Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stanton Sherpa Review - Weapon At Dawn

I've been mountain biking a hell of a long time now, long enough to see many trends come and go, to witness a niche pastime evolve into the mainstream behemoth it is now.  To see it splinter into ever more diverse categories requiring a litany of increasingly specialist kit.  To slap my forehead at bullshit marketing drives that dictated directions of development.  To watch manufacturers come and go, the brands I lusted over as a teenager virtually all extinct, driven from existence or swallowed by the faceless megacorps.  Today's empires, tomorrow's ashes.

It'd be a lie to claim to have been unaffected by the decades of 'progress'.  I undeniably appreciate that all aspects of bike design are exponentially better than the late Eighties when I commenced my lifelong passion.  The capabilities of equipment and athletes are so far in-advance of our most outlandish predictions from back then that the sport is often barely recognisable, except deep down, no matter what you do, it's still all about tearing around on two wheels for shits and giggles.

Nowadays plastic is everywhere, suspension obligatory, cassettes expanding, bars lengthening, seatposts dropping, stems shortening, axles extending, wheels growing, tyres widening, trade shows trading, retailers discounting, pushing aggressively, sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy and dispose.  Wear it out fast, instant obsolescence.  'Last years colours mate, time to move on...'

The 2017 Stanton Sherpa in aggro mood
And yet beyond my cynicism there is a hint of hope.  The craftsmen are returning and companies who covet quality, longevity, individualism and pride are fighting back.  'Outdated' materials are suddenly the hot new thing and shocked magazine editors with short memories are being blown away by designs beautiful in their simplicity.  The right grades of steel and titanium, inherently perfect for biking, are being improved by dedicated experts, wealthy on knowledge and experience, and are once again challenging the space-age wonder composites.

It's against this backdrop that I came across Stanton Bikes.

I've been a fan of Stanton ever since getting schooled by a rival hardtail Enduro racer on a raw finished Slackline a few years back.  The aesthetics of his steed, perfect welds and simplicity of frame layout seemed to scream 'fun', and every time I saw it I had a slight pang of jealousy.  At the time I was piloting an extremely fun but terrifyingly twangy Ibis Tranny but a sponsorship deal with Ragley took me back to steel and then in 2017 a chance e-mail led me to a dream scenario.

Dan Stanton is a bike geek.  I'm not sure if he'd be flattered or deeply offended by the moniker but my first ever conversation with him convinced me of the fact.  I'd tentatively enquired about a possible deal and to my surprise he'd asked me to give him a ring.  An hour-long chat ensued covering all things bike and I was immediately struck by his overwhelming enthusiasm for the seeming mundanities of seat tube diameters and metallurgical properties.  His knowledge eminently dwarfed my thirty-odd years of biking experience and we thoroughly enjoyed putting the industry to rights like grumpy old men venting at the world.  He offered me sponsorship, I danced a jig around my house!

Neat Cabling, Clean Lines, Bright Bars!
Now this is meant to be a bike review, and yet so far it reads like a mix between an industry rant and a gushing fanzine, but here's the deal.  I've been placed under no obligation to say anything positive about this machine whatsoever.  I'm not being given kit as a racer, more as a writer and a coach, someone who's opinion is regularly sought, so I guess Dan was being astute in considering effective ways to spread the word, but that came at a distinct risk.  If I didn't rate the bikes and components then I guess I'd return them and say no more but if people asked my opinion, I'd give them it with both barrels.

So what do I think?

First up, we need to consider another question, why the Sherpa?  As a fully signed up 'Enduro' type, bumbag and all, I should really be showcasing the 650b ripper, the Switchback.  With slacked out geometry, ISCG mounts, internal routing and beefy gussets surely that's the Stanton designed for the likes of me, not their more sedate, more upright 'trail bike' offering?  Except for one thing, all wheel sizes smaller then 29" are dead to me.  No doubt some of you will stop reading right here, stalled by your indignation, off to slag the rapidly expanding list of DH pros who are currently seeing the light I was blinded by two years ago.  Now that geometry is dialled, the big-wheeled machines are more capable in virtually all applications.  They fill in gaps to maintain speed better, roll faster, have more cornering grip, and are more stable in the tech than smaller wheeled offerings.  I've been saying for a while now that by 2020 you'll struggle to find any flagship Enduro models that aren't 29'ers, it looks like DH will follow suit too and XC has long-since made its decisions.  The Slackline and the Switchback both look lovely but I'll not be swinging a leg over either.

Set-Up

With a 67.5 degree head angle and a recommended fork travel of 100-120mm I was always going to be tweaking the Sherpa in a direction it maybe isn't exactly designed for.  140mm Pikes have jacked up the front end, slackening it for the steeps but have also raised the bottom bracket height which isn't ideal for cornering stability.  I've directly contradicted advice in over-forking the frameset but the only qualms Stanton had were over ride-qualities and definitely not regarding the frame's ability to handle the extra leverage.  I've also fitted a bottom-bracket secured ISCG mount having been denied a race victory last year by stupidly placing my faith in narrow-wide rings and clutch mechs.

