First look: Rocky Element 29er

Words Stuart Kernaghan
Photos Stuart Kernaghan
Date May 22, 2012

Rocky Mountain has a storied history in the world of mountain biking, especially in these parts. The company produces bikes for virtually every off-road discipline, but unlike many US-based bike makers, there weren’t many 29ers in the line-up. In fact, as of 2011 there was only one: the 5” Altitude trail bike.

29ers haven’t had widespread adoption north of the 49th parallel, despite being available since at least 2001, so the lack of wagon wheels in the catalogue isn’t exactly surprising. That changed last summer, when Rocky unveiled a 29” version of its venerable Element XC bike at a media event during the BC Bike Race.

The 2012 Rocky Mountain Element 950, with a few minor mods to make it more Shore worthy. The Maxxis Ardent tires and Crank Brothers Kronolog post are my own touches, as is a shorter stem.

I was racing the BCBR last summer and was fortunate enough to be invited to the launch, so I got to see the bike then. It interested me right away, but I had to wait until March 2012 to get my hands on the right sized 950 to test.

The Element was a race-proven 4” or 5” bike, and it was well represented on the starting line at the BCBR. Rocky didn’t mess with the formula, and chose to keep the existing Element frame and suspension design – with the necessary enhancements for larger wheels.

Bike spec
Parts  spec on the Element 950 is well thought-out and it delivers a lot for a bike at this pricepoint. Everything is quality; solid without being fancy. Suspension duties on the front are handled by a RockShox Revelation RL 29 Air U-Turn with 90-120mm of travel, Motion Control lockout and rebound. It also sports a 20mm Maxle Lite thru axle.

The Revelation U-Turn Air fork, viewed from the top. U-Turn mechanism is at the top of the left leg, and compression / lock-out is on the right.

Rear suspension is handled by a RockShox Monarch RT custom valved shock with rebound and floodgate Adjustement, and 95mm of travel. The crankset is a SRAM S1400 with 38/24T rings working wth a 10-speed 12-36T cassette. You also get Formula RX brakes with 180mm rotors at each end, an Easton flat bar, stem and seatpost, and a fi’zi:k Gobi XM saddle.

The head tube of the Element is tapered for added strength. Internal routing for shifter cables on the sides of the down tube make for a clean-looking bike. The bike also comes with a stack of headset spacers, so you can fine-tune stem height.

The magic wagon wheels are made up of Wheeltech XC 20mm hub on the front and a 12 x 142mm thru axle on the rear, both mated to DT Swiss 485D 29 hoops. Stock rubber is a Maxxis Ikon on the front and a Aspen on the rear. Weight for a 21.5″ bike was 28.4 lbs. out of the box, without pedals.

The rear end of the Element showcases Rocky’s SmoothLink Suspension, which places the chainstay pivot above the rear axle, as well as a 142mm thru axle for stiffness.

In order to make the bike a little more Shore-friendly, I made a few minor component swaps before I hit the trail, changing the very narrow stock 685mm flat bar for a 750mm carbon DH bar and changing the uber-long 120mm stock stem for a 90mm. Beyond that and the addition of some Shimano XT clipless pedals, the Element was totally stock – I didn’t even add a height-adjustable post for the first ride.

The numbers
My test 950 was a big bike. The frame is 21.5” (seat tube length), with a top tube of 655mm / 25.7”. Those numbers may seem a little scary to some people, but at 6’4”, they didn’t worry me at all. I liked the idea of riding a bike that was the right size for me, rather than trying to shoe-horn myself into something smaller.

Head angle on the Element is a steep 70.6° with the Air U-turn fork dialed down to the 90mm travel setting, while the seat tube angle is also steep at 74°. Chainstays are 445mm / 17.5″, which keeps the rear wheel more under the rider. Wheelbase is a relatively short 1172mm / 46.14″, considering the size of the bike.

First impressions
Setting up the Element was straightforward, once I made the modifications noted above. Adjusting the Revelation fork was easy thanks to the guide printed on the fork leg, but the Monarch shock required more elbow grease. I kept adding more and more air to the shock to get the sag right, and am now running it at about 300 psi to get 30% sag. That seems high to me, but both Rocky and a SRAM master technician have assured me it’s fine. I’ll be paying close attention to both the shock and ride quality over the duration of the test. (Note – Stu claims his ‘rider weight’ is 230 lbs but this hasn’t yet been verified by an independent party -Ed.)

