd Race 29 out to see if this budget racer could keep up within a highly competitive and popular segment.

The Cube LTD Race 29.

First pulling this bike out of the box, we were pleasantly surprised. The LTD Race 29 looks twice its price and the colour-matched scheme of charcoal grey and green is difficult to dislike. Looking over the frame, it’s obvious that Cube has put a lot of thought into creating a short and snappy rear end; what Cube calls ‘Agile Ride Geometry’ or ‘ARG’. ARG is what Cube claims to make their 29” bikes handle closer to a 26”. Tucking the rear wheel tight to the seattube is no easy task and Cube employs the use of a direct mount front derailleur to aid in additional clearance. While clearance increases, the direct mount front derailleur is stiffer and easier to setup compared to conventional band clamp style derailleurs.

The use of a direct mount front derailleur has helped with frame design and keeping the rear-end short. Look how close that tyre is the the seattube.

Further clearance is achieved with the lack of a chainstay bridge near the bottom bracket. With a double-butted aluminum construction and mostly round tubes, the frame relieves weight out of the center of the tube while keeping the thickness at the ends where it is needed most for weld strength. Other areas of the frame aren’t as innovative and Cube makes use of a standard 1 1/8” straight head tube, threaded bottom bracket and IS type brake mounts; all features that work perfectly but are becoming a rare sight amongst the latest offerings.

It could almost be considered ‘retro’ to have a standard 1 1/8″ head tube these days.

On the trail, the LTD Race was no different to many other alloy hard tail frames and didn’t offer much compliance or comfort. On longer rides, we found our bodies more fatigued compared to higher end, smoother riding options. The upside to this is the immediate reward of power transfer with little hint of frame flex under power.

Geometry wise and thanks to ‘ARG’, the Cube features a competitively short rear end which made the bike feel more sprightly and flickable in tighter trails and on steeper climbs. At front, the head angle is a fairly slack (By 29” XC standards) 70 degrees and due to this, we experienced the front end drifting and washing out by surprise in a few turns. Lowering the handlebars would counter this handling quirk and Cube has gone to great lengths to make the head tube amazingly short, sadly this is then undone with the fitting of a 20mm tall headset top cap. This kept us from reaching our ideal bar height, although most riders will be happy with the available bar heights and shallower top caps can be bought cheaply if a lower bar height is desired. It’s worth noting that the issue of bar height is not specific to the Cube and is a common trait of many 29ers and there are now many aftermarket offerings in handlebars and stems to help achieve a lower bar height.

A short head tube will enable you to make bar height adjustments. You will just have to purchase a new headset top cap to replace the big 20mm one the bike comes with.

The LTD Race 29 features a few componentry surprises for the price and the 100mm RockShox Reba RL air fork with remote lockout is one of them. This fork was a pleasure to setup and will please newcomers with just air preload and rebound to adjust before hitting the trail. Even with the lack of a thru-axle and tapered head tube, the short travel Reba handled technical terrain with confidence and the lack of easily detectable flex is much in part due to the stiff and solid wheelset.

The RockShox Reba SL is an excellent fork for such a well priced bike.

The wheelset uses Shimano XT hubs that were a true delight for the price point. Using quality double-butted spokes with good even tension to the Alex 24 rims, these wheels were a fantastic mix of stiffness and durability, however they won’t be winning any weight weenie awards.

Wrapped around the rims were the brand new Schwalbe Rapid Rob tyres in a cool matching grey charcoal. Sharing the pattern of the much loved previous generation Racing Ralph, these feature close packed knobs for fast rolling and more than adequate traction on all but the loosest dry and soggy terrains. With a roomy 2.25″ width, the Rapid Rob’s certainly helped take the harsh sting away from the rock solid frame.

Schwable Rapid Rob, in grey.

A combination of a Shimano XT and SLX drivetrain offered dependable shift performance and didn’t miss a beat all test, and while the cheaper non-series level crankset worked a treat, it adds weight to the overall package. The Magura MT2 brakes didn’t offer a firm lever feel that many newer riders prefer, however they proved to be reliable stoppers with easily controlled bite. These brakes lack the all out power of higher end brakes, though the larger rotor on the front made up for this shortcoming.

The Magura MT2’s did the job but you have to remember this bike is at the bottom end of the market and they’re not going to be the best avaliable.

The wide 720mm handlebar had a comfortable bend and rock solid feel, however many riders upgrading from older bikes or coming across from the road will want to trim the width of these bars down to a more manageable 660-680mm width. Cube’s own grip was overly firm and didn’t help with fatigue, this is the first upgrade we’d suggest and luckily it’s a cheap one.

Bar width is a very personal thing and with 720mm as a standard with there is plenty of room to play with for adjusting.

There are many great offerings for sub 2 grand 29er hardtails and the Cube LTD Race 29 can be added to that list. Cube has managed a smart balance of a quality frame and components where it really matters while still not skimping in other areas. Even without the latest tapered steerer tube, thru-axles and weight saving frame features, the Cube’s great fork and durable build will serve for many years to come.

Tested: Orbea Occam 29 S50

The Orbea Occam 29 is a gorgeously constructed, impressively light cross-country machine. Previous iterations of the Occam were a simple single-pivot affair, but the new Occam 29 is a different beast.

Design and construction:

Great looking frame shapes! There’s room for a water bottle too with the shock tucked up nicely under the top tube.

The striking, angular carbon shapes of the Occam form a seriously light frame set (only the seat stays are alloy), coming it at under 2.4kg. Even with a fairly mid-range parts kit, the complete bike is a only smidgen over 12kg – a few savvy upgrades would bring it down towards 11kg and make it a real racing weapon.

Top: The concentric dropout pivot is reminiscent of Trek’s ABP system. We’d prefer a 12mm axle instead of the quick release used here. Bottom: There are cartridge bearings at all pivots and on the shock mount too.

105mm of rear travel is served up by a suspension system that utilises a concentric dropout pivot, very similar to Trek’s ABP system or Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot design. The dropouts can run either a quick release or a 12mm axle – we’re mystified why Orbea chose to spec the S50 with not only a quick release rear, but quick release fork too. A easy-to-operate FOX CTD rear shock keeps it all under control and with cartridge bearings at every pivot point, small bump response is good.

The humpbacked top tube is distinctive, just watch out for your shifters impacting the frame in a crash.

The humpback style top tube is stiff and distinct, but the shifters can contact the frame in the event of a crash; run your shifters/brakes loose enough to spin on the handlebar if they do hit the top tube. Great cable routing is a plus – including internal cabling for the front derailleur – adding to the sleek and clean aesthetic of the bike.

The gear:

At $4299, the S50 is the most affordable of the carbon Occams – there are alloy framed versions at lower price points, and prices go all the way up to $9499 with the stunning S10. To hit this very reasonable price, some components are a bit ho-hum  (such as the SRAM X5 shifters) but this is a platform that is worth of upgrading down the track when your budget allows.

Great attention to detail! Neat cable guides, a superbly sculpted tapered head tube and a rear suspension setup guide too.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of the My Orbea program, a very cool online process that allows you to customise the component spec of your bike prior to delivery. Don’t like the bars? Swap them. Want a different fork? Fine! Prefer a different colour? Orbea will oblige. I adds around three weeks to the delivery time, but when you’re spending big money anyhow, what’s another couple of weeks to get your perfect bike?

The X5 shifters are a little clunky but they shifted well all the same, and it’s small cuts like this that are necessary to bring such a nice frame in at this reasonable price. Formula brakes aren’t our favourites, but this set performed well, despite a fairly wooden lever feel.

In its off-the-shelf guies, fast tyres and a narrow handlebar give the Occam a very cross-country feel. This may suit the racer types, but it does really pigeon hole the bike. A wider bar, stiffer fork and grippier rubber wouldn’t hamper the bike’s cross-country abilities, but would add massively to rider confidence. Surprise, surprise, these are all options you can tweak with the My Orbea program.

On the trail:

A 15mm axled fork would’ve been a real bonus on this bike, to add some stiffness to the front end.

The Occam is happiest at high speed on smooth trails. It settles into long, swooping corners nicely and doesn’t wander on steep climbs either thanks to a roomy top tube and sharp head angle. The bike’s stiffness may be diminished by the use of quick release axles at both ends, but it has a nice predictable drift-ability to it all the same.

Unless you run the rear shock in Trail mode, there’s a bit of pedal bob going on. It’s not like the ride is wallowy or unresponsive, but it’s annoying to know that energy is being wasted. Save the Descend mode for when the nose is pointed down. The shock tune is quite firm, so using Trail mode certainly got rid of any bobbing, but small bump response was reduced too. The Shimano wheelset is UST ready, so perhaps going tubeless would smooth things out a bit.

The narrow, flat bar is fine for straight up cross-country riding, but this bike is capable of more. We’d recommend a wider bar to add stability in the rough – an easy swap.

While the Occam flies in moderate terrain, we never got really comfortable in the rough. We admit that our personal preference for a wider handlebar may have something to do with it, but the front end flex was the main culprit. Off camber rocks or roots tended to snatch the front wheel away, and the close-spaced / hard compound tyres glance off rocks rather than sticking. New rubber and a stiffer fork would give this bike a whole new attitude.

Overall:

The Occam S50 is a great platform, but not dressed to shine to its full potential. We really like this frameset – it’s a good looker and the geometry is spot on for cross country riding and racing. The S30X, another $900, is equipped with a 15mm fork, wider bar and better rubber, making it a better proposition as an all-rounder, or take advantage of Orbea’s flexibility and make some tweaks before the bike even arrives at the shop.

The test:
Test rider: Chris Southwood, our test rider for this review, is 63kg and 172cm tall.
Suspension: 25% rear sag, and around 15% up front.
Tyre pressure: 30psi rear, 29psi front.
Test conducted: Manly Dam and Red Hill, NSW.
Other notes: We wanted to lower the bar height on our test Occam but bizarrely the headset top cap was seized, meaning we had to leave the bars as you see them here!

Long Term Test: Lapierre Zesty 514

“Are you digging the Lapierre, Mick?”

“Mate, just stand back and take a look at it, check out the angles on this thing, it’s so slack, long and low. So much faster than your bike.”

There are so many elements that come together to make a bike suit a picky rider that knows exactly what they want, riders like us. After only a very short while, the Zesty became that test bike that we simply didn’t want to return. It may sound like we say that often, but in this case if there really was one bike to keep, and to love like our own, it was this guy. And that is how the Zesty was miraculously transformed from being a regular test bike, into a long-term test bike being dragged all over the place exploring trails and entering enduro events.

