November 14, 2011
Jon's been riding the Tracer 2 all over the place - six months down the line here's a comprehensive review
So, I’ve spent the best part of this summer aboard the Intense Tracer 2 and that’s given me plenty of opportunity to ride throughout Europe and the UK aboard the bright yellow machine. I tested the bike in Singletrack Issue 67 (Premier Digital subscribers can have a read of that review here) and enjoyed it massively. It’s a capable mix of descending and climbing ability with a heritage to match.
Still, I’ve now been riding the bike for six months, easily enough time for any problems with bike or build to develop. It’s also been long enough for the bike to travel to a load of different places, ride a load of different terrain and for me to get a handle on what I really want from the bike and how it’s character can be tweaked to suit.
As my test-bed for bike bits and parts, I’ve made a fair few changes so I’m going to break down what’s been done into areas. Click below for the full lowdown…
Price: £1,799.00 frame & RP23 Boost Valve shock
From: Extra UK
As with any modern bike, the suspension really is at the core of how a bike feels and handles, second only to geometry as the thing that can really make or break a bike. Originally, that was all taken care of thanks to a set of tapered Fox 36 Float RLC forks with Kashima coating and high-volume body RP23 rear shock with a light rebound tune and medium compression, with 175 psi in the Boost Valve. In either the 160mm or 145mm rear wheel travel settings, the bike was exceptionally plush.
I’ve mostly left it in the 145mm travel setting (the lower hole on the linkage) as the ‘support’ feels much better on pedally trails, but for the odd foray into downhill it’s been a quick bit of spannering and 160mm adds a bit of extra cushioning, all without changing static geometry. The VPP suspension does an excellent job of ironing out bumps and lumps, and can search out traction incredibly well, especially uphill.
However, for my taste – and being such a spoilt journalist I can be fussy – I found the slightly isolated feeling a bit of a drawback on smoother, more rolling downhills and in the berms, where it’s nice to feel a bit of a platform to give something to push and pump off. I found a way around this was to run a bit of Pro-pedal on the shock at all times, but after Chris from Fox Shox Europe sent a brand spanking new set of 2012 Fox 36 RLC Float forks an RP23 Adaptive Logic shock, complete with new SKF seals and a extra coating of anti-friction Kashima, it was time to experiment with shock tunes a little.
Before sending the new fork and shock, Chris had explained that thanks to the new seals and Kashima coating being extra slippy, I might want to go harder on the RP23 damping tunes, depending on how it rode. As I had little problem bottoming out the suspension, the Boost Valve pressure remained the same.
On fitting, I found that the reduction in friction was extremely noticeable. I might be accused of gushing praise, but it really felt like the suspension had added an inch of extremely supple and useable travel. Small bumps were dealt with unnoticeably but even on big hits, much less force was transmitted as a jarring feeling; it was simply straight into the travel. Efficiently used travel is a much better substitute for more overall travel. It’s a case of quality over quantity.
The ‘Adaptive Logic’ part of the updated RP23 means you can run a pick of 0, 1 or 2 levels of Pro-Pedal and switch to the maximum of 3 for climbs. I’ve found it works much better for me as I tend to want maximum support for climbing and a pick of Pro-Pedal, depending on what I’m doing at the time, when descending or traversing.
So, back to damping tunes. if a bit more is good, surely much more is better? Despite that attitude being the cause of most of my problems in life, I though I’d give it a go. If the newfound seal-based plushness made the shock better, it’d be interesting to try it with an even harder tune and see if it’d be possible to stop using as much, or indeed any, Pro-pedal as a platform and do that work with the pedalling-torque sensitive VPP suspension and the shock itself.
With that in mind Mr Matt Letch and myself travelled down to Mojo Suspension down in South Wales to be given the royal treatment, with our very own shock mechanics on hand to tweak, tune and answer our slightly simplistic questions for an upcoming webby-feature.
