Rocky Mountain Bicycles is no stranger to trying new things. In 2009, they resurrected the venerable Altitude line; the name gracing a 140mm travel dual suspension bike. In 2010 this morphed into a 29er version with 120mm of travel. In 2009, the Altitude was described as "XC Marathon". In 2010, the 29er version was also identified as "XC Marathon" but with technical ability pretensions. The 2013 iteration of the Altitude is a rework, is now graced with the "trail" moniker (whatever that term means) and among other things gains travel to 150mm (front and rear) and simplifes the product line; doing away with the 29" and 26" wheel size and presenting just the 27.5" size.
Overwhelmed? The Altitude is shiftier than greased lightning with even more innovations like the Ride-9 system (convertible seat tube angle, head tube angle, BB drop and suspension tweaks using a 9 position "chip"); tweaks to its Straight Up geometry and custom tuning of its ETS - based Smoothlink suspension. Rocky was kind enough to put on a media clinic where I had a chance to take the Altitude MSL on some of my home Whistler trails to get a flavour for how it all comes together.
To summarize, Altitude demonstrates how shockingly versatile bikes are becoming. Jack of all trades, master of none it clearly is NOT. Superb climber, more than above average descender; I'd have to bandy trivialities to find a weak spot. The price for the carbon version certainly reflects anticipated consumer lust but look for (relative) value in the alloy versions. Read on for more...
Lee Lau's biases
I'm 160 lbs, 5'11" and have had over 15 years experience riding bikes in North Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, the Chilcotins and many other areas in B.C. and Alberta. I've also made many bike trips to Switzerland, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California and the Yukon (for example) so I've had some experience biking in a variety of terrain. My bias is towards pedalling up and unlike many people who learned to ride bikes on North Shore trails, I actually enjoy riding (and sometimes bushwhacking) uphill.
My personal bikes are a Santa Cruz Tallboy, Pivot Mach 5, and a Specialized Demo 7. I've had very little experience in the 650b category (going to buck Rocky and not call it 27.5) and, in that tire size have ridden the Rocky Mountain Altitude, the Norco Range and the Norco Sight but only for short rides. I am not sponsored by Rocky and have no commercial association with Rocky.
Altitude spans a line that extends in size from Small (15) to XXL (20.5). I can be fairly accused of being a Rocky fanboy having reviewed many Rocky offerings for MTBR in the recent past so won't recycle expositions about their technology which I've recounted in previous articles. Highlights are as follows
- general purpose riding 150mm rear travel full-suspension bicycle with 650b wheels
- geometry is slack and low reflecting current rider preferences with neutral position being 67.5 HA/74.5 STA and BB drop being neutral but adjustable .....
- ..... through the very slick looking patent pending Ride-9 system which offers adjustments of approximately +/- 2 deg in HTA; +/- 2 deg in STA and +/- 10mm in BB drop. That's pretty substantial and anyone interested should do themselves a favour and read more in this article or click on the Altitude micro-site to see more
- Altitude uses ABC (Angular Bushing Concept) pivot technology; this saves weight yet increases pivot stiffness (see page 3 of this article re the Element 29er alloy)
- Other features which now seem commonplace that serve to add stiffness while shaving weight includes a BB92 bottom bracket shell, tapered headtube, massively oversized seat and down tubes at the BB junction, and a E-thru 142x12mm rear end.
- Smoothwall carbon construction adds stiffness at precisely controlled places while shaving weight and maintaining high QC standards (more about that here on page 2 of this article in re the Element 29er carbon).
- Other attention to detail items include internal cable routing (with small cassette to make threading those wee cables through downtubes easier), an E-type direct mount front derailleur (mitigating tire clearance issues), cable guides for dropper posts and remote lockouts, an anti chain drop plate to help prevent chain jam and a fitted rubber seat collar sleeve to keep out rain
- Smoothlink suspension which has been well received in the older Altitude and Element platforms
- All 2013 Altitudes will be 27.5/650b thus simplifying the lineup and casting dies in favour of this wheelsize; a decision that may well invite much keyboard ranting .... err discussion.
Rocky's been incorporating oversided BB's into frame design which makes for stiff pedalling platforms. Note the use of BB92, 12x142 rear ends and E-type direct mount front derailleurs - strength + stiffness+ weight commonalities through Rocky's Vertex, Element and Altitude lineups. Race Face Turbine cranks complete the aesthetics.
