2021 Rocky Mountain Instinct C90 - Long Term Review
Rocky Mountain Instinct C90
There has never been a more intimidating bike for me to review than the 2021 Rocky Mountain Instinct C90. First of all, I wasn’t supposed to be the recipient of this bike. The sizing of the Instinct required a re-alignment of the delicate hierarchy tree at the NSMB orchard. This meant that the 5’9” rider here ended up with a size Large Rocky Mountain Instinct C90.
Pete Roggeman did the first impressions* on this beautiful 12,000 CAD C90 build back in March, but I still had visions of parents hiding their first borns from the sight of me rolling through the local watering hole because I was on a bike that was fresh from the carbon presses. None of that happened, but I remained responsible for deciphering this ultra-adjustable, mini-enduro, maxi-trail, ultra-XC bike, and find a way to push it to the limit.
*you can find the build levels and all the specs there
There are no corners cut on this build. Everything is as expensive as you can buy, without going wireless or boutique, including the frame, suspension (fork spec is up for debate), wheels, drivetrain, and brakes. Everything is either XTR or its equivalent in an alternative brand. My test bike came in at 30 lbs. flat with pedals.. My god... Will this be the bike that will allow me to push uphill faster than my buddy James Wilson? I sure hope so.
Setting up the Instinct
As soon as I got over the fact that this size large bike had a 487mm reach, I realized that the effective top tube was a very manageable 636mm thanks to the steepish 76.7 degree seat tube angle. Some riders may chime in to say that is nowhere near as steep as it should be but for this non-fringe body I was happy to be able to pilot a long, stable bike with a very manageable cockpit length for climbing. I do have long arms for my height which helps to settle into a nice pedaling position. If you are much taller than I am, you might find the size XL to be on the smaller side while seated.
The Instinct shares its front and the rear triangle with the frequently EWS-podiumed Altitude. This means it is not a weight weeny carbon layup. The main difference between the two bikes are the shock mount and the shock length, which means you can convert either bike to the numbers of the other with a few bits and bobs. Many brands are unifying their frames by sharing crucial parts throughout their range. Derailleur hangers, links, dropouts, shock mounts etc. Guerrilla Gravity may be the best example where the front triangle is common throughout the range and the shock length and rear stays make the “models.”
This is a bit of a departure from how Rocky used to place Altitude and Instinct in the lineup. Altitude was always the plush playbike with small wheels, Instinct was the long distance trail bike with a BC Edition twist. The BC edition Instinct was indeed popular as it rode really well with big wheels and snappy suspension, it just didn’t have the race speed stability with the steeper head angle. Some riders will still want a purpose built geometry and frame and while others will appreciate the modular nature of simplifying the line up.
The Instinct was delivered to me in the slackest setting with the longer of the two wheelbases, which is generally how a North Shore-worthy bike should be set up based on current trends. I was told to aim for 30% sag which meant 190 psi for this 155-lb rider. That’s the most I’ve pumped up a shock for my weight. Once set up, the bike did not feel overly stiff in the parking lot with decent small bump reaction. Itching to go for a spin, I put on my dancing shoes and sprinted up the hill right from the house. The Instinct pedals incredibly well. Cruising through the streets I was delighted how spritely the suspension platform felt. I knew this would be the bike to set a climbing benchmark on my local loop. I reached for the climb switch on the Fox DPX2 with incredible ease, not because I needed to but the switch living right underneath the top tube made it irresistible. Then I hit the single track uphill and things started going sideways for me.
Within the first 100 meters, I hit the pedals and the precious carbon cranks on every...single...rock! Was I drunk? Was I drunk last night? It didn’t make sense. I got to the top a little confused but not as tired as I usually am on bigger and heavier bikes. I pointed the bike down the hill and struggled to hold a line and hang on. The 30-lb Instinct got bounced around more than I wanted it to. The shock found its bottom out bumper on more than one occasion. Things were definitely not going my way...and then I put a hole in the Maxxis EXO+ Casing DHR II halfway through the trail. Some angry words were shouted at the trees as I failed to plug the hole on a brand new tire.
