Ellsworth Evolve - First ride review£2,340.00

Full-suspension 29er built for speed

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We’ve always placed Ellsworth’s four-bar linkage bikes among the very best-performing out there, but the first incarnation (last year) was an acquired taste. We didn’t dislike it, but we never felt totally at ease with it either. 

The main reason was that the steering became too twitchy when the ground went down and the fork went beyond half travel. We eventually plugged in a 120mm fork instead of the recommended 100mm one, simply to ease the head angle.

We’re pleased to find the new version has a degree knocked off the head as standard, plus a stiffer back end too. The Kashima-coated Fox RP23 shock noticeably boosts back end fluidity on the smaller bumps, and with the smoothing effect of the big wheels, it all conspires to make the Evolve one of the very best 100mm travel rigs we’ve ridden.

Ride & handling: Light, lively and fast but not the most rigid

We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again – the angle of attack of bigger wheels gives them a noticeably smoother roll than smaller wheels, which means they demand less travel.

Not surprisingly, the feel of the Evolve is longer-legged than normal; we’d say it likes the same sort of touch once smacking through the rocks as a 120-130mm 26er.

Ellsworth’s trademark ICT (Instant Centre Tracking) four-bar suspension linkage makes great use of that long-rocker leverage, combining with Fox’s slippery Kashima-coated shock barrel to create a ride that’s plush – for a short travel bike – but free from squat or bob under heavy braking or hard pedalling.

The kashima rp23 shock soaks up small bumps beautifully:
The kashima rp23 shock soaks up small bumps beautifully:

The Kashima RP23 shock soaks up small bumps beautifully

The back is impressively fluid over the smallest bumps, and there’s never a feel of power loss through the pedals. Square edges are absorbed at speed without any sense you’re at the end of the travel, although you find you’re using maximum travel from time to time.

The geometry is still steep – a 71.5-degree head and 74-degree seat angle – despite this year’s extra degree off the front, but the inherent stability of big wheels means it’s not nearly as twitchy as a similarly steep 26er. 

Combined with the extra stabilisation of the long wheelbase, plus the easier roll and extra traction of the big tyres, the Evolve is lively to the point of inspiring without losing any confidence at speed. 

With the steep seat angle, in-line post and subsequently forward ride position, the silky-plush back end adds the sort of confidence that really gives your speed a boost, especially on the sort of rocky drop-ins that jangled our nerves on last year’s bike.

So, is there a downside? Well, that depends on what sort of rider you are. As with most Ellsworths, the quest for low weight results in less rigidity compared to heavier frames, and those who like to throw caution to the wind will notice the flex from time to time. It’s a bike that responds better to finesse than fighting talk.

The Evolve looks and feels like a harder-hitting bike than its 100mm of travel suggests, and it shrugs off trail abuse better than almost any other short travel bike we’ve tested, only occasionally letting you know its limits on really big hits. It’s a breath of fresh air on climbs – both short grunter sprints and longer hauls – and can roll with the best of them on the sort of high consequence, high speed singletrack most riders would choose a longer travel bike for.

Frame & equipment: Customisation options mean it’s over to you

Importers Haven Distribution offer various builds on all Ellsworths, with masses of custom colours for frames, swingarms, rocker-arms and bolt kits. Meanwhile, retailers Freeborn Cycles are offering reduced prices on frames and a selection of free extras, such as Cane Creek Angleset headsets, Burgtec offset shock bushings and a Fox shock volume-tuning kit. 

We opted for a frame alone and built it up using our own blend of relatively light but hard-hitting components, and ended up with a sub-26lb bike that felt fast and lively despite a remarkably relaxed cruising aura – it’s happy on everything from trail centres to the big rocky drops of the Peak District, by way of fast, groomed woodland singletrack.

Our build kit isn’t excessively light or excessively costly; it would be easy to dip under 25lb if you threw more cash at it. For the record, we chose SRAM’s 2x10 X0/X9 drivetrain mix, X0 brakes and the superb new Pacenti TL28 rims on Hope Evo hubs.

Not everyone likes the look of Ellsworths: most cross-country riders think even this short-travel Evolve looks more like a downhill bike. But the aesthetics reflect sound design reasoning. The distinctive long, low top tube offers masses of standover and gives you a nicely stretched posture that allows a short stem for light steering.

The length of that beautifully sculpted rocker-arm is a crucial part of how just 100mm of travel can be so bottomless over the roughest terrain, while it also allows superb climbing stability. A short, tapered head tube and the semi-integrated headset also allow for a low handlebar position, if that’s what you prefer.

It avoids the lanky looks of many 29ers as well as creating very direct steering; a sensation boosted by the tight-tracking stability of the 100mm RockShox Reba fork with its 20mm screw-through axle.

Elsewhere you find far more mudroom than on older Ellsworths, tidy cable routing, a wrap-around quick-release (QR) seat collar and a lovely chunky head badge. There’s only one set of bottle cage bosses though, and they’re under the down tube – better get yourself a hydration pack.

The best-designed 29ers (and this is one of them) prove that 100mm of travel is enough for the vast majority of terrain. It almost goes without saying that the Evolve is expensive already, but for those who don’t care about such trifling matters, there’s a retro-fit carbon seatstay option too. If you need to ask how how much, you probably can’t afford them…

Select a carbon seatstay to match the rocker bridge, if you can afford it…:
Select a carbon seatstay to match the rocker bridge, if you can afford it…:

Select a carbon seatstay to match the rocker bridge, if you can afford it 

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

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