MY DATE WITH BIG SCOTT (Batting For the Other Side)
DAY 1: (5 kms)
I picked up Scott (Scale 29 Elite) on a Monday morning. He sure was pretty in his black green and white, could have almost been called Merida...white grips and all. I’m more an animal skulls and dried blood sort of guy, but who’s to judge how someone else combs their hair.
It has to be said that whilst I may have acquired a reputation as a convict void of all morals, I had at least been introduced to Big Scott before we went on a date; at a bike industry short term test day. I only got to see him from behind, I am ashamed to say. Bardy the Action Scribe was aboard, and we were both pedalling flat out down the most treacherous 7 km rocky decent ever seen. What was killing me was that Big Scott the hardtail was slowly pulling away from me (on a 5” travel carbon fibre trail bike that weighs 11.2 kgs with pedals). Hardly an auspicious first meeting.
So how does a known animal lover (lamb on spit) come to be on a date with Big Scott? Batting for the other side suddenly? As a self confessed 29” wheel hater I was hardly the first in line clamouring “pick me, pick me” to test ride this thing. I was basically dared to put aside my prejudices (yeah right) and with an open mind test out Big Scott. It was the implied notion that “you really only start to appreciate big wheels once you can handle them, said process taking several days”, that ego prodded me into this date.
So after being messed with by half the test riders in the bike industry, our first day together was all small talk; swapping the brake levers back to mtb (as opposed to the idiosyncratic choices of various test riders (“I always have the front brake lever on the seat post”), installing the washers on the brake calliper mounts on the correct side of the Universal mounting so that the rotor doesn’t graunch (yes, graunch is a real word) the calliper casing on rotation, dropping the stem spacers out, installing my own saddle (this is a multi day test) and adjusting the rider ergonomics, installing egg beaters.
After day 1, I would have to say:
· that I am very disappointed with the fact that there is only the capacity for one bottle cage. There are decided advantages to riding a hardtail. One of them is being able to carry a second bottle, but it seems Big Scott doesn’t actually intent to go any further than my Joburg complex unless I lug the water on my back (since been informed that this was a prototype and the production bike has provision for 2 cages).
· I have HUGE respect for Scott road bikes. Scott have, unfortunately, carried the same rear dropout design from the road bike over to their mountain bike range. This only gives the option of folding the quick release lever forward (like a roadie) so that all the bush and gremlins in Africa can get under it at speed and open the little beggar whilst you are going downhill at Mach 7. Scott isn’t the only manufacturer to do this, but they are the only one that I consider should know better who has.
So after our first little ride around my complex, the brakes are silent and functional, the bike is comfy and felt instantly friendly, the Rock Shox Recon lockout works...and I only flattened half my solo water bottle.
Off up the store to buy some spare 29er tubes.
DAY 2 (1095 kms)
My three biggest fears with the 29” wheel size are loss of manoeuvrability, loss of acceleration and impaired climbing. Needless to say, with enough power in the engine the last two concerns are sorted. Unfortunately, my legs are finite in their output, and I am at an age that is unlikely to change (in a positive manner). If I can overcome climbing and acceleration, then I suspect I can become aggressive enough in the corners with practise to take care of manoeuvrability issues.
Being a methodical sort of guy, I started from the back of my list and decided to check out the climbing thing first. I have been going to Uniondale in the Western Cape for the last few months to do “Secret Training”. You may well be asking yourself “why do I (and several of the Pro Teams) go all this way to train?”. Simply put, Uniondale is the vortex of the Swartberg Range, Kammanasie Mountains, Babiaans Mountains, Outinequa Mountains, Langkloof Mountains and Kouga Mountains. If you can’t climb when you arrive, you will be able to by time you leave.
When in The Dale (as it is affectionately known), I stay at Zeru House (www.zeruhouse.co.za ) because they are Mountainbike friendly, serve great food (and are within walking distance of 3 really fine restaurants when they aren’t in the mood to cook for me), have air-conditioning and heating and the proprietors (Paul and Carol) are just plain nice people. If you want to sample my favourite 6 routes, Paul will be only too happy to show you where they are and how to get there. My secret single track routes he will not divulge under torture.
