Scrolling through the comment section of one of my reviews or tech articles often reveals a "show us your own bike" type of remark. It's something that I've been hesitant to do up until now, though, partly because my personal rigs are often a strange combination of parts being put through testing and stuff I just like to use, and also on account of not wanting to endorse any specific product. Oh, and because my bikes are often kooky things that you guys will make fun of. But my current companion, which started off as a stock Rocky Mountain Element 990 RSL BC Edition, but is now, ahem, more eclectic, is interesting enough that I thought it'd be worth sharing.
So, why a 100mm-travel Element instead of something with longer legs and more relaxed geometry? First, because I'm the resident cross-country dork, and because I needed something to serve as a 'control bike' of sorts, a bike to hang test parts off of that I actually wanted to put approximately seven million miles on. I most definitely don't want to ride something squishier for seven million miles, no matter how well it pedals. I also love a sharp handling, responsive bike, and the guys at Rocky Mountain, who are just down the road from me, trusted me enough to hand over one of their creations. They might ask for it back sooner than I want after seeing what I've done to the Element's component spec, however...
• Intended use: cross-country / product testing
• Rear wheel travel: 100mm
• Wheel size: 29''
• Fork: MRP Ribbon, 120mm
• Wheelset: DT Swiss XM 1501 Spline
• Shimano derailleur/shifter, SRAM X01 cassette
• RockShox Reverb dropper
• Weight: 27lb 8oz (as pictured)
My rolling test rig is a large-sized, 100mm-travel Rocky Mountain Element 990 RSL BC Edition that, as you can tell, is about as personal as a fleshlight. I have a lot more fun pushing a short-travel bike closer to its limits than I do when not using an enduro race rig to its full potential, and I get a kick out of rallying my little Element with guys on much longer-travel bikes, even when I can't hold it together and crash hard enough that my shoes come off. Yes, it happens.
The Element's Ride-9 geometry adjustment chip-in-a-chip system lets me tune the handling and suspension ramp-up, although it's really only the latter that I notice. The bike's head angle can sit between 69 and 70-degrees (with the stock fork), and after much tinkering about, I've found that I far prefer the steeper setting. I know, blasphemy! String me up from the rafters! But it's a damn cross-country bike; it's supposed to turn quicker than a unicycle.
When I want to ride something more relaxed, I'm very lucky to be able to grab one of the lazier all-mountain machines from my rotating fleet of test bikes.
This is the second Element that I've spent countless hours suffering up climbs and skidding through every corner aboard, with the previous model being the older BC Edition as well. How do the two compare? The new Element is — and also feels like — an out-and-out race bike when on the gas, but it's far more stable and forgiving than its predecessor, a bike that I spent over a full year on. This new model is less punishing all around, more anchored (especially when there's not much traction), and it can carry two water bottles inside the front triangle. Any engineer who designs a mountain bike meant to pedal around for hours on end but doesn't include a place to mount a bottle deserves to be dropped off in the middle of the Sahara without any fluids — drinking your piss is one way to learn that water is really important. Suspension
I've always believed that the less suspension you have to work with, the better it has to be. The rub is that downhill and enduro race bikes get most of the cool, high-end boingers and bump sticks, with a lot of the stuff that makes us tech nerds quiver not being available in short eye-to-eye lengths or travel variations. At least my Element doesn't come with one of those silly remotes to lock out the rear-end, right? When you have a pint-sized 6.5'' x 1.5'' shock delivering just 100mm of travel, what the hell do you need to lock it out for? I blame both Europe and questionable cross-country racers with a lever fetish as to why all of Rocky's other Elements sport remote lockouts — the 990 RSL BC Edition and its Monarch RT3 shock being the only one that doesn't have an extra cable attached to it.
I set my Element's rear-end up to to be ridden fully open at all times, with 25% sag from 195 PSI, and the rebound dial five clicks out from fully closed. The little bike pedals so well (as it should) that I'm about as likely to quit donuts as I am to reach for the low-speed compression assist lever.
Up front, the stock fork is a 120mm-travel RockShox Pike RCT3 that, after installing a few Bottomless Tokens, performed flawlessly given the bike's intentions as a rowdy-ready cross-country steed. That fork would still be on the Element if I didn't need to test other options, including a 100mm-travel RockShox SID World Cup (old timers will note the limited edition blue that harkens back to the original SID) that weighs less than a fart.
With 20mm less stroke from the SID, and therefore a shorter axle-to-crown length, some geometry fixing was in order; I brought the head angle back to "OMG this is fun but also twitchy" via the frame's Ride-9 geometry adjustment chips, but need to get my hands on one of the 10mm tall lower headset cups that Rocky Mountain uses for exactly this purpose. Without it, the bike's bottom bracket is just low enough to scare me sometimes. That, along with some mega-light wheels from Knight Composites, will likely be my BC Bike Race setup for this year.