The compression tune was changed to firm, leaving both it and the rebound at the firmest possible without the ‘Porter special’ extra hard settings. I’d noticed that thanks to the increased plushness of the forks, I’d ended up riding with pretty much all the low speed compression wound on for techy, thrutchy stuff, the kind of riding where you end up placing a lot of weight over the front. That had made them less reluctant to dive under weight changes and with little loss of suppleness in other kinds of riding. On being told it was possible to increase the base compression with a fiddle and a fettle of the shim stacks, the Mojo technicians kindly ripped the forks as well as shock to pieces to satisfy our desire for more of everything.
So, how has it all worked out? On the fork, the useable range of damping is back to where it should be for my (admittedly quite obscure and step-riding-based) needs. I only run one or two clicks of low speed compression in standard riding and the fork has felt as supple as ever the rest of the time. It’s nice to be able to crank on plenty more low speed to ward off over-the-bar fear and they’re still as smooth as ever and without any wear, although they are overdue a seal service, a simple enough task.
Out at the rear end, I think its made things much better. It’s possible to fire the Tracer out of corners and off the lips of jumps with a much more positive feel and I tend to run no Pro-Pedal unless there is an extended bit of smooth surface climbing to be done. The bike feels much livelier too, but not to the point of being skittish on fast, repeated hits. It’s much happier to pop the front end into a manual and feel like I’m accurately placing the back end when I hop. It seems to suit my less than subtle style really rather well. Somewhat incredibly, the magic carpet ride and bitey climbing traction when pedalling are still there, something I did think the harder tune would mute.
After a while riding and experimenting with sag, I found running a good 30% suited me but I wasn’t getting full travel – no problem though, as I took the shock body off and removed the single plastic air spacer. It seemed like such a tiny change but it’s meant I’m getting full travel when and where I should be. The magic of fettling – and more importantly the knowledge, thanks to Chris and all at Mojo Suspension. Although we had special perks, all this work can be carried out by request and if the Mojo tech videos don’t help explain what does what, then they’re more than happy to talk about it in person….
Fork: 2012 Fox Factory 36 Float RLC
£283 for FIT cartridge rebuild, fork service and custom tune.
From: Mojo Suspension
Shock: 2012 Fox Factory Float RP23 Boost Valve Adaptive Logic
£137 for RP23 service and custom tune.
From: Mojo Suspension
If you already have a Fox fork or shock, then custom tuning work can be carried out during a service – you can also upgrade to a FIT damping cartridge in your fork or Kashima coated lowers and shock. Full prices and options can be found on the Mojo Kashima Upgrade page. The new, low friction SKF seals are now fitted as standard during a service, something I reckon makes a noticeable difference.
The bike came equipped with Shimano’s superlative XTR drivetrain. As you’d expect for top-of-the-line, eye wateringly expensive selection of components, they’ve worked perfectly. After running the ‘Trail’ 2×10 setup for a while along with the new XTR Shadow Plus clutch rear mech, I decided to remove the 38/26T rings and go with a single ring up front. I’ve got to admit there was no real reason for this beyond wanting to try out a single ring drivetrain and to find out just how painful and limiting it might be, versus the advantages of lower weight and simplicity. Renthal supplied one of their SR4 Ultralite chainrings in a 36T flavour and I spent some time experimenting with various single-ring setups.
After a while I found that although the XTR Shadow Plus rear mech does massively reduce the chance of the chain dropping off the bottom of the ring, it wasn’t totally foolproof with just a top-guide. It was time to put a bit of weight back on and get a full chain device stuck on the bike. I’ve been a big fan of the Straitline Silent Guide for some time: it’s lightweight, simple, has no moving parts to seize up or fail and past experience with one has been excellent. A call to Pete from Hotlines later and a 32-36T guide was sat before me.
Fitting was extremely simple thanks to the ISCG05 tabs on the frame, although thanks to the VPP linkage, getting the mount in the right place was a little bit more tricky. I eventually had to run the device so that it dragged a bit on the top guide in the larger sprockets. It’s bedded in nicely now and there’s no noticeable drag when riding.
Despite the low weight, the outer bashguard has stood up to plenty of rock bashing punishment. The guide has been extremely good 99% of the time, although I have had a couple of problems where the chain has skipped back on the teeth, jamming the chain.