So the first part of this test is putting Big Scott onto the back of my car (we are going on a date, not getting married, so he ain’t coming inside). Being a rather large chap I was worried that he wouldn’t fit on my very expensive Thule rack, or would hang so far out both sides of my Polo Ghetto Sled that I would need an escort vehicle with red flags. Neither concerns were valid. Big Scott slotted straight in like any normal bike, and is in fact not detectably longer in the rear view mirrors than my 26” dual suspension!
The first 1015 kms of Day 2 were spent with Big Scott ginning madly on the back of the car, a little reminiscent of a dog with his head out the window who knows he is going running. I may have heard a little squeak of fright out him when my Ghetto Sled front wheel blew (at a very illegal speed) and reduced my alloy mag wheel to the same size as my disc rotor, but I can’t be sure, and it may have been me.
Upon arrival I dumped all my stuff inside and “suited up and juiced up” and grabbed Big Scott for a quick dash before the sun went down.
I found I just couldn’t turn round and head back. This wasn’t because of limited turning room (as I may have quipped the previous day), but because I was having a lot of fun...even if I did have to carry extra water on my back. Maybe it was the long drive. Maybe it was getting outa JBG. Maybe it was the sun dropping over the Swartberg. 80 kms later I was back, happy and ravenous.
Day 3 (86 kms)(iPod: Foo Fighters, Cage the Elephant, Radio Birdman)
I set the alarm for 5am. This seemed reasonable in order to be out the door at first light, and it was with a light heart that I watched the sun come up over the mountains, sending long fingers of shadow creeping over the flat lands, signalling the Kudu on the golf course that it was time to vanish. I turned off the road onto one of my secret routes; a 75 km roller coaster with 4 quite serious climbs, but smooth.
I know this route well, and know the gearing I use on my 26” Dual. I only go out of the big ring on two climbs, although I most assuredly do use the whole rear cassette. Yes, yes!! I can hear you warble about incorrect chain lines and cross ratioing, but it’s a hangover from the days when somebody else paid for the groupsets for me, and it’s a hard habit to break because it buys you faster performance, albeit at a very high price in Rands.
I was settling in for a middle ring ride (even on the rollers) and was pleasantly surprised to see I was clearly having a “strong day” and remained in the big ring. When I got up the two climbs that I have to use the middle ring on my bike without needing to resort to such mediocrity on Big Scott, it was plain to see that I was a super hero. All I needed was a mask and cape. It should be mentioned now that a 29er hardtail needs a lockout fork. Not because it needs it more than any other bike, but because it begs to be attacked out of the saddle on climbs, and flats and anywhere else you are ballsy enough to try.
The route is not too technical but does have 1600 meters of climbing, so coming back without dabbing or going out of the big ring was a super effort I was sure I would pay for on the following ride.
Day 4 (75 kms) (iPod: Celibate Rifles, Iggy Pop, Beggars Court)
I went to bed on a balmy evening in the Dale, with the heady scent of exotic night flowering blooms on the air reminding me of New Orleans in high summer. It was therefore, something of a shock to wake with my alarm to find the high peaks throwing back blood red reflected sunlight from the snow scattered across them, and watch something akin to a Lord of the Rings special effect come racing in from the south; black cloud roiling as if driven by the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Outside temperature 2 degrees before wind chill.
Im not so limp as to stay home, but I did seem to find a lot of things that needed doing before I left. I think the technical term is “faffing”.
I elected to head into the 32kph wind on the outward segment of the ride, and for once the weather gods elected not to turn it back into my face when I turned around. This was good because my early about face was prompted by wind driven hail and sleet in my face, that I desperately wanted to outrun on the way home..
So what’s Big Scott like in mud? Effortless? Forgiving? Confidence inspiring? Pick a superlative that you like the sound of. Another 1556 meters of climbing, and another day without using the middle ring. Burry’s decision to use a single ring in the front on a 10 speed cassette (on a Specialized 29er) during the recent XC World Championships is starting to look a little less like stupidity. I am starting to form an idea about 29” wheels that will shock some folks.
Day 5 (1065 kms) (iPod: NOFX, The Kills, Lime Spiders)
This was a quickie; an all out dash. Only 50kms was on the bike, the rest was in the Ghetto Sled. What can I tell you? Not only did I not use the middle ring or granny, but I started to think that perhaps even a rigid carbon fork was an acceptable way to be thinking. I have long thought this retro thing was for wombats who can’t keep up on a technologically level playing field, and need a reason to lag behind and look “hardcore”. I now believe that 29” is not just a wheel size, but a suspension design. It still needs to be taken to a real XC test track (tomorrow) to test out turning and acceleration, but in marathon racing there is no doubt in my mind that the weapon of choice is a 29er hardtail. It has the characteristics of 26” dual suspension without any weight penalty or any moving parts. The one or two places where you are more inclined to stand and crank it just contributes to a higher speed overall and faster race time.
