LONG-TERM TEST – Specialized S-Works Camber 29

Words Stuart Kernaghan
Photos Stuart Kernaghan
Date Oct 28, 2014

I’ve been testing the 2014 Specialized S-Works Camber for several months now (check out the First Look article for the overview). During that time, I’ve given the bike a serious beat-down on the terrain that makes coastal BC riding so great. I had a chance to really learn its strengths, as well as a couple of shortcomings. Read on to find out if it’s the right bike for you.

Ride impressions
Testing a 110mm (4.3″) travel trail bike in these parts can be an interesting prospect. Chances are better than average that a bike generally best suited to a) moderately technical singletrack, or b) some sort of marathon stage race, will be scary as hell to ride in coastal BC. Not one to back away from a challenge, though, I headed out on the Camber and rode all the trails that I would normally ride on a 5” or 6” bike. And I came away from the experience very pleasantly surprised.

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A size XL 2014 S-Works Camber. The bike comes with a Fox Float CTD fork with Kashima coating and 110mm of travel; a custom tuned Fox Float CTD rear shock with Specialized’s proprietary AUTOSAG feature; SRAM XX1 11-speed shifters, rear derailleur and cassette; a Specialized S-Works FACT crankset with a single 32T ring; Formula T1 Racing disc brakes; Specialized carbon Roval Control Trail SL wheels and Specialized Ground Control tires (2.3″ in the front, 2.1″ in the rear); a Syntace stem and Specialized XC Mini-Riser carbon bars; and a Specialized Body Geometry Henge Expert saddle with titanium rails mounted to a Specialized Command Post IR height adjustable post. Complete weight for the bike was 25.5lbs out of the box, which climbed to 26.3lbs with the addition of a set of Shimano XT Trail pedals.

The Camber was a great bike to ride on technical singletrack – as long as things didn’t get too rowdy. It was easy to get up to speed, and the handling was agile without forcing me to be in attack mode all the time. It responded well to rider input and tracked predictably, and while the 70° head tube angle is more on the XC end of the spectrum, it never felt twitchy, again thanks largely to the 29″ wheels. Swapping out the stock flatlander bar and stem combo for something wider and shorter helped keep the handling mellow.

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Ripping flowing forest singletrack was what the Camber did best during the test period. I’m sure it would have been equally at home on an epic race course, but that wasn’t in the cards for me this year.

Climbing on the Camber was about as effortless as you’re going to get. Credit that to the stunningly-light 24.4lb weight of the bike (no pedals, with tubes) and well executed rear suspension. Specialized truly does have rear suspension dialled with its FSR Horst Link system. The fact that the Camber doesn’t use Specialized’s Brain remote reservoir, which is found on its XC bikes, makes for a more compliant ride that hugs the ground on technical climbs and reduces trail noise. The 74.2° seat tube angle on the size XL bike may sound steep, but it kept my weight over the bottom bracket. Fortunately, climbing around here pays off with sweet downhills. That’s normally the fun part of the ride but this was where the Camber came up a little short.

The steeper head angle meant that I had to pick my lines more carefully on technical descents rather than simply rolling over the edge and holding on, like you would with a slacker and longer bike. Not a big deal, seeing as that’s not really what this bike is designed for. A bigger issue, however, was the fork: the 110mm Fox 32 Float deflected fore and aft to a degree that it felt imprecise and didn’t inspire much confidence. I still rode black diamond trails on the Shore and plenty of granite faces and rooty lines up in Squamish, but I didn’t feel like I was able to carve or ride as assertively as I would have with a stiffer fork. I’m willing to concede that part of the issue may be my size (I’m pushing 240lbs. when fully kitted up), as well as Specialized’s intention for the bike.

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Technical rocky downhills like this one in Squamish were definitely possible on the Camber, but they weren’t exactly fun. Line choice was important, moreso than on a bike with a longer-travel and stiffer fork.

Both of those things considered, the Camber did remarkably well on descents and I still rode all the same trails that I normally ride on a bike with a 140mm travel / 34mm stanchion fork. I just wasn’t as fast or confident. The rear suspension felt very linear and predictable when I was riding singletack as well as descending, much to the bike’s credit. It never bottomed out even though I was getting full travel, and it never felt like it was overwhelmed, even at speed. Stiffness on light-weight bikes can be a bit elusive, but apart from the issues with the fork, the Camber was definitely stiff enough for me. There was no sway in the pivots or rear end when I rode hard, and the bottom bracket didn’t flex when I stood up and cranked. The 142mm rear through axle was a real bonus, and certainly contributed to rear end stiffness. I didn’t even notice any significant flex or deflection from the carbon wheels, although I’d likely save them for racing and use a beefier set for day-to-day riding on the Shore.

