By Mike Ferrentino
($2900 frame and shock, ibiscycles.com)
Once upon a time I used to test bikes for a living. Then I jumped the fence and became a marketing stooge for a bike company, and got to ride a lot of interesting bikes. I had to decouple my inner critic because it wasn't my job to test them, but instead to sell them. Along the way, from some time after they first appeared in 1999, I kinda fell in love with 29-inch wheels. So, given a carte blanche opportunity to build my one and only, I opted for a bike that was hopefully an evolution of my own riding philosophy. To that end, I wanted 29-inch wheels because I like them and have been riding them a long time. Also, I wanted a bike that wasn't as XC sharp as the bikes I was raised on when hammering from point to point was more of a priority, but at the same time wasn't quite as couch plush as the 6-inch-travel bikes that I never seem to be able to push all the way to their limits.
And I wanted it to be made out of carbon fiber. Oh, and it had to have a short dual-link suspension with a solid rear triangle.
So, I opted for the Ibis Ripley, hoping it would strike a balance between 100-millimeter-travel, XC-oriented bikes and more burly, but less XC-friendly 140-millimeter-plus bikes I had been alternating back and forth between for the past few years.
Parts of the Whole
I requested Enve wheels—their combination of weight, strength and stiffness is tough to match—which was an easy choice because I didn't have to look at my personal bank balance first. One of my single biggest gripes with bikes in general, and with 29-inch wheels in particular, is the potential for flex. Enve wheels, aside from being very light and tough, do not flex. This matters to me. The hubs on these particular wheels were DT 240s, which are a solid, no nonsense, known quantity. Shimano XTR got the nod for brakes and drivetrain. Again, this was a choice made out of familiarity. I dig the feel of XTR, and it has a well-proven track record. Shimano disc brakes are consistently the most trouble-free brakes I have used. Much as I wish I could say that about the brakes of most of the competition, I can't. In terms of holding a bleed, silence and consistency of operation, and general quality, XTR Trail brakes are tough to compete against.
On the odd-duck old school front, a triple chainring was chosen because granny rings are nice when you are above 10,000 feet. Yeah, that is old-fashioned. But my experience with 2×10 chainring combos hadn't duly impressed, and I had zero miles on the 1×11 gear when this bike was built. Now, with some time on SRAM XX1, I might be tempted, because not having a front derailleur makes things a whole lot less cluttered, but still, for serious alpine riding, a three-ring circus remains a good thing. And, the test parameters for this bike involved two months in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and the Sierras.
Other bits included Fox CTD squishy bits front and rear, Ibis brand flat bars, an Easton Haven stem and WTB saddle. The KS Lev seatpost was a gamble, per Hans Heim at Ibis referring to it as "the optimal intersection of good performance and few failures." Tires, hmmm. Not sure what is on the photo bike, but the favored combo during the test period ended up being a Continental X-king 2.4 out back, with a meaty Specialized Purgatory 2.4 doing the deed up front.
Yeah, but how did it ride?
So, did the Ripley (previously tested by Ryan Palmer and Travis Engel early in volume 20) turn out to be the one-bike quiver killer? Did all of my dreams come true?
Dreams, when it comes time to meet reality, always have a tough row to hoe.
Climbing and pedaling behavior was stellar. The eccentric DW link enables a responsive, crisp pedaling behavior that resists squat and allows for sharp out-of-the-saddle efforts while ascending, regardless of the Fox CTD shock's compression setting. Standing climbing traction was impressive. This was a nice surprise – big wheels and suspension usually dictate kinda long chainstays, which in turn can make for a lack of traction when standing and mashing up steeps. Not so with the Ripley. When the pedals are stomped in anger, this bike flat-out hauls. It also exhibits a healthy indifference to driveline torque regardless of what chainring it is in (a useful aside in choosing a triple ring is that it makes it hard for a suspension design to hide its less than sweet spots – and most suspension systems have some degree of compromise that manifests in either squatty or inchwormy behavior at one end of the chainring size spectrum or the other).
Overall handling could best be described as nimble and snappy, not traits usually associated with plus-size wheels. Bucking the current trend toward slower handling and slacker geometry, the Ripley devours uphill switchbacks and twisty, rooty, technical terrain. If all I was going to be doing for the rest of my life was climbing steeps and finessing technical trails, this bike would be ideal.
But, here's where the dream falters. This kind of climbing and handling comes at a price. If the Ripley has an Achilles heels, it shows at high speed (yeah, I know Brian Lopes decimated the Kamikaze on a Ripley. I'm not him). The big wheels do a good job of calming things down, but the Ripley feels a lot like an XC bike from a decade or so ago in its overall demeanor, in spite of the leggy amount of suspension. As such, it gets nervous when railing high-speed rock gardens, and the suspension at times like that feels out of its element. Thank God for dropper posts! Speaking of, the KS Lev that was added to this build? Damn nice stuff. All the infinity of adjustment of a RockShox Reverb but with less slop, and a less obtrusive remote.
Remember when I was complaining about how much I hate flex earlier? Well, the Ripley isn't the stoutest rig on the block. For slender whippets who pedal nice circles, this is probably a non-issue. There are also bikes that are a lot more wiggly out there. But for bowlegged 180-pound meatheads like me, who like to plant a bike in a corner and have it stay where it was planted, the Ripley feels a bit underbuilt. Again, I will chalk this up to an entirely personal gripe, but it is there nonetheless.
Last and probably least, I had some issues on this particular bike with noise. First, it was cables slapping against the frame. Nothing a few zip ties couldn't fix. But then it was cables slapping around INSIDE the frame (which may or may not be commonplace with internal cable routing in general, I don't know. I avoid internal cable routing like the plague. I don't give a shit how 'clean' it makes a bike look, it is a total pain in the ass on so many other levels), which took a bit of time to figure out and make shut up. When the bike was apart to check on that, I noticed that the shift housings had been leaving a wear mark on the fork steerer tube. Ibis is aware of this and makes a sleeve to prevent your fork getting eaten (http://store.ibiscycles.com/ripley-steerer-sleeve-p191.aspx), but still, that was a little bit disconcerting. Internal cable routing, we have only ourselves to blame. Once the cable issues were dealt with, a few different suspension creaks started up. Upper shock mount/top tube junction, lower shock mount/strut junction, strut/swingarm bolts… All of this occurred in a roughly 400-mile test cycle. In this day and age, when people are shelling out somewhere around $10,000 for a bicycle, little bugbears such as these are less acceptable than ever. Yeah, they can be fixed, but top-dollar bikes should have top dollar attention to detail, and in this case, it felt like some of the details still needed to be ironed out.
Would I kick the Ripley out of bed for eating crackers? No. It was a fun-riding, climbing fool of a bike that more often than not left me grinning at the end of each ride. But would I make it my one and only, do-everything machine? Oddly enough, much as I have been begging for bikes that are more nimble during the onslaught of slack-angled plows that are the current vogue, and much as I love the way the Ripley levitates uphill, I am holding out for something a wee bit stiffer and more planted when it comes to hauling the mail. Not sure exactly what that bike is, so the search continues… .