Tested: Rocky Mountain Sherpa
A full-suspension 27.5+ built expressly for bikepacking? Who’da thunk?
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Bikepacking, where you load what you need onto your bikes and set off on a trail adventure, isn’t new. Events like the Arizona Trail 300, the Colorado Trail Race, the Tour Divide (and many precursors), have been going on for more than a decade. But it’s only in the last few years that big manufacturers, lead by brands like Salsa and Surly, have begun noticing the market. And Rocky Mountain’s Sherpa is, as far as we know, the first full-suspension carbon bike that’s purpose-built (and marketed) to the adventure-touring crowd.
The Good: Stoner allusions notwithstanding, the gold-on-black Nepalaese dragon graphics make this one of the most striking production bikes we’ve ever laid our muddy hands on. The mid-fat, 27.5+ are an excellent choice, with oversize tread that’s great for off-piste exploration but still deft enough to make the bike feel playful. And the parts, a hard-working Shimano hodgepodge, aren’t high-bling but work outstandingly and should hold up to as much backcountry abuse as you can throw at them.
The Bad: The WTB Scraper wheels are listless, and the tread patter on the WTB Trailblazer is so narrow that the tires miss out on much of the benefit of plus-size rubber. And considering the middle-of-the-road spec, the Sherpa isn’t cheap (you’re paying for the quality carbon frame).
The Verdict: The bikepacking market is overlooked and underserved, so it’s impossible for us to dislike the Sherpa. We applaud Rocky Mountain for jumping in. And the truth is the bike handles loads as deftly as its mountain-treading namesake, though, at 30.5 pounds naked weight, it’s not as fleet uphill as Apa or Phurba Tashi. Fortunately, though, the Sherpa is as fun to ride unpacked as it is fully laden.
- Wheel Size: 27.5+
- Built For: Bikepacking and adventure
- Size Tested: Medium
- Bike Weight: 30.5 lbs
- MSRP: $4,499
- The Test: Several months, Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the high peaks of Colorado, including several multi-night bikepacking excursions.
The Sherpa mates a modified front triangle from Rocky Mountain’s time-tested Element model to a wider rear end that accommodates the bigger, 2.8-inch tires. The result provides “only” 95mm of rear travel, built around an uncommon Manitou Mcleod shock, but the truth is (1) you don’t really need more than that when you’re loaded up with the weight of lots of camping gear, and (2) between the progressive feel of the shock and the extra give of the oversize tires, the Sherpa feels like a bigger bike than that number suggests.
At 69.4 degrees, the head angle is over a degree slacker than on the Element, which makes for nice, easy-mannered handling, even in steep and rocky terrain. And though the chain stays are a bit long by current trail-bike standards, the added length adds to the bikes overall stability, which is a good thing when you’re freeriding with full loads. But Rocky has struck an excellent balance because while the Sherpa is confident and rooted, it still manages to be playful and chipper.
The parts pick may not be sexy, but it’s smart, starting with workhorse Shimano SLX shifters and a 2×10 drivetrain. Yes, 1×11 would be trendy and easier to sell. But for adventure riding, when hills can be steep and the bike is often overloaded with weight, we’ll take the double-ring range up front (38/24) every time. We only wish the Deore front derailleur were as good as the rear XT model—though in truth we had no issue with either.
Rocky chose the 120mm Magnum fork to complement the rear shock, and it makes us wish that more companies would opt for Manitou products. The 34mm-wide stanchions are beefy enough to muscle around the big tires, and the progressive spring rate and overall solid feel remind us—fondly—of the RockShox Pike, except that this fork has more adjustability than just three stages. And while we honestly believe the Hex-Lock thru-axle design is stiffer and more secure than the other standards out there, we also have had a difficult time mastering it, which is to say, either the system needs to be simpler or Manitou should do a better bundling instructions.
The small parts are aluminum bits and pieces from Race Face, which are adequate and reliable enough to go way back in the woods and not worry about failure. But the lack of carbon means the weight adds up.
