The women’s trail bike category is one that has been crying out for attention. Enduro is on the rise, and the desire for longer travel bikes that are as efficient up the hill as they are on the way back down, has gone through the roof.
As far as women’s offerings go, ladies are stuck with limited options for suspension travel and often restricted to alloy frames. The carbon Juliana Roubion, which shares the same frame as the Santa Cruz Bronson, is the only bike marketed toward women with 150mm of the plush stuff. Until now. After three years of research and development, Specialized has released the 150mm women’s Rhyme and 135mm women's Rhyme 6Fattie.
The Rhyme is available in three models. The alloy Comp model will sell for £2,200 / US$2,900 / AU$3,999. The Comp Carbon (£3,000 / US$3,800 / AU$5,499) and the Expert Carbon (£4,500 / US$5,900 / AU$7,999) have a carbon mainframe and an alloy rear.
In early April we flew to Rotorua, New Zealand to ride the Rhyme at a Specialized media camp in anticipation of the global launch. So how did it fare?
- A capable, nimble bike for women who want to shred hard
- Climbs so well we think there’s a motor below the SWAT Door
- You don’t need man arms to throw this bike around the trail
- The low bottom bracket means we hit the pedals on the ground more than we’d like
- Some women will want to run wider bars
Frame and equipment: unisex design that caters to a female physique
The 2016 Specialized FSR Rhyme Expert Carbon 650b
The Specialized Rhyme is a bike that is full of surprises. The first of these is that despite Specialized’s big push for women’s frame designs, this one shares the exact same frame as the revamped Stumpjumper FSR 650b, also released today.
When it came to market research for the trail riding segment, Specialized found that women’s priorities were excellent handling and 650b wheels – in fact, there was almost zero interest for 29in wheels for this type of steed. Credit to Specialized for listening. This is a big call from a company that's worked hard to establish the benefits of separate frames for riders of different genders.
Having said that, by building the Rhyme around 650b wheels, it caters to women in the areas that matter. First, the size range extends from extra-small to medium, making it suited to women between 4ft 10in (147cm) and 5ft 10in (178cm). The standover is quite low, the top tube length is on the short side, and the componentry takes care of contact points: hands, feet, seat.
Shimano brakes are used throughout the range, which are easy to adjust and well-suited to small hands. Although not luxurious, a SRAM X1 drivetrain on the Expert Carbon model keeps things crisp and clean, while the Comp and Comp Carbon models run a wider ranging 2x10 setup. The Rhyme runs narrower 720mm bars than the 750mms that come on the men’s Stumpjumper.
A brilliant Myth saddle and new IRcc dropper post are included
All three models run a women’s Myth Comp saddle, the new Command IRcc dropper post (‘internally routed with cruiser control’, which has several more step heights than the previous design), and a custom tuned rear shock. Even at the cheaper end of the line, the Rhymes are clearly specced with performance and usability in mind.
Setting this new frame apart from its competitors are two other innovative features. The first are the very short (420mm) chain stays that make for efficient climbing and playful handling. The second is storage in the down tube for the carbon models. This takes Specialized SWAT – storage, water, air, tools – concept to the next level. Basically, these bikes have a secret door.
A look behind the 'door'
Opening the SWAT Door, located behind the main bidon cage, takes advantage of unused frame space for storing tubes, tools, a rain jacket… or a small picnic. This system makes for clean lines and lets you stash your spares inside the frame, keeping the weight down near the bottom bracket. Further, it’s a clever attempt by this manufacturer to create a point of difference that separates their bikes from their competitors’.
The Autosag valve on the rear shock and tools stored under the stem cap and rear shock mount have a similar function. They don’t make the bike ride better, but they do have an impact when setting up your bike, or loading your pockets, and point to a design philosophy that’s about the experience as a whole.
Ride and handling: playful, nimble, and oh so much fun
We spent three days exploring the varied terrain of the Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest and Rainbow Mountain on a small sized Expert Carbon. We knew the first forest full of trails well and were curious to see how the Rhyme fared compared with other XC and trail bikes we had ridden there in the past.
You could have the time of your life riding a rusty tricycle in Rotorua. But the Rhyme surpassed our expectations of what one bike could do. We bested our times up long fire road climbs, roosted hero traction descents, chased the fluoro blur of Specialized employees and fellow media down the rutted Rainbow Mountain descent, sight unseen.
Low weight means the Rhyme is easily thrown around on trail
The biggest difference between the Rhyme and others in the trail bike category for a female? The handling is nimble, predictable and precise, like you’d expect, but the ride feel, and the bike itself, is noticeably lighter. This means you don’t need to develop a whole lot of extra muscle mass to throw it around on the trails. We’re not yet convinced that even Specialized fully understands the impact the Rhyme design has for women in this way.
The Rhyme shares a very similar geometry to the Santa Cruz Bronson/Juliana Roubion. The biggest difference between the two bikes comes from the Rhyme’s short chainstays, and low, 335mm bottom bracket height. This made the Rhyme’s rear end noticeably more flicky and playful as we leaned, pushed and drifted the bike through Rotorua’s many expertly crafted corners. On the downside, we sometimes found the bottom bracket a little too low, hitting our pedals in places where we wouldn’t expect it.
While we didn’t get a weight for the Expert Carbon Rhyme, we could feel the difference in climbing effort compared with riding a similarly specced Bronson up the same terrain in the days before the launch. Depending on what currency you use, the Rhyme costs up to 20 percent less. That’s cash left over for holidays.
