The New Bike
When I lived in Canada I was doing a lot of mountain biking. I had a habit of breaking cheap bikes and so I kept getting bigger and better ones, eventually ending up with a Specialized Big Hit, a monster of a thing that weight over 20kg but survived almost 15 years of my abuse on three continents.
Recently I decided it was time to upgrade, as my riding style had changed (Australia has no mountains worthy of the name) and my riding was an even mix of street and trail. I went to my favourite local bike shop and looked at the available options and, at the very top end of my budget, was the Scott Spark 940. It could hardly be more different from my Big Hit.
Instead of the mismatched 26 and 24 inch wheels it had massive 29 inchers. It didn’t have the huge triple-clamp shocks up front, and it had considerably less travel (about half). It was a trail bike, not a downhill, but I never really used the Big Hit as a DH bike, I was riding it on the street and it was not at all suited to the task. Which was something that took me almost 15 years to realize.
The Big Hit had a wicked amount of travel, 8 inches (20cm) in the rear and nearly that up front. I learned quickly to compensate for the suspension bob while I pedaled, but I never realized exactly how much of my power it was sucking out of my forward momentum.
And this is where the Scott really changed my view. The Big Hit was dialed for downhill, but the Spark 940 has 3-way suspension: full, partial, and lockout. This means it’ll be soft, stiff, or solid, as required by the terrain. When I’m on the street or trails, the middle setting gives me a little bit of cushioning, but much more of my pedal stroke is pushing me forward. When I’m going up a hill, the full lockout does amazing things, and when I come back down I flick it to full, and the ride is soft and controllable.
And the best part is the way the Spark handles this. Scott has a unique bar-mounted controller, with two more cables running to the front and rear shock, so that the suspension modes can be set at any time, without even moving the rider’s hands. This is an amzing thing, and I change the suspension mode as easily (and nearly as often) as I change gears.
It gets a little complicated.
I reckon each mode, from soft to lockout, is worth an extra gear. When I make it stiffer it’s immediately easier to pedal and I go up one gear to compensate. It’s absolutely amazing, and means – based on no science whatsoever – that my Big Hit cost me two gears -all the time-. For certain I am way faster on the Spark, up hills and down. And not having to stop and change the suspension modes is fantastic.
The large 29″ wheels make up for a lot of the suspension travel loss. I don’t need as much cushioning because the larger wheels fly over stuff that the old wheels tended to run into. Rocks and locks and dips feel smaller as the wheels don’t sink into them as much. The downside, however, is that the larger wheels are hard to get used to. The bike isn’t nearly as nimble, and so I’m detecting a newfound preference for straighter, less technical trails where I can go faster.
A lot of this probably has to do with my riding style. I’m very conservative, I don’t take a lot of risks. But the Spark makes things much easier while I’m in my comfort zone. I fly up inclines I used to struggle with, and some rocky or bumpy hills which were basically impassable on the Big Hit are now completely doable.
The tradeoff has been totally worth it. I’ve lost interest in a few tricky trails but gained speed and doability for many. Definitely a good move.
The new bike is 15 years newer technology. It’s only 12kg instead of about 20. It’s not as stiff – the Big Hit was a fucking tank, and the Spark has some flex. It has 2 chain rings up front and 11 gears in the back, for a total of 22 gears, but except for the steepest climbs 100% of my riding is done with the large front chain ring. Surprisingly I don’t have to change the front gear when I change through the rear gears, so it’s effectively an 11 speed bike with a LOW gear when I need it.
Some other things have changed – the new bike uses TORX instead of Allen wrenches, which means I’ll need a new travel toolset. The crank height of the spark is lower than I’d prefer, but changing it (which is a lot more complicated than the Big Hit, but still only a 2 minute job) makes the forks too steep for me. The seat creaks.
About the only thing I really don’t like is the brakes, they lack modulation and are a lot like my old RenaultSport Megane – they’re more like switches. Braking is on or off, not so noticeable on the street, but a real issue on the bumpy steep downhills where I find it’s very jerky because the brakes are either fully on or off.
There’s a quick-set stiffness setting for the rear derailleur which adds tension on the chain (which minimizes slap and prevents slipping), but in practice I don’t notice much of a difference.
And I’ve had to re-train my legs to some extent. Riding the Big Hit was a simple matter of hammering the down stroke, but the stiffer suspension settings on the Spark mean that this method lifts my ass off the seat with each downstroke, and in lockout mode it became a ridiculous, bouncy ride. I had to re-learn to pedal -around- the crank instead of pushing only on the down stroke. I still can’t use the lockout on the street without concentrating hard on my pedalling, but after a few weeks I’m getting there. My legs already feel different, as I’m using a lot of muscles I didn’t before.
And so, in summary, the Scott Spark 940 is a fantastic trail bike. It handles the street ride to get to the trails, and it’s completely at home in the bush. Especially if the trails are open and not too technical.
I don’t regret the purchase.
[ Jan 8 2016 ]
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Sep 30 2017
An update, in case anyone’s reading this.
After two years, the Spark and I are parting ways. It reignited in me a passion for riding the trails, and with its incredible ability to propel me to the tops of hills more easily, I fell in love all over again with coming down them.
The Spark, after two years, has revealed its weaknesses to me. I’ve never stopped taking it back to the shop to fix one creaking thing or another, and after replacing the rear wheel, after removing and greasing and tightening every pivot, and checking every single component twice, we think maybe this time for sure it’s the bit that connects the rear swingarm to the shock. It’s slightly wide and all attempts to tighten it properly are resisted. So there’s a new one on order…
But it’s been on order for weeks and I had the bike in the shop again today because the Fox 32 shocks creak and the crank creaks and everything fucking creaks and this is why I got rid of my first-gen Specialized FSR in favour of the utterly bomb-proof Big Hit.
The Spark simply can’t handle me. I’m a tall, heavy rider, and even pedalling on flat stretches of fire road I’m stressing the hell out of the whole bike. Today I snapped the chain for the third time, and the bike shop reckons I’m just too powerful for it. They’re looking for an uprated chain, but I’ve already put a deposit on a new bike.
Because the Spark rekindled in me the holy fire. And so I’m getting a new, bigger, bomb-proof bike. It’ll be the fourth most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased, it’ll be here soon, and to say that I’m humming like a tuning fork in anticipation would be little overstatement.
Apr 15 2016