What kind of mountain biker are you? Really, answer truthfully. You don’t want to buy a mountain bike for the type of rider you think you are. Do that and many of us are going to end up on a bike that has us dragging around millimeters of suspension we will never utilize or a platform that is too race oriented and steep for us to confidently make the most of our technical ability. The problem with this is recent mountain bike development has gone in two directions—deeper travel all mountain bikes and ultra light carbon hard tail 29ers. Not chucking your body off any big gaps? Don’t have the motor of some European wunderkind XC racer? What to do?
Specialized has an option for you. The sliver of travel between the Epic and the Stumpjumper FSR may seem very small indeed. You get 100 mm out of the Epic; the Stumpy FSR gives you 140 mm out back and 115-140 mm up front. How many of us really fall into the ground between? According to Specialized, a whole lot of us, and we lean closer to the Epic than the Stumpy. Enter the 110-mm travel Camber. Launched in 2010 with a limited lineup topping out at $3,000, the 2012 line has expanded considerably—all the way to an $8,300 Carbon Pro version. Another major change is wheel diameter. Only one Camber, the entry-level Elite, is a 26-inch wheel bike, the rest have gone 29. Clearly, Specialized is onto something here.
Slotting a new bike in between such venerated names as Epic and Stumpjumper must be a nervous endeavor for Specialized. Riders walk into shops wanting an Epic or a Stumpy, not a Camber—at least not yet. It was for this reason that we wanted to test one of the mid-level bikes, not an $8,300 Camber. Our hunch is that high-end price point will trend heavily to the big names for a season or two yet. We got the first carbon bike in the lineup, the Camber Comp 29, priced at $3,800.
The front triangle uses Specialized’s FACT 9m carbon mated to an M5 alloy rear. This is clearly a cost-conscious move, but one that should deliver years of trail abuse with a minimum impact on performance. It wasn’t that long ago full-tilt XC bikes had aluminum rears. If you are considering the full-aluminum version, the Camber 29, you can shave an additional $1,000 off the price tag and get the exact same build—of course, it comes with a few extra grams, too.
The bike’s features are a crystal clear reflection of the multitasking Specialized expects this bike to achieve. The 110 mm of travel, front and rear, is springing a platform with angles that, you guessed it, fall between an Epic and a Stumpy. The 70-degree head tube is .5 degrees shallower than an Epic and a degree steeper than a Stumpjumper FSR. The Camber’s wheelbase also falls between the other two bikes. A FOX Triad II is handling the rear duties. A collaboration with Specialized, it is designed to control the extremely active tendencies of the FSR suspension setup. There is no BRAIN controlling travel availability but instead the familiar little three-position blue lever—open, ProPedal and locked. We would like to see bikes in this price range get Specialized’s new Auto Sag feature. Right now, that is reserved for Stumpjumpers, but Camber riders could certainly benefit from perfectly dialed sag with no setup expertise necessary. The front shock is a fairly entry-level FOX Evolution Float RL 29. It’s a nice price-point choice with lockout, preload and rebound adjustments.
The fork is where some of the Swiss army knife characteristics of the Camber come into play. Specialized has used the tapered steer tube version of the Float RL 29 to give the bike some added stiffness with those long forks. Beefing up this stiffness are the dropouts. They may be open but instead of a standard quick-release Specialized uses an OS 24 system, oversized end caps and oversized skewer. They claim it is lighter and stiffer than the new open standard QR15 thru-axel. Out back they have fitted a bombproof 142+ rear with 12-mm thru-axel. These subtleties up front and robustness out back mean Specialized fully intends the Camber to see some seriously taxing terrain, and maybe even some daylight below its wheels from time to time.
The rear 110 mm of travel is, of course, handled by Specialized’s FSR design. With a four bar Horst link setup, any new platform using it always reminds us of just how good it is. There is a reason Specialized snapped up Horst Leitner’s patents in 1998 and a reason so many other brands are trying to find a way around them. The bike feels active instantly, but smooth and consistent through its entire length of travel. It remains very sensitive to the trail even while climbing, but thanks to removing chain forces, bobs very little and really shines with the ProPedal. The setup that does all of this also allows the rear suspension travel to remain available under heavy breaking. Sure, all of these things can be said of any FSR bike—or most other bikes licensing the Horst platform from Specialized—but a new FSR bike always reminds of just how good it really is.
The bars hint at the bike’s intended ability to straddle categories. At 720-mm wide they will have you sucking in your breath as the trees get tight but keep a rock-solid line as your wheel hits trail chatter below. The rise is only 10 mm, keeping your hand position fairly low and taking some of the curse off of the big wheel, especially for smaller riders. Those bars are gloriously void of lockout levers. A handlebar mounted front fork lockout isn’t really necessary with the high fork crown on a 29er and the FOX ProPedal lever does a fine job out back. The only changes we would make are a lever for a dropper seat post and to cut a centimeter off the ends of the bars.
The rest of the component spec is more evidence of the bike’s intentions to perform up and down the mountain. A mixture of SRAM X7 and X9 is obviously a cost-conscious build, but one that still offers enormous performance. The crankset is a BB30 2x10 setup, hinting at the bike’s uphill prowess and the pace Specialized expects its riders to keep; still the 22x36 low gear is much easier to spin than the 26x36 you’ll find on 2x10 Epics.
The Camber also gives you much more brake, with the Avid Elixir 7 SLs stopping 180/160-mm rotors, front to back, on our medium test bike. Go large, both in size and descending commitment, and you’ll get more stopping power than a Mac truck with an 200/180-mm rotor combo.
Specialized handles just about every aspect to complete the bike’s build, from cockpit to wheel choice, from saddle to tires—alloy bar, stem and seat post, Body Geometry Henge Comp saddle, Purgatory and Ground Control tires. The wheels use Roval 29 alloy rims with Specialized Hi-Lo hubs. In a 32-hole configuration they are very stout, but not too light. If there were upgrades to be made that would take this fairly entry-level carbon bike build over the top, they would be a lighter set of wheels and a Command Post. Make those changes and the rest of the build can be left alone.
The Camber Comp 29 climbs exceptionally well, truly making use of the big wheels’ added traction. With a set of Roval Carbon 29er wheels (yes, we couldn’t resist the upgrade) the bike climbs within a hair’s breadth as well as an Epic and it will out pace a Stumpjumper. Even on smooth rollers and quick singletrack the bike’s forward position delivers power efficiently with crisp handling. Point the bike down and you get the feeling that every last millimeter of its 110 mm is being used. Stumpy riders, or riders looking for a sled that delivers a plush ride under the worst circumstances, will find the Camber firm. By that same token, Epic riders that are looking for a bike with a more confident planted feel will find the Camber just right. The bottom line is don’t expect to just rumble over every obstacle, the Camber is a little more line sensitive than a Stumpjumper. Luckily, the stiff front end makes sticking to your chosen line easy. One of the most surprising features was how a half a degree at the head tube, ten more millimeters of travel and a longer wheelbase, made the Camber so much more manageable on steep descents and fairly big drops.
You want a bike with trail performance that turns its dial in the direction of going uphill a bit more than down. You want a bike you can race on Saturday and trail ride with buddies on Sunday. You aren’t afraid to say that you won’t win any DH races and some help going uphill faster would be a good thing, but you aren’t looking for a steep, high-strung XC platform.
Specialized’s Camber line consists of seven models, with the only missing spec being an S-Works model. From the full-carbon Camber Pro 29 to the alloy 26” Camber Elite and Camber 29, the price range goes from $8,300 to $2,200. What we learned was the Camber is a name to remember and more than worthy of an S-Works version in the future.
The Bottom Line
Group: SRAM X9/X7
Wheelset: Specialized Roval 29 alloy
Other: FOX Float Evolution RL 29, Avid Elixir 7 SL hydraulic discs, Specialized alloy bar, stem, seat post and Specialized Henge Comp saddle
Weight: 28.4 pounds (with TIME X-ROC S pedals)