The annual Wheelbase Big Demo Day has become something of an institution in the Lake District, but Saturday was my first visit to the event – since I am kind-of in the market for a new 29er trail bike this year and have taken the unprecedented step of deciding to try bikes before I buy them.
The action all takes place in Staveley Mill Yard, which is home to Wilf’s Cafe and the Hawkshead Brewery along with the huge Wheelbase bike shop – and which is used by many of us as a base for rides in Kentmere and around.
Booking had taken place over the internet a good while before, with three pre-booked sessions and a “bonus” end-of-day one which could be booked on the day.
Bike brands in attendance included Whyte, Trek, Yeti, Intense, Mondraker, Nukeproof, Cube, Transition, Kona and Cannondale – with everything from long-travel enduro sleds to XC race rigs and a fair number of ebikes.
Hosting hundreds of riders and co-ordinating the efforts of a variety of bike companies and distributors must have been a logistical nightmare, but credit is due to Wheelbase for pulling off the hugely complicated event efficiently. The admin was painless and the turnaround times between the rides were perfectly judged, with a minimum of hanging about.
So you probably want to know about the bikes I had the chance to demo…
Trek Fuel EX 9 (18.5in)
Trek’s revamped 130mm trail bike has been near the top of my list of possible next purchases for a while, and after recently testing the medium courtesy of a friend, I was looking forward to getting a go on the large.
Unfortunately there was either a mix-up with booking or Trek’s virtual/actual sizing got the better of me, because I ended up riding the medium bike again. No big deal, it was probably the size I would favour anyway.
First impressions were great, it zipped along the tarmac with urgency as we pedaled out into Kentmere for our “expert” demo loop.
The new Fuel EX is absolutely a a bike which pedals lighter than it’s weight – feeling very responsive and light on its feet.
The Bontrager XR3 tyres looked like they might be acceptable all-rounders, but proved inadequate for the saturated, muddy and rocky hillside we were climbing. However the bike’s relatively light weight meant it could be muscled up virtually all the way, albeit with plenty of weight shifts to keep traction.
On the flat, muddy sections up in the mist the bike was just as lively – though the “narrow” 750mm handlebar combined with a frame reach 10mm shorter than my normal bikes meant that it felt a bit precarious.
And that feeling was unfortunately magnified further on the muddy-then-rocky HP Woods descent, where I felt I was being pinged about more than I’d like and almost picking my way down the gnarly bridleway in a manner I wouldn’t expect from a 130mm 29er.
I’d still like to try the 19.5in Fuel EX – or even the same size bike with a 780mm handlebar and some meatier tyres – because the chassis seems to have so much potential and the suspension did have a great feel.
I’m not sure that the £3.2k asking price for an aluminium frame with own-brand wheels and finishing kit is amazing value, but you do get a fancy RE:aktiv shock and Sram’s very pleasant X1 groupset.
Mondraker Dune Carbon R (medium)
Bike choice had been somewhat limited when I registered for the event, and in the absence of any other 29ers I wanted to try – I thought it would be interesting to have a go on a carbon-framed 650b enduro bike.
Having owned and loved a couple of 26in Dunes around 2012/2013, I was fascinated to see how the bike had evolved and if it still had the same lovely suspension action.
Seeing the Dune Carbon R for the first time (I hadn’t even Googled for a pic of it before) I was a bit taken aback by how “mudered out” it was.
If Batman raced enduro, he’d definitely do it on one of these badboys. And being a billionaire playboy, he wouldn’t turn his nose up at the £5k price tag either.
You might expect the best of everything for that money, but the Dune Carbon R comes with the Fox Performance 36 fork and Float X shock, a notch down from the top-end “Factory” dampers.
Shimano XT gearing is acceptable, but Sram Guide R brakes and DT Swiss’s E1900 wheelset also seem a level down from what I’d expect.
These spec compromises didn’t really show in the ride though, to be fair – the Dune had no trouble keeping up with the bigger-wheeled bikes on the long tarmac drag out from Staveley.
And once on the climb it was harder work than the Fuel EX, but still managed to hold its own. This was probably aided by the long front end pioneered by the Spanish firm under its “Forward Geometry” mantle.
As the trail leveled off, the Dune proved to have an impressive turn of speed for a 160mm enduro bike, and I felt at home on it right away – picking creative overtaking lines and confidently pushing it into corners.
That rugged descent was a totally different story this time around, with the Dune feeling stable and composed over the rocks – but still nimble enough to be picked up and moved onto a different line when necessary.
I’d been expecting a stuck-to-the-ground mini-DH bike feel, but the Dune felt more sprightly than that. I think it’d make an excellent enduro race bike.
And hats off to Mondraker for being one of the few brands to make a medium sized MTB that actually fits me well as a medium-sized human being with short legs.
Nukeprooof Mega 290 Pro (large)
Despite being interested in a short or mid-travel 29er, I had booked the 150mm travel Mega 290 partly out of curiosity and partly as a benchmarking exercise.
I was on the large frame – which has the same reach as my existing bikes – but with an extra 25mm on the chainstays.