Pictured on the bike now is MRP's rather interesting new Ribbon fork that's set to 120mm of travel. I'm a sucker for something different, so a new fork from a brand widely known as a chain guide company is right up my alley. But the Ribbon sounds pretty legit, too: a twin-tube damper, MRP's Ramp Control air system, and a different look thanks to that funky arch. My settings right now are as follows: 85 PSI in the positive chamber, 90 PSI in the negative chamber, nine clicks out for the rebound dial, and the Ramp Control dial is turned halfway in.
I've only got a handful of rides on the Ribbon so far, but I have to admit that I'm impressed with its action, although it does sound like its gargling Jello when it's working hard. At 1,870-grams, it's also a fair bit lighter than the Pike it's replaced, which doesn't hurt. I'll have a review of the Ribbon for you guys in a few month's time. Drivetrain
And now for the stuff that makes it go. The Element has seen a handful of different drivetrain configurations, including Shimano's battery-powered XT Di2 group that, while performing damn well, is a bit too heavy and offers no real advantage. So off it went, replaced by a more traditional setup, although even that's not exactly normal. The shifter is just an 11-speed XT trigger that's moving a Shimano XTR derailleur, but I've ditched the stock XT cassette because my legs can't live with that ridiculous nine-tooth jump from the 36 to the 46-tooth large cog. Instead, I'm using a SRAM X01 cassette that weighs just 268-grams (the XT block weighs 428-grams) but, more importantly, has more usable gear range. It's also black, which add roughly five watts to my power output.
Yes, I could live happily with complete drivetrains from SRAM or Shimano, and I'm sure reps from both companies are rolling their eyes at my most certainly not recommended setup, but it works well for me. Plus, it's fun to break the "rules" and mix and match to see the outcome. In that same vein, my chain is an 11-speed rust-resistant job from KMC that's been impressive (minimal love, zero rust), and the alloy cranks and 32-tooth chain ring are the stock bits from Race Face — I'd like to drop a good chunk of weight by getting their new Next SL G4 arms down the road.
Anyway, that makes a drivetrain put together from four different companies, just in case you weren't keeping track, and it performs just as well, if not better, for my needs as a single-brand setup. Then again, they'll very likely be something completely different on the bike within a few months.
One thing that probably won't change anytime soon are my pedals. I used Shimano's XT and XTR pedals for many years but, even when the tension was maxed, I found myself accidentally unclipping far too often. If you've never had this happen to you, just know that it can be a really, really bad surprise. I put the blame down to the fifteen years of using platform pedals that have left me with 'wandering feet' — I'm always subconsciously moving my kicks around too much through corners or when mucking around on a trail. I'm running HT's Leopard M1 pedals that are relatively light for having steel spindles (299-grams), relatively inexpensive-ish ($129.99 USD) and, most importantly, hold my feet in place regardless of what I'm doing wrong. The release tension on my HT's is set to about the halfway mark, which is still much firmer than an SPD mechanism set to full tension. Wheels and Tires
The 2017 Element 990 RSL BC Edition comes with a set of aluminum Stan's ZTR Arch MK3 rims (laced to a DT Swiss 350 rear hub and house-branded front hub) that have held up pretty well. However, I find them about as interesting as a young kid feels about memorizing his multiplication tables. I still use the stock wheelset as needed, but there's a set of DT Swiss' aluminum XM 1501 Spline wheels (30mm internal width) on the bike for testing right now, which have been flawless despite me running into all sorts of immovable objects far too often. One bummer: they make use of the silly Centerlock rotor mount that, while looking like a good idea, allows the rotor (or adapter in my case) to shift on the mounting splines ever so slightly when the brakes are tapped. It's a minuscule amount of play, but I can't stand it — give me six rotor bolts everyday, please.
In the name of Breath-Rite strips and white bib shorts, I also have a set of Knight Composites' 29 Race wheels that I'll be installing shortly. These will be around for long-term testing, including the upcoming BC Bike Race, and I have to admit that I'm a bit giddy about their 1,400-gram weight. Choosing rubber to go with such a nice wheelset is always a bit of conundrum - I need something relatively feathery, but I also know full-well that a sub-600-gram 29er tire is going to last me about 100ft. I'll likely be running a set of 2.25'' Nobby Nics when the BCBR rolls around, or possibly Vittoria's ridiculously impressive Gato that I reviewed awhile back.
