Is it possible for a bike to be too good for its own good? Where it’s so capable that it pulls you into terrain and features beyond the category its predecessors lived in? That’s the question Morgan Taylor poses in this review of the 2023 Rocky Mountain Element. Read on to see if swapping out parts ruins this bike’s character, or if it transcends categorization while Morgan rediscovers backyard singletrack…
Although the Element dates back to the mid-90s, this legacy model got a significant update in 2022 and the current Rocky Mountain Element still has a lot of buzz surrounding it. The Element is Rocky Mountain’s shortest travel full suspension platform, historically positioned as a cross-country race bike. However, as I’ve found out over the past eight months, this new Element goes well beyond the confines of that category, rethinking what a cross-country platform can be.
But, is this new Element too good for its own good? And is the traditional cross-country buyer still interested in it? Here in southwest British Columbia, where Rocky Mountain is based, more people are riding Elements than ever. People who write reviews and who work in the industry. People who can choose to ride any bike they like. People who may not have chosen an Element in the past. A demo ride last year gave me a taste, and I knew I had to get in on it, which leads us to this review.
Better Than Ever?
Mountain bikes have become so very capable, both uphill and down. Historically the Element has been focused on climbing efficiency and, compared to the other platforms in Rocky’s lineup, has prioritized pedaling efficiency over descending capability. This most recent version of the Element seeks to retain the lightweight and joyful climbing abilities but brings significantly longer reach and a slacker head angle – and now I wonder if it’s become too capable for its own good.
My first ride on the 2023 Element was at a Rocky Mountain demo day on my local mountain last summer. I was immediately enthralled with the efficient climbing that I expected from a Rocky, but blown away by the bike’s change in character when pointed downhill. After that sweet taste I connected with Rocky Mountain and asked if I could review an Element. I thought this could be the perfect bike for my riding style – I love technical climbing and up-down cross-country riding, but I also can’t help but party on the descents.
My first ride on the review bike this spring was similarly revelatory: how have they made a bike this enjoyable to climb that’s also incredibly capable descending? Over the next few rides I focused on tuning the suspension to my desires, and eventually found myself up against what I consider the bike’s limitation: within a few rides, I was pushing hard enough on the descents that I was outriding the cross country-oriented parts spec.
Usually my reviews focus on the ride of a bike, with parts spec being a post-discussion (of how parts you can change performed through the review period), but with the Element I feel the parts spec is inextricably linked with the ride experience. In a way the bike is confused, being incredibly capable both uphill and down, yet those two things asking for different spec – particularly tires and suspension components.
Therein lies the dilemma of a modern cross country bike: do you choose parts that play to the bike’s uphill strengths, and hang on for the ride going downhill? Or do you change parts in key areas to play to the downhill abilities? I wrestled with this dilemma and asked folks who were riding the Element platform. The audience seemed split between “yes, go for it,” and “no, you’ll ruin the character of the bike.” I was going to have to find out for myself.
Rocky Mountain has been based here in North Vancouver since 1981, with their primary business being mountain bikes. The Element was introduced for the 1996 model year with 75 mm of rear travel and a 60 mm RockShox Judy SL up front. With 26” wheels, rim brakes, 71/73º NORBA geometry, and stem lengths between 120 and 150 mm, the original Element set the stage for many race wins and a platform people could trust.
Over the years the Element changed with the times, always a bit ahead of the curve due to Rocky’s location and development focus, but never too far outside the box. Rim brakes made way for discs, 26” wheels were replaced with 29s, stems got shorter, and frame travel settled around 100 mm. The Element was a bike aimed at XC podiums. Until 2022, anyway. The new bike is a significant departure from the bikes that seemed to, for decades, be at least in part driven by what the cross-country race market wanted.
Now, usually from generation to generation we see incremental changes, but this one goes way further. The wheelbase is about seven centimeters longer on all sizes, while the rear end is a few millimeters shorter – which means all of that increase in wheelbase is in front of the crank. On the size L I’m riding, reach is longer by 35 mm, from 445 to 480. Stem length has been decreased from 80 to 50. And the head angle has been slackened by 3.7º from 69.2º to 65.5º.
It Loves Uphill
At its heart the Element is still a climbing bike – it absolutely loves going uphill. On our local mountain there’s a relatively technical climbing route that, if I don’t stop too many times, I can get from bottom to top in under an hour. It links up a number of historic trails with purpose-built climbing-only sections, spanning about three-and-a-half miles with around 1,600 feet of climbing. I’ve told lots of people that if this route started at my front door, and ended at my front door, I’d be happy with my experience of mountain biking.
