Intense Socom FRO frame review
Intense Socom Review by Paul Mackie of Rapidracers.com
For those that know, the legendary British race car engineer Colin Chapman believed that extra racing performance could be gained with his Lotus cars by ensuring two objectives were achieved:
1.They should handle well.
2.They should be as light as possible with absolutely no excess material.
For anyone who has driven an Elise or Lotus/Caterham 7, you’ll know exactly how this principal translates into real-world performance. A light vehicle has less momentum to shift around when accelerating, cornering and braking. It doesn’t need a big engine or extra wide tyres because the power-to-weight ratio and handling geometry is so good. However, compromises have to be made. A Lotus Elise has practically no creature comforts such as air conditioning, traction control or soft furnishings. The car is aimed at the driving purist.
A badge with a proud history adorns the head tube
So, how does this motorsport engineering analogy relate to Intense’s new flagship DH race machine? Well, firstly, it is just that: a bike built purely for racing! The most noticeable thing about this frame when I took it out of the box (one of the first in the UK) was how stupidly light it is. It is bordering on silly light – I thought I’d been given a 6.6 by mistake! Intense have a new range within their bike range called 'FRO' (For Race Only). This means that any extra gussets for strength, surplus tubing and any excess material has been removed.
With the FRO series you also have the option of having a ‘works finish’ and that means no paint (that would be unnecessary weight of course!). I went for this option, but in truth I’m not sure it does the frame aesthetics justice. It looks a little bland, and reminds me of a galvanised road barrier. But again, this bike is all about performance: function over form.
Socom with 'works' finish
The