PINKBIKE FIELD TEST
Rocky Mountain Element
Words by Henry Quinney, photography by Tom Richards
The Rocky Mountain Element is a very different bike to the outgoing model. It’s something of a copywriter’s golden ticket, and could have its whole description distilled to buzzwords, but does this exciting take on a modern short travel bike hold water? Or is it nothing more than a damp squib?
In short, it’s longer, lower, lighter, slacker, better looking, and more aggressive while also being steeper in the seat tube. Not only this, but it also features room for two water bottles, geometry adjustment that actually represents a useful amount of range, a SRAM universal hanger, a long drop seatpost and sized tuned shocks.
Element Carbon 90 Details
• Travel: 120mm rear / 130mm front
• Wheel size: 29"
• Head angle: 65 - 65.8°
• Seat tube angle: 76 - 76.8°
• Size tested: large
• Reach: 475 mm (low)
• Chainstay length: 435 mm
• Sizes: S, M, L, XL
• Weight: 25lb 0oz (11.3 kg)
• Price: $9,589 USD
Writing about this bike is like writing an obituary for Brian Blessed. There’s just so much going on, it essentially just seems to write itself.
The bike delivers on many of these attributes in droves. Its headtube, which can be as slack as 65 degrees, is as much as 2.5 slacker than the Canyon Lux on test. It also manages to temper some of the shortcomings or quirks of other bikes by having well proportioned dimensions, even with the geometry measurements that don’t grab the headlines, such as a nice short seat tube and a good insertion depth. Our large came equipped with a 175mm dropper post, which was very welcome because what this bike lacks in travel it certainly doesn’t lack in capability.
Rocky have also adopted the idea of wheel-size specific frame sizing. For instance, there is an XS but it comes equipped with the smaller wheels. The rest of the range comes with 29” wheels. Similarly, each size has a damper tune to suit. This should mean that riders have usable adjustments and aren’t operating near the end of the range.
Unsurprisingly, Rocky’s flip-chip appears. However, we’re now down to merely 4 positions as opposed to the dizzy-days of the Ride-9 system. I’ve made my disdain for chips such as this very clear in the past, however the Element gives me a chance to clarify my position - on bikes as extreme as this, where it’s not trying to jump between conservative and very conservative, I think a degree of geometry adjustment is very appropriate. It’s one of the few bikes where I believe this to be the case.
The spec on the Rocky definitely leans towards lighter parts than burlier ones. It had some great parts, too. The Fox 34 was exceptional and did a great job of letting the bike's geometry fulfill its promise. The Fox DPS shock also worked well. The damping of this bike felt spot on, and struck a great balance between comfort, tracking and support. If the size specific tune on our large test bike is anything to go by, then it's a level that most riders across all sizes should be able to achieve.
Speccing this style of bike is a double-edged sword, and how you feel about how aggressive the parts should be will probably depend upon where you live. Every time we complained that the bike was a bit under-gunned compared to the burlier components of the Trek or the Niner, in the next breath we said how fantastically light it was. I can make my peace with the FIT4 damper and light two-pot XTR brakes, and never felt they lacked power or bite, but I would love to have seen some slightly wider rims than the 26mm models that came on our test bike.
Other nice touches include the either-way routing options for the rear brake and 2.6 inch tire clearance at the rear of the bike.Climbing
The new Element, with its low weight, renewed kinematics and shock tune, as well as its steep seat tube angle, absolutely delivered on its promise on the climbs.
This bike is not only very efficient, by our reckoning it was the second most efficient and came within a second of taking top honours. It's also a very good technical climber. It’s perhaps not quite as firm under load as the Trek, but that comes back to you on technical climbs. It was also the second fastest on the timed climbing section of singletrack.
The new Element tracks the ground very well, and while it’s not quite as supple as the Santa Cruz it is one of the grippier bikes for seated climbing in the downcountry group test. Much like the Santa Cruz, it’s also very comfortable because of this.
The Rocky feels a little bit shorter in its seated position compared to the Trek due to the slightly taller front end. However, it’s not as high as the Niner, striking what I found to be a happy balance. How great the distance is between your contact points, or how stretched out you're feeling, does affect your fore and aft balance on climbs and really becomes apparent on steeper sections. The bars sit in very health range of movement, and let you move your weight around the bike, and exact it where you need to, very easily.
The Element is balanced and steady yet very adequately responsive. The riding position distributes your weight between the wheels very well and lets you focus your mind on the task at hand when the trail gets more technically demanding.
The Rocky gives a very trail-like feeling on the descents. It’s different to the Trek, despite them sharing many of similar dimensions. For a 25lb bike with 120mm of travel, it’s amazing how much it can plow through rough or choppy terrain. That’s not to say it’s anything like an unrefined brute, but rather it’s more suited to slightly more technical trails than the precise-feeling Trek. If you were to try and keep up with friends on bigger bikes, the Element, of all the downcountry bikes, could well be the best bet.
Through steeper turns or sections, it’s amazing the level of confidence this bike can inspire. The geometry keeps your weight very central on anything like demanding trails, however, that does come at the cost of precision on flatter turns.
Everything is a compromise, and I think the Rocky gets it about right. It's perhaps not as trail feeling
as the Niner Jet RDO or the Giant Trance, but that's the point, isn't it? It feels like the Rocky does a good job of picking its battles and striking a balance between making-flatter-trails-fun and getting your down more challenging trails. It also manages to keep the weight down which, to me at least, is a big bonus.
If the Trek is an XC bike with some trail dimensions, this is a trail bike with XC weight. Through fast-paced or rougher terrain, the suspension manages to provide ample tracking as well as a very suitable level of support. It's happy to go into the stroke, providing excellent small bump compliance, but without ever wallowing or falling through its travel.
I think the Rocky is probably one of the more versatile bikes on our test, and there's not much it can’t do. If you’re the kind of person who wants to downsize their trail or enduro bike, there are probably few bikes more suitable. If, however, you’re an XC rider that wants more travel but keep the more classic position you’ve come to know and love, maybe the Trek would be a better candidate.
If you were to have one mountain bike and you want it to do a little bit of everything, from technical trails to steep and fast ones, but you also have no interest in lugging around 150mm or more and travel, and want it to be fantastically light and efficient, then I can’t imagine this leaving you disappointed.
However, if you got this bike to really liven up flat trails, then this might just be a little too capable, if there can be such a thing.