By Brett Ratner and Nathan Schneeberger (photo courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography)
Sure, the event takes place at Bootleg Canyon, a location billed as one of the most technically-challenging mountain bike trail systems in the US. It's a claim I'd say was well supported by the bevy of people walking around in arm slings throughout the remainder of Interbike. Yours truly also took a rare (and painful) tumble at the very end of day one.
Brett could have used this guy's skills (photo courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography).
Regardless the difficulty of this specific trail, I believe it's hard to truly assess a bike without riding it on a variety of surfaces, terrains, etc. As we Chicagoans know, the sweeping turns at Palos offer a much different experience than what you get on Saw Wee Kee's "roller coaster" hills, Kettle Moraine's baby head rocks, Imagination Glen's log obstacles and skinnies, and so forth.
But as we mentioned in last week's Interbike recap, Bootleg is as good a place as any to gain initial impressions of the latest trail hardware. And since it also features a pump track, "Fat Bike Proving Ground" and paved bike path, it's an ideal location to sample virtually any bike that strikes your fancy.
Interbike Demo Day had a little of everything available. On one end of the spectrum there were folding bikes and commuters. On the other end, you could take a shuttle to the top of the mountain and flog a downhill rig like this one (photo courtesy of SnowyMountain Photography).
So, with all these options available, limited time and lots of people fighting to test the hot whips, we decided to sample a nice variety of bikes, take some longer rides (not just do a few laps of the test loops), and (in Nathan's case) snap some groovy photos.
The end goal would hopefully be to get a sense of how bikes are coming along in general, try some bikes we wouldn't generally ride here in Chicago (for example mid-to-long-travel trail and all-mountain bikes), and hopefully gain an appreciation for the industry's newer genres of bikes. Since I'm now a legitimate fan of the fat bike, and VERY intrigued by this whole "gravel plus" thing, I'd say the event was a resounding success.
I spent most of the morning walking through the rows and rows of popup tents to see the latest offerings from dozens of different manufacturers. When the vendors asked me what I wanted to ride, I told them I was a cross country racer with a hardtail Stumpjumper carbon from Specialized. I wanted them to put me on a full suspension bike that would make me want to sell that hardtail and buy their bike.
Here is an overview of the bikes we got to sample at demo days:
Giant Trance 27.5 1 (Reviewed by Brett)
In my observation, 27.5" mid-travel trail bikes represent a hotbed of cutting edge bike tech. In other words, many new ideas are developed and perfected here and then move their way out to other bikes, like 'cross and even road. My hunch seems supported when visiting various demo booths. The demo fleets are loaded with trail bikes (with merely a smattering of other models on hand). The guys working the demo booths clearly appear to be the most stoked about their respective employers' trail bikes and routinely say "this is what I ride back home."
Riding the Trance 27.5 1, I'd have to say their enthusiasm is warranted. And trail bikes is one area where I feel I have a true basis of comparison. I have a full-suspension bike hanging on my wall, and at least once a year, I travel out west and rent high-end full-suspension trail bikes to ride on rocky desert trails. And guess what? I've always hated trail bikes. Unless pointed downhill, to me trail bikes felt sluggish, heavy, vague and basically a chore to ride.
Such is not the case with the Trance. I immediately felt at home on this bike and would happily own one. It pedaled efficiently uphill, and was fun and responsive on rolling terrain with sharp, punchy climbs. The 1x11 SRAM XO1 drivetrain gave me plenty of gears and the one-handed shifting (no front derailleur) gave me more mental bandwidth to focus on navigating the rocks and drops. The bike was so capable that the marked Demo Day test loops were really no challenge for it. So I went off the reservation to pedal up a slightly more rocky and technical ascent (called "Girl Scout") then swung over to "P.O.W." where I could drop the seat post and enjoy a flowy descent with fast, sweeping turns and a few choice places to catch a little air.
The thing that struck me was that the Trance is an aluminum-framed bike with second-from-the-top-tier-components. Based on my "seat of the pants" impression, it rode like a top-of-the-line carbon model; plush and light and smooth. The only thing the Trance lacked was a remote suspension lockout, which would have been nice to have when climbing out of the saddle. Climbing seated, however, it was perfectly fine.
Considering that the Trance has a (reasonable for a higher-end trail bike) retail price of $4,600, I could easily justify purchasing one if I didn't live in the Midwest, where a bike this capable on rough terrain is overkill.
If I ever move out west, however, the Trance would definitely be on my short list.
Surly Wednesday (Reviewed by Brett)
Fat bikes were another main attraction at demo day. Looking closely at the wide variety of makes and models available, I started to realize that from a technical standpoint there's an awful lot going on beyond merely stuffing monster truck tires into a mountain bike frame. In fact, the nuances that separate models from the same manufacturer (let alone different companies) are enough to make your head spin. But considering there were titanium and carbon fat bike builds approaching $10,000 retail and weighing as little as 18.5 pounds, it's clear fat bikes are serious business to a certain breed of cycling enthusiasts...not just a bike to stay fit on during the snowy months.
