-140-millimeter rear travel, 150 front
-Full carbon frame
-Orion Dynamics suspension design
-Short chainstays make for snappy handling
-Superb rear suspension kinematics
-High quality fit and finish
-Short chainstays can also make for nervous handling
-Odd tire spec
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Four hundred and twenty-five. That number would haunt us when it came time to feed our thoughts into a collective review of the Esker Rowl. Four hundred and twenty-five is the length, in millimeters, of the Rowl’s chainstay. By almost any measure when it comes to eyeballing chainstays, that is short. It’s trials-bike short, for a frame of reference. Appearing on a 140mm bike outfitted with 29-inch wheels that are in turn shod with some of the meatiest 2.6” tires we have ever seen, it is “how the hell did they even do that” short. This brevity of chainstay, in turn, would prove to be the source of some polarization amongst the Rowl’s testers.
For starters, those 425 mm represented such a compelling shortness of chainstay that we decided to lump the Esker in with the shorter travel test bikes for these roundtables, even though here is really nothing else about the Esker Rowl’s design or spec that deserves this categorization. It has a 150mm travel Fox 36 fork up front, contemporary 65/76 head and seat angles, an almost conservative 470mm reach on our size large test bike, and it comes shod for straight up monster truck duty with the spec Terrene Chunk 2.6 tires. But when a number like four hundred and twenty-five gets tossed out there, some of the old categorical thinking gets kicked to the curb.
So we rode it first on our cross-country test loops, and sure enough, those short chainstays combined with the nicely upright 76-degree seat angle and a pleasingly taut but still totally responsive Orion suspension were something of a revelation. Given the size and heft of the tires, and the beef of the suspension components, the Rowl exhibited sense of get up and go urgency that would be completely at home on a bike with a lot less travel and a lot less rubber. It responded to pedal inputs with immediacy and was a joy to point up ledgy crux moves. The Orion suspension was extremely compliant yet rode high enough in its travel that the Rowl was downright snappy when it came to stomping the pedals and manualing over obstacles. It’s an incredibly fun burly bike.
Venturing into more aggressive terrain and pointing it downhill, however, that’s where the aforementioned polarization occurred. Some of our testers, who are less inclined to use a lot of body English and who like short chainstays for their maneuverability potential, marveled at the suspension’s capability and the bike’s playful, jibby demeanor. Other testers, who are more used to a diet of big sleds and big steeps, felt that the Esker Rowl became uncomfortable at speed. One group of testers praised those four hundred and twenty-five millimeters for bringing the party to the plush, while the other, opposed group of testers thought that another ten or fifteen of those millimeters were needed to really get the party started. It’s entirely possible that there is more than one way to party.
Esker’s preferred party attire centers around the Orion link. Orion is the latest design to sprout from the Promethean forehead of Dave Weagle, and it’s a good one. Two incredibly short links, one of which pivots around the bottom bracket, slyly couple the rear triangle to the front, and do a remarkable job of balancing pedaling and bump forces. It rides high in the travel while pedaling, but still eats up all manner of trail garbage without any noticeable pedal feedback. In heavier terrain and bigger impacts, the suspension cleanly handles whatever is thrown its way, compliant without complaint.
In a nutshell, the Rowl is a divining rod for rider types. Those seeking a super responsive bike that has the suspension design and component quality to really get after the goods will probably love the Rowl. There is a lot to love here, from the suspension design and execution to the playful handling to the careful spec that represents a surprising amount of considerate thought. Riders who are used to words like “sled” and “plow”, meanwhile, might need some adjustment time to adapt to the Rowl’s mannerisms.
Our test bike was not one of three stock builds offered for the Esker Rowl, but was most similar to the $5,500 R2 option, just with some Kashima bling. The lineup starts at the $4,500 R1, which gets you the same frame as the rest of the Rowl models, and a DPX2 Performance shock with the same guts, but you drop to a Fox 36 Rhythm Grip fork. The Kashima-less Rhythm fork has a simpler, heavier chassis and uses a more basic Grip damper. But an aftermarket Grip2 damper upgrade goes for about $300 if you really want the tunability and really don’t want to spend the extra $1,000 to get the R2 build. The R1 build also gets Stan’s Flow S2 Comp wheels versus the Industry Nine 1/1 Enduro S, which feature far more reliable hubs than Stan’s. The rest of the R1 build is just about 100% Shimano Deore, and we’ve got no complaints there. The more advanced fork chassis and damper and more solid wheelset are worth the extra cost, but there are no deal-breakers in the R1.
Find it at eskercycles.com/rowl
Photos: Anthony Smith