Close to us at Flow HQ you will find rough trails, tonnes of stepped sandstone, and many enduro style descents with fast ridge lines littered with drops and rocky chutes, plus of course plenty of pedalling to link up the fun and steep bits. So if there were ever a social weekend ride near home and office, that’d be the type of trail that would be ridden. Hence the early onset of Zesty affection, this 26” carbon trail bike is at home where most bikes in its category are out of their depth, especially when trails get rough and fast.

 

The Design

150mm seems to be the magic number for the 26” trail bike these days, but we were slow to pick up that the Zesty is only 140mm on the rear and 150mm up front; we would have been convinced that there was more travel out the back. Modifications from the 2012 Zesty include a longer travel fork, a 142x12mm bolt through rear axle, longer chain stays and a steeper seat tube angle. These revisions sound like the perfect tweaking to us. And who better to have a hand in designing the finer details of suspension tuning and geometry than ten-time World Downhill Champion; Nico Vouilloz. The meticulous and wildly experienced Frenchman will also be racing the Enduro World Series aboard the electronically damped Spicy and Zesty for 2013/2014.

From the axle to the rear shock is a straight line, there must be something about the way it helps transfer all the feedback from the ground into the damper perfectly, it simply soaks up big hits remarkably well.

Lapierre have applied their OST+ suspension design to three 26” full suspension platforms, the Zesty (140mm), Spicy (160mm) and Froggy (180mm). And interesting to note, that these bikes have been unable to be sold into the USA due to the Specialized FSR patent until now (FSR patent has ended). What makes this design work so well is the rear axle path, where the rear wheel moves up and away slightly in the early stages of compression. This helps to prevent the rear end from squatting into the rear travel as the riders pedalling forces applies tension to the chain. Some bikes have more of this stiffening effect than others, but we feel that Lapierre have got it just right here, a spot on compromise between plushness, sensitivity and pedal efficiency. The balance from front to rear is also a highlight, and even when bouncing around in the car park, the fork and shock compress and rebound in perfect unison, and even better on the trail.

The unusual lower shock mount is to allow the Zesty and Spicy to use the same main frame with two varying shock lengths. Sag measuring is as easy as it gets, with a visual indication guide fitted in clear view, a priceless addition.

Construction is big, burly and tough. Some of the fattest frame tubing you’ll find on a carbon trail bike are found here, especially out towards the rear end. Using a quick release actuated 12mm axle, the rear wheel is securely held in large carbon dropouts. The rear derailleur is also mounted with Shimano’s new direct mount system, which negates the need of the fragile replaceable dropouts.

All the cables are internally routed, love it or hate it (time consuming to work around) it does look nice, but needs work to tidy it up from new. The rear brake uses a disconnect able hose to help proceedings if brake changes are needed.

The Ride

Geometry wise, the Zesty would be often referred to as a ‘bit of a mad shredder’. In English, that means that we feel the Zesty is geared towards tearing apart fast trails by cornering hard and aggressively. 66.5 degrees is a low number for a head tube angle, more like a downhill bike of only a few years ago. But slacker is definitely not better, some riders may find it slightly cumbersome to climb uphill switchbacks for example, but the trade-off is obvious when the descending speeds are high when the stability is confidence inspiring.

If we were to pick the best thing about this bike, it would be the way it tears through a corner. We won’t bore you with what geometry numbers are the cause of this, but if you were to throw a Zesty into a fast, rough, or loose turn you’ll be out the other side before you can say “phffroaar!”.

With 140mm of rear travel, you don’t seem to lose contact with the terrain, like some bikes do. Rather than isolating the rider too much from what is underneath, the ‘quality over quantity’ theory means that you can pump speed out of the terrain whilst still remaining comfortable and grounded. Testament to how active the rear suspension is how much the rear shock gets a serious workout, we have reached the bottom of a descent to find the shock body so hot, too hot to touch even.

The Parts

It didn’t take us long to start swapping out parts on the 514 Zesty, the tyres weren’t going to seal up as tubeless, so we fitted a set of XTR wheels and tubeless ready Schwalbe Hans Dampf and Racing Ralphs. Brakes came from Italy in the form of the Formula RX, their mid-range model. They performed ok, but the snappy lever feel and braking power were not up to the standard of some Formulas we have sampled recently, plus the bed-in period takes a very long time before they are biting hard. Shimano handled the drivetrain, but the SLX shifters coupled with the bendy cable routing made for some fairly mushy shifting action, a bit of cable trimming and lubing helped, but the Zesty is dying for a single ring conversion to tidy up the front derailleur cabling eyesore going on.

Formula RX brakes were just ‘ok’, and we found it hard to set up the brakes and shifters within reach of fingers and thumbs where we wanted to. Tyre clearance
The internal routing is nice, but the front derailleur cable weaves around, under and up to the derailleur, unsightly and mushy under the thumb.
The chain and seat stays are burly, and when pushed hard sideways, you get no arguing from here.

LONG TERM TEST – Six months of shredding

Upgrade time. First up were the tubeless Schwalbe tyres and super duper ENVE AM wheels, then a FIT damped 34mm Float fork and a Boost Valve Kashima shock to match. An adjustable seatpost from Rockshox and the premium Formula T1 brakes. Wider bars and our fave saddle; Specialized Phenom. The shifters and drivetrain remained.

The Lapierre’s first excursion was to the Flow Rollercoaster gravity enduro at Stromlo Forest Park, Canberra. An event with shuttle uplifts to get the riders up to the good bits, then you race a 10 minute descent with a few climbs and sprint sections in there to keep you puffing. With such supple suspension and enough room in the top tube for a lot of body language, the Zesty relished in being cranked hard over hectic rocks and braking ruts. It is a really fine attribute to the performance of this bike, how well it can keep speed up while taking big hits. It loves to pull a power wheelie – where you yank on the bars, lean back with the front wheel just off the ground and pedal like mad in a fairly hard gear. Pulling out of corners hard on the pedals the Zesty won’t jump forward with stiff suspension like some bikes do, it rather holds itself high in the travel but not too stiff, allowing the shock to still react to any hits the rear wheel is subject to.

After a few months, the Zesty underwent some upgrades, obviously.

The Zesty was a real winner on Flow’s Bike and Brews trip to the big Victorian Alp riding destinations of Beechworth, Mt Beauty and Bright. The slippery surfaces of the Beechworth Mountain Bike Park were where we got a great feel for how the Zesty corners – and holds very confident drifts and promotes real hooligan riding. What makes a bike able to be drifted to consistently? A few things; including a balanced and even weight distribution between front and rear wheels, low handle bar height, front and rear end rigidity and a low bottom bracket. Presto, the Zesty is one of the finest bikes we’ve ever had the pleasure of letting slide around corners, both a fast and fun way to turn without using too much braking. That day in Beechworth will be remembered as the day we fell in love with the two-wheeled drift all over again.

Popping off lips, and committing to high speed turns in Rotorua, loving life.

Flowtorua over Easter in New Zealand took the Zesty to the heavenly trails of Rotorua and Taupo. Oh dear, that was a good experience. With a pair of the premium ENVE AM wheels and a Rockshox Reverb adjustable seatpost, the Zesty was pushed harder than ever. There’s nothing like heading into a four-foot high berm with amazing confidence, laying off the brakes and coming out the other side with way more speed. Rotorua was also a good time to get the Zesty into the air, with about a billion natural and man-made jumps to send you skywards. Needless to say, that this bike was a calm and capable jumper. Whilst you could take just about any bike to Rotorua and have a ball, this style seemed to suit the higher speed and rougher trails just fine. And that 140-160mm bike was very common amongst the locals that tore about the place twice as fast as us.

Shuttling the Redwood Forest in Rotorua was without doubt the best times we had aboard the Zesty. So shreddable.

 

The Kosciuszko Flow Trail in Thredbo, NSW aboard the Zesty was fast through the big corners, but a broken spring in the rear derailleur put an end to its weekend.

Conclusion

At the end of our testing term, the Zesty had many modifications to milk out the most of what we believe is one of the highest performing suspension bikes that we’ve ridden. For those looking for a bike to be ridden fast, jumped far and cornered hard, the Zesty will not have any problem in lifting the game. Dialled geometry, fearless rear suspension and solid construction are what makes this French number one of our most favoured of all time.

Tested: Commencal Meta AM 2 29er

Without a doubt aesthetics has a lot to do with a consumer’s bike choice. You could have the world’s best performing mountain bike but if it’s ugly then you’ll be hard pressed moving it off the shelves. The same can be said for the opposite.  Make it sexy, but if it has little substance, then the novelty will soon wear off and the people will shy away.

This is where the Commencal Meta AM 2 29er shines, it looks damn good and works well to match. The bright colour, big tubes, the low and positive stance, and the neat internal cable routing all make for a clean and strong looking mountain bike. There weren’t many times when people didn’t stop us to check out the bike, and conversely, there weren’t may times when we were asking for more performance out on the roughest and toughest of trails.

We took the Commencal out for a test recently and here’s what we thought.

The Design

We think the bike looks very sexy. Just look at the cables disappear into the frame.

The 130mm travel Meta AM 29er is designed for all-mountain riding and is built for a more aggressive rider who loves to hit the trails hard. Made from triple butted aluminium the AM 29er is big and strong. Every tube is oversized and some of the pivot bolts require allen keys sizes which you probably won’t have in your toolset. The frame looks a little over-engineered and maybe some weight could have been shaved off, however the strength and durability of the AM should be something you have little to worry about.

Everything is big. Most people would not have a 10mm allen key, let alone a torque wrench that goes up to 35NM. The bottom pivot did come loose once and lucky for us we had both tools. It never came loose again.

The head angle is a relatively slack 68 degrees, bottom bracket drop -33mm, and chainstay length 458mm – all elements designed to make the bike more stable at speed. The top tube is very sloped and gives the bike excellent standover height and cockpit room, both of which are very important on bigger wheeled bikes.

The rear suspension is based around the Contact System Evo design initially launched on the Commencal downhill bikes. Simplistically, it has been downsized from the downhill design and is basically a linkage driven single-pivot rear-end with the shock neatly tucked away low in the frame. The shock position is great for lowering the centre of gravity but the position does have an unintended consequence, which we will go into later.

The Contact System EVO, based on the successful downhill suspension platform, and scaled down for the smaller bikes.

