By Vernon Felton


While the big news these days is 650b (“650b hard tails!”, “650b downhill bikes!”, “650b Corn Flakes!”) there are, in fact, bikes rolling around on wheels of other sizes, you just don’t hear about them much right now.

Case in point: the Rocky Mountain Instinct 970, which I’ve been riding here in the Pacific Northwest these past four months.

First a bit about the bike’s key features….

The Instinct shares the same sleek lines of the Element series that debuted a few years back, but adds 29er hoops and a bit more squish (130-millimeters/five inches out back). The Instinct also features the clever "RIDE-9" shock mount which enables you to seriously customize the bike's geometry and rear suspension behavior.

Nine different geometry/suspension rate settings are available--it's just a matter of rotating these shock mount chips.

Rotating the two interlocking chips in the 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.

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.

Despite a steady diet of mud and ham-fisted treatment, the Instinct 970 never shat the bed or raised a mechanical fuss. I'm impressed by how well the angular contact bushings (in many of the frame's pivots) hold up to crap weather.

Rocky calls the Instinct a “cross country” bike, but take that with a solid pound of salt. “Cross-country” on the North Shore translates to “all mountain” in the lower 48. Accordingly, I’ve been flogging this thing on everything from marathon XC jaunts to more punishing gravity days. I think it’d be fair to consider the Instinct 970 as a kind of long-legged trail bike with a yen for ugly conditions. The geometry adjusting RIDE-9 system deserves a lot of credit here, because you can make the Instinct as slack and low as anything on 29er wheels today. It covers the same terrain as the burlier Banshee Prime, but in a lighter package.

On technical descents, the Instinct feels considerably more capable than most people would dream a 29er could be. The low stand over, slack and low geomety and dialed suspension give the bike a nice balance of agile and capable. It’s not as stout a package as some other bikes in this class–it’s comfortably mid pack in that respect–but the Instinct 970 could be improved with a few key component swaps.

I've got no qualms with the compression/rebound performance of the Fox Float 29 32 fork, but on a bike with this much travel (and this long an axle to crown dimension), I'd swap it for a Fox 34 in a heartbeat. The bike begs for it.

First off, I’d recommend going with a stouter fork than the Fox Float 29 FIT CTD 32. Next, I’d recommend swapping the stock DT Swiss wheels for something a bit wider than the DT Swiss M 1.6 rim–I bolted on Syntace’s ridiculously wide (28.5-millimeter internal width) W35 MX wheelset, which also cleaved more than a 100 grams of rotating weight from the rig. Nice. If your terrain isn’t particularly rocky or technical, you can ignore what I’m saying here. However, if you push your bike hard or ride like a cretin (that’d be me), you’ll want to, at a minimum, go with a less flexy fork. And let me be clear, I’m not saying all 32s are flex, but that at this much travel (and particularly with a 29er’s longer axle to crown dimension), you want something with wider stanchions and a bigger crown.

I swapped the relatively narrow RaceFace Turbine bars for a set of their wide (780-millimeter) Atlas bars. Then I slammed the stem to get my hands out of that feeble T-Rex position, way up by my chin. Big improvement. I also slapped on an Atlas crank with a bash becuase, I ride like an eejit and smack things hard. Frequently.

Other tweaks that I made to suit my tastes included swapping the Turbine bar and crankset for a wide (780-millimeter) Atlas bar and an Atlas crankset with bash ring.

The Instinct 970 sports very clean cable routing. Nice.

The 970 sports all manner of nice bits. The Shimano XT drivetain was flawless (I particularly appreciated the clutch mechanism on the Shadow Plus rear derailleur), I’m a fan of the way Avid Elixir brakes feel, though I’ve had my fair share of head aches with maintenance on some past models. The Elixir 90 XM brakes on the Instinct 970 proved perfect throughout the test. Finally, the RockShox Reverb Stealth post is hard (perhaps impossible) to beat. Kudos to whoever spec’d this thing.

Someone at Rocky spent a lot of time fretting the details when it came time to spec this bike. The Instinct 970 bears a quirky, but brilliant, mix of components. It looks like something a serious rider built from the frame up.

On the whole, I walk away impressed by the Instinct 970. There are plusher bikes out there. Lighter bikes as well. Where the Instinct excels, however, is its balance and versatility. I’d happily ride this thing anywhere outside of a bike park. A quick tweak of the geometry and the bike is ready to tackle just about anything. That’s not something you can say of most 29ers–which are generally slanted towards the XC side of things alone. With the Instinct 970, you aren’t pigeon holed with your choice of a bike.

Well played, Rocky.