Project 24.2 Review: Rocky Mountain’s Element 70 MSL: the ultimate stage racer?

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When Rocky Mountain offered to send an Element 70 MSL frame over the border for our Project 24.2 24 hour race frame, I was excited.  Who wouldn’t be excited by the opportunity to spend several months on a full carbon 120mm XC frame designed and tuned with input from Geoff Kabush and Andreas Hestler?  Then it landed.  The frame’s details really have to be seen to be appreciated, from the sculpted carbon swing link to the custom pewter anodized hardware and chain catcher.  “Sub-5lb” usually means that a frame is a hair (maybe even a shade) under 5lb.  On the scale, the Element 70 MSL came in at 4.75lb.  Now I was really excited: this was going to be fun.

Taking advantage of relatively new Press Fit 91 bottom bracket and IS41/IS52 tapered headset standards to avoid unnecessary aluminum use, the Element 70 MSL is made almost entirely of magic plastic (technically FORM™ C13 Hi Mod Carbon Smoothwall Monocoque).  The Angular Bushing Concept™ (ABC) polymer bushing pivots ride on attractive flush mounted aluminum hardware and are said to be 105% stiffer laterally than cartridge bearings and highly resistant to binding from over-torquing.

Throw in some nice flowy tubes, internally routed shift cables, and the tasteful color scheme and you’ve got what I consider to be a dang good looking frame.  Rocky Mountain use what they’ve dubbed their “SmoothLink” suspension design on the Element range.  A true four bar system, the rearmost pivot is ahead of and just a shade above the rear axle.  Combined with a pivot just above the bottom bracket makes the lowest bar essentially parallel to the chain’s torque line.  All of this is intended to isolate the suspension from drivetrain torque and braking forces.  Delivering suspension action by way of a swing link is the ubiquitous Fox RP23 shock.

Built up with a light-but-sensible 120mm build kit (see our build post here), the Element 70 MSL came in at 22.8lb (including pedals, sealant, a bottle cage, computer, and bell).  It’s not bike porn light- but for an all-day bike with an XT drivetrain and all the fixings, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

With a handy sag indicator on the top of the swing link pivot leading the way, I was quickly set up and on the trail.  I’ll admit that it wasn’t love at first ride.  For such a light bike, the Rocky felt weirdly un-snappy.  With the Fox shock’s ProPedal off and the sag at the recommended 20%, the Element seemed to sit awfully deep in its travel, bob a great deal, and blow through much of its travel on moderately-sized hits.  Comfortable, yes- racy, not quite.  Surprisingly, engaging the shock’s ProPedal platform didn’t really improve things bob-wise, and really started to erode the Element’s small bump compliance at levels 2 and 3.  Over the next month, I experimented with a wide range of suspension settings: adding air pressure, and running the bike in with different ProPedal settings.  Once the rear end really started to feel good (10-15% sag, ProPedal at level 1), I realized that the somewhat overdamped and harsh (for my 145lb) RockShox SID fork was making the rear end feel soggy by comparison.  Out came the stock 5wt oil and in went some 2.5wt- and the Element felt much more balanced and really began to come into its own.

By the time that the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo rolled around last month, I’d really come to enjoy the Rocky Mountain.  It’s a fun bike.  Though the suspension never felt eager in the way that some bikes can and some bob was always visible at the swing link, the frame delivers a huge amount of traction and comfort both while climbing and descending.  carbon fiber linkage with built-in sag meterMake no mistake- the Element 70 MSL will scoot when the pedals are stomped for aggressive passing- but it seems happiest in a high-cadence spin, building up and maintaining alarming amounts of speed.

And maintain alarming amounts of speed it does.  Between the fast tires, light wheelset, and near-perfect geometry, the Element 70 MSL holds speed like few bikes I’ve ridden- regardless of wheel size.  The suspension that can feel a bit reluctant to pick up speed when compared to racier bikes can be tossed around tight singletrack and blast down rough pipeline trails at speeds that would put twitchier and more stiffly-sprung bikes in well over their heads.  Extremely confident, I found myself seeking out trailside jumps just to feel how controlled the Rocky felt in the air and coming back to earth.  Yeah- it’s pretty fun.

Not bad looking at all...

Though I only noticed it when riding the two bikes back-to-back, the Element 70 MSL’s 4.75lb worth of carbon fiber leaves it a bit less solid feeling in corners than frames like the (also carbon, also 120mm, but heavier) Tomac Supermatic.  As built, the 120mm SID no doubt contributed the a bit of a bendy feeling when cornering hard- a competing Fox or DT Swiss fork would likely tighten things up a bit.  Further reinforcing this impression is the fact that the rear brake would rub in corners until I replaced the Roval wheelset‘s Ti quick release with a more solid DT-Swiss RWS model- there just isn’t a whole lot of extra stiffness in the rear end.  A lighter rider, I actually liked the way that the Element felt like in corners.  The slight compliance is in keeping with the frame’s overall character and never made the handling imprecise- let alone scary.

Nits are few.  As nice as it looks, the internal cable routing can make cable changes something to dread.  The rear shifting was never as good as I would have hoped for with a new Shimano drivetrain- some more experimenting with the loops of housing that run below the BB may have helped.  Finally, I can’t help but think that a small canister rear shock would give riders under 150lb the ability to run a bit more sag without blowing through the bike’s travel.