The rest of the design continues the theme of big, strong and aggressive. The 142×12 rear was notably stiff, the tapered headtube keeps the front pointed, and the massive pivots reduced flex.

One standout design feature we loved was the internal cable routing. Yes, the bane of bike mechanics world wide, but we loved how neat and functional Commencal had made all the routing. Every cable disappears seamlessly into the frame and only re-appears at the last possible moment – making for a very clean looking frame. No additional noise was noted from the routing either.

One of the best displays of internal cable routing we have seen on a mountain bike.

There where two notable negatives from a design perspective and those were the lack of water bottle mount and the rear shock position – nice and low and tucked away. The first is pretty explanatory and you better invest in a good hydration pack, however the latter needs a little explanation. We have raved and raved about how good FOX CTD is and how much we love to be able to adjust our bikes while riding. However, the rather “tucked away” shock position did make it harder for shorter riders, or those built like a T-Rex, to reach down and find the CTD adjusting lever.

For those who like the data and stats here’s the important numbers.

The Build

The Meta AM is built with middle level spec – but is priced there too. All parts are strong and durable but do add to the overall weight. That can be a good thing as it enables you to throw your leg over an excellent frame for a good price, and then later update the parts to continually improve your ride.

The FOX suspension was excellent with CTD (Climb, Trail, Descend) on both ends. Having on-bike adjustability is a key for all-mountain bike riding.
The bars, stem and grips are all Commencal in-house brands. The grips were comfortable and the 730mm bars felt the right width. We did flip the stem to get a little lower on the front but that was definitely a personal preference rather than to compensate for any design deficiency.
The drive train was a mix of SRAM products. X5 cranks (38/24), X7 front and rear derailleur, X5 shifters, and SRAM PG-1030 11-35 rear cluster. Nothing you would Instagram about but all worked well together. We do love the new clutch/type 2 derailleurs and thought that was the only missing part.

As with many a bike in this class we would have liked to see a single right setup with chain guide. The frame has ISCG mounts so of you do choose to do go down that path you can easily.

The wheels are 15mm up front and 142×12 rear. We did notice some steering flex from the front end of the bike and felt the wheels could have been a little stiffer to reduce this. That being said, they remained straight and true with no issues.  The rims are not UST compatible however we did convert them to tubeless without any hassles (using a good rim strip). It’s almost blasphemy to not run tubeless in this day-and-age.

The Formula RX 12 brakes worked very well with no noise or issues noted. We have been impressed by Formula as of late and matched with 180mm rotors, both front and rear, we had no hassles pulling up when needed.
The Kenda Nevagal tyres are a good choice for more aggressive riding, however, we noted that the European spec for the same bike supplied a Kenda Small Block 8 for the rear. We did have some issues with rear tyre rub on the front derailleur cable and a single instance of the rear tyre hitting the seat tube on extreme bottom-out, so we recommend you change the rear tyre to something smaller.

The Ride

The AM gave us the confidence to attempt the toughest lines.

The Meta AM was a great bike to ride on the rougher, steeper trails. Once pointed downhill the bike would be able to maintain any line you asked …or didn’t ask. Great at masking poor line choices, the strong frame and larger wheels were able to keep us surprisingly upright even when we had our eyes shut in preparation for something worse. We found this to be the real strength of the bike – its ability to mask mistakes and maintain momentum at the worst of times. We could pick any rock garden and ride down it with little regard to line, or self.

Of course, a bike being this heavy was a little sluggish uphill. We’d be lying of we said anything else. But that’s not why you would buy this bike. As long as you begin your journey with that in mind you will recognise that the energy you can save by going a little slower on the climbs is better expended on the fun stuff when pointed down anyway. We were still able to climb the steepest trails no problems, just a little slower, or a little more exhausted if we tried to smash it.

The Commencal loved going fast and the more momentum you gained the more it kept.

We did find the rear suspension to be a little linear and finding that perfect balance between blowing through the travel and small bump performance a hard balancing act. We found we would blow through the travel with little “ramping up” at the end of the stroke and thus had to keep adding air to the rear shock to avoid harsh hits on the really large knocks. However, once we added too much air the small bump performance was compromised. We did end up getting the balance correct and had to run the shock with a little less sag than normal and set the CTD on Trail mode for climbing and left in the the Descend mode for pretty much everything else.

The larger tubing and wide setting of the rear end did mean some shoe rubbing on the frame but that’s less of an issue for clipped in riders than those on flats. It was never noticed on the trails and only post bike-wash was it revealed.

Overall we loved the ride of the AM 29er and found joy in hitting rock gardens with more confidence. The bike wasn’t nimble on the tighter stuff but once allowed to wind up, it was hard to stop. We, in fact, were able to ride sections of trails faster than we ever had and joyed at sessioning difficult sections of trail.

The Conclusion

The Commencal Meta AM 2 29er is a great if you prefer riding more down than up. It’s more than confident holding a line and the faster you go the more stable the bike feels.  Without a doubt, it will instil confidence in your descending and technical riding. It is a big bike, a little the heavy side, so you will just have to make sure you take your time enjoying the sights as you slowly climb.

If this bike was a little lighter it would be in our shed.

Cannondale Trigger 29er 1

Fresh from the folk who approach things a little differently comes the Cannondale Trigger, a peculiar looking beast packing enough tech features to make a vegetarian single speeder throw their hands in the air.

The Cannondale Trigger 29er 1

With 130mm of adjustable travel, aggressive tyres fitted to 29” wheels, wide bars and a dropper post this guy is pretty new school and attracts a lot of confused looks. For starters, it uses Cannondale’s radical one sided Lefty suspension ‘fork’ (can we call it a fork?) that still puzzles people, and out the back, resembling something you would use for underwater exploration, the FOX DYAD shock. It’s all about adjustability and adaptability for this bike.

Let’s begin with the front suspension. This Lefty is a fatty, with a far bigger girth than any Lefty we’ve seen; hence the steering precision is simply outstanding. To allow you to run a short stem (normally impossible with a Lefty, due to the top of the leg interfering with the handlebars), this new Lefty Max uses a 60mm offset axle allowing Cannondale to run a stumpy 50mm stem for rapid steering.

The ability to run the shorter stem was a great addition to the Trigger. It matched the type of riding the bike was designed for. The stack height is adjustable also via the five spacers.

Without going into too much detail about the fork’s workings and internals, what is does well is go exactly where you point it. With a firm grip on the bars you can steer it through all sorts of surfaces without that uncertainty that twisting fork legs can give you when pushed hard. It was a real highlight in fact, and we found ourselves using the bike’s solid steering to its fullest. Line choices were less crucial, as the notion of simply ploughing through whatever was in your path became a very good option.

This Lefty is fatter than most and we loved the steering precision. The only downside we noticed was its competence with high speed bump performance.

It was however not all rosy and sweet. We found the Lefty’s suspension action to be very harsh on our hands when the speeds increased, as if the fork just wasn’t reacting fast enough for repetitive hits, even with the rebound adjuster wound as fast as it would go. We raced this bike in the Flow Rollercoaster Gravity Enduro down Thredbo’s new Kosciusko Flow Trail, where you go flying full speed into repetitive braking ruts for over ten minutes. After back-to-back comparisons between a 26” bike with a FOX fork, the Lefty just felt wooden and harsh on the hands. We tried various air pressure settings, but that didn’t have much of an impact.

At slow speed however, the front and rear suspension felt plush, smooth, sensitive and balanced. It left us wondering if the fork could be tuned internally (or wishing for more external adjustments) so we could dial it in for faster terrain.

The unusual looking FOX DYAD uses two air chambers.

The rear suspension on the other hand pleased us and does what it sets out to do perfectly. Via the remote lever on the handlebar, you are able to toggle between two travel modes (130mm and 80mm), noting that this also has an effect on the bike’s riding position. Hitting the ergonomic lever is very easy; pushing it lessens the rear travel and stiffens the suspension, plus it lifts the back of the bike up slightly, putting you in a better climbing position (similar to dropping a travel-adjustable fork down in its travel).

The DYAD remote leaver enables you to change the travel from 130mm to 80mm and is easy to use at any time.

We used the lever regularly when we riding undulating singletrack, partially because in full travel mode the bike did wallow slightly under big bursts of pedal power, but also because it helped the bike jump up and get the uphills over and done with super fast. Setting the rear suspension air pressures is a little bit more involved than usual (as you’ve got two air chambers to deal with), but Cannondale have a handy little app that does the calculations off your body weight for you, taking out the guesswork. FOX also has this helpful page to help you set-up yours.

The performance of the rear suspension pleased us and via Cannondale’s setup guide app, it’s not too hard to set up either.

The way the Trigger rides is what we’d like to call new school. Our test bike came in size small, but still the generous length in the front end coupled with a short stem and wide 730mm bars put you in a position ready for trail negotiation, rather than racing efficiency. Take the Trigger to a technical trail and it will eat it up. The traction from the 29” wheels and the mighty Schwalbe Hans Dampf tyres is more generous than we could hope for, and breaking traction through a corner or up a steep climb became a novelty if it ever happened. We absolutely love these tyres, even though they may be a little slower to get rolling, the added traction outweighs that when you need far less braking to get through the turns without slipping.

Wide handlebars and a short stem matched with aggressive tyres gave the Trigger a great level of traction and control.

It seems like when a 29er with more than 120mm of travel is released, all attention goes to the length of the chain stays and how short they can be (shorter means snappier handling). At 448mm it is a couple millimetres shorter than the comparable Specialized Stumpjumper FSR we reviewed recently, and on the trail the Trigger rips through turns as fast as we could ever hope for. 13.6kg is a fair weight too, considering its burly nature.

If you take a close look at the frame, the fine construction and neat finishing will be easy to see. Large axles in the suspension pivots and wildly shaped tubing make the Trigger look even burlier than it rides, and give the bike its laterally stiff character. The rear dropout is a classy feature, using one 5mm allen key in the Syntace X-12 rear axle system, no quick release skewer to bash on rocks, but requires a key for wheel removal like the front does.

The frame is built large and strong and looks even burlier than it rides.
The details are not just aesthetically pleasing, they too are built for strength and purpose.

