Words Liam Friary
Images Cameron Mackenzie
RRP $12,999
Distributor Trek New Zealand

Flick back through your iCal to mid-2019, and the cheese-curd lovers from Trek bicycles in Madison, Wisconsin, would have just launched a category-defying, new cross-country race bike: the Supercaliber. A short-travel, full suspension bike that rivalled the efficiency of a hardtail, but with just enough travel to ease the blow when trails got spicy.

The bike carries the moniker from Gary Fisher’s OG Supercaliber, released for model in the year 1990. The Fisher brand, and Supercaliber name, were eventually acquired by Trek, after which it was filed away for several years, only to resurface on the first generation Trek Supercaliber in 2019.

To the uninitiated, the fresh Gen 2 Supercaliber looks almost identical to the first. The top tube is slightly straighter (rather than noticeably curved on the Gen 1) but the clean, racy lines remain – as does the heart of the bike: the IsoStrut suspension, this time bumped up by 20mm to 80mm travel. Gen 2 has some incremental changes across the frame material used, geometry, and specs. None of these things alone are groundbreaking but, combined, they’ve enabled a leap forward to modern times for the Supercaliber.

As World Cup level XCO courses have become more technical, the equipment used to compete has evolved. Where the previous generation’s 60mm of rear travel and subdued geometry was suitable back in 2019, it’s long been surpassed. Although Gen 1 is still a favourite for racers – and even some bikepackers – here in NZ, a few brands now have similar offerings and the Supercaliber has been left behind. Until now. This redesign brings the bike up to meet the needs of a modern racer while retaining the comparatively short travel and snappy handling of its predecessor.

The Supercaliber frame is now available internationally in two tiers. The premium SLR version features a low Fibre Areal Weight (FAW) achieved by using a higher-modulus carbon lay-up and less overall material. Intended for wireless gearing, the SLR sheds further weight by not incorporating internal cable guide tubes. All Supercaliber models feature the same IsoStrut swingarm and shock.

While visually the lines remain almost unchanged, the geometry has stepped forward into the modern age with the bike getting the now common longer and slacker treatment. Not one to push the boat out too far, Trek have slackened the head tube angle to 67.5 degrees from 69 on the Gen 1, and stretched the reach from 450mm to 465mm on a large size, with scaled increases across the size range. The seat tube angle gets bumped a minor half-a-degree steeper to further centre the rider’s weight, for climbing prowess.

The swingarm is suspended by a frame-integrated RockShox SIDLuxe shock. New to the bike this year, it’s a bit simpler than the previous Fox edition and is now more easily tuneable. The shock is designed specifically for the Supercaliber but shares the same traits – even some hardware – as other Rockshox suspension products. The swingarm itself has no pivot at the rear axle, relying on the tuned flex of the seat and chain stays for its vertical compliance. The shock has 15-35% sag markers anodised on its stanchion, making fine-tuning for specific courses or conditions a simple, one-person affair. That lack of pivots on the rear triangle helps to bolster lateral stiffness and ensures every watt makes it to the wheel.

The back end of a bike is only ever as good as the front; the rear wheel follows the front after all. Up front, we find the new Rockshox SID fork with 110mm of travel – 10mm more than the previous – although the bike is designed to take up to 120mm. With a DebonAir spring and new Rush RL damper, I’ve found this fork more supple and active than my own bike’s previous edition SID Ultimate. I’ve got no qualms saying the new SID is as good as it gets for an XC fork. Stiff enough in all scenarios thanks to its 35mm stanchions, it tracks the ground exceptionally, helping the front wheel track and maintain traction, as well as easing the pain on the hands and arms of the rider.

Both the SIDluxe shock and the SID fork have lockout cables running back to the new TwistLoc Ultimate remote lockout. This new TwistLoc blows the doors off the vulnerable, previous editions. A twist towards the rider to lock, and away from the rider to unlock with a positive click, audible and tactile -perfect. My only comment on this new remote is that the cables exit at 90 degrees from the unit, upsetting the clean lines of the Stealth brakes and cableless AXS shifter – somewhat unsightly compared to the clean brakes, but at least it works well and is trouble-free, so far.

A trait of the IsoStrut suspension layout – and hiding the shock away inside the frame – is that there’s plenty of room in the front triangle for water bottles. I was stoked to see a 900ml bottle fit comfortably on the downtube of the large-size bike, even with a regular cage. A 600ml fits comfortably on the seat tube, although I did need a side loading cage to make it work smoothly. Sure, it would be good to fit a 750ml bottle on the seat tube but at least you’re better off than many bikes with only a single bottle.