Of course, many scoff at that idea, as they imagine descending to be the point of trail riding. On a given ride, regardless of the route, I’m going to spend more time climbing than I am descending. I don’t climb only to descend; I enjoy the whole ride. I do really like climbing, especially on singletrack, and I like descending fun trails, too.
It Loves Downhill
That climbing trail leads to a multitude of descending options, from old school slow and technical, to modern fast and flowy, to my favorite: natural lines linking up steep technical sections. In exploring trails on the Element that I hadn’t ridden on my hardtails and rigid bikes, I found myself atop technical descending features that I felt the bike was up to but the tires and fork were not.
These technical moves – rock rolls, root shoots, drops into steep sections of hard braking – are outside the expectations of a cross-country bike. Yet, rather than finding the limits of the platform, I found the limits of some parts. The idea of ruining the character of the bike lingered with me. I had no complaints about the 2.4” Maxxis Rekons while climbing, other than occasionally desiring a bit more bite on technical climbs at the limit of my own abilities. But when it got steep and deep, that tune changed.
Tires in particular can make such a huge difference in how a bike feels. The Element platform has been redesigned and is arguably no longer the same bike. With 120 mm of rear travel and a 130 mm fork, the Element is no longer a traditional XC race bike – but is this evolution making for a better bike, and for better bikes period? I couldn’t get over how capable the Element in my memory had become.
I couldn’t help myself. I love the 2.6” Teravail Kessel on my Stooge Scrambler and had been riding that bike quite a bit this summer in camping mode, so I asked Teravail to send me some tires to try out on the Element. I imagined myself riding Kessels front and rear for the wet season, but knowing those tires often measure true to size, the folks at Rocky Mountain said they might not fit the frame. So I also got a 2.6” Honcho hoping it would fit, and a pair of 2.5” Ehlines just in case.
As soon as these tires arrived I got them out of the packaging and weighed them. I knew I’d be adding weight to the bike with bigger tires but was honestly quite surprised when I got these ones on the scale. For reference the 2.4” Rekons that came with the bike are a scant 850 grams each. I was surprised to see the 2.6 Kessel Durable weigh 1,271 and 1,294 grams respectively – yikes! The same tire on my Stooge weighed 1,150 g. I must admit I was a bit disappointed. The Honcho weighed 1113 g, and the Ehlines, interestingly, were only 938 and 901 grams.
So my initial setup was a Kessel up front, Honcho in the back, adding a significant 680 grams to the bike. The damped feel of the heavier, higher volume tires was immediately familiar, and I happily pedaled up my favorite climbing route. The bike was transformed in a predictable way, still feeling efficient, and more squishy point-and-shoot than the precision demanded by narrower, less grippy tires. Nobody will be surprised to say that I enjoyed having more grip, particularly on the front.
In Too Deep
The confidence inspired by the Kessels’ grip and damping led me into some hairy situations, and on my second ride with the big tires I had a mishap on a pretty big rock roll and folded the front wheel. Whoops. The idea that the bike is too good for its own good, fully encapsulated. Along with the light tires are WTB’s ST i27 Light rims, and I wrecked one. Now let me be very clear, riding this feature was well beyond the Element’s intent, and I’m lucky I didn’t wreck more than a wheel (myself included).
But the point I want to make is this bike kept dragging me into these situations, and it takes a lot of self-control to stay out of that stuff. If I want to keep riding this bike this way, more than just the tires will need to be changed. More braking power and a more supportive fork damper would help. My riding style is precise and I don’t wreck parts very often, but that point is particularly important when underbiking. At 120 mm, the rear travel is still pretty minimal, but that long and slack front end is deceptive.
Dialing It Back
After that incident I chose to dial back the tire situation, opting for the 2.5” Ehlines instead. I feel like I found a happy medium between my desire for a more damped, higher volume tire, and the efficiency the platform is arguably better suited to. Of course, wet weather arrived just in time for me to consider a front tire with more grip, again.
The Element presents a unique dilemma in that it can easily play to distinctly different ideas of rides, but definitely questions the “DHFs and done” approach many take around here. The bottom line is: you’ve got to choose tires based on your own desires and terrain. For me, that could mean connecting meandering cross country with technical descents. Those descents, for my riding, demand at least a front tire that’s more grippy than a Rekon or an Ehline.
Flat pedals? On an XC bike? Yeah, I did that. I can already hear Walter from the Big Lebowski… “Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?!” And just like the comments about big tires ruining the bike, I’m here to say that you can do whatever you want with your pedals, on any bike you want.
