When I decided that RKP would begin to include a bit of mountain bike content, I did so for a few reasons. The first was that I’ve always hated the us/them categorization and tribalism some folks have projected onto our two-wheeled philia. In most places I’ve lived, most of the cyclists I knew had both road and mountain bikes. The second was my dawning appreciation for one of the central truths to flow states: Those who get more flow get more flow. No, that’s not redundant. What that means is those who actively chase flow reach it more often and find it in more different places. What I couldn’t explain to anyone at the time was that getting flow on the road was easier if I broke up my riding with some riding off road.
It turns out that riding down the road at 25 miles per hour makes riding tight singletrack at 12 mph heady. And slogging up a fire road at 8 mph helps make descending at 45 mph mind blowing. As my cycling goals have been more about consciousness expansion rather than proving I’m faster than someone else, and because I think flow resonates more than winning with many cyclists, I made the decision to steer us into some fresh water.
Lately, I’ve been riding a hardtail 27.5+ bike from Specialized. I’m amazed at how the shift from road to mountain to ‘cross back to mountain can give me a fresh set of challenges. What I’ve found interesting and a bit surprising is just how capable this moderately priced bike is.
Getting a tire that fat into a frame with 43cm chainstays requires a bit of creativity.
A fresh take
Given that a good full-suspension bike can easily run upward of $4000, and that among our readership a mountain bike is at best an extra bike, I’ve wanted to find a solution that allows people to hit the trails and enjoys the single track without the need to be as careful in rocky sections as I need to be even when on 40mm tires. When at the Scott product launch last summer, I had my first taste of 27.5+ wheels/tires. I wasn’t immediately convinced that it was a great answer, but after talking with some other folks I trust, I decided to try a 27.5+ hard tail. For a couple of reasons I chose the Specialized Fuse. First reason: despite the many criticisms the Morgan Hill Megalith comes in for, they consistently get geometry and handling right in a way that leaves other bikes trailing. This has been my experience no matter the category, but it is especially true with hard tail mountain bikes and road bikes. Second, my PR contact at Specialized had told me how surprised he was by the bike, how much more able it was than he would have guessed. Yeah, that’s something you’d expect someone in PR to say, but I have a relationship with this gentleman that is honest in a way these relationships aren’t usually. Third, availability. The Fuse Expert is widely available, unlike some bikes I’ve fallen for (including some stuff from Specialized).
The Fuse Expert is a $2100 retail bike. For that you get an aluminum frame, a Manitou Magnum Comp fork, a SRAM group with 1×10 drivetrain and wheels built around 45mm-wide WTB rims. Specialized likes to call these 6Fattie to refer to the 650Bx3.0-inch tires. I was told that the sweet spot for inflation seemed to be 15 psi front and 16 psi rear. Running that low can make the bike bounce a bit on flat ground if your pedal stroke isn’t smooth. I considered it a good tutorial, but my first few rides I ran 16 or 17 front and 18 rear.
What’s amazing about the plus-size tires is that they have traction like the The Who had volume. More than enough. To put it in perspective, I realized I had a learning curve where traction was concerned. The bike was simply far more capable than anything I’d ever ridden. More remarkable was the fact that the 6Fattie tires are not particularly knobby. The upshot is that you get a tire with an Alpinist’s grip but rolls better than many skinnier tires with bigger knobs. Yes, the bike was surprisingly fast.
My initial concern about the bike, whether I would really like 27.5+ bikes, was whether the bike would feel slow. I didn’t see the point in gaining traction at the expense of speed. It seems those two are always inversely proportional and it’s not like I thought the other mountain bikes I’d ridden had bad traction.
As a strict matter of features, I need to mention that this bike includes a dropper post, the Specialized TrazX with 120mm of travel. Compared to an earlier dropper post, the trigger on this unit is longer, which improves leverage, making it easier to operate in a clutch. Droppers used to be the domain of the gravity troops, but no more. Getting that saddle out of the way makes a bigger difference in descending than having full suspension. It’s a crucial piece of why this bike is so capable.
