Opening the discussion at the 2017 Scott Spark 29er introduction in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, which happens to be the home of the brand’s marque rider and current cross-country World Champion Nino Schurter, its engineers made it very clear that that Spark’s main focus is competition and going fast. In fact, the resort town and mountain bike destination was chosen to showcase the bikes not only because it is Nino’s home trails but also a three year World Cup location (2015-2017) as well as the site for the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships. You could say the focus was clear. But the story doesn’t end there.
The Spark RC is indeed a cross-county dedicated race bike that was three years in development with a long-term goal of being an Olympic winner in Rio this summer but within this platform and its new suspension design come two additional models: a trail bike version simply called Spark with 120 mm of travel as well as a very capable Spark Plus with 120 mm of rear suspension mated to a 130 mm travel fork. This is the bike, by choice, I spent most of my time on during the launch.
In 2013 Scott began development of the new platform. The long-term goal was Rio to give team racers the best tool to win. Requirements were clear: light weight first but with modern cross-country courses becoming rougher and more technical that wasn’t enough.
Impact absorption and improved performance was the impetus for the new Spark line. Most noticeable is the new single pivot rocker link suspension design and the elimination of links at the dropouts. This is because the old configuration, developed way back in 2007, tended to be harsh off the top of its travel and then blow through the midstroke too easily. According to Scott this was based on the progressive nature of previous air shocks. With more liner tuned air shocks available it because obvious it was time for a change. In regards to comfort, the old design had its “shock zone” on the top tube, which required a not so optimal stiff top tube. The new design has its shock zone at the bottom bracket junction, just where you need it. Shock forces now go into the bottom bracket area so strength was boosted there. It also allowed Scott to make a more comfortable top tube that doesn’t send vibrations to the rider. This new single pivot linkage uses a Fox Nude CTD shock with the new Trunnion sizing mount. Besides giving frame designers more design space the shock has a longer stroke for a given overall length. This means a more compact area with smaller links so everything can sit tighter and closer to the frame.
The frame also needed to be stiff yet comfortable. To do this Scott looked at the Spark frame in the same pieces as the revamped Scale hardtail: controlled flex in the top tube and seat stays provide additional comfort where it’s desired while the down tube, bottom bracket junction and chain stays control stiffness where it’s required.
Geometry has also been fine tuned on the 29er, coming from a demand from Nino. Traditionally a 27.5 rider, Scott was tasked to get his positioning, including saddle to handlebar drop measurement and handling characteristics equal so he could make the switch to a 29er by the Olympics. While the 27.5 bike’s geo remains the same for 2017 the 29er gets a 67.2 degree head angle (the Spark and Plus have 67 and 66.9 degrees respectfully due to longer travel forks), 13 mm shorter stays thanks to Boost spacing, making them just 10 mm longer than the 27.5. The seat angle has been steepened by a degree to 73.8 degrees to better center the rider and the bike has a 17 mm longer reach to increase stability without sacrificing quickness and response. Stack height is also lowered due to a shorter head tube and in-milled bearing cups. According to Nino his 29er handles just like his 27.5 so he’s shelving the smaller wheels he’s been famous for riding and going big.
Now that the seatstay pivots are removed and the design relives on the natural flex of the stays a new brake mount was designed which is anchored directly to the chainstay and wheel axle. This prevents braking forces from inhibiting movement. When the stays flex they actually bow outboard, further increasing the ability to run a fatter tire.
So what does all this mean for non-racers? All this technology goes directly into the trail bike and 27plus frames, which are identical. And while the Spark RC is single ring only, the Spark and 27plus bikes are single or double compatible.
On The Trail
Within the first mile on the World Cup cross-county loop the speedy nature of the 120 mm Spark with its RC heritage is evident. The new suspension design is a very noticeable improvement over the previous layout. The bike sits higher with more support in the critical sag area of its travel yet remains sensitive to small bumps in the initial part of the stroke. It did take a bit more trail and error to find just the right air pressure but once I did I found that the bike pedals vastly superior to the old design in Descend mode, so much so that on off-road climbs I kept it there and only went to Trail (which reduces air volume to give the back 85 mm of travel) on smooth fireroads. And of course Climb was great to have on the road ride back to the hotel.
Its 120 mm of travel is in the sweet spot of aggressive cross-country, very fitting for higher speed singletrack and rough sections that have small booters that could be rolled as well as jumped. This travel is also ideas for adventure cross-country as well as 100 mile or stage racing over unexpected terrain. While I didn’t get a chance to weigh it the bike feels incredibly light (the frame weighs a claimed 4.42 pounds with shock and hardware.)
