The Escarpe is the Swiss Army knife of Vitus’s value-conscious range – a go anywhere, ride anything kind of a bike that’s designed to do most things well. For 2015 it’s had a ground-up rethink, with the previous model's four-bar suspension and slightly industrial looks replaced with a more sophisticated floating shock system, complete with plenty of angular hydroforming and complex CAD cleverness. With 135mm (5.3in) of rear travel, 140mm (5.5in) up front and a 2x10 transmission it’s a good deal on paper, but what’s it like to ride?
Frame and equipment: impressive attention to detail
The Vitus’s squared-off tubes and pronounced swage lines make it look for all the world like a praying mantis that’s fallen into a vat of dayglo paint, but don’t let that put you off. The detail is impressive. From the way the shock rocker follows the line of the seatstays to the stiff, welded clamshell chainstay yoke, the new Escarpe is a big step up from the old in terms of both appearance and function.
Anchoring the shock to one end of the swingarm has enabled Vitus to fine tune the shock rate through the suspension’s travel. The initial movement has a slight falling rate, allowing the bike to sit comfortably into its sag position. As the suspension compresses, the lower shock mount moves forward slightly, flattening out the spring rate towards the end of the stroke to make full use of the available travel. This suspension cleverness has necessitated chopping a big chunk out of the seat tube, but it’s done so neatly that it barely spoils the bike’s tidy lines. There’s even room to run cables for a remote dropper post.
The shock is mounted to the end of the rear swing arm rather than the mainframe, allowing Vitus to fine tune its spring rate as the suspension compresses
Suspension duties are handled by an unusual pairing – a RockShox Monarch R at the rear and a Manitou Minute Comp – in 140mm trim – up front. The shock doesn’t have adjustable compression damping but the preset compression tune is actually a pretty good companion to the Vitus’s supple rear suspension. And the Manitou is a match for other price-equivalent air forks, adding the distinctive looks of its rearward-facing brace for good measure.
The WTB rims-and-rubber hook up well in most conditions, though they’re not the lightest 650b rolling stock we’ve seen. The 2x10 transmission – based around an FSA double-and-bash crankset and Shimano Deore chain-shunting kit – suits the Escarpe’s character down to the ground, serving up enough gears for most purposes while offering a bit more ground clearance than the 3x alternative. The 170mm crank arms are less convincing. They’re actually the same length as standard 175mm arms, just with the pedal threads drilled 5mm further inboard, so you’ve got less torque but the same ground clearance.
Ride and handling: all trail bases covered
The Escarpe’s vital statistics read like a wishlist for a modern trail bike. Slack head angle? Check. Short stays? Yup. Long reach? You betcha. Combined with the grippy WTB treads and 2x10 drivetrain, this means it’s an incredibly easy bike to just jump on and stomp all over some choice trails. The tight rear end helps keep the front wheel manageable in situations where you need to pick it up and manhandle it, while plenty of room to stretch out makes it easy to keep the Vitus pointing where you want it to, even on steep, slow, technical climbs.
This ‘quick when you want it to be but stable when you need it’ character is backed up by a superbly supple and responsive suspension system. The floating shock delivers on its promise of plush, controlled travel, serving up the full 135mm on fast, rocky descents without ever feeling like it’s reaching its limit. The fork – as so often at this price – is the weak link, matching the rear for plush but not stiffness, and becoming noticeably twangy on larger hits.
Handling is great in all trail scenarios, from eyeball-watering to walking pace
What’s really impressive is the way the Escarpe climbs. The rear end’s tendency to sit easily into the first 20 percent of its travel, combined with a shock that’s not had its plushness throttled with an overly harsh compression tune, makes for a ground-sucking rear wheel that simply rolls up and over anything in its path. Technical climbs are a simple matter of sit, point, pedal.
Ultimately it’s the Vitus’s all-round ability that convinces. The Escarpe may not be the lightest full-suspension trail bike on the market, nor the one with the most travel. But it’ll devour anything you put in its path with impressive aplomb and leave you with a big grin on your face. And that can’t be bad.