Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve been a big fan of 29ers for a while now, and last year I finally went full 29er – as a deluge of new bikes saw manufacturers realising that big wheels can work well with longer-travel too.
But with all that focus on enduro bikes with 150mm or more travel, the short-travel 29er somehow slipped out of the spotlight – despite being, in my opinion, the most versatile and satisfying use of the big wheels.
I’d been without such a machine for almost a year and thought it was time to rectify that. I couldn’t quite afford the new Cotic FlareMAX but managed to get a very good price on a new-old-stock 2017 Transition Smuggler frame.
The Smuggler is already a bit of a modern classic and I know a few good riders who rate them very highly, and I already had everything I’d need for the build – so it seemed like a safe bet.
After advice from a few owners, I have changed the travel on my Pike fork to 140mm. Normally I’d have preferred to stay closer to the rear travel of 115mm, but people were very insistent that 140mm was the “right” choice.
The stem is a 40mm Kona unit from my spares box and the handlebar is my trusty Race Face Sixc 785mm carbon bar with DMR Death Grips on the ends.
Add Deore brakes, a Reverb, Ergon SME saddle and a pair of Nano flat pedals and hey presto, a tasty mid-range build that feels like it weighs about 32lbs.
Oh, and I should also mention that I’ve had a -1deg angle adjust headset fitted, taking the head angle to around a theoretical 66deg (quoted HA is 67.5deg, minus another 0.5deg for the longer fork).
That combines with the 460mm reach, 436mm chainstays and a nice 35mm BB drop to create a very appealing set of angles – not too dissimilar from the new Smuggler as it happens.
Finished in matte black paint with glittery grey stickers, the Smuggler’s frame has the same lovely lines as most recent Transition bikes, however built up it just looks “like a bike” and a bit nondescript to be honest.
Maybe I’ll pop some subtle accent colours on there later, but I probably won’t.
So how does it ride? Well usually I take a bit longer (OK, months longer) to do a “first ride” report. Usually because I’m working out niggles on a bike and making sure I’m giving it a fair hearing.
Whereas I’m writing this half a week after I built the Smuggler, with just two rides under its belt – which itself pays testament to how immediately impressive the Smuggler is.
My first ride on the bike was a pleasant, almost Spring-like afternoon on my local trails at Rivington – and as usual started with a lengthy climb.
The Smuggler didn’t immediately blow me away. It felt less sprightly than some short-travel bikes and I had to get used to the weight distribution.
After about 45 minutes riding and a couple of descents I realised the suspension was a bit firm both ends and after letting a bit of air out (then putting more back in after letting too much out) the bike felt MUCH better.
The extra sag gave much better grip on the rear and the fork stopped pinging off of rocks and roots. Instead the bike felt planted and predictable.
If you’ve read a few reviews of “fun” short-travel 29ers you’ll probably have spotted a few clichés that seem to get trotted out over and again, so I’m going to get them all out of the way now…
Not light but pedals well
Carries speed very effectively
Feels like more travel in the rough stuff
Until you get carried away
The first three definitely apply to the Smuggler, and I haven’t got too carried away yet so I’ll reserve judgement on the fourth. Now with that done we can focus on the characteristics specific to the Smuggler. And “character” is the right word here.
Some bikes,like the Enduro 29, are fast and efficient but don’t really have much in the way of a personality, while others such as the Kona Process 111 have bucketloads of character but have an Achilles heel (pedalling like shit in the 111’s case).
Early indications are that the Smuggler strikes the perfect balance of having an immensely likeable ride character, while also being very approachable and confidence inspiring.
As mentioned, it’s not as perky as some short-travel bikes, but it still picks up its heels well enough on climbs, flat sections or gentle downhills. And at the same time it has a remarkably planted, composed feel on rough ground.
While the Kona P111 used it’s heft (of which there was plenty) to batter obstacles into submission, the Smuggler just floats over the top like a bike with 130mm or more suspension at the back.
My second ride on the bike was a big 38km loop around Grizedale and Claife Heights in the Lake District, home to some lovely rocky trails, and not only did it eat up the bumps with ease, but it was easy to hop from line to line at will.
Would I use the word “playful?”. Yes, I probably would. The bike has a beautifully balanced, intuitive and interactive feel – by which I mean the suspension is supportive and predictable, allowing you to work with it and make the bike do what you want.
Also, at the end of the five-hour ride in the “minibeast from the east” I felt significantly fresher than I would have on board my longer travel, heavier Mega 290, so I’m looking forward to some even longer XC outings on the Smuggler this year.
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