Bike Test: Intense Tracer Gets a 29er makeover

We have had the opportunity to review two versions of Intense’s versatile and all new Tracer trailbike. The bikes shared the same adjustable-travel frame (5.5-6 inches), however, one was built with cross-country oriented components, while the other leaned toward a tougher, all-mountain package. The verdict of that test session?

We loved how the bikes handled and the VPP suspension performed, so it’s up to the rider to build it to suit his riding style. Keeping up with the trend (and demand) for 29er bikes, Intense worked to develop the Tracer into a tough and capable 29-inch-wheeled version.

WHO IS IT MADE FOR?
The highly anticipated Tracer 29 is built for the hardcore trail rider who is not looking for an ultra-lightweight machine, but a durable, longer-travel adventure cycle. With over 5 inches of travel, the Tracer 29 is designed to shine in the hands of an experienced bike handler with the lungs to mash up technical climbs.


WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?
The aluminum Tracer 29 features the second-generation Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension and has adjustable rear wheel travel between 4.75 and 5.5 inches. The Tracer 29 frame features a tapered head tube for improved stiffness at the fork crown and frame downtube junction. As with many other Intense Cycles frames, at the rear of the bike you’ll find interchangeable dropouts. The Tracer accepts traditional 135-millimeter spaced rear hubs or wheels using the 142×12-millimeter thru-axle hubs.


WHICH COMPONENTS STAND OUT?
You can’t help but notice the flashy Marzocchi 44 Micro Ti 29 fork and the QR15 thru-axle. Although built for cross-country trail riding, the 44 Micro Ti features a titanium coil spring and uses the same RC3 damping cartridge as their superb 888 Evo Ti downhill fork. Our Tracer 29 features Shimano’s Dyna-Sys XT drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes. The cockpit is made up of Titec’s Prolite handlebar, stem and seatpost, and an Intense cross-country saddle. A Cane Creek headset uses an internal top cup to help keep the front end low. The eye-catching Crankbrothers Cobalt 29 wheels are tubeless ready and mounted up with 2.35-inch Panaracer Rampage tires. Intense offers one build kit (tested) for $4650. The Tracer 29 frame and Fox RP23 shock can be purchased separately for $2280.


HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
Ergonomics: Inherent in a bike with 29-inch wheels is the issue of a tall stand over height. As you can see in the profile shot of the Tracer 29, it has a very low-slung top tube, making the bike comfortable for most riders. At 26.25 inches, the Titec handlebar is a tad on the narrow side, but certainly not a major issue. We set the sag on both the Tracer’s Fox RP23 shock and Marzocchi 44 fork between 25 and 30 percent and hit the trail.

Pedaling: There are many suspension bikes that really benefit from the Fox RP23 shock’s ProPedal feature (which basically acts like a firm, low-speed compression platform to prevent the suspension from bobbing when pedaling), but it is not needed on the Intense. As with the 26-inch-wheeled version, the 29er settles into the travel nicely and barely budges when pedalingin the saddle. This enables the rider to run the fork with minimal low speed compression (so it won’t counteract and drive the shock), making for a supple and efficient ride up and downhill.

The biggest hurdle with the 29er bike is the rotational weight of the wheels and tires. There’s no getting around the wagon-wheel sensation, and sometimes a rider used to a 26-inch-wheeled mountain bike feels that he has to settle for a less than ideal gear combination to keep the wheels rolling. We experienced this on the Tracer 29, even with the 30 gear choices of Shimano’s Dyna-Sys XT drivetrain.

Climbing: A bike that pedals well on fire roads with the shock in the “open” setting gets us stoked. Riding technical climbs with the ProPedal off allows the suspension to smooth the trail and improve traction without hindering pedaling efficiency. The Marzocchi 44 Micro Ti fork is very supple, and the TST compression feature atop the left fork leg lets you dial in the low-speed compression. As with the shock, we almost always left it in the open setting. Not only did this take away the harshness of rocky climbs, it also slightly lowered the Tracer 29’s front end, keeping the rider’s weight forward and in a better climbing position.

You can definitely feel the Tracer’s 32-pound weight on technical climbs. The beauty of the 29-inch wheels and the 30-speed drivetrain is that when a trail gets steep, you simply find a gear you can spin and chip away at the mountain. Riders who love the way their short-travel cross-country bikes feel could run the ProPedal in the first or “1” position and the fork TST on (but backed off using the gold dial) for a less plush and slightly snappier ride.

Cornering: The Tracer 29 is a balanced, supple and efficient machine that can rip through high-speed turns and switchbacks. The stiffness of the 142-millimeter rear hub and thru-axle is noticeable when bombing rough terrain and changing direction at speed. The small-bump sensitivity of both the front and rear ends keeps the bike hooked up at speed, but the tire selection doesn’t work for our SoCal trails.

Braking: Intense set up our 29er with a complete Shimano XT package, including the hydraulic disc brakes. The levers are easily adjusted to the desired reach from the handlebar with a dial on the brake body. The current model XT brakes offer good stopping power with the use of large rotors, as on this test bike. Although we didn’t experience any significant brake force input on the suspension, the best way to tackle technical sections of trail on the Tracer is to brake early and let the bike do its job over the rough terrain.

Descending: With 5.5 inches of travel and 29-inch wheels, the Tracer 29 can slay some gnarly trails. The big wheels and supple suspension took away the sketchiness sometimes felt when descending at speed on our favorite trails riding 26-inch-wheeled bikes. The relaxation we felt aboard the Tracer 29 had us looking for new and more challenging lines on familiar descents.

TRICKS, UPGRADES OR TIPS?
The Tracer 29 doesn’t have water bottle mounts on the frame, so plan to use a hydration pack. Although our Cobalt wheels are tubeless compatible, they were set up with tubes. With the rotational weight of a 29er wheel so crucial to the bike’s performance, we recommend setting up all 29er wheels tubeless when possible. Our Tracer 29 test bike didn’t have any lightweight, carbon fiber components. So, you weight watchers could shave some weight off the total package with your own custom build. All it takes is money.

BUYING ADVICE
If last year’s test of the two 26-inch Tracers had you confused about which build to go with, it looks like the Tracer 29 may just give you the best of both worlds. It’s a capable climber with impressively efficient suspension design, but it can handle the technical terrain of a longer-travel bike with ease. The Tracer 29 has been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. For more information: Intense Cycles

Reprinted from the December 2011 issue of Mountain Bike Action Magazine