Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Stanton Sherpa - 'Longer' Term Review

This should be a long-term review.  I intended to enjoy a whole summer smashing this steel wonder through trails of all guises, generating opinion, encapsulating feelings and suggesting improvements, but instead I've been heavily injured, staring frustratedly at an overly-shiny machine, longing for the day I could go give it a kicking.  The great news is that the consultant finally consented, physio gave green light, and since that point I've packed a whole season of riding into a handful of weeks to grasp the essence of the Stanton Sherpa, a real tearaway dressed in a gentleman's finery.
The Sherpa in its natural habitat, tearing up the trails
The ins-and-outs of the build were explored in the 'first-impressions' so I'll not bang on those details too much again, but it is essential to reiterate the sheer uncompromising quality of the frame manufacture.  With so many companies still seemingly content to churn out frames with welds that look like GCSE projects, it's truly refreshing to witness pristine fishscales throughout.  Not just this frame either, having examined tens of Stantons during a factory visit, quality control is in clear evidence, again outshining several shocking examples I've seen from 'reputable' companies who's welders must be prone to the odd shocking hangover.  The paint has also largely survived thus far, retaining it's lustrous deep green, an occasional loving polish regenerating the sparkling nature.  Having not been particularly kind or heavy on forethought, the traditional left-heel wear is in evidence as well as some head-tube rub but either of those issues could've been eradicated by proper protection.
Lazy head tube protection positioning!
The Ride

Stanton give their frames ratings for several categories, thankfully avoiding the temptation to claim that all their offerings are ideal in every situation.  They give the Sherpa a ten for 'trail', nine for 'XC' but only five for 'enduro' which given my default ride style means that it could've been a touch conservative for my liking.  Jacking and slacking with a 140mm set of Pikes pushed it beyond recommendation but I have to say that this set-up feels just fine with no notable ill-effect from the raised bottom bracket once I'd adapted to it.  In fact, after a season on a Ragley where techy climbs needed rotation by rotation forethought to minimise pedal strikes, it's a pleasure just to be able to attack the steep and rooty sections without hesitation.  The downside should be in cornering prowess and the Sherpa does occasionally lack that delicious feeling of carving that you get with super-low BB's or fully-compressed rear ends, but despite not 'feeling' so planted it's not to the detriment of speed or performance.  I'd just love it if the frame came in 18" rather than 19" as a lower top-tube could make side to side weight transfer a bit snappier.

The feel of quality steel is truly incredible and sadly an experience that the majority of modern bikers will never get to appreciate.  Overused adjectives include 'whippy', 'forgiving' and 'springy' but the best way I can describe it is that despite obviously having no shock to dissipate the lumps and bumps, I never feel beaten up at all.  From fire-road bashing to six-foot drops, the Sherpa takes the sting out of everything, flexing when needed but transferring power without fuss.  The majority of our trails are built for 140mm+ travel machines and although I could undeniably go faster with the talent enhancement of a big rig, I never feel out of depth at all.  The precision required to pilot a quality hardtail at full speed, off the brakes over steep and rutted terrain is a rite-of-passage that all bikers should go through, and a rapid way to improve skills.  The Sherpa has the rare quality of making all trails fun, regardless of which direction the slope points and there's a definite smugness to passing the wildly bobbing bouncers on the climbs, letting them eat my dust whilst they fight the flop of their 63 degree head angles.

And whilst on that subject, don't be put off by the 'unfashionably steep' (by modern standards) 67.5 degree head angle.  Admittedly, the longer forks on mine have pushed this below 67 but that's perfect for my local downhills that are rarely steep but always reward quick steering responses.  Combined with a 35mm stem, the front end still doesn't feel at all twitchy and I enjoy all the benefits of improved performance in tight, techy terrain and on the climbs.  The Pikes are run hard with the MRP cartridge ramped well up to prevent any diving under hard braking and it makes for consistent performance at all times.
Pre-Pikes.  A race run on borrowed forks

Thanks to a delay in receiving my Ibis 942 rims (that are just incredible, separate review coming soon) I was running a 142mm rear hub initially along with a Boost 110 at the front.  Switching to the Chris King 148 rear hub would've necessitated a new frame with most manufacturers, but Stanton are smarter than that.  The Sherpa dropouts are spaced at a mid-point 145mm allowing them to be simply flexed in or out 3mm to suit either hub width without any brake alignment issues.  It works absolutely fine, lob in a longer axle and off you go; I'll not lie and claim wheel changes aren't now a bit of a hassle but that can be alleviated by swapping the entire dropout using the superb CNC machined 'Swapout' system that is available in 135 QR, 142, 148 and Singlespeed, very versatile.

