Specialized 29″er Press Camp: Roc d’Azur Report: by Grannygear

When an American based bike company brings journalists over to France just to talk about and ride 29″ers…well that is pretty significant, especially if the company makes 26” bikes too. And that was what Specialized did, hauling over a group of us media folks to Roc d’Azur in the south of France to spend a few days getting to know the product better, asking questions about the technical and practical aspects of the 2012 line, and getting some insight into the mindset of one of the biggest players in the world and what they think about big wheels.

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2008 saw the first 29″er from Specialized (excluding the Crosstrail which was not a bonafide 29″er in intent) and was the debut of the Stumpjumper FSR 29″er. I rode that bike briefly and it was not quite ‘there’, something that it shared with many other early 29″ers on the marketplace. Fast forward to 2012 and now there are 10 families of 29″ers adding up to 42 different models. That is a lot of 29″ers, from inexpensive starter bikes to S-Works-priced-to-stop-your-heart-lighter-than-air wonder bikes. In fact, there are some models that are not even sold in the UK except in big wheels…like Epics and Stumpy hard tails. Wow.

Now that follows a trend that we saw in the marketplace this year with Rocky Mountain dropping all 26” wheeled bikes from the Vertex hard tail line. I predict that within 2 years or less that Specialized will not have any 26” wheeled XC bikes in the line that are not a lower end model or a kids bike. The big wheeled bike is poised to completely dominate the market going forward and unless it is a long travel application, it will have 29” wheels on it. How odd, in that, at first, if you wanted a 29″er, you needed to source out a custom builder. A few years from now, if you want a 26” hard tail or even XC FS, you may need to pick up that phone and custom order one.

camber pro

I sat through a presentation of a representation of the Specialized 29″er line, rode a Camber EVO (not a US spec bike) and a Carbon Comp FSR in the hills around town, and poked and prodded a few of the engineer guys over the few days we were there. I watched what riders were racing at the Roc d’Azur event, ate some good food, saw some amusing cultural differences (see my blog for all that), and I came away with these thoughts.

The 29″er fad is over. Stick a fork in it. We are full on into normal mode now and soon the 29″er will be just what mostly everyone rides. It will simply be a mountain bike. While for now, there are still a lot of hard tail 26″ers on the racetracks and trails of Europe (as evidenced at Roc d’Azur) there were a lot of 29″ers too. Scott, Specialized, Cannondale, Cube, Colnago, Niner…all represented along with many EU only brands I had never heard of. The ratio was still two or three out of ten, 29″ers to 26″ers, but want to bet what next year will be like? I bet 50-50 or more. Especially with guys like Christoph Sauser winning the Marathon at this years Roc. People notice things like that over here.

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We are seeing most of the technology being focused on 29″ers right now. Carbon 29″er hoops like the Rovals, tubulars in EU (mostly), new FS designs that work around the limits of 29″ers, and forks. Think you will see anything really special come out for XC applications that does not also have a 29″er version (or maybe even 29″er only)? Not if they want to sell more than 5 of them.

We are seeing the rise of the ‘every-bike’ with big wheels and I want to focus on that train of thought for most of this article. I spent some time on a 2011 Camber in Colorado last year and I saw the potential then. It was my favorite bike of the weekend, not just for the ride qualities, but mostly because I understood what it represented – the average Joe’s weekend special do all bike. You know, we never used to have a quiver. We had a mountain bike. That was it. Or maybe an FS and a HT. Then, we began to slice up the pie more and add AM/DH, a race hard tail, an endurance race bike, an single speed, etc. But if you want just one bike that can do nearly everything well but not one thing specifically, then a bike like the Camber is that bike. So I was interested to ride one again as I have to admit that I saw the 2011 Camber as a price leader as well, cheaper than a Stumpy or Epic, but in between the two performance wise, and giving up a bit of technology like tapered head tubes, etc. Then the 2012 Camber came out in high end spec with carbon frames, more tech, and Gucci parts. So, if it is not a price leading every-man’s bike, then what is it? I was not sure if the new line Camber wasn’t kinda muddy in purpose. High end models? What is up with 110mm of travel when others are at 120mm? No Brain? No 15QR? Hmmmm…

CAMBER_Pro Carbon 29_GlossSatin Blk Carb Red

I posed that to the folks at Specialized and they responded that they had some concerns as well in that the Camber is a bit misunderstood, yet it represents the needs of a huge section of the 29″er marketplace. True or marketing speak? Time to ride one and find out. The Camber picked up a tapered head tube across the top four models and a FACT 9M carbon main frame/alu rear frame on the top three models. It has no Brain shock (front or rear) on any model and does not use a 15QR either on any of the Fox front forks, instead they are keeping with the 9mm standard quick release but using a 24mm OS endcap on the front hubs (largest that will fit on the Fork fork dropout…for now). Roc d'Azur 2

