Overcoming histories of poor reliability and performance, these revamped mountain bike parts are worth another look
It’s surprising in these days of advanced computer engineering and stringent testing that bad products actually get built and released. Even more surprising: Sometimes the problems become systemic and aren’t resolved for years—if ever. But in the case of the following three components, which have struggled recently with reliability issues and poor performance, the companies have done their due diligence to rehab the gear. The upshot: Though we would have recommended steering clear of these product lines a couple of years ago, now they’re the best you can buy.
We always wanted to love SRAM XX brakes. They were ridiculously light, looked sexy as hell, and were so pervasive on top-spec bikes that you felt like they must have been the best thing on the market. Unfortunately, they were also about as reliable as Volkwagen’s emissions controls. Every once in a while, we’d get a pair that worked, but about four out of five of test bikes we received with XX brakes either were constantly in the shop for rebleeds or required replacement brakes altogether. The second-tier XO brakes weren’t much better, and even many of the sister brand Avid models had a reputation for variability.
Enter the SRAM Guide Brake, released in early 2014 with three models (RSC, RS, and R) and supplemented earlier this year with a top-end Guide Ultimate. The new four-piston design provides excellent power, and the piggyback reservoir and all new internals manage brake fluid better by venting air bubbles. Modulation is excellent—perhaps even better than comparable Shimano brakes—and noise isn’t an issue. The initial three models feature aluminum bodies and levers, while the Ultimates have a totally rethought carbon-blade design. Depending on the model, there’s lots of adjustability, including easy lever reach and pad contact adjustments.
But the most important change is that the Guides are reliable. We’ve now ridden some two dozen bikes over the course of the past year equipped with them, and not a single one has required a bleed.
Specialized Roval Control SL Wheels
Specialized does a lot of things well, but for a while a couple years ago, building a dependable XC mountain bike wheel wasn’t one of them. Don’t get us wrong. The first carbon Roval Control SL rims were light and stiff, and we loved riding them—until they broke, which was often. We went through four wheels in a two-year span, and we know half a dozen other industry testers who also had catastrophic results. Specialized was always very good about warranties, but people don’t want replacements. They want stronger hoops.
With the revamped Control SL 29, Specialized seems to have finally struck on a successful design. The rim profile is more arch-like than the previous iteration, and it’s a lot wider, with a 30-millimeter exterior and a 22-millimeter interior. As has become common, Specialized did away with the bead hook. The result is a design that sets up tubeless easily and with a reassuring snap. Despite a best-in-class 1,370-gram set weight, these wheels have proved incredibly durable. We’ve raced several sets of them hard on rocky, brutal New Mexico and Arizona trails, and we’ve run them on heavier-duty bikes, including an enduro, with zero failure. Industry buzz is equally upbeat, with very few reports of breakage. While Roval wheels don’t have the curb appeal or the ride pop of, say, an Enve M50, they are lighter, just as strong, and cost about 40 percent less. Also worth noting: The trail- and enduro-oriented Roval Traverse SL line is bigger, beefier, and even more durable than the Control wheels.
Five years ago, Fox built what were considered the best XC and trail forks on the market. Then, two seasons ago, the company changed some of the internals and went to the three-stage CTD system, and performance faltered. There weren’t any reliability issues, but the forks, especially the 32 models, just didn’t feel right. The dampers were too squishy and the spring rates too inconsistent, with a very firm top end, a mushy middle, and a too-stiff bottom. The forks were so ponderous and hard to tune that we dreaded testing bikes equipped with them. (Thankfully, at about the same time, RockShox hit the market with its excellent Pike.)
But Fox is back. We realized it early in the spring, when the company sent a fully redesigned 160-millimeter Factory 36 Series. We replaced the stock Pike on a Specialized Enduro with it and were blown away by the performance. The action is as smooth as the Pike, the weight is comparable, and the fork feels stiffer and has more accurate steering thanks to the slightly thicker stanchions and the bolt-closure axle.
Now that the 2016 test bikes are rolling in, we’ve gotten a taste of both the new 34 and 32 series forks (including a 120-millimeter Factory Series Float 32 and several 140-millimeter Factory Series Float 34s), and we’re happy to report that the 36 was no anomaly. The forks feel much smoother and more linear than the previous two years’ models, with the new three-position lever and Fit4 Damper being major improvements. Of particular note, the firm settings are much stiffer than before, so it’s possible to get a stiff front end for efficiency but still retain the buttery-smooth travel when open. All of these forks now come with air-volume spacers, so you can customize the spring rates and feel to your liking just by screwing out the cartridge and adding or subtracting spacers. The externals have also been revamped to shed a bit of weight and bring them in line with the competition.