Friday, August 30, 2013

2012 Scott Spark 29 Elite Review

The Scott Spark 29 Elite

As a general rule, it isn't a good idea to chase freeride bikers on a 100mm cross country bike.

It was early on an August Friday morning and I had Burke Mountain to myself.  I had climbed up the CCC Road to the entrance of Lower J-Bar without seeing another soul when I rolled up on four guys getting ready to drop in on the morning's first run.  I was looking decidedly cross country while they looked like they had just stepped out of a game of Halo.  The 100mm of travel on my 2012 Scott Spark 29 Elite was contrasted with the full 5+ inches of coiled suspension that adorned each of their rigs.  We exchanged pleasantries as they adjusted their full face helmets and armor, and with a wave they dove down the trail catching air on the first drops.  I rolled up to the edge of the CCC in my lycra shorts and flimsy powerdry t-shirt, as they hooted and hollered somewhere down the trail below.  I gave them a good ten second head start before launching onto the hard packed dirt below.  Cross country bike or not, I was determined to catch them.

The Spark at Ellicottville, NY.
Admittedly, I'm a little late to the 29er party.  It was just last year that I climbed on board my first 29er, the 2011 Giant Talon 29er x1.  With nearly a thousand miles logged on the 29er hardtail, I got a good sense of its strengths.  Speed carrying momentum, improved climbing as you roll over small obstacles, and more stability (albeit less dexterity) in turns.  But, despite all the fun I was having on my Talon, I missed the dual suspension from my Giant Trance.

I decided this summer it was time to combine my favorite features: big wheels and dual suspension.  Wanting a light package I looked at race-worthy bikes like the Giant Anthem, Rocky Mountain Element and Specialized Epic Comp.  To be honest, Scott bikes weren't even on my radar, but when one became available I was intrigued.  It met all my criteria:  decent component set, sub 30 lbs., dual suspension, lockout fork, and reasonable price point.

I came into my search a big fan of the Giant Anthem 29er.  As a satisfied owner of two Giants (the aforementioned Talon and Trance), I've been pleased with their quality and  their "out-of-the-box" standard geometries fit me easily.  I didn't have to fiddle with stems or handlebar angles to make the cockpits comfortable.   I had spent a day on a friend's Anthem 29er, and was pleased with the the way it climbed and handled the corners.

Despite my comfort with the Anthem, the Scott had two unique features I couldn't overlook. First, it had the dual lockout lever.  In one flick, the front and rear shocks are locked out for climbing with no pedal-bob.  With a rear shock upgrade the dual lockout can even become a tri-lockout:  with a partial locked setting for bumpy climbs.

Second, the Scott employs a small chip in the rear suspension mount which allows you to change the geometry of the bike by adjusting the head angle by approximately a half degree (69.5 vs. 70.1).  This is just about the difference between the geometry of my Trance (69.5) and my Talon (70.5).

On my commute.
I pulled the trigger and ended up paying less than I would have paid for the Anthem by about $500.  This allowed me to go out and find a set of Stan's ZTR Crest rims which I converted to tubeless and already I was down to around 26 lbs.

The Rocket Ron's that came with the wheels disintegrated pretty quickly on the mix of trail and road around my house so I slapped a pair of Continental X-King tires on my new rims.

Since my purchase, I've put in roughly five hundred miles of mostly singletrack with a little pavement mixed in.  So far, I'm very satisfied with the Spark.

The Rock Shox Reba 29 RL Air fork is very familiar to me, as I have a nearly identical model on my Talon.  As such it didn't take me long to get it dialed in correctly. The rear shock, a DT Swiss M210 Air, ABS Spring, took more fidgeting, but I eventually got it set up correctly.  Despite the fact that the front and rear only have 100mm of travel, I find them adequate on all but the roughest of Eastern Massachusetts trails.  I admit I've missed the long travel of the Trance on occasion, but it has been a rare occasion at that.  The larger 29er tires eat up most of what the 100mm of travel doesn't.

The Avid Elixir 5S brakes are excellent.  They are reliable, consistent and responsive and haven't squeaked one bit in all the time I've been using them.

The frame itself has taken a beating and held true.  I don't weigh a whole lot (160lbs) and don't take big drops (over 2ft) so I probably haven't tested its limits, but I haven't had any issues thus far.

The 43.8" wheelbase is slightly longer than my Talon (42.6"), but nearly identical to my Trance (43.5").  This is comparable to the Anthem, which means they are both compact and nimble for 29ers.  My experience has confirmed this, as I haven't felt a large adjustment when switching between bikes.

Also, with the weight I've ditched off the wheels by converting to tubeless and a lighter rim, I don't notice a lag in acceleration which is the norm for most 29er's when compared to their 26" cousins.

So what about my complaints?

The 9mm hubs on the front and rear are a liability.  My front wheels can sometimes feel supple while climbing and the rear has felt loose while cornering under load or thundering down a rocky section of the trail.  I prefer the stiffer and more stable feel of the 15mm hubs on the Talon and Trance.  This would be an expensive fix.
In the Adirondack backcountry.

Also, the geometry is slightly smaller than the Giant.  The standard medium is about 17.5" while the Giant is 18".  I would be lying if I said I didn't notice a somewhat smaller cockpit on the Spark.  Not so small that I have rushed out to get a longer stem though.

Also, there's chain slap on downhill sections.  However, this is easily fixed.  I had the same issue with my Trance until I put a Shimano XTR Plus derailleur on it.  The "Plus" derailleurs increase the tension on the chain and in give less chain slap.

I also customized the grips to ODI Ruffian lock-on grips from the stock set of slide on grips. Again, this is minor $10 fix.

The pros and cons were far from my mind as I focused on the next set of drops, roots and rocks that make J-Bar a challenging downhill trail.

I knew I was closing in on the riders ahead, but it wasn't until I rounded a long bend that I saw them pedaling up to the next drop-off.  The looked surprised as I zipped by them on the small climb and I stopped to let them pass before the trail descended again.  I waved them through and counted to ten again.

After all, while its seldom a good idea to chase freeriders on a cross country bike, its NEVER a good idea to let them chase you.

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