Final Review: Spot Brand Rocker SS Ti-by Grannygear
Photo credits by JeffJ.
I cannot recall such a simple bike ever giving me so much trouble pinning it down. Hard tail. Single speed. How hard could it be? But even at the last ride I was wondering if I was ‘in’ or ‘out’. It’s a puzzlement.
To recap a bit, remember we had the Out Of the Box and the Mid-Term posts that called out a pretty sweet, very light, very good looking example of titanium tubes wizarded together by Spot Brand bikes that pedaled well and rode as smooth as churned butter, set up with the new Mavic Cross Max SLR wheels and a Fox CTD 100mm fork plus some goodies like Enve carbon bars. The Gates Carbon Drive belt system on an XO SRAM crank gave me an almost maintenance free pedaling system. Light, fast pedaling, smooth, pretty…what was not to like?
So remember that Spot does a somewhat ‘against the mainstream’ geometry with the Rockers, both Ti and steel. A 69.25° head tube angle is what you would expect from a 5″ travel full suspension 29″er or maybe a All Mountain hard tail, but not likely a high performance XC bike. Riding this type of dimension gives a unique attribute to the Rocker, something that I both enjoyed and did not enjoy, especially at first, so I took a long time to sort it out. It was not so much “did it work?” as it was “did I like the way it worked?”
I also spoke at length to the company owner, Wayne Lumpkin, regarding the thoughts behind the geometry of the Rocker and why they did what they did. What they found as they tried various angles and what not, was that the slacker head tube angle resulted in a bike that was more stable at speed and on difficult trails yet gave little away in the process. They found that riders were going faster and having more fun doing it. How could that be a bad thing? Wayne testified that they had riders setting Strava records on trail runs even when up against full suspension bikes. And, I certainly did notice that both the Titanium and the steel versions of the Rocker would let you go very fast on rough trails, so fast that it would give you pause on the next corner.
But I also found that the geometry left me a bit less than totally pleased when things were slower, especially when I was standing and moving through sharp corners and steeper, slower ups and downs. The front wheel would want to flop to one side a bit and ruts and sand seemed to upset the apple cart with the front end looking for a happy place. And, on a single speed, you spend a lot of time in that very position, much more so that with gears. It also felt a bit sluggish at times when the climb was steep and you were really on it hard. So what is this all about?
One of the issues when you are faced with reviewing bikes is getting enough time on them to really figure them out. Within a few days time I might ride three different bikes if I am testing tires or a fork or whatever. It has the negative effect of making it harder to get really dialed into a bike, especially if it is a bit of a horse of a different color. So one day I took the Rocker SS Ti out for a bonding ride. It was a higher elevation trail ride that begins out of the truck with an 8 mile climb up a decently steep and switch backed single track, opens up to a dirt road climb to a 9000′ foot top out, then you flip it all around and drop the 8 miles back to the truck. This is a real workout on an single speed, at least for this guy. But it was a good way for me to get the bike into a challenging ride that would help me sort things out. So I did, through this ride and others, including the local loops, come to a conclusion. Here goes.
- One can adjust to almost anything, almost any trait or characteristic of a bike, even bad ones. The ability of the human machine to adapt and adjust can mean a lot and, over the course of the ride, I adjusted and got well used to the feel of the steering. I had no issues with sharp switchbacks either up or down and the bike did everything I asked of it in that sense. It turns surprisingly quickly and never felt stodgy at all. I do wonder how that XL might be (this was a LG) as the wheelbase would be getting out there, but that is speculation.
- When the washboard sections came up and the ruts and roots were the norm, the relaxed head tube angle and smooth Titanium tubing was really, really good. I don’t think I was going any faster than I would have been on my Carve SS, but I was more relaxed doing it and that counts for a lot over a long day. And, if I was going faster, it was because of that factor. I have to think that this would be a great bike for Eastern US conditions or even the Pacific Northwest.
- I still found the climbing to be a bit lazy under really hard efforts, but I also ran the numbers and found that the gearing was higher than I run which is typically a 34Tx21T combo. That had to be part of that. Still, I think the soft ride of the Titanium may bring a bit of compromise for pure single speed use in that the frame has some give to it. I bet if I was using this as a geared hard tail I never would have noticed and it certainly was not a big detraction. Still, it did not have that ‘pop’ forward that carbon does or even a stiffer aluminum frame. Keep the revs up a bit though and the bike just floated up the hill, no doubt the light Mavic wheels and the Rocket Rons helping there.
