22 May 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: Commencal Meta 5.5.2 mountain bike

Despite consistantly positive (if not rave) reviews from European magazines, Commencal bikes are a rarity in the States. Max Commencal, for whom the company is named, was the force behind the Sunn bikes on which Nico Vouilloz was a domininant downhiller from the mid-late 1990s. Commencal and Sunn ultimately parted ways, and Commencal struck out on his own, forming (probably) Andorra's only bike company. Located in the Pyranees between France and Spain, Andorra is a principality known primarily as a wealthy tax haven and for the fact that its citizens live longer than anywhere else on earth. However, the region is also known for having has some fantastic riding- rockier and drier than the Alps but certainly no less spectacular. Distributor BTI has been importing the complete bikes and frames for the past couple of years and was kind enough to loan us a 140mm travel Meta 5.5 from their Commencal demo fleet for a few weeks.

As we wrote in our recent review of Pivot's Mach 5, bikes in with 5 or so inches of suspension travel can have widely varying personalities. The Meta 5.5 is like that heavy-ish guy on group rides who manages to hang with everyone on the climbs but rips it up on the descents- railing corners, bombing through rocky sections and going for air at every opportunity. The suspension is essently a linkage-driven single pivot setup. A good-sized swingarm provides good lateral stiffness while the linkage drives a proven Fox RP3 rear shock. While adding the linkage takes back some of the simplicity granted by the single pivot design, it helps to isolate the shock from lateral forces that could shorten its lifespan as well as to tailor the way in which rear wheel movement is seen by the shock. Overall, the frame seems to be built for the long run, with thick dropouts, chunky machined linkages, top- and down tube gussets and a top tube flared at the seat tube- all of which add up to a (depending on your perspective) slightly off-putting or fairly reassuring 7.3lb (3.3kg) frame weight. The black frame with gold and white patterned decals could have come off as a bit chav, but were pretty classy in person, and the Meta 5.5.2 is a handsome bike.

Our $3200 Meta 5.5.2 model (the .2 refers to the build) came with a mix if SRAM X7 and X9 drivetrain components, fantastic Formula Oro K18 hydraulic discs (180mm front, 160mm rear), a Deore rear hub and a Fox Float 140mm fork. Initially, I found that build to be uninspiring for the asking price. Looking around, though, Specialized's Enduro SL Comp has a very similar build kit for the same money, and that company has some serious economies of scale working in their favor. Still, it is disappointing to see a Deore rear hub on anything over $1,000. Not that it's a bad piece of equipment (its probably the best $30 rear hub available), but that the LX and XT are also very inexpensive and that hubs are very difficult to replace (especially when compared to a seatpost, saddle or handlebar) if something goes horribly wrong. The Truvativ cranks, Race Face Evolve XC stem and seatpost and Commencal handlebar will likely do the job without complaint and the SDG Bel Air saddle was a pleasant surprise. While some folks aren't yet tubeless fans, on a bike that is meant to be ridden aggressively, having the option would be nice- a mid-range Mavic wheelset would be both tubeless compatible and feature hubs more appropriate to the bike's price point- your dealer may well work with you to make something like that happen for a few extra dollars. Maxxis High Roller tires are predictable and proven, though only one on our tester had a folding bead. All together, with pedals, the large Meta 5.5.2 came in at a reasonable 31b- not bad at all given its conservative construction and build kit. After spending $30 on tubes for our last tubed test bike, though, I opted to test the bike with my own tubeless wheelset and tires.

Its no surprise, given Commencal's location and downhill heritage, that their 5.5in bike really comes alive on technical and rocky descents. Pointed even slightly downhill, the Meta 5.5 is a blast. The suspension works particularly well in rock gardens and seems made for sweepy motorcycle trails, where its front-rear balance allows aggressive riders to really carry speed through corners and milk it out of pump sections. During our test period, we had the opportunity to take the Meta 5.5 to Moab, Utah as well as to ride it on a number of our local benchmark trails. The first impression that our large tester gave was of being a big bike. A tall-ish bottom bracket and a size Large frame (with a 600mm/23.5in top tube) had me feeling fairly far from the ground. Despite feeling big when stationary, the Meta 5.5 was very flickable once underway. Its no BMX bike, but it certainly has some of that playful spirit. Set up with BTI's recommendation of 20-30psi below my body weight, there was a fair amount of movement when hopping on to or off of the bike. Once riding, though things settled down and there was none of the bob or pedal feedback associated with earlier single pivot designs. In fact, I was surprised how well the bike handled technical climbs. Make no mistake- the Meta 5.5 doesn't like to be hurried uphill, but with patience and and a low gear, it climbs pretty darn well. The Fox RP3 worked very well, though a less aggressive lockout would have meant better traction and climbing while engaged. As set up, the lockout lever's best trait was pulling the rear of the bike out of its sag, steepening the angles and transferring weight foreward. Within 5-10psi of the recommended setting, the rear shock and the rear suspension remains plush- a rider's preferred setting will likely have as much to do with its geometry effects as anything else.

