While at Copper Mountain I spent the better part of two days riding mountain bikes. For me, the point to the exercise was to ride a bunch of bikes I was unlikely to actually review, while expanding my vocabulary of bikes. I’ll also confess that with singletrack latticed across the ski area, not doing some mountain biking while there seemed like it would have been a criminal missed opportunity.
I do try not to be felonious.
The thing that surprised me as I walked by to my room following my last ride was that I never ended up riding anything with 26-inch wheels. It was both an accident and not. I’d intended to ride something with 26-inch wheels just to have the experience of riding the smaller wheels again, but every time I went to select another bike, I went with yet another 29er. I know what happened. My sense of fun trumped my interest in being thorough. It’s also why I did multiple runs (I’ll explain that in a minute) on two bikes rather than switching after each run. The sense I had was that the first run was the handshake and the second run was the conversation. I can’t say I was always faster on the second run, but I felt like I had a better feel for the bike the second time down the descent.
I need to reiterate that the altitude kicked my back 40. The base elevation for Copper Mountain is 9700 feet. That’s not so bad, except for the fact that I had to sleep at that altitude, too. The ongoing oxygen deprivation was almost comical in its effects. Even the slightest uphill effort could leave me lightheaded and gasping. So while I used to think that lift-served mountain biking was strictly for the Marlboro set, I need to admit that sometime this spring the thought occurred to me that if you weren’t pedaling up to the top of the mountain after each run you could get at least three times as many runs in. Other things this attractive include Mexican Coca-Cola, the Ferrari Daytona and a babysitter … that changes diapers. Hey, I’m a parent.
Yet another admission: Two days into our stay, had someone come to me with fast-acting EPO, like three-hours quick, I’d have gone for it. I don’t fault the folks at Specialized for picking such a lovely spot so completely devoid of oxygen; I just felt frustrated that I was so compromised in performance. I felt such a sense of desperation at my inability to pedal it gave me yet another window into what may transpire for some riders when they consider doping.
The elevation at the top of the lift was, as shown above, a whopping 10,700 feet. Following one trip up I decided to try to check out a trail that started a bit above where the lift ended. I’ll be generous in my retelling and claim that I rode 200 meters. You weren’t there, so you won’t know that I’m grossly exaggerating. When I pulled over to catch my breath, I made it look like it was a planned stop to go pee on a tree, not that anyone was watching, of course. Still, one must keep up appearances. Dignity and all, you know?
I was able to take in four lift-served runs. The first two were aboard the S-Works Camber, a 24-lb. trail bike with 110mm of travel and 29-inch wheels. While I’m unwilling to name names, I am willing to reveal that a few years ago the top engineer for one bike company known for making very fine road bikes said to me that full-suspension 29ers was just a bad idea, that they’d never ride well and that for reasons of control, you really wouldn’t want a 29er to have more than 100mm of travel. Ever.
Um. Yeah. About that. Do you think I should tell him how much I liked the Camber? No, me either. As an example of a bike that doesn’t work, the Camber fails miserably. That is, it fails at failing, which is to say it was good fun. I’ll admit that when I demoed one in spring of last year it was a heavier bike that really didn’t offer much in the way of interest. The steering was mildly quicker than the Stumpjumper FSR 29, but it weighed more and wasn’t as stiff. So when I purchased my bike, I went with the Stumpy. However, this new S-Works version of the Camber has a much more aggressive feel to it while still feeling plenty plush for my riding style.
And what is my riding style? Well let’s say I have the downhill competence of a cross-country rider who’d like to be a freerider, just without all the airtime. I know, kinda lame, but if I’m in the air, it’s usually because it’s being handled by someone with a license and a logbook. The reality is that for a great many of us who have come to an agreement with our own mortality, one in which we promise not to bait it and in return we get a chance to have some fun, if not stupid, free-fall fun, a bike like the Camber is pretty cool. It’s not a cross-country race bike; it’s a mountain bike for people who enjoy cruising single track and aren’t afraid to pedal uphill some. For roadies who want a full-suspension 29er and aren’t planning to race cross country, this is a great example of what to look for.
After my runs on the Camber I took a break for lunch. It was there that at least two different Specialized staffers said I really needed to take a run on the Enduro. You’ll pardon me if at least initially I took their exhortations as a sort of ill-advised encouragement to a new driver—”Hey, you like cars? Forget that Ford Escort. Just wait until you try the Porsche 911!”
