T H E S C A L E O F T H E P R O B L E M
Scott’s mid-range XC racer makes some costly concessions.
Scott have been well-renowned for some time for success of their Scale under (super)racer Nino Schurter. The lightweight, zippy frame has been making waves since well before it’s famous 899g framed 26 inch wheel iteration, through the 29er revolution and even now, the time of the 650b. While the wheel size has been in flux, the design of the frame has, to a greater or lesser extent, not. Visually at least, the silouette of the frame has been a fairly iconic addition to the rosters of countless XC races worldwide. Certainly the most frequently seen at the higher end would be the top flight RC model, however up for discussion today, is 2012’s mid-level carbon offering, the Expert, which, with the addition of a few changes, is not altogether dissimilar from its 2014 counterpart – more on that later.
Despite being slightly heavier than the RC model, the HMF carbon frame still comes in at an impressive 1058g (approx. in large), and features a Tapered head tube with a zero stack pressfit headset, which marries to ample oval formed down and top tubes. The join from these three tubes extends 7 cm behind the head tube to aid both front-end stiffness and the weight of the frame, but also clearance for the fork crown. The bottom bracket is similarly pressfit and sits between a chunky 34.9/38.4mm seat tube and equally substantial box section chain stays designed to improve pedalling efficiency. Bridging the gap here are comparatively slim seat stays, so-formed to aid comfort over relentless trails.
Lacing the frame up is done via internal cable routing for the gears and external routing for the brakes. For me, certainly the latter quite a sensible choice given the fact that most home mechanics will want to take the brakes off without needing to bleed them while it’s nice to keep the gear cables out of sight. Recabling the gears is a bit of a pain, but not insurmountable. Some might argue that the rear brake hose is somewhat exposed on the downside of the down tube and BB shell, but I’ve had no issues with it’s position. The brake mount on the frame is mercifully a Post Mount neatly tucked away on the non-drive-side chainstay which apparently increases the stiffness of the rear end and therefore braking efficiency, however, necessitates a longer workshop Allen key for those fine adjustments. There is only just not enough room to do this with a multi-tool without scratching that gloss finish.
The drop outs are full carbon and are standard 135x9mm quick release compatible – this is technology that is carried over from their road bikes. Everything about the frame says “fast”; it’s clearly built for efficiency and lightweight and, despite its iconic look, there is little aesthetic joy to be taken in it, helped none too much by the any-colour-as-long-as-it’s-red-or-black colour scheme and “swoopy” graphics.
On paper, the components look acceptable even when you factor into account the 3x10 build on a cross-country bike but this is an inexpensive and uncomplicated fix. However, it’s the smaller details which present some problems.
Scott supplies their own kit for bar, stem and seat post, the first two of which are light, ergonomic, and stiff. The seat post is a block of granite though, which is unsurprising given the size of the seat tube and adds a significant 295g to the weight of the bike. The range of potential replacement options is severely limited to either Scott’s recently acquired Syncros; Ritchey, if you can find it; Crank Brothers, …er Rockshox… and the soon to be discontinued Enve option. The same goes for the 38.4mm clamp, of which I could only find Hope and Scott options. If you’re hoping to make a coherent custom build, look elsewhere. Also, the paint on the post is less than permanent so if you drop the post (even occasionally) don’t expect any longevity from the finish.
The saddle is a light, comfortable Selle Italia special for Scott but, like the grips, doesn’t really merit any particular mention here since everyone always changes their saddle and grips for their personal favourites. The same could be said of the Shimano M520 pedals but since they are actually included in the build (with cleats), I think that’s a pretty cool shout from Scott; most manufacturers don’t bother with pedals let alone clip-ins, but this is a bike you can ride out of the shop, with your MTB shoes.
The top of the Ritchey Comp headset is fine – sealed bearings, no problem. The lower cup, however, is not – unsealed bearings in a runner, which are very exposed and get very lumpy and rusty quickly. This is not something I’d expect from a mid-level bike at all; replacing the headset on a carbon frame is on no mechanic’s list of favourite jobs and like the seatpost and clamp, this part is a particular size, so choice is limited.
