Cube Elite Super HPC SL 29 - First ride £3699

Fast and fun carbon hardtail

BikeRadar score 3.5/5

It’s not often that fate looks you square in the eye and smiles. But that’s exactly what happened when Cube’s Elite Super HPC SL 29 turned up on our doorstep. An administrative cock-up meant it wasn’t the bike we’d ordered. Nope. But it was better – quite a lot better. 

Ride & handling: A great race companion, combining speed with comfort

A little-known secret of bike testing is that you can sometimes tell a surprising amount about a bike within the first few yards, even if the yards in question are smooth and covered in Tarmac. Pulling out onto the main road on the Cube to ride the half-mile to our regular test trail loop, we saw a milk tanker just ahead. Hmm. Big truck. Race bike. Big ring, click, click, click down the sprockets at the rear… Hello heart and lungs. And that’s the thing about this bike. 

From the moment you wheel it out of the door/car park, it just wants to be ridden. Hard. And yes, that applies when you get to the trail, too. Going fast is what this bike was designed to do, and that’s where it’s at its best. Everything happens in a higher gear than normal, whether it’s a climb or a slightly downhill section of fast, flowing singletrack. Shimano’s peerless XTR groupset delivers almost seamless gearshifts – just as well, because you’ll be reaching for the shifters a lot – to change up.

We found ourselves sprinting downhill sections we’d normally coast, snicking the chain down the cassette in search of smaller sprockets and revelling in the bike’s ability to go where we wanted it to, faster than we frankly thought possible. It’s a huge amount of fun – and that’s an adjective you won’t often hear in the context of a bike designed for cross-country racing.

Redesigned for 2013, the frame is lighter. And now muddier

It isn’t just the low weight and high frame stiffness that make all this flat-out progress possible. Although racers aren’t normally too bothered about fripperies like (shhh, whisper it) comfort, having a bike that doesn’t beat you into a pulp is kind of a prerequisite for getting to the finish, whether it’s a race or just a long ride. Remarkably, in spite of its epic rigidity, the SL also has an uncanny ability to filter out the worst of the trail’s irregularities. Which is another way of saying it’s comfy.

The big wheels skip around noticeably less than 26in-wheeled carbon race bikes we’ve ridden. Slender seatstays contribute a tiny degree of shock absorption, helped along by the vibration-damping abilities of the carbon seatpost. And the carbon handlebar and Fox 32 fork take care of the front in the fluid, invisible fashion that defines the best suspension. You’ll only realise you’ve used the full 100mm of travel when you stop to check the tidemark on the fork’s stanchions.

We also love the ‘active brake cooling’ system. It’s a stay brace at the rear that’s shaped to direct air at the brake disc. In our thoroughly scientific test – a long, fast descent on a hot day, during which we deliberately dragged the rear brake the whole way – we failed to provoke any noticeable brake fade. Cube claim improved cooling of up to 30 percent, so we can only assume they've tested it properly.

We do have a couple of grumbles. Cube’s Agile Ride Geometry – which is its way of designing slow steering out of 29er frames – works brilliantly at speed but progressively less so as things slow up. At granny gear climbing pace it’s a twitchy handful, needing constant attention to keep the bike pointed in a straight line. Things get worse on loose, rough and techy climbs, where the low bottom bracket means you’re at risk of clouting rocks, roots and small mammals with your pedals. And what’s with a race bike that doesn’t have a remote lever for the fork’s CTD damping control?

The Fox 32 Float fork comes with Climb Trail Descend adjustment but no remote lever

Frame & equipment: Light and stiff carbon chassis with shiny top-end components

Cube have sweated the details on this frame, which was completely redesigned for the 2013 season, reducing weight where possible and adding material where it was needed for strength. Standard stuff, but Cube claim it’s both lighter and stiffer than the ‘old’ Elite frame, and it’s certainly not lacking. A redesigned post mount for the rear calliper saves 30g, apparently. We’ll have to take Cube’s word for it. At a claimed weight of 1,000g for the bare frame, it’s not overweight. 

It’s definitely stiff, too. It doesn’t matter how much you saw at the bars and stomp on the pedals, there’s not a trace of shimmy, wobble or flex. It just goes, and goes where you point it. It’s no surprise really, because every possible stiffness-increasing design feature is here, from the press-fit bottom bracket (which increases the area available for attaching the flared down tube) to the bell-bottomed tapered head tube.

In Cube’s five-strong Elite Super HPC carbon hardtail 29er line-up, the SL is knocked off the top rung only by the SRAM-XX-equipped SLT. Carbon contact points, Shimano XTR and a Fox 32 fork up front? Yes please.

DT Swiss straight-pull wheels – with a proper 15mm axle up front and 12mm at the rear – continue the light-but-stiff theme of the frame. There’s no trace of big-wheeled tardiness here, just instant pick-up and a seemingly endless willingness to go and go – to the limit defined by the rider.

Cube’s ‘active brake cooling’ system enhances stopping performance

This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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