The Spark Plus carries over all these traits with the added benefit of Maxxis Rekon 2.8” tires. Because the head tube measures 66.7 degrees with the big tires and 130 mm travel fork the Plus has a decidedly trail bike feel when it’s pointed downhill–pin it and go. While one day was pure trail riding the other was spent using the collection of lifts in the area to hit a multitude of downhills that were just technical enough to keep you sharp but not over the top gnarly and the Plus was a blast to ride. It had traction for days and carved and sliced through corners better than a bike of this ilk ever should. While lifts were involved that didn’t mean it was all downhill. When it came time to ascend to the next singletrack the Plus climbed lively and responsive thanks to its light weight, able suspension and TwinLoc adjust. Frame weight for the top level carbon is a mere 4.7 pounds with shock and hardware.
Like the long-travel Spark, once the suspension was dialed it was smiles for miles the whole way down the mountain. Slick rocks and roots? No problem with the high volume tires. Tacky, bermed sections with a rocky entrance? Just point and shoot, it’s that easy, fun and fast.
As you’d expect, there will be a full range of prices and models available (25 total to be exact) between all the versions, from top-shelf carbon to affordable aluminum frames with a multitude of parts options as well as women’s specific Contessa Spark and Spark Plus. If you prefer 27.5 each model will feature a twin with the same new suspension configuration and lighter weight frames in the smaller wheel size.
Ed’s Note: This bike is part of our annual, sub-$3,000 bike test where the Dirt Rag staff spends significant time aboard less-expensive but fully capable offerings that we’d seriously consider buying ourselves. The final review will be out early 2016 in issue #189. Subscribe today so you don’t miss it!
Scott’s cross-country specific Spark carries World Championship lineage. The brand’s marque rider Nino Schurter won gold a few months ago in Andorra on a tricked-out carbon Spark 700 SL with custom parts and accessories. While a replica of his personal ride is off-the-charts, budget-wise, Scott offers a very broad line of Spark’s at many price points, including this nice $2,699 aluminum 950.
Additionally the brand gives you wheel size options. While Schurter races on 27.5 , Canadian Geoff Kabush—who happens to be a 13-time national cross-country champion—chooses the same bike with 29-inch shoes. Our choice? We went 29er because, for XC applications, the bigger hoops seem to handle our rocky and rooty East Coast trails better and we also recently tested the $9,000 Spark 700 SL with 27.5 wheels in Issue #182. Scott makes this same bike in the smaller wheel size, as well.
Like the higher-end models, this sub-$3,000 Spark 950 gets TwinLoc suspension technology. The three-position handlebar mounted lever controls both the fork and shock at the same time. Going from fully open (Descend), one click switches the Fox Float shock to Trail mode while the Fox 32 Float fork remains in Descend. The next click puts both the shock and fork into Climb mode. It’s a handy system but it needs to be set up just right to work properly because both shock and fork work off the same lever. Our test bike came with too short fork housing that gummed up the works a bit. It was an easy fix but, still…
All Sparks have an adjustable geometry chip on the suspension linkage. The low bottom bracket setting has a 69.5-degree head angle and 72.5-degree seat tube angle. The high setting measures in at 70.1 degrees and 73.1 degrees, respectfully. Bottom bracket height goes from 12.5-inches up to 12.75. We’ve kept ours in the low setting thus far for the best, most versatile performance that combines cross-country speed with some inherent trail bike mannerisms. For serious racing, like the wide-open Sea Otter Classic course or a smoother dirt crit format, the high setting brings the Spark’s gun and run heritage to life.
Parts selection is all top notch with plenty of Shimano and Syncros aluminum parts to go with the aluminum frame. While everything worked great, it’s unfortunate that neither the wheels nor tires are tubeless ready. Any bike over a grand should at least have taped rims and tubeless ready tires.
Ultimately, the Spark had a few growing pains on its way to the full test that will appear in the next issue of Dirt Rag. After overhauling the TwinLoc cabling and setting up the wheels tubeless the bike is ready to roll and is, so far, delivering capable performance that ideally fits day-to-day cross-country style riding without being overly aggressive or twitchy when it’s time to just have some fun on the trail. An easy adjustment transforms it into a racing rocket ship.
From Issue #182
The dry, kitty-litter-covered trails of Bootleg Canyon in Nevada can be a cruel testing ground. The twisty singletrack is nearly traction-less and the many rock formations are often not for the faint of heart: While small, they can be steep and often located in turns.