Fitted out with almost full XT, a Rock Shox Lyrik fork and Monarch Plus shock and Sram Rail 40 wheels, the bike had a very solid feel – and won the prize for best-maintained demo machine of the day.
Starting the slog up the valley again, the Mega was noticeably harder work on the tarmac thanks to its higher weight and a Schwalbe Magic Mary on the front.
As we regrouped following a brief tarmac climb, and once I’d got my breath back, I told Andy I definitely wasn’t buying one of these.
Perhaps the Mega heard this, but as soon as we started pedaling again (off road now) it felt like a different bike.
Those monster chainstays and the nice long reach meant that, despite the bike being notably heavier than the last two, I could just sit and spin the cranks with none of the micro-adjustments in body weight that I’d been making before.
It almost felt like cheating as I winched my way up the mud and slippy rocks, playing tortoise-and-hare with riders on e-bikes who would surge ahead before losing traction on the next muddy bit.
Maybe it was the lack of heaving to-and-fro to keep the wheels gripping, but I felt surprisingly fresh at the top and ready to attack the singletrack.
The Mega felt more zippy than expected, with the immense stability and that Magic Mary combining to allow me to ride full tilt, almost as if it were dry.
The big wheels and bigger wheelbase helped it plough through boggy patches and passing those aforementioned e-bikes was child’s play because the Mega would just roll over rocks and bumps that would normally have stopped me dead.
The previous two times that I’d ridden the HP Woods descent that day I had felt that I was going as quick as I safely could on the bikes (which were expensive and on which I’d have to pay for any damage).
On the Mega however, I was confident to hit the rocky stuff quicker, to push it into the corners and to stay off the brakes. I finished feeling that I should have been pedaling as well, it was that much more composed.
Like the Dune, but coming from a different angle, the Mega 290 would make a stunning enduro race bike. I know Sam Hill is not a fan of 29ers, but I’d love to see how he’d get on riding one of these rather than the 275.
It would also be a fine companion for big mountain riding in the Lakes or Scotland, so long as you weren’t covering too much tarmac to link trails up.
I’d love to get more time on the bike, on some of my regular local trails involving trees, steeper slopes and more corners. I’ve a feeling that it’d still be fast on everything but tight switchbacks.
Trek Slash 9.8 (19.5in)
Having been tipped off at registration that we could book our final bikes of the day after the first demo, I had made a beeline for the shop to put my name down for Trek’s new 29in “enduro weapon”.
Taking over from the Remedy 29, the new Slash boasts 150mm rear travel teamed up with a 160mm Lyrik on the front.
Climbing aboard the plastic dream machine, I was surprised at how choppered-0ut it felt. Checking the geo chart now, it has a 65.6deg head angle. On a 29er that’s pretty damn progressive!
The Trek website also quotes the bike as weighing 28.9lbs – which would be pretty much 30lbs with pedals. It certainly didn’t feel heavier than that to lift, and – just like the Fuel EX – it pedaled lighter still.
The last loop of the day took a more direct route up to HP Woods, involving a minor road`climb and then a flatter bridleway.
Despite having tired legs by this point of the day, I was able to keep pace with a couple on e-bikes for a minute or so. It really does climb very well for such a long-travel machine. Better than anything else I’ve ridden in the category.
It wasn’t until the fire road section that I remembered the bike was packing one of the new “metric” Rock Shox Super Deluxe rear dampers – and the hype is true, the small-bump compliance is massively improved over the Monarch and other single-tube shocks. It really does feel “like a coil”.
A shorter section of moorland singletrack showed that the Slash could make decent progress on flat-ish trails, and then we were heading down HP Woods for the fourth and final time of the day.
With instant acceleration and a bit more maneuverability than the Mega (thanks to that tighter rear end), the big black Trek made a strong start – but once I’d dropped it into the rocky trench it didn’t have quite the same level of composure.
I didn’t have any “moments” on it, but I felt like the bike was at the limit of control – rather than having further untapped speed.
Racing back on the tarmac for the bike wash, I managed to just about keep up with some fresher riders on shorter travel bikes and dropped a few e-bikes – but got dropped myself as the Mill Yard came into view. Totally the fault of my legs rather than the bike.
All things considered, the Slash is an awesome bike and probably the best “all-rounder” (whatever that means) I’d ridden all day. This really would be a tremendous race bike – with climbing and pedaling abilities that would save huge amounts of energy.
I’m not reviewing any mudguards in this post – because none of the bikes I rode had them fitted. Despite this being March in the Lakes.
A few of the demo bikes did have them, and the riders were getting envious comments from other people.
Seriously bike distributors, if you’re running a demo fleet and want people to go away with a positive impression, why not fit a decent guard so riders can concentrate on riding – rather than blinking and trying to wipe crap out of their eyes mid-descent?
Sram Guide reach adjust levers
Three of the bikes I rode had Sram’s excellent Guide brakes in either R or RS form.
Of these six units, five of them had jammed reach adjust levers.
It’s something I’ve experienced on my own bikes, but this day really rammed home to me what a terrible design that little dial is.
FFS sort it out Sram!
Thanks go to Wheelbase for an excellent day of riding, guiding and demoing. And also for allowing me to use a few pictures from their Facebook page, as my phone camera is on the blink.
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