I was wary in that last-time-I-did-this-I-broke-my-arm sort of way. Not that I’ve broken my arm in more than 35 years, but still. When I expressed concern at what I’d do with more than six inches of travel, how it seemed unjust to use a Bugatti Veyron to drive to church (within the speed limit), I got assured nods that I would, indeed, know what to do with it. That nature would take its course. Seriously? I can’t tell a seven-inch-travel bike from an eight-inch-travel bike, at least not unless you tell me which is which. In as much as I have a wheelhouse, downhill bikes don’t enter my bridge; hell, they aren’t on my boat.
As it turned out, the only way to end the conversation, or at least steer it to something else as we ate lunch, was to promise that I would take at least one run on the thing. I pictured my mother astride a Ducati—any Ducati—as the rough approximation of me tearing down the singletrack on the Enduro.
To recap: The Enduro veers from the outer reaches of trail bikes into all-mountain—better known to some as freeride. It features 29-inch wheels, 165mm of travel, weighs less than a fair-size dog (25.9 lbs.) and I was told had chainstays short enough to avoid that bus-in-a-parking-lot feeling so common to the Stumpy 29er when trying to negotiate switchbacks; more objectively, they measure 41.9cm compared to the Stumpy’s 45cm stays. The Camber is right in the same territory, at 44.7cm.
At low speeds this thing doesn’t countersteer; all steering requires just that, steering. That takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit ungainly initially. However, once I dropped into the singletrack and got the thing up to speed (I have no idea just how fast that might have been but it was roughly between “look out!” and “oh yeah!”) it handled naturally, moving with me rather than in response to me. There were times when I could easily have cruised around some rocks and instead I just railed through them, just to see what the bike could do. What it did was roll through the stuff as if it was as unremarkable as pocket lint. Whatevs.
Sure enough, when I got to the first couple of switchbacks I noticed the Enduro carved through them in a way neither the Stumpy or Camber could. Shortly thereafter I lost time. What I recall is being aware that just after New Order’s “True Faith” started on my iPod, I began letting the bike run. I have a memory of me singing along to Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Troy” but the rest of the run is a series of mental snapshots captured mostly when I needed to hit the brakes.
Terrain that had been difficult on the Camber was a good deal easier on the Enduro and stuff that was fun on the Camber became stupidly exhilarating. At one point I pulled over just to give my arms a break. After clipping out and pulling out one of my earbuds I noticed a sound. I was laughing.
It was on my second run that I gave a bit of thought to why the bike was working so well for me. Ever since I’d made the switch to suspension in the early ’90s (a whopping 80mm of travel back then), I had appreciated that while some riders saw suspension as a ticket to air time, the real benefit to suspension was improved control. The more your wheels are in contact with the trail, the more control you have over where the bike is going. The Enduro allowed me more than just control; it gave me a certain faith that everything would just work out in those dicier situations. I’d see braking bumps and ruts and think, “Problem!” to which the bike looked back with the face of Alfred E. Newman and said,
Still, I braked too much.
The Enduro is arguably the biggest surprise in a cycling experience I’ve encountered in more than 10 years. I really didn’t think the bike would work for me, and as it turns out, I was able to make enough use of it that I could appreciate the intention behind the bike. There is still room for me to develop as a rider with that bike, which is something I think is important in any mountain bike purchase. Allowing for your developing skills is an aspect of a mountain bike purchase that really doesn’t have an analog in road bikes.
Our final day of riding gave us the opportunity to do a group ride, either on- or off-road. I chose the dirty ride with the hope that I wouldn’t be DFL on the climb up to Searle Pass. As it turns out, I wasn’t, but that’s only because I didn’t ride the full eight miles there. At five miles I was so hypoxic I couldn’t have spelled the word that refers to the condition. For the ride, I’d chosen the S-Works Epic World Cup. This 100mm travel beauty with 29-inch wheels carved like a paring knife but really left most of the suspension duties to the rider. Elbows and knees are the ticket. At five miles I’d reached an elevation of roughly 11,200 feet and realized that even if I could ride higher I wouldn’t be conscious to enjoy it. It was after turning around that I really wished I had selected a bike with more travel. The kicker was the realization that the Enduro was just as nimble (at least, in my hands) in the switchbacks as the Epic. Oh, and a word to the wise: This whole one-chainring-thing really only works if you’re in proper condition. It’s funny to me how roadies can never have too high a gear while mountain bikers have figured out they really won’t pedal a hugemongous gear, so they don’t bring it along.