Our test bike was a size Large. At 176cm tall, Trek’s size chart would suggest I’m in the middle of the bell curve for their M/L size, at the top end of M and right at the bottom of the recommended height for a Large, so there is some cross-over available depending on a rider’s particular attributes; i.e. leg, arm, and torso proportions.

Surprisingly, the Large size didn’t feel too big and unwieldy for me, although I imagine the M/L’s 15mm shorter reach and consequently shorter wheelbase might have increased how nimble the already snappy bike felt. A minor tweak I made was to swap out the supplied 175mm crank for a 170mm length. This is a somewhat personal preference, but it does seem a lot of top-end riders are going for a shorter crank these days too. It’s great to see Trek speccing a 170mm crank on the Small and Medium sizes, although I do wonder if the M/L should also be fitted with these. It’s nice to see a 34-tooth chainring specced, and there’s room to fit an Anton Cooper-esque 38-tooth if your legs are up to the task!

With the sizing out of the way, it was time to get set up and ride! Consulting the Trek website, their Suspension Calculator gave me some baseline suspension pressures to tune from. The bike was pretty spot on with the suggested settings, but I preferred a couple of clicks slower on the fork rebound, and a click slower on the rear. At the suggested pressure, the IsoStrut-supported rear end sat precisely at 25% sag.

During its maiden voyage, I found the back end a bit harsh over successive hits compared to my regular, more down-country style bike with 120mm rear travel. This was no surprise as it’s a completely different style of bike, so I upped the sag to 30% for my next rides and found this to be nicer for descending but not quite as efficient while climbing, although the lockout did the trick here. My thinking is that around 30% sag is ideal for a long day on demanding, rugged trails, a ride where optimal climbing isn’t the goal, or a shorter XCO track with substantial rough technical downhill sections. For a smoother course, or a marathon-type effort with limited rugged sections, 25% or firmer would keep things efficient and lively, offering enough kush to keep things controlled on the descents, but lightning quick on the pedally bits.

Pedalling efficiency is upped on the Gen 2, by a tweak in the main pivot position, moving it upward a touch and forward slightly. This seemingly small change has raised the anti-squat number considerably, meaning the suspension is less active while pedalling, absorbing fewer of your precious watts. The bike does really get up and go when you lay the power on!

The RSL one-piece cockpit is as polarising as a tyre choice. I’ve had people come up to me and slate the Bontrager one-piece bar/stem setup, and others approach me to tell me how much they like it. As far as the shape goes, I’ve found it fine and although different to what I’m used to, I adapted quickly. The Large bike gets a 750mm width bar moulded to a -13 degree 80mm long stem. The set-up is stiff, that’s no secret, but my gut feeling is bringing a more compliant bar to this cockpit party might change the bike’s handling a bit. The stiffness of the bars is in keeping with the overall stiffness of the frame and wheels, etc. So, while they might not be for everyone, I think given a few rides, correct suspension and tyre pressures, this cockpit helps bring the best out in the bike. I do wonder if the fact you can’t adjust the sweep of the bar by rolling it forward or back, relative to the angle of your arms, may mean that your arms sit at a different angle to the bars than optimal (due to overall setup). If you want to try a different length stem then you’re in for a new stem and handlebar too, but at least they’re simple to change with no crazy stem or headset cable routing here.

Trek’s mountain bikes are renowned for having short head tubes, and the Supercaliber is no different; 10cm on this Large, while XL gets a 12.5cm, and all other sizes a 9cm head tube. This allows riders to fine-tune their stem and handlebar height across a wide range. Go from pro-level slammed, to bike-packer high-rise handlebars with a simple swap of spacers. After my shakedown ride, I switched a spacer and dropped the stem 10mm from stock, putting a little more weight over the front end and seating me in a more comfortable pedalling position, without being too aggressive. I’ll likely drop another 10mm spacer out and lower the front end further as there’s plenty of room for adjustment and experimentation.

