Every member of the mountain bike media, myself included, wishes we could do what the stars of the television show “Top Gear” do. Never mind that we get to ride the world's best bikes for a living. That’s just not the same as climbing behind the wheel of an Audi R8 and going zero to 60 in less than 3 seconds. Or maybe it is exactly the same. I'm sure I will never know.
My jealousy extends beyond just the novelty of pretending to be rich for 60 minutes a week. There’s a finality to “Top Gear’s” judgements that no bike test could truly claim. After each episode’s chosen supercar is lauded (or lampooned) by the hosts, it races the clock on “Top Gear’s” private test track. Then, as Jeremy Clarkson would hover its name over the Power Laps leaderboard, I always shudder in excitement. The white magnetic strip would rise past the Bugatti Veyron, past the McLaren MP4, oooh, and… no way, past the Audi R8?
No matter where that hand-scribbled placeholder lands, it is settled law in my book. There can be no doubt in the authority held by those six digits. It is the objective truth. The test track is never obstructed by fallen trees one day or shifting rock gardens another day. It doesn't erode over decades or evolve under shovels.
And more importantly, the infamous test driver from “Top Gear’s” later UK seasons, the ‘Stig,’ does not have off-days. Eventually revealed to be (spoiler alert) Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, the Stig is on his A-game every time he gets behind the wheel. I am not the Stig. If I'm able to put up good numbers on a trail today, that's no guarantee I can put them up tomorrow. That's why I have no leaderboard comparing which bike is faster down my personal test track. There are a few too many variables in the state of the trail, and far too many variables in my state of mind.
But sometimes there's an outlier. A bike that puts up a number so quick, it can't just be that I was having a good day. The Commencal Meta AM 29 is that outlier. On my very favorite trail for testing bikes in the enduro category, I had worked my way up to a distant second on Strava's leaderboard. Hovering around 14 minutes, I was a nearly 2 minutes ahead of a tight cluster around third place, but more than a full minute behind first place. Then, on my second ride on the Meta AM 29, I bettered my personal record by enough to take the crown from a close friend who, compared to me, is a stone-cold Stig.
And to be honest, it came as a total surprise. When I spilled out onto the road, my heart wasn't pounding as if I'd just cheated death. I wasn't climbing down from that knife edge between control and chaos that it normally takes to win races. I just knew I was going fast and enjoying the hell out of it. More than any of the long-travel 29ers I've ridden since the category came into its own, the Meta AM 29 puts speed and fun in a synergistic balance. Going all-out felt safe enough that I could relax and play around a bit. And in turn, that allowed for more confident line choices and even more speed.
Exactly how Commencal pulled this off is thanks to a different type of synergy. The $4,500 Signature level I tested features one of the smartest build kits I've ever seen, starting of course with the Fox DHX2. Coil shocks carry a certain cool factor these days, but that has nothing to do with why this bike specs one. The Meta AM 29's 160 millimeters of rear travel isn't quite the tippy-top of the enduro-29er spectrum, but that shock allows it to approach the small-bump compliance you'd find on a DH bike while maintaining just enough of the supportiveness you'd find on a trail bike. The DHX2's tunability made it easy (if slightly time-consuming) to find that balance. I went heavy on the low-speed compression damping, moderate on the high-speed rebound and light on the high-speed compression and low-speed rebound. The fork's Grip2 damper made the front end just as nerd-friendly, but that's just a backdrop for what the rest of the spec will inspire.
Schwalbe tires have made huge leaps in compound and casing in recent years, and the Apex Soft Hans Dampf rear and Magic Mary front combined trail-bike practicality with DH-bike capability. And they're mounted to E13's TRs wheelset, whose alloy construction, low profile and 28 spokes made this already-supple bike even more supple.
But maybe the craftiest call on Commencal's part is the four-piston Shimano XT front brake and two-piston rear. Magura has a brake built that way off the shelf, but Commencal had to ignore Shimano's playbook to do it on this bike, something Shimano tends to not particularly like. But it makes perfect sense. More braking energy up front demands more surface area to increase power and heat dissipation. Out back, where well-timed transitions between slowing and skidding are crucial, a less powerful brake is ideal. It offers better modulation and cuts down on unsprung weight, while the 200-millimeter rotors still let you lock it up when you need. Add the 31.8-millimeter alloy bars, Acros headset, size-specific dropper and room for a bottle cage, my only real complaint is in the minor headache of pairing SRAM shifters with Shimano brakes.