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Once I got to know the Camber, I didn’t hesitate to ride any type of trail. They were all possible on the bike, even if I wasn’t going quite as fast as I would on an all-mountain bike.

Weighing in on the spec
By and large, the ultra-bling spec on the top-shelf S-Works model delivered and played a part in achieving the overall light weight, but there were a few things that I didn’t particularly like and a few things that didn’t work as well as they should have. There are quite a few Specialized-brand parts on this bike: everything other than suspension, drivetrain and brakes comes from the Big Red S. Most Specialized products work well but there were a few that came up a bit short on the Camber.

The biggest disappointment was the 100mm Specialized Command Post height-adjustable seatpost. There are three positions on the post (fully extended, 35mm down and fully compressed). Even after adjusting the air pressure I found the post moved too quickly and, because topped out harshly. It can also be challenging to find the Cruiser (35mm down) position on the way up without using your posterior to slow it down. Once you have tried an infinitely adjustable post it’s difficult to go back, not to mention one with 125mm of drop, and a bike this nice deserves more.

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The wheels held up well to Stuart’s 240lbs riding weight, but he’s not a fan of mounting Knobby Nics on these Roval Wheels.

The carbon Roval Control Trail SL 29 142+ wheels took a fair bit of a beating during the test without any complaints, and never felt squirmy. Mounting a set of Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires proved to be a real nuisance, however, and required so much force that I was actually worried that I might break the wall of the rim. Once the tires were on, they were fine. Something else that was a real disappointment was the Formula T1 Racing brakes. Every set of Formulas I’ve ever used feel blocky and lack modulation, and these ones weren’t any different. I’d rather have a slightly heavier, less exotic brake that actually feels good at the lever.

The best part of the spec was undoubtedly the SRAM XX1 1×11 speed drivetrain. This particular version was built up with S-Works FACT carbon crankset with a one-piece spider/arm combo and PF30 bottom bracket with press-in bearings, mated up to a 32-tooth ring and an 11-42T cassette. This version of the one-by concept worked flawlessly. I would like to see some sort of boot on the carbon cranks to keep them safe from the occasional impact; they were looking a little worse for wear at the end of the test.

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The drivetrain on the S-Works Camber was amazing. There weren’t many times that I needed the bail-out 42T cog, but it was good to have. One-by is the way to go in just about every situation.

Suspension on the Camber was a mixed bag. As noted above, I found the Fox 32 Float CTD fork to be flexy; that probably would be much less of an issue for riders are under 200 lbs. The crowns also started creaking after a couple of months – a known issue with some Fox forks. They were replaced under warranty and were fine after that. I found that the Climb mode on the forks was very firm and Descend was very soft, but new model year forks I’ve ridden seem to have addressed these issues. The AutoSag feature on the Fox Float rear shock is brilliant. Pump up the shock to your body weight, sit on the bike, push the button and sag is automatically set for you. Very simple, and a big plus when it comes to setting up the suspension quickly. The front and rear suspension felt very supple and made for a solid, balanced ride and are definitely well suited to the Camber’s intended trail bike application.

Final thoughts
I’ll be the first to admit that I likely took the Camber places that the designers didn’t really intend. But save for some flex in the fork, the bike was up to the challenge. The Camber is exceptionally capable, if you’re willing to trust it, and a lot of fun to ride because of that. I rode what I felt like while I was testing the Camber, including plenty of black diamond trails, because I knew the bike could handle it. I didn’t go as fast on the downhills as I would on a longer-travel bike, but I was able to ride the same terrain. I was definitely faster on the climbs, didn’t have to work as hard on the singletrack and had more gas in the tank as the miles added up, from the simple fact that I wasn’t dragging as much bike around. That makes all the difference when it comes to getting over those short, punchy climbs when you’re at the three-hour mark of a ride.

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The Camber was a blast to ride on both rolling and technical singletrack. A steeper head angle made for fast handling and the 29″ wheels ate up roots, rocks and anything else on the trail.

