Review: Intense Carbine

Review: Intense Carbine

Intense is probably the quintessential US boutique mountain bike brand, with a rich racing history and a long pedigree of building high-end bikes for discerning customers....

Intense has just joined the growing list of bike companies selling direct to the consumer - interestingly, in all markets except the USA and here. In New Zealand it’s possible to buy direct from Rotorua based importer Wide Open Distributors, but you can also still buy from a local Intense dealer. Prices are essentially the same for either option, and as prices here in NZ were already cheaper than in other markets there has been just a small couple of percent drop in prices since this announcement late last year.  

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The 155/160mm travel 29 inch wheeled Carbine was first seen right here in NZ, back in February at the Rotorua EWS. It was unstickered and stealth but unmistakably an Intense (including the fact that its rider Jack Moir is an Intense team rider…). Then our own Cameron Mackenzie got a quick ride on a higher specced Carbine in Rotorua and was impressed with the short time he had on it. It’s worth noting that, like the 27.5 wheeled Tracer Jhan Vernon reviewed earlier in 2017, the Carbine features a revised JS suspension system, courtesy of Intense Founder Jeff Steber (JS) and well-respected bike-design-consultant, Cesar Rojo. 

Frame

There’s something about the shapely full carbon frame that exudes a sense of purpose and strength, with clean and simple, but also undeniably beautiful lines and angles everywhere you look. The bright orange colour scheme really grew on me, even sans any Dukes of Hazard references it’s crying out for (if I could have slid across its bonnet, I would have). I rode the base ‘Expert’ model Carbine, but there is also a higher end carbon version available, which features a higher spec carbon weave and titanium bolts for a bit of extra weight saving. All the modern sizes are applied: tapered head tube, Boost wheel spacing, press-fit BB, along with internal cables, a grease fitting in the lower link and space for a water bottle in the front triangle.

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Parts

For what is the base-model, the Carbine I rode was very nicely specced indeed. A RockShox Yari (the Lyrik’s slightly poorer cousin) was slipped through the head tube, while a SRAM 12 speed GX Eagle drivetrain was mated to Race Face cranks, a DT Swiss M1900 (30mm internal rims) wheelset, Shimano XT brakes, along with a Fox Transfer 150mm dropper post, a Renthal 800m wide bar and a 40mm Intense stem. There’s not much I’d change out and it was really pleasing to see a cockpit that doesn’t need swapping for wider bars or a shorter stem. 

Geometry

Long, low and slack is what it’s all about these days, and the new Carbine is all those things. The 348mm bottom bracket height might not look that low on paper, but once you take into account sag on a 155mm travel back end, the ‘in-use’ height is plenty low enough. And given there is plenty of progression in the rear suspension, you could run more than 30% sag if you really wanted to drag the pedals across some rocks. The reach on the large is 455, which is about standard for ‘long modern’ bikes these days but not super-long, and it felt bang on for my 181cm height with the 40mm stem. The 445mm chainstays are longer than most, and while it might be fashionable to seek the shortest chainstays possible, the longer back end of the Carbine was welcome at times (and other times not, of course). The seat tube angle proved to be pretty slack in use, once slid up to my riding height (thanks to the very slack actual tube angle), but with the seat slammed all the way forward I was able to find a comfortable seating position, only about 10mm further behind the BB than is my preference. I also almost ran out of seatpost adjustment to get the seat angled where I liked it (flat, once the bike is sagged in at the back and topped out at the front, which in effect is slightly nose-down when the bike is on flat ground without a rider aboard). The head angle was pretty darned slack for a 29er at 65.5, which helped the wheelbase get out to 1233mm – far out, literally. Long - check, low - check, slack - check.

Ride

Uphill: On the ups, compared to previous long travel Intenses I’ve ridden, the Carbine noticeably doesn’t squat into travel with body weight and doesn’t squat into travel under power, which is attributable to the revised leverage curve utilised on newer Intense long travel bikes. This means that even up steep climbs it nips along very quickly, though I would still have preferred to be able to get the seat further forward for really steep climbs. On slow, rough climbs in small gears there is good traction and the suspension is active – sweet. Yes, it’s longer to get around uphill switchbacks and careful line selection is needed sometimes, but this something I adjusted to quickly. I did encounter one weakness that is likely irrelevant for many riders, but I’ll mention it because the Carbine otherwise tackles not-too-steep climbs so well: on rough gently-uphill or flat rough tracks requiring hard pedalling (like Nikau Valley in Makara), the Carbine wasn’t as smooth as some bikes. The high level of anti-squat, especially in gears further towards the smaller end of the cassette, tended to stop the back wheel from compressing into the travel when I pedal-wheelied into rockfaces or just generally tried to smash it into square-edged lumps under power, more so than some other bikes with softer pedalling dynamics, which can lend it a sort of ‘hard like a hardtail’ quality. The flipside of this trait, which most riders will find more relevant on such a bike, is that the Carbine’s out of the seat pedalling and general fire-road climbing capability never had me looking for a firmer compression setting; the hard rubbered Maxxis tyres contributed to the fast rolling at higher speeds too.

