Long Term Review:  2015 Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt BC

I’m trying to digest breakfast.  I’m nervous.  slumbering quietly over the folded down back seats of one of the least memorable SUV’s in existence is the most amazing bike I’ve ever ridden.  And we only just met.  It’s boxed and tagged; 1/3 of its journey half way round the world to Melbourne, Australia.  I’ve ridden it in western North Carolina and Marin County for the last 3 weeks on some of my most favorite trails ever and now it’s at the mercy of airline baggage handlers.  I think I’m gonna be sick.

Suspension has come a long way.  In a world of mind-blowing tech. Evolution beyond your wildest expectations is the norm.  You didn’t ask for it.  But here you go anyway.  Having built and ridden a long list of dualies over the last 2 decades I happily gave up on any legitimacy they claimed.  All those pivots, linkages, seals; and just where is that creaking coming from?  Dualies can be assigned one of two categories:  Designs that demonstrate stability as part of their intrinsic nature and designs that depend heavily on a clever shock. Put your money on the former.  The big suspension companies rolled out something new every year to complement a dizzying variety of riding styles, suspended weights, terrain, components, etc. 

Enter the Rocky Mountain Ride 9 system.  Rocky has devised a way to make changes to to their frames riding characteristics at a critical location:  The forward rear shock mount pivot.  By rearranging pairs of offset chips one can select 9 different configurations, depending on riding style.  Farthest forward and up yields the slackest headtube angle, the lowest BB height and the most progressive rate on the rear shock.  Farthest back and down yields the steepest headtube angle, the highest BB Height and a straight rate on the rear shock.  I hope this doesn’t sound complicated.  It doesn’t have to be.  Variables like shock rate, headtube angle, etc. are what gives a bike its personality.  You can make this superb handling dreamboat even snappier in corners.  You can make that modest 120mm rear end seem almost bottomless.  You can slacken the front end enough to roost the Tamarancho Flow Trail like you built it yourself.  

I started out with polar opposites.  Forward and up like Bike Magazine set theirs was unexpectedly confidence inspiring and more nimble than I expected.  All the way back and down steepened the front end like I thought I always liked my bikes to ride.  But it also rendered the rear shock rate as linear.  It was prone to bottom out on jumps.  And for me, firming it up for a stable pedaling platform requires too much psi in that little Debonair air-can. For my pedaling and riding style, fully forward and one position down from the top is ideal.  The rear end is back to progressive, and bottomless.  And one position down sharpens the steering a little.

