Californian framebuilders Intense and Santa Cruz have always worked closely together, not least in co-developing their Virtual Pivot Point suspension. This revival of the classic Tracer trail bike name uses the latest VPP2 technology to create an instant classic.
While the EVP5.5 it replaces was an acquired taste, this new bike is remarkable in its ‘feels right whatever you do’ versatility. Add ballsy character to superb suspension, distinctive, almost artistic build quality, new longer-running bearings and proper tyre clearance, and you’ve got an outstanding package. Considering the chassis versatility and US handmade status, the price is palatable too.
Ride & handling: Anchored yet aggressive
Rolling on downhill tyres certainly meant we could push the Tracer right to the edge with conﬁdence, despite some savagely unforgiving terrain. In fact, the Tracer is one of those bikes that it just seems impossible to fall off.
However furiously we rammed it into corners, it just sucked down into the belly or berm and ripped round in a shower of sand and rocks. There was no front wheel tuck as the corners blew apart into loose dust on the umpteenth shot, no shake or shimmy nerves despite ﬂesh-splitting rocks millimetres from ankle bones on the exit – just harder, faster and lower every time.
The Tracer’s accuracy and let-it-rip attitude is all the more impressive considering we’d spent the day before riding the same trails on 35lb-plus freeride/downhill bikes. Even more so as only a couple felt anywhere near as anchored yet aggressive as the Tracer as we worked our way down the mountain, leaving dust hanging in the air on every corner.
Even running the rear end with loads of sag for extra cornering suction it locks down power and kicks hard with every pedal stroke. It’s stiff and direct enough with its power delivery to really creak the spokes as you try to spin the super sticky tyres too.
With a frame weight just over 6lb and plenty of room under its belly, there’s nothing to stop the Tracer being built up race light and ready to rip past your riding mates. Riding a large frame set up with 5.5in travel the day before proved more climb-friendly, with great traction feedback and tracking from either end on loose trails.
The bigger frame gave a lot more breathing space on dragging climbs compared to the relatively compact medium. Unsurprisingly, the greater reach to the front end and the steeper angles the skinnier Fox 32 fork gave left it feeling lighter and less predatory through corners.
Frame: Elaborately shaped, with adjustable geometry
While they share similar suspension reference points, Intense and Santa Cruz have always made sure their frames are very different species. For a start, Intense bikes are still hand-built in California rather than in the Far East. Intense has always used custom Easton alloy tubesets for its bikes too and this elaborately shaped chassis is no different.
Unlike the Blur LT – the Tracer’s equivalent from Santa Cruz – you get an oversized OnePointFive head tube to take extra stiff fat-necked (or tapered-necked) forks. The steeply-sloped, bulged and scalloped top tube splits into a Y for extra seat tube support. The angular down tube also gets a throat gusset to help handle the extra stress created by the larger diameter forks.
The CNC machined front yokes of the swingarm are Y-shaped to spread stress between tapering rectangular/ oval stays and the extra end pieces too. New uprights – and the lack of a cross brace – mean loads more mud room out back, solving a long-term Intense issue. However, Intense’s trademark crisply machined pieces are all still there and particularly obvious in this raw alloy ‘Works’ ﬁnish. More conventional paint ﬁnishes (four standard plus eight custom colours) are available.
VPP’s second generation means a more linear shock rate with less ramp-up at the end and less chain pull at the start. In common with Santa Cruz, the bottom link also uses grease-injected bearings for better run time (if our Blur LT is anything to go by) than before. Unlike the Blur, the link sits outside the frame block. The alloy top link also gets two different shock mount positions for either 5.5in (140mm) or 6in (152mm) of travel. More signiﬁcantly, this also changes the head and seat angles by 1.5 degrees and the BB height by 0.3in (7.6mm).
With our test bike running the slacker 6in setting, Intense had followed suit with a similarly hardcore spec. Fox 36 Float 160mm forks plug into a low-proﬁle integrated headset, and while they don’t have a 1.5in steerer, they’re certainly stiff and impressively smooth.
Shimano’s super-tough XT AM wheelset nails the 20mm through-axle advantage home, while soft compound, downhill-weight Intense tyres glue the bike to the ground. XT makes up most of the rest of the spec too, and it’s a tribute to the power of the new brakes that they never felt short of power, even with 160mm rotors up front.
Crankbrothers’ Joplin seatpost gives easy height adjustment when the trail demands it, while Easton’s Havoc bars and stem add the ﬁnal control link, complete with matching tubeset motif. It’s about 6lb heavier than you could build this bike in a cross-country spec, but the fact it works well both ways is a sign of its impressive versatility.
What Intense owner and frame designer Jeff Steber had to say about the Tracer:
The versatility of the new Tracer is key. We realised we had 12 models in the Intense line and we were trying to manufacture all of them in our factory. This was very difﬁcult and we were always out of one model or another.
We decided to focus the line more on the main popular segments and thin the herd a bit. So [we decided] the Tracer VP would be the ﬁrst. The trail/ all-mountain bike is a big segment so we really wanted a winner.
We had a lot of good bikes to compare with and the focus was to make the Tracer stand out in both form and function. The adjustable travel option is nothing new but it does offer more versatility to the Tracer. I felt in these uncertain economic times, people will be less likely to have two or more bikes for different purposes, so one that could evolve if their riding style changes would be a plus.
I originally made the dual travel link on a prototype as we were trying to decide what we thought would be the ideal travel for the new Tracer. While testing we decided this would be great as a production feature.
The bike has two different personalities when set up as a 5.5in or 6in bike. Using the 1.5in head tube allows the use of all three headset combos and adds a lot of strength in conjunction with the large section mono top tube. We are seeing a lot of different builds as more people are getting their Tracers set up and I think we hit the mark on versatility.