One thing I’m not going to indulge is the huge debate on BB and axle standards. It uses a PF30 BB, 110mm front spacing and 148mm rear. Is this the standard that will stand? I don’t know. What I can say is that it works well in this bike, except for an occasional BB creak under high power. Without a wider rear axle standard—something bigger than 135—you’d never make use of tires this size, but I’ll leave the argument about which standard to someone else. I want no part of it.
The Fuse comes in five sizes. That Specialized, like many companies, chooses to call them small through XXL is maddening. That said, there was nothing really useful about the older ways of naming bikes according to size. I just wish that we’d talk about sizing relative to reach first and stack second. What you see with the Fuse are pretty evenly spaced increments of 40, 42, 44, 45,8 and 47.6cm for reach, which jives with the fact that taller riders don’t need massive increases in reach so much as they need more space for their legs. The trail is 99mm for all sizes, so the steering geometry is consistent across the line, as is the 58mm bottom bracket drop. Other than the increase in wheelbase and over rise in center of gravity for the larger sizes, these bikes will handle remarkably similarly through all sizes.
The Manitou Magnum struck me as better suited to someone more rad than I.
To suspend or not
I’ll admit that because the Fuse is a hard tail, it can be hard to rail through a rock garden. Annadel State Park, here in Sonoma County, has quite the inventory. Again, the bike taught me that to the degree I’m willing to trust it—in this case, to allow it to bounce—it can handle whatever I throw at it. Srsly. I didn’t flat even once. While full suspension would have made the bike easier to control, faster and to my mind more fun, that would have tacked on more than $1000, even with lesser parts.
At root, I’m a flow junkie. Bikes are my favorite way (other than writing) to find flow. And I have realized that in switching disciplines from time to time, that can freshen the experience and help me find my way back to flow. A flat bar, front suspension, big tires and a dropper post are enough of a difference to redefine what it means to hit singletrack.
I’m still adjusting to the trend of ultra-short stems. Over-steer can be an issue in rock gardens.
With road bikes, it is possible to get a sense of when the bike isn’t capable of delivering all that you ask of it. However, it’s rare that you get a sense of when a bike is capable of far more than you’re asking. That’s an experience I’m far more likely to have with a mountain bike. It can be writ in obvious ways, like when you see the stanchion O-ring centimeters from the end of the travel. Or it can be writ in more subtle ways, like when you hit rocks at the absolute edge of control and don’t flat.
My one beef with this bike is that I was never able to use even 100mm of the available 120mm of travel of the Manitou fork. Even after repeated attempts to adjust the preload, the fork’s response was so progressive that I never got that last 30mm or so of travel. There are plenty of riders who would have hit things far harder than I. They also spend more time airborne than I do. It strikes me that the target market for this bike might not be an 18 year old who will be jumping the rig, but I could be wrong about that. I’ve got the feeling that more riders would be better served by a less progressive tune on the fork.
With cassettes like this, 1x drivetrains are workable even in truly mountainous areas.
It is here that I must reference my ambivalence for Strava. I’m intensely uncomfortable with what Strava has done to group rides, descents and stop lights, not to mention cross walks. But I also enjoy what it has done for my ability to track my training and really compare one ride to another. But that’s an essay for another day. I mention Strava for this reason: Plus ain’t slow. Could I ride a bike that would be faster on a climb? Sure. Could I descend faster on other bikes? No doubt. Could I get as much performance both up and down for $2100? Seems unlikely. Would anything else in this price range feel as fun? Ima bet against that.
Not long ago I thought the next bike I’d want to ride would be a full-suspension 29er. I’d been missing that experience. The Fuse has short-circuited that. What I most want to experience is a plus bike with five inches of travel front and rear, but that’s only because of where I live. If this place wasn’t so rocky, I wouldn’t need to think about rear suspension. I can think of plenty of places where the Fuse—or a bike like it—may be all the bike you ever need.