And finally, I limped my sorry ass home.
The bottom bracket of the Rocky Instinct is low. How low? Too low for technical climbing on the North Shore in the low-slack setting. Not too low for smooth single track or road climbing in most parts of the world, but I didn't want to put the Ride-9 in any of the high BB positions. Creeping the head angle up to the 66° mark was a move I was trying to avoid. Why, I wondered, would there would be 9 different positions for the shock to be mounted in? Add 2 different chainstay lengths to that math, and there was an Excel spreadsheet waiting to happen each time I wanted to ride. I knew there were at least a few heavy hitters that roamed around the North Shore on Instincts. I needed to be invited to ride with them to see how they set theirs up for this terrain!
I met up with Andreas Hestler, former Olympian (Atlanta '96 XC) and a guy who can move a bike up and down a hill. We decided that I should move the Ride-9 to the steepest and the most linear position. What better way to face your fears than to sprint at them! An already excellent pedalling bike immediately turned into a technical climbing machine. I no longer had to worry about my pedals and cranks as I pointed at random things on the trail just to see if it would make it over. And I did, every single time. I’ve never been aboard a bike with this much thirst for the uphill. Looking at the suspension design and anti-squat numbers, this was a great surprise. The descending manners for tight, technical trails were excellent in the Ride-9's 9th position.
In this position, I could feel I sacrificed some high speed stability and confidence on steep rock faces where the transitions have eroded away. It didn't matter, however. I had so much fun on the climbs that I never shied away from a pedal, and yet I secretly yearned for an angle set to bring the head angle back to 64.5 or 65°. I put the chain stays at the more reasonable 438mm(short) position, allowing me to weight the front of the bike more in the corners, giving me more traction and keeping the chassis stable. I was told by some backseat riders that I had the chainstays in the wrong position but I didn’t care. I loved how the Rocky cornered with 438mm stays. The 30 pounds of rideable mass meant my overall riding weight dropped 5 pounds compared to the other bikes in the garage. This meant I picked the Rocky for most of my photoshoots as I could carry extra gear without noticing the heft. The efficiency of the climb combined with the fast rolling MaxTerra casings of the Maxxis tires meant it didn’t take much to convince me to take the Rocky out instead of my more downhill-oriented bikes.
Sound Barrier: Fork and Shock
The Instinct C90 is one of the quietest bikes I’ve pedalled. I wondered if this was because I was used to the whirring drivetrain on the high pivot Druid but it turns out the Rocky is really just that quiet. It has a great chainline and the XTR drivetrain was an absolutely joy to pedal and shift. Solid cable management meant that on the descents, there was no rattle or clanking.
I did have a major mechanical on one ride where the DPX2 found its maker on a high speed flow trail. Luckily Rocky had a loaner shock that had 55mm stroke (52.5 on the stock DPX2) which gave an extra 6mm of travel in the rear. I didn’t think there would be much difference in manners, but I moved the Ride-9 to position 5 aka Neutral: right in the middle of it all, the Switzerland of settings. I did a casual 1000m after work ride with 8 of the fastest guys on the Shore. Kevin Calhoun, who tells you the story of his Instinct in the release video, will rip your legs off on any ride. Andreas Hestler and I chatted about the bike and riding in general on the 90-minute grind up to the top. I nearly bonked as it was my second ride of the day, but I managed to ride down on the front of the pack for rest of the ride.
The new shock had transformed the bike, making it slightly slacker but significantly more composed. I wondered if the first shock was faulty or whether the increase in travel helped the kinematics dramatically. Fox still has the damaged shock and I’ll try to get an update when I get it back. The rear end of the bike was where I wanted it to be but I needed to dial the FIT4 damper Fox 36. I bottomed it out often, while my hands suffered from top stroke harshness. I lowered the air pressure to 72 psi (from 78) and added two more tokens for a total of 4. I struck a balance of suppleness and bottom out resistance in this way. I never used the lockout or used the compression adjustments on the fork and I ran the rebound in the recommended FOX settings, plus 1 or 2 clicks for a little faster rebound. I understand the FIT4 spec on this bike for the lycra crowd. Out of saddle efforts on service roads could use a little support but I still think the GRIP2 damper would suit the ultra tunable characteristic of the Instinct better. I could use fewer volume spacers but more LSC with that setup, something I couldn't achieve with the FIT4 damper.