So, here we have a very light $2,310 carbon fiber frame with 120mm of active travel.  What is it best suited for?  How about 24 hour racing for a start?  Up until my partner came down with food poisoning (which took the wind out of my sails), I was turning faster lap times on the 16.5 mile 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course than ever before.  Faster than on shorter travel suspension bikes or 29er hardtails.  And I was having fun doing it.  Some of that could have been my training or good course conditions, but there’s no disputing the Element’s appetite and capacity for speed.  Washboard-y gravel epics were also extremely comfortable on the Rocky Mountain- but hardly tapped its potential.  Multi-day racing would be another great setting: from what I’ve heard about the BC Bike Race, Breck Epic, and Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic, those technical stage races would take full advantage of the Element’s blend of efficiency, control, and comfort.

As good as it was on the race course, I think that the Element 70 MSL would be truly at home on big Colorado Trail days.  Throw on a 2.2in front tire and stiffer 120mm (or 130mm) fork and I imagine the Element happily and comfortably climbing for hours and killing it on both buff singletrack and loose scree fields when headed back down.  Sadly, we’re still months away from those trails being clear.  Maybe next time….

marc

www.bikes.com

Comments

Rockyrider - 03/06/12 - 9:01am

I’ve got one of each, an Element Team RSL and an Element 70 MSL, and you’ve honed in on the primary difference between two bikes. The Element Team RSL is a race worthy FS bike that rides like a hardtail, with the same quick handling and climbing as a hardtail, but with all the body punishment removed. The MSL is a much more laid back trail bike with a slacker head angle and much more plush suspension, likely the ideal bike for a BC Bike Race type of event. Same DNA, but fraternal twins rather than identical twins. The RSL is a more aggressive and high strung thoroughbred, and the MSL a much more easy going, take-it-as-it-comes XC bike. Every time I start to think they might be too similar, I ride the other one on a trail suited to its personality and my mind is changed again. I have my RSL at 21.5 pounds and the MSL down to 22.6 pounds.

craigsj - 03/06/12 - 9:32am

Technical analysis of this bike available at http://linkagedesign.blogspot.com/2011/08/rm-element-29-2012.html

Google translater works well enough for non-spanish speakers.

The news is not good. The linkage is extremely progressive, the shock travel too small, and ant–squat characteristics are poor. “A small disaster”.

gringo - 03/06/12 - 11:48am

Mark this on the calender as the fist time in human history someone built Roval wheels onto a non Specialized bike.

Marc - 03/06/12 - 12:30pm

Craigsj,
You can choose who to believe, but seeing as the author of the Spanish website simply analyzed the suspension of the 29er version, from a web image and without having ridden the bike, I have trouble putting too much stock in his analysis.
While I think that I would prefer a more progressive (smaller can) rear shock, myself, Tyler, and the guys at BIKE all think highly of the Element after actually riding the bike. It was Tyler’s suggestion after spending a week on the Element at SRAM’s mountain wheel launch that led me to the bike in the first place.
Linkagedesign looks like an interesting resource- but there’s no substitute for getting a bike out on the trail.

marc

Rockyrider - 03/07/12 - 1:22pm

There’s a huge difference between the 26″ and 29″ Elements. The 26″ MSL has a 7.5″ x 2″ shock and is quite well behaved for suspension action and during climbing/braking. The 26″ RSL has a 6.5″ x 1.5″ shock and is better behaved for pedaling and braking than the previous version of the Element with a 6.5″ x 1.5″ shock, it is definitely not as plush as the MSL, which really does separate them into a trail bike and a race bike for feel in the saddle.

The 29er is a whole different ballgame with the linkage and shock size. There’s no sensible inference that can be made about performance of the 26″ from the 29″ design.

Freddi - 03/08/12 - 12:46am

This is interesting, so is it better to have a bike a bit heavier if its got longer travel? Not saying 30lbs but if you built this down to say 19lbs would it not be as stable as 22lbs on fast descents? Curious.

Reptilehouse - 03/08/12 - 9:53am

I have been on this fine stead for a couple of months and continue to fine tune it to suit my style. The build certainly will impact it’s trail manners — having bought as a full bike, I will add that it comes with a solid, no nonsense parts spec. I have found this bike to feel solid and stiff, yet light and flickable. Unlike the reviewer, however, I am running a Fox fork with a 15mm through axle; additionally, I switched the stock DT Swiss X1600′s for Mavic 819 XM / King wheels run tubeless — resulting in slightly heavier, but stronger wheels. Along with a shorter stem and a double ring w/ (BBG) bashguard, I am set up for a trail-oriented ride, rather than a racer. Geared up, I weigh in at about 200lbs, and found that running a little less than 20% sag is optimal with the propedal on setting 1 — but again, I am looking for compliant suspension, not necessarily racer efficiency. As mentioned in the review, the bike is inherently fast, so a little squish out back is not a bad thing and won’t slow you down.

Marc - 03/08/12 - 9:18pm

Freddi,

It’s not so much about stability as fitness for purpose. In general, longer travel bikes are ridden more aggressively, in situations that will ask more of components (rockier terrain, bigger drops, etc). Given current component weights, a 22lb trail bike with 6in of travel wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that travel, and if built up to 30+lb, most XC race frames wouldn’t be able to take the kind of abuse that a 160mm fork or 2.5 tires would encourage…

marc

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