The Achilles Heel of the Sherpa—and perhaps of plus-size bikes in general at the moment—are its wheels, as the WTB Scrapers are unexciting verging on burdensome. The hubs, from DT Swiss, are good, but the 45mm rims are neither light nor stiff (we managed to put a digger into one), which makes the Sherpa decidedly less spry than it should be.
Worse still are the Trailblazer tires. The pattern is grippy but so narrow that it is smaller than the overall tire width. And the lack of sidewall knobs makes hard cornering almost impossible without slipping out. We swapped in a pair of wide carbon rims mounted with a round-profile, three-inch tires, and the difference was like going from a set of donuts to off-road tires on a 4×4 truck. But you can’t fault Rocky: It’s early days in plus-size development, and getting in first means you are limited by spec options.
Though we rode this bike for months, the best testing came on several multi-night bikepacking trips, including one high-altitude stretch in Northern New Mexico of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. There was lots of dirt-road cruising punctuated by sharp, rocky, technical climbs, as well as an almost 10-mile descent over sandstone bedrock with endless step-downs and off-camber grade and surface changes. And the Sherpa made easy work of it all.
Loaded: Though we were a bit disappointed that the Sherpa didn’t come with packs, even as an option, our Revelate gear from Salsa Cycles fit and made carrying everything we needed (sleeping kit, tent, stove, food, water, and apparel) easier than expected. Once loaded, the bike felt squat and planted and, as often is the case, climbed even better than it did unloaded thanks to the weight-added traction. And because of the slacked-out head angle, it wasn’t even the slightest bit nervous on the techiest descents, despite the big handlebar bag and even when a freak morning hailstorm broke loose and turned the ground to a muddy, icy mess.
Unloaded: Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was how well the Sherpa rode without the gear. Drop the packs at camp and go tooling for an evening spin, and you feel as if you’re on your trail bike. It’s playful and deft and wants to hop around, though the 30+ pounds is a constant reminder that you’re not quite back home. Still, the versatility is impressive, and the Sherpa is a lot more enjoyable to ride as an all-around machine than other fully rigid bikepacking-specific bikes we’ve tried.
Pretty much, there is no competition for the Sherpa, which is partly what makes it so good. There are bikes, like the Jones Plus, which do an amazing job of hauling and touring but simply do not keep up with the Sherpa on technical terrain because of the fully rigid design. And we’ve tried—and loved—other plus-size hard tails, but those bikes similarly aren’t as versatile.
The only other full-suspension plus-size bike we’ve ridden is the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie. And while we liked that bike a lot, the S-Works model costs almost double what the Sherpa does and probably wouldn’t be as rooted or confident hauling loads. On the other hand, the Specialized weighed significantly less, a boon for a bike that is intended for carrying weight. Still, we like that Rocky Mountain tried to keep the price down—and bikepacking more accessible.
If you have not tried bikepacking, it is time. There are few things more liberating than strapping the essentials you need onto a bike and heading off in whatever direction you fancy. The distances you can cover on a bike and the fun you can have shredding on the trail make for a far more entertaining and less limiting experience than just walking with a big backpack. We love that Rocky Mountain is trying to bring that experience to a broader audience. And they absolutely got the equation right by using plus-size tires, which add traction, stability, comfort over the long haul, and the ability to head into any terrain.
The Sherpa is not a perfect specimen, both because of its middling wheels and its overall weight. Given that it’s made for riding loaded, the bike would be even better if it were five pounds lighter to start. Of course that would mean a heftier price tag, so we understand the compromise.
As is, it will be a great off-road touring machine for most people, especially since it can comfortably double as an everyday trail bike. You could build up a second set of lightweight 29er wheels and have a truly versatile mountain bike capable of taking any trail. To make the Sherpa even better, however, Rocky should either offer a premium spec or a frame-only option. With a slightly more svelte build (and better plus-size, once available), this will be the ultimate adventure rig.