Why am I testing bikes?
Before last year`s initial hosting of the Kintyre Way Ultra bike race we did a huge amount of riding on the course, testing which parts of the route worked and which parts didn`t. People quickly cottoned onto the fact that we had amassed a good knowledge of the route and because they knew how much of a tech geek I am, I started to regularly field questions about equipment choice.
Last year I used my relatively cheap Boardman CX bike fitted with carbon forks and knobbly 40mm tyres, and that setup worked well for me and quite a few other competitors. Opinion was split almost exactly 50/50 between people who took that kind of bike and people who preferred to use a mountainbike, and in my opinion the question of which was more suited to the varied terrain of the route remained completely unanswered. As the countdown to the race in 2018 begins, I know that I will get asked the question again, so I did the obvious thing and scrounged a good quality hardtail mountainbike from John at Wheels Cycling Centre.
I was keen to test a hardtail with 29 inch wheels, as that genre of bike is not only very popular on the race circuit but is also relatively affordable. The bike I borrowed was a Scott Scale 720, which came with big wheels on wide boost hubs, fast rolling tyres and a very good list of parts. Scott were criticized in 2016 for fitting a relatively cheap fork to the 720, but the current model that I tested came with a 120mm Rockshox Recon operated by a motion Control damper that until the latest generation of Pike and Lyriks was the internals that came fitted to the company`s top spec offerings. When it comes to suspension I am spoiled and hard to please (I have Pike RCT3`s on my enduro bike and Boxxer World Cups on our downhill bike) but I thought the Recons were excellent. They provided more than enough plush initial feel for a bike of this type and held their height on the climbs so well that I never once felt the need to use the lockout.
The groupset was all Shimano, with a high quality 2×10 slx/xt drivetrain mated to one of the company`s more than capable budget brakesets. The remainder of the kit is almost exclusively provided by Scott`s sister brand Syncros. These were all strong, capable items that cumulatively works very well, although I`ve definitely sat on more comfortable saddles and the bars were a bit too narrow for my personal taste. For me the highlight of the Syncros kit was the excellent cable-operated dropper post- the effortlessly smooth action of this was operated by an easily located thumb lever.
The Scott Scale 720 as we had it set up, with 29 inch wheels and fast rolling tyres. Even up Beinn Ghuilean it felt very capable, although the lack of braking grip definitely held it back when things got steep and muddy!
So how was the bike?
The travel of the Recon fork and the presence of a dropper post hint that despite its relatively light weight and the 29 inch wheels Scott built this bike as a genuine all-rounder rather than as a truly focussed cross country race weapon. Its 67 degree head angle and low bottom bracket inspired more confidence on downhills and through rough terrain than I had initially expected. John suggested that the large frame size might prove too big for me but this proved not to be the case, I found it suited my 5 foot 11 frame perfectly. The seated position perched me in the ideal shape to sit and spin up the climbs using my largest muscle groups, and because of this help to transfer power I never once found the need to shift onto the smaller chainring. The slick chainset, bombproof brakes and that excellent seatpost all worked flawlessly and in the end the only factor limiting the downhill performance of the bike was the lack of braking grip from the fast rolling rear tyre.
Having tested the bike over a variety of terrain, I now find myself asking more questions than I can actually answer. Initially I intended to test a lightweight, cross country focussed bike that would sprint up the hills and be somewhat compromised coming down, although maybe by not as much as my CX bike is with its skinny tyres and total lack of suspension. I now wonder whether a bike like this Scott which is designed as more of an all-round trail tool might not be a better option than both of those for some people, especially if it was set up as we had it to roll well on fireroads. Any mountainbike orientated more towards downhill than this would be overly compromised against climbing ability, but the Scale 720 is very close to the middle ground that would make it relatively suited to every facet of the varied terrain that makes up the 75 mile Kintyre Way Ultra course. If you entered the race and wanted to minimise fatigue and to avoid the aggravating compromises that blight the more focussed bike options, then this might be the very machine for the job. A bike like this would certainly require slightly less concentration, allowing you to enjoy the amazing scenery more.
Which type of bike will be faster though? It is a race after all…
I think this is where it gets interesting. I felt fast on the Scale, and it seemed that I was seated in the best position to get the maximum climbing performance from the bike. I went on a typical (for me) 30+ mile ride on a relatively calm day, mixing some long climbs with short, steep bursts and long flowing descents with rough, manic downhills. The bike`s ability to perform admirably in all those disciplines was in my experience unparalleled, and I really thought that after trying hard and feeling good on the day my strava upload would show that the bike was faster overall than anything I had raced over that terrain before. But it just didn`t happen. I looked back over several uploads from CX bike rides over the same route rather than just comparing my test ride to personal bests, and found that the Boardman had been regularly quicker in every discipline except the most severe downhills. Given that there are only really three places on the Kintyre Way Ultra course that fall into that category and that the longest of those lasts for just five minutes on the CX bike, I would have to advise myself to stick with the bike that I already have. But even after compiling all that data all I have done is figured out which bike will be faster for me- I still haven`t answered the question of which bike will be faster for you. I will never be a good climber no matter how much training I do but I have lightning fast reactions and I am always willing to hang it all out on downhill sections, so maybe the CX bike is best suited to someone like me who can take advantage of its low drag and focussed climbing position while being brave (for that read “stupid”) enough to ride around its obvious shortcomings. If you are the kind of super-fit whippet who can bomb up the hills regardless of what bike they are riding but are less willing to take the ludicrous liberties that I would take on the downhill sections, then a 29 inch hardtail like this Scale 720 might just be the very machine for you. I think the best advice I can give following this side-by-side test is to suggest that there is a spectrum that has a rigid CX bike at one end and a relatively aggressive hardtail mountainbike like this at the other, and the perfect bike for you to ride on the Kintyre Way Ultra is somewhere within that spectrum- whereabouts depends entirely on where your personal strengths as a rider lie.