Vitus Escarpe 290 review£1,599.99

Big wheels, big travel, big fun?

BikeRadar score2.5/5

Vitus’s trail-taming Escarpe is available in two forms – as the 29er you see here or with 650b wheels. While the smaller wheeled Escarpe 275 serves up 140mm (5.5in) of travel at each end, the 290 can only muster 120mm (4.7in) at the rear (though it still has a 140mm fork). How so? Well, it’s tough to build much more travel around the bigger wheel size. Does the Escarpe 290 convince as a versatile big-wheeler?

Frame and equipment: logical selections

Vitus hasn’t reinvented the wheel (or even the frame) with the Escarpe, but the details are well thought out. For example, there are some tidy under-the-top-tube cable guides for running a remote dropper post, as well as ISCG tabs for a chain guide – two features you don’t always see on a big-wheeler, but appropriate on a bike that’s got big-hit aspirations. Continuing that theme, a tapered head tube puts some stiffness back into the front end.

Hydroformed main tubes shapeshift subtly on their way from front to rear, while the seat tube has the obligatory ‘big wheel plus big travel’ kink in it to allow the suspension to do its thing. Vitus calls it's four-bar rear end ‘V-Link’. The chainstay pivots help isolate the suspension from brake and pedal forces, while the shock – in this case, a RockShox Monarch – is driven by a V-shaped rocker. It works and it’s reliable.

Out back, vitus's four-bar v-link setup and a rockshox monarch are a good deal more confidence-inspiring:
Out back, vitus's four-bar v-link setup and a rockshox monarch are a good deal more confidence-inspiring:

Vitus's four-bar V-Link setup and a RockShox Monarch are a confidence-inspiring pairing

Big-wheelers with 140mm forks aren’t that common, so it’s here that the Escarpe 290 breaks from the crowd. The RockShox Sektor ticks all the right boxes on paper, offering simple air spring set-up, a leg-top lockout lever for sprints and climbs, plus the extra security of a 15mm axle to give steering accuracy a nudge in the right direction.

It’s obvious that a bike with big wheels and plenty of travel is likely to end up going pretty fast. It’s a good thing, then, that Vitus have specced the Escarpe 290 with big, grippy boots – Continental’s X-Kings in chunky 2.4in spec – and Shimano’s reliable SLX hydraulic stoppers with long-descent-friendly 180mm rotors.

Big wheels and 140mm of travel make for a speedy experience:
Big wheels and 140mm of travel make for a speedy experience:

Big wheels and 140mm of travel make for a speedy experience

The relatively short 60mm stem and mid-width 740mm bar are further hints at this bike’s big-hit intent. As for the transmission, it’s based around Shimano’s ever-reliable SLX groupset, with a low profile, clutched rear derailleur that’ll dodge rocks and keep the chain tight in the rough.

The only spec niggle is the unfathomable choice of 170mm cranks in place of the 175mm norm. You don’t even get any extra ground clearance because the length has been reduced by drilling the hole for the pedal axle further up, not shortening the arms.

Ride and handling: long front end can prove a flexible foe

First impressions of the Escarpe 290 are that it’s a heavy ol’ thing, nudging the scales to well beyond 14kg. Luckily, the extra metal and rubber is less of an issue than you might think once you’re turning the pedals. Thanks to some low gearing and lots of ground-hugging ability from the chunky treads and willing, compliant rear end, the Vitus will chew up bumpy climbs for as long as you feel like putting the power down.

The long wheelbase and a front axle so far in front of the bar you practically need binoculars to locate it also don’t cause any significant problems. Low-speed handling can be a bit wheel-flop prone, but it’s easy enough to correct for – and it makes for a stable high-speed singletrack-destroying machine.

The rockshox sektor fork in 140mm 29er spec is too flexy to perform well when things get rough:
The rockshox sektor fork in 140mm 29er spec is too flexy to perform well when things get rough:

The RockShox Sektor fork in 140mm 29er spec is too flexy to perform well when things get rough

It turns out, then, that the thing that first strikes you about the Escarpe 290 – the weight – isn’t a problem at all. But that 140mm fork is. While the bike’s crying out to be ridden hard and fast through choppy sections of trail, the combination of a big – and therefore inherently more flexible – front wheel and long, skinny fork stanchions will have you fighting to pull it back into line. Vitus has tried hard to stiffen up the fork, speccing a through-axle and tapered steerer, but the Sektor is in over its pay grade with this much travel on a big-wheeler.

In 150mm travel, 650b wheel trim – as on the Rose Granite Chief – the fork is slightly shorter than the Vitus’s 140mm 29er version and noticeably more accurate to steer through tricky sections of trail. The conclusion is obvious – the 140mm 29er version of the Sektor over-reaches the ability of its 32mm stanchions to hold it all together. A 120mm fork would reduce weight and tighten up steering response without hampering the bike’s overall ability. Sometimes, less really is more.

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

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