In the realm of modern mountain biking, this terrain is perfect for a slack-angled trail bike if going fast and having fun is what you’re after. But that wasn’t my bike style of choice; I went full cross-country with a carbon fiber Scott Spark 700 SL. This was my first ride on this test bike, which would soon make its way to the East Coast for more miles.
The Spark utilizes a “geometry chip” with high/low settings to change bottom-bracket height by six millimeters and steepen or slacken the head angle by half a degree. I left it in the low/slack position for Bootleg as well as for my local Pennsylvania trails, which resulted in a 68.3-degree head angle—unheard of by cross-country racing standards—and a 13-inch bottom-bracket height. This setting provided unparalleled confidence in rough technical sections and high-speed chutes. I was able to get my weight back over the rear wheel to easily keep the front end light, never dropping into a gap or catching on a transition from steep rock face to flat dirt.
Cornering was never an issue either. On slick terrain the Spark was confident and assuring, like a good all-mountain bike. Climbing prowess was impeccable, as you’d expect, and pedal strikes on rocks were never an issue in the low setting. It also didn’t hurt that the Spark has 120mm of front and rear travel to soak up the hits, compared to the 100mm often found on dedicated cross-country race rigs.
The Fox 32 Float fork and Fox Nude rear shock have three settings: Climb, Traction (Trail, in Fox parlance), and Descend, controlled by a single TwinLoc handlebar-mounted lever. I found myself flicking the TwinLoc lever as much as I poked at the SRAM XX1 shifter. I was initially skeptical about this system, but that was based on previous experiences with the less-than-adequate DT Swiss rear shock that Scott used for years.
Last year’s move to a Fox system is a game changer. I used Climb mode a bit, but mostly Traction for the best mix of acceleration and Velcro-like wheel grip over rough, loose desert trails. On the slower, rocky-and-rooty singletrack of the East I choose Descend mode for the best mix of plushness, control, and climbing on less-than-ideal surfaces.
Though weight is just over 21 pounds (without pedals), I immediately switched the Schwalbe Thunder Burt EVO semi-slick tires to the more useful and versatile (and perhaps a touch overkill for an XC bike) Maxxis Ardent 2.25s. The increase in traction and performance on my unpredictable East Coast trails in fall and winter raised the weight to 22.1 pounds, which to me was a fair tradeoff.
It’s amazing to think that just a few years ago cross-country racers relied on twitchy head-tube angles in the 70-degree-plus range. Today, Scott has almost gone into the 67-degree range for its World Cup–level cross-country race machine. Not only does this make it a potent race weapon, but with 120mm of travel it’s one hell of a fun bike to ride anywhere and everywhere.
- Price: $9,000
- Weight: 21 pounds (without pedals)
- Sizes: S, M (tested), L, XL
- More info: scott-sports.com
Every year for the last few years, Dirt Rag has gathered up a half-dozen or so full-suspension trail bikes for complete testing that fall into the entry-level/affordable/budget category. Yes, three grand is still a lot of money, but good bikes aren’t cheap and this price point is much more reasonable for the average enthusiast rider willing to invest some coin in a great ride. So, there you go.
This year we are changing things up significantly by opening our test up to all types of mountain bikes, not just suspension bikes. The following caught our eye for one reason or another, but all of them are bikes we’d look very hard at in their respective categories. Or, rather, these are bikes I would look at since, really, these are all my choices. Direct your ire toward me about whatever it is that has you all wadded up. The rest of the DR crew is just here to ride the things and give us their honest opinions.
We’ll roll out first impressions of these bikes over the next few days and full reviews in Dirt Rag issue #189 (January). Subscribe today so you don’t miss it. In the meantime, here are the reasons each bike ended up on the list and who the testers are.
Scott Spark 950 — $2,700
I still have fond memories of the Spark 29 RC I raced in the Trans-Sylvania Epic a few years ago. The 950 is a much less expensive version of that bike, with an aluminum frame and a less expensive build kit. What is doesn’t lose is the Twin-Loc lockout and what is perhaps the most aggressive geometry for a cross-country race bike you can buy. Head angle is a slack 68.8 or 68.3 degrees; the bottom bracket height is around 13 inches; and the chain stays are right at 17 inches, which makes me think this bike would be well served by a dropper.
