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Giving myself up to the Full Suspension Gods

Is a Full Suspension Mountain Bike worth the cost, complexity and maintenance? I went up to Cuyuna and rented a Dream Build Esker Rowl from RedRaven to find out!
Stuart Smith
Stuart SmithPublished on October 17, 2023
Stuart Smith

Is a Full Suspension Mountain Bike worth the cost, complexity and maintenance? I went up to Cuyuna and rented a Dream Build Esker Rowl from RedRaven to find out!

I am an under-biker by nature. I arrive on scene with the tools at my disposal and make it work, often reaching deep into the well for more power, climb assist, grip and often hitting the bottom of a well worked front fork but I always have a good time on the trail. I am a hard tail kind of guy, I love the point and shoot simplicity and everyday use. I commute, camp, 2-Up, trailer, jump, drop and single track all on the one well oiled machine. But lately I have been eyeing up a more dedicated trail bike and edging closer to the dark side.

For my test I rented the Esker Rowl from the RedRaven fleet. Seeing as my benchmark and daily rider is an Esker Hayduke I felt it was important to find a bike that shared the same company DNA and design language even though I was setting out to do an apples to oranges sort of test.

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To even it out slightly I equipped the rented Rowl with my own personal touch point bits from Wolftooth (pedals and grips) and used the same set of wheels and tires for both, SunRingle Duroc30 with AmericanClassic tires front and rear. Tires and rider comfort play a big role in confidence on a bike and I wanted to make sure I was keeping it as even as I could, so it wasn’t the minor components of the bike shining and it was the machine itself doing the work.

Both bike are equipped from Esker with a Fox fork (34 and 36), “Esker” Raceface bars, SRAM GX groupset and SRAM brakes. I took into account that I was renting a well loved machine so I tried to not knock my experience points down by thinking the slow dropper and squeaking rear links where part of the bikes design but rather just part of the many, many miles and smiles the Rowl had run.

My Primary test loops were run on the Yawkey Unit on the north -east side of the trail system. These trails are easily accessed by a big, quiet parking lot, have all the technical features one could ask for and the loop distances are short enough that I could repeat back to back and get comfortable quickly on the same trails and not be covering 10s of miles each time to do it. I was using the Man Cage loop as my main and used Bobsled as my second outing back in the saddle after a rest.

Esker Rowl – This Bike Loves to Party

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My only real experience with a full suspension bike was about 10 years ago on a then old Gary Fisher Sugar 3. When I swung my leg over this modern Esker I had almost no reference point so I was all wide eyed and smiling. Within 10 feet of riding I was popping wheelies and running low speed manuals. I was so impressed and mad at the bike, I have spent a huge amount of time learning to ride a proper manual on many hard tails with varying levels of success. 20 seconds on this Rowl and I looked like a seasoned pro.

I know the geometry of the Hayduke is not what you would consider “aggressive” and this is exactly what the Rowl is designed for. The front end was so, so easy to get off the ground making hopping over logs and roots, climbing up rocky outcroppings and popping up and over little humps in the trial fun and playful. I was flying off things I wouldn’t even register as a “jump” on my hardtail. This bike just wanted to party at every turn and when the speeds got fast the bike got sharper.

I had some early on difficulty with slow speed technical pieces on the trail. There is a tiny side spur early on the main “Haul Road” trail that takes you over a designed rock and log section and it took many tries to find smooth pedaling and not drop a foot. At low speeds the Rowl felt dull and I didn’t know where it was in space. I was disconnected from the rear end and couldn’t feel it under me. Once I got back on the main trail and picked up my speed the bike came back to me and I gained confidence on it right away.

I learned very early in this ride that I could use the suspension to my advantage all over the trail. I could stay seated and point the bike where ever I wanted and let the rear end do so much of the work that I could play a little fast and loose with my thoughts and let the bike handle it all. I didn’t feel like I needed to be as dialed in for my lines and could let go a bit and just pedal hard and ride. Not what I was expecting. I didn’t really need to be super picky or smart, I could bomb lines and use quick reflexes and not planning to keep me under control.

Then the climbs started. I had to double check a few times that I didn’t have a flat rear tire. The illusion of flatting was ever there on climbs because of the rear squish and after a full day of riding I never got over that feeling, just pushed it aside knowing I was being tricked.

All Full suspension bikes are vulnerable on climbs, or so I have been lead to believe. With the added squish in the rear each pedal losses a bit to the earth and you aren’t as efficient. That was to be expected and that aspect didn’t change as I got more comfortable and climbed further, it always felt a little sluggish. I did find that being up and out of the saddle rewarded me with better climbing power and never really lost traction like I would have on my hardtail. The geometry and suspension work well when you load up the front a bit and let the pedal power sag the rear gaining grip and effectively putting you into a more powerful standing position, not what I was expecting. Still felt slow and like I was working too hard even in granny gears.

And then you get to point downhill and fly, just fly through the scenery. This bike rewards you for being daring and almost careless, you don’t get bucked from minor jolts and everything in the travel makes it so forgiving over all rocks and roots, then you pop over a small double and just soar like nothing else. It encourages you to pedal on the down and carry speed into corners and through rough terrain. Slow down and the bike feels limp but speed it up and it all comes to you, the speeds gives confidence.

After 4 laps I returned to the parking lot to see if it was just the magic of the day and location. I needed to grab some water, take off a layer of warm clothes and swap my parts back to the Hayduke and get back on the trails. There is something so comforting about getting back onto your own bike.