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Downhill: How does it ride downhill? Fast – it likes going fast. The Carbine was most in its element going as fast as I dared over rough ground. I could just stand in the middle of the bike and let the Carbine seesaw around me while I stayed pretty steady in the middle of it. I can’t think of many bikes faster than the Carbine in this situation. One of our other testers rode it and commented it likes going fast in a straight line, and I expect many people reading the geometry might assume that means it doesn’t like turning corners, but that isn’t right. It loves ripping corners so long as you counter-steer then lean it over; then the Carbine provides oodles of grip and confidence. Compared to some modern bikes that are really long from BB to front axle but short in the back-end, the Carbine is better at flat corners too – due to the long chainstays evening out some of that balance and counteracting what would otherwise be a too-light front wheel for good flat-corner ripping. 

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The Carbine doesn’t love all corners though. On really tight, slow-speed, awkward corners, where you can’t lean the bike much and you’re just left turning the bars, the sheer length of the Carbine had me fighting hard to keep the wheels within the confines of the track. I didn’t once send it over the edge but I came pretty close a couple of times (especially on Wellington’s steep and sometimes very tight Grade-6 Yeah Gnar track, which to be fair is tough to thread even a shorter 26er down). Cornering aside, at lower speeds more body English is needed; say when hucking off a suddenly-seen low-speed drop to flat (Yeah-Gnar track again). To be fair, tight, slow-speed tracks are not where you’re going to get the most from the Carbine. It’ll do it, but there are bikes better suited to such riding. That length is what makes the bike such a stable and reliable friend at speed though, so it’s just one of those ‘other side to the coin’ aspects you have to come to terms with trading off. 

Along with the geometry, the revised suspension leverage curve was noticeable downhill too. Pushing into corners was a pleasing sensation because the bike didn’t disappear into the too-soft-in-the-middle, then slam into a wall of sudden progression at the end like I found long-travel Intenses of old tended to do. That also helped keep the front end finding traction when dropping off ugly rutted steps, because the front end didn’t go suddenly light as the back end touched down. With 155mm of travel out back, the roughest lines and biggest holes are dispatched with ease, but there is still a real sense of composure in how the Carbine uses its travel, never rushing through the stroke unnecessarily. Again, just stand in the middle of the bike and let the bike do its thing (which is to stay calm no matter what mad sh*t you’ve gotten yourself into). The simple non-piggy-backed shock did get hot within a few minutes if the track was fast and rough enough, but the damping seemed to stay pretty consistent regardless. 

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The rear shock’s progression was spot-on for me at about 30% sag. On quite rugged natural trails, even at high speed I’d get about 80% of the travel, but switch to purpose built mtb track with largish drops and that last 20% came into play, though I never once heard or felt it bottom out. Still, if you need more resistance to big landings than I do, it’s not difficult to stuff some bands in the shock to lower the air volume.

Heavy riders especially will appreciate just how stiff the Carbine is. As our approx. 95kg tester commented, “I didn’t realise how much my bike was flexing until I rode the Carbine – I’m not going to like going back now”. I’m about 82 kg, so hardly heavy, but when I found myself cross-rutted at decent speed at one point, I was pretty sure I was going to get ejected by a ‘catch-and-release’ springiness that my own alloy bike tends to exhibit in such situations. Not the Carbine, it just stayed diagonal in two ruts until I figured I could actually ride it out by pointing the bars straight; then the back end just climbed over the rut it had been stuck in and away I went, somewhat confused and relieved. On the other hand, both the other tester and I encountered a few occasions of feeling the front end was pretty rough to hang onto. I’m putting that down to either a very stiff head-tube/down-tube connection, or possibly the basically damped Yari. I wish I knew for certain, but I couldn’t be sure which was responsible for that occasional feeling of needing to ‘hang on tight’ a few times with the front end bouncing about while the back end stayed composed. 

In terms of some key components not yet mentioned, the GX Eagle gear spread was plentiful and I was grateful for the 32 front ring, allowing plenty of pedalling speed without being down in the 10 too often. The Shimano XT brakes proved powerful and consistent, though on long and steep descents I know from past experience they can get overwhelmed, so on a bike like this I would prefer the new four-pots, if that were an option. The DT wheelset remained true and trouble-free throughout testing, even if the three-pawl free-hub made a popping sound a couple of times (this is pretty normal in my experience if the rear hub doesn’t have [DT’s] Star Ratchet, Hope or Chris King printed on it). I would save the stock Maxxis Highroller for the back and put a Maxxis 2.5 3c (stickier rubber) on the front. The stock tyre is fine in the dry on the front, but it’s best as a long-lasting rear tyre - although given how fast the Carbine likes to be ridden, it would benefit from a rear tyre with a tougher casing.

 

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Conclusion

Boutique bikes are never cheap, so while it might sound odd to say that $7299 is the budget model, that is the case with the Intense Carbine and the bike does come with kit that largely reflects the price. In terms of who it suits, if you like slicing your way through tight trees and slow-speed tech, then there are better options (like the smaller wheeled and shorter-lengthed Intense Recluse), but if you like going really fast, especially when it gets really rugged, you won’t ever be caught holding a knife at a gunfight with the Carbine.

Key Specs

  • Frame: Carbon fibre
  • Rear Travel: 155mm
  • Front Travel: 160mm
  • Shock/Fork: RockShox Deluxe RT3/RockShox Yari RC
  • Drivetrain/brakes: SRAM Eagle GX/Shimano XT
  • Wheels/tyres: DT M1900/Maxxis High Roller Weight: 14.1g (w/o pedals)
  • Price: $7299
  • Distributed by: Wide Open Distributors

Photos by Cameron MacKenzie

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