Surly was eager to show off their new Wednesday model, and having just hopped off the aforementioned Trance, I was curious to compare a fat bike to a trail bike.
For the record, the Wednesday is touted as combining the "do anything" utility of their Pugsley model with the playful nature of their trail-shredding Ice Cream Truck. But having only pedaled fat bikes around parking lots, this was in effect my first real fat bike ride. So my mind was a clean slate when I hopped aboard.
Lumbering up the gravel path from the expo area, the tires started to bounce up and down in rhythm with each pedal stroke. Clearly it exposed the fact that I'm not the smooth pedaler I thought I was. But regardless, this was a bad first impression and straight away I was mentally preparing myself to poo poo this whole fat bike thing.
Once I got on the trail, however, I immediately started to understand the fat bike appeal.
Getting straight to the point, the cornering traction is INSANE, which is quite an accomplishment on Bootleg's loose trail surface. In addition, it takes virtually no effort to ride over deep sand or scree. It crawls up the steepest of grades with ease, and bombs down rocky descents like nothing, even with a rigid fork.
Taking a pass through the "Fat Bike Proving Ground," the Wednesday made it ridiculously easy to bulldoze over a series of railroad ties and rock gardens before making a hard, right angle turn up a 20% grade on dry, loose, deep sand.
Granted, the Giant Trance did all this too...but required a lot more concentration, body english and finesse.
And I think that's really what the appeal comes down to. You can ultimately go faster on a mountain bike, but to do so entails a higher degree of bike handling prowess. With the fat bike, you just point it where you want to go and start pedaling. And when you come upon conditions where a mountain bike will simply bog down (like fresh snow, sand dunes and deep mud), you just keep pedaling.
The Wednesday is presumably not the bike for you if your fat biking habit has evolved to wanting hand-built titanium or ultralight carbon models. But with a solid, workingman's component selection, rack and bottle mounts galore, the ability to install a Rock Shox Bluto fork, and a projected MSRP of $1,500, the Wednesday might be the perfect entry point for a dedicated, discerning cyclist who wants to add a fat bike to his or her arsenal.
Scott Scale 700RC (Reviewed by Nathan)
Scott did not have any of their Genius full-suspension cross country race mountain bikes available when I stopped by, so I took out their top-of-the-line Scale, a carbon hardtail that was a direct competitor for my Stumpjumper. It was a light and responsive ride. It was quick pedaling up the gravel road leading up to the Bootleg Canyon trail system, and as soon as I turned east onto the single track we started to fly downhill together. I could feel the difference in handling between the larger 29er wheels on my Stumpjumper and the slightly smaller 27.5 wheels on the Scott especially when cornering at speed. It took less effort to push the bars left and right, making the Scott very zippy around corners. I avoided some of the more technical riding that Brett was tackling on his full suspension bike, and after making some runs past my photographer, I returned the bike quite impressed. The Scott Scale really measured up.
Giant Reign Advanced 27.5 1 (Reviewed by Nathan)
Giant too was “sold out” of it’s full suspension cross country bike, the Anthem, so I opted for a readily available full suspension “trail/enduro” bike. Trail bikes in general have much slacker geometry than XC bikes, the bigger rake means the steering felt a little bit twitchy initially, but it didn’t take long to adjust. Given the more plush ride of the full suspension and its inherent ability to take some bigger hits even with me, a bigger rider, I opted to take the first test spins on the Reign on the pump track just above the expo area. I could feel the added bulk relative to the featherweight Scott I had just ridden previously, but I was still able to catch some air off the tabletop jumps, and rail around the corners. The 1 x 11 drivetrain made it possible to have a dropper seatpost operated by the right hand, which made easy to shift weight backwards around the tight banked corners and to keep from hitting the seat when landing a jump.
After a few laps around the pump track I was eager to get out and explore some of the more difficult trails that I had been hesitant to tackle on the hardtail. My wife mentioned that she has lost her sunglasses where we had been shooting photos earlier in the day, so my first stop was to return to that trail. I was lucky that she had dropped them in the last place she was standing, right next to the trail. I picked them up, put them in my CamelBak and turned to head back uphill to the junction. Three pedal strokes into the climb the chain on my demo bike snapped. No more uphill for me. I turned around, coasted down to the bottom and then started the walk/coast back to the Giant tent. By the time I arrived all of the vendors were closing up shop, so no more bikes were going out.
Cannondale Scalpel 29 Carbon 2 (Reviewed by Nathan)
We arrived early enough on day two to have our full choice of bikes. I had never ridden a Cannondale mountain bike with an iconic Lefty fork, so I made a beeline for the Cannondale tent. I gave my little elevator speech to the guys at the tent, and they gave me a Scalpel. First on the agenda was more pics of me riding bikes, so I stayed low around the first trail, riding in small loops for the efficiency and convenience of my personal photographer. When we were done shooting, she headed back to the media tent, and I took the Scalpel out to test its chops.
