Bike Test: Rocky Mountain Element 970 RSL

October 29, 2012
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After being impressed by Rocky Mountain’s aluminum Element 29er, we couldn’t help but think about how the rig would improve with some carbon DNA. Only a year after Rocky Mountain entered the 29er market, our wish came true. It’s time to see if the Element has really been taken to the next level.

WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The Element 970 RSL is made for cross-country and endurance racers, but Rocky Mountain gave their flagship a drivetrain that is well suited for trail riders looking to pilot a super-fast and lightweight rig.

WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
The Element’s frame is constructed of Rocky Mountain’s proprietary “SmoothWall” Form C13 Hi Mod carbon. The company says that their construction method of using an inner mold rather than an air bladder to shape the inside walls of the frame means that they have more control over the process, allowing for a denser frame material without the excess weight of resin and fibers. Of course, unless you cut your frame in half to see the results of this process, you’ll have to take Rocky Mountain’s word for it.

The Element takes advantage of a 142×12-millimeter rear thru-axle, their proprietary Angular Bushing Concept pivots, and a beefy BB-92 PressFit bottom bracket to further help out in the stiffness department. Internal routing for the derailleur cables and for the Fox CTD shock remote cable is a nice touch that keeps the frame looking clean.

WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?

The Element 970 RSL is one of the first production bikes we have tested to feature Fox’s CTD (Climb, Trail, Descend) remote system. The setup gives the rider a lever on the handlebar that simultaneously controls the three-position damper on the fork and shock.

The 2×10 drivetrain features slightly lower gearing than most dedicated cross-country race bikes. This should prove to be a welcome adjustment for riders who like to spin or who consistently climb extra-steep trails but want the shifting performance of the two-ring setup.

HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
Moving out: Rocky Mountain is quite new to the 29er world, but they have done their homework. Rocky has dubbed their geometry RTC-29, or Race-Tuned Compact. By keeping the wheelbase and top tubes short, they aim to make the Element 29er feel as nimble as a 26er. Mission accomplished.

The rider position on the bike is natural from the moment you swing a leg over it. The low top tube provides plenty of standover height, and the position on the bike feels race-inspired, but not so aggressive that your weight gets forced over the front end. The cock- pit is perfectly suited to the geometry, with wide-enough bars to feel in control without your knuckles fearing tree trunks.

When you first glance down at the bars, there is a lot going on. The Fox CTD lever adds two additional cables to the existing mix of derailleur cables and brake lines. Thankfully, Rocky Mountain considered this during the design process and provides as-clean-as-possible routing for the extra hardware up front.

Climbing: With many 29ers, the longer wheelbase makes it tough to keep weight over the rear of the bike and maintain traction on steep climbs. This is not the case with the Element. The emphasis on a shortened wheelbase translates to the rear wheel feeling more tucked up underneath you.

While the CTD suspension has the dedicated “C” setting for climbing, we found ourselves spending time in both the climb and trail settings when ascending. In the climbing setting, the fork and shock seem all but locked out. This is great for smooth climbs, but for more technical climbs, the locked-out feel made for a rough ride and some lost traction. This is where the “T” setting comes in handy, providing just enough compliance to soak up the trail without making us feel like we were fighting the bike.

Descending: The three-position CTD damper not only allows for a bike that can be tuned on the fly to rip up smooth climbs, but also soak up rough descents. The Element feels stable at speed when descending, but also feels light and flickable around the trail, another testament to Rocky Mountain’s dialed geometry.

Most of our trails feature plenty of rock sections that had us reaching for the “D” (descend) setting on the lever for nearly every section of trail that wasn’t a sustained climb. This wasn’t, however, a bad thing. The descend setting is certainly plush, but Rocky Mountain’s SmoothLink rear suspension does a good job factoring out most of the pedal bob, even at this supple setting. Bottom line: don’t feel confined to the labels on the CTD lever.

Cornering: On our dry Southern California trails littered with marble-sized rocks, cornering confidence doesn’t come easily. The balanced feel of the Element allows you to move around the bike to attack any corner with confidence. The Continental tires proved to be grippy and supple, so much so that we found ourselves running a few extra psi after we got the tires to burp some air during hard cornering.

Braking: Shimano’s brakes never fail to impress. The lever feel is a little more on/off, which can take some getting used to; however, once you get the light touch of the lever down, the brakes offer incredible power and pad contact feel.

TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
The CTD system can polarize riders. While it might be tolerable on a trailbike, Fox’s remote lever is too large and looks out of place on a race or race-inspired bike. The system, if used as billed, requires a lot of rider input (constantly changing the setting for trail conditions). Transitions from climbing to descending and vice versa now require not only gear changes but suspension adjustments. Luckily, you are not really forced to use all three modes. Both the shock and fork have enough adjustment so riders can tune either to favor climb/trail modes or trail/descend modes or, like on the Element, dial in the trail mode and just leave it there.

At 26.5 pounds, the 970 RSL isn’t necessarily in the featherweight division of carbon 29ers, but despite what the scale says, the bike feels very comparable to even lighter race rigs on the trail. If you’re looking for that ultimate weight-weenie setup, check out the 970 RSL’s older brother, the Element 999 RSL, which weighs a claimed 22 pounds.

BUYING ADVICE
Riders looking for a race rig that can also handle long-haul backcountry adventures will be stoked on the Element 970 RSL. The bike blends racy climbing characteristics with plenty of descending confidence for letting it roll on the way back down.



This review originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of MBA. To subscribe, click here.

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