GT Sensor Carbon Elite

Back in the early ’90s, the original GT LTS was jaw-droppingly cool – with its Horst-link and trunnion shock (and thermo-plastic frame!). As good as that original LTS was back then, GT always sought to be cutting edge so spent the next couple of decades in search of the ultimate suspension system, utilizing high-pivots with a floating bottom bracket in their I-drive and AOS designs. These designs certainly had their benefits (great pedaling), but they also had their downsides (complexity), so this year GT have gone back-to-the-future with a simpler linkage-driven Horst link design – Linkage Tuned Suspension (LTS) as GT call it. As a result, at first glance the new GTs look a bit like the original LTS and a lot like a lot of other bikes do now. But the ride quality is in the detail, and GT have made a conscious decision around how they want their new design to ride.

It’s worth noting the newly released Force and Sensor frames share the same layout and suspension kinematics though differ in wheels size and travel. The Force is a 150mm travel all-mountain and enduro 27.5er, while I rode and reviewed the Sensor Carbon Elite, a 130mm travel 29er trail bike - though that didn’t stop Wyn Masters winning a very competitive New Zealand enduro race aboard his (custom up-forked) Sensor. But to be fair, Wyn Masters he could probably win manualing a Penny Farthing.

Frame

A beautifully sculpted carbon front end is matched to a solid-looking alloy back end, tied together with big bearings (double-row at the Horst-Link) and locking collets to make loose pivots a less likely thing. The external cable routing in the ‘groove tube’ is notably tidy and can run right-front or right-rear braking cleanly. The threaded BB makes replacement a simple home-mechanic affair when the time comes. A drink bottle fits in the front triangle on top of the cable routing, though you’ll need longer bolts as those supplied were too short to mount a cage. The Elite model tested here comes in a subdued black with subtle red and blue accents.

Components

A Rockshox Sektor RL with 130mm of travel is fitted up front, complemented by a Rockshox Deluxe R. Drivetrain is 12 speed SRAM NX Eagle, with an 11-50 rear cassette and Truvativ Descendant crank fitted with a 32 tooth ring. SRAM Level TL brakes with 180 rotors bring the All Terra (GT’s own brand) hubbed and WTB rimmed (29mm inner width) wheels to a halt, while Schwalbe Hans Dampf tyres are assigned the ground work. An X-Fusion dropper post (125mm on small and medium, 150mm on large and XL) gets the WTB Silverado seat out of the way, though there is also a quick release clamp should you wish to double-drop for a bit of extra maneuvering room.

Geometry

 Due to a small misunderstanding, I ended up with the medium size. While at 181 cm GT recommend I ride the large size, the medium turned out to offer some benefits on my local tracks, so I kept with it. The Sensor is contemporarily long (445 reach on the medium and 470 on the large). It comes fitted with a 30mm stem (not a 60mm stem as listed on some websites). It is notably slack up front for a 29er with 130mm of travel, featuring a 65.5 degree head angle. The Sensor also sports a very steep 76 degree seat angle, which meant I could run the saddle in the middle of the rails and be comfortably seated over the BB, for a bad-back-suitable and front-end-planted uphill position. Chainstays are a moderate 435mm.

So, the Sensor is long and slack, but in a break from recent trends, the Sensor is not very low. Even in the low setting, the BB height is a fairly tall 350mm off the ground. When you consider the Sensor only has 130mm of travel and GT recommends 25% sag, this means that you’re unlikely to smack even your thickest flat pedals on the ground aboard the Sensor. GT says the higher 356mm optional geo setting also alters the kinematics for improved pedaling, but I didn’t feel it needed improved pedaling, and would have preferred the BB lower if anything, so I didn’t ever ride it in the high position.

Ride up

In short, the Sensor is a good pedaler but is not a snappy pedaler. GT has even expressly said that getting the firmest pedaling bike wasn’t their main aim with either the Force or Sensor. Still, I found it a solid climber; it’s just that it prefers you stay seated and grind it out up steep climbs, which is easy with that nicely forward seating position and supple suspension that remains active over bumps even when you are giving it uphill. It’s also happy for you to cruise uphill out of the seat, but compared to some bikes of similar travel, the Sensor is not a fan of standing sprinting uphill, and even downhill out of seat sprinting feels cushioned.

 Aside from suspension performance, in terms of gears, the SRAM NX Eagle never left me wanting more in either direction and shifting snappiness was surprisingly close to the much pricier versions of Eagle.

Updulating and downdulating

 In terms of undulating riding, the Sensor is one of the best, especially if you’re pedaling hard over bumpy ground. The active suspension and high BB mean you can smash it without concern about what’s beneath you, with any undulations that might upset your rhythm smoothed out. If you’re coming off a bike with firmer compression damping or more anti-squat, on the first few rides some riders might wish the Sensor had a lock-out for the rear suspension. However, in my experience, unless the bike is a very bad pedaler, which the Sensor is not, such levers are mainly a mental crutch for riders, and are more trouble than they’re worth when you forget to unlock them at the top of a climb. GT’s tagline for the Sensor is ‘Ride more, think less’, which fits well with the lack of rear suspension climbing ‘aids’. There is still a lockout on the fork, but again, I found no need for it.

 Cornering was intuitive and smooth. I wondered if the 65.5 head angle might make the front end feel a bit washy on flatter tracks, but the shorter reach of the medium frame helped keep the front wheel weighted and the bike arcing smoothly around corners.

