By Eric McKeegan
Anyone remember the NORBA DH scene in the ‘90s? It seemed every other “factory” rider was on an Intense M-1 rebadged with his or her sponsor’s name. While DH racing and the American bike market has changed immensely since then, Intense is still on the forefront of DH racing, and have a full line-up of XC racers, trail, freeride and just about any other mountain bike category you care to name. All this while keeping all frame manufacturing in-house in their Southern California HQ.
The Tracer 29 is Intense’s second 29” frame, the first being a steep and fast version of their Spider XC race bike. The Tracer is not at all steep, and at 140mm of rear travel, is one of the longest travel 29ers on the market. Designed as a do it all trail bike, I was more excited about trying this bike than any in recent memory.
Other than the head tube, there isn’t anything resembling a straight round tube on the entire frame. Copious use of bending, fluid forming and machining make for an aluminum frame that should be winning awards at NAHBS, it oozes hand built precision. I found the apple green paint a garish at first, but it grew on me and seems to fit the personality of this bike quite well.
The rear suspension is a licensed version of Santa Cruz’s proven VPP design. The lower suspension link has grease ports and set screws to keep the pivot bolts in place, and the upper link has some pretty slick machined aluminum pivot bolts.
Looking past all the pretty bits, Intense created a very versatile frame. The headtube is a straight 1.5” so any fork will fit, and it allows the use of a Cane Creek Angleset for head angle adjustment. The shock has two mounting points, for 5” or 5.5” of travel. Dropouts are available for 135mm QR and 142mm thru-axle, and can be adjusted for two different chainstay lengths, which also changes the head angle and bottom bracket height. Dropper post cable guides ISCG 05 mounts, and direct mount front derailleur tab round out the menu.
Since Intense sent a frame and Fox RP23 rear shock, I got busy building it up with help from a few companies: An XO 2×10 group, Reba RLT Ti 140 fork and Reverb seatpost from SRAM; Sun Ringle Charger Pro wheelset (see DR 154); Gravity 777 handlebar; Maxxis Ardent 2.4" tires; and some bits and pieces from my personal stash.
In the woods
Let’s get this out of the way first—this is a long bike. With the chainstays in the shorter of the two options (17.7" and 18.2") and a 140mm fork, the wheelbase is a substantial 45.75”, which is almost DH bike territory. Head angle is 70°, seat angle 73°. The longer position slackens head and seat angles by a degree and extends the wheelbase a half inch. Unsagged bottom bracket height goes from 13.7” in the short position to 13.5” in the long.
What does that mean on the trail? Well, I’ve never ridden a trail bike with more composure when things got dicey, particularly with the seat slammed and Gravity bar providing gobs of leverage. Handling was best described as looking for trouble when headed down hill. Small to medium drops, loose corners and rock gardens are what the Tracer wants for dinner. It responds best to a bit of manhandling and lots of body English.
The rear suspension behaved seamlessly. I started the test with the stock Fox RP23, and only used the platform on pavement. Everywhere else it was very controlled feeling, with only a hint of wallow in the mid stroke. I set the sag at 30% on the first ride and rode, never thought much of it after that. Sitting and climbing was bob free, and standing and cranking was more than acceptable on a 140mm bike.
I rode almost the entire test in the 5.5” mode; the shorter travel mode was a bit too progressive for me. In the rough, I regularly used full travel but never felt the shock bottom. Small bump sensitivity was just fine, although the confidence this bike inspired made me consider fitting a coil spring shock for an even more DH feel.
Then I remembered I’m not a DH guy, and live over an hour away from the mountains. I swapped the shock for a RockShox Monarch with a smaller air can, which took away some of the small bump sensitivity and made it a bit harder to access the last bit of travel, but any mid stroke wallow was gone. Personally, I preferred the big can on the Fox, but those wanting a more efficient feel may prefer the Monarch.
I did get a bit of twist going in the rear end, mostly in off camber rock sections and certain banked downhill corners where it felt like the rear would load up a bit and release as I came out of the corner. I’m going to hazard a guess the thru-axle rear option would help with this. Other than that, the bike gets good marks for stiffness. The Reba could also get a bit twisty feeling in the rocks, even with a 20mm axle—36mm stanchions anyone?
The only handling trait that took some getting used to was a tendency to dead sailor when getting air. I’m sure some of it’s my technique, but it doesn’t pop off lips and kickers like a smaller wheel. Other than that, the long wheelbase did require some retiming of up and over moves, but while the wheelbase might be DH-like, the weight certainly wasn’t, so other than a solid tug needed to get the front wheel up, any deficiency in log-overs and power moves can be chalked up to the rider.
Towards the end of the test I swapped out the Gravity bars for something in the 27” range, and put a skinnier tire on the back. This definitely helped to get the bike through the tight trees with much less contortions on my part, not to mention the slight drop in weight and rolling resistance made the bike less of a chore trying to chase down the guy in front of me. Not to say to was a pig normally, but it ain’t no XC racer.
I think most people will compare this to 140-150mm travel 26” trail bikes, and it will hang with any of them. The decidedly between-the-wheels feel gave me confidence to push the limits on descents, but I did miss the pop and fun of a 26” trail bike at times, but not as often as I expected, and the more I ride the Tracer, the less I miss it. With a finesse rider piloting this thing, 160mm all-mountain bikes aren’t going to pull away on descents.
I can’t punch this thing through the really chunky stuff like a bike with a bigger fork and heavy-duty tires, but good line choice and taking advantage of the momentum of the big wheels will go a long way towards keeping speeds in the warp zone on descents.
Who’s this thing for? I think this thing might be for me. Is it for you? If you are into big long rides with bunches of rough terrain, the Tracer is pretty darn well suited for you. Efficient rear suspension, rough terrain skills, and good looks to boot, you wouldn’t feel out of place strapping on the armor after climbing for an hour or two to earn some turns. In the end, the Tracer is a supremely confident trail bike, and one I’d be proud to add to the pile of bikes in my quiver.
- Age: 36
- Height: 5’11"
- Weight: 155lbs.
- Inseam: 32"
- Country of Origin: USA
- Price: $2,280 Frame and shock, $5,200 as tested
- Weight: 30lbs. (w/o pedals)
- Sizes Available: SM, MD (tested), LG, XL
This review originally appeared in Issue #155. You can order a copy of this issue in our online store, or purchase a subscription and you’ll get all our bike reviews far sooner than they appear online, plus you’ll help keep this great content rolling. Thanks.