Cannondale have dressed the Trigger for success, with all the components performing well during our testing session. Even the basic X-Fusion adjustable post – although pretty squeaky when compressed – was always there for us. The brakes were super, and a Shadow Plus rear derailleur kept the drivetrain from losing composure in the rough. In one muddy ride the rear tyre, being tucked in so close, did deposit a lot of trail gloop right into the front derailleur mechanism and the front shifting started to go bad – just one more reason to fit a single chain ring setup we say! The only real mechanical issues was having to spend 15 minutes with a spoke key on the front wheel, after it lost a lot of spoke tension after only a few rides.

Oh yes we did like the Trigger, if it wasn’t for our aching hands at Thredbo we would have never given it back. It’s a real ‘one bike for all rides’ type of bike, and enjoyed what we were able to conquer on the trails aboard such a grippy and agile riding bike.

 

Syntace supplies the rear axle. The X12 system is neat and simple, using only one 5mm allen key to remove the wheel.
X-Fusion’s adjustable post lacked a smooth action, but never failed to work fine during testing.
Hit the blue lever and the fork nearly locks out, and to unlock simply push on the red section to engage.
Many of the suspension pivots use an axle and clamp system.
Note the fork axle offset.
Shimano XT brakes are simply amazing, all the time.
For a bike with a remote lever for the seatpost and rear shock, the cabling is still very neat.
Looks funky, doesn’t it? It rides great too.

 

 

Tested: GT Zaskar Carbon 100 9R Expert

The Zaskar moniker has been used by GT since 1991 with the introduction of their first USA made aluminum rigid mountain bike frame. Obviously our test bike; a carbon 29er dually from the east is a far stretch from the original Zaskar, but it still holds true to its historical cross country racing purpose.

The Zaskar Carbon 100 9R Expert.

So how did this new iteration of a true classic perform?

Let’s start with the suspension design, somewhat of a classic in itself, the GT I-Drive. This design has been used by GT in slightly different incarnations since 1999. At that time GT was considered the master of the mass-produced full suspension world but much has happened since then. The general concept of the I-drive is to isolate the crank from the suspension movement and in return reduce the effect chain tension has on the suspension action. The theory of this is to create a bob free efficient riding bike where energy isn’t wasted through the suspension but sent straight to the rear wheel. In reality it works well enough, just not as well as GT’s marketing team would lead you to believe.

The I-Drive is designed to isolate the crank from the suspension movement.
The non-drive side of the I-Drive.

While we still felt sufficient forward drive, the I-drive didn’t feel as efficient as other recent popular designs under heavy pedaling. And so we found ourselves reaching for the climb mode on the FOX CTD shock more than expected after witnessing the rear shock moving in time to the pedal stroke. Luckily, the horizontal and mid frame placing of the rear shock allowed easy reach to the CTD lever for smoother sections of trail or road.

The FOX rear shock was in easy reach to make on trail adjustments.

The Zaskar Carbon makes use of the woven material in an elegant way with swooping lines and smooth edges. We were impressed by the lateral stiffness of the frame with little sign of flex. While most of the frame is carbon, the suspension linkage points are aluminum along with the neatly machined out bottom bracket assembly. Due to the shock layout being where a water bottle would normally be placed, GT provides a bottle mount underneath the top tube. This bottle placement actually worked better than expected, however a rider with a narrow stance on the bike may occasionally feel the bottle rub the knee.

The carbon of the Zaskar frame is elegant with smooth lines and good looks.

The rear end with its 142mmx12mm axle provided a good level of stiffness, though the durability of the pivots proved to be an issue. After a solid few weeks riding, the I-drive developed an ear aching creak that was diagnosed as the lower linkage bearings. Upon pulling apart the extremely solid and well-made pivot area, it was found that dirt had entered into all bearing areas. The bearings are solid angular cartridge bearings that are normally used in headsets and should last a long time. However, regular maintenance is required to ensure that these bearings remain grit free with a good coat of grease.

Regular maintenance of the main bearing and pivots should keep the Zaskar quiet.

The RockShox Reba fork was a breeze to setup and with the handlebar mounted remote, we loved the overall ease of use. With its stiff 15mm thru axle and tapered steerer, we had no issues pointing the Zaskar into loose and off-camber turns with confidence. The only complaint we had with the fork was the factory set lockout compression was too light and still allowed the fork to compress when we didn’t want it.

The cockpit of the Zaskar with the remote lockout for the RockShox Reba forks.

We loved the Zaskar on descents, with immense traction and confidence through every twist and turn. The stiff frame and fork combination inspired us to push harder then what we’d normally with a 100mm travel bike. For a bike aimed at the XC and endurance enthusiast, we found the handlebar position on the higher side. With the stock 15mm Crank Brothers riser bar and the stem slammed on the headsets top cap, we disappointingly had no drop from saddle to bar height. While we were comfortable with this position and the handling it provided, at times of steep inclines we wished for a lower bar height without resulting to negative rise stems or similar.

We couldn’t fault the component spec with a mixture of SLX and XT drive components. The fitting of a XT clutch derailleur was a bonus, keeping the chain in place and quiet for the whole test period. The formula RX brakes had great controllable bite. However out of the box they needed a fair amount of work to setup completely drag free, much in part due to the close gap between pad and rotor. The Easton XC wheelset held true all test, although the hefty weight of over 2kg for the pair did slow down the bike’s acceleration. Overall the spec is a smart choice between durability and performance but didn’t lend well to a superlight bike.

The XT cranks on our pre-production tester, the production spec will be with SLX.  Formula brakes, and Easton wheels.

All up, the Zaskar Carbon 100 9R is a fun riding, capable and confident handling machine with a little old school branding flair. However, the upright handlebar position and maintenance prone linkage system may not appeal to many of the endurance crowd that this bike is aimed at.

BH Lynx 6 8.9 – We Put It To The Gravity Enduro Test

Spain: a land of long siestas, dark eyebrows and goat’s milk. And also home to one of the world’s oldest bike manufacturers, BH. Beistegui Hermanos – you can see why they abbreviate it – have been making bikes since Adam was a lad, with over 100 years of bike building under their belts. They also made guns during the Spanish Civil War, which is a perfect segue to this absolute weapon of a bike (like how we did that?), the Lynx 6 8.9.

We’ve been fortunate enough to secure one of these bad boys for a long-term test (check out our initial ride reports here), but we thought we’d see how the BH stacked up when it comes to gravity enduro racing too. This exciting, rapidly-growing, discipline is perfect for this style of bike. With its mixture of untimed climbing ‘transition’ stages and timed descents, you need a bike that won’t leave you drained by the ascents and that descends like a B-double with brake failure too.Would the BH fit the bill?

Our small-framed Lynx cut a compact figure. The complete bike (without pedals) weighs in just over 13.5kg.

On paper, it certainly appears that way: 150mm of travel front and rear (plenty), through-axles at both ends for stiffness, geometry that screams ‘let the brakes off!’ and a multitude of on-the-fly adjustments to make both climbs and descents enjoyable. Before we hit the trails, however, we made a few changes. First to go was the bar. At 680mm wide, it felt like it was designed for a child’s bike – this bike needs more width! A 730mm-wide Thomson bar added stability and control.

Next, we wanted the security and grip of a good set of tubeless tyres and strong wheels. The Shimano MT68 wheels can be converted to tubeless, but the Continental Mountain King rubber isn’t meant for tubeless use. To be safe, we swapped the whole wheelset for Shimano XTR hoops with tubeless Schwalbe rubber. Other than that, we were happy to ride the bike as it came out of the box.

Some of the cables are internally routed, helping clean up the bike’s lines. With remote levers for the seat post and rear shock, it pays to keep the cabling as neat as possible.

You don’t have much adjustment with the KS LEV seat post. Our frame was a size small (ideally we would’ve ridden a medium) and we had to run the post right on the minimum insert mark to get enough seat height. We noticed some nasty looking ‘tack’ welds where the shock ‘tunnel’ runs through the seat tube area. Normally you’d expect these to be removed or smoothed over before painting and they mar the look of this otherwise well-finished frame. We’re not overly taken by cheesy writing on the frame, labelling all the different features: we can see it’s a tapered head, there’s not need to write it on the frame!   A nice touch is that the frame, even in a small size, still fits a water bottle cage.

On an otherwise neatly constructed frame, it was a bit of a pity the welding along the inside edge of the shock tunnel wasn’t better finished. Note the water bottle mounts too – much appreciated.

To put the Lynx to the test, we rode it at the Flow Roller Coaster enduro race, held at Del Rio resort, NSW. So how’d she go?

We were surprised by how much we used the remote lever for the Fox CTD rear shock. It’s pretty bulky, however. If you run the bike with a single chain ring, the lever can be positioned where the front shifter is normally located.

You’re armed with a wide range of tools to make climbing on the BH as painless as possible. It’s not the lightest bike at over 13.5kg, but it pedals brilliantly. To ensure a maximum efficiency, the Fox CTD rear shock has a remote lever too, so you can firm the suspension up  – almost to the point of locking it out totally – without taking your hands off the bars. We did think this was a bit unnecessary at first (it does add to the tangle of cables on the front of this bike, with the seatpost using a remote lever too) but we actually found ourselves hitting the lever a fair bit, including during the racing when we had to sprint to the finish line across undulating terrain.

With a dual chain ring setup, there’s more than enough gear range for any climb. If this we’re our own bike, and if we were doing this kind of racing often, we’d consider taking advantage of the frame’s ISCG tabs and run a single chain. This drops a little weight, but more importantly, adds confidence, as you know your chain is always going to be in place when you lay down the power. That said, we only had one instance of chain drop, and even then the chain didn’t come the whole way off, it just fell onto the small chain ring. The excellent Shimano XT Shadow+ rear derailleur is to thank for this good drivetrain stability. Before the new generation of ‘clutch’ derailleurs, you’d have expected to drop your chain many times. Should you want to take on really steep climbs, the Fox TALAS fork allows you to drop the front end by 30mm as well. We didn’t really use this feature. In fact the fork was completely set and forget – we just left the three position damper adjustment in Trail mode and get on with it.

Going back down is this bike’s real forte. A 66.5-degree head angle puts the front wheel right out in front of you for confidence at higher speeds or when it gets steep. One of the descents on the Del Rio track has some properly steep chutes, and the slack front end definitely saved our bacon on a couple of occasions. The KS adjustable post was unreal, and the simple, light, actuation provide by the tiny remote lever encouraged us to really utilise the post. We must admit, the sheer number of levers going on up front did take some getting used to, and there was more than one occasion we locked out the rear shock instead of shifting chain rings! Perhaps this is another reason to go with a single ring up front.

The Split Pivot suspension system is one of the best.

