Photos: Carson Blume
Specialized recently invited us to step off the grid for a few days for a little taste of the 2016 Camber. Situated near Downieville, California, high in the Lost Sierra is a town called Graeagle. You’ll have no problem finding a decent meal in Graeagle, but that’s not the reason to come here–you come here for the Lakes Basin and the miles of dynamite trails surrounding it. Nestled at around 6,000 feet above sea level between towering peaks, the Lakes Basin boasts some of the most breathtaking views found anywhere on earth, and singletrack to match.
The miles here don’t come easy. Hours-long climbs at altitudes between 5,000 and 8,000 feet are tough enough when the grades are shallow and trails smooth–in the Lost Sierra, they’re anything but. It’s rugged terrain, with sharp imbedded rocks protruding everywhere, stifling all but the most technically proficient riders. It’s the kind of place where a 10-mile afternoon jaunt can feel like an epic ride–and a perfect place to test the limits of Specialized’s billy goat trail bike.
2016 Specialized Camber: What’s Changed?
Little Wheels: The Camber originally came in both 26 and 29 varieties, but in the past few years has been 29er only. This year, Specialized decided to expand the line with a 130-millimeter 650b option. I had the opportunity to ride both the 650b and 29er Cambers over three days on some of the country’s most rugged trails. But before we get into the how, let’s see what else has changed.
All EVO, all the Time: Just like the recently released Stumpjumer, Specialized will be offering just one geometry package similar to what the EVO models were, with 120-millimeters of travel only–110-mil version goes away. The 650b Camber has 10-mil more travel than the 29er–130-millimeters front and rear.
Trimmed Stays: Everyone is always asking for shorter chainstays, so Specialized obliged by clipping a half inch off the 29er’s stays, making them a stubby 17.2-inches. The 650b Camber gets even stubbier 16.5 stays, giving the bike an unbelievably playful quality.
Trail Chassis: If the Camber looks similar to the 2016 Stumpjumper, that’s because both bikes share the same front end–Specialized calls this its”trail chassis.” What’s the deal? According to Specialized, the development team set out to design two new front ends, 650b and 29er, that could be used to update both the Stumpy and Camber. Geometry tweaks such as bottom bracket height, head angle, and suspension travel are all done with different links and seatstays. Since the front end is the same, the Camber will also have the new S.W.A.T. Door, which allows you to store stuff in the downtube.
BRAIN Shock: Many riders were relieved to see the Brain shocks disappear from every model except the race-bred Epic. The inertia valve in the shock allows it to discern between trail features and rider input, but it has always had a very distinctive feel that riders looking for ultimate bump-eating performance haven’t jibed with. There’s always been a delay for the shock to start working after the inertia valve is knocked open, creating a harsh spike off the top of the travel. The new Brain is tuned. When I saw a Brain on the new Camber, I wasn’t happy, but this new one is different–it’s positions sensitive. Basically, the first 25 percent of the travel is not affected by the inertia valve, so travel off the top is nice and smooth. The blue knob on the Brain itself, which is located near the rear axle for the best resolution of trail impacts, adjusts how firm the shock is on smooth trail, after the 25-percent sag is achieved.
Ride Impressions: S-Works Camber Carbon 29 and 650b | $9,800
I was especially anxious to jump on the big-wheeled version because a 2014 Camber EVO 29 has been my go-to bike between testing other rigs since we reviewed it in Sedona for our 2014 Bible of Bike Tests–I liked it too much to send it back to Specialized.
With a slacker 68.5 degree head angle, short 17.2-inch stays and 13-inch bottom bracket, the new Camber 29 has the geometry to make it absolutely crush trails. And it does, but with a much more XC feel than the 2014 and 2015 EVO models. Because of the shortened rear end, it was much easier to place the rear wheel exactly where I wanted it, which helped immensely in switchbacks, both uphill and down. Manualing through whoops was much more easily accomplished as well. With this parts spec, the Camber is clearly positioned to favor climbing prowess, despite having ditched the shorter travel option. The new Camber has a similar pinpoint-accurate feel as that which can be found on cross country race bikes, but with far superior descending capability. It’s a trail bike for XC-oriented riders, whereas the Stumpy is a trail bike for the gravity-driven crowd.