The top four models get a 142mm rear axle spacing (142+hubs with 12mm rear axle) and the top two get a Blacklight Command Post (but all the frames have the cable routing built in to add one). Of course, all the components, rear shocks, etc, vary with each model. On the trails with the Camber, I came away with an enlightened vision of what the Camber is and what it represents to the buyer. The slacker than Epic but steeper than FSR head tube angle of 70*, the 110mm travel, and the carbon frame (in the Expert EVO model I rode…not a USA spec bike, that EVO) made for a great trail bike experience. There are other bikes like this coming to market now. The Ibis Ripley, the Niner RDO JET (with a 120mm fork option) and the existing Tall Boy (with 120mm fork as well) come to mind. The Camber seemed to sit in that pocket of ‘just right’ that made for a light enough bike to climb well and race with, but with more forgiving handling and deep enough travel to play hard and not feel overtaxed. I came away stoked, not just for myself, but for 29″er buyers in the future as bikes like this are gonna’ be great for a lot of people.

Details wise, did I miss the Brain? Maybe. Not sure yet. I need more time to see if that holds out. I really did not notice the lack of 15QR as Specialized still says they have the numbers that show that OS28 is stiffer torsionally than a 15QR and even the OS24 on the Camber Expert/Fox fork combo is as stiff or stiffer. It just is not as easily dealt with during a wheel upgrade. I sure like carbon frames for what they offer pedaling-wise. Man, every one I have ridden does such a great job of transferring power into forward motion. The cost is still high to jump into carbon and is likely to remain so for the near future, but it pays off. The Camber felt very solid and fast when pedaled, even without the Brain. I was playing with the ProPedal option here and there and that is odd to be in that place now with many suspension designs getting beyond that need to think about toggling the shock in between modes. But, I was pretty impressed with how the latest iteration of the FSR acted to keep things smooth and stable, even with ProPedal off, and I really like the way it shoots forward with a hard pedal stroke (something I also noticed with the Rocky Mountain Element 950) where some of the short link bikes just feel lazy when pedaled hard.

We hope to get on a Camber next year as I think it represents the needs of a significant section of buyers out there and I think, when word gets out, that the Camber will be the most sought after bike in the line.

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Another thing I got to see first hand was the AUTOSAG feature on a FSR with a Brain shock. Now when I first heard about the idea of having a rear shock that set to the 20% sag mark with the ‘press of a button’, so to speak, I thought of auto-shifting bikes and how riders just need to say no to technology that takes the involvement of the rider/bike tuner/mechanic out of the equation. Well I think I was a bit amiss there. Yes, there will never be a replacement for the ability and skill to tweak and tune your bikes performance, but the AUTOSAG is so darn simple and cool that I think it will win over the masses, not to mention the bike shops setting up customer’s bikes. Roc d'Azur 7

The idea is elegantly simple…over-inflate the shock beyond what your body weight requires (they suggest 300PSI to make sure you are over that number), get on the bike with all your body weight (and wear your hydration pack, etc…your typical riding set-up), depress the Schraeder valve till it stops leaking air, bounce up and down a bit, cycling the shock, press the valve one more time…voila…20% sag. Not happy with that? Tune from there, but honestly, most riders will just ride happily off into the sunset and never look back. Guesswork, say “see ya”.

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The other thing that stood out to me was the way that Specialized has groomed the gearing across the 29″er line. While most manufacturers simply bolt on the cranks that Shimano or SRAM or whatever offers and you get what you get, they do it differently. Some of that reflects the ability of an 800 pound gorilla in the pool in that they can come to SRAM and work together to get a crank that fits their needs, even if the ratios need to be custom. So what we see is 2×10 nearly across the board and final drive ratios that are lower on trail bikes (36/22 chain rings) and higher on Epics and Stumpjumper hard tails (38/24 chain rings). Now that makes sense to me. On the Project Long Legs XC FSR we have, I ran 2×9 with a 22T CR and a 34T rear cog just to get around the limits of existing 2×10 and the 26T CR bottom end, granted it is a 36T rear cog on 2×10, but still. 26×36 is not low enough for a trail bike in my neck of the woods, especially a 31lb one. 22×36? That works. Smart!

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Women’s carbon hard tails (the Fate), FSR EVOs with 140mm front forks, crazy fast S Works hard tail with weights that barely nudge the scale, and Hardrocks and Rockhoppers that finally look like a real, serious, mountain bike that you would be proud to show up on for the weekend ride. When a big company like Specialized gets excited about 29″ers and gets committed to making them right, then that vision benefits all future 29″er buyers as it raises the bar for all other bike makers to shoot for. And that makes it better for you and I, even if the bike we ride does not have a big ‘S’ on it.

Check out the Roc d’Azur video here.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Specialized for inviting Grannygear over to France for this special Press Camp. I’d have gone, but Mrs. Guitar Ted would have killed me if I had gone to France without her! 🙂