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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.