After a month of demo'ing long(er) travel mountain bikes, I've picked a winner for me. Highlights for me: 29" wheels, over 6" of travel (155mm rear, 160mm front), 1x11 drivetrain, and giant hydraulic disc brakes (200mm front, 180mm rear). Speaking of giant, look at the size of this 42T rear cog - about the same size as the 180mm rear brake rotor.
As you can see it's still brand new looking, with warning stickers, and plastic pedals. I'm planning a more stealth look, so the stickers will come off the fork, and I may even try to spray the frame with transparent black spray paint.
I had debated carbon vs. aluminum frame - wondering if the carbon would be stronger or stiffer. When I first took a good look at the aluminum frame, I was impressed with how burly it is around the rear shock.
The metal that links the down-tube and top tube is not present on Specialized's lower travel bikes. It's reassuring that it's so burly - suggesting it's presence on this bike (versus the shorter travel bikes in the Specialized lineup) is more function than styling.
Before the ride, I removed a few stickers, put my Eggbeater pedals on, and swapped the Specialized lock-on grips for some ESI Chunky Silicone grips. I've had my Cannondale bars wrapped with tape for a few years, and love it - a little cushion, and better grip with sweaty hands. I purchased these ESI grips (2 years ago) as a next logical step to try, but never put them on the old bike. I have to say ESI silicone grips are better than wrapped bars. Real grippy, even when sweat drips down, cushy and comfy.
I dropped the pressure in the rear shock to 250 psi (down from 270 where the shop set it). While climbing up it felt a little stiff on square edge rocks, so I backed off high-speed compression 1/2 a turn noticeably better. I didn't notice any of the "popping" of the front wheel that I noticed on my (most recent) demo of the Santa Cruz Bronson.
This bike, with this rear shock, really climbs well with the shock in "descend" mode - part of the reason I chose this bike. About 1/2 way into my ride, I was tired (ran a 10k yesterday), and reached a steeper fire-road climb - just smooth gravel. I moved the switch to "climb" for this, and it really stiffened things up. Cane Creek explains their climb mode is superior to other shocks. To soon for me to comment, but it felt great.
Before the ride, I set front fork's high-speed compression damping to full soft, and dialed in a few clicks of low-speed compression damping to settle brake dive After a short descent I set rebound damping to 1-click short of full-soft. After a steep rocky, rutted, downhill (Zane Gray cutoff) the shock hadn't reached within an inch of full travel, so I backed off the pressure to 80 psi (down from 95 psi set by the shop). I definitely feel like it is the best fork I've ridden in this travel (Rock Shox Pike, Fox Float 34), but my old Lefty was more plush on smaller bumps on fast downhills.
The other thing I noticed is how stiff the back end feels. Definitely less wiggle and flex than other bikes I demo'ed. So far I don't miss my hardtail for climbing, even on the smooth fire road.