Dirt Rag Editor-in-Charge Mike Cushionbury is our resident former XC pro license holder, and assigning him the Spark is my continued attempt to get him on more modern bikes. Now if only I can pry those narrow bars and long stems out of his grasp, then we’ll be getting somewhere.
Devinci Hendrix — $2,999
I was surprised to see the Hendrix, to be honest. Devinci is a small company and a bike like this (120/110 front/rear travel, 27plus wheels) is taking a big chance with the limited resources smaller companies have to develop new products. Working in Devinci’s favor is in-house aluminum frame production, which saves a lot of time. With the American dollar strong against the Canadian dollar, those of us in the States have some serious buying power.
What really drew me to the Devinci is its aggressive geometry paired with shorter travel, a recipe that usually spells F-U-N. Dirt Rag’s new art director, Stephen Haynes, gets welcomed to the fold with this pretty righteous test bike.
Norco Torrent 7.1 — $2,425
Norco has a number of bikes under $3,000, but this is the newest to the lineup and is a return to the heavy-duty hardtail category for the Canadian brand. Maybe it is just me, but after years of riding all kinds of knobby-tired bikes, this thing looks almost perfectly proportional. And in case anyone was wondering about which 27plus tires are best for fall use on the East Coast, the Schwalbe Nobby Nics are perhaps the best thing to happen to leaf-covered trails.
I (Tech Editor Eric McKeegan) am riding this bike and am stoked on its slack, low and short geometry.
Marin Attack Trail — $2,750
I’ve been digging Marin’s evolving lineup over the last few years. The Attack Trail is a standout for a number of reasons. While the SR Suntour fork and shock might not be as well-regarded as the bigger names, both have more damping adjustments than many bikes at this price. The 1×10 drivetrain has a Sunrace 11-42-tooth cassette for most of the range of more expensive 11-speed systems. And out of every bike here, I think the Marin looks least like its price tag.
Our general manager and Dirt Rag photographer Justin Steiner is testing the limits of those Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires on the leaf-covered trails around Dirt Rag’s Pittsburgh HQ.
Kona Hei Hei Trail — $2,500
We’ve been fans of the many new bikes from Kona in the last few years. Kona has a bigger range of sub-$3k trail bikes than just about anyone, but another 29er seemed to be the best bet for this group so the new Hei Hei Trail got the nod. Taking the proven Hei Hei cross-country platform and swapping in some sturdier parts and a longer fork has resulted in something that I would almost describe as a Process 111 lite.
We might have lost Adam Newman as Dirt Rag’s web editor, but he moved only a few feet away to play editor-in-chief of our sister mag, Bicycle Times. He’ll be riding the Hei Hei in its Pacific Northwest homeland.
Surly Wednesday — $1,500
The Wednesday is a true sleeper. On the surface, it looks like just another fatty in an already-crowded field of Surly fat bike offerings, but looking more closely reveals a refined and thoughtful bike. A 177 mm symmetrical rear end, 100 mm threaded bottom bracket shell, horizontal drop outs that can fit either thru-axles or quick releases, full length cable housing, tapered head tube, internal dropper post routing and enough braze-ons to keep everyone happy. Mix that up with modern trail geometry and suspension fork compatablity and it looks like a winner to me. Its cheapest-of-the-bunch price tag and Addams Family-inspired name are the icing on the cake.
Our new web editor, Katherine Fuller, took the reigns on this one and is out in Colorado bouncing over rocky singletrack waiting for the snow to fall.
Charge Cooker — $2,400
A little confession: I really wanted this bike to be Cannondale’s Beast of the East, but it wasn’t ready in time and was replaced with this bike from Charge, another bike brand in the Dorel family. This video is what got the Cooker on my radar originally and, after seeing them in person at Interbike, I was pretty interested. The stock Trailblazer tires aren’t ideal around western Pennsylvania this time of year, but swapping the front tire to a much bigger and more aggressive WTB Trail Boss has helped tremendously.
Our circulation guy Jon Pratt is pedaling this one into fall and probably missing his dropper post.
Transition Patrol 4 — $2,999
Did you know you can get a complete Transition for under $3,000? Yes, even if only by one dollar. For a brand that is as well-regarded as Transition, this is good news for riders with smaller credit card limits. Considering that the frame itself retails for $1,999, there is a great deal of value in the parts kits. The Marzocchi fork up front was a bit of a worry, at first, but with the news that Fox purchased the mountain bike side of Marzocchi there is much less reason for worry about parts and warranty support.
Friend of Dirt Rag (official title) Bill Kirk is on this one. This Transition is a hell of a good looking bike for the money.