Custom graphics from hasdesigns.pt


The Pikes themselves have an MRP cartridge fitted, set-up firm to prevent diving but allowing a slightly lower air pressure than my rock-hard preferences, to improve initial-stroke sensitivity.  Pikes are a proven winner, in my opinion still the best mix of performance, reliability and long service intervals on the market and the MRP invites continual tweaking to further enhance the ride.

The groupset is XTR 1x11 with the Trail brakes, a stunning looking and generally faultless performer that although not as light as some SRAM offerings, is still my number-one choice every time.  Trail SPD's have been transferred once again from my last bike, they're simply peerless despite a pile of new competition.

Bearing surfaces are all taken care of by Chris King with an Inset 7 headset, ISO boost hubs and a ceramic bottom bracket.  It's obscenely expensive kit but I've got a CK fetish and find it the perfect antithesis to the dismal quality components used for cost-cutting by most companies in order to pointlessly upgrade a rear mech or other 'visible' part.  I've still got the Classic hubs received seventeen years ago on my twenty-first birthday and thousands of miles and many rims later, they're still like new with just one freehub bearing overhaul.  Class and style.
Boost Chris King and Ibis 941 rims

XTR gearing
Bars are Stanton aluminium in bright orange, initially cut to 780mm, the stem is a Stanton 35mm and saddle is Stanton Ti.  I stopped short of the own-brand grips, unable to depart from ODI Ruffians.  For the dropper I actually parted with my own cash to try a BikeYoke Revive as it seems to address the bobbing issue that has killed my previous five Reverbs.  More on that later.

My overwhelming love of 29'ers does come with an expensive caveat in that I find big carbon rims are indispensable for their lateral stiffness and refusal to come out of true.  The Ibis 941's have been faultless for over a year now and are soon to be upgraded to the asymmetrical 942's.  A Huck Norris is in place within the Maxxis Minion DHR 2.4 Wide Trail as a protection for the pricey plastic and a futile attempt to stop me tearing back tyres on a monthly basis.  Front tyre is a Minion DHF WT with pressures generally run around 18 and 22psi.

Enough talk, how does it ride?

Oh wow.  The first time I rode this bike was on practice day of the Vitus Enduro season opener, in conditions best described as 'testing' and on surfaces ranging from deep mud to grease to loam to exposed boulder field.  It was adorned with a borrowed Talas 140 fork from the years when Fox had lost their way worse than Father Ted in a lingerie department, but despite this huge hindrance I instantly felt at home having been raised on the lithe, whippy feeling of high quality steel tubing.  The Reynolds 853, 631 and 525 that is targetedly utilised throughout the frame has a 'personality' if that doesn't sound too pretentious and even if it does, then I know what I mean and I'll stand by the statement!  It soaked up the chatter and retained a lateral stiffness not apparent on last year's Ragley which suffered from frame to tyre buzz under heavy acceleration.  Despite losing by a miniscule 0.6 seconds on race day I was delighted, I've never felt such instant affinity with a bike and knew that with proper forks I was on a thoroughbred race winner.

At this juncture it's worth mentioning the frame detailing.  The welds are immaculate, and I mean utterly perfect.  Stanton use a factory which insists on a minimum fifteen years of welding experience before they'll entertain a CV and it massively shows in the uniform fishscales.  The curved seat tube and custom drive side yoke comfortably accommodate the big wheels and tyre widths up to large volume 2.4's, whilst keeping chainstays to a chuckable 435mm.

Very neat yoke and no clogging issues with 2.4WT rubber
The frame can also take 27+ tyres up to 3" if that's your thing but having ridden a few fatbikes I can assure you it's definitely not an upgrade in my book.  The seat tube junction is art and the head tube gusset is a lesson in subtlety.  Cable routing is painfully neat with simple external lines clipped under the top tube and down the stays, and stealth dropper routing entering the top of the down tube, leaving to circle the bottom bracket shell before re-entering at the base of the seat tube.  It'd be good to see some sort of included cover for those not running that option and maybe a rubber attachment to prevent water ingress round the cables for those who do. 

Simple cable routing and subtle gusset
The swop-out dropouts are extremely clever, facilitating rapid changes for different hub widths and singlespeed lovers.  A huge unforeseen bonus is the upcoming Boost conversion kit, allowing all Mk2 Stanton frame owners to adopt the new 'standard' for minimal expenditure.  Finishing is superb with classy graphics well lacquered over a shining green paint job.  The stony slop of early rides left a few superficial scratches on the top tube where my shorts rubbed but these have polished out, and the chips from a huge smash in Finale Ligure would almost certainly have happened to any paint coating.  Overall, it's still looking fresh and new, a facet that I certainly appreciate.  The metal headtube badge is a classy touch befitting of a top end frameset.

On familiar trails my instant love affair continued with the bike feeling extremely sprightly, climbing confidently despite an overall 29.2lb weight that reflects a sturdy build.  Descending was a dream, big wheels and quality tubing combining to provide a ride quality that diminishes natural advantages provided by suspension.  A trip to the Italian Riviera would be a perfect opportunity to drive this point home, competing with friends on 140mm bikes down trails that push all aspects of equipment and ability.