Note, I'm not complaining a bit about the total lack of carbon on this bike. There's no perceptible lateral flex in the frame and, at a hair over 34 pounds (without pedals) for my XL-sized test bike, there damn well shouldn't be. Truth is, this bike doesn't feel like it's meant to ride light. The included heft plays to its strengths. That fun I was talking about earlier isn't thanks to the Meta AM 29 being ‘playful’ in the cliché sense. It's thanks to its responsiveness and poise, regardless of terrain or velocity. It behaves with remarkable calmness even when making split-second decisions.
Geometry plays a huge role here. In contrast to trendsetters like the Yeti SB150, the YT Capra 29 and my own personal dream build, the Scott Ransom, the Meta AM 29 has a rather conservative reach measurement. This XL stretched just 480 millimeters. Combined with the 432-millimeter chainstays, Commencal kept this bike from falling off the edge into full-on sled territory. Even the 65.5-degree head angle is only moderately slack by today's standards. Don't get me wrong, this is a big bike, but not to the extent that it forces you to re-learn how to ride it. The ultra-capable shocks, brilliant spec and slight extra weight do enough of the work for you that it doesn't have to be a limo to get you to the church on time.
Speaking of work, it would be forgivable for the Meta AM 29 to make you suffer on the climbs. I mean, it probably will, but it won't be sadistic about it. It's just a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of climber. All that travel and all that coil had me relying on the DHX2's little blue lever for any climb over five minutes. And the linkage is about as unsophisticated as they come. The traditional non-Horst four-bar design doesn't do anything magical. Although it doesn't levitate as well as our favorite gold standard, the Ibis Ripmo, at least there's no distracting drivetrain feedback. Just a bit of pedal bob that, again, can be addressed by a slow-and-steady approach and/or the open/firm lever. Just know that, if you want to churn out a high quantity of laps, you'll be locking it out regularly. Even though it isn't a quick climber, it is definitely a comfortable one. The 76.5-degree seat angle makes it easy to be patient. It helped keep Commencal's simple linkage design from costing me precious wattage every pedal stroke. I felt like I sat high enough in the travel that I could spend hours on this bike if I wanted to. And I certainly did. Remember my Strava anecdote? That took place at the very end of a 30-mile, 5,600-foot ride, and it was far from the biggest day I had on the Meta AM 29.
So, it would seem this is nearly the perfect machine for anyone seeking a portable DH bike. But of course, this is a long-travel 29er and this is 2019. There are plenty of choices. Ignoring for a moment that the Pivot Firebird 29 will cost you a few thousand dollars more, it may be the Meta's best-matched competitor. The Pivot has an edge if you put both bikes on a scale, and it nearly matches the Meta's appetite for chunk, without the help of a coil shock. And it feels far more refined when pedaling over rough terrain. If your loops have significant stretches of technical climbs, the Pivot will feel more at home in your home, though you'll have to slam its saddle forward. The YT Capra 29 Pro Race is another worthy adversary to the Meta. It's a more supportive pedaler, so if you like racking up short loops at rapid fire, the YT may win out. But it's not quite the plow that the Meta or the Firebird 29 are, so I still give the Meta the win on the downhills, as long as you're OK with the weight. Another comparison that doesn't take price into account would be the Santa Cruz Megatower. That bike is hard to beat on any front, but it's still more trail-y feeling than the Meta. It's especially supportive and spry, while the Meta is more down-to-business. The Megatower beats the Meta on the climbs, no matter the scenario, and if you overfork the Megatower and opt for a coil shock, it's probably got it on the descents as well. But again, we're talking a package that'll cost you thousands of dollars more.
And then there's my baby, the Scott Ransom. One of its best features is the remote-controlled Fox Nude shock. If you don't picture yourself wanting more cables and levers on your bars, then any Scott should drop a few spots on your wish list. But if you do, there happens to be a Meta AM 29 available with a remote-controlled RockShox Super Deluxe Coil. The Ransom is incredibly manageable, considering it's one of the biggest bikes on the market. But you may not want one of the biggest bikes on the market. The Meta AM 29’s spec and suspension is more narrowly focused on the downhill than those of the Ransom, but it reels itself in thanks to its slightly more moderate geometry. And though it must be said that Commencals are only sold consumer-direct, the Meta wraps that all up in a package that, again, will save you a couple thousand dollars.
That value could easily be enough by itself to sell you on the Meta AM 29. But you shouldn’t let it. The particular type of confidence I felt on this bike was mixed with a sort of evil gluttony. It would offer what I asked for, but still made me always want more. More speed, more style, even more time in the saddle. It embodies the spirit of enduro in a way that’s holistic, smart and insatiably fun.