Ellsworth Evolve 29er – Beauty or the Beast?

Ellsworth Evolve 29er

If ever there was a time when first impressions were just plain wrong, this was it. When I first laid eyes upon the Evolve 29er, a North American dual suspension 29″ mountain bike with 4″ of suspension travel, my thoughts were “Hmmm… potential Ugly Bike Award finalist here”.

My riding mates took serious issue with that statement, insisting it was the height of retro cool. No doubt their view was helped along, I thought, by “Ye Olde English” typeface used for the Ellsworth logo on the blue anodised frame. Alright, if you say so, I’ll keep an open mind.

And it’s just as well I did. Despite using a monster rocker arm four-bar design approach that has been little changed for well over 10 years, it was a hoot to ride and pedalled superbly well.

The Evolve comes as either a frame only (with shock) that you can build up yourself, or it can be purchased built up with the specification level of your choice. The version I tested came with a Fox TALAS 95-120mm travel adjustable fork with 15mm through axle, Race Face Deus cranks with Salsa 34T single ring and chain guide, Shimano XT brakes, shifters and rear derailleur, and 12-36T 10-speed rear transmission. The cockpit was comprised of a WTB Silverado seat, Syncros FR seat post and Syncros FR stem, and Ellsworth’s own carbon bars. Wheels were Stan’s ZTR Arch 29er. The top end Fox RP23 Kashima Coat shock is supplied with all frames.

Ellsworth Evolve Beauty or the Beast

Ellsworth Evolve Carbon Steerer

Ellsworth Evolve Disc Hub

Fox Shock Float RP23

With a 100mm fork the head angle of the Ellsworth is a relatively steep 72.5 degrees, the seat tube angle 74 degrees, and the rear chain stays relatively long at 460mm. Normally such long stays would result in a bike that is sluggish to steer, but the steeper head angle counteracts this to give a lively feel.

The frame sizing is on the long side compared to most other brands. The supplied bike was a medium frame size, and at 610mm was just 5 or so millimetres shorter than my regular large size MTB.

Normally it takes me a couple of rides to feel at home on an unfamiliar bike. Not with this baby. Responsiveness in tight singletrack was excellent, and I felt instantly at home on a variety of terrain, from rolling fire road climbs to the twisty and technical sections of a very eroded Manly Dam.

On the flowy fire-trails of Terrey Hills, the big wheels just ate up the kilometres. On one group ride, supposedly at “social” pace, one of the guys complained “Hey, what’s with the race pace?” I wasn’t pushing hard (honest!) but the sections where a 26er tends to lose momentum, such as choppy, rocky trail surfaces and sand drifts, the big hoops of the Ellsworth just floated over with relative ease. Acceleration is a little slower, but once up to speed it just lopes along with less effort required.

A diversion to the out-and-back along Cowan Trail gave a preliminary taste of how the bike coped with more technical terrain. The 34T single chainring setup on the test bike and the bigger back wheel conspired to beat me on the tricky rock step-ups midway on the trip out, but the bike felt planted and sure-footed, coping easily with the rocky drops and steep roll-downs. On the trip back, attacking the loose rocky pinch climbs with a little more gusto saw me clear them with confidence.

Ellsworth Evolve Chain Drive

Ellsworth Evolveon Suspension Pivot

Ellsworth Evolveon Rocker

Ellsworth Evolveon Rear Suspension

The Instant Centre Tracking four-bar rear suspension felt like a contradiction.  The rear suspension pedalled like it was firm in the initial travel, but absorbed the hits with aplomb and felt like a bike with more travel. It also provided plenty of suppleness to keep the rear tyre in contact with the ground on technical climbs, without the sensation of effort being absorbed in power-robbing suspension bob.

The next test was on the iconic Manly Dam loop. Last time I rode this on a 29er, fork and wheel flex memorably shot me off-line though the rocky step-downs near the hydraulics lab, forcing a rapid unplanned dismount to avoid a crash. On the Ellsworth Evolve, the 15mm through-axle and stiff stanchions of the Fox TALAS 29er fork dispelled any concerns about steering accuracy. While a 100mm fork is recommended, I felt the 120mm on the test bike matched the rear end perfectly, and after a couple of flirtations with the 95mm travel setting, I left the fork at full travel for the remainder.

