Max'ed Out - Max Reviews the Specialized S-Works Camber 29

The S-Works Camber is a superbike, and it knows it. Loaded with some of the most innovative products to ever see dirt and Specialized’s most efficient suspension system yet, the Camber looks fast just leaning against a wall. On the trail, it completely blows you away.

Riding the S-Works Camber 29

I first realized there was something special about this bike before I even got to the trail. I was riding on the road with my hands off the bars, taking in the captivating black and red paint scheme, and I felt myself lose a bit of balance. Not uncommon while riding with no hands, you just grab the bars again to reposition the bike, right? Instead, however, the bike did it for me, and I felt it. The S-Works Camber is equipped with a Rockshox RS-1, an inverted XC race/trail oriented suspension fork constructed with a one-piece carbon fiber “upper” and a SRAM Predictive Steering hub. When I first heard about a fork that anticipates steering movements, I wrote it off as typical industry hype. But SRAM’s “Prove Can’t Wrong” marketing slogan lived up to its name and left me incredibly impressed.

By the time I got to the trail, I was itching to see what the Camber could do. Used to my stiff and steep hardtail, I instinctively held back on some of the turns of Dogwood Dell. But the more I rode, something about the bike gave me the sense that I could open it up, so I did.

Once I got to the entrance of Northbank, the Camber had coaxed me into letting go of any apprehension. Grinning like a kid with training wheels off, I took the corners down to Maymont faster than I ever have on my hardtail, but this itself is not the end of the Camber’s descending ability. Conquering corners is something any respectable 5-inch bike should be able to do, but many of these bigger bikes get bogged down in their travel coming out of the turn, taking energy out of the rider’s upper body and hampering the bike’s ability to respond to the rider’s next movements. This was not the case of the Camber, who emerged from each corner fresh with ninja-quick responsiveness.

Approaching Stairway to Heaven, a rocky and twisting climb with 75 feet of vertical elevation over just a tenth of a mile, all of the stereotypes of climbing on a trailbike were running through my head: their weight slows them down, suspension bob sucks energy and power output, and taking them up steep climbs is generally a pain in the neck. Once again, the Camber shattered my negative expectations. The bike took the steep uphill switchbacks more comfortably and calmly than my hardtail, and I was immensely thankful for the extra traction provided by the big tires I predicted would slow me down. The suspension was more than happy to hop on the bench when I needed it too, and I didn’t notice any significant hindrance in pedaling capability over an XC bike.

I was so impressed by the Camber’s climbing and pedaling performance that I began to question if I was really on a bike with big-hit potential. After all, when it comes to travel, the 120mm Camber is a much closer relative to the 100mm Epic than the 160mm Enduro. As I kept riding, I realized that I was wrong on this count as well. Despite only having 20mm more travel than its XC-racer brother, the Camber somehow gave me the cojones to go for things I was always scared off by on my hardtail. Taking the burlier line, gapping an off-camber rockfall, or just going closer to the edge than I normally want to, the confidence given to me by the Camber changed the way I rode and saw the trail.

As I went over to the South side of the river onto the Buttermilk and through Forest Hill Park, I got the chance to expose the bike to some more technical terrain. The extra travel really shines in the rocks, keeping the wheels on the ground and the slacker head angle makes the bike feel at home carving it up on techy descents. By this point in my ride, I had passed the initiation phase with the new bike and we could get along like an old married couple. Just stepping onto the bike for the first time hands a rider new confidence and ability, but knowing it well unlocks another level of performance. Even though I know my XC bike like the back of my hand, I cannot say that I don’t worry about what’s coming next when riding it at speed. Once I had gotten used to the Camber, I was totally carefree riding it. Even on slow, boring climbs I was having an extraordinary amount of fun on this bike. I never hesitated on any rock garden and I could do whatever I wanted in the air, knowing I would come down in complete control.

Every bike is a compromise. A purebred, cross country race bike sacrifices technical ability in the name of speed, a downhill bike sacrifices pedaling ability and light weight in the name of navigating absolutely anything thrown at it, and an enduro bike sacrifices a bit of both efficient pedaling and big-hit travel in the name of versatility. But most enduro bikes are geared more to the downhill end of the spectrum than the cross country side. A 160mm bike could show up to a downhill race without a serious disadvantage, but it would have a major one in a cross country race. This begs the argument that the 110-130mm range of trailbikes is the true quiver killer, comfortable on the vast majority of trails and race courses of any kind. In 2016, a competitive and well-designed trailbike should be able to compete in both a cross country race and an enduro race. The Camber, however, is not only able to show up and compete in either, but even shoot for the podium. Every mountain bike rider lusts for the mythical “one bike to rule them all.” That bike is the 2016 Specialized Camber.

Component Report

The S-Works Camber is a fantastic bike partly because it is so perfectly specced. Every component has been matched perfectly for the bike and is suited to anything you will put it through.

Sram XX1 Drivetrain: One of the most important groupsets in cycling history, SRAM’s 1x11 wide-range drivetrain still excels in its 4th model year in the Specialized lineup. A 28t front ring is a good choice for this bike, however riders who prefer bigger gears might swap it out for a 30t, an easy switch thanks to SRAM’s X-Sync direct mount design.

RockShox RS-1: Wow. My first time on an RS-1 was on this bike and I was blown away. The Predictive Steering technology is incredible, as I mentioned above, and the one-piece carbon upper makes the fork incredibly stiff. The Spike Valve soft-firm damping knob is finicky to adjust while riding, however you quickly realize that the pedaling is so efficient you don’t really need to put it on firm.

Shimano XTR Trail 9020 brakeset: Shimano brakes have always been the best on the market, and their flagship XTR’s are the cream of the cream of the crop. One finger is all that is needed, and they are powerful when you need them to be but the modulation is what makes these brakes excellent.

Specialized Roval Traverse wheelset: These wheels are such that people are buying them to put on their non-Specialized bikes. Their wide width helps the tires use all their traction potential, not to mention a super stiff construction and a DT Swiss-designed hub with 54 points of engagement.

Specialized Command Post IRcc: Coming from an XC bike where my saddle is always up my butt, I initially forgot I had a dropper post. Once I realized it and could use it without hesitation, I could really feel the benefits of handling ability when down and use all of my pedaling power with the saddle up. Earlier generations of the Command Post had scary-fast rebound and finicky levers, but the new Command Post knocks it out of the park with an ergonomic, shifter-shaped lever and smooth height adjustment up and down.

Specialized Purgatory 2.3 (front) and Ground Control 2.3 (rear) tires: These tires were dealt a tough hand with conditions when I was riding the Camber, but they took it in stride. No matter the conditions, I never felt like I was sliding, and unlike some other tires they shed excess dirt and debris quickly, not leaving it in the knobs to weigh the bike down. The tires also roll fast on the road, comparably so to my Specialized Fast Trak 2.2’s.

About the Reviewer

Height: 6’ 1”
Weight: 143lbs
Age: 17

Hi, I’m Max Frankel. I have been riding for 7 years and racing for 3. I tend to fall on the XC side of the spectrum, and I am a Cat 1 XC racer and one of the top 10 juniors in the state of Virginia. The James River Park System is my home trail network and I learned to ride on these trails. When I’m not riding, I run Cross Country and Track for Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, where I am in my junior year.