Despite a backpack with 20lbs of camera equipment, the climb up was pleasant. The thumb-controlled full suspension lockout made the climb smooth and efficient. I made it to the very top of the Skyline trail, and pulled the camera out to take some photos of riders disembarking from the flatbed truck that was shuttling riders to the top. Then something completely unexpected happened. It started to rain. It was a light rain, but enough to make the rocks wet and slippery. I opted to take the “Boy Scout” trail down from the top instead of the more difficult “Skyline” trail, not just because I was on an XC bike and not a trail/downhill bike, but also because I had a backpack full of very expensive camera gear. It kept me honest and crawling over some of the bigger drops, and kept me moving cautiously down the mountain. At every corner the bike turned confidently, and gave me a great deal of control. Although the technology is 15 years old it was my first time on a Lefty fork, and other than the visual oddness of looking down and having nothing where one is used to seeing something, there was nothing notably different about riding an asymmetrical fork.
Fuji SL 1.3 (Reviewed by Brett)
Feeling adequately fatigued from an afternoon spent grinding up then bombing down steep grades of sandy, rocky singletrack, I opted for a change of pace.
The park surrounding Bootleg Canyon offers a silky smooth paved bike path, which leads you downhill (via some fast, fun, sweeping turns) to an equally-smooth stretch of flat road. After that, you can climb back up to the expo area. All this is perfect for trying out some skinny-tired goodness.
The folks at the Fuji booth were eager to show off their updated road bike line, and I was happy to oblige them. Thankfully, they turned a blind eye to my CamelBak and mountain bike shoes.
Fuji's "Competition Series" road line is highlighted by ultra high-modulus carbon frames and (in the higher end of the model range) top-tier component groups with electronic shifting. Fuji's Transonic model places greater emphasis on aerodynamics while the SL favors lightness and stiffness. I chose the SL. The 1.3 model I rode sports a relatively modest (for this level of bike) price tag of $6,320, highlighted by a full Shimano Dura Ace Di2 groupset and Oval 724 alloy clincher wheelset.
Before heading out on the bike path, I pedaled up the main road where all the mountain bikers climb to the trail head. After plodding up that hill many, many times on full-suspension rigs, it was mind blowing how comparatively easy a well-sorted out road bike goes uphill. I was barely pedaling and passing everyone (but the e-bikes) like they were standing still. Once I got to where the pavement ends, I pointed the thing downhill, let go of the brakes and gave the cranks a few spirited turns.
Some rougher pavement might has yielded different results, but the SL felt rock solid and stable during my speedy descent, especially in the sweepers. On the flats, it felt smooth, comfortable and efficient. And finally, heading uphill back to camp, it wasted not a bit of pedaling energy, converting my meager wattage into forward motion.
If you're looking for "character" or "personality," this might not be the road bike for you. To the contrary, the SL offered a neutral, effortless feel to it. It dutifully did everything so well, that it simply disappeared under me...to the point where I forgot it was there and just enjoyed the ride.
Granted, I wouldn't mind testing it on some longer rides on crappier roads with steeper hills, but for the short time I spent with it, I thought the SL was stellar.
Like trail bikes, today's road bikes have have gotten really good. And in this price range, I'd bet you'd have to try pretty hard to find a dog among the major manufacturers. But my guess, if you want bang for the buck, the Fuji SL would be hard to beat.
Cannondale Habit Carbon 1 (Reviewed by Brett)
Ok, full disclosure: I really wanted to get some saddle time on the new Slate "new road" bike. Unfortunately so did everyone else. But like a lot of booth staffers I spoke to, the guy helping me at the Cannondale tent was super stoked about trail bikes...and the Habit is the one he "rides back home." So I took it for a spin.
Like the Giant Trance I rode earlier in the day, the Habit is billed as a "quiver killer," do anything trail bike. Unlike the Trance I rode, this bike features a carbon frame and top-of-the-line components throughout.
Riding the Habit, it reinforced that my distaste for trail bikes is a thing of the past. The Habit felt light, responsive, agile and unquestionably a bike I'd want to own. Heck I wouldn't even rule out racing cross country on it in a pinch...especially since it also offered a front AND rear remote suspension lockout for efficient climbing (simultaneously engaged by pushing a single button next to the front brake lever).
But was it worth the nearly $3,000 up-charge over the mid-range Giant? Well, that's hard to say...and really difficult to ascertain given the limitations of the demo day. I'd need to try them side by side, and ideally ride them on a variety of trails.
Besides, our goal was to sample a wide variety of machines, like the label-defying Slate.
Speaking of the Slate, I never did get to ride it, but I DID get to ride something that might actually be cooler. In fact, we're naming it the Chainlink's unofficial coolest bike of Interbike. Read about it here...
Nathan Schneeberger is an accomplished mountain, road, cyclocross and gravel racer, and one half of SnowyMountain photography.
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.