A little about the spec:  This bike is the BC edition, meaning the riders at Rocky chose parts that suited their needs for function, weight, durability, etc. in one of the most beautiful and challenging riding environments in the world.  The frame is Rocky’s proprietary  Smoothwall carbon, sporting a tapered headtube and the widest stance pipelock bushings I’ve ever seen.  All the pivots have grease ports.  And if you’re the type of person that lubes their chain, you’ll want to buy a little grease gun and squirt some of that in those little fittings.  Rocky ships these beauties with a bit of grease.  But a few washes may see you finding a little creak.  One shot of grease does away with that. Did I mention these pivots have a wide stance?  Looking down on the frame members, these pivots are HUGE and light because they are bushings and not cartridge bearings.  Their wider surface area makes this frame flex-free torsionally and buttery smooth vertically.  There’s fittings for a couple of bottle cages.  And it’s gorgeous.  Simply gorgeous.  A Rock Shox Pike sits up front.  At 130mm travel it’s more than capable.  The Charger damping unit represents a quantum leap forward, showing us in actions rather than words that bike suspension has finally fulfilled its promise.  This damper works.  Low speed compression is easily ramped up on a separate circuit.  Three main selections for full open, pedaling and lock out are available as bookmarks.  And rebound adjustment is at the usual spot down the right fork leg.  The Rock Shox Monarch Debonair rear can has similar adjustments, although you may find it a tight squeeze to fit your inflator in the valve in one particular suspension setting.  Details.  It’s really easy to setup and maintain a beautiful responsive stable platform, front and rear.  What does this mean?  You pedal and it doesn’t bob.  When you hit a bump it smooths out your world.  The SRAM 1 x 11 X01 operates with all of its clunky efficiency.  Shifts to larger cogs sound like someone just cracked a lightstick.  But I know those shifters will continue to deliver long after I’m done with them.  The type 2 rear derailleur with clutch and narrow-wide chainring make for a drop-free drive train.  A 32 tooth front chainring coupled with that ridiculous 10 x 42 cassette delivers all the promise that we’ve come to expect from 1 x 11 systems.  I will never go back to a front derailleur on a mountain bikeagain.  The brakes are Shimano XT ice tec with 180mm rotors.  A little on/off out of the box.  But after they bed in (and I stick to one finger) they modulate beautifully and they’ll stop my fat butt.  They are solid to the bone and they work.  Crank, narrow-wide chainring, bottom bracket, bar and stem are Race Face livery.  They do what they’re asked.  They don’t complain.  They just work.  Boom.  The seat post is a Rock Shox Reverb Stealth dropper.  And if I picked one word about it, I’d say it’s revelatory.  It’s difficult to describe how a dropper post changes your riding style.  But I’m considering one for the 'cross bike.  It means you can be in a spot that you’ve never been able to occupy before in the cockpit.  Weight shifts fore and aft are fluid and autonomic.  Droppers make you a better rider.  Believe it.  The tires are very capable 2.4 Maxxis Ardents.  The wheels are Stan’s ZTR Flow 27.5’s and Stan’s 3.30 disc hubs. While the inner rim channel sits at 25.1mm, it’s enough to open out the Ardents a bit.  They held their line on the wet roots of North Carolina and Tasmania without complaint. They are stickier and more confidence inspiring than any Schwalbe I’ve ever ridden.  When these wear out I’m getting another set just like them. 

After all that tech stuff, it should be said that this is the first bike I’ve bought complete since 1986.  I’ve always spec’d my bikes with hand picked parts that were every bit durable, light and expensive.  But at the moment, for this little Thunderbolt, I wouldn’t change a thing.  

For 2016, not much changes.  The frame goes from blue to black.  Parts spec is the same.  This bike is a winner.  If you are in the market for a Rocky Mountain, I would suggest getting one with Ride 9.  Know that pivot locations are a compromise.  Being able to adjust yours and alter your bikes‘ personality to suit your riding style makes this awesome beauty virtually disappear beneath you.  Believe me, you won’t be thinking suspension rates and headtube angles when you are railing corners on your local flow trail.  You’ll just be riding what we always hoped bikes could be.  It’s been a long time coming.  Oh yeah, make sure you get the dropper post :) 



At under 12kg in total, the top of the range 799 MSL is properly light for a bike with 150mm of travel. Looking at the spec, though, it’s no surprise – the Rocky Mountain grips sit on either end of Race Face Next Carbon bars and pedals screw into a choice premium enduro crankset. The light but unexpectedly bomber tough Race Face Next SL crank with its one-piece spider and chain securing narrow wide ring also uses a 30mm axle in the BB92 Press Fit bottom bracket shell.

The rims are Reynolds' Carbon All Mountain and the gearing SRAM XX1, meaning hardware on the Altitude is about as light as possible without obviously sacrificing strength. The same goes for the Smoothwall carbon frame, which uses hard internal forming mandrels rather than an inflatable bladder to create the most accurate high pressure shaped tube walls inside and out.

The level of construction control is evident in the use of subtle blister bumps for each internal cable entry port rather than simpler-to-make rubber grommet-plugged multi-control holes. There are multiple exit points for the cables and hoses, either underneath the top tube just ahead of the shock (used for a shock remote on this bike) or under the bottom bracket, where you’ll also find an extra bottle mount with fancy blue anodised bolts and chainguide mounts moulded into the frame.

