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Xtension Xplore
by Lester Lin

Technical Photos of the Xtension Xplore:

Rear shock adjustment XPC View 1 XPF View 1
  XPC View 2 XPF View 2

Mission: Lester, you will have the use of Daniel's premiumly equipped and outfitted Xplore for a few days to ride where you please.

Your self imposed mission is to test the Xplore against the Xplore.

Xplore vs. Xplore? What kind of craziness are you talking about? With the introduction of this multipurpose bike, it is possible to setup this cycle in a variety of ways to suit different riding conditions. It is amazing how different the feel is when you start adjusting the variables such as the 5 or 6 inch travel setting on the rear, or the adjustable Syntace VRO handlebars. With the Syntace VRO, you can put the handlebars in the down position to get the weight forward, long cockpit feel and body position of an all out XC racer. Bring it up 180 degrees, and you have a very upright/weight back short cockpit feel of a downhill/freeride bike. There are any number of positions that you can play with to "dial in" the feel that is just right for you.

My goal was to try the Xplore in two very different set up's on a back to back ride on the Gas Plant Trail. This ride gives you short bursts of heart breaking climbs, fast sweeping single track, tight maneuvering turns, near vertical short descents, stairs, rocks........ you name it, it's got it. I have ridden this course at least once or twice a week for the past two years, and know every inch by heart. This is where I have the best perception of the differences of the almost 20 different bikes that I have had the opportunity to test ride on this course over the years.

My first round would be to ride the Xplore in the long cockpit low handlebar, 5" rear travel mode. (Let's call this the XPC for Xplore X-Country) I expected the climbs to be easier, and the steep technical downhill performance to suffer. Then on the second round, I would change the Xplore to it's most aggressive freeride position with 6" of rear travel and the handlebars in the full upright and back position. (Let's call this the XPF for Xplore Freeride.)

I took the long approach via the paved graveyard road to get to the start of the off road portion of the gas plant hill. I immediately appreciated the long and low riding position of the XPC. As a matter of fact, I even stopped to put the low handlebar position a bit forward to lengthen the cockpit even more. This really inspires your climbing. With the feeling hot on my feet from my 24.5 lb. Specialized M4, the extra weight of the XPC was noticeable. However, the efficient climbing position kept you breathing freely, with no cramped feeling at all. Just pull with your arms and rotate your legs and motor up the hill. With the excellent Shockworks rear shock, you can dial out any bobbing with the compression dampening knob, or even lock it out for your hardtail like climbing feel.

However, when reaching the first hard off-road climb, I found the rear tire scratching for traction on sections that are usually not a problem. It seems that with my weight so much more forward, I was out of the sweet spot for good rear tire traction. Therefore, the increased leverage and more efficient pedaling is lost in the inability to keep the tire weighted down enough to claw my way up the real steep sections. The descents however, seemed to be quite stable and under control with the handlebars down low. It's amazing to have a riding position like a racer, yet with 125mm of travel up front. The quality of the front Fox fork was more than evident. The plush, sensitive, and stiff feeling of the fork just plows through uneven terrain better than any other fork that I have ridden to date.

The other thing that makes such a dramatic effect is the huge amount of adjustment available on the rear seat on the Xplore. I think many people discount how much of a performance difference that it makes on a given riders ability when it comes to tough terrain on the descents. I have tried too many great bikes that fail in this area. If you have the seat in a position high enough for efficient pedaling, you cannot get it down low enough for the tough descents to get that really low down butt backwards confidence inspiring position. My Specialized M4 is a classic case of this. You are limited to about 1.5 inches of travel adjustment. When the going gets steep on the downhill side, you constantly feel like you are going to endo. Same as the pre 2003 Giant AC's. Great off road bike! But the limited seat travel puts me up too high for maximum confidence on the gnarly descents. It is still OK in most instances, but another inch or two of downward adjustment would make it that much better. Not the case on the Xplore. From a high comfortable pedaling position, you can get the seat all the way down to the seat stay if you wish. That is the gold standard of seat height adjustability. That is why even with the handlebars flipped down to the lowest negative angle position, with an equally low seat position, you can still maintain great confidence and control on the steep descents.

Maneuvering down the natural trail stairs, and the off camber slick rock shortcut, I lost a bit of control and ended a bit off to the side of the main trail (John Mchale Freeway) but was able to recover quickly, and get back on the rough stuff.

In general, I made it through the course feeling that I really didn't need to make any adjustments at all. I was drenched with sweat, and normally would have been very happy to call it a day. However, to have unlimited access to an Xplore all to myself for a full day is a treat not easy to come by. True to my mission, I pulled out my tools to change the XPC into an XPF.

The handlebars were easy enough to flip up into the high position freeride mode. Two allen head screws to loosen; then rotate the handlebars up, and the pivoting neck and voila!, You are sitting very upright. To change the rear shock to the 6 inch mode is possible with one allen wrench if you are lucky. However, a second allen head wrench gives you better insurance you can get the screw loose from BOTH sides. With the Shockworks oil reservoir pointing backwards, (as in Daniel's set up), you are not able to put the shock into the 6" position. (Doug's setup with the reservoir pointing forward does). So, I had to double my efforts to have to turn the shock around as well. All in all, not a very hard task. However, I register my vote for a quick release travel adjuster.

All the adjustments done, I started my trek back up the hill. Strange that I would change the efficient climbing positioned XPC, into the less efficient XPF before going up the hill. However, that is precisely what I wanted to experience. Immediately, you notice the very upright and "weight a bit back" feel. Let's say it is pretty close to Doug's classic geometry. I actually found this position quite comfortable for the pavement portion of the climb. Not as aggressive as the XPC for sure, but if you just take your time, it really is quite acceptable. However, the bobbing is more difficult to dial out (but certainly not impossible) in this mode. And of course, the lockout option is always there for those of you that easily get sea sick. I even more recently tested this same bike with Daniel, only equipped with the newest ROMIC shock with a brain that he brought back from the States. This shock to me was a waste of money. The automatic settings of the Shock Brain just weren't right for the Xplore. Manually setting the ShockWorks shock seemed to work much better for me.

As I got to the off-road steeper sections, I expected to have to wrestle with keeping the front end from wheelieing up on the steep climbs. However, I actually found the XPF better for climbing than the XPC. With your weight further back, traction was increased by a good 10% on the climbs. The tires were not scratching to find traction this time. Much better traction resulted in much better performance than the XPC.

The plushness of the 6" position is definitely less jarring on your body. However, the 5" is already exceptionally plush.

When the terrain turned downhill, the adjustments transformed a good cycle (XPC), for the descents, and putting it on Steroids. Better control, and having more precise steering were the obvious benefits. The higher up front end position definitely gives you more of a psychological boost of confidence. I say psychologically, because all other things being equal, you are more likely have your rear wheel upwardly airborne with your neck in the high position than in the low position. (I don't have time or the energy to debate this in writing, but if you disagree, let's talk about it sometime.)

Anyway, case in point: Coming down the Gas Plant's steepest longest hill, there is one place that does a series of small drops on steep terrain, then dumps you into a 90 degree turn. At this turn, on the XPF, I sort of got catapulted gently off the bike, and landed like a tiger doing a flying pounce on a mouse when I was using too much front brake to slow down enough to make the corner. It was the most smooth but surprising crash I have ever had. I was basically using the identical riding style when coming down on the XPC, but did not get have the rear wheel get airborne like on the XPF. Up to that point, I would say that the XPF was easier to ride on the descents by maybe 15% because of the high handlebar adjustment.

My results between the XPC and XPF were totally opposite from what I had expected. I had better climbing success on the Freeride settings. I got launched off the XPF going downhill, but not on the XPC. However, this data needs to be qualified. If I were climbing up Yamingshan's WuZhi Shan, I would definitely prefer the low stretched version for the climbing. It's just the way that your weight is shifted further back with the high handlebar position that gives you that extra kick when climbing off road. I was noticeably more confident and precise with the handlebar in the high position on the descents. It's just the surprising launch off the bike that tarnished actual performance results.

All in all, this was one of my favorite bikes to ride on this trail. The really smooth suspension, the handlebar adjustability, the seat height adjustability; all these attributes found together in one bike will definitely put this bike on my wish list to Santa Claus this year.

Additional Information

‘03 Xtension Xplore Fact Sheet (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Updated Review after more than one year of testing