Whether to run a ultra light hardtail or sacrifice weight for cushy comfort isn’t a new question. A decade ago, 29” wheels tipped the scales in favor of an former, but squishy bikes keep getting lighter and faster. With the Yak Attack growing perilously close, and my schedule never quite allowing me ample time to train, bike choice became important enough that I decided to run a test. Here’s how it went.
Felt Nine Team 2010 – Top of the line rig from a couple of years back. Sram XO, Mavic Crossmax wheels, tubeless and custom fit for me with Ergon grips.
Scott Spark Elite 2012 – Second the Spark line. Lacking adjustment in the rear shock, a mix of XT and LX with Avid 7 brakes and Ergon grips. Addition of Spinergy Xyclone wheels—apples to apples with the Crossmax. Fit went by feel.
Both bikes set up with Specialized Ground Controls in front and Geaux ARXs on the rear.
I’ll start with the Nine since I had it first. I fell in love with one during a test ride on the road because it was stiff like a road bike and felt wicked fast. I wasn’t really in the market to buy one but when I found a screaming deal I couldn’t resist.
First ride I almost put it up for sale. It was great when the trails were buffed but you felt every pebble and rocky downhills shook me so much that I could barely see. Wasatch Bike Support owner/drinking buddy/personal mechanic Tyson Greenman told me to give it a few weeks, citing that our friend Von raced one for a couple of years and loved it.
And get used to it I did. It made you pick lines on trails you’d normal ignore. Ride better, is how some people put this, though you must wonder what it actually means since doesn’t faster mean better? Nobody in the broom wagon cares how cool you looked at the starting line.
It did feel fast, which was definitely a carrot to keep at it. Less than a month later I did a Frog Hollow duo, surviving the entire race on it with surprise ease. I was becoming a fan.
In 2012 it was my default bike but I didn’t have a great year. I was thinking I might be burnt out as I enjoyed riding less than I ever had. After the Butte 100, which rattled me around pretty good, it got shelved in favor of my old Ventana El Patron and its 3 glorious inches of travel. In fact, even my old Fisher Rig felt push compared to the Nine. I think it’s so light that it rattles over even the smallest bumps, whereas the heavier Rig bashes through them. You also stand on a SS, making a hardtail feel more natural.
I found the Spark sitting in the corner of Jans, in Park City, a couple of weeks into their year-end close out. It had been in their high end rental fleet, hadn’t gone out much, and someone forgotten to put it back on the floor. I wasn’t looking for a new bike but, figuring there might be some serendipity at work, decided to take her for a spin. She’s been my default rig ever since.
I didn’t know anything about the bike so I dug around the net. Reviews were excellent, though not as spectacular is it felt to me. It seemed to have the best characteristic of both the Felt and Ventana, with a few added features that seemed genius, particularly the dual shock lock out. What I figured to be a gimmick turned out to be super useful, as you can go back and forth between being rigid and bouncy at the trail dictates. While you are able to do this on many bikes, the Spark does it instantly, on the fly, so you can change for a little as a few pedal strokes, which might add up to a lot of extra speed over the course of a race. You can also change the bikes riding angle a couple of degrees in about a minute. It’s not something you’d likely do in a single days race but for a stage race, like the Yak Attack, you could have a slightly different bike as the day’s course. It only took one ride for the Spark renew my love of mtn biking. In fact, I was having so much fun I played hooky from work and rode until darkness forced me off the trails.
Still, I figured the Nine was going to Nepal. The race isn’t technical and it features a LOT of bike portaging. While the Spark isn’t heavy, a couple of pounds, as well as lack of a shock, seemed like it’d be much easier to carry for hours on end. For fun I carried the Spark up and down a local 8,000’ peak in the snow and actually liked it, meaning that a more formal test was in order.
I found a section of trail that featured a short steep climb, a longer continuous climb, a long and technical hike-a-bike and, of easy but twisting and bumpy decent.
The Nine was up first. I hadn’t ridden it in a while and found myself enjoying it. Yeah, it was a bit bumpy but it’s fast and responsive and the lightness feels pretty cool. The hike-a-bike, as expected, was a breeze and the descent, while bumpy, felt very fast. I couldn’t believe the Spark had a chance but decided to see the test through to its end anyway. After all, it was training first of foremost.
At the first time check the Spark was two minutes ahead. I had to re-check the clock. TWO FRIGGIN’ MINUTES! It seemed impossible. Sure, it’s shock allowed better traction and that might add up to a little speed but two minutes? I chalked it up to being warmed up, since it was a cold day, figuring the next long section would be the real test.
At the next check I’d added an additional 3 minutes. Insane. Especially given I thought that I bonking a little. I was shocked. I honestly felt I was losing time and still can’t find a way to rationalize it as nothing went better. All my lines were the same and the one short section I didn’t clear on the Nine I didn’t clear on purpose with the Spark to even it out.
On the hike-a-bike the Spark was more comfortable. The shock sat nicely on my pack and its geometry fit me better. Unless I lost a ton of time it was going to win, which made me happy. The clock stopped even, down to the second, meaning ergonomics must of offset weight, especially so given I was getting pretty tired.
The descent? Duh. Another 2 minutes in the bank even though I was cruising because I though my dogs might be getting tired (they’re super dogs but had been running for 4 hours).
Of course you can ride any bike on any terrain. From a style perspective there’s always a reason to choose one over the other. I spent a couple of years riding rigid on trails and fixed on the road and none of that decision had anything to do with how fast I went. A road bike will likely someday conquer the Tour Divide, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational. I still think there’s merit to riding hard tail on a single speed, especially for hybrid road/mtn races like Crusher in the Tusher. However, with garage space limited, I just found a way to reduce my stable by one. Anyone want a deal on a Felt Nine?