While they’re not needed here, there are DMD front derailleur mounts built into the chainstay front end. A lack of cross bracing bridges means plenty of mud room even with the big 2.4in Ardent tires. We know riders who’ve ragged Rocky’s solid state ABC pivot bushings through long seasons of very varied weather without an issue, so we’re not worried about excess wear.

Combine stiff cranks, a light bike with light wheels and a semi-slick rear tire and the Altitude certainly isn’t slow at gaining its namesake. The Fox CTD shock comes with a handlebar remote control, which means you can firm it up or lock it out almost totally with the flick of the under-bar trigger or dump the low speed compression damping by releasing Descend mode. You get the same adjustment via the dials topping the Fox 34 fork too, so prepping it for long stints of climbing or just adapting ride feel for changing terrain is no problem.

The rotatable Ride-9 chip within a chip feature that holds the front of the shock also lets you change geometry and/or shock rate. That means you can have a really steep seat angle and steeper head angle if you prefer clawing up similarly steep climbs or something much slacker and lower for carving the corners. RockShox’ seemingly omnipresent Reverb Stealth dropper post means seat height is never an issue and powering up the fire road of Bootleg Canyon things seemed all set for an impressive first ride of the demo.

Unfortunately that’s not quite how it panned out because of a shock issue that caused severe high speed spiking on our sample. Luckily we were riding a Rocky Mountain Instinct 990 29er with an almost identical suspension setup at the same time so we know the suspension – while noticeably linear and fairly pressure sensitive – is basically sound.

The suitably slack and low geometry combines with the excellent Maxxis DHF triple compound front tire and short stem, wide bar Race Face cockpit for a front end you can really put weight into. The Ardent rear tire acts as a natural drifting ‘fuse’ too, stepping out seemingly automatically just as the front end starts to slide and turning potentially dangerous understeer into big grin, back end out oversteer.

The light weight and easily compressed shock feel make the Altitude very easy to hop and pop around on the trail too, so you can generally keep it clear of the big hits that might make its lack of planted rigidity an issue.

Link to bike -->


One nice perk of being in the bike biz is that I get to try a lot of nice bikes. The new, all carbon, 27.5" wheel Felt Decree 3 exceeded my expectations when I rode it. My test consisted of the local Marin Lakes Loop ride up Eldridge Grade around Lake Lagunitas and over to Shaver grade, eventually ending in Fairfax. A short ride but enough to understand the Decree's features. The $4499.00 Decree 3 has a very solid component spec. Highlights include a RockShox Pike RC Solo Air fork with 150mm travel, KS LEV DX dropper seatpost, and 11 speed Shimano XT derailleur featuring an 11-42t cassette.

I immediately felt comfortable in the cockpit. Climbing up Eldridge, the 2.25 Shwable Nobby Nic tires never felt like they were wasting energy but still provided plenty of traction on the decent when paired with the RockShox Monarch RT3 shock. The Decree felt more like a 25lbs cross country race bike than the 27lbs of trail bike that is. Felts FAST rear suspension design works great. FAST was originally designed for cross country bikes but works really well in this application.

When pointed downhill, the geometry of the Decree is spot on too. A 66.5 degree head tube angle and 73 degree seat tube angle get bonus points for both efficient climbing and stable down hilling. Only a few times did I want a larger front tire over the stock 2.25 on the bike, but that is a personal preference. Other than that, the bike performed as a trail bike should.

I came away wishing I could keep this one. Why you ask? It was the balance that impressed me the most. It climbed like a cross country racer but the 150mm/140mm travel was ready for anything here in Marin and beyond. Anyone looking for a trail bike with cross country DNA should put this bike on their short list! Check out the Decree 1 and Decree FRD for even more carbon goodness!

Link to this bike:

Link to Felt Bikes: