Long Term Review: Rocky Mountain Element 970RSL 29er Mountain Bike
When Rocky Mountain Bicycles unveiled the carbon fiber Element RSL 29er line this summer, we had one of the first bikes available and were able to post actual weights, tech specs and first impressions for the debut.
Now, with half a year of riding on it, we’ve got a much better grasp of the bike’s capabilities.
In a nutshell, the Element RSL line is meant as a race bike, albeit one tough enough to carry an XC racer through BC’s rooty, rocky trails and spit them out the other side at the front of the pack. The frame+shock comes in under 2kg (claimed), and our size XL 970RSL hit the scales at 26lb 5oz with tubes in the tires. Plenty light for a full suspension 29er, and the alloy cockpit and tubed treads left room for an easy diet.
We rode the bike around our local XC trails and took it to Bent Creek and other mountainous trails for a proper test. Here’s how she fared…
Once you’ve got eyes on the Element, there’s no denying it’s meant to go fast. From its low slung appearance and race-ready spec to the 100mm travel and CTD suspension, the 970 is what our XC-oriented test riders generally want in a full suspension bike. Keep in mind, we received this pre-XX1, so, yes, a 1×11 would make a fine addition to this bike. Afterall, we were already riding it almost entirely in the big ring anyway, and not just because we’re monsters. A little preamble:
The frame we received was a final pre-production test sample. Safety-wise, it seemed up to task, but a few things were changed/fixed prior to full production. One of which we can’t tell you about because it may or may not make it to future models and technically probably shouldn’t have been on here. Suffice to we’re glad to see RMB looking to the future. The one that got us was a weak internal cable stop that ended up breaking, leaving the front derailleur housing to slide in and out of the frame behind the headtube. Without that fixed point, the cable remained slack and we had no front shifting. If it were our personal bike, we’d have just removed the shifter and derailleur altogether…but for the test, we simply used the limit screws to lock the chain onto the big ring. Being that it was only 36T, that worked out quite well for 95% of our riding.
This bike is fast. While the middle “Trail” setting on the suspension bore the lion’s share of our bouncing, the Element seems to have been designed to showcase how well the new “Climb” setting on Fox’s CTD suspension can work. It’s still not a lockout, but for a rider used to full suspension, it comes darn near making the bike feel like a hardtail for out of the saddle sprints and gravel road grinds. That’s not to say the bike bounces or exhibits pedal bob under hard pedaling while in Trail mode, but it does seem to take on a faster personality in Climb.
Without turning this into a review of Fox’s products, having the CTD remote (as big and ugly as it is) is all but necessary. Another of our test bikes has the same fork and shock but without the remote and we end up not changing the suspension to the conditions nearly as often when we have to reach down to each piece to do it. Glory be the day with they have a full range electronic CTD remote.
Flick it to “Descend” and things get real soft. The pic above wasn’t the biggest, fastest drop, but it was enough to push the suspension almost all the way through its travel.
Some bikes feel like they have more travel then the numbers suggest. This isn’t one of them, but that’s fine…because it feels faster than many other full suspension 29ers. Having 100mm and big wheels will take you pretty far these days, and (back to Fox) the suspension design and equipment on the Element make the most of it while still prioritizing speed and efficiency over absolute bump absorption.
That said, I was almost able to keep up with Evan bombing a particularly gnarly, rocky, rooty and wet downhill through Pisgah, and he was on the Yeti SB95…a much bigger travel bike. I was impressed by the Element’s ability to take a hard hit without losing momentum, even when it was pretty clear every bit of the suspension was being used. Despite evidence that we’d run through all 100mm, I never actually noticed the bike bottom out during riding…another good thing.
Another thing that impressed me was the precise tracking of the front end. With any bike, it’s a combination of wheel, fork and frame that determine how well a bike’s going to handle. This bike was spec’d with DT Swiss X 1600 Spline (branded as X1.6 / Rocky Mountain) and the fork is the Fox 32 Float 29 CTD Remote. All three align well here. It’s a very laterally stiff front end that, so long as you possess the strength to control it, will hold the intended line through whatever you hit. For me, this inspired more confidence to look further around turns, trusting that the bike would go where I wanted even if there were a few unseen roots or rocks in the apex.