Being an out-and-out race bike it would be a waste to just take it out for some rides on familiar trails in an attempt to get an accurate gauge of how it rides. A rig designed to win World Cups is best tested in the exact scenarios where it’s designed to excel and be pushed towards its limits, something that’s not easily replicated outside of an actual race. With this in mind, I entered the inaugural Whangamatā Black Rock XC race. With 60km and 1800m of climbing, the 3-lap course was no joke. Granted, the bike is designed for shorter, punchier XCO-style races, but the reality is that, here in NZ, longer marathon-style events will likely make up a large portion of the race action a bike like this will see. It’s also likely to be popular with the bikepacking crowd, just as the Gen 1 was.

I had a good number of hours aboard the bike before the event, and was feeling pretty comfortable aboard this rocket ship, but actually putting it right in its element really gave me a true appreciation for just how good a bike of this level really is. Out of the start, we were tussling for the first single track, in and out of the saddle, avoiding a near pile up on the first corner. We were strung out entering the first single track climb. The SRAM GX Transmission is ideal in situations like this; whatever unfolds in front of you, you can rest assured that if a gear shift needs to happen, it will. I had no qualms firing through gears under full power, seated or standing.

Most of the trails in Whangamata are clay-based and certainly pretty spicy in the wet! After some rain the day before, I was stoked to see blue skies for race day and, although the majority of the trails were either dry or close to it, enough moisture remained in the dirt, in sections, to make things unpredictable at times. At first glance, I wasn’t sold on Bontrager’s new Sainte-Anne RSL XR tyres. The central knobs are very closely spaced for rolling speed, but the shoulder and side knobs are widely spaced and low profile. I wasn’t expecting much from them, particularly in the damp. Surprisingly, though, they hooked up adequately thanks to the combination of said tread pattern, a 220 tpi casing, dual rubber compounds, and the ability to run low pressures thanks to their large 2.4” volume. Traction was surprisingly good and, even in the few truly slippery sections, the grip was predictable. There wasn’t really any section of trail I felt the tyres were majorly lacking, but they certainly excelled on dry hardpack and gravelled sections, maintaining speed really well. For a properly wet race, I’d be opting for something with deeper tread for sure. The tyre volume, coupled with the Kovee Elite wheels’ 29mm internal width, offered sure footing even under the heavy G-forces when railing some of Whangamata’s seriously good berms at full pelt -no tyre roll or sketchy moments.

There’s certainly something special about the feeling you get from racing a bike like this. When you really put the boot in and power up a short, sharp, technical climb, it just feels like every watt you’re putting into the pedals is propelling the bike forward; no flex, no suspension bob, just pure unadulterated forward momentum. One particular section at the Black Rock was a prime example of this; a climb through a section of forestry slash and up a sharp pinch back into the pines. Turning right into the slash, a majority of your speed was scrubbed off and you were presented with 100m or so of partially covered logs and scrap, creating steps and obstacles to navigate your way across, up and over. Rapidly laying down the power, the bike shoots forward, the transition hopping up a step to full-gas pedalling nearly instantly thanks to the Freehub’s 108 points of engagement. I’m a huge fan of the Bontrager hubs; simple and effective. The overall light weight helped me hop over obstacles and up over the final pinch – again, out of the saddle, under full power and on a loose clay surface. The bike was well and truly designed to dominate techy sections like this, and the momentum I could carry quickly extended the gap to the riders behind.

Climbing gravel roads, or smoother consistent- grade trails, is undoubtedly a strength of the Supercaliber. Its low weight, suspension kinematic and prime seating position combine to create deadly efficiency that helps you stay on top of your gear for longer. Coming off my longer-legged, heavier bike the difference was considerable and over the length of the Black Rock XC, climbing was where I made most of my gains in the field – most unlike me. With that said, it never gets easier… you just go faster! As efficient as this bike pedals, I found locking the suspension out on smooth sections helped get the most out of every pedal stroke, particularly when running the 30% sag, and there’s enough give whilst locked out to not beat you up too much.