The drivetrain is a fairly stalwart Shimano XT and SLX mix but Scott falls into the same old trap of not investing where it counts: beautiful XT cranks and rear derailleur but plasticky SLX shifters. Done the other way round, Scott could have a much improved shifting performance for a fairly minor increase in weight and a saving for the wallet – the group wouldn’t look as pretty though… The SLX front derailleur, 10 speed chain and cassette, however, is an acceptable compromise to help keep costs down and doesn’t degrade performance. That compromise, it would seem, is easier to hide. The shifters, chainset and front derailleur were switched out for Deore XT 2x models.
At the time of purchase, I had a fairly negative attitude towards Avid brakes, due to their feel and the lack of reliability I’d experienced, so the Elixir 5Ss were replaced immediately for a set of powerful Shimano XTs. As such, I can’t comment much on their performance except that they felt as spongy as any Avid brakes I’d tried, and I wasn’t prepared to bleed them and replace the seals as I had had to in the past. You may notice the use of the word ‘had’; I’ve since tried some Avid Elixirs on a friend’s bike and they felt fantastic, but I can’t speak to their reliability.
SRAM also supply the Rockshox Reba RL fork which plugs neatly into the tapered headtube. It also features a bar mounted lock out control, which is an additional nice touch, adding efficiency and speed for those steeper and smoother climbs. An odd choice is the 9mm drop out – this does nothing to future proof the bike and seems more like a cheap out than a weight saving choice. A 15mm QR axle would be a welcome addition.
You could accuse me of nit picking; not every one is bothered about the stiffness benefits of a 15mm axle over a 9mm, brakes are a personal thing, not everyone is fit enough for 1x10m – these are all compromises afterall. I’ve left my real bone to pick with this bike until last: the rolling stock. For starters, the DT Swiss XR39 wheels weigh 2180g nude, which is pretty hefty for a bike of this class. Not only that, but they somehow manage to be remarkably flexible at the same time; these reasons alone merit getting rid of them from the off, but it doesn’t stop there. The tyres are simply too big for this frame at 2.25” and not only make it look like a tractor, but the knobs on the edge of the tread pattern wear into the frame when cornering.
The real issue is the choice of hub for the rear wheel. Being entry level, it features a threaded axle for servicing the bearings. This axle has eaten the carbon dropouts, furthering the issue with the tyres damaging the chain stays and forcing the drive train to ghost shift. This is not an isolated issue and something that can be found with little to no effort with some research on the Internet.
Despite these rather enormous specification shortcomings, the bike is remarkably spritely once the wheels get turning. The first few pedal strokes are always sluggish due to the weight of the wheels and the lack of stiffness at the rear end. When moving though, this thing stops for no man. I would still prefer a faster rolling rear tyre, but the chunkiness up front is appreciated and, to an extent, makes up for the lack of a 15mm axle. However, Rocket Ron supplied (while is tubeless ready along with the rims) is the Pacestar iteration, which is hard compound, making for some sketchiness over wet roots and rocks.
This was the first time I’d ridden a bike with a tapered steerer, and that combined with the super deep-section headstock, certainly made for a massive improvement in stiffness. In terms of performance, the fork isn’t revolutionary but just does its job as expected from a mid level offering. It’s relatively plush and all but unremarkable on the trail – this is not at all a negative; rather to say that it is a fit-and-forget piece of equipment.
The minimal weight of the frame makes for a nippy and comfortable ascender, but I can’t help ask what it could do with a more appropriate wheelset. The geometry lends itself to technical climbing well and while the tyres do have a lot of traction to offer (in good conditions), they feel like they are over compensating and, in the long run, detracting from the bikes performance in other areas. On the descents, the long wheelbase helps the bike feel stable, but it doesn’t feel like steering a bus; the 69.5° head angle and the short chainstays make for agile handling even through really tight stuff and show that through smart design the negatives of any of the three wheel sizes can be, to some extent, countered.
