Every year, Scott Sports brings a group of journalists out for Scottweek and lets us ride their latest and greatest mountain bikes. This year, of course, we were handed the grips to the new 2012 Spark dual-travel full suspension XC mountain bikes. Here’s the story…
A TALE OF TWO BIKES
I rode both the 29er and 26″ Scott Spark over four days of epic singletrack in Sun Valley, ID. Three days on big wheels and one on the 26″ was enough to tell the bikes are quite different. Despite virtually identical looking frames and spec (model for model), the ride characteristics provide two distinct experiences.
Both models have separate two-position settings for both travel and BB height/head angle adjustment. The travel changes by way of increased damping rather than an actual drop in suspension height. The long travel mode is wide open, and the mid-travel “Traction” mode firms things up for better performance under power and on the climbs. Travel changes equally front and rear simultaneously, and a third position locks things out completely. If you’re looking for basic specs, check out intro post here, and complete bike weights are here. Dive past the break for details and a full ride review…
HOW IT WORKS
The DT Swiss Nude2 Shock uses two separate damper circuits to keep damping “feel” characteristics the same in each travel mode. Perhaps counterintuitively, the oil flow is more restricted in the fully open, long travel setting. There are two air chambers, a main and secondary. The smaller secondary chamber is at the top of the shock. When in Traction mode, the secondary chamber is closed off, creating a smaller overall air volume. The effect is that the shock ramps up faster, basically limiting the travel and creating a firmer ride. The damping does not affect travel, and actual physical travel doesn’t change, just the realistically useable portion.
The travel setting is controlled by their TwinLock dual action lever. Push it part of the way and it goes to Traction mode. Push it further and it locks things out. Snap the silver release and it drops back one setting at a time.
Up front, the SID or Reba fork (depending on bike model) has a custom, Scott-exclusive DNA3 Motion Control compression tune from Rockshox. In the middle position, it changes the compression valve to limit the amount of useable travel in normal riding conditions, and they designed it to effectively limit the travel to match the Nude2 shocks. But, because it’s a Motion Control system with FloodGate, if you hit something hard enough, it’ll still blow off and move through full travel regardless of whether it’s in Traction Mode or locked out. It keeps the FloodGate adjustment bezel on the top of the fork, allowing you to fine tune how much force is required to blow through the lockout. And yes, if you open the Floodgate all the way up, you’ll mitigate most of the damping effects of Traction mode, essentially unbalancing the amount of travel front to rear. The upside is it’s an unintended method of additional customization.
The rides consisted of 1-2 hour climbs on mostly singletrack, flowy sections along mountain sides and bomber descents that combine smooth dirt berms, decomposed granite switchbacks, blazing fast singletrack and technical rocky sections. The trails there, of which there are more than 350 marked and mapped miles, provide some seriously amazing riding and the perfect place to test bikes.
THE 29er IS THE RACE BIKE
On the 29er, the travel is 100mm when open and 70mm in Traction mode. The Spark has a two-position “chip” at the rear shock mount that lets you customize the geometry by setting it in High or Low. I set it in “low” position on the first day, which provides a slightly lower BB height and ~0.6 degree slacker head angle. In this mode, the front end felt a little wishy-washy. Scott’s marketing manager Adrian Montgomery says most people like the “High” setting on the 29er, and I agree wholeheartedly. It’s worth noting that I generally prefer a tighter handling, racier bike, anyway.
On the second day of big wheels, I put it in High and it felt way more dialed. The reality is most people will find the setting they like and leave it there, but it’s a nice feature that adds virtually no complexity or weight. It took all of 60 seconds to swap positions with a single Allen wrench, so you could even swap it at the top of the climb before hitting the DH. I kept it High from here on, so the rest of this review is based on that.
On the descents, the bike is fast and predictable. I tend to put my seat fairly far forward, and a few times I had to fight momentum to keep myself far enough behind the front wheel. The more powerful climbing position and better handling more than offset that risk, though.
The TwinLoc is quite effective. Open, it’s noticeably more active and keeps the wheel stuck the ground better on rough sections and descents. On the climbs, it’s a bit too active, so I switched to Traction mode and it felt just right, with enough suspension movement to keep the rear wheel in constant contact with the ground and smooth irregularities, water bars and small rocks, but firm enough to provide a solid pedaling platform. In other words, both modes do what they should and do it well. That said, the rear end was by no means “soft” like a longer travel bike when fully open…yet.
The pivots use the same oversized axles and bearings as their long-travel Genius bikes, which keeps things plenty stiff. I could stand up and mash or sit and spin and, as long as it was in Traction mode, it felt pretty efficient. Visual shock bob was minimal when pedaling.
So far, I’m thinking this is a straight up race bike with no aspirations of being a trail bike.
BUT WAIT, AIR PRESSURE CHANGES EVERYTHING
On the fourth day, I rode the alloy 29er. I kept it in High but ran much lower air pressure in the rear shock, going from roughly 15% sag the first couple days to about 25%.
