I recently had the good fortune to be invited over to Andorra, home to the highest capital city in Europe and producer of low–grade tobacco, for the opportunity to ride the three wheel sizes in Commencal’s 2014 Meta range.DAY 1: VALLNORD BIKE PARK
The first day of the two–day test was held on the lower slopes of Vallnord’s Bike Park, where trees cling to the side of a steep and imposing mountain that sits behind the town of La Massana. I decided to stick to one combination of trails that incorporated elements of heavy braking, high–speed ‘off the brakes’ riding with plenty of technical challenges. These sections I thought would test the advantages/disadvantages of each wheel size: ‘Big’ 29” wheels should instinctively struggle with tight tech, ‘normal’ 26” wheels shouldn’t hold as much momentum on the faster sections, and 27.5” wheels… well would they be that hallowed ‘perfect middle ground’ that everyone has been talking about?
Having the most amount of experience on the 26” Meta SX, I decided to limit my riding on that bike and put in a run down the hill to set a benchmark for the other two steeds. Being reasonably low–slung with a low BB, slack headangle and apparently designed with ‘fun’ in mind, it was no surprise that the SX was just that. With an idea of the terrain and how it could be approached on a proven 26” bike – altered only in the head angle department for 2014 (slackening a whole degree to 65º) – I set to work on the ‘new school’ bigger wheelers.
I rode the Meta AM29 for the first time in 2012 and, to be absolutely brutal, it wasn’t a bike that I bonded with (bear in mind that there are few longer–travel 29ers that I have fallen in love with). This time round I jumped at the chance to give the wagon–wheeled darling of Commencal’s designer Nico Menard another chance. With experience of many more 29ers than I had ridden previous to my first encounter with the AM29, and with a benchmark set down the mountain on the superb Meta SX, I felt I would be able to get a good idea of the bike’s ability.
Not a lot has changed for the Meta 29 in 2014. However, perhaps my attitude to the big rollers had, and anyway the terrain was looking much more suited to its intentions than the rolling hills I had previously tested it on. Pinballing down the final sections of Vallnord’s ‘Route 66’ at ridiculous speed my mind’s eye was opened. The bike (perhaps on the burly side of 29ers) and apparently its wheels are made for this sort of rough, wide–open riding and I did feel their warp–speed effect here.
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Alas, on the steep, soft and loam–a–licious trail that I befriended as my ‘ideal test trail’ (with a little of everything included), I wasn’t in the best of places on the Meta 29. It’s not that it was bad in any way, it’s just that having ridden the SX I didn’t feel quite as confident and composed as I knew was possible. A case of horses for courses perhaps?
Cue the Meta AM. I’m not a great fan of the hype surrounding 650b wheels. It’s not that I doubt their potential, simply that I’m a cynic: there’s a lot more to making a good bike, particularly one that ‘does it all’, than adding the latest number to its title or catch phrase into its marketing spiel. The purpose of the Meta AM has always been as an ‘all–mountain’ bike – the clue is in its name – perhaps the toughest of all categories to fit into. If a bike is to tackle all terrains and stand up to the rigours of proper mountain riding it needs to be something quite special.
The previous and original Meta AM was, in my opinion, a tad on the firm side. The shock tune just did not seem to work with the bike and I ended up riding with either a lack of air pressure or a constant hammering from the harsh back end. This is perhaps something that Commencal themselves alluded to in the product presentation in Andorra, as my ears pricked at the mention of a new shock tune for the 2014 bike in order to provide a more plush ride. Smashing the Meta AM into turns and hucking over messy gnarls of tree roots and rocks while riding the Bike Park, I agreed on the improvement to shock tune and I had an instant feeling that I could be on the pick of the bunch.
The obvious and of course radical change from 2013 to 2014 with the AM is the introduction of 650b wheels, giving the Meta range a bike in every camp. Is this simply to tick a box or because the wheel size is best suited to the bike’s purpose? A little of both I suspect.DAY 2: THE ESSENTIAL HELI–DROP TEST
Yes, ladies and gents, we were heli–dropped in Andorra! This was clearly the only way to test an all–mountain bike to its limits in a high–mountain adventure of the sort that all–mountain explorers will take on! My time on the Meta AM (now with 650b wheels!) was the most extensive of all three bikes as it is clearly the most anticipated bike from Commencal’s stables for 2014, but also as it simply seemed best suited to the array of trails we were riding. It’s an all–rounder alright.
Out on our heli mission with a gaggle of press types riding an assortment of Metas on the most varied terrain accessible in Andorra, my suspicions were confirmed. I was able to pick the bike up, throw it around and still pedal up the tough power climbs. Drifting at speed I was laughing and equally while making my way up the vertical roads where necessary I was comfortable. We embarked on a six–hour ride after lunch and the bike that begged to be taken from Andorra’s ‘other’ resort of Soldeu all the way traversing to the microstate’s capital was the AM. High speeds were handled well, rough terrain dealt with impeccably and, most importantly, I was having a lot of fun.
Of the entire range, the Meta AM seems to me to have the ‘just right’ balance, it rides impressively well in most situations. Is that down to the wheel size? As I reported back to Nico Menard, I couldn’t possibly refine my findings down as far as a simple wheel dimension. The 650b wheels undoubtedly play a part in giving the AM such ability but they are only part of a package – a very good one at that. On the other hand, if 29ers are your thing the option is there and the same goes for ‘standard’ 26” – all three can boast a solid and capable frame design that has come from a company at the centre of exactly the sort of riding you would hope for all manufacturers to test their products on. Commencal have taken a proven chassis and worked to refine and refresh as mountain bike technology and trends advance.PRICES
Meta AM: From £2,499.99
Meta AM29 1: £3,499.99
Meta SX: From £2,999.99
Available from Commencal.