A Legend that Continues to Innovate and Progress
2017.5 Intense Tracer: A Revolution of Evolution
If you are reading this article, chances are good that you are familiar with Intense Cycles. If you were a fan of DH racing in the 90’s it is an outright certainty… Intense had one of the premier gravity programs in the world, and certainly the best bike on the market in the M1. We recall pioneers of the sport like Shaun Palmer and Chris Kovarik flying the Intense colors, but many other top riders were buying these bikes and putting their sponsor’s names on the downtube. The M1 was the original downhill category-defining bike.
As the 90’s rolled along we realized that much of real mountain biking lived in between the extremes of full-on DH rigs and the lightweight hardtail bikes that were dominating the scene. In 1998, Intense launched the first Tracer—with 140 mm of travel and a fully active four-bar suspension design, it was one of the few bikes that brought true descending prowess while still delivering on the promise of reasonable pedaling efficiency. The next decade was a real shakeout in terms of suspension design and the refinement of shock damping performance. Intense realized the potential that existed with VPP (Virtual Pivot Point) technology and used it as the platform for the Tracer 2. That design became the Tracer 275, and shortly after the Tracer Carbon was born. The 2014 Tracer Carbon won “Bike of the Year” awards, and was once again a category-defining bike—light and efficient enough to pedal into the backcountry for an all-day epic, capable enough to charge black trails at the bike park. It is high on my list of bikes that have changed the way we ride. While the Tracer Carbon had become a very good bike through a normal course of product evolution, the changes to follow represent how Intense Cycles has evolved as a company.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
The new Tracer is perhaps the single best example of how Intense is transitioning from aluminum fabricator to carbon fiber technology leader. Here in Southern California, there are many stories told about Jeff Steber pedaling up to Cocktail Rock on the San Juan Trail and selling a frame, then riding home to light the torch and weld it himself. The minutia of running a business, and the market shift to carbon fiber, have changed his role over the years. However, with a changed business structure and new engineering partners, Jeff is once again focused on innovating new product—I think you are going to like what you see.
“This is a bike that rewards the strategy that the shortest distance from A to B is a straight line.”
With VPP patent agreements expiring, the Intense team found themselves with new leeway in suspension design. They are believers in using a floating pivot (VPP is defined as having “two counter-rotating links”), but the current linkage locations did not give them the suspension curves they were after. Through a great deal of testing, Intense has done a reset, and last year they launched “JS Tuned”—JS would be Jeff Steber (Intense Founder), but the “tune” is actually three separate platforms designed for the wide spectrum of bikes they offer—a short-link “JS Trail” tune for 115mm-150mm bikes, a Progressive “JS Downhill” tune for 175mm+ bikes, and the “JS Enduro” (160-170 mm category) tune which we find on our Tracer here. The unique lower link and beefy upper link are the secret sauce to dialing in the feel Intense was after. The suspension gets into progressive travel earlier in the stroke—it felt to me like you get into the “sweet spot” of the suspension sooner and then it ramps up from there. On every ride I used every last bit of travel, but I never noticed it bottom out.
Jenson USA Buyer, Mike B. searching for the Tracer’s limits.
Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me for a While
With the Tracer being an iconic Intense model, this one had to be right. The new suspension kinematics were analyzed and used to create a series of 8 aluminum test mules. Once the Intense crew and their Factory Team were satisfied with the result, they worked on the industrial design and carbon fiber layup schedule with one of the top design firms in Europe (who also does projects for KTM motorcycles). The result is that this bike rides differently from any Tracer before it. I immediately took notice of the chassis rigidity—when muscling the bike through technical terrain, carving off-camber turns, or glancing off rocks, the main frame and rear triangle stay in plane and inspire confidence (I chalked this up to a combination of refined carbon mainframe, stout linkages, and increased pivot bearing diameter). The suspension does have a more playful “poppy” feel to it. I felt like this new JS Tuned Enduro suspension was a great balance of quality travel and pedaling efficiency. My first ride on it began with a 1200 ft. climb and I forgot about the climb switch until I got out of the saddle near the top. The truth is that this bike climbs better than it has any right to for wielding 160 mm of travel. Most of that is because the Tracer Elite build weighs 28.1 lbs.!
Mike seeing how fast this machine will go.
It is capable getting you to the top, but we all know this bike is about descending—and the faster you push it, the better it gets! When picking through a rock garden at the top of the mountain the Tracer was willing, but it felt bored. I could almost hear it saying, “Pick it up Nancy! You’re doing it wrong!” As I got into some bigger turns and let it loose, the Tracer came into its own. This thing rips, the geometry is perfectly suited for charging through the chunder and sending it at every opportunity. The suspension and geometry feel much different than its lesser-travel-sibling Recluse, and your riding style will change when switching between the two. The large Tracer sports a 460 mm reach, so you have a rangy cockpit and plenty of wheelbase to work with. The 432 mm chainstays keep the bike tracking through rough terrain and favor stability over flickability. With a 65.5 degree head tube angle the bike is supremely capable, but make no mistake it wants to absorb obstacles at speed rather than diverting its course—this is a bike that rewards the strategy that the shortest distance from A to B is a straight line.
Looking comfortable even when things turn rowdy.
The new Tracer will be offered in five builds to cover price points ranging from the Sram NX/GX-equipped Foundation model at $4499, to the kids-college-fund-be-damned Factory spec at $10,499—here we are looking at Fox Factory Kashima suspension, Enve M70HV wheels, Sram XX1 Eagle drivetrain, XTR brakes, and all the other stuff I am going to buy when I when the lottery. Our tester was an “Elite” model (MSRP $8999)—this package is an embarrassment of riches in its own right. We’ve got a Fox Factory 36 Kashima fork paired with a Fox Float X2 at the back, and there are E13 TRS Race Carbon wheels wrapped in their own E13 TRS tires—these were a bit of a surprise, the wheels were plenty stiff and took abuse admirably, but I was blown away by the tires. E13 is using a large twin-row moto-block design that is very common of late, but they are choosing a very soft durometer—these things really hook up, and they provide a nicely damped ride quality in doing so. The rest of the package is really solid—Sram X01 Eagle with their Descendant crankset and Guide RS brakes, Rock Shox Reverb Stealth dropper post, and a Renthal handlebar.
For Intense the Tracer is a “brand within a brand”. This is the fifth new product launch they have done in the past 12 months, and I am going to argue that it is the most important one for Intense as a company. While DH bikes brought Intense into the spotlight, it was the Tracer that most of us could identify with. The evolution of this new model is a metaphor for how the company itself has changed with the times. We, as consumers, are demanding bikes that will do everything well—we want a bike that will take abuse and make us look like heroes while descending rough terrain, we also want to be able to climb and for all our energy to be translated into speed. I am still amazed that this mini-DH bike weighs only 28 lbs., and I came away very impressed with the wide range of situations in which it excels. I found myself pondering, “What more could I ask for?”