Suspension performance is excellent overall. The Split Pivot suspension system is the brainchild of suspension genius Dave Weagle (and yes, it is pretty much identical to Trek’s ABP system). With a pivot located directly on the rear axle, the suspension performance is virtually unaffected by braking, meaning superb traction. Speaking of brakes, while we did have a bit of trouble getting the Formulas to have the same feel between front and rear brakes, they have impressive amounts of power.

Note how the shock is actuated from both ends? It’s sandwiched between the link and the swing arm, floating independently of the main frame. The stubby little front derailleur mount isn’t pretty but it works fine.

The shock itself is sandwiched between a linkage and the swingarm, allowing for precise control of the shock rate. Sensitive over the small bumps, ramping up nicely to handle the flat landings, we couldn’t have asked for more from the Lynx’s rear suspension. The fork was great too, though it did reconfirm our experience with other Fox forks of late, in that we needed to run it in the middle ‘Trail’ setting, rather than using ‘Descend’ mode. In the Descend setting, we found the fork a little to eager to dive into its travel.

With the wider bar fitted, and in conjunction with the low bottom bracket, stability in the corners was great. Despite the slack head angle, we didn’t find the bike too much work in slower, flatter corners. It could eagerly be flicked into switchback or threaded through the sandy corners that filled the middle section of the second Del Rio racetrack descent.

As a gravity enduro race bike, was really impressive. It oozes versatility and adjustability, has great descending manners balanced nicely with climbing prowess. The value for money stakes put this bike up the top of the pile too, though make sure you’ve got change for a wider handlebar. We’ll keep you updated as to how our long-term test bike keeps performing, but for gravity enduro racing, we give this bike a big tick.

Norco Sight Killer B-2

Sitting on top of the Norco Killer B-2 we felt like we were riding into the future. The 650B wheels matched to 140mm of travel position it in an area of the market that many riders are keen to experiment with. There are not many bikes available yet built specifically around this wheel size making this one quite topical.

The Norco Killer B-2.  140mm travel on 650B wheels.

The Design

As far as current, and future, competition is concerned, we were rapt to discover that Norco have set the standard high. In addition to redesigning their popular Sight frame around this middle-size wheel, the balanced geometry for riders of all sizes, high-performing part selection and thoughtful finishing touches make this bike an impressive first foray into 27.5” for Norco. [private]

Early on during our first outing, the initial thing that stood out was how balanced the Killer B felt, particularly in the small sized alloy frame that we tested. Key to this is what Norco call ‘Gravity Tune’, where each size frame is designed around a fixed ratio between the bottom bracket and front and rear axels to better accommodate riders of different heights.

This is a refreshing change from having a fixed chain stay length across all sized frames. Our small sized Killer B has a chain stay length of 423mm compared to the 432mm of the 650B Intense Carbine 275 we tested earlier for example. A longer chain stay length puts smaller riders in a less stable position in relation to the bottom bracket – something which is particularly noticeable when standing – and Gravity Tune addresses this.

The Gravity Tune approach to frame design means the main pivot point position, in relation to the bottom bracket, changes the effective chain stay length. This alters the effective seat tube angle as well, further enhancing rider position in relation to the bottom bracket.

The result: a welcome increase in traction and control. This design innovation also allows the wheelbase in each frame size to remain within 1mm of the wheelbase for the same size bikes in the 26” Sight range, indicating the nimble handling of this larger breed.

In short, Norco have effectively thrown a one-size-fits-all approach to rear end functionality out the window, which is something we hope to see on other frame designs in the future as well.

The ART (Advanced Ride Technology) rear suspension design also impressed us with virtually no bob for a bike of this size adding to the versatility, and ridability, of this rig. The rear axle path is slightly rearward as the suspension compresses. This improves bump performance and the slight amount of chain growth ensures good anti-squat (ie stable pedalling) performance.
A tried and true RockShox Revelation RL fork and Fox Float CTD rear shock complement the ART linkage system nicely. We had hardly any need to play with the Control, Trail, Descend adjustment on the rear. However, this did come in handy if we wanted to quickly firm things up, such as in the case of riding a sealed road to a ride destination or back to the top of a downhill trail. A bike like this quickly eliminates the need to beg your friends to help with shuttles.

The Build

As far as the rest of the build was concerned, given the price point of the mid-range B-2 (the highest spec’d model Aussie distributor, Advance Traders, is bringing in for 2013), we were pleased to see the brand hadn’t made cheap short cuts at the expense of exceptional riding experiences. The B-2 felt as though it had been built by a trusted friend; one who knows what you need to get the job done and who had added some thoughtful extras that keep your focus on having the most fun possible while out on the trails.

A Shimano SLX groupset offers the reliability of higher end products with a more economical price tag. The SLX brakes had a consistently smooth, reliable action. Finned pads and Ice-Tech rotors eliminate brake fade due to overheating on long descents.
The Shimano XT Shadow Plus rear derailleur kept the chain line tight and silent, allowing us to ditch the small chain guide that also came with the bike. We applied Frameskin Wrap out of habit to the chain stays but the chain has never gone near it.
An X-fusion Hilo dropper post, with a remote handlebar mount, is a welcome addition to the thoughtful build and adds to the playful character of the bike. The post was a little sticky at first but this was fixed with a small dose of synthetic lube above the seal.
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In addition to the low-key red and black graphics, this bike is decorated with some nice finishing touches that give it a classy, understated appearance. X-shaped brackets for guiding the fully housed cables, double welds to reinforce high-stress joins and a spare derailleur hanger bolt threaded into the down tube should you the hanger off while out on the trails.
A spare derailleur hanger bolt.

A 70mm stem kept the cockpit in balance with the small frame size and Ergon lock-on grips are comfortable and reliable in all conditions. The Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyres are suitably aggressive and the wide rear end of the WTB Volt Race saddle makes it a good unisex design. With this kit taken care of, no extra expenses are necessary before you wheel the bike out of the shop door.

740mm bars looked like a fun addition to playful, stable handling on the trails but these were simply too much bar for our narrow shouldered tester, so we swapped them out for something smaller.

The Ride

The Killer B-2 made the journey more fun.

Approaching 14kgs with pedals, the Killer B-2 is clearly not a born climber. But once we settled in to riding up hills at a more relaxed pace things became instantly more pleasurable.  The 650B wheel smoothed out any rough rocky ‘ups’ and the balanced geometry continued to feel stable and comfortable – the front wheel never lifted off the ground when the gradient got high.

Climbs were where we could imagine a real killer bee hovering along in the air slowly scoping it next target. When we got to the top and the target was in sight, the Killer B zeros in and excels.

Each time we pointed the Killer B down a technical descent, everything that makes this package a winner came to the fore. It handled like a nimble 26er through tight twists and turns keeping our speed high and our eyes fixed on the fast approaching trail ahead. Unlike a 29er, you don’t need to adjust your line choices and technique through corners. Or, in the case of smaller riders, compromise riding position and bike set up to rail the trails confidently, at speed.

More nimble and playful, the Killer B does love to be jumped and pumped through the trails.

While the 650B wheels and plush, efficient suspension design dulled the feel of moderately technical trails, the more we rode through the guts of anything particularly rocky or rooty, the more the Killer B lit up. This is where we could feel the smooth, balanced action of the suspension really come into play – a feeling that was only enhanced by the very stable ride feel of the bike as a whole. It felt a bit like a moody teenager at times; eager to show you what it could do, and noticeably grumpy if you pulled on the anchors to slow it down or signify your distrust.

The only drawback to an excellent package was the weighty Sun Inferno rims laced to Formula hubs. The extra effort to keep these wheels rolling was noticeable when pedalling and was more draining than we would have liked on climbs. The obvious upgrades here are lighter, stiffer hoops and lighter cassette as there is plenty of weight to be dropped there too. Running a tubeless set up and softer compound tyres wouldn’t go astray either. This would quickly drop a kilo off the B-2 adding to its versatility and manoeuvrability, and allow riders to further enjoy the rolling and handling benefits of the 650B wheel size.

The Conclusion

At $3799, the B-2 is an attractive bike for XC riders wanting to enjoy gnarlier trails, downhill riders keen for a rig they can ride back up to the top of the hill, or anyone at all who wants to make their mate’s 29er look like something from 2012. The dialled geometry makes it instinctive to ride and the overall build has been carefully assembled with fun, rewarding trail riding in mind. Given the absence of similar bikes available in the short term, we expect to see a lot of riders customising this bike to drop the weight and up its handling even further.

Where the Norco Killer B would rather be.

[/private]

Cannondale Flash 2 29 Review

I was spoilt for choice when it came to choosing a bike to race the BIG HURT on (a 750km unsupported bikepacking race – read more about it in issue #1 of Flow), but ultimately I chose the Cannondale F29 2, and with very good reason.

One reason I specifically choose the super light Cannondale comes down to the geometry of the bike. Cannondale hardtails have a slightly lower seat tube and top tube when compared to other bikes with the same length top tube. For long distance bikepacking this is a boon; getting on and off the bike (which I did an awful lot on the hike-a-bikes of the Big Hurt race!) is much easier with the low standover height. Aside from bikepacking, this lower-than-average top tube height made the bike a singletrack weapon, providing a spacious platform for my knees to sway side to side in the tightest of technical singletrack.

The F29 in cross-country race mode. It was a very different beast when kitted out for the Big Hurt bike packing race!

This comfort of this bike is truly awesome too; traditionally a lightweight carbon frame like this, especially one so stiff in the bottom bracket and headtube areas, would have a harsh ride, but this bike is very smooth. The three-way combination of 29er wheels, the supple Lefty XLR 90 fork and the unique “SAVE” seat post take the edge off rough trails when seated. It’s only when you stand to climb, with the fork locked-out that you once again notice the stiffness of the whole bike, and smile knowing the power transfer is going straight into forward movement.

The SAVE seat post is not a gimmick. It adds a level forgiveness to an already comfortable bike.

The seatpost design includes a taper in the upper 1/3rd, which allows the seatpost to flex forward and backwards up to ten millimetres. I thought it was a gimmick, so put a Thomson seat post in, and the difference was noticeable enough for me to go back to the SAVE post after an hour. It really works.

Front wheel removal was easier than we anticipated, though you do still need to undo three bolts. A BB30 bottom bracket makes for a excellent power transfer. With a 1.5″ head tube, the front end frame stiffness is superb. We had plenty of confidence in the Elixir brakes, especially with a 180mm front rotor.