Esker Hayduke- Rewards you for technique

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This bike covers ground at such an incredible rate, every pedal stroke feels like 1.5x vs the Rowl. It is snappy and accelerates in a way that you don’t expect. The long wheelbase and chain stays puts the power down with an immediacy not found on other more aggressive bikes and the riding positions is so great. I forgot how quick this bike is on the flats. It only took a few seconds to adjust back to my home saddle so a quick loop around the parking lot and it was time to blast onto the trail.

Right off the bat I am again in love. Nimble and quick to turn in, the stiffness allows you to place the bike right where you want it and each pedal drives you faster and further down the trail. Then I got into the rocky, bumpy and rough trail and all that speed turned into my butt getting smashed relentlessly by the seat with the rear end bouncing and bucking over the sharp rocks and roots. Duh, I can’t just sit and pedal the trail like I just did on the Rowl, I need to be active in my on/off saddle work and really pick and choose my line.

The slow sections of the technical rock garden were again well within my reach and the bike was talking to me the whole way through. I cleared the obstacles without touching down and left the area feeling accomplished and not miffed. But once again back to the trail and I was getting bucked all over because I was not focused and trying to just muscle and pedal my way through everything like I had on the Rowl. I have scars on the backs of both my legs from aggressive riding where I would be attacking a section of trail and the rear would get tossed and I would lose my footing on the pedals, yes even on the amazing and pointy Waveforms. This came back to the forefront of my brain the moment I was bucked up and lost my left foot around a quick tight left hander with rough rocks. Oops.

You are rewarded for line choice with crips handling and fast corner exits but hurt by the rear end instability if you’re not careful. That is until you get back to a climb where all your drive goes directly to the rear wheel and you are propelled up the climb. I did test sitting and standing again after my revelation on the Rowl and it is true, standing while climbing on something loose has a negative effect vs picking a good line and digging in while seated on the Hayduke.

Descending is still fun, doesn’t matter what bike you’re on, but it was not nearly as fast or as jump happy on the hardtail. I am still able to clear the doubles and pop up over logs but the bike feels like it needs convincing where the Rowl was pushing me along. I can carry very good speed still but needed to focus much closer on where I was heading and that is part of the fun of a hardtail. You need to be smart and pick the better line. It is solving tiny puzzles all the time at high speed and requires more of you and your abilities.

Back to the van to swap it all again and move to something more aggressive.

Round 2- Bobsled and the skills park.

If you have never been to Cuyuna you can not know the fun of Bobsled. It is impossible to explain to someone that yes, it is like what you see on TV with a bobsled run in the Olympics, you will take tight banked corners at speeds you shouldn’t. Now add trees, large rocks and an insane series of Jumps. You do have to climb and climb and climb to get there but the work is worth it. Stop off at the big rock and get your legs and grip back, grab some water and a senior portrait with your bike and get ready for the ride down.

This run is a tale of two bikes, both capable but clearly they show their strengths and weaknesses. The long, steady climb favors the Hayduke by a wide margin and the psychotic downhill pace of the backside is what the Rowl was made for.

Over in the skills park it was just me and the Rowl. I left the Hayduke in the van, this place is for the jumps and drops. The Rowl did not disappoint. I have never in my life taken a bigger drop than say, 18inches or so on my hardtail. There are some bigg-ish drops at Lebanon and Sunfish Lake that I have attempted and after bottoming out and blowing forks I have decided those are places I will skip for mechanical sympathy. Not so on the Rowl. At the skills park you have all sorts of height and drop options up to what looks like 6-7 feet from platform to ground. None of these are drops to flat, fortunately, so the suspension doesn’t need to be full DownHill Grade with 1000mm of travel.

What a machine this bike is.

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Riding these features was so much fun and building the will and confidence to hit the big jumps was a large step forward in my riding. I know we have jump lines and great features all over the place in the cities but it isn’t the thing I Love about single track. Its not the whole game just small and the most dangerous parts of it.

Cards on the table.

I did not buy a Rowl the moment I got back home. I sat and talked to my wife about it who gave me the green light to buy, she also rides and understands, but also said I should sell my Hayduke in the process. I am 40 years old. I LOVE being on my bike and the feeling of hard charging down hill sections and popping off lips is so, so so much fun but I also have to be honest with myself. I pull a burley trailer full of kids and gear, I commute and casualty ride often with my young kids on trails and through the city. Sure, a long travel full suspension bike is totally capable of doing those tasks but that is like seeing a corvette in stop and go traffic, it works but it just the wrong tool for the job.

There is a place for a full suspension bike in my garage, I’m keeping it warm and saving some nickels in a jar as we speak so I can pull the trigger when the time comes but for today, for the way I ride and my life I am sticking to my speedy, comfortable and 90% capable Hardtail. I really liked the rowdiness of the Rowl, the playful attitude on trails and willingness to pop the front end up and gracefully ride a wheelie. I loved not getting bucked off the pedals while driving through rocks and being able to stay seated for most of the run. But in the end that is not the rider I am. I am a highly skilled, fast rider who climbs with force and picks and choosing my downhill line and way through a rock garden with control and skill and a really good hardtail is a better expression of that riding style for me. I can still hit jumps and small drops but I can just as easily load up a pack and ride 100 miles on the luce line trial. It may limit me but in the limit I am also keep my bike rubber side down and not ending up with adult injuries that will take months to heal.

For today the Hayduke is my ride and a future me will have something wilder hanging in the garage. Now I will use this experience as a catalyst to rent more bikes when I travel and enjoy the things I have now while at home. Not even mentioning the buying costs of a mid-pack full suspension or the yearly upkeep on now 2 air and oil powered suspension systems and bearings and linkages. You can buy 2 stellar hardtails for the cost of one good Full Squish. But who knows, maybe ill pull the trigger on a Rowl or maybe it will be a Ripley or Spectral 125 and surprise myself for Xmas!

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