This is no fault of the Silent Guide – it’s more the fact that the swingarm and lower link of the Tracer don’t give enough clearance to move the device high enough up to prevent this happening. It’s a rare enough occurrence that I’m happy to live with it, but I’m going to try and
explore some more VPP compatible guides – if you’ve got any ideas then pop them in the comments below…
Overall, my experience with 1×10 has been good. I’ve found the range of gears using a 36T chainring and 11-36T cassette to be sufficient in almost all conditions, though I’d be tempted to try a 34T ring if I regularly rode climbs that went on for longer than the short, sharp 20 minutes of hyperventilation that characterises the local terrain.
It did make my experience in the Alps a little bit tougher (read all about it in Issue 70) and I’ve encountered a bit of lower back pain after particularly steep climbs locally, but thanks to the relatively light weight of the bike and the supple climbing ability it’s tolerable, though legs do tend to tire faster on longer rides and climbs have to be attacked rather than approached gently.
Chaindevice: Straitline Silent Guide
Price: £114.99 plus £14.99 for replacement guides
Chainring: Renthal SR4 Ultralite 36T 104BCD
After riding about on my previous Long Term bike shod with somewhat over-the-top 780mm bars on, the 711mm wide Easton Haven Alloy bars were always going to feel a bit narrow in comparison, despite having a really rather nice feeling back and up-sweep. I persevered but I’ve come to like the extra leverage and therefore control that a wider bar offers and the change was inevitable.
After listening to Mr Matt Letch repeatedly shout “lower, wider” every time he saw a bike’s cockpit, I thought I’d try a bit of his Kool Aid and get the front low as well as wide. From experience 780mm width is just a bit big for my frame (as well as quite prone to getting caught) so something around 760mm would be about right. Andy from One Industries sent over a set of 762mm wide, no-rise Sunline V-One OS bars and a matching low stack 50mm long V-One All-Mountain stem, which fitted the bill perfectly, as well as looking rather sharp with the laser etched graphics and silver finish.
The extra width was more than welcome, I felt in control of the bike rather than having the occasional feeling of being a passenger. I can’t lie – I have bashed my fingers once or twice in tight, woodsy stuff – but the extra width makes it feel like a miniature downhill bike and wrestling it about on steep stuff or fast sections is much easier.
Wider was better for me, but what about the reduced overall height of bars and stem? Bizarrely, with just a single 5mm stem stacker below the stem I felt like I was understeering everywhere. With the front feeling so low, I ended up overcompensating by shifting my weight back, causing the front to wash out mid corner. Obviously it’s a question of how you ride and how willing you are to adapt to a change, but I found it very unsettling.
Once I’d changed stem spacers around a bit and the bar was at the height a 20-25mm riser would have been, the bike felt much better again. Of course, as Keith Bontrager and internet pedants are fond of pointing out, a flat bar is stronger than a riser, so from an Engineered Truth viewpoint, this is a better solution. It’s just as well I left the steerer quite long though…
I like thin grips and the Renthal G117 Kevlar BMX grips (reviewed this issue) have been grippy, hardwearing, nice and long and full of feel but the lack of a Lock-On system means that they’ve succumbed to spinning-syndrome now the really wet season is upon us. Apparently Renthal have a Lock-On version in the pipeline which should be just the thing.
I’ve left the original Fi’zi:k Gobi saddle in place. Despite being a very different shape than I usually use, it’s been very comfortable It’s also shrugged off the regular scrapes and crashes without any damage, which is rather impressive.
Bars and stem: Sunline V-One OS Flat bars and V-One All Mountain stem
Price: Bars £59.99, stem £69.99
From: One Industries
Grips: Renthal G117 Kevlar BMX Push On grips
By this point you might well be justified in marking me as a bit of a fashion victim – 1×10, flat wide bars and now – you guessed it – the de-rigeur head angle adjustment. Still, it’s worth seeing how far is too far. It might be fashionable but does it actually make it any better?
