Tested: The Shape Shifting Rocky Mountain Instinct
When we reviewed the previous version of the Instinct, Mike Ferrentino basically said that it could be anything, to anyone: "Is it a backcountry scree-slope raider? Is it a big-wheel play bike, a slack-angled couch, a relaxed-fit trail carver, a long-legged marathon racer? Yes."
I'm sure this wasn't a cop out, first because Ferrentino isn't shy of his own opinions, and second because the same could be said for the new Instinct. But it isn't only a jack of all trades. It is also a master of at least one.
This version of the Instinct sees 29-inch wheels paired with a 140-millimeter-travel fork and frame. Rocky's Ride-9 adjustable geometry affords nine incremental degrees of adjustment between 66 and 67 for the head angle and 74.5 and 75.5 for the seat tube angle. A conservative 455-millimeter reach on the size large and a 436-millimeter rear center round out the basic numbers. There's room for a water bottle inside the front triangle, even with the reservoir shocks used on the burlier BC Edition.
Tested here is the not the BC Edition, but the less-aggressively specced Rocky Mountain Instinct Carbon 70, which costs $5,300. That rather large sum buys you a full-carbon frame, Performance-series Fox suspension and dropper seatpost, plus Guide R brakes and a GX Eagle drivetrain from SRAM. For wheels, Rocky has laced a house brand front hub and a DT 370 rear hub to Stan's Arch MK3 rims.
Rocky says the suspension kinematics have been refined for more progressiveness at the end of the stroke (allowing for more suppleness at the beginning) and that the anti-squat value has been boosted to improve pedaling efficiency.
The Ride-9 system has been transplanted from the perch it occupied on the forward shock mount of the old Instinct to the new repositioned and simplified link. The chainstay pivot hardware has been slickly hidden from view on the inside of the tube. In tandem those changes make for an appreciable tidying up of the Instinct's four-bar linkage. The question is, does the function match the form?
Putting the hardware on the inside of the chainstay? Now why didn’t I think of that?! Oh right. Because I don’t make bikes.
I haven't ridden the old Instinct, but this one is no wallflower on ascents. It resists slouching and bobbing in response to seated pedaling forces, and greets less-graceful standing efforts with similar composure.
In its steepest setting, with its head angle at 67 degrees, its seat tube at 75.5 and its bottom bracket dropped 23 millimeters, the Instinct claws uphill swiftly enough to have shorter-travel bikes like the Ibis Ripley LS and Trek Fuel EX checking over their shoulder, but they don't have much reason to panic. The Instinct is fast, but those bikes are faster. From the steepest setting all the way to "neutral," the Instinct still feels precise and doesn't need to be manhandled up technical climbs.
It becomes increasingly lethargic with every slackening rotation of the Ride-9 chips, but only because the bike is getting lower and slacker--not because it's wasting wattage. Bottom-bracket height is the real limiting factor in the slacker positions, as it drops from 30 down to 37 millimeters below axle height. At 30, you need to heed your pedal timing over rocks and roots. Below that, you start hitting dirt when the bike's wheels are straddling a minor riser in the trail or when leaning and pedaling through an uphill turn. The only time I ever used the shock's low-speed compression lever was with the bike in its slacker settings, in order to reduce how deep it was sitting in its travel, thereby keeping the bottom bracket a touch higher.
There are two constants throughout all of the Instinct's settings: Very little power is lost in translation, and the seated position allows for complete command of the bike thanks to the steep seat-tube angle. Just about everything else is determined by the Ride-9 chips.
I'm sure you'll be shocked to read that the Ride-9 system also dictates how the Instinct descends. In fact, I could probably take the previous four paragraphs and just swap the climbing words out for descending ones, and boom. Review done. But I'll try not to.
The Instinct's rear suspension isn't particular about where you set it, as long as you're somewhere between 27- and 30-percent sag. I settled at 29-percent sag in both the fork and shock, with some minor adjustment to either side to account for the changes in suspension rise when toggling from the steepest to the slackest settings. You might find the stock shock tune limiting if you prefer a really fast rebound--I ran it a click or two from open, which is closer to the end of the range than is typical for me.
Big wheels, 140-ish millimeters of travel and just over 1,200 millimeters worth of wheelbase makes for a potent descender. The Instinct handled everything I managed to throw its way, without any harshness at the top or bottom of the travel. It's not a downhill bike, of course, but it's every bit as capable as the numbers would suggest. There are more lively-feeling 29er trail bikes, but they aren't as stable as the Instinct.
I'll once again use the Ripley LS and Fuel EX for comparison's sake. The Instinct is a more fluid descender than both of those bikes. The frame feels stouter and more prepared for impact, especially compared to the Ripley, and the Rocky's suspension feels--and is--deeper. For what it gives up to those bikes on climbs, it gains twofold on descents. The best way to contextualize the Instinct's descending is that it feels like a Norco Sight 29 when set in its steeper positions, and like a Santa Cruz Hightower LT on the slack side. The Hightower LT feels more enduro-race or bikepark-worthy in general, though, probably because it has burlier suspension with which to manage the speed that both bikes are capable of achieving.
So, do you want a trail bike, or a hopped-up trail bike? The Instinct can be either, and all it takes to make the change is a couple minutes and two hex keys.
As good as the Instinct looks, the one I've been testing started out making some pretty ugly noises. There was chain slap, which I quieted with a strip of Velcro that I had laying around, but that still didn't quite do it. I traced the remaining rattle to a loose support in the rear wheel. A manufacturing brace under the rim's seam was loose, and too big to be extracted through the spoke holes. Aside from the noise, I'll just say that no bike costing $5,300 should come with Guide R brakes. They aren't impressively powerful, and I couldn't get the levers set to a comfortable starting position where they wouldn't pull to my knuckles--even fresh out of the box, and then after a bleed. Finally, if I were buying this bike for the long haul, I’d sure appreciate some downtube protection.
So what's the one thing the Instinct is a master of? Backcountry missions. It has the efficiency and geometry for long, technical climbs and the resolve for descents that can be described with those same two adjectives. This is especially true if the rider is willing to make use of the Ride-9 adjustment at various points throughout the day. That’s not something we would usually suggest, nor is it something the brands would usually intend. But the Instinct offers enough benefits unique to each configuration, that I think it’s worth the time. And let's be honest--if you've just climbed for a couple hours, you're going to stop and take a breather before you reap the morning's rewards. You might as well take an extra moment to get the most out of your bike while you're at it.
But you don't have to be charging up and down rocky, sun-soaked ridges in order to get the most out of the Instinct. As usual, Ferrentino was right: With some compromises, it can be just about anything, to anyone.