The Ride9 chip allows tweakers to tweak geo and performance to their heart's content. Shock position allows on-the-fly adjustment while the rear suspension linkage keeps everything compact for extra clearance and adds a tad more stiffness. Note that there's plenty of room for a full water bottle in the rear triangle.
I'm typically a set-and-forget guy but was impressed by how well-thought out this is and in particular, how the feature set is so well explained. Changing the settings involves moving the Ride-9 chip around in the rear shock mount which is a 2 - 3 minute operation. Perhaps even something you'd do in the field. As previously said, the RMB materials and micro-site explains Ride-9 in more detail.
Ride-9 inspired lots of note-taking until I realized that the bewildering number of permutations it afforded was all explained on Rocky's site.
Straight Up Geometry
It's noteworthy that geo numbers for 650b wheeled bikes don't appear to be too dramatic a departure from 26" wheeled bikes. Altitude retains RMB's Straight Up geometry although the very steep seat tube angles found in earlier versions (76 in the 26" versions) is now slackened to the more neutral 74.5" angle. Head tube angles can be adjusted from 66.6 - 68.3 although I rode mine in the neutral 67.5 degree setting and found that fine. I will note that wheelbases are increased a tad from the older version (1123mm/44.2" in 26" version). One might be tempted to attribute that to the larger wheel size except I'd also note that the Element 29ers kept relatively (for 29ers) short wheelbases (1120mm). 22mm is not a lot of delta and the Whistler trails we test rode were relatively fast and wide-open so, for me at least, its impossible to tell if the longer wheelbase made a difference. That would take more ride-time to distill.
Smoothlink suspension technology
Altitude uses a variation of their patented ETS suspension which they refer to as Smoothlink suspension (for more on the ETS patent and thoughts behind this suspension see this article in re the 2009 Altitude. There have been some adjustments in the suspension rate curve as compared to Element which employed standard progressive suspension curves ie where initial travel was initiated with minimal force (in theory good for small bump compliance) then ramped progressively at the bottom of the stroke (resists bottoming out harshly towards the end of travel). Altitude's suspension's curve employs a bit more platform in the initial stroke thus lending more support then resumes a standard textbook progressive curve. The suspension curve then becomes linear (ie more coil-like) in mid-stroke then resumes a classic progressive shape at the end of the stroke. This seems like a curious development as I didn't find the Element to be overly active when pedalling and never felt the need to engage propedal on uphills or flats. Something to explore for a more indepth article would be to engage Rocky on their thoughts as to Altitude's suspension-tuning.
2013 Altitude MSL force curve.
https://reviews.mtbr.com/2013-rocky-mountain-altitude-msl-650b-preview/smoothlink2013-2Element suspension curve presented for comparison
Preliminary Impressions - Rocky Mountain Altitude
Pontificating about suspension rate curves is all very well - more about the ride! I was on a prototype build; an Altitude alloy 750 frame with 770 componentry. Accordingly I can't speak to the ride quality of the carbon frame but if the Rocky Mountain Element 29er was any indication, expect the ride to be stiffer and the frame to be anywhere from 250-400g or so lighter.
Highlights of the 770 component build include Fox Float 150 FIT CTD front; Float Remote CTD rear; Race Face Turbine 36/24t 2x10 cockpit and cranks, Shimano shifters, Avid brakes, Reverb post, Wheeltech wheels and Schwalbe Nobby Nic 2.35 tires. A smart, intelligent build that has a very British Columbia influence including many of the components that BC riders would add. Some particular callouts:
- Race Face's Turbine cranks shift beautifully. Including the smaller gearing is particularly thoughtful. Many BC climbing trails are incredibly steep and people will climb a long way to descend very aggresively technical trails. The Sea-to-Sky Corridor (Whistler - Pemberton - Squamish) in particular has that peculiar mix of hard to get to trails with very very long descents which require an extraordinarily versatile bike. Some might deduct man points for having such small 2x10 gears but riders who think that way probably haven't ridden much in this kind of terrain.
- Many have viewed the Fox 34 platform with suspicion (I am one of them). My cursory impression of them after having ridden the 650b variant is that the 340mm chassis is giving up very little in terms of stiffness and precision to the Fox 36 platform (having said that I am only 160lbs and would appreciate hearing from heavier riders). Look down further in this article and you'll see that the Fox 34 and 36 crown shares the same dimensions while the Fox 32 chassis is noticeably smaller. I speculate that the extra heft of the Fox 34 crown may contribute to its stiffness.
