Commencal is going from strength to strength at the moment and has brought its tough trail hardtail bang up to date with 650b wheels. With its skinny rims, crankset and fork, the El Camino certainly isn’t perfect, but the handling, smoothness, speed and all-round agility of the basic bike still make it a real blast for technical trail riding – and it’s a great base for upgrading over time.
Frame and equipment: twist-resistant additions
The El Camino’s frame has been reconfigured to work with the slightly larger wheels, but that’s not the only interesting feature on this Andorran frameset. The slightly curved down tube has a big shared weld seam joining it to the top tube (which has triple cable/hose routing underneath), and is flattened to allow for a full-width weld on to the bottom bracket – both popular twist resisting tricks. On this small-size frame, the reinforcing tube that’s separate on larger sizes is conjoined with the top tube and seat tube (the El Camino is available in a full XS to XL range).
Despite the bigger wheels there’s still reasonable tyre clearance inside the tapered rear stays, which end in neat, 3D cut-out forged dropouts for a touch of class at the tail end. The disc brake mount is the old IS standard though, complete with extra spacer bracket. While there are mudguard mounts on the dropouts, there are no matching four-point rack mounts on the seatstays. You do, however, get fixtures for a water bottle.
The 650b wheels come wrapped in fast-rolling but sufficiently grippy Kenda Honey Badger tyres. The 22mm rims are relatively narrow though, so the tyres don’t blow up as big and stable as they could. The extra diameter also makes the wheels heavier, despite the slimmer rims.
The stanchions of the RST Blaze fork are just 30mm in diameter and the extra length needed to accommodate the 650b wheels makes the resulting twist and flex even more obvious. The Lasco triple crankset is also on the obviously twisty list thanks to skinny arms, a square taper axle and pressed steel triple chainrings. The Commencal bar, stem and seatpost are solid enough to take a beating though, and the Tektro anchors offer adequate control.
Ride and handling: a smooth cruiser but has its foibles
While the El Camino’s head angle is steep, its large wheels and low BB mean its handling feels stable and benign – the more we rode the Commencal, the more the smoothing effect of the 650b hoops became clear. Despite the fast-rolling tyre tread, traction was noticeably better in all the conditions we rode in, from sloppy mud to loose, drifty gravel, and they hold a slide better when they do let go. The wheels thump and bump less on rocky trails too so it’s easier to maintain speed, and the bike feels more relaxing and less punishing on rougher terrain.
Commencal el camino 3: Mick Kirkman / Future Publishing
While the El Camino cruised with an easy efficiency, it was less convincing when we started working it hard. For a start, the cranks flex so noticeably that it feels like your pedals are bending right round under the frame if you stomp on them even remotely hard, which hardly encourages your efforts.
The skinny fork struggles to hold a line on rooty, rocky trails and we got bullied into the bushes several times by big boulders. The fact the bottom bracket is so low and the cranks prone to smacking into the ground doesn’t help when you try to pedal through rocky or rutted sections either. We’d definitely be wary about the survival chances of the wheels, cranks and fork if you feed them a regular diet of long drops and heavy landings too.
Learn to accept a vaguer exit strategy than normal though, and the bike is stable enough to wheedle its way through most trouble. The fork does get pretty close to coughing up its full travel in a relatively controlled way if you provoke it hard enough too. The fact you’re not getting hammered through your feet also makes it easier to float the back wheel through really rough stretches. In terms of general trail conditions, the Kenda tyres perform excellently, and the Tektro brakes are communicative enough to juggle the edges of grip in slippery descending situations.