Ride down

 The Sensor is a great descender. Big 29er wheels, grippy 2.3 tyres and active yet supportive suspension mean you can pump smooth tracks as well as drop into steeper, more natural tracks. But most bikes have a bottleneck somewhere: sometimes it’s the geometry (but not with the Sensor, because the geometry has got ‘get rad’ written all over it), sometimes it’s the rear suspension that maybe bottoms out a little too easily or trap-doors in the middle (nope, the rear suspension on the Sensor is ideal). With the Sensor the bottle-neck was the Sektor fork. The Sektor was good at moderate speeds on not-too-rough tracks or on native and rugged tracks that weren’t too fast, where it handled everything just fine and felt smooth and well-supported, without any undue diving under braking.  But once the tracks got rougher AND faster, the Sektor felt harsher and comparatively spikey and uncontrolled, whereas the rear suspension still had plenty to give.

Out back, the RockShox Deluxe R rear shock was a fine performer at all speeds and the progression was bang-on for me, without needing to get into the shock and tune the air volume. Set at 25% sag as recommended by GT I got plenty of support in the middle for pumping and had just enough ramp up to nudge bottom-out on big drops without any clanking noises.

The wheels stayed true and trouble-free throughout the test, though they were noticeably heavy, partly due to the NX cassette on the back wheel. I’d definitely get the shop to set the bike up tubeless before leaving the shop too.

I have to admit I didn’t expect great things from the SRAM Level TL brakes, simply because they’re two-piston and I’m now so used to four-piston brakes. But in practice they were excellent stoppers that had a great lever shape, enough power for all the descents I rode and they always felt consistent, with no sign of a wandering bite-point that afflicts some pricier brakes these days. Except that they came with resin pads, which meant they lost significant power in the wet (solution – replace with metal pads in winter). It was also a very finicky job with a tiny Allen key to adjust their lever reach. That aside, they brought the bike to a stop with admirable power and modulation.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the X-Fusion dropper post. The lever in particular is very adjustable and will fit any thumb and push-angle preference. These days, 125mm is not enough drop in theory, but it was actually less of a hindrance than I anticipated, though a longer drop would clearly be preferable (the large and XL come with 150mm).

Stiff! The Sensor frame is very stiff; both the alloy back and carbon front ends, along with the bits linking the two halves, exhibited no discernable flex. This makes the Sensor suitable for heavy smashers who don’t like the feeling of bike hinging between two halves. It also bodes well for not breaking the frame.

Fit findings

 While a 445mm reach would have been pretty standard for a large frame just a couple of years ago, it’s the new norm for mediums now. I enjoyed the medium sized frame for its sporty nature and for the way it made easier work of awkward corners, as well as for being able to loft the front end easily for pre-jumping and similar fun-times. It never felt twitchy or too short in the handling though, no doubt thanks to that slack head angle ensuring the front wheel was still a long way out in front. Of course, the large frame would have added yet more stability and chopped off a bit of the playful nature in return. With that in mind, if you’re in between sizes, think about whether you are going to be going full-noise for most of your riding, or a bit less than full-noise. If it’s the latter, consider choosing the smaller of the two options you fit aboard. One thing though – make sure you can get the bars as high as you want them before you leave the shop because, uncommonly for a new bike, the steerer was cut quite short, so some riders might need higher rise bars to make up for that.

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Also, while I don’t have any complaints about the cornering, I’d still have liked to get the BB lower to see if that could make the cornering sharper again, but there is only an unnecessarily higher BB option available. 

Value

 Five grand is the kind of money a pretty serious mountain biker is going to drop on a new bike. The Sensor Carbon Elite has a great carbon frame and some key components that perform well. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if a buyer would find better ride-value with an alloy frame and a higher-spec fork. It’s a bike-buyer’s conundrum – get the spendier carbon frame and upgrade bits as they wear out or get the best key-components you can on a worthy alloy frame? The Sensor Carbon Elite takes the former option, and it’s a valid one. Interestingly, we’ve just got a GT Force (Alloy) Expert on review, which features higher-end suspension with a more budget-friendly alloy frame, and the whole package comes out at $500 more than this here Sensor. They’re not at all the same bike so a buyer is unlikely to be deciding between both, but I’m going to be interested to see which makes the overall better ride-sense in terms of value – watch out for it in a future issue.

Conclusion

 The days of 29ers being “for XC only” are long gone and the Sensor is a bike emblematic of this; it’s a fun trail bike, aimed at riders who want to enjoy their riding, but aren’t bothered about whether they gain or lose a few seconds in a sprint to the top of the hill. If you’re more interested in making that tricky rooty climb that often eludes you, then the Sensor is up for it. And if you’re focused on getting back down just as much, then the active and supportive rear suspension along with the slack front end is on your side. If you plan to subject the Sensor to a lot of rugged descending, then the frame is stiff enough even for hard-charging big guys, but if you are a hard-charger I would think about whether you can afford another step up from this model, solely to get a fork better suited to charging into rough stuff. Fit-wise, the Sensor has a very slack front end, so with the level of stability that provides, if your tracks aren’t super-fast or super-rugged and you are in between sizes, then choosing the smaller of the two size options you can fit is worth considering. Either way, the Sensor is a great 29er trail bike


Words: Carl Patton

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