The world is awash with extremely capable, technically proﬁcient trail bikes this year, and it’s becoming harder to ﬁnd one that instills that all-important ‘I must have that one’ feeling. The FRO’s eager speed, rapid handling and outstanding build quality make it a bike you’ll truly desire to own.
The aggressively angled, hard-driving 5.5 EVP has gained a reputation as a truly Intense trail bike. Now more weight has been shaved out of this FRO (For Racing Only) version to make it even more responsive. It’s a beautiful hand-crafted chassis, but can it compete with the latest carbon creations in terms of performance?
Ride & handling: damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead
The FRO’s handling immediately stands out. Just as the complete bike is impressively light, so the steering has a light and snap-responsive feel. That’s due to the slightly steeper than average 70° head tube, so the bike turns faster and ‘auto corrects’ less.
Out on the trail, the bike has extremely quick reactions for ripping into turns and hooking round the back of trees on tight singletrack. It’s also very keen to correct and re-correct through slippery corners, and it tracks well at lower speeds on steep climbs.
The downside is a less stable nature than most bikes of its type at speed, with a potential nervousness that increases the harder you pull on the front brake or the steeper the descent gets.
With so many very similar handling bikes about, though, it’s great to ride a genuinely different option. Yes, it can bite you if you’re not really paying attention or haven’t the aggression/skill/ alertness to cope with its lack of ‘look after you’ neutrality.
However, take it by the scruff of the neck and capitalise on its natural speed and agility, and it’ll ﬂy through technical sections with a rabid rapidity that’ll leave your heart pounding and your nerves ringing. The VPP suspension also rewards riders who are prepared to go at the trail with guns blazing, rather than those looking for a comfortable cruise.
With a distinct ﬁrmness underfoot when you press the pedals, the whole bike leaps forward in predatory fashion when you put the power down. Smack something serious, though, and the back end opens wide and swallows it down, with none of the loss of speed or control you’d expect on a shorter-travel bike.
There’s a fair amount of backchat through the soles of your shoes when you’re pedalling in the rough, but traction feedback is excellent and response is immediate in the big and middle rings. The mushy-feeling granny gear is best avoided, but FRO riders shouldn’t be stooping so low anyway, right?
Dropping weight out of the chassis has introduced a noticeable amount of ﬂex, in our large-framed sample at least. This shows as a slight distortion when you’re really railing it through corners, occasional twang when you glance off rocks or when it lets go of traction, and a deﬁnite whip if you ﬂick it through chicane-style corners.
However, it’s nothing more than we’d expect for a light bike with this much travel, and there’s very little softness inline either. Seated power delivery is excellent, and the FRO’s overall ride impression is of a bike with the acceleration and straight-line speed to consistently ﬂatter egos and levels of exhaustion even on long days out.
Frame: carbon-rivalling weight, fanatical detailing
Intense’s chasing of the lighter long-travel market is the opposite approach taken by Santa Cruz with its new Blur LT. Before, the two bikes were similar, but Santa Cruz decided to keep the Blur LT the same weight and give it a sturdier build, as well as reconﬁgure the VPP suspension it shares with Intense. Now, the difference between the two bikes is marked.
While it’s more expensive than the Santa Cruz, the FRO’s frame is hand-built at Intense’s facility in the US. Even the basic Intense frames are a showcase of intricate machining work, but the extra £210 for the FRO (standard 5.5 is £1539 with an RP23 shock) gets you even more of Jeff Steber and his team’s time.
The attention to weight loss includes bearing covers that have been scalloped away to shave a few grams; the EVP monogrammed linkage sections are thinner, as are the rear uprights. In fact, all excess metal has been chased out and left as swarf on the workshop ﬂoor wherever it won’t affect strength – and with a 6lb frame-and-shock weight, it’s not that far off the lightest 140mm travel carbon bikes.
Intense has a long-standing relationship with tube wizard Easton, which explains the range of diamond, swaged, shaped, ﬂared and intricately butted tubes throughout the frame. The kinked top tube keeps standover height reasonable even when suspension is unweighted, while the multi-shaped rear stays avoid the need for any curves or kinks. It’s a very close shave on tyres wider than 2.25in, but then this is tagged as a ‘For Racing Only’ fast trail option rather than a burly hooligan.
It’s only a small detail, but Intense is one of the few companies still ﬁtting a proper head badge rather than just a sticker. Five standard paint colours including the raw ‘works’ ﬁnish and eight custom colours make establishing FRO individuality even easier..
Equipment: specced for racing, but trail-usable
Like the FRO, the Shimano XTR transmission kit is designed to race but is still superb on the trail. Right from the way the beautifully sculpted Rapidﬁre levers sit against the curve of the thumb to the quiet, clinical crispness of every shift, it’s an absolute pleasure to use.
With a 183mm rotor up front, the Hope Mono Mini brakes have enough bite for most situations without being so powerful they drag the already steep head down too much under braking.
The Fox fork is an older 130mm travel model, not the current 140mm Float, but the travel and ride height actually sits dead centre of the 5.5’s recommended 120-140mm range. The bike is pretty sharp steering even with the 130mm fork on, though, so you’d have to like a really reactive, nose-down bike to plug in a 120mm model.
To keep weight right down, UK distributor Extra has gone for Easton’s XC One wheelset and relatively skinny Bulldog tyres. They’re certainly fast, but we’d be tempted to go for the broader Havoc wheels and a slightly fatter tyre to increase stiffness and on-trail authority.
Easton’s premium lightweight EC/EA90 ﬁnishing kit completes the no-expense deal – although again, a wider bar would inject a bit more muscle into the handling.
Verdict: charismatic & addictive
Intense has always had a cutting-edge identity, and the FRO is a perfect example of this. The amount of work and hand detailing in the US-made frame is outstanding enough to be a reason to buy, but the ride is equally unique.
With the way it leaps down the trail as soon as you tread on the pedals, the slight whip of the frame as it follows the instantly responsive steering, or the cat-like poise it lands drops with, the FRO gives an extremely visceral feel that few bikes we’ve ridden come close to.
It may not be as light as some carbon frames or as sturdy and stable as other alloy bikes, but for sheer charisma the Intense is one of the richest rides around.
Intense Cycles’ main man, Jeff Steber on the development of the FRO
BikeRadar: How important is your race programme to Intense development?
Jeff Steber: Very important, as racing puts the product at the highest level of performance demand. The feedback from pro racers is key to making improvements that work in real conditions around the world.
BikeRadar: Is the FRO rider necessarily a racer at heart?
Jeff Steber: I think most FRO customers are racers at some level and want the most out of their equipment, or they are ‘weekend warrior’ types whose passion is riding the best.
BikeRadar: Did you think of using carbon?
Jeff Steber: We have considered using carbon, but as we manufacture all our mountain product in-house it isn’t feasible. Also, I am not totally sold on carbon’s durability for mountain bikes.
BikeRadar: Did you and Santa Cruz work on the new VPP suspension architecture together?
Jeff Steber: The licensing arrangement with Santa Cruz on VPP has been a great experience. Rob Roskop and all the design team are top-notch. We are both continually working to better the system, and the new VPP 2 set-up is an example of the team at Santa Cruz working to make something good even better!
If you look closely at our relative products, you’ll see that despite the differences in design between Intense & Santa Cruz models, they will always ﬁt within the workings of the VPP patents.
BikeRadar: You’ve just unveiled a new mid-travel bike. Where does the 5.5 FRO sit in relation to that?
Jeff Steber: The new bike is more or less our version of the Blur LT2 with an Intense twist. The new model will most likely replace the standard 5.5 in the line-up. I am really excited about this bike as it motivates me to ride more and I feel it hits the trail bike segment right on the mark. I really believe it is my best design yet.