The Cane Creek Angleset seemed the obvious choice (a full review of it will be in Issue 70) and Extra UK sent one over for me to play with. With the full 1.5″ headtube and 1.125″ steerer forks, I needed the ZS49/ZS49 internal cup combination. The Cane Creek headset finder is extremely useful to fight through the many conflicting standards that exists, but thankfully the Tracer 2 is a fairly simple case. Included in the box you get a selection of lower cups which offer angle adjustments from 0.0, +/- 0.5, +/- 1.0, +/- 1.5°. Obviously I reached straight for the 1.5° cup and headed to the workshop.
Before fitting it, I though I’d measure my angles and lengths. With standard headset fitted, the wheelbase came in at 1145mm, the head angle at 66.8° and seat angle at 70.7°. Once everything was fitted, the wheelbase had grown to 1,160mm, head angle had relaxed to 66.0° and the seat angle had steepened to 71.3°.
Why not 1.5° off the headangle then? Simple but important – the original Cane Creek headset fitted had an external lower cup, while the AngleSet is internal, reducing the stack height of the lower cup by around 10mm, explaining the difference. It’s worth bearing this in mind when ordering the cup combinations – in my case it’d have been possible to use an external lower cup designed for a 1.25-1.5″ tapered fork and then used the neat 1.5″ to 1.125″ reducer crown race to make everything fit together. That would have then offered a true 1.5° off.
Still, nigh on a degree is a fair chunk of angle change and combined with the slight increase in wheelbase the bike instantly felt more stable on fast sections and steep terrain. It certainly needed a good amount more steering input to get it round stuff, but once again the mini-downhill bike feel I’d been trying to create was present. The bike sat into corners better than before and happily held a line through rough stuff that previously would have had the bars begging to slap from side to side. Turning required leaning the bike over harder and faster, but any sensation of the fork trying to ‘tuck’ under had gone.
The bike could cover ground downhill seriously quickly before, but this added another dimension to the speed you could achieve before bike feedback starts making you close your fingers around the brake levers. All well and good, but part of the joy of the Tracer 2 was it’s ability to dispatch steep and techy climbs with ease. The increased length of the bike – and bear in mind the length has been added to the front not rear – certainly made itself known uphill. Even with steeper seat angle I ended up moving the saddle further forwards on the rails to keep the front weighted during climbs and there’s a small but noticeable propensity for the bike to hunt around uphill.
On another note, I must own up to not reading the fitting instructions for the CC AngleSet, ruining one set of bearings and gimbals. It’s vitally important for the sake of a creak-free headset that you follow the correct procedure. This video covers the fitting of the headset in detail, so it’s well worth taking the time to view it before getting started.
Happily, I’ve made mistakes so you don’t have to. The gist is that you should assemble the bearing and gimbals together, place the lower bearing and gimbal on the fork, slide in the steerer through the cups but stop before the gimal touches. Take the upper bearing and gimbal and slide it onto the steerer, then simultaneously slide the gimbals into the cups, supporting the fork at all times as you fit the remaining bits of headset, stackers and stem. Fail to do this properly and you’ll have a badly aligned Angleset and very annoying clicking noise every time you compress the fork – and if you’re the sort of fool that simply tightens the preload up in the hope that the noise will go and continues to ride, then you’ll rapidly destroy the bearings and shortly after that, the movement will start to mark the surface of the gimbals, meaning a shamefaced and potentially very expensive call to acquire some new cups. Ahem. Do it right and it’ll be trouble free…
Headset: Cane Creek AngleSet
From: Extra UK
My standard summer choice of rubber had been the excellently predictable 2.5″ Maxxis Minion in the 3C triple compound and mid weight EXO sidewall. They aren’t the lightest or fastest rolling but they are very tough, incredibly grippy in a very wide range of conditions and despite the soft mixture of compounds they’ve lasted very well. With winter coming they’ve been changed for some spiky jobs though…
Price: £58.99 per tyre
From: One Industries
The Easton Haven wheels have put up with an awful lot of abuse, from uplift days at Innerleithen to tussock bashing and crashing at the MacAvalanche. The only damage has been a snapped spoke while downhilling on the continent, fair enough for a rather lightweight set of wheels. Apart from that they’ve stayed dead true and seem highly resistant to dings and dents. The rear hub bearings are starting to die after six months and sound a little rough, but the fronts are still spinning as smoothly as ever.