I also changed the fork’s positive air to about 15psi lower than the recommended settings. Normally I run the PSI pretty much inline with Rockshox’s recommendations, so perhaps Scott’s custom damping changed things up enough to require a bit softer setting. I kept the fork’s negative air PSI at the recommended pressure. It changed things quite a bit. It became a much plusher bike with more control on the downhill, but in Traction mode it still climbed very efficiently. This day was a lot more fun, and it absolutely railed the downhills on Greenhorn and Imperial trails.
It’s still not really a trail bike, but definitely more fun when it’s run with a bit softer suspension overall. I think this is where the dual “travel” setting really shines and gives the bike a split personality. The Traction mode was still perfectly firm, but the Open setting really came to life with a lower PSI. Scott’s reps admitted they thought about giving the Spark more travel but decided to keep it shorter so it was a more distinct model from their Genius trail bike.
THE SMALL WHEELS ARE MORE FUN
To be honest, I came into ScottWeek expecting to love the 29er and admire the 26″ Spark. It ended up being the opposite, which just goes to show that overall bike design and application has more to say about a bike’s “drinkability” than wheel size alone.
The 26″ Spark’s three travel settings are 120mm travel fully open, 85mm Traction mode and locked out. The extra travel simply made this bike more fun to throw around. And at just 21lbs at the top of the range (which is what I rode), it could be thrown around pretty easily.
The 26″ inch bike’s travel settings worked just as well as the 29er, there’s just more of it. In firm, it’s equally efficient, but in Open it’s way plusher. Sure, it’s likely because of having that extra 15-20mm of travel, but so far my early impressions are that the 26″ SID is a bit smoother than the 29er SID, but I haven’t had a fair apples-to-apples comparison yet. Take that how you want for now, we’re working on doing a proper test.
I rode the carbon 26″ bike, which was plenty stiff and highly raceable. For those of you that are sold on just one wheelsize, go with what you like. If you have the space or budget for a quiver, the Spark 26″ could fill in the holes for a couple of slots: XC racer, trail bike, envy-inducing general purpose mountain bike.
The top and downtube meet the headtube at full width on both alloy and carbon models, providing a super stiff front end. The alloy bike rode just as nicely as the carbon one, perhaps a bit quieter even. The naming scheme varies a bit between wheel sizes to keep them from having too many numbers. The 26″ carries forward the numerical naming, lower numbers (10) being better than higher numbers (40). the 29ers will get monikers like “Elite” to separate them because, well, a 2012 Scott Spark 29er 40 is a lot of numbers.
The hydroformed seat tube goes wide where it can and stays narrow where it has to. The alloy frames get a standard outboard bottom bracket rather than the carbon’s pressfit BB.
A WHIRLWIND ROMANCE
I only had 3/4 of one day on the 26″ because I broke the frame. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, it looked like the frame had been subjected to a number of chain drops/sucks around the bottom bracket before I got my hands on it, which may have exacerbated any problems with that particular frame, but the break itself was on the inside of the driveside chainstay immediately behind the front pivot, before the chainstay bridge that runs in front of the rear tire. Oddly, it happened when I went to shift from the little ring to the big ring but the chain ended up dropping to the inside. I didn’t mash it, but did try to lightly pedal it back on a couple of times before dismounting to repair. It wasn’t until I tried to pedal away that I noticed a lot of flex at the BB and initially thought one of the pivots had busted. Montgomery said these were all pre-production, but a metal chainsuck guard would go a long way to preventing similar wear-and-tear.
CHANGES FROM 2011
The new rear linkage, which went to a one-piece design for this new model, and addition of a brake bridge on the seatstays helped stiffen things up, which is particularly apparent on the 29er. Coming into some hot corners, the bike went where it was pointed without hesitation.
Prices range from $1,500 to $10,500 for 26″ and $1,650 to $6,500 for 29er. Frameset pricing isn’t set yet. On the lower end of the range, they have a simpler TwinLoc that only switches between fully open and locked out, no intermediate Traction setting.
The alloy bikes we tested were using a pre-production linkage. Production models will get a slightly wider piece to provide better frame clearance.
The forks are 9mm QR only across all sizes and prices. Scott said their research showed a lot of racers still want standard QR, likely because they have a quiver of expensive, lightweight wheels that wouldn’t work with the new-ish thru axles. Theoretically, you could order new lowers from Rockshox to get a bigger axle. The decision is a bit odd, though, considering the rear is 142×12. You can get an adapter and IDS 135mm dropouts to use those same expensive hoops if you need to.
With the Nude2 shock, they made a smaller, lighter shock without the piggyback reservoir of years past. This allows placement of a water bottle in the usual locations on all frame sizes. They also added a lever (rather than a knob) for the rebound adjustment to make it easy to adjust even with full finger gloves or wet, muddy fingers. The side benefit is that it also keeps the rebound adjustment within the proper ranges, too.