The 90mm-travel Lefty XLR 90 fork is another standout feature, and to be honest, loads of people are going to buy a Cannondale to have bragging rights with the design. I was initially sceptical that a single legged fork would A) be rigid enough, B) track straight, C) be a pain when transporting to from the trails. After spending three months on this bike I can confirm that A) the fork combined with oversized head tube makes for an impressively rigid front end, B) the bike tracks straight even in the roughest of trails and C) slotted disc brake mounts make the front wheel easy to remove for transport.

The SRAM X0/X9 drivetrain didn’t put a foot wrong across the three months of testing.

The groupset is a combination of SRAM X9 and XO parts, which work flawlessly. The shifting is well defined, and the brakes, with a front 180mm rotor up front and 160mm up back, pulled me up easily with a nice modulated feel via the carbon lever (even with none kilos of luggage on board).

One last feature that made me smile, is that the wheels are already setup for tubeless use.  I simply had to remove to the tubes, install the Stan’s tubeless valve stems (supplied) and pump up with a compressor. It’s small details like this that make a good bike great.

As much as I liked this bike, there were few little things that bugged me. The first is the integrated stem/headset. It just isn’t the most trail maintenance friendly design, as it requires a bottom bracket tool to tighten. Additionally the stem is Cannondale specific, which does limited the choice if you require a change of stem length or simply want to upgrade. The last two points are personal preference, as the Fi’zi:k Tundra saddle didn’t work with my bottom, and the grips didn’t connect well with my hands.

The Cannondale proved to be more fun in the singletrack than you’d expect for what is really a cross-country race bike. Sharp, aggressive handling makes it instantly responsive.

To surmise, this bike really surprised me. I initially thought it was going to be too harsh and uncomfortable, but I have walked away from this bike test smiling. This bike should have been harsher on my body, and slower in the singletrack with its long wheelbase but it was neither of those. It’s comfortable enough for to spend day after day bikepacking with, yet still rock up to a cross-country race and hit the singletrack so fast that you are only limited by your own reaction times.

Intense Carbine 275

Legendary Californian frame manufacturer, Intense, have been busy, with a bunch of new carbon frames popping up lately. Now they are fast making inroads into the world of 650B. This was to be our first full test experience aboard a 650B (27.5”) bike, with real trail time booked in for this glossy red stunner.

A lustrous glossy red paint job turns heads, and up close the finish is neat and reflects the premium quality of the brand.

Our Carbine is about as expensive as mountain bikes get, at $10,999, but is also adorned with some of the sweetest components available too. Intense bikes are well known for having the dialed geometry that appeals to the experienced pilot, and their VPP suspension system has always attracted much attention from those looking for a supple yet efficient ride.

A rubberised guard protects the underside of the frame from trail debris. It really is a great looking bike though, isn’t it?

But after our testing term at Flow we felt divided; both positive and disappointed, stoked and frustrated. Were we able to see past the stellar components and the ride characteristic of the wheel size to see what the frame offered us in terms of construction and geometry? Did we expect too much for the money, or just more from such a highly regarded manufacturer? This was a tricky one to test. [private]

Firstly, it was too hard to go past the fact that this bike is rolling on the new wheel size. We could bang on about wheel sizes for yonks, but in short having a bigger diameter wheel helps you roll over rough terrain with better momentum. Apply 29” wheels to a bike with more suspension travel and it becomes too much of a challenge to retain snappy handling and the whole wheelbase becomes too long. That is where the whole idea of the 650B wheel comes into play, with the theory that a 650B wheel does not compromise a bikes geometry but benefits from added rolling performance and traction. Mumbo jumbo? No, absolutely not, trust us on this one.

650B components, like wheels and forks, are now available from all the major players. 650B is not going away, and for very good reasons.

We took the Carbine 275 on our third magazine road trip, down the south coast of NSW to the singletrack haven of Tathra. And our first ride was just behind town in lovingly constructed trails oozing flow and speed. Through turn after turn we found ourselves well adapted and comfortable in no time. That is exactly what we have been hearing from those who try 650B for the first time – it doesn’t really feel that much different, certainly not like it does when you jump from a 26” to a 29” bike.

Tathra was the prefect testing ground for the Carbine.  Fast and flowing.

Rolling momentum aside, what we found out quickly was how damn hard you could push the front tyre through a turn. It became almost a challenge to wash the front end out! The added contact patch of the 650B wheel in unison with our most beloved all mountain tyre – the venerable Schwalbe Hans Dampf – made for more traction than we have seen on a bike as light and agile. This translated to cornering speed like nothing else!

Ok, you could put ENVE rims on any bike to boost its performance, even more so when the diameter gets bigger, a light rim is key. Plus they are stiff, and tubeless. Perfect.

So what did we think of the wheel diameter? We liked it a lot but it didn’t blow us away. It definitely did roll better over the terrain than a 26” bike of comparable nature, but rarely did it feel top heavy, long or cumbersome like some 29ers can. In corners, you could feel that the slightly bigger wheel required a little more exaggerated body language to really tip the bike underneath you to have the side knobs of the tyres biting the trail. Also, when we applied the brakes in a long turn, the bike wanted to ‘stand up’ more than a 26 might. Lucky the Enve wheels are ridiculously light, we feel that a heavier wheel will portray that more. But, all said the benefits of rolling and traction certainly do outweigh any adverse experiences.

You see that – a smile. The Carbine was fun to ride.

On to the frame now, and there is a lot to say about this. The heart of the  bike’s performance lies in both the supple VPP suspension system and the smooth and quiet carbon feel. VPP (virtual pivot point) is a patented design used by both Intense and Santa Cruz. VPP was the first really successful application of the dual link concept, where the aim is to have greater control of the rear axle path as it travels through the suspension travel. It has gone under many modifications over the years, but it has to be said that the birth of the VPP concept spurred a flurry of frame designers from other brands looking to create a suspension design that offered similar traits but not infringing on any existing patents. Many brands have similar designs on the market today, a testament to the design’s effectiveness and ability to transcend suspension trends.

The Carbine is one of very few bikes that can be converted to accommodate 26” and 650B wheels. In this case, Intense’s G1 replaceable dropouts that let you fit a bigger wheel and also adapt the geometry to suit. So effectively, with wheels, tyres, forks and dropouts you could have two bikes, but that would be pretty crazy.

Note the red anodised dropouts, that is the only difference between a 26″ and 650B frame, the G1 dropout is interchangeable for the two wheel sizes.

There is so much to love about how the Carbine feels on the trail, but we were not impressed with the lateral rigidity and stiffness of this bike. The lower VPP linkage was the location of the flex, and over the first few rides it developed more side-to-side play and a knocking sound that we could not pinpoint or eradicate. In comparison to Intense frames of years past, a few construction modifications have been made to boost the stiffness (like creating a wider lower link), so the Carbine is stiffer than some of its predecessors, but the flex is still worth noting.

For us, the lateral movement and knocking sounds was not ideal. And it was all coming from down at the VPP pivot points.

Why is this a problem? Well, at times we lacked the confidence to really push the bike hard through banked turns, or hold high speeds through heavy g-out compressions like a gully. Also when you put power into the pedals we felt like we were losing power through frame flex. This won’t be a deal breaker for everyone though, and could simply be a trade off for the efficient VPP suspension and one of the lightest frames in its class.

The light bike made trail riding much easier.

The bike rides very well in regards to the rear suspension. When mashing down hard on the pedals the bike resists wallowing nicely, and that feeling of stability was there with us on the climbs too. It’s a different feeling suspension action to, say, a Specalized FSR or the Lapierre Zesty we’ve been riding a lot; when you push down on the suspension when stationary it feels firm under hand, and not too supple, even when bouncing around in the car park the same firm feeling is obvious. But let it roll through the trails and it can do no wrong, maintaining great composure, soaking up hard knocks to keep you moving forward, or conforming to the terrain helping your tyres staying in contact with the dirt. The Carbine also exhibits that supple feeling of carbon that we have all grown to love when compared to aluminium frames, dampening the vibrations of the ride and exhibiting springiness and shock absorption.

Two holes in the shock mount allows you to swap between 140mm and 152mm of travel.

Intense bikes are offered in Australia as frames and build kits, this one was about as premium as it gets, with a full dose of flashy ENVE kit, a reliable SRAM X0 drivetrain and the Avid X0 Trail brakes we have grown very fond of. The Rockshox Reverb adjustable seat post confirmed our love of the product and with tubeless ready Schwalbe tyres we hit the trails in confidence with no fuss.

All said and done we enjoyed the ride, the beautiful appearance and fast rolling 650B aspect of the Carbine 275. We did however feel a little let down by the knocking and flexing linkage, especially for the high price of the frame alone. But with such a low frame weight and efficient suspension this bike could well be the ‘quiver killer’. Sell your marathon race bike and all mountain bike to own just one high-dollar trail blaster. You’d need to sell two bikes to buy this one, that’s for sure.

It’s carbon alright, and plenty of it. Up front the junction of the tubes is beefy and very glossy.
Intense are well versed in the use of grease ports for simple and quick bearing maintenance, simply squirt fresh grease into the bearings to keep them clean and free from contamination.
Designed in the USA, manufactured in Taiwan with the help from German carbon experts SEED Engineering. A real collaboration indeed.
Our test rig came with a 70mm stem and 700mm wide flat bars from ENVE. A great combination for aggressive all mountain style riding. And carbon of course, contributing to the low weight and high cost of this particular bike.
The tester of this 2013 Carbine once owned a 1997 Intense M1 downhill bike, similar to the one John Tomac won silver in the 1997 World DH Championships. The racing heritage is strong with Intense.
For 2013, Rockshox have a new range of Solo Air forks that do away with complicated Dual Air system. This one was so incredibly smooth and supple from the first ride and we also loved the user friendly compression adjustments.
A Shimano direct mount derailleur operates the SRAM 2×10 chainrings without any worries.

