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Bicycle Review: Carver 96'er

By MBT Staff

Hybrid: Carver managed to snag and combine the benefits of a larger front end with the crisp, responsive nature of a standard sized rear.

Simple test:

Which do you suppose would have an easier time rolling smoothly over uneven terrain; a roller skate wheel or a tractor tire? Naturally the bigger the hoop, the less prone it is to getting hung up or stopped as it rotates forward. This simple concept of circular reach summarizes the entire 29 inch wheel revolution in a nutshell. So why then, if the 29 inch wheel mates so perfectly to the needs of the modern mountain biker, hasn’t the entire world converted to the discipline? The simple answer is that larger wheels have more rotating mass and as a result feel less responsive and slower to accelerate from a dead stop. What the 29 incher gains in stability, it also often gives up in terms of responsiveness. What if there was a way to reap the benefits of both worlds? What if you could create a hybrid with the larger 29 inch wheel up front to carry the bike over the roughest of terrain and a standard 26 inch in the rear for pedaling crispness? Davis Carver pondered these same questions only, unlike us, he intended to propose an answer.

Enter the Carver 96'er; A hybrid of the two camps mentioned above with some definite innovation melted into the formula for good measure. We spent two months with the Carver and, in that period of time, managed to test the bike in conditions that varied from pudding-like mud for mile upon mile, to steep dusty downhill, to flat grassy fields, to pounding through two-foot deep drifts of snow. So did Davis Carver strike gold with the 96'er? We’ll spill the beans to the juicy stuff in a moment. First let us tell you a bit about our build.

Spec Sheet:

The 96'er is sold as a frame or as a complete build of several component options. While our particular build doesn’t actually appear on Carver’s web site, it closely resembles the Cross Country Disc Build kit and breaks down as follows:

Shifting duties were handled by a Shimano Deore LX Mega 9 group/ shifters. Bringing the bike to a rest was accomplished via Hayes HFX 9 hydraulic discs (front & rear) while an Easton EA30 aluminum riser bar rested atop a Cane Creek headset. Squish came in the form of a Rock Shox Reba SL fork and its 90 millimeters of travel in the front. Kona provided the grips and seat post, Easton the stem. A WTB Laser V saddle and Race Face Ride XC cranks rounded out the trimmings. Up front a massive 29 inch Kenda Klaw came wrapped around a Bontrager Race Lite wheel while the rear 26 inch setup consisted of a WTB Exowolf mounted to a Mavic X223 Disc rim.

Remember those technical sections that gave your 26 incher fits? The 96'er insists that you give them another try.

All told our test bike weighed in at a tad under 23 pounds, 3 (and 12 ounces) of which belonged to the frame itself. Speaking of the frame, the 96'er is constructed of painted and clear coated triple butted aluminum. Ours arrived in a non-distracting black scheme that hinted toward an unspoken confidence that would later be put to the test.

Frames are available in seven sizes from mini all the way up to XXL. We tested the medium size which worked perfectly for our test riders who ranged in height from 5-6" to 5-10".

Initial Impressions:

We’ll be completely honest here, mounting up on the 96'er during the pre-ride assembly had us all wondering what to expect. While the 29 inch wheel appears larger in the front from afar, the 70 degree head tube and 3.1 inch travel fork choice really do a solid job of making the bike feel level and balanced. It has been a while since any of the MBT staffers pounded some laps on a hardtail so the light weight characteristics and lack of complexity were immediately earning praise during load up.

One would suspect that given the fact that there was half as much suspension as we’re used to dialing in, we would have the Rock Shox Reba setup to perfection from the get-go. Not so! Our initial test session resulted in more than one test rider taking a swim in the barely-above-freezing currents of a late fall roaring mountain stream on a failed crossing attempt. It took us a solid week in the saddle to find the Reba’s sweet spot (which would work out to be 90 psi in the positive air chamber/ 85 in the negative in our case). Running the fork too stiff, as we had initially, gives the slightly elevated front end too much rigidity and hence a top heavy/ ready to topple sensation when the terrain gets slippery. A lesson we hope you’ll learn from our having found out the hard way.

You down with EBB? If not, one ride will change all that.