- Over the long ride down, through fast sweepers, tight corners, narrow, off camber sections, etc, the Rocker single speed Titanium was steady and solid. I found that keeping my weight back a bit let it be at its best and the slacker front end never gave me any issues keeping it hooked up, etc. The frame size is not a super fit for me as the top tube is just a bit short, but no doubt that kept the front wheel a bit more under me than an XL would have. Interestingly enough, I took comparison measurements between the quite different Specialized Carve SS Pro and found that the wheels actually ended up nearly at the same point in space…wheelbase, front center, rear center, etc, but they took different paths to get there. The steeper head tube angle of the Carve combined with the longer top tube ended up about the same as the slacker but shorter Spot.
- The belt mice showed up again when the dust was covering it in the dry summer and the belt would squeak when pedaled. I sprayed it with silicon spray and that quieted it down for a while. Besides that, the Gates Carbon Drive system was solid.
- I actually liked the CTD function on the Fox fork. The fork’s overall action never overwhelmed me, but the Trail setting was quite good for all around single speed use, even out of the saddle climbs. However, there is no real advantage to having only three settings as I can set any typical forks dial to the middle (and anywhere in between) without the manufacturer deciding where that setting is. It seems like CTD was developed around the remote control that goes with these forks (and the rear shocks) and CTD makes more sense with that set up.
- The Mavic Cross Max wheels never were an problem and certainly seemed stiff enough for this application. The UST rims held air and did a decent job when changing tires. I did have to ‘bump’ them with an air compressor to get the Schwalbe Hans Dampf 2.35s to take a bead set as the deep UST well let then fall away from the sides of the rim. The freewheel would make some scary ‘PING…POP’ noises when going from coast to drive and that could not be a good thing over time. This happened pretty much on every ride. And what is the deal with Euros and narrow rims? The as-measured 19mm inner bead width was a bit skinny for an single speed where one might be running lower tire pressures, especially with a big meaty tire like the stock ones. Wider is better here.
The next bike I rode on that same mountain singletrack ride was the Niner bikes AIR 9 hard tail. Now talk about yin and yang! The AIR 9 is stiffer than all get out and has pretty racy intentions and geometry to match. On the way down the trail, the AIR 9 was just an absolute dream to ride on 90% of the trail. It steered light and accurate and was flat out dialed. But, when the ruts and roots came up the steering was giving you little inklings of twitchiness, something that never happened on the Spot. Conversely, the AIR 9 was steady and accurate at a very low speeds over tight and twisty sections and felt poised where the Spot felt awkward every so often.
Finally, this is what I came to think. Across the gamut of trail conditions from slow to fast or smooth to rough, there is a wide range across the middle that favors no particular geometry in any meaningful way. Most any typical, modern 29″er will give you good results. As a trail bike the Rocker is quite good and better than most. The vibe of the bike’s Titanium ride and the kicked back head tube angle give you a playful, relaxed feel on the dirt that does not steal much performance along the way.
Also consider where the Spot Brand guys ride. Colorado rocky trails, rutted double track, etc. Hence the big old tires on there. Horses for courses. And, add in the intended bias of the Spot folks to make a bike that is better as you slide the bubble to the right side of conditions where things get blurry in a hurry…well, the Rocker single speed Titanium makes a lot of sense.
Another parting shot here. The rider is the final word on what works and what does not. I ride with a 65+ year old guy whose normal scoot is a custom Titanium geared hard tail with a 72° head tube angle and 2.0 racing tires with hardly any knobs. He is never the last guy down the rough trails of home. The guy’s got skittles (past winner of the Kamikaze downhill). So while we can obsess over what angle or degree or whatever is ‘right’ and ‘better’, keep in mind that, in most of the circumstances, the rider defines the ride, not the bike.
What Spot Brand bikes has done is given us an option in a crowd of me-too hard tail geometry that allows the rider to find his or her sweet spot and ride happy. In the end I was never completely happy, but I sure can see how someone would be, and if this was my main single speed squeeze and full time dance partner, I am sure I would have learned to quit stepping on her toes. At least that is my story and I am sticking to it. Finally.
Note: Spot Brand Bikes sent the Rocker SS Ti for test and review at no charge. We are not being bribed, nor paid for this review. We will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.