If you’ve seen this blog before you’ll probably already know that I’m quite the fan of burly short-travel 29er mountain bikes.
I’ve previously owned what are arguably the two most-influential examples of the genre, the Kona Process 111 and the Transition Smuggler.
I loved the way both of those bikes could pick up their heels on descents and skim across rough ground effortlessly, but with a feeling of efficiency missing from longer-travel steeds.
They were both great bikes, but both were also both flawed in certain ways. The Kona was heavy and pedalled like a sack of spuds, the Tranny was heavy-ish and still didn’t pedal great for its travel.
Back in 2018 I had a demo ride on the Orange Stage 4 – finding it to be lighter, more responsive and pretty close to what I wanted from a short-travel 29er, aside from the cost and the slightly conservative geometry.
So, buying a new one was out of the question, but when a used frame came up at a very reasonable price, I jumped at the opportunity to exchange my Cotic SolarisMAX hardtail for something not much heavier but with a bit of rear squidge.
Build me up buttercup
That was in December 2019, but as usual it took me ages to finish the build – taking the Fox 34 Performance Elite, a Shimano SLX/XT 11-speed drivetrain and Mavic XA Elite wheels – which were fortuitously black with blue stickers – from the Cotic.
Other parts included a new set of Zee brakes, Crank Brothers Highline 170mm dropper post, 38mm rise Nukeproof Horizon Carbon bar and a 40mm stem inherited from that old Process 111.
And perhaps the most-important component was a minus-two-degrees headset from Superstar Components.
This took the head angle from 67.5deg to a much more civilised 65.5deg – with the other key measurements on this large-sized frame being 435mm chainstays, 461mm reach and about 457mm seattube length.
The stock seat tube angle was 74.5deg, but the angleset will have steeped that up a bit. The BB drop is a decent 45mm as standard, so I set the fork travel at 130mm (rather than the recommended 120mm) to counteract the further lowering from the angleset.
It took me several months to gather the enthusiasm to tackle the internal cable routing (damn you Orange), but I finally got my first ride on the Stage 4 at the start of March this year.
A real #shorttravelshredsled
Fortunately, it was worth the wait.
The Stage 4 I’d previously demo-ed had been lively and fun, but a touch too steep for me to fully commit on steep or technical terrain. With the geometry brought more up to date, it was a satisfyingly different story.
Like it’s bigger brother the Stage 6, the Stage 4 has an impressive turn of speed – thanks to that taut single-pivot set-up and its relatively light frame weight.
So basically, the Stage 4 covers ground very well – with a satisfying feeling of efficiency and easy speed-carrying when you’re putting in some effort.
It also climbs very effectively, though it’s often best to leave the Fox DPS shock in the “open” position to help provide a bit more traction on the local cobbled or stony trails.
And this efficiency came in very, very useful back in the Spring – when you might remember we had a national lockdown and were banned from driving to exercise.
For me, that meant a 40-minute pedal from my house to get to the local hill – a big part of which was thankfully along a flat canal towpath.
This meant that I spent around 1hr 20mins of every ride getting to and from the hill, with my average overall lockdown ride length growing to around four hours. While this would have been do-able on my Stage 6, it would also have taken longer and been less enjoyable.
And once I’d made it over to the actual hill, at Rivington in Lancashire for those who know it, the Stage 4 was perfect for most of trails there.
It flies on singletrack, carrying speed addictively and springing out of corners or compressions with the eagerness of an XC bike.
Then on the descents the 130mm front and 110mm rear travel combo allows a surprising amount of latitude to be taken with the trail.
The FIT4 damper on the fork is sporty rather than plush, but that suits the character of the frame perfectly – and the bike always feels like it’s surging between trail features, looking for creative gaps or kickers to skip across the chunkier sections.
It has the feeling of skimming across the top of the ground rather than absorbing every little bump, like it’s big brother the Stage 6 – but more so. My old Smuggler felt like a mini-enduro bike when I fitted it with a Cane Creek DBair, but the Stage 4 is a trail bike through-and-through.
A weighty issue?
It’s fashionable to say that bike weight doesn’t matter. That it’s all about geometry and suspension kinematics.
And while I have some sympathy with this argument (my “superenduro” bike is close to 35lbs), I think it’s chiefly applicable to winch-and-plummet style riding.
One of my bugbears with most professional bike reviews is that they are neatly divided up into “climbing” and “descending” performance – often with no judgment made on how bikes pedal and handle on the flat.
That’s where a bike’s weight does become an important issue, in my experience. And that’s why Orange’s current bikes are such great all-rounders – because they are surprisingly light and have very efficient pedalling manners.
The Stage 4 weighs in just over 30lbs with pedals.
It may not sound very light, but it combines with the suspension to make the bike feel sprightly and engaging in a way that I always wished my old Smuggler or P111 would be.
But why not moar travel?
The new Stage Evo does have an extra 10mm travel, and fork travel has been upped to the same as my 130mm. That and the slightly longer chainstays will probably make it a slightly better trail bike, but personally I’d be reluctant to go up in rear travel because the Stage 4 works so well for me as it is.
If I could make any changes to the frame as it is, I’d just add 10mm or 15mm to the chainstays (taking them to 445 or 450mm) and I’d steepen the seat angle up a little bit. Okay – and maybe I’d magically find room for a bottle cage inside the main triangle.
Other than that, it’s everything I want from a trail bike and it was a lifesaver during the Spring lockdown.
As I write this, we are just heading into Lockdown Two (Electric Boogaloo), and the S4 could be seeing a lot more action over the winter as well.
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