The Real Ride:

Once we softened up the fork, this baby proved that Davis Carver has truly managed to capture the best traits of the 29 inch wheel formula and combine them with the 26 inch wheel’s benefits. The bike’s ability to track a true line over trail clutter is phenomenal. Point the 96'er where you want to go, stay in the saddle to weight that 26 inch rear wheel, and let the bike take care of the rest. Lines that would clip a standard 26 inch wheeled bike into an endo simply vanished below the Kenda Klaw without the sluggish pedaling of a true 29er. Each rotation of the cranks transfers into a direct spurt of forward motion, the 96'er is one energy efficient pedaler! We expected the chink in the armor to come in the form of an unresponsive front end on account of the larger wheel. Carver has clearly done their engineering homework as we were pleasantly surprised to find a bike capable of blasting technical singletrack with the best of them. A wider front footprint causes a slight change in rider logic: Rather than bump and grind through tight switchbacks, the 96'er likes to flow. Stay seated, keep pedaling, and watch in awe as the Carver roars a smooth arc around the outside line. The larger front wheel will have you relying upon its abilities to gobble up the rough stuff in no time. Best of all, on account of the standard 26 inch wheel in the rear, riders who frequently loft the front end to clear stumps or logs will find the 96'er an effortless wheelie machine. Couple its balanced chassis stability with the increased circular reach in the front and riders of all skill levels will manage to impress themselves with their new found ability to make light work of most any trail situation.

Well designed frame geometry and an assortment of the appropriate specs result in a front end that is less than an inch higher despite the three inch increase in tire diameter.

Unfortunately (and hardly the fault of Carver) there is some toe-rub that accompanies all 29 inch front wheels. Perhaps our test crew has longer feet than most, but we had all experienced instances of tire rub on the tips of our shoes during the evaluation. The positive spin to this complaint is that the 96'er does not require that the bars be twisted to the extreme to carve a corner like its 26 inch wheeled cousin would. We suspect the toe-rub was the result of inexperience on our behalf at the 96'ers unique handling traits. As the test wore on the rubbing either ceased or had become accepted.

What’s EBB?

EBB stands for Eccentric Bottom Bracket and in the case of the 96'er, it’s not marketing hype or mere industry jargon. The bottom bracket on the Carver is literally on the fly adjustable through its ability to be rotated into various positions. The geometry and handling of the 96'er can be custom tuned to match most any riding situation. Should a rider encounter terrain loaded with large rocks, stumps, or clutter, rotating the bracket to its uppermost position grants instant ground clearance gains. On the other hand should a rider find themselves seeking to maximize their crank rotation for smooth terrain sprints, they have the option of simply rotating the bracket back toward its lower settings. In an industry loaded with marketing gimmicks and endless acronyms it is refreshing to report that the EBB system works.

Carver 96'er
Fork RockShox Reba SL (90mm)
Headset Cane Creek
Wheels Bontrager Race Lite 29" (front), Mavic X223 26" (rear)
Tires Kenda Klaw 29" (front), WTB Exiwolf 26" (rear)
Brakes/Brake Levers Hayes HFX-9 Hydraulic
Crankset/BB Raceface Ride XC/Raceface Ride
Cassette Shimano Deore LX 9sp
Shifters Shimano Deore LX 9sp
Derailleurs (F&R) Shimano Deore LX 9sp
Stem Easton EA30
Handlebars Easton EA30
Seatpost Kona single bolt
Contact www.carverbikes.com - (207) 442-7840

Conclusions:

We had already decided that the Carver 96'er was a diamond in the rough when a wicked little snow storm blew into the area and dropped over two feet of accumulation in a mater of hours. We rolled the bike out of the workshop for a little powder-taming experiment and the results were stifling. Just when we began to assume our two months of saddle time had revealed all the charms of the 29/26 inch combination, the 96'er dazzled once again, this time with its unmatched ability to blitz through the snow. If you happen to enjoy pounding across powdery cross country ski trails in the winter months even half as much as we do then the 96'er will amaze. Deep drifts, crunchy powder, light dustings, snow or sand, this hybrid simply claws through and doesn’t look back.

Before we go and shower Davis with accolades on his achievement, we feel it our duty to report that at the time of this review’s writing, both a titanium and full suspension version of the 96'er will be gracing the Carver line. Our east coast down hills simply begged the question “imagine this well executed concept with full squish?!”

Looks like now we’ll have to pick up two of ‘em.

For more information on the Carver 96’er head on over to:
www.carverbikes.com
Or call them directly at:
(207-442-7840)