I learned to pilot the Rocky with agility, looking for more side hits and roots to pop off. Thirty-pound trail bikes are meant to dance on the trail and it was easy to pick lines, stick to them, or change direction by preloading the bike and popping off trail features. I started looking for everything I could nose bonk. The bike loved getting some airtime. It was stable in the air and easy to manipulate. You could lean into the centrifugal forces of the 29er and really push the bike sideways without overdoing it. On rides where everything came together, I put down some of my best strava times. This bike kept surprising me all through our time together, even when I wasn’t pushing hard.
Shimano XTR 12-speed
Hands down the nicest shifting and feeling drivetrain… No problems and no re-adjustments during our time together. It would have been nice to have an XTR Crank on this build, even though the RF Next R didn’t fail after all the pedal smashing.
XTR 4-piston brakes.
On a 30-lb bike with 180mm rotors, these brakes were phenomenal. No wandering bite point or fade. They allowed for a relaxed hand position on the bars with a light action and enough power to stop a moving train.
Raceface ARC 31 Carbon rims.
Lightweight, fast-engaging and trouble free. These are stiff wheels that respond well to rider input, but they are not traction factories that bounce around on rougher trails. But they were issue-free and intact even after I bottomed my tires out on many occasions. I did not run any inserts.
Race face cockpit.
Race Face's NEXT R bars are stiffer than I’d like them to be. I think a bike like this would benefit from a more forgiving handlebar setup. I left them at the 780mm width they came in. I could have used more rise, however.
Ergon GE1 Grips
These are what I run on all my bikes, so it was nice to see $60 grips that I didn't have to buy and add. This is an excellent spec choice. The left grip developed a weird creak and movement on the very outside. No visible cracks to the inner shell, I was puzzled.
The DHF/ DHR II combo just work well for a trail bike of this caliber. In the wettest of months I'd like a MaxxGrip compound - at least on the front. EXO+ casing suffered a lethal puncture under me, but on paper it is the right fit for the bike.
Raceface 175mm dropper
Worked flawlessly. Through wet and dry. No issues. Plenty of drop at 170mm for me.
The Rocky Mountain Instinct is a bike you want to ride after you’ve just gone for a ride.
None of the suspension bolts came loose after our time together. Whenever I put a tool on a bolt, I found it tight, which was a great confidence booster on the engineering of this bike.
I learned to love the Instinct and how it rode once I jumped through some hoops. Since then I’ve been happy with taking it on any ride, any time, to commute on it, or just ride to the beach. It is a bike you can do it all on.
Would I buy the C90 model at the 12,000 CAD (9400 USD) price tag? Probably not. I think the most interesting model in the line up is the C70 Coil which comes with a Cane Creek coil inline shock and Helm fork. 9400 CAD (7629 USD) is still lots of dough for a bike. I imagine it would have a great descending characteristic. It’s a pound and a half heavier than the C90 which is easy to swallow. There is also the year's salary C99 with full Sram AXS, Super Deluxe shock and a Pike Ultimate for 14,100 CAD (10,450 USD) I think I could have some good fun on that!
The more I wondered who this bike is for, the more I realized it is for everyone, everywhere. While it may not be the easiest bike to set up, it definitely is the one that wears the most hats. You could set it up with any 210 x 55 shock you want and bump the fork to 160 for a great all-rounder or leave it as is for a flowy singletrack slayer. You could pop an angleset on the front and make it a mini Altitude. The possibilities are endless. Match that with Ride-9 and 2 rear center lengths and this is the only bike Rocky needs in the line up. From slope style to mini-enduro, Instinct will cover it all.
This a bike you want to ride after you’ve just gone for a ride. It's addictive.
Product managers at Rocky Published a comprehensive Manual for the Instinct. I wish all companies did this.
Photographer and Story Teller