Boost conversion was as simple as lobbing in a 148 skewer!
Back to the Ride

Post-crash and torn rotator I suffered a period of 'the fear' where I was riding as stiff as the frozen shoulder joint that still clicked and popped alarmingly with every extended movement.  The flow was all missing, field of vision far too short and fixated on every wet root and greasy rock, necessitating a period of 'old-school XC' smashing instead of the usual enduro loops.  Rides focused on bashing out quick miles on the fire roads, driving hard over the peaks and actively seeking more mellow trails that rewarded smoothness over aggression.  This was a total revelation as the self-appointed 'perfect ten' for trail performance was more than vindicated.  As an all-round trail bike, the Sherpa is nearer to perfection than anything I've ever ridden, the natural properties of carefully specced steel combining with impeccable build to create something just so alive.  At risk of drowning in cliche, the feel just generates an instant smile, fun in all situations short of full-on DH, no indication that the bike is a limiter but not inviting you into the precarious traps that often catch out over-biked but under-skilled riders.

The Wheel Size Bollocks

I read a shining review of the Sherpa Ti in Singletrack Magazine a few months back that described it as a 29'er that doesn't feel like one.  Whilst I know what they meant, that it's a big-wheeler that manages to retain the playful nature of its smaller-wheeled counterparts, I think it's time to speak the truth on the matter and admit that when 29ers are properly designed, they pretty much destroy the other wheel sizes.  The Sherpa is easy to hop, flick and chuck but it's also extremely stable, planted and able to truck through the really rough stuff as only 29ers can.  It corners better, holds speed better, simply is better than hardtails with any other wheel size, end of story.  Anyone who can't extract these qualities from this bike is deficient in personal ability, it's not the bike's fault.  Top-end carbon rims definitely do allow the wagon wheels to shine, laterally stiff, incredibly strong and also light enough to overcome the slight inherent inertia and accelerate well, if not snappily, although any sluggishness is really attributable to the draggy 2.4" Maxxis treads and low tyre pressures.
Draggy Maxxis treads that STILL tear with annoying regularity.  Tubeless repair pictured
On that note, I really would love to kit this bike out with narrow carbon rims, lightweight tyres, 100mm forks and a slightly stretchier cockpit to see just what a rocket it could be, it would be a bit fairer on Stanton too considering that's what it's really designed for.

Bits and Bobs

So I said I'd not harp on too much about the kit but it has been used and abused pretty well now with tons of gloop and plenty of ill-aimed power washing so here's how the plug-ons are surviving.

The Stanton Bits:

The aluminium Super Series bars and stem have performed faultlessly so far.  With the bars now trimmed to 760mm and the stem at 35mm I've got almost the right combo of reach and quick steering for all-round prowess.  However, at 35mm diameter, they are an incredibly stiff unit and following several years on carbon bars I have missed the slight inherent flex.  I may go back to a set of 740mm Fatbar Lite for comparative purposes, just to see which I prefer.  That said, I run my forks very hard and a softer set up would be more forgiving making the Stanton combo bang-on.  No creaks, able to cope with me trying to flex the hell out of them and also still looking immaculate.  They grip better than carbon bars in the stem too so no need to risk over-torquing.

The ti-railed Stanton Rigel saddle has been superb, a really comfortable shape, even on recent epics, and extremely hard wearing, looking like new despite being lent on walls and crashed a few times.  Very impressed and I'm seriously picky about contact points.
Very sweet looking set-up!

Pikes need no introduction but the MRP cartridge has been a real game changer, allowing adjustments and tuning that I'd never have been arsed to do otherwise, and definitely getting the best from the suspension.  I'm a firm believer that fork set-up has to be bang on for a hardtail, as fork dive can be lethal, steepening angles and pitching the rider forward.  I've been able to run them super hard as I like them but then back off a bit to improve initial stroke sensitivity but use the MRP to ramp up the curve and keep them high in the travel.  Two clicks from fastest rebound has been perfect.

Bearing Surfaces:

All Chris King, say no more.  Yes, they're extremely expensive and thanks to impending Brexit they've rocketed further, along with Sterling becoming akin to chocolate coins in relative value, but to me anything else is false economy.  The rear hub does drag a bit if you use the old style ring drive lube but I run the oilier stuff and they're always silky smooth.  I bought new ones for the Sherpa but I've still got a set from 18 years ago that would be on this build if they were Boost compatible, they're running as good as new.  The Inset-7 headset is faultless and probably the weakest component is the most extravagant, a ceramic bearing bottom bracket.  It runs superbly but the sealing isn't as good as the other components, good job that re-greasing with the specific tool takes just five minutes, flushing out all liquids and old grease.  Fit, forget, admire!

Bike Yoke Dropper:

Buttery smooth still, despite not touching the cable since fitting, and probably being a bit close with the power-hose.  The lever is ergonomic perfection and the key selling point, the 'Revive' function works a treat.  I have had issues with needing to use that far more than anticipated but TF Tuned have promised to retro-fit a new part that is meant to alleviate the issue for free, I just need to find a spare week when I won't need my bike!  Overall, despite that minor annoyance, it's light years ahead of all other droppers I've used.