For the first while I did ride this bike in spd shoes, and it worked just fine – but I found myself getting off the bike and hiking, carrying the bike, mixing hiking with biking, and I just didn’t like doing that with my spd shoes. I should note that I generally prefer XC race shoes to bulkier, more walkable spd shoes, so the flat pedals really enable a different type of experience. I pushed and carried this bike up a 1,000-foot approach to a local peak, and never put the spds back on.
Neat Stuff and Some Parts Talk
Ride-4 Adjustable Geometry. Starting about ten years ago, Rocky Mountain began incorporating square flip chips into their linkages. The original system was called Ride-9 and had a square inside a square. Cool, but complicated. Now, it’s just one square, with four options to adjust frame geometry and rate curve. With the already-quite-slack 65.5º head angle in the neutral position, I was happy with how the bike rode. I did do a couple rides in the 65.0º full slack mode, but that only confirmed that I liked how the bike rode in neutral.
Bottle Cages. Can we get a “hell yeah” for two bottle cages inside the frame? Suspension frames can be so limiting – a friend just bought a bike that has bosses but doesn’t even fit a 22 oz bottle! This one will fit two 26 oz bottles, and is ripe for a nice little frame bag in the top half to carry your tools and a spare layer.
XT, Still Nice. We’re so spoiled with how good bike components are these days. I’ve got numerous bikes with 10 and 11-speed drivetrains, and I’m happy with how they go. This 12-speed XT stuff is just such a treat. I’d say the bike’s descending capabilities deserve 4-piston brakes, but the 2-piston XTs and 180 mm RT66 rotors were usually just fine.
DT Star Ratchet. While the rear hub is a DT 370 which usually uses a pawl system, Rocky upgraded the hub to the star ratchet system as part of the stock spec. If you’re spending big money on a bike, you should demand that it has a nice rear hub. This one does.
Fox 34 Damper Options. There are three damping cartridges you can get in the higher end Fox 34 chassis. From most basic to most complex, they are the GRIP, FIT4, and GRIP2 dampers. The GRIP is the entry level damper with three settings. The C70 is spec’d with the FIT4, which offers three settings and a low speed compression adjustment in the open setting. I find this damper to be very light and would prefer more mid-stroke support. The GRIP2 damper offers both high speed and low speed adjustments for rebound and compression, and more mid-stroke support, at the cost of a bit of weight. If I kept the bike any longer I’d definitely be looking into more supportive damping up front.
Best Value Recommendation
When we request a certain platform for review, we don’t usually get a choice of what spec level the company sends us. The usual case is for companies to send a higher price spec, so parts complaints don’t get in the way of a fair review. Rocky Mountain’s naming convention shows frame material (A for aluminum, C for carbon) and a number to denote spec level (10, 30, 50, 70, and 90). The Element C70 as reviewed is a $6,999 USD bike.
The $4,099 Element A50 is my recommendation for best value in the Element lineup, and across Rocky Mountain’s full suspension platforms. (During this review period I helped a friend buy his first new bike in a long while, and he landed on an Instinct A50.) The Element A50 comes with the Fox 34 with a GRIP damper and Float DPS shock, also with less adjustment but upgradeable. It gets Shimano SLX instead of XT, including an SLX rear hub. And of course, the same geometry with the Ride 4 chip system, but in an aluminum frame.
Finishing With a Paradox
The natural extension of this discussion is whether Rocky Mountain’s Instinct, which is a 140 mm platform with a 150 mm fork, is a better choice for what I’ve found myself doing with the Element. My inclination is I’d rather have a faster bike that I’ve made slower and that can still be turned back into that fast bike, than a bike that starts out more capable, but will never be as efficient uphill.
If a bike is going to have two personalities, say a fast and a fun version by way of a wheel swap, I am inclined towards a platform that prioritizes climbing efficiency over descending capability. Said another way, I’d rather a cross-country bike made more capable through parts changes than a trail bike with cross country parts. This new Element gives up very little climbing efficiency for a huge boost in descending capability.
So, we have arrived at the paradox of a bike so capable you’re outriding the spec, but risk changing the character of the bike by bringing the spec closer to the bike’s capabilities. Some questions remain unanswered, but I now know first hand why this version of the Element’s got such a following.
- Efficient climber and extremely capable descender
- Beautiful industrial design
- Two bottle mounts
- Clean and quiet internal cable routing
- Ride-4 adjustable geometry
- XT components and DT star ratchet hub are rock solid
- Tire and brake spec are a bit undergunned
- Fox 34 FIT4 damper lacks mid-stroke support
- Progressive design might not appeal to the XC race crowd
See more at Rocky Mountain.