In many situations, the bike was capable of being ridden harder and faster than caution would recommend, and will allow more aggressive riders to push their limits. As I mention above, climbing is far from cat-like, but the Meta 5.5 is no dog either. Technical climbs take a fair bit of energy to ride cleanly but it certainly can be done. At 6' tall and given an already tall bottom bracket, I would have appreciated a lower top tube to allow room for emergency dismounts. Riders who prefer a shorter top tube (22.5in for the medium) will do well to look at a smaller frame size than they may be used to- as always, try before you buy. More resort or downhill-oriented riders would probably appreciate a more relaxed head tube angle, but for something that's going to go up as much as down, it seems that the geometry is just about right.

After my experience with Fox's recent TALAS forks, I wasn't particularly excited to ride the 140mm travel 32 Float. While it has a very cool and useful travel adustment feature, the 2008 TALAS has far too much stiction and utterly fails to function on smaller bumps- especially for lighter riders. The Float, I'm happy to report, feels nothing like it's fravel-adjustable brother. On small, medium and large bumps at medium and high speeds, the 32 Float leaves almost nothing to be desired. It was plush, even at my 145lb weight, but slightly progressive so didn't blow through its travel on bigger hits. At lower speeds, the Float could be a bit wallow-y, but with over an inch of sag, that's to be expected. The lack of a shorter travel setting is probably most responsible for the Meta 5.5's lackluster climbing, but if the fork has to be a Fox, then the compromise is well worth it. SRAM's X7 shifters, while perfectly adequate, have a long-ish thow for rear downshifts and their refinement isn't quite on par with Shimano's LX group- but still quite good. The biggest complaint that I have is that, with the Formula brake levers set up for middle finger braking, the shift levers were a bit further away than I would have liked. Unfortunately, the shifters' clamps are not removable (like Sram's XO model's), so the buyer can't take advantage of Formula's aftermarket shifter/brake lever clamps. The integrated gear indicators are simple, legible and don't take up any bar space- an elegant design. The SRAM front deraileur was fine once it was set up, but adjusting the limit screws (which are tucked under the swingarm) involved removing the rear wheel, using needle-nosed Vice-Grips to turn the (thankfully long) screws, replacing the wheel and trying the new setting- a painful and time consuming process. Newer Shimano front deraileurs, with screws pointed to the drivetrain side of the bike, would have been appreciated. All in all, the build worked very well. While the Deore hub may seem like a low point, it is fully serviceable and parts are widely available, so it should never really present an issue.

With single pivot frames capable of riding so well, why bother with a complex multi- or virtual-pivot bike? On the 'all mountain' side of the 5in spectrum, the Meta 5.5 more than holds its own. In fact, it rides better than Intense's 5.5EVP or Specialized's Brain-addled Enduro and should definitely be considered if a dealer can be found. The frame will be a bit on the heavy side for some, but for heavier or less graceful riders, that's probably not a bad thing. Shimano fans are unfortunately out of luck, but the Meta 5.5 is available as a frameset and with XO (the $4,100 Meta 5.5.1) and X5/X7 (the $2,500 Meta 5.5.3) build kits. We wouldn't mind seeing 1/2 lb come off the frame, a lower top tube or a Shimano SLX option for 2009, but they're not essential. There are a lot of good options for more 'all mountain' 5+ inch travel bikes on the market, but for those who want something simple, a bit different and that won't hurt too much on the climbs, the Meta 5.5 is about as dialed as I've ridden.




Anonymous said...

Just bought one 5.5-2. After riding a hardtail I'm excited to hear of her abilities.

bikefix said...

Fantastic! It's a very capable bike- and a lot of fun. Have fun with it,