Test the Best Mt Stromlo – Specialized in Canberra

If you would like to buy a bike you would go to a bike shop, check the options, have a brief test ride in the car park and contemplate parting with hard-earned cash.  Wouldn’t it be better if you could try a range of bikes under the conditions you are going to ride?

The Specialized Test the Best took place 2-3 February at Mt Stromlo Forest; I turned up at 11:30 on the Sunday.  Registration was easy: sign a waiver, hand over driver’s licence and credit card as security and jump on a bike.  BYO pedals and shoes was advised.  (I went to the trouble of having one of my cycling shoes repaired, which is why I had to wait until Sunday.)

It was quick and easy for me as there weren’t many (any?) others riding XL bikes.  After a short wait, the bike was retrieved, pedals fitted and adjusted to my specifications.


My only intention was to ride a 29″ bike and see for myself why 26″ wheels are history.  Why not start at the (almost) top with the S-Works Epic Carbon fitted with “Specialized/FOX remote Mini-Brain inertia-valve shock with AUTOSAG, Kashima coating and new 2013 tune to seamlessly transition from efficient pedalling on smooth terrain to fully active on rough terrain”.

The Mini Brain on the rear suspension purports to know the difference between a bump and pedalling and bobs for the former but not the latter.  The AUTOSAG valve automatically adjusts the sag, indeed the seat went up after pressing the valve.

The 20-speed Shimano XTR follows the trend of a simple double-chainring up front and wide 10-speed cluster at the rear, which probably gives a wider range of useful gears without worrying about crossing the chain.

I have never felt a full suspension bike so light.  It was very easy to move.

The beginners course has a lot of windy sections and small bumps and a few little challenges.  It did not bob under hard pedalling, but I didn’t sense a plush ride from the rear.

Sadly I didn’t track the ride from the start, so I can’t compare times.  But I’d guessed that it was potentially a very fast bike.

Second ride – Camber Comp (Take 1)

Thought I’d try a simpler model, ended up with another full-suspension 29″ with lots of nice bits; hardly a test of contrasts.

First stop was to figure out the SRAM shifters.  Both up- and down-shifts are performed by the thumbs.

Second stop (gingerly) was because of very gritty brakes, both front and rear.  Returned the bike for a new set of front pads that squeaked, but felt much better.

Second ride – Camber Comp (Take 2)

This time I tracked the lap using MapMyRide.  I couldn’t pick much difference with the Epic, to be honest.  Again, the weight was impressive and it didn’t bob when I pedalled.  I got the sense that it was rolling over obstacles with ease.

Third ride – the Black Maria

I took my bike out of the car for an A&A – B comparison.

First impression was that the extra weight of my bike wasn’t obvious.

Second impression was that my handlebars are much narrower than the current trend (as confirmed the day before at The Cyclery) and allowed me to ride through gates instead of shuffling through sideways.

And I really must do something about my brakes, they are vastly inferior to anything available today.

Then I noticed what everyone may have been talking about as the difference between a 29″ and 26″ wheel.  The front wheel on my bike seemed to move in the vertical plane more than the 29″s.  At any reasonably sized bump, my wheel seemed to lift whereas the 29″s seemed to go forward and over.  Was this the sensation that everyone was raving about?

My bike bobs and squeaks when I’m climbing, indicative of the difference between an old and new rear suspension design.

Both here’s the thing… I was 1 minute faster on my bike for the lap.  Possible reasons include:

  • Familiarity: Maybe, but I wasn’t struggling with any of the bikes on the timed laps.
  • I tried harder: No, I put the same effort in each time.
  • Learnt the course: Maybe, but it was still challenging each time.
  • Manoeuvrability: the course had tight twisty sections and the smaller wheels were much easier to fling around and put exactly where I wanted them.  The advantage of 29″ may only be obvious on a longer track.


What a brilliant promotion.  If I was genuinely in the market for a new bike (I just need the money) I could have spoken to the experts at length.  They were very happy to provide advice to those looking for a new bike.  While they only had their high-spec bikes available for testing, they were happy to talk about any of their range.

I rode for only 10-15 minutes each time, but they were happy to see me in 45 covered in mud, at least at the beginning of the day.

If you’d like a test that’s more than a lap of the car park, get down to Tasmania this weekend for the next Test the Best.

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