Having said that, the Rhyme’s price still runs high compared with similarly specced bikes from other brands and doesn’t scream high value given its parts pick. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to other brands' pricing across the board as we begin to see other 2016 ranges released.
Far from a standard shock, the custom tune Fox Float is simply brilliant
Other features of the Rhyme Expert Carbon that contributed to our enjoyment include the custom tune on the Kashima coated Fox Float Factory CTD rear shock, and the traction provided by the 2.3in treads matched to wide 29mm Roval Traverse rims.
The ‘Women’s RX Trail Tune’ for the rear shock takes into account the lower average weight range of the Rhyme’s intended riders, against the (often) heavier weight and riding style of men. This meant we not only got full travel out of the rear shock, but its action was far more supple than we’re used to. This made a significant difference to traction and control and was particularly noticeable on large, rooty or rutted berms. As such, it was nicely balanced to the buttery smoothness of the RockShox Pike RC fork up front.
This traction simply added to the playful and nimble handling provided by the geometry of the frame and the overall build. We could fly down a descent with multiple line options, and if we didn’t like the line we were on, we could easily hop the bike to elsewhere on the trail. This is something we find much harder on bigger bikes that require more upper body strength to throw around. This not only has implications for confidence and skill development, but it makes the bike well suited to the far more reactive riding styles we’re seeing emerge through enduro.
At no point did we want bigger wheels
On a personal note, we never once wished we were running bigger wheels. The 650b hoops were well suited to twisty, poppy, Rotorua trails and added to the agile and spirited ride experience of the bike as a whole.
Apart from the bottom bracket height, the only other thing we wanted to change about our test model was the bars. The 720mm width will suit most users, but those really wanting to push the technical capabilities of this bike may crave something a little wider.
Any other criticisms we have of the Rhyme are largely answered by other bikes in the Specialized range. The Rumor 29 ride feel is better suited to ladies who crave increased stability and the ability to roll over anything. The Enduro, with its slacker angles and longer travel, will remain the bike of choice for women wanting to take on rougher trails still. Those wanting the ride characteristics of the Rhyme with more options for spec, paint job and wheel size can also look at the Stumpjumper range and make any necessary modifications.
On our final day in Rotorua, we took the men’s Stumpjumper FSR S-Works 650b to the forest to see what we were missing out on, given the women’s range tops out at a model below. The un-upgradable spec was as nice as we expected. It was a little more effortless under power and we rated the stability provided by the wider bars over roots, leaning through corners and sliding in the mud. But if we were emptying our wallet at the bike shop, we’d be hard pressed to go past the Expert Carbon. It’s better value (although, still not cheap), plenty light enough and crash replacement parts are cheaper too.
Summary: learning to ride a beefed up trail bike has become a thing of the past
If you’re looking for a quiver killer, the Rhyme has a lot to offer. For XC ladies transitioning to the trail category, it no longer means learning to ride a heavier, beefier bike, or wanting to keep a cross-country sled in the shed for fast pedalling Lycra days. For gravity minded girls, the Rhyme means you won’t have to work as hard on climbing fitness or sacrifice handling and suspension travel for a lighter, all-terrain machine. It’s snappy, it’s playful and it’s prepped ready to chase your mates, the clock, or head out for an all day ride on just about any trail type you can throw it at.
In terms of design, the Rhyme is a bike that's a game changer (a clichéd expression maybe but a true one here) for trail bikes more broadly. It echoes key characteristics of other 650b trail bike designs preferred by women that focus on handling and performance. But this one takes flickability and user-friendliness to another level. And because you don’t need to shell out for the highest spec to keep the weight down, you may (though possibly not) have enough cash left over that you can pop a plane ticket to Rotorua inside the SWAT Door as well.
2016 Rhyme 650b prices:
- Rhyme Expert Carbon 650b: £4,500 / US$TBC / AU$8,499
- Rhyme Comp Carbon 650b: £3,000 / US$TBC / AU$5,999
- Rhyme FSR Comp 650b: £2,200 / US$TBC / AU$4,499
6Fattie: Take one Rhyme. Add even more traction and control
Pictured: Men's S-Works Stumpjumper 6Fattie
Also launched today is a 6Fattie (aka 27.5 +) option for each of the three models of the Rhyme. With 150mm/135mm travel front and rear, this one uses a 29er main frame and a custom rear end to fit 650x3in tyres. While the 6Fatties weren’t available to test at the launch we attended, they are said to offer huge increases in traction and control while retaining the handling of a trail bike as opposed to a fat bike.
Specialized claims the 6Fatties weigh about 200g more than an equivalent 29er and only take a fraction more power to pedal up the hill (7W, if we recall correctly). Experientially, they are the difference between holding that mate who normally drops you on twisty descents and wondering how on earth he or she normally rides that fast. At least until everyone’s on 6Fatties and then the games start all over again. In the short term, we think that Specialized’s ‘Test the Best’ demo program will be critical in helping people decide if 6Fattie is for them by experiencing it first-hand.
2016 Rhyme 6Fattie prices:
- Rhyme Expert 6Fattie: £4,800 / US$6,300 / AU$8,499
- Rhyme Comp Carbon 6Fattie: £3,500 / US$4,300 / AU$5,999
- Rhyme Comp 6Fattie: £2,500 / US$3,400 / AU$4,499