The art of welding at its absolute finest

Really neat frame detailing and Swopout dropouts
Finale was a revelation.  Confidence came easily on epic, unfamiliar descents with a distinct lack of fatigue from the juddering of repeat rockiness.  The steel served to smooth the buzz expertly and by day two my brakes were getting a holiday themselves as I trusted the precision of the Sherpa to point and shoot over some serious features.  Day three we were accompanied by a guide who was clearly and vocally impressed by the Stanton as I dropped a bus full of bouncers and held the wheel of his Intense M16 downhill rig.  Of course, the inherent downfall of bikes that demand limits be pushed is the fallibility of the rider, and sure enough the next run witnessed a gruesome smash that has left my left shoulder virtually unusable three weeks on.  Clipping a tree at maximum velocity saw the hardest impact I've ever suffered in a biking career that has already generated seventeen broken bones.  Torn rotator cuff, heavily bruised intercostals, smashed hip and elbow bones, bar some tiny paint chips the Sherpa was untouched.  Solid.




So I clearly love it but it can't be perfect. 

No it can't, and there are aspects I'd change.  At 6ft on the button, the dimensions of the 19" frame suit me well, allowing me to spec my favoured 35mm stem without feeling hunched at all, but it's the longest seat tube I've ever run and I'm left feeling too high up on the bike.  Two photos from Finale highlight this perfectly, both taken at the same spot on exactly the same corner.  My mate Tony on his Orange Five is looking much more poised and attacking despite our technique being virtually identical.  The shock compression clearly helps lower his centre of gravity, stabilising his position and carving deeper into the corner but I look too high and slightly hunched, having to use more body language to gain the same effect.  Part of this is the trade-off of riding hardtails but a lower top-tube would greatly assist positioning.  Being slightly too high also makes rapid weight switching between corners harder as it seems tougher to throw the bike from edge to edge and still retain perfect balance. 
Tony looking poised...

...but me looking a bit upright
Although the swopouts are genius, I'd rather see them held in by chainring bolts like they are on the Switchback than the three small heads.  I'm not a fan of mini allen key fittings as they're more likely to round for ham-fisted mechanics and are also harder to replace if you haven't got spares.


BikeYoke dropper is smooth and ergonomic but still flawed












As previously mentioned, there's nothing included to plug the Stealth holes if you're not using them which means a bit of DIY unbefitting of a £700 frameset.

The BikeYoke dropper is extremely smooth and the lever is superb.  The feature that tempted me to purchase it was the release valve that eradicates any bobbing with a turn of an allen key and compression of the post.  Reading up beforehand they intimated that this process may be needed every three months or so but in reality it's twice per ride.  I'm persevering for now but I'm going to be contacting them to complain.  Yet another flawed dropper post to add to the list.

I've bent a link on the XTR chain causing skipping gears but don't remember any big impacts.  Obviously eleven speed chains are going to be weaker than equivalent price-point ten speed ones but it's been an unpromising start.

Yet another brand new Maxxis rear tyre tore on its second use.  I've tried most major manufacturers and they're all the same, but it's the eternal frustration of aggro hardtailing.  The Huck Norris potentially saved the rim but the holes were too large to plug and so I had to put in an inner-tube.  Unfortunately that meant wrestling the latex covered snake into my bag to pollute the other contents as inner tubes and Huck wouldn't both fit in the tyre.

I've trimmed the bars to my preferred width of 760mm.  They felt good at 780 but trails here are tight and I can't help wondering whether that extra 10mm on the end was the difference between a squeaky bum bar clip and the horror crash that has left me currently incapacitated.  I guess I'll never know.

The Bottom Line.

This is the best put together bike I have ever owned, end of story.  Detailing, build quality, ride attributes and finish are all up with the finest examples of MTB workmanship I've ever seen, it truly is a sight to behold and a joy to ride.  I've had more capable bikes, the Ibis Mojo HD3 being the most notable in thirty years of top end machines, but no others exhibiting this degree of craftsmanship and all round rideability.  At £700 for a steel frame it definitely isn't cheap and without years of experience you may not appreciate the differences between this and the pile of cheaper identikit steel offerings from other companies.  But that's the point of no-compromise products, those who know, appreciate, and those who don't have yet to learn.  I couldn't begin to comprehend the minutiae of subtleties between two V8 engines or differing computer operating systems but bikes are what I do and the Sherpa is worth every penny.  Unfortunately Brexshit has forced a recent price rise and with the UK economy being manhandled by idiots I guess there's no guarantee that further elevations won't eventually be in the pipeline, but in manufacturing the US Dollar is king and a plummeting pound is putting the squeeze on bigtime.

I've mentioned the alterations I'd love to see, a slacker, beefier, internally routed, ISCG mounted aggro 29'er built around a 140mm travel fork would be an approximation of perfection.  At this point you've got to ask yourself why as a sponsored rider I'm not already on top of the range Sherpa Ti?

Maybe this frame was always a stopgap?  With an expected recovery time measured in months, maybe I'll never ride the Sherpa in anger again?  Maybe one of greatest hardtails in the history of MTB is about to drop?  Maybe...

Off the brakes and destroying Finale...

Until it bit back and destroyed me!









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