By James Sharp
One of the things I like most about writing for GearReview.com is the opportunity to ride different bikes. Sometimes these are bikes similar to what I normally ride, and sometimes they are different altogether. The latter is the case with the Ellsworth Evolve. For one, this is the first 29er I've ridden for an extended test and for another this is first time we've spent time on an Ellsworth on our trails. Sure, we've tried them out at the Outdoor Demo, but it's hard to get a good feel for a bike on strange trails. To really see what it's like, a bike needs to be ridden on familiar terrain. We got this chance, and ran with it.
Our Evolve came with a mixture of SRAM compontentry--from the X.9 rear derailleur to the Reba 29er fork and Avid Juicy brakes. This was a blue collar build, nothing fancy, but nothing that didn't work as it should. In fact, if I were building a bike on a budget about the only thing I'd change would be to use a Shimano front derailleur and lose the Sun DS-2 rims--the derailleur would be lighter and cost about the same and the rims made for a flexy wheel, something stouter would serve the Evolve better.
The frame, though, is really what this review is about. Every Ellsworth frame is made in the Washington State factory. The frame is made from aircraft grade aluminum and hand welded. Every weld gets inspected for defects prior to finishing. The frames are heat treated and anodized for a very durable, long lasting finish. Our test bike--like most test bikes--had gone though the ringer. It had been used and abused by countless journalists and hacks. The components were showing wear and there were rub spots on the frame where the cables had been resting, but overall, the finish was still first rate. There were no peeling stickers and no scratch and nicked up paint. The durability of the anodizing makes cleaning the bike a breeze; all you have to do is brush off the dried dirt, you aren't going to scratch the frame doing that!
Another nod to longevity is the use of standard sized cartridge bearings at all pivot locations. Not only do they work well in bad weather, they are easily--and inexpensively--replaced when the time comes.
Like all of Ellsworth's full squish bikes, the Evolve uses their Instant Center Tracking (ICT) suspension system--albeit tweaked slightly to accommodate the bigger hoops. Basically, the linkages of the Evolve--and other Elsworth full suspension bikes--are designed so that they behave is if there is a pivot way out in front of the bike. Unlike a single pivot, though, this virtual pivot isn't in a fixed location, rather it changes as the suspension cycles, always staying in line with the pedaling force pulling on the chain. This essentially negates any affect pedaling has on the suspension. And it works. Brilliantly. The best compliment I can give a full suspension design is to say that I didn't notice it. And on the Evolve, I didn't notice it. It just sucked up what I threw at it and asked for more. Breaking bumps? No problem. Botched landings? Bring it on. The bike has four inches of travel--both front and rear--and it often felt like it had more.
Laterally, the bike was stiff enough to go where I pointed it with nary a complaint, this was a point and shoot bike. The larger diameter wheels rolled over everything. I was able to run the tires--2.20 Geax Saguaro's--at very low pressures, by tube-tire standards, giving me gobs of traction. The big wheels don't lend themselves to quick changes in direction compared to their 26-inch siblings, but Ellsworth took this into account when designing the Evolve and it does a nice job of closing the gap. Even though the 29" wheels act like like a steering damper, the bike wasn't sluggish. I could whip it around all but the tightest corners, it just took a little more effort to do so.
The fit was excellent on our medium test bike. I stand 5'8" tall, but have rather short legs. The low top tube offers great standover--28.3"--and I still had all the reach I wanted. In fact, the fit was so good, I felt right at home on the first ride. Even with the low top tube, the Evolve had a bottle cage mount. I've been using a hydration pack less and less these days, so seeing that bottle mount made me smile. Of course, if they had include another mount--for a total of two--I would have been ecstatic.
Really, there was very little not to like. At my height--or lack thereof--and my riding style, I'm not convinced that 29" wheels are for me. I prefer the quicker handling of the smaller 26" wheels. That being said, I sure could get used to the fast, low flying nature of the bigger wheels. Did I say that they tended to just roll over everything? If you are a corner carver this is the type of bike you are looking for.
Summary: All in all, Ellsworth makes a bike that is nice to look at and has a brilliant suspension design that doesn't make its presence known in any way, other than soaking up the bumps like it should. The Evolve is one of the best 29er bikes I've ridden, if not the best. It almost made me want a bike with big wheels. Almost. If you are into the 29ers, you need to seriously consider the Evolve. Build it up with same stout wheels and the components of your choice and ride. The Evolve frame retails for $2395.
James Sharp is a contributing editor at GearReview who, though it isn't popular, still likes riding his 26" mountain bike. Read more at his blog.
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