I tested the size XL, which has a 630mm ETT and 445mm chainstays. Compared to a number of other bikes in the same category (ie. 100mm racy XC full suspension 29er), that’s a bit longer in the front and shorter in the back. It’s also just a bit slacker head angle at 70.4º. For me, it was a good mix: Easy to weight the rear for climbing and get behind it while descending, but it still held a line when climbing slowly. Where it took a bit of getting used to was in corning – both tight turns and broad sweepers. My usual form is to push the bike just a bit in front of me and guide it through the curves. On the Element, this yielded too-wide turns and slow handling. The fix? Simply leaning forward to weight the front wheel more. Once I got used to changing up my style, the bike could be whipped through the turns, tights and twisties pretty well.
There’s only one real complaint we had: The 40mm BB drop meant a lot of clipped pedals. In Trail and Descend settings, we hit a lot of rocks and logs, even during normal riding and light compression.
Trucker, who normally rides a singlespeed hardtail 29er and races events like the Wilderness 101, had this to say:
The Element offers a very comfortable ride for long days in the saddle for a couple of reasons. In fact, I found myself wishing I could use it on one of the National Ultra Endurance 100 milers I’m so fond of. First, the cockpit felt dialed right out of the box. At 6’4″ the 20″ XL frame felt great — a lot like my 22″ hardtail — and they offer an XXL so freakishly tall people can ride without contorting their backs into crescent moons. The reach felt nice and long without stretching you out, which matched the wide handlebars nicely, and even the seat height to handlebar height felt just right. Combine that with a ton of standover clearance and a wheelbase that strikes a nice balance between nimble 26er and super long 29er and I’d say the geometry is almost spot on, almost. There is one caveat: even with the sag set correctly I found myself catching the pedals and chainrings on roots, obstacles, even the ground once when cresting a quick hump. I’d still love to ride it on a 100 miler, but I wouldn’t go up to 180 crank arms and I might even put a smaller big ring on for more clearance. I’d be wary of riding it in areas with truly gnarly root clusters and so forth too as the BB height could become quite annoying.
The second contributor to the comfort of the Element’s ride is the well balanced suspension. The front and rear are matched extremely well, so it never felt like one was doing more work than the other. No brake jack, no nose dive front ends or chattery, hand numbing stiffness, nada – just smooth rolling, which the small muscles like my traps and lower back really appreciated. Thus, being able to focus on the big muscles, I found it quite competent in pedaling efficiency. It’s not some miracle worker that turns into a hardtail when you stand up, but it’s not some beast you dread climbing with either. At 26 lb. with nice lateral stiffness you could pedal it all day.
Among 100mm full suspension 29ers, the Rocky Mountain Element skews toward the quicker, racier side of the spectrum. There are bikes like the Devinci Atlas 29er and Niner Jet9 RDO that float more in the “do it all” middle for that travel range, but the Element feels a bit faster. Upon reflection of our time with it, it’s a bit of a conundrum that a bike made to handle the aggressive trails of British Columbia would have some of the shortest feeling 100mm of travel we’ve ridden. What makes that seem weird is that despite that feeling, it was still able to tackle anything we threw at it without flinching…which is a good thing when you’re redlining at race pace and plowing through trails you may or may not have ever pre-ridden. For all day fun rides, I’d go with something a little cushier. For all day or multi-day races, or areas where trails are a little less aggressive, it’s worth putting on your short list.
If you are looking for something more aggressive and like everything else about the bike, check out the 130mm travel Instinct 29ers they launched at Eurobike. They also use Rocky Mountain’s SmoothLink suspension design but add the Ride 9 adjustable linkage to let you dial the geometry to suit your local trails.