What I won't be using come race day is the set of Vittoria Mota tires that you see pictured here, but not because they don't work well. Yes, they stick like glue to everything other than wet roots, but they're a bit heavy and slow rolling for a week-long cross-country race that they were most definitely not designed for. They look like they weigh about 1,200-grams each, but they come in it a very respectable 813-grams. Even so, these are for riding rather than racing.
No matter what wheelset or tires are on the bike, they're always setup tubeless, of course. If they weren't, I'd flat even more than I already do, which would be a bit of a bummer. I run Stan's normal sealant, but usually a bit more than recommended, and I've been loving e*thirteen's aluminum valve stems (not pictured) that can be configured to work with most rim shapes. They seem like a nicer solution than steel valves and threaded lock nuts.The Small Stuff
The Element's odd drivetrain and MRP Ribbon fork garner the most stares and questions, but there's also a bunch of smaller things that make my bike, er, my bike. One of the small things that I often move between test bikes are the Easton lock-on grips. They're slim at just 30mm across (there's also a 33mm version), which is awesome because I have the hands of five-year-old, but they don't feel like I'm holding onto a cactus wrapped in barbwire as some thinner grips do. The dual clamps also keep them from slipping on shiny carbon bars, and as the outer metal ring on each side of the grip is tightened down, the inner plastic sleeve is pushed against the bar, holding the grip securely in place without any metal actually touching the handlebar.
My carbon Race Face handlebar measures 780 wide and is combo'd with a 50mm Turbine stem because I like things to match, and there are nifty stepped, adjustable headset spacers that sit on top of it. These plastic spacers are neat because you rotate them to adjust their height, something that comes in handy as I'm often swapping forks back and forth - rather than mucking around with a bunch of separate spacers, these two stepped ones do it all. I like my cross-country bikes to have a fairly low front-end, especially with 29'' wheels, so the Turbine stem is both upside-down and sits directly on the headset's upper cap. As it is right now, the top of my grips measures 140cm from the ground.
At the other end of my cockpit is one of my all-time favorite seats — Tioga's Spyder Outland. Yeah, it looks odd. No, it doesn't split me in half. What determines if a seat is comfortable or not for your ass is its shape, not how much padding has been glued on top of it, and the Outland's shape simply works for me. It does sport some thin removable silicone padding that adds a touch of forgiveness, but I think that's more for mental relief than for your behind. I also like to tell people that the webbed shell is for drainage so I can take a leak without stopping. This is a lie, I swear.
The Outland is bolted to a 150mm-travel RockShox Reverb that's back on the bike while I service the e*thirteen TRS Plus dropper that's here to be reviewed — it needed a stronger return spring installed as it wasn't coming back up to full height during testing.
I have legs that just don't quit, so even on a large-sized Element there's a fair bit of seat post exposed — bottom bracket up to the top of the seat is 77.5cm — and I run the Outland's nose angled down ever so slightly to keep it from having marital relations with me while climbing. Just imagine if there was some way to carry your tools on your bike, like a bag or something that straps to your seat... Man, that'd be clever. Wait, you're telling me that seat bags have been around for decades? And that I don't have to strap tools to my frame or slide them down into my steerer tube or bottom bracket spindle? There are all these (sometimes) clever "solutions" for carrying essentials on rides, and it's almost like some riders think they're too cool to use a seat bag. If you've met me, you know that I'm definitely not too cool.
In my seat bag is a tube, patch kit and tire boot, Dynaplug, two Clever Standard tire levers that have a built in quick-link tool (designed by bike genius and inventor Tomo Ichikawa, the same guy who came up with the stepped headset spacers), an 11-speed link, and a bag of gummy worms.
One of the more interesting components being tested on the Element right now are the TRP G-Spec Quadiem brakes. Monster-sized finned calipers with four hybrid composite/stainless steel pistons, a lever blade worthy of a dirt bike, and all powered by mineral oil. Each end retails for a reasonable $149 USD (sans rotor), and the front brake weighs 317-grams on my scale, also without the rotor. I've been using them for a few weeks with the stock organic pads and I'm impressed with the SRAM-esque feel and control at the initial bite point, although power is decent but not off the charts like a four-piston system should deliver, so I'll pop the metallic pads in later this week to see how they perform. Stay tuned for a review of these chrome stoppers in a few months' time.
So there it is, at least as it sits right now — remember that it'll likely see a vastly different spec in a few months time. Sure, at 27lb 8oz, it's not as light as you might suspect, but I've had the bike down in the mid-24lb pound range with other parts hanging off it. And no matter what the Element's build looks like, it's happy to be bombing down some raw and rowdy shuttle lap or out for a five-hour, six-thousand-foot adventure day; more importantly, I'm happy to be on it during either type of ride.
Now she just needs a name... any ideas?