Ibis 942 Rims:

I've recently read a glowing review/advert stating that the new Santa Cruz rims are the best carbon rims ever used by the tester, requiring only one truing during the testing period.  Well, here's a fact for them.  Last year I battered a set of Ibis 941's, stock build, for a whole season of hardtail enduro racing, a week smashing round the Tweed Valley, a couple of days and a huge crash in Finale and all the riding in-between and they remained true to 0.2mm with zero maintenance.  Admittedly I weigh just 70kg and am pretty smooth, but when it comes to battering a hardtail through a rock garden during a race, off the brakes and with 18psi in the back tyre causing seriously alarming dull thuds of plastic on rock, you'd expect damage.  This year I updated to the asymmetric 942's and built them myself, 32 hole, 3 cross with DT Comp spokes for a good solid, but still acceptably light combination.  They too have been totally without fault, bar leaking a bit of sealant through the valve hole.

And another thing!  I read some articles stating that carbon rims are 'too stiff' for hardtail riding, a statement demonstrating unbelievable ignorance in the writer.  Lateral stiffness is essential in the rim because you can build whatever properties you want into the wheel.  I've deliberately put mine together at the lower end of recommended tensions to allow them to compress slightly into corners and give a small amount of cushioning.  Get a decent wheel builder, tell them how you want the wheel to perform and they should be able to create the perfect ride attributes.  Why the hell would you want a rim that flexes so you need to tension the hell out of it to stop it bending?!!

Maxxis High Roller/Minion EXO

Grip amazing, tear like a shit ninja trying to do that walking on rice paper trick.  The Minion on the front has a slice that fixed well with an internal patch and external super glue.  I'm on the second High Roller and that has had to be patched and 'tubeless pooed' to keep it together and I've still ultimately resorted to whacking in a tube because I'm bored of sealant leaking through slices and tears, pissing up my back and ruining my jerseys.  Wide carbon rims with low pressure tyres give incredible cornering prowess and all-round grip but the compound technology desperately needs to catch up.

XTR 1x11

After sorting an initial shifting annoyance that was stupidly caused by a ten speed power link on an eleven speed chain (tolerances are very tight with 11 speed cassette spacing) everything has been faultless.  The 30:40 lowest gear is far too low so I'm going back to 11-36 soon and in fact I've wound in the barrel and limit screws so I can only get it into the 32 at the back.  If you need more than a 1:1 ratio to get up a hill and you don't live in the Alps then maybe it's time to get fitter!  Brakes have been superb, easy to set up, adjust and bleed (only been needed once) with the perfect combination of power and modulation.  I always love the shape of the carbon XTR levers too, nice and short for one finger, good hook on the end and grippy dimples.  They don't get cold in the Winter either.

The Bottom Line

Proper craftsmanship shines brightly and this frame screams class and quality, evidently designed by people with a deep understanding of both the metallurgical properties and also how to best apply them in the right wall thicknesses and positions for peak performance.  It's reminiscent of frames I rode twenty years ago, back when top-end steel was considered the peak of technology, but the Sherpa has a slight modern twist.  The angles are bang-on for the intended usage, slaying trails all day, but the versatility of the frame is totally evident in the more aggro guise I've forced it into.  I've a feeling that I'd be straying beyond its limits on really steep tech, the likes of the Golfie in the Tweed Valley, weight thrown a bit far forward on near vertical drop-ins and the higher bottom bracket becoming more noticeable in the catch berms, but Stanton have just released the Switch 9er Ti, almost reading my mind in the search for aggressive hardtail perfection.  At £700 for a steel hardtail frame the Sherpa is obviously not cheap and possibly quite niche, but when you look closely at one, it's immediately evident where the money goes and I was riding far more expensive steel frames in the nineties that weren't as well put together.
The traditional left heel wear on the stay, why don't I ever learn to frame tape from new?
It's holding up very well to abuse, still looking fresh and turning heads although I do wish that I'd put a bit of frame tape in the areas where I knew I'd be rubbing, to further keep the box-fresh look.  Concerns I had over a possible rattling cable within the frame and water ingress at the dropper-post entry haven't at all materialised and I'd really be struggling hard to find any criticisms.  I've raced it, holidayed with it, ridden it fast and hard on all kinds of terrain and it just comes back for more as I've belied the supposed intentions, seeking its outer limits.  I've even shared the pain of a huge smash, been coaxed through a gentle rehabilitation and come back more refreshed and psyched for MTB than I've felt in years, much thanks to the inspirational nature of this bike.  I'd keep it forever but there's a part of my brain that promised my teenage self a titanium frameset many years ago, when it was merely a ridiculous pipe dream.  The aforementioned Switch9er Ti looks the bike of my dreams, not just for now but for the last three decades.  When it arrives I'll definitely miss the Sherpa dearly but bikes have no place for sentiment and I'm bubbling with excitement at how good the '9er will prove to be.  Whatever it rides like, the standards of workmanship that separate Stanton from all but a couple of other large-scale (non-artisan) manufacturers in the world guarantee that it'll be extremely special.

Stanton Sherpa: £700
Stanton Sherpa Ti: £1,850

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