Tested: Intense Sniper Trail Expert
Intense calls the Sniper a "dedicated pedaling machine" but also says that it's a "stable ride that goes where you point it." If that's not sounding like enough of a split-personality bike yet, there's also this: Intense sells two versions of the Sniper: the 100-millimeter-travel Sniper XC and the Sniper Trail.
Both roll on 29-inch wheels, but neither version looks like a traditional cross-country bike on paper--with sub-68-degree head angles--or in person, thanks to short stems, dropper posts and low top tubes. But an extra 20 millimeters of travel at both ends promise to make the Trail version tested here even more pugnacious than its punctual XC sibling. In fact, it isn't even classified as a cross-country bike on Intense's website.
Unboxing the Intense Sniper Trail Expert
Since Intense recently began offering consumer-direct sales, the first test for the Sniper Trail would be its unboxing. All the parts arrived, and nothing needed fixing. Intense's packaging design is literally self-explanatory, with each cardboard divider inside the box labelled to indicate what part it protects. This wasn't useful while unboxing and building the bike, but a buyer could save the box and reuse the labelled pieces when boxing the bike for travel. More impressive was the inclusion of a sturdy torque wrench with a full set of bits and a case, plus a shock pump.
The stock cockpit consists of a 760-millimeter Renthal bar and a 50-millimeter Intense stem. I swapped on a 60-millimeter stem and a wider bar, pictured here.
Design and Spec
We chose the $4,500 Sniper Trail Expert build, which is the least expensive Sniper Trail available. The frame is entirely carbon save for the alloy lower link of the VPP-inspired "JS Tuned" linkage. That lower link is magnesium on higher end builds--which also receive titanium hardware--because…grams. Still, with a claimed frame weight of 4.62 pounds, the Sniper Trail Expert hardly needs to be whipped into racing shape.
Quite the opposite: It needed to be whipped into trail-riding shape. Off went the 760-millimeter-wide handlebar, and the 2.35-inch Maxxis Forekaster tires. On went a wider bar and meaty rubber from WTB, weight-adding changes that still put the Sniper at just 29 pounds with flat pedals. Everything else stayed, at least to start. A SRAM GX Eagle drivetrain powers the DT Swiss M1900 Spline wheels, which have a generous 30-millimeter internal width. Fox's Performance Elite 34 fork and a trunnion-mount Performance Elite DPS shock are on bump patrol, and a KS Lev Ci (that's the fancy one with a carbon mast) is in place for dropper duties. Two-piston XT brakes round out the roll call of major components.
The Lev Ci is feathery, but I think the large and extra-large frames should come with at least a 150-millimeter-drop seat post, especially since I had to ride the 125-millimeter-drop post at its minimum insert line to accommodate my 34-inch inseam.
Riding the Intense Sniper Trail
Every Wednesday afternoon, I was faced with a choice: Pay money to stare at some sweaty dad's back while he outpaces me on double track, only to then be stuck behind him on the fun bits of trail, or skip the local race and go ride proper singletrack.
As the weeks passed, I grew worried that the Intense might resent me for repeatedly shirking the start line, but it seemed totally copacetic with our trail rides. It was like meeting a new friend, and coming to realize that they genuinely like all the same weird stuff as you. Then again, a bicycle is an inanimate object without opinions or desires.
I wasn't so sure about that last part on my first ride aboard the Sniper Trail. The bike's reach felt considerably shorter than the 468 millimeters listed on its geometry chart, resulting in some skittishness that had me struggling to hold speed, and repeatedly winding up off the back and sagging into the suspension during hard cornering.
A longer stem is not usually the correct answer, but it was in this case. The switch from a 50- to a 60-millimeter stem brought my weight forward, allowing me to control the bike intuitively. This change also seemed to give the chassis a more stable feel, even though its wheelbase hadn't changed.
As far as I'm concerned, the Sniper Trail is the perfect climbing bike. If you get stuck behind a friend who happens to be riding a typical trail bike, you'll find yourself buzzing their tires repeatedly until they curse at you and let you by. It makes you want to stand up and crank in the way that cross-country bikes do, but also holds better traction and is much more forgiving over roots and rocks. That also means it isn't quite as efficient as a thoroughbred race machine, but I'll gladly accept the trade off. The Sniper behaves basically as I would have expected on climbs: It’s quick, efficient and easily maneuvered.
I was surprised in one regard, though: I actually used the rear shock’s “Trail” setting. I typically give the blue lever a dutiful flip for research purposes, and then resolve to leave the shock open. But on the Sniper, the additional compression offered by the DPS shock’s middle setting restrained the rear suspension in such a way that kept it from bogging into the mid-stroke when climbing over large rocks and roots, without really cutting back on traction. This allowed me to maintain a seated position over more terrain while experiencing fewer interruptions to my cadence. It was a subtle difference, but advantageous enough that I flipped the lever at the start of most climbs.
I’d open it up for the descents, of course, where the Sniper repeatedly demonstrated that it merits the “Trail” suffix. Sure, it’s no boundary-busting chunder slayer. But it’s respectably stable at speed thanks to its 66.5-degree head angle and a wheelbase that, at 1,195 millimeters, is fairly long given the bike’s travel numbers. I wouldn’t describe the rear end as especially stout: It seemed to flex in high-force corners, though not in a way that felt out of line with the frame’s capabilities. The front end tracks very predictably.
Some bikes punch well above their travel numbers--Giant’s new 115-millimeter travel Trance 29 comes to mind: It rides more like a 140-millimeter bike. The Sniper has 120 millimeters out back, and that’s how it rides. It’s a very capable 120 millimeters, though, as it seems Intense has prioritized progressiveness over plushness. There’s ample small-bump compliance up top, but the mid stroke can feel a bit harsh through repetitive hits--no harsher than most bikes with similar travel numbers, though. Thankfully, there’s a reliable ramp for when you muscle through the rough and hit something that pushes the Sniper beyond the mid-stroke. I didn’t feel any hard bottom-outs, even when I dropped three feet to flat at low speed off a rickety wooden kicker.
The Sniper compares nicely to Ibis’ Ripley LS. The frames have similar stiffness levels and are practically neck-and-neck in terms of pedaling efficiency, though I think the Sniper would cross the line first in an all-out, robot-powered sprint. The Ripley’s magical DW-link suspension allows the rider to pedal more easily through chop, however. When the trail points downhill, the Sniper will feel more stable and is more prepared to take on the big hits, but the Ibis will offer a more supple feel through the chatter. Norco’s Sight 29 and Rocky’s Instinct are both decidedly more descending-oriented, as is Giant’s Trance 29, even though its rear suspension is five millimeters shallower than the Sniper’s.
I could go on and on. But here’s what you need to know: The Sniper Trail is on the cross-country end of the trail spectrum, offering outstanding pedaling efficiency blended with capable geometry and rear suspension that’s there when you need it most. It wouldn’t be my bike of choice for a day in the park, and it’s not going to win any enduro races, either. But it sure seems like it’d be right at home in the BC Bike Race, or, if you can convince yourself to go, on the start line at your local cross-county series.