When referring to the parts spec, I’m mostly talking about the Brain shock and custom Spike Valve-equipped RockShox RS-1. They’re better at being light and efficient than providing absolute bump performance–my hands would get pretty beat up after long, rocky descents. The Camber could go really, really fast on the gnarly trails in Graeagle, but only with an experienced pilot. It’s not the type of bike that will let you sit down and relax, but with a bike that accelerates this fast, you wouldn’t want to anyway. The deeper into the pain cave you go, the more the Camber rewards you.
Our first day included fire road climbs, fast, flowing descents, plus square-edged, flow-sucking rock gardens, The Camber 29 was right at home the whole time, constantly begging my fat ass to pedal harder. It’s like the bike was taunting me, going, “I’m faster than you are, I’m faster than you are.” It takes a lot of focus to descend fast on the bike, but if you’ve got it in you, the Camber’s got your back.
So how’s this new Brain anyway? Well, it’s better than it’s ever been, but that’s honestly not saying too much. There’s still a delay in an inertia valve. Specialized can mask it all they want, but it’s still there. If you run the Brain anywhere besides the softest setting, you can feel that same delay with the valve opening. Also, since the Brain itself is all the way back by the rear axle, you can’t make an adjustment on the fly, which is kind of annoying. The shock as a whole doesn’t let the wheel track as well as, say, the Stumpjumper does. The damping just isn’t as highly controlled with this tiny unit as it is with a more robust shock. But, I mean, it’s not bad–calling it so would just be wrong. The Cane Creek Cloud Nine was bad. This shock works well, just not optimally for me. It outperforms every Brain shock I’ve ridden before, in all aspects, and it does a descent job of smoothing out the trail under normal riding conditions. It’s just when things get rowdy that the shock gets overwhelmed. Frankly, though, I’d prefer Specialized just shoot the Brain–and inertia valves in general–in the head, and develop a more sophisticated valve that provides pedaling support without sacrificing damping control.
Then again, it’s this shock that gives the Camber its decidedly XC feel, which is precisely what it’s designed to be–a trail bike on the speed and precision side of the spectrum. It’s not meant to be the best, most capable descender–that’s what the Stumpy and Enduro are for. So, in that regard, I suppose it’s the perfect spec.
Knowing my affinity for big wheels, I’d have to admit that I pre-judged the shit out of the 650b Camber. I didn’t even want to ride it, but a gentle–actually a rather forceful nudge–from Specialized convinced me to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because the Camber 650b is a complete blast to ride. As you’d expect, it’s easier to maneuver than the 29er, and with 16.5-inch stays, it’s as playful and whippy as could be. There’s definitely less rollover speed than the 29er, but I never felt like my front wheel would get caught up and send me over the bars, which tends to happen when I transition between big and little wheels.
I tested the limits of the Camber 650b on the 1,800-foot descent off Mount Elwell, which is one of the most diverse trails I’ve ever ridden, and one of the all-time best, too. Up top, it’s steep and chunky, with Volkswagen-sized boulders, imbedded rock and even some loose shale. In the middle there’s soft, deep loam; then marshy areas, and toward the bottom it gets dry and sandy. I definitely found the bike’s limitations, which were actually harder to find than they should have been for a bike that climbs this well. I was able to hang with guys riding Stumpjumpers, but not without reaching my limit. The Camber 650b corners incredibly well. There’s not as much overall traction as the 29er, but the ability to predictably drift through corners and feel exactly where that short rear end is had me whooping and hollering the entire way. It’s just that much more flickable, jumpable and nimble than its big-wheeled brother.