 

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Rocky Mountain Vertex 990 RSL

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Rocky Mountain are best known in Australia for their gravity-oriented bikes – it’s pretty hard to shake the awesome legacy of their pioneering role in the freeride world – but Flow thinks this Canadian brand makes a mighty fine cross country race weapon too. We tested the Rocky Mountain Vertex 990 RSL carbon 29er hardtail at the Cape-to-Cape MTB four-day stage race in Western Australia and came away stoked. As an off-the-shelf race machine, this sleek number leaves you wanting for nothing. [private]

 

Our medium test bike felt super compact – the low top tube height and short rear end gives it dimensions that you rarely see on a 29er.
With a short head tube, it’s easy to get an aggressive climbing position on the Vertex. Internal routing of the gear cables keeps it all neat and means there is no cable run around the frame.
The surprising comfort of the Rocky is in part due to the use of a slender 27.2mm seat post, which adds compliance to the ride when seated. The carbon Race Face post is a beauty too, and very easy to adjust. We didn’t mesh with the Fizik Tundra, but many butts will.
The Race Face cockpit is very comfy with a 70mm-wide bar. We experimented with rolling the bars forward and back to get different sweep and ran a shorter 70mm stem, rather than the 90mm stock stem. An 80mm stem would’ve been better ultimately, as the 70mm tended to make the front wheel a little light on steep climbs.

 

The Rockshox SID RL is supple and easy to set up. We were surprised by how much we used the remote lock out too, and the 15mm axle makes for a precise steering front end.

 

SRAM provides the drivetrain and brakes, both of which worked flawlessly, though the brakes do get pretty noisy in dusty, hot conditions. Note the 142x12mm rear axle – stiff, baby yeah.
The brake, shifter and remote fork lock out are all integrated into one neat Match Maker clamp.

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Must-Ride: Bikes and Brews Tour Part 3

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It’s Thirsty Work, but someone’s got to do it!

 

For issue #2 of Flow Mountain Bike, the Flow team of Mick, Chris, Kath, Greg, Damian and Reiner got on the road once again, heading to the Victorian high country. On the program was a three bonanza of bikes and brews, taking in Beechworth, Mt Beauty and Bright.

Our host, Shannon Rademaker of All Terrain Cycles, looked after us in royal style and you can read all about it in issue #2 of Flow Mountain Bike, on sale now.

Part 3 takes the Flow crew through the sweet trails of Bright, Victoria.  A fitting end to what was one of the best road trips we’ve had.

Filmed and edited by Rainman Productions.

Must-Ride: The Bikes and Brews Tour, Part 1

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It’s Thirsty Work, but someone’s got to do it!

 

Mick rides the rocks of Beechworth Mountain Bike Park, located just a short pedal from the centre of town and it’s delicious lamingtons.

For issue #2 of Flow Mountain Bike, the Flow team of Mick, Chris, Kath, Greg, Damian and Reiner got on the road once again, heading to the Victorian high country. On the program was a three bonanza of bikes and brews, taking in Beechworth, Mt Beauty and Bright.

Thirsty? We were after a hot day on the Beechworth Trails. Tanswells Hotel sorted that right out.

Our host was Shannon Rademaker, of All Terrain Cycles, who looked after us in royal style. Here’s part one of the journey, of our three part series, Sydney and Beechworth. You can read all about it in issue #2 of Flow Mountain Bike, on sale now.

Filmed and edited by Rainman Productions.

 

 

Flow's First Bite: Rocky Mountain Vertex 990 RSL

The Vertex 990 RSL is the penultimate machine in the very comprehensive Vertex carbon 29er hardtail lineup from Canadian manufacturer, Rocky Mountain. It was also one of the bikes that the Flow team opted to take over to the four-day Cape to Cape MTB stage race in Western Australia recently.

The high modulus FORM carbon frame is bedecked in a full SRAM X0 groupset. with a Rockshox SID 100mm fork handling the suspension duties and the whole shebang rolling on DT Swiss wheels. Cast an eye over the spec sheet and you’ll soon see that it’s every inch the race bike

Rocky claim that the Vertex frame redefines what to expect from a racing 29er hardtail, with a shorter wheel base and shorter chain stays to better shred technical trails. The bottom bracket height is also higher than some of the competition, an attribute that Rocky claim aids manoeuvrability by allowing the rear wheel to be tucked in closer.

Flow’s First Bite: Rocky Mountain Vertex 990 RSL

The Vertex 990 RSL is the penultimate machine in the very comprehensive Vertex carbon 29er hardtail lineup from Canadian manufacturer, Rocky Mountain. It was also one of the bikes that the Flow team opted to take over to the four-day Cape to Cape MTB stage race in Western Australia recently.

The high modulus FORM carbon frame is bedecked in a full SRAM X0 groupset. with a Rockshox SID 100mm fork handling the suspension duties and the whole shebang rolling on DT Swiss wheels. Cast an eye over the spec sheet and you’ll soon see that it’s every inch the race bike

Rocky claim that the Vertex frame redefines what to expect from a racing 29er hardtail, with a shorter wheel base and shorter chain stays to better shred technical trails. The bottom bracket height is also higher than some of the competition, an attribute that Rocky claim aids manoeuvrability by allowing the rear wheel to be tucked in closer.

Bianchi Methanol 29 SL

A hardtail 29er can be a frightful beast. Just look around the start line of any marathon, stage or cross country race and the pointy end is littered with hard tailed big wheel rides. They are built unashamedly for speed. Ride hard, ride fast and hang on.

So where does the Methanol 29 SL fit in? Well let’s lay it down straight. Bianchi believe that the frame is the heart of the bike and the Methanol certainly exudes this belief – the frame is a work of art. However, like an underdressed supermodel, the carbon frame is smoking hot yet the accessories need some tweaking. It’s a heavier ride than it should be, and in its current guise, flickable it ain’t.

This sexy super model of a bike looks at home sunning at the beach.

With a lot of rider input the Methanol tugs at the reigns begging to be let loose. It’s some work to get it there but when the trail opens up and the pace goes on the Methanol comes into its own. [private]

The Methanol sports an integrated seat post which is great for direct and stiff power transfer (ably assisted by the BB30 bottom bracket), however not so great for the pre-ride hacksaw cut. As they say, measure twice and cut once! Not a fan of the integrated seat mast? Well the Bianchi engineers designed the frame to accept a 31.6mm seat post if you prefer. Regular travelers and those thinking of resale options will appreciate this feature. Great thinking Bianchi.

The Methanol’s BB30 and integrated seat post both contribute to a stiff frame and solid power transmission.

Having lopped the mast, the first hours on the bike were frustrating to say the least. We had endless troubles with the Ritchey WCS stubby seat clamp, so much so that seated riding over any bumps was impossible as the saddle continually tilted backwards. Back in the garage and after a complete disassemble and over-torquing the seat finally stayed were it was pointed. No longer did we have to fear talking like a chipmunk!

If you prefer to run a seat post rather than the integrated seat mast top thinking by Bianchi’s engineers sees that a 31.6mm seat post will fit inside. Perfect for regular travelers who prefer a more compact frame to pack and great for resale options too.

Overall the Methanol is specced with reliable if not remarkable components. Magura MT 4 brakes, Magura TS6 29 100mm fork, Shimano XT derailleurs and Fulcrum Red Power 29 XL wheels take care of the duties.

The Shimano XT derailleurs were reliable as ever and we’re a big fan of the 2 x 10 setup with FSA’s 24/38 teeth chain rings. Paired with the 36 tooth on the rear we never went searching for a granny gear. Double chain ring setup is where it’s at for a bike like this, although there were times when we wished for a higher gear as we spun out the 38/11 combo when pushing it on the fire roads.

Shimano XT front and rear derailleurs performed faultlessly during the test period.
2×10 is where it’s at with the Methanol and the FSA cranks with 24/38 teeth chain rings were a great fit.

We don’t come across Magura’s forks all that often however the Methanol came fitted with Magura’s TS6 100mm 29 fork. With Magura’s Double Arch Design and solid build it tops the scales at a solid 1,945 grams (claimed). At this weight stiffness wasn’t an issue and we appreciated the 15 mm MAGURA M15 thru-axle as well. Magura even manage to slip a Torx 25 key into the axle so there’s no pocket multi tool hunt required to get the front wheel off.

We did experience a bewildering sound from the fork’s lockout when engaged and taking a solid hit. Even rolling off gutters was enough to blow the fork through the lockout and create an almighty twanging sound. To say this was unnerving was an understatement, it sounded like the forks were imploding, however with the lockout disengaged the fork operated quietly and solidly.

Our test bike experienced a unique twanging noise when the fork took a hit whilst locked out. The Double Arch Design adds beef to the fork and helps to prevent flex.

The Magura MT4 brakes were powerful enough and generally played nice however occasionally the front brake produced shuddering at both low and high speeds. On investigation we found that the 180mm brake adapter fitted to the test bike’s fork pushed the front caliper too far outboard. After removing the adapter and running the caliper as direct mount we found the problem went away. The caliper had sufficient clearance to be drag free so it beats us why the adapter was fitted in the first place…

We found that after removing the supplied Magura adapter the brakes performed better and stopped shuddering. We also love the Torx 25 key nestled into the fork axle. Forward thinking there.

The Fulcrum Red Power 29 XL wheels were sweet and they remained straight and true contrary to our best efforts to get loose. Despite their strength though we’d say that at 1,915 grams there’s potential for a lighter race wheel upgrade in there to bring the Methanol closer to what it’s intended for.

It’s hard to pin point exactly what market the Methanol is targeted at. By default the 29’er hard tail category is inevitably aimed at racing with quick accelerations, nimble handling and efficient riding. The Bianchi reaches high and with a few tweaks you’d have yourself a smoking weapon. Ditch the seat, save for some lighter race wheels and you’ve got yourself at least a ride a day habit.

To help dull impacts from trail debris the Methanol has a titanium net woven into the lower section of the down tube.
The Magura MT 4 brake design sees the lever and brake body sitting quite a way outboard from the bars. Whilst we had no issues under test they seem quite exposed in the event of a crash.
The Methanol frame is a real head turner with clean lines and matt grey finish.

 

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Racing with the Merida team

The World Cup level pros ride some pretty great equipment; their bikes usually represent the pinnacle of the sport and are nothing but drool worthy. Few brands actually sell the bike that their sponsored pros ride, mostly due to prohibitive costs. However, the Merida Ninety Nine Carbon Team-D isn’t like most bikes and it arrived to us awaiting the top step of the podium. [private]

 

Rumour has it that Merida used more carbon in the production run of their Ninety-Nine Team bikes that was used by NASA and Boeing combined. It’s a weight weenie’s paradise.

If you’re a fiend for the composite materials, you’d be dehydrating from salivation with so much attention to carbon fibre detail; it was a challenge to find metal! Handlebars, seat post, frame, fork lowers and crown/steerer, rear shock body, frame rocker link, rear derailleur cage, shifter covers, brake levers, seat clamp and on the woven goodness went. We were surprised and slightly disappointed for the money to see the carbon theme stop before the wheels, with Merida using the still very light Alex XCR rims.