Beyond that, hopping on the Element was an eye-opening experience. I’ve been mountain biking for 15 years now, I’ve owned many bikes and I’ve tested even more while working for NSMB. And this may well have been the first time that I felt like the bike was the right size for me, right out of the gate. People often describe the experience of riding a niner as sitting in the bike rather than on it, and as much as I don’t like echoing that, it’s true. Not only was the Element big enough for me, I didn’t feel like I was perched on top of it.

NSMB tester Dan Austin got a chance to take the Element for a spin on the trails near Vernon, BC. He liked the way the Element rode, and felt right at home on technical lines after only a couple of hours on the bike.

It only took one real ride on the Element to sell me on the 29er concept. The first thing I noticed on my favourite XC loop on the Shore was that the bike was rolling over a lot of the small to medium-sized trail obstacles like they weren’t even there. What made that even more impressive was the fact that the bike was performing on pinner tires. The stock 2.1” Maxxis Aspen rear tire looks like it would be more at home on dry, hardpacked trails rather than wet Shore trails but it powered through everything.

Then I came to one section of trail that is my nemesis: about 400m of uphill singletrack that is criss-crossed from bottom to top with roots and small drops. I can clean it if I’m having a good day, but I have to be in the right gear and often have to simply power through certain sections. Line choice is key, and it’s easy to spin out. Seldom is it pretty, and I usually have to take a breather at the top.

Anyway, I got comfortable at the bottom and started pedalling. And kept pedalling. And cleaned the whole thing in one go, including all the root steps that I normally have to power through, some like they weren’t even there. I got to the top in less time than before, without spinning out at all. On the pinner tires. I was actually going so fast at the top that I missed the turn-off I needed to take. Hmmm. Maybe there IS something to this big wheel thing…

Big wheels = smooth sailing on singletrack. 29ers look huge under some riders, but not when you’re over 6′. At 6’1″, Dan found the 21.5″ Element a little big but it fit my 6’4″ frame perfectly.

Something else I noticed is that my knees were nowhere near the handlebar, even when I was standing up to power through tight, uphill sections of trail or on technical trail obstacles.

The rest of the ride progressed well, and I was enjoying the bike. What really sold me on the 29er experience was the final section of singletrack before the trail ended. It’s this short, greasy, uphill bit of trail that is more root than dirt. They all run perpendicular to the trail, and on this particular morning, they were muddy. I’ve walked this section a couple of times on my 26” bike, even on a good day.

I wasn’t expecting much on this particular day, but I got in a gear I could keep spinning and cleaned it like it wasn’t even there. No fumbling, no slipping, no getting hung up on roots, no need to get off and walk. No swearing. Okay, I’m sold.

The Revelation fork made it possible to tackle technical lines, but it didn’t provide the same sort of confidence that comes with slacker angles on steep terrain. 

Since that time, I’ve ridden a number of my regular laps on the Shore and I’ve discovered a few things about the Element. First, travel adjustable forks are a good thing, but U-turn forks are a pain. It takes too long to wind them up or down, so I end up riding with it in one position most of the time. Second, the steep head angle on the Element can lead to some pucker-inducing moments when the terrain gets a little gnarly. Third, a 46″ wheelbase is still short enough to ride tight terrain. Fourth, you can have a hell of a lot of fun on a bike with only 95mm of rear wheel travel.

The parts spec on the Element is good, particularly in light of the retail price, but I’ve made a few more modifications to suit my riding style, personal preferences and the terrain around here. The stock rubber has been replaced by a Maxxis Ardent 2.4″ tire on the front and a 2.25″ tire on the rear, I switched from the 90mm stem to a 70mm stem, added a Crank Brothers Kronolog post and gave the Formula disc brake the boot in favour of some Avid XOs. All of those tweaks have made the Element very capable in almost every type of terrain.

All in all, I’m having a lot of fun on this bike. I’ll be putting it through its paces on the Shore, in Squamish, in the Okanagan and it might even see some racing action before I write the final review. Stay tuned for the full story.

In Canada and the US, the Rocky Mountain Element 950 will lighten your wallet by $3,299.

Stuart Kernaghan

Do you have the fever? Might this be the bike to push you into the 29er abyss?

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