The bottom bracket junction of the frame is stout and substantial to say the least and this coupled with the chunky box section chainstays means that the forward motivation of the bike can be very impressive… once it gets started. The advantage of the thin seatstays, however, is all but lost when sitting on this ugly block of seatpost; I can’t find an advantage of it being this large. Fortunately, the enormous tyre at the rear end is quite comfortable, however, this sensation is immediately by countered by your sphincter/wallet tightening at the sound of them eating a carbon supper.
Bikes at this price point are ultimately about making compromises – trying to find the best performance to price ratio – and there are places where this pays off in Scott’s build for the Scale Expert; the front end of the cockpit is comfortable and light, a chunky tyre up front, gives confidence where a 15mm axle is lacking – however, there are too many occasions where Scott’s cost cutting has either gone too far or has been done the wrong way round. While cranks and rear derailleurs will always look great when they are the highest specced components, they won’t offer the same benefits as an equivalent set of shifters on some lower level derailleurs. Shimano offers proper Hollowtech II cranks as low as SLX, so why not make use of that?!
Talking specifically about the wheels, it would seem that the design department, wasn’t in touch with the component buyers but this is more than a massive oversight on the part of Scott, which has rendered my bike and plenty of others unrideable, which is completely unacceptable. I suppose most of all I’m disappointed that Scott seem to have come so close to producing a real ripper of a budget carbon (super-lightweight) XC race bike which has only been systematically butchered and undermined by their choice of components. That and the fact that I’ve had a very expensive piece of carbon fibre garage furniture for the last year or so, which, due to a lack of finance, I’ve been unable to do anything about.
“How would you spec this bike and stay within the price point?” I hear you cry! I know this isn’t how it works exactly with large bike manufacturers but there’s not much other way to make a comparison: I added up the RRPs of all the components and (excluding the cockpit, tubes, the chain and cassette – these bits would stay the same in my build) they come out around 1800€ or a bit less than £1500. For my key and a half you can get (at RRP):
Rockshox Reba RL Solo Air fork with a 15mm axle
Hope Type 2G headset
Shimano SLX M675 Double chainset
Shimano Deore XT M780 shifter set
Shimano Deore M615 Shadow+ rear derailleur
Shimano Deore M616 front derailleur
Stan’s Notubes ZTR Crest rims 32H x 2
DT Swiss Competition Spokes x 32
Shimano Deore XT M785 32H rear hub
Shimano Deore XT M788 32H 15mm front hub
Continental Protection X-King 29 x 2.2” tyres x 2
Shimano Deore M615 disc brakes x 2
Shimano SLX RT67 160mm rotors x 2
This build might look, on the surface of it, heavier and more of a compromise than the original but this, for me, is how a budget conscious mechanic should build their bike. Here we see some investment in a 15mm axle on a decent fork and headset, top-flight lightweight rims (where we can really feel the difference of lightweight components), great quality shifters, hubs (that won’t destroy the frame) and tyres, and stalwart cranks and derailleurs that are as capable as their predecessors if not so light. While it may not be as pretty the original bike, any sales person is going to be able to demonstrate to a client the benefits of these investments over the aesthetic of flash derailleurs and cranks.
The other problem here is ultimately one of design versus practice; I’m not convinced that this technology of full carbon dropouts on mountain bikes is such a great idea, even if a more appropriate (non-threaded) hub is used. Ultimately the mechanical forces in each discipline are very different and we can’t assume that what is good (lightweight) for one will be good (strong) enough for the other. Given the 142x12mm axles on the 2014 models, it seems that Scott agree.
Due to the frustration with this bike, I’m going to attempt to repair and rebuild the frame and write another review in the future, after I have spent some time on it with parts that don’t impede its performance. Watch this space…