Carbon heaven. There’s more of the fantastic plastic in the Merida Ninety Nine Team than a NASA tupperware party.

The frame is constructed with high modulus carbon fibre that creates a super light yet laterally rock solid structure. We didn’t sense a hint of flex out of the frame’s main triangle that features both tapered head tube and oversized BB30 bottom bracket.

Stiffer than a frozen banana, we found the lateral rigidity to weight ratio very impressive.

The carbon rear end was equally as solid; much in part due to the large asymmetrical chain stays and thick carbon dropouts. Cable routing was neat, the front derailleur cable internally routed through the top tube while the other cables were sealed in full length housing and guided along the downtube and under the bottom bracket, well away from the rider.

A solid wind-up quick release skewer keeps wheel changes fast whilst retaining rear wheel rigidity.

Something we loved and hope to see on more bikes in future was the FSA ‘Head Block’ headset with internal rubber stoppers to stop the bars over rotating in the event of a crash and consequently damaging the delicate top tube with the brake levers. Adding to the bike’s overall team theme was the colour matched SRAM XX, although sadly the shifters and brakes didn’t receive the same treatment as the cranks and rear derailleur.

An FSA Headblock headset actually stops the handlebars from rotating all the way around. In a crash this prevents the bars from spinning around and impacting on the frames delicate carbon tup tube, a clever spec choice!

Our first outing left us unimpressed as we slowly plotted around the trails. Every small bump was felt as the rear shock’s lack of small bump compliance became obvious and substantial suspension movement under pedalling was witnessed. This wallowing, yet harsh, suspension had us quickly questioning this bike….until we turned up the speed.

It’s at speed that this bike was meant to be, the previously harsh small bump compliance becomes a less an issue and the suspension soaks up the larger fatiguing hits well, allowing the rider to stamp on the pedals.  A tubeless tyre setup would help with the poor small bump compliance and it’s the first change we’d recommend making to the otherwise top level spec.

The lockout levers are plentiful and busy on the handlebars.

The market for 26″ wheeled XC race bikes is certainly dwindling, but as the Ninety Nine proved, it’s impossible to beat the sheer acceleration and flick-ability of a super light smaller wheeled dually. At just over 9.3kg, getting this bike up to speed was effortless, helped along with its incredibly stiff frame construction. With the suspension open it was efficient, however when on-road stints or all out attacks were required, the remote lock-outs transformed the pedalling efficiency and ensured rider output went where it needed to go; forward. The fork features a two stage lock-out, with the first stage closing the rebound circuit and the second locking the fork; perfect for getting that front end real low and attacking the smoother climbs.

The DT Swiss fork has remote adjustability, lightweight and a sleek look on its side. But, it won’t suit the heavy handed riders out there. Racers only!

Our previous experiences with the amazingly light, carbon DT Swiss suspension have left us underwhelmed and sad to say, this story is no different. Just about all our qualms with the bike were suspension related; while a pit crew could solve these issues, the everyday racer doesn’t have such luxuries.

The fork suffered from an unreasonable amount of bushing play straight from the box causing some brake shudder and hampered steering precision when cornering on rough terrain. The rear shock produced an annoying knock as it topped out from minor compressions.  With separate remote lockouts for the rear shock and fork, there were many levers and a maze of cables in front of the bars. However, causing much confusion was the fork lockout featuring a different mechanism and form of operation compared to the rear shock, requiring some thought and effort in use.

Carbon crown, steer tube and lower legs. It’s a good looker!

While we didn’t love the DT Swiss suspension, there is good news for the 2013 model with Merida making the change to Rockshox suspension, which we do love!

While Merida was slow to the 29er world, this past season has seen the majority of team Multivan Merida adopt 29ers on the world stage, including such names as José Hermida, Ralph Näf and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå. Nevertheless, if 26” remains your thing, the 2013 model is a great option; everything we loved stays, the price is lowered and a change to RockShox suspension will allow the NinetyNine to be the World Cup weapon that it should be. [/private]

 

An Anthem 29er, made from the smooth stuff

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‘What is better, 26″ or 29″?’ you say. Well, in the 100mm travel suspension domain a 29″ wheel bike rules the roost. And what better way to improve on an already mighty successful bike than give it a composite front end?

We have spent plenty of time aboard the aluminium Anthem X 29er, so what difference does a little less metal and a little more composite do to the ride?  [private]

It’s a big one, with a wheelbase long enough to keep anyone stable at speed.
Swoopy and silky, the Advanced Anthem not only looks better, but the frame material adds just a little bit of energy and zip to the ride.
A short head tube will allow the racer-types to dump the handlebars down low to attain a racier position.
A perfect match to the Giant’s smooth appearance is Rockshox’s SID 29.
Sag guides and pressure inflation charts make setting up the SID easy as pie.

The Maestro suspension design remains one of the more reliable and effective dual link designs out there. Under pedalling the Anthem reveals very little bobbing and behaves very well when piloted through rough trails.
Still using a quick release rear axle, and an aluminium rear end as Giant does no see much of an improvement in going for a solid axle in a composite rear end.
Schwalbe’s Racing Ralph could be one of the most popular tyres around right now, and mounted to Giant’s P-XC2 wheels makes for a solid and reliable wheelset. Upgrading to a super light set of wheels would be a perfect future upgrade.

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Deubel’s proto 180mm 2UP

It takes a brave person to launch an Australian-made bike brand. In a sport where the big manufacturers are so dominant and most consumers are price driven, some would say it’s an impossible task. But Sebastien and Gisella Deubel ARE brave, and the bike they’ve produced is sensational fun.[private]

With its distinctive burnt orange colour, the Deubel cuts a striking figure. Those out there who say single pivot suspension is out dated really need to shut their traps and give a well designed single pivot bike a whirl.

The Deubel 2UP is an entirely Australian-made frame. Designed, welded, painted, assembled in Sydney. It’s also a very unique bike, not perhaps in terms of its suspension configuration (which is a simple-as-it-gets single pivot) but in terms of its versatility.

The 2UP is a real chameleon; interchangeable dropouts and shock mounts allow you to adapt the bike quickly and easily to change it from a trail bike to an all-mountain shredder. And now the Deubel team have expanded the bike’s capabilities once again. With the addition of new 150x12m dropouts and revised forward shock mounts, the 2UP can now be transformed into a 180mm-travel downhill/freeride weapon.

We’ve ridden the Deubel 2UP in its trail bike guise before and loved its playful geometry and simple, remarkably effective suspension. So when the chance to give it a whirl in a longer-travel, slacker configuration came about, we jumped at it.

While the 180mm-travel 2UP is still officially a prototype, it has been making a name for itself on the Australia National and NSW State DH circuits for some time now underneath up and coming junior, David Maggs. It’s often said that Australian downhill courses favour a lighter, shorter-travel bike and the results the 2UP has been clocking up seem to back up this assertion.

To achieve the transformation to downhill bike, the frame’s designer Sebastien Deubel created dedicated downhill dropouts which give the bike a 440mm chain stay and use a 150x12mm axle spacing. He also modified the interchangeable forward shock mount to facilitate the use of a 2.5″ stroke Fox DHX Air 5.0 shock and to slacken the head angle out to a more downhill friendly 65 degrees.

With the revised forward shock mounts, the Deubel has just enough room to squeeze in a Fox DHX Air 5.0 shock. Note the tabs on the top tube for an adjustable seat post and the clean internal cable routing for the gear and brake lines.

180mm-travel, 440mm chain stay, 65 degree head angle (with a Fox 36 180mm fork); these numbers definitely aren’t what we’ve become accustomed to lately from full-blown downhill bikes, most of which are running a 63 degree or slacker head angle. But does Australian terrain really demand a bike with a World Cup slack geometry? The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

The frame is made from extremely high quality Easton EA6X tubing. Each frame is loving assembled by hand in Sydney, Australia. The head tube is 1.5″ affair, which means the option of running an Angleset is there if you wanted to slacken the bike further.

Our test bike was actually David Maggs personal race machine, but we were encouraged to fettle, so we did, dropping the fork pressures to accommodate riders who aren’t hitting everything at warp speed.

Setting up the rear suspension, we noted the classic feel of a long travel air shock – it seems firm at the top of the stroke, then happily uses its mid-stroke before ramping up to avoid bottom out. We were surprised to find that we couldn’t slow the rear shock rebound speed down, it was already at its slowest setting. We’d definitely be sending this shock in to get the rebound damping range tuned to allow more adjustment.

To put this bike through its paces, we headed to Sydney’s Oxford Falls where there’s a great concentration of short downhill and freeride tracks. It was the perfect terrain for the 2UP.

The 2UP feels very happy in the air. With sharper angles and a lower weight than most downhill bikes, it’s a playful kind of ride.

It was no surprise that the 2UP in this longer, slacker configuration shared many of the same ride characteristics as found in its 150mm-travel setting. In short, it’s playful, precise and there’s nothing excessive or vague about its feel on the trail. We took all of about 30 seconds to feel right at home.

The single pivot suspension just loves being loaded up and flung off jumps. It lands superbly too, just lightly getting full travel without any harsh bottom outs. You’ll need to pick where you put down the power though, as the 2UP doesn’t like being pedalled over choppy terrain.

While the frame isn’t as burly through the rear end as some other true downhill bikes, it’s not overly flexy either. In our mind, there’s just enough lateral flex in it to make for a comfortable, whippy kind of ride, giving it a lively feel. The ride is dead quiet too, thanks to the elevated chain stay.

You’ve got to love a single pivot – not much to go wrong there! Any mug can keep this bike in perfect working order. With an elevated chain stay and some discreet padding, chain slap noise is non existent.

As it stands, set up with a long travel single crown fork and an air shock, the Deubel weighs in at 15.8kg. This is pretty darn light (though bikes like Trek’s Session 9.9 aren’t too far off), and the feeling that you can pop off every little lip and put the bike where you want it encourages you to skim over the trails and ride the bike more, rather than being a passenger. This style won’t be faster in every situation, but it’s a damn sight more engaging and fun than simply ploughing on through.

For the kinds of trails that most of us shuttle on the weekend, and for a large portion of Australian downhill tracks, the Deubel 2UP in a 180mm configuration is ideal. It’s everything you need, and nothing you don’t.