Tomorrow I’m off to the Toyota MTN Cycle Park to turn the gas up as high as I know how for two hours. I know this track very well. I usually scoot round the whole place in my middle ring with only brief forays into the big blade on my 26” Dual. This affords great acceleration out of corners, even if it does set my lungs on fire. We shall see what the morning brings.
Day 6 (48.98 kms) (iPod: White Stipes, Dead Kennedys, Bowie)
Fat Burning Crank Turning is a regular thing at the Toyota MTN Cycle Park on Sunday mornings. The route varies from time to time, and there is a rotation of “anyone welcome” usual suspects. Some are race snakes, some are not. All ride the same route at their own speed from 7am till 9am and strive for their personal best number of laps in the allotted time. Things sometimes get a little heated, and it’s often difficult to detect the difference between FBCT and OXC racing.
Big Scott the Elite 29 is not the bike I would seek out for this type of riding. I arrived early and did a warm up lap to find out what I was in for (how bad it was going to be) and was pleasantly surprised. I cruised around in the big blade finding out how the Big Wheels handled the bermed corners and log crossings and short power climbs.
When all the usual suspects arrived we commenced what was supposed to be their warm up lap in the red and burning matches from the word go. I spent the next hour digging very deep into my reserves to hold onto the wheel of Bardy the Action Scribe (he is becoming my nemesis) on a 26” dual. I was running hot into all the corners and standing to sprint back on to his wheel out the other side, recovering as best I could until we did it again.
Then disaster; I had to go to the car for another bottle (remember Big Scott only holds 1) and I knew that nobody would show mercy and sit up. This would be where I got buried. I fetched the new bottle and resigned myself to riding out the last hour at my own pace without stress, and just avoiding being lapped.
And voila! I started to smooth out my riding and use the effortless climbing of the Scale 29 Elite to zoom up all the uphill sections. Until this point I had stayed in the big ring all the time, and now started to use the middle ring on some of the power climbs (matches almost all burnt), and slowly I started to catch everyone one by one.
Eventually I had Bardy in my sights going through Dropzone and knew the catch would be on Heartbreak Hill perimeter road. I blasted by standing in the big blade to make sure he didn’t get on my wheel, and that was the last I ever saw of him.
The Scott Scale 29 Elite likes to be ridden smoothly, with lots of advance planning around gearing and an aggressive “stand to climb” style. It never felt heavy or big in any conditions on any trail type. I can only put this down to the great angles used in the frameset; not twitchy at speed, not a boat in corners.
As for the rest of the bike, it was “noteworthy in its non-remarkableness”. Except for total bling top end technology, all you can ask from components is that they never do horrible things to make you hate them. The wheels were dependable bomb-proof DT Swiss things that would never be described as light. The Rock Shox fork behaved perfectly, and the remote lockout never misbehaved, despite being used in sub-zero conditions with rain thrown in too. The groupset was an XT/LX mix that you can’t expect to be butter smooth like XTR, but it never missed a shift, and the cassette ratios certainly worked for me. I wouldn’t bother with a granny gear though. This bike is part goat and I can’t even imagine what you would need a granny gear to climb...a tree maybe.
I believe that the 29” wheel is a suspension design, rather than just a wheel size. I believe that if you race you can make a 29” hardtail lighter and faster than a 26” dual suspension, and suffer no handling penalty that you can’t live with. I believe a 29” bike is a climbing machine. You must have a remote lockout fork.
I’m lucky enough to be able to have as many bikes as I want, so if you are wondering am I going out buy a 29er, the unequivocal answer is “Hell Yes!” I am a convert. Does this mean my 26” goes on the scrap heap? I think not; horses for courses.
The thing is, I have no idea really what the Scott Scale 29 Elite is like in the bigger scheme of things. I have test ridden 29” bikes before, but they were all short term tests that never really gave me a chance to get used to the bikes. I hated them universally. They were all equally difficult. What I can say about Big Scott, is he will always be remembered like my “first kiss”. He was the one that turned me onto 29” wheels, and that may be more important than rear suspension in the longer term.