Throughout the course of its existence, Rocky Mountain's Instinct has smudged the line between XC race and backcountry trail performance. In this latest guise, with 130 millimeters of travel and 29-inch wheels, it would be easy to pass it off as a burly all-mountain 29er and be done with it. This would be an even easier judgment to underscore in the case of our test bike, where 'BC Edition' denotes a 140-millimeter-travel RockShox Pike fork and a set of relatively beefy Stan's Flow EX wheels shod with Maxxis Minion DHR tires. But such a summary judgment would be an oversimplification. There's a full carbon-fiber frame to consider, with a feathery combined frame-and-shock weight of 5.25 pounds. And there's Rocky's Ride-9 system–a pair of interlocking square chips that can be rotated in conjunction with each other to offer nine different locations for the upper shock mount, which in turn creates nine different ride tunes that affect both geometry and shock performance. So what is this bike? Is it a backcountry scree-slope raider? Is it a big-wheel play bike, a slack-angled couch, a relaxed-fit trail carver, a long-legged marathon racer? Yes.
First, let's walk through Ride-9: Set the pivot toward the rear, geometry steepens and bottom bracket goes upward. Set the chips to the front, and the opposite occurs; geometry slackens and bottom bracket drops. The uppermost positions deliver a more linear shock rate, better for lighter riders and more XC-ish behavior. Lower positions yield more progression, allowing heavier riders to run lower air pressure and providing more bottom-out resistance. The fore/aft geometry shift is substantial. In the slackest setting, head angle is 66.6 degrees, seat angle sits at 72.6 degrees, with a corner-carving and pedal-scuffing bottom-bracket drop of 32.9 millimeters. All the way at the other end of the range, in the steepest setting, head angle becomes 68.2 degrees, seat angle 74.2 degrees and BB drop rises to 13.4 millimeters.
Component selection is bang-on for the price: Shimano XT 1×11 drivetrain, XT brakes, RockShox Pike RCT3 fork, Monarch RT3 shock and Reverb seatpost, the aforementioned Stan's/Maxxis wheel and tire combo, and a Race Face Next 760-mil bar with 9 degrees of sweep mated to Rocky's house brand 70-mil stem and comfortable lock-on grips. Race Face Turbine cranks and a ti-rail WTB Silverado saddle round out the package. The full-carbon frame features a four-bar suspension that rides on angular bushings, something of a departure from the usual bearing technology employed elsewhere in the bike world. The upper link is stiffened up from previous years, and features grease ports to keep the bushings working smoothly. Cable routing is mostly internal, with the exception of the rear brake hose. The bottom bracket is BB92 press fit and rear axle spacing is 142×12.
Out in the wild, the Instinct is a stable, composed, gentlemanly ride. Pedaling behavior is exemplary when seated, and a flick of the shock's three-position compression damper quickly settles the pedal bob that occurs when standing and climbing. Cornering is predictable and planted, and the front of the bike goes right where it's told. These traits are relatively consistent no matter where the Ride-9 chips are set. Steepening things up to the rearmost settings lends a decidedly hammer-friendly pedaling aspect to the bike, and it does not really feel like an all-mountain bruiser at all. It's still insanely stable, as would be expected from a 46-plus-inch wheelbase and great big wheels, but it also stomps up climbs with an ease that is truly deceptive for a bike of this size and travel. Going the opposite direction, slackening things all the way, takes the stability and corner-carving calm into a freight train-esque alter-reality but also places the rider in a slightly less optimal position to muscle up hills. As would be expected, really tight singletrack is more fun to dice up in the steeper settings, while blasting rock gardens and laying into loose corners is enhanced in the slacker ones. This is a highly competent and very good-handling machine wherever the chips are set, but some experimentation is emphatically encouraged for riders to seek out the setting that works best for them in their given terrain for their given riding styles. As for me, in a nod to my overwhelming mediocrity, I ended up happiest with the chips set squarely in the middle of everything, running a little more than 30-percent sag. Go figure.
Complaints? Very few. The topmost Ride-9 settings make getting a pump on the rear shock an ordeal. The 23.6-inch toptube on our size large test bike feels a bit tight by current standards, and at certain times there was a bit of uninvited wiggle from the rear triangle when really loading things sideways. It's a very light frame, built into a long-travel bike with large wheels exerting a ton of leverage so this is to be expected. Still, it served to reinforce the sensation that this bike puts finesse first and foremost, but can be a bruiser when it needs to don the brass knuckles.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN'S TWO CENTS | There's not much to add that hasn't been said about the Instinct. It's one of our key platforms, and the bike that gets reached for on those rides that have a bit of everything. From Chilcotins adventures to technical marathon races to more pedally enduro tracks, it's a stable bike that absolutely chews up the miles (or freedom-units™). The suspension design is efficient and well-mannered when things get rough, and our Ride-9 system adjusts geometry and suspension characteristics. All told, it's our most versatile bike. –Brian Park, Rocky Mountain Bicycles