- Last but not least I was much more impressed by the Nobby Nics this time around than I was some 2 years ago when I last encountered them on a test bike. They have more braking power, their compound actually feels sticky and they have decent braking power. They're a fairly fast rolling tire which is impressive given that they're fairly wide. Time and conditions will tell if they are durable and if they perform well in the wet (which is where the older Nobby Nic's lacked performance)
Uphill and trail
I won't sugarcoat it. This bike was an excellent climber. Not to wear my fanboy colours too proud, but I'd be surprised if Rocky didn't put out something that climbs well. I did not feel the need to engage Propedal at any time; even on gravel road grinds. While Altitude pedalled evenly with smooth action I did find that you could play with the suspension by putting forward sudden bursts of power and using body english to surge forward while using suspension action to drive the rear tire into the ground. This came in especially useful in steep loose switchbacks, on square edged obstacles (roots, rocks etc) or whenever needed to get that last desparate dig of traction to make it around a particularly nasty section. You won't mistake this for a hardtail or a xc-racing machine but the 2013 Altitude is an active climber that lets a strong, technically engaged climber attack and play with uphill terrain.
Not surprisingly the active aspect of the bike translated well on flat sections. One can attack small sections of uphill by pumping the bike into g-outs then accelerating so that you're halfway up the next section before you know it then throw yourself with wild abandon into the next small downhill. On flatter sections the ability to play with the suspension (perhaps that's the linear nature of the suspension mid-stroke working to one's advantage) gave me the abililty to pump through terrain and keep up speed.
I'll keep coming back to comparisons to the Element so let me make one point. When Rocky first told me about the Altitude I wondered how it would compare to the Element (29er and 26er). The reason for such speculation was that older Altitudes were basically cross-country bikes with cross-country geometries but with slightly more travel, while I found Element to be so versatile that I was using it not only for "traditional" cross-country riding but pushing it into more and more aggressive terrain. Whither then the Altitude?.
Or indeed that was my question before putting wheels to the ground on the 2013 iteration of the Altitude platform. It's trite to say that Rocky moved this platform to more of a downhill bias; the increase in travel, and geometry changes give that away. What they've done is make this bike so much more of a capable downhiller that I daresay this crosses well into the territory of the Slayer. So whither the Slayer?
Other questions remain unanswered as the Whistler trails we rode were among the more intermediate of the West Side and Whistler South trails (Pura Vida and the new marvellously routed It's Business Time for the record) and I kept the bike in the more neutral setting. It would be very interesting for the Altitude to be pushed on more technical, more aggressive trails to see how it will fare. My opinion is that the 2013 Altitude is at least as good a climber as the older Altitudes and that it is a much more capable descender so it will do just fine. The only question is how wild and crazy one can get on it? That question can only be answered by more time on bike
27.5 (what Rocky calls it) / 650b
All you'll want to know about the theory behind this wheel size is in this article. (which you should take the time to read and digest). I've had time on 26" and 29" wheels and can say that I notice the difference. To parrot the marketing pap 650b offers the rolling advantages of bigger wheels while avoiding the geometry compromises of squashing big wheels into medium/long-travel frames.
Do I notice the difference? After one ride (three rides counting time on other 650b bikes), I can't say that I have an informed opinion. Simply put I don't have enough personal experience to make any kind of informed conclusion about the ride. I can honestly say that I barely noticed the different-sized tire. I can also say that I was trying to feel if I noticed a difference (no success on that front). Ideally I'd like to get an Altitude with each different wheel size and try them out on the same trail back to back to have more of an informed opinion. That exercise will be something for a later date.
MSRP and specifications for the Altitudes follow. The prices for the carbon bikes are definitely on the steep side but are quite a bit more reasonable for the aluminium version. The 790 kit gets a full bling spec and will no doubt win the most cluttered cockpit award with remote CTD front and rear suspension plus a remote for seatpost. All kidding aside, the component specs are remarkably good and kudos must be given to Rocky's product manager for getting Reverb seatposts (with Stealth cable routing) all the way down to the 750 MSL level!
Expected availability for all bikes is the February timeframe. For those who are swapping parts from another bike or who want to build their own bike, Rocky offers a frame-only option. Weights are extremely approximate but I was offered a guesstimate of 2300g for the carbon frame (with shock and mounting hardware). Weights for the full build will follow in updates to this article.
Visit our 2013 Rocky Mountain Altitude Press Announcement for more information.