Winding through the singletrack required a little more body English than my 26er, but this is no bad thing and the increased stability and cornering traction was confidence inspiring. I had no hesitation in charging straight through the multiple technical descents the first time around on this bike, which with hindsight I find remarkable.

The Trig Track section, which is a tricky segment comprising non-stop baby head sized cobbles followed by a couple of hundred metres of step-ups and awkward rocks, was easier to negotiate, and with noticeably less effort.

One consequence of the longer chain stays is that lofting the front wheel over rocks and obstacles requires planning your moves earlier and shifting your weight further over the rear wheel, but this is something the rider readily adapts to. The roots and rocks that I didn’t quite clear, the big wheels just ploughed over.

After 8 weeks of exploring the trails with this bike I was not looking forward to giving it back, I was having that much fun. The 34T single chainring was fine on most climbs around my area, however with a 22 or 24T granny ring option this bike would have been almost impossible to resist.

Unfortunately, for me, there was one deal breaker that meant an application for funding to the Minister for Finance was off the cards: it is not possible to fit a drink bottle holder within the frame’s front triangle. There are bottle cage mounts fitted to the underside of the frame, but way down there is not only difficult to reach safely when riding at speed in the rough, the bottle is exposed to trail muck flicking up off the front tyre, including the inevitable horse poo around my local trails. A seat post triathlon cage could be used, I suppose, but then a dropper seat post is no longer an option and the bottle is still exposed to material spraying off the rear tyre.

I asked the manufacturer’s representative about this, and they said “it was not a concern for North American riders”, but I’d expect this decision is an issue for a large proportion of the Australian and Euro cross country and trail markets where the Evolve naturally fits. A Camelbak is not a complete substitute, as anyone who has loaded carb mix into theirs has learnt the following weekend when they discover black gunk growing in the bladder, tube and bite valve.

This isn’t going to bother everybody, though, and just how easy the Ellsworth Evolve 29er is to ride became clear the weekend after I gave it back: my much-loved 130mm travel 26er Cannondale Rize felt sluggish to pedal,  disturbingly twitchy, and unstable while barrelling down the Heath Track fire road descents in Sydney’s Cascades. It will be a while before I’m quite so quick to judge a bike on first impressions again.

Ellsworth Evolveon on Sandy Sydney Trails

Sweet and lively handling dynamics
Easy to ride and pedal
Fast and surprisingly good fun!
Surefooted feel on the trail
Handled a variety of different conditions superbly, without ever feeling either out of its depth or like “too much bike”

Lack of practical provision for  water bottle mounts is an odd choice for a cross-country mountain bike.

Ellsworth bicycles are imported by Paksport and you can ask your local bike shop or get in touch with Paksport directly (www.paksport.com.au). Pricing at date of publication:

X9 Build: $5649

Headset: cane creek 40 series
Stem: syntace f149
Bar: syntace vector alloy
Grips: Ellsworth odi lock on
Post: syntace p6
Saddle: WTB Rocket V Ellsworth
Wheels: Stans No Tubes Arch
Tires: Rubena Scylla /Kratos combination
Drivetrain and brakes: all SRAM x9
Fork: Fox Float (TALAS +$250)
Shock: Fox RP23 Kashima Coat

XT Build: $6249
Headset: cane creek 40 series
Stem: syntace f149
Bar: syntace vector carbon
Grips: Ellsworth odi lock on
Post: syntace p6 carbon
Saddle: WTB Silverado to Ellsworth
Wheels: Stans No Tubes Arch
Tires: Rubena Scylla /Kratos combination
Drivetrain and brakes: All Shimano XT
Fork: Fox Float (TALAS +$250)
Shock: Fox RP23 Kashima Coat

Product Details:

Ellsworth Evolve X9 (RRP $ 5649)

Related: Paksport Ellsworth Handcrafted Bicycles

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About The Author

knows the regular Sydney mountain biking trails inside out and broadens his horizons discovering more.

One response to “Ellsworth Evolve 29er – Beauty or the Beast?”

  1. Ash says:

    Why don’t they make a side-loading bottle cage like Giant did with their Maestro cage??…then it would be perfect n+1!