Even if we hadn’t been riding with the Vitus design team in the past, the performance of the Escarpe would confirm their DH-biased biking experience. At the risk of making us look dumb – but confirming just how capable the Escarpe is – we thought they’d sent us the 160mm travel Sommet. With the same paintjob, frame layout and Marzocchi 350CR fork it’s a relatively easy mistake on paper, but we still hadn’t realized after our first two testing sessions.
Frame and equipment: punches above its weight both spec and travel-wise
As the home brand of online bike megastore Chain Reaction, Vitus has serious buying power and straight to customer cost advantages. That means you get SRAM 1x11 transmission, SLX brakes and RockShox Reverb Stealth internally routed dropper post spec for a ridiculously low outlay. There are no obvious shortcuts hiding in the detail either. The WTB treads are reassuringly traction rich and supported on reasonable width rims, which flatter the supple but not floppy feel of the tubeless ready TCS carcass.
A 770mm bar and 45mm stem provide oodles of leverage
In head-to-head testing against 150-160mm bikes from other brands, the Vitus was significantly more controlled in its reactions to really rough stuff – hence our case of mistaken identity. The key is the easy to miss L-shaped chainstay end hidden between the split halves of the seat tube. By mounting the lower end of the shock on the vertical tip you get an initially progressive feel that responds well to a kick of the pedal.
As the back end gets deeper into its stroke the shock moves forward and down making the 135mm stroke feel a lot more like 150mm in terms of its big hit appetite. Once the initially sticky Marzocchi gets into double figure trail hours it complements the back end really well too, with an impressively plush, but never wallowing or vague intervention to all sizes of impacts.
Ride and handling: serious thrills undermined by short frame
At under 14kg, the Escarpe makes effective use of whatever energy you’ve got to put through the pedals and the way it climbed and stayed serious fun even on long, flat, self-propelled singletrack sections were the only reminders it was actually a relatively short travel ride. Whether it’s you providing the speed or gravity doing the hard work, the 770mm bars and 45mm stem give enough light, high leverage control to push the Escarpe right to the edge with minimum risk.
The only downside, given its excellent performance for price ratio, is that those bars are a lot closer than we would want. That not only makes the Escarpe less stable than it could be at speed but also compromises breathing space on climbs, to the point where we regular knocked our knees on the shifters when we shunted our weight forward for technical climb grip. The kinked top tube design means an already tall seat tube too, so sizing up to get the extra length isn’t necessarily an option.
The Vitus packs both value and superb suspension, but short geometry hinders it
That said, the Vitus remains far more than the impressive pick of parts for the money it seems at first glance. Look closer – or better still ride one – and you'll find the innovative suspension system buried in the straddling seat tube gives a seriously controlled and capable ride for only 135mm of wheel movement. Add the killer price and it’s only the tall and short frame that keeps it out of our very top rank of trail machines.
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.