Not everyone has the luxury of owning a quiver of bikes. If you’re looking for an shorter-travel trail bike or are a fan of endurance riding events, the Camber is an excellent option. Changing tires and a few components would allow you to go between racing and regular / training rides, and still have a killer machine that’s light and very capable on technical terrain. I tend to ride 5” 29ers on the Shore, but if I wanted to drop some weight and gain a little efficiency, I wouldn’t look much further than the Camber. [One note heading into the new model year: there was only one change of note to the specs for the 2015 Camber S-Works, but it’s important. XTR Trail brakes replace the Formulas. Good call, Specialized.] Is the S-Works worth the price of admission? Yeah, if you have really deep pockets and are a weight fanatic. If you don’t or can survive a few extra pounds, Cambers start at US$2,000; carbon models start at US$3,800.


Is 110mm of travel enough (paired with 29″ wheels) for the riding you do?

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Comments

vernon-felton
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Vernon Felton  - Oct. 30, 2014, 7:47 a.m.

Well written piece, Stuart. The Camber Carbon EVO 29er comes with a 120-travel RS Pike up front-it's an awesome bit of component spec that helps address the main thing you're not digging about this bike.

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CraigH
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Craig Hunt  - Oct. 28, 2014, 12:41 p.m.

Typo? From caption "Complete weight for the bike was 25.5lbs out of the box,", from article "Credit that to the stunningly-light 24.4lb weight of the bike".

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cam-shook
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Cam Shook  - Oct. 28, 2014, 12:22 p.m.

This comment goes for all bike suppliers but I'll say it anyway: Why is the same fork found on all frame sizes? If you're building a XL bike, you should assume the rider will weigh at least 200 lbs and you should spec the bike according. A sturdier fork for sturdier built riders! Dare I say wider rear axle spacing, wider handlebars, longer seat-post and longer cranks as well?

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pete@nsmb.com
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Pete Roggeman  - Oct. 28, 2014, 1:44 p.m.

These are good questions with pretty accessible answers. In the case of forks, the air spring means the tune you need for a heavier rider is inherently built into it. Not much can be realistically done about flex, such as a stouter steerer or arch. Supposing a different fork were spec'd, I'm not sure one that fits the bill exists off the shelf, leaving us with the common complaint larger riders have, which is that tailor-made spec costs more for them.

Wider axle spacing is not an option - consider all the things affected: frame design (if a rear axle), fork castings (big $$), hubs and wheels (front and back).

Wider bars - well that's an easy one. Spec wide bars on ALL bikes and let people (or the shop they buy at) cut to width. Not hard, even for carbon bars.

Longer post usually isn't necessary, depending on frame design.

Cranks are a totally valid point, and that is something companies can spec. Little known fact: the only difference between crank lengths is usually where the pedal axle hole is drilled. For most crank arms, there is only one mold, and pedal holes are drilled based on what's in demand for BB to pedal axle distance.

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john
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John  - Oct. 29, 2014, 2:03 a.m.

Well… you can buy a 140mm 29er Pike and put a 26 inch 150mm air spring in and reduce the travel to 120mm, that might help!

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drewm
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DrewM  - Oct. 29, 2014, 3:46 a.m.

With fixed-travel air forks it's easy enough to spec the same travel in
the "next chassis up." Extra costs // Extra weight.

Some, cheaper level, cranks share blanks and have pedal holes drilled in two locations (usually only 175mm/170mm). Thankfully for high performance cranks that isn't the case -- thin pedals wouldn't matter much if 165mm cranks and 180mm cranks shared a blank.

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boomforeal
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boomforeal  - Oct. 29, 2014, 9:21 a.m.

re. forks, specialized has a long history of customizing or developing custom forks to suit specific bikes. i've not heard of it done, but they could have spec'd a lowered 34 on the xl camber, for example

longer seatposts on larger models isn't uncommon. even if its not necessary, the longer seat tube on a bigger frame makes it possible, so why not

interesting fact re. cranks pete, i've never noticed that!

Reply

thisisbenji
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Thisisbenji  - Oct. 29, 2014, 6:19 a.m.

My size small 29″ hardtail from Specialized actually did come with a different fork than the larger sizes. I got stuck with 80mm of travel, while the rest of the sizes got 100mm.

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