The impressively quick pick-up of the freehub has been tempered by the fact it’s needed a good number of rebuilds, the sealing maybe not putting up with a diet of neglect and soakings in gloop, grit, broken only by a good, long squirt with a hose without effect. A slight hesitation with the bite followed by inspection usually reveals the inside looking distinctly brown and lubricant free. It’s easy enough to clean, lube and rebuild but definitely a job you should perform as preventative maintenance – sooner rather than later.
Price: Front 20mm £344.99, rear 12x12mm £384.99
From: Extra UK
The Rock Shox Reverb adjustable seatpost is truly amazing. It’s only when you return to a normal seatpost that you realise how much you use the adjustability, whether it be to drop the saddle ever so slightly while your legs warm up and stretch out at the start of a ride, to the ability to quickly get rid of the saddle with a minimum of faff as the gradient drops away from you. Mine is an early model without the barbed hose but it’s stayed put though a few hillside tumbles. At one point it developed a slight creeping issue – but that was quickly and easily sorted with a bleed from the included kit, staying firmly put with a minimum of play ever since.
From: Fisher Outdoor Leisure
The Avid Elixir 7 brakes haven’t been on that long – they’re destined to be part of Issue 71’s grouptest – but I’m a big fan of them already. Predictable and strong, my only niggle is the slightly wide lever blade – but I do have quite small hands. It’ll be interesting to see how they cope through the grim winter, when pad wear can be rather rapid…
Price: £149.99 per end
From: Fisher Outdoor Leisure
So; that’s been six months with the Intense Tracer 2. It’s pretty much what I’d call my ‘dream bike’ build, but as with everything else, tuning a bike to your taste is all about compromise. I’ve happily sacrificed a bit of uphill stability and something that’s a comfortable place to be on epic, all day-rides for something a bit harder edged, more focused on the kind of riding that makes me smile and giggle.
On a summer road trip to some favourite lift-assisted spots in the Alps (including the epic 19-odd-km descent down from Pila to Aosta) and after being uplifted on the brutally rocky trails of Finale Ligure with Finale Freeride, the Tracer 2 merrily put up with downhill bike terrain and punishment without a squeak of complaint. The choices I’ve made meant a bit more sustained effort needs to be put in uphill but that’s character building – and more than repaid when the trail turns downwards. That’s the beauty of this bike, it seems to quite happily turn it’s hand to anything…
As ever, the big question is: If it was my own money, would I buy it?
In a word, yes. The consumable components such as mech, chain and cassette might not bear the XTR name but having tasted the fruit of super stiff cranks and smooth shifting I’d be tempted to keep them. If I had to swap an organ to afford the rest of the kit then that’d cancel out the weight gains anyway.
There are plenty of bikes out there that do a similar thing – 160mm travel bikes that are suitable for riding all day on all terrain – but every time I look at the Tracer it feels special and that, if we’re honest, is a good enough reason to buy a bike.
In fact, the only downside that I can think of is the attention it gets – be prepared to chat to lots of people who go misty eyed as they recall their Intense ownership history – and if you end up building a bike as ridiculously shiny as this one, be prepared to have you legs torn off and your tyre buzzed at any opportunity. ‘All the gear’ is something you’ll see (or imagine) on the tip of people’s tongues. Everyone seems like they’re out to get you – and if they do you can be certain it isn’t the bike’s fault.
What’s next? Well, it’ll be interesting to see how the bike and components cope through a grim Northern winter. Does XTR last that much longer in grinding paste? Will the shine stay on those golden shocks? Will any creaks develop? Will I ever have to find a grease gun and regrease the bearings? Who knows. My current thoughts are that a move back to a double setup might be the trick for winter slogs and some mid-weight but spiky mud tyres could help in the slop, plus some other bits of winterising. As it stands I think it’s close to the perfect bike for me…
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