By Vernon Felton
Photos by Brendon Purdy and Margus Riga
Rocky Mountain Bicycles invited a crew of journalists to visit its new headquarters on the North Shore and to check out the latest bike line, the 2014 Rocky Mountain Instinct MSL, a carbon-fiber version of the Instinct 29er that debuted this past fall. Rocky bills the Instinct MSL as massively versatile—a rig that'll satisfy both marathon-style racers and more aggressive trail riders. We got our chance to test that claim (well, the latter half) when we pedaled the new Instinct MSL on a network of trails criss-crossing the North Shore's famous Mt. Seymour.
MORE THAN JUST A NEW BUILDING
Rocky Mountain Bicycles has been building bikes out of the Vancouver area for 33 years now, but until a few months ago, testing out its latest ideas required humping prototypes a half hour to North Vancouver from an industrial park south of the city—certainly not an impossible barrier to getting the job done, but you know, a pain in the ass.
The new digs—which the company moved into just a few months ago—sit within an easy pedal of some of the best trails on earth. The move couldn't be cheap—they ain't giving away big buildings in North Vancouver—but it's testimony to the company's commitment to designing products that are shaped, broken and redesigned by some of the toughest trails on earth.
The employees—at any rate—are, to a soul, stoked. The applicant pool for jobs at Rocky just got a lot more competitive.
THE NEW INSTINCT MSL
Strictly speaking, this is not a "new" bike; Rocky Mountain launched the Instinct 29er at Eurobike 2012 to not a whole lot of fanfare, which probably isn't surprising when you consider that the bike:
(A) Did not wear 650b tires; and
(B) Was made of aluminum rather than carbon.
Still, the Instinct 29er was a sleeper hit—selling out quickly despite a whole lot of hullabaloo. I spent much of this past winter aboard one and felt—that with a few key modifications—the bike was impressive as hell. Check out the review here.
Now, for 2014 Rocky Mountain Bicycles is rolling out four carbon "MSL" versions of the Instinct 29er. In going to carbon, the bikes drop a little more than a pound from the frame and gain a shitload of stiffness. Yeah, I know "shitload" isn't particularly precise, but since I'm not a German journalist with a testing facility at my disposal, I'm just going to run off my experience of having ridden that aluminum version of this bike for six months on the same kind of trails and—believe you me—the full carbon iteration is heaps (that's another technical descriptor for you) stiffer.
TWEAK TO YOUR HEART'S CONTENT
The bikes also sport Rocky Mountain's novel RIDE-9 shock mount, which enables you to tweak the both the bike's suspension traits and geometry. In total, you have nine separate geo/suspension settings to choose from.
Rotating the two interlocking chips in the RIDE-9 shock mount raises/lowers the bottom bracket half an inch and changes both the head and seat angles by as much as 1.6 degrees. At its steepest setting, the 130-millimeter travel 29er possesses a 69.3-degree headtube and 75.3-degree seat tube. In its slackest setting, those angles change to 67.7 and 73.7 degrees, respectively.
Rotating those chips also tweaks the leverage ratio on the Instinct's rear shock. In its slackest settings, the suspension has a more progressive stroke, which should help prevent bottoming out for riders pushing the bike hard over technical terrain.
Other unique-to-Rocky features include the use of angular contact bushings, which Rocky claims are more durable and simpler to maintain than ball-bearings. That's a steep claim, but we've been impressed with its bushing system, which has been a mainstay of the Element series for several years now.
Rocky Mountain also claims that the bushings shave 120 grams (when compared to radial cartridge bearings) from the total frame weight.
Speaking of frame weight, I can hear someone with a protractor and a yen for statistics wondering what the new MSL frame weighs. The whole thing—paint, shock, hardware, everthing—tips the scales at 5.18 pounds. That's damn light for a 29er with 130 millimeters (five inches) of travel.
Here's a rundown on the four new carbon Instinct 29ers.
Instinct 999 MSL
The pimp'd version. Full XX1. Avid X0 brakes. Fox 32 fork. 25 pounds out of box.
Target Price: $7,599
Frame Only Price: $2,999 (with Kashima-coat Fox rear shock)
Instinct 970 MSL
Same frame as the top-tier bike, but largely equipped with Shimano XT.
Target Price: $5,399
Instinct 970 MSL BC Edition
This is the bike that I was most intrigued by because it features all the tweaks I found myself making to the Instinct 29er. This is the local, North Shore-spec. 2.4-inch tires, Fox 34 Float 140-millimeter travel fork, proper full-width (780-millimeter) bar, shorter stem, chain retention device, 29-millimeter wide rims, Avid four-piston brakes. Drivetrain is a mix of SRAM X9/X7.
Instinct 950 MSL
Same carbon front triangle as top-end frames, but this one sports an aluminum rear end to help bring down the cost. Drivetrain is largely SRAM X7.
Target Price: $3,999
Rocky Mountain ambassadors Andreas Hestler and Wade Simmons took our lot out for some trail riding. By North Shore standards, our trail selection was pretty tame. By standards anywhere else in the world, there were definitely some sphincter-puckering moments in the works. Lots of rocks. Lots of roots. Some steep sections. Some techy climbs. Rocky's engineers repeatedly stressed the fact that they design their SmoothLink frames to pedal neutrally (minimal pedal bob and kick back) on rough ascents because rocky, rooty climbs are all that they have in their neck of the woods. While everyone says that their bike pedals "neutrally,” the Instinct MSL does scoot up ugly climbs with grace: a fair balance of traction and efficiency.
I rode the MSL 999 during the launch and was stunned by the difference between that bike and the aluminum Instinct 970 that I tested for bikemag.com this year. For starters, this thing weighed several pounds less than the aluminum version—something that immediately made itself known on the climbs. More to the point, however, the MSL tracked world's better in chunky descents than its aluminum sibling. In both my earlier review and preview of the Instinct 970, I mentioned that the aluminum bike's rear end could be beefed up a bit; the composite version remedies that complaint entirely.
It ain't cheap, but going carbon on this particular bike makes a hell of a difference out in the dirt.
As I'm more of a fan of going down than up, I found myself wanting wider bars, fatter tires and a burlier fork—to that end, the BC Edition would probably be my pick of the bunch. Still, it's hard to argue with a bike that can do double duty as an XC racer and a North Shore-style trail bike (which is what folks outside of Canada would probably call "all mountain" or "enduro").