Descending from the top of the main climb, we had the choice of two lines: to the left the A-line, a fall-line style section with no clear main line and a snake pit of roots crisscrossing the entire descent – and it was plenty steep. To the right side of the A-line is the B-line – a clean, digger-built, flow-style trail; it’s longer but faster and, overall, the time difference between the two lines is negligible. On the first lap, I took the left line. Having not pre-ridden any of the course, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This A-line was where I started to figure out what this bike is about on the downhills, and it highlighted that descending isn’t just about suspension travel. When it’s pushed, its minimal-yet-effective 80mm of travel has enough forgiveness to confidently hold a line. Aided by how stout the entire package is, and its modern geometry, the bike holds a line well and is balanced and stable while descending. No wet-noodle, flexy XC frame here. In these exact scenarios, I’ve ridden longer-travel bikes which handle much worse and suck your confidence by flexing and twisting under the heavy braking and the hits they’re taking. Situations like this are where the stiffness of the one-piece cockpit shines; a distinct lack of flex helps you keep things pinpoint and accurate. On this descent, I was thankful for the dropper post. It’s 150mm travel allowed me to get the saddle right out of the way on the steeps – props to those pro guys who still run fixed posts on gnarly trails! My only gripe on the Bontrager dropper post, is that the remote doesn’t integrate well at all with the SRAM brakes. It functions fine, but the clamp does interfere with the Stealth Brakes master cylinder, limiting how much adjustment you have with the remote. I couldn’t quite get it where I wanted it, but made it work.

For the laps following the first one, I opted for the B-line: a smoother, safer option while fatigued. This line was the highest speed section of single track in the race and gave a great indication of how the bike was at speed. The entire package felt solid through the upper highspeed berms and predictable off the jumps that followed. Further down the descent, however, some choppy gave a real-world example of the shortcomings of short travel. Under heavy braking, and through a section of braking bumps, the rear suspension felt somewhat harsh, causing the tyres to break traction and skip across the tops of the bumps. It wasn’t a big issue as this was basically a straight section of trail but, if it was much wetter, the lack of traction could have been a real issue coming towards the corner at the bottom of the section! This situation does highlight how the bike is bred more to take the place of a hardtail than be a supple descending machine – the suspension travel certainly has a damped feeling, as it needs to be with only 80 millimetres of it.

On the subject of braking; I was glad to have some time aboard SRAM’s new Level Bronze brakes, particularly their new Stealth levers. I’ve never been a huge fan of SRAM’s XC-oriented brakes, the lever feel was hard to get right and once you finally achieved a good, powerful feel, it only lasted a few rides then you needed to tune them again. Touch wood, but so far I’m impressed with these new units. The lever shape is familiar, but the feel when braking is more positive than previous and overall there’s plenty of power on offer when needed, if they’ve sorted the longevity issues these are a winner.

A small, partial floating brake mount is used on the rear, feeding the braking force to the chainstay and rear axle, keeping the braking forces from interfering with the flex in the swingarm. This brake mount seems to work effectively, but there is more torsional flex under braking than there would be from a traditionally mounted calliper. This doesn’t appear to affect the braking power, although at times it does affect how the brake feels. The front brake has a 180mm rotor stock, which is welcome, as many XC bikes are fitted with 160mm rotor up front. The rear rotor is 155mm stock, the max size allowable being 160mm. I’d personally like the ability to upsize rotors on the rear; giving heavier, real-world riders more stopping power, and helping slow down fully laden bikes when loaded for bike-packing, although it looks like there’s simply no clearance to do so.

The Supercaliber gave me an appreciation for how good bikes are getting these days and highlighted how it’s no one thing that makes a bike like this excel, but the sum of everything; frame, components, and geometry. The engineering team at Trek appear to have designed the bike as a whole system, with all parts complementing each other rather than designing a frame and haphazardly speccing it out. Had any of the elements been lacking I think the experience could be different.

The Whangamata Black Rock race was an awesome experience and, with its varied terrain, was a great way to put the Supercaliber under real-world review alongside training on it in the buildup. Although the Supercaliber has been designed more for the punchier 1.5 hour efforts of World Cup competition, it was well suited to the endurance-type effort of the Black Rock. If you’re looking for a race bike for any breed of XC race here in NZ, the Supercaliber would sure do the trick – don’t be put off by the small travel number as the geometry and handling well exceed bikes of longer travel.

If it were mine: I’d ride the M/L size, throw a set of 170mm cranks on there, have a set of gruntier tyres for wet racing, and try a standard stem and handlebar to see what difference there is. I’d fit a dropper remote compatible with SRAM’s brake lever clamp and a handlebar-mounted rear vision mirror so I could watch my competition as they disappear behind me!

Unfortunately, this bike removes any excuse for poor performance but, at least nothing is holding you back from that podium… aside from your own fitness and skill.

That’s a big tick from me on the Supercaliber. It’s not perfect – but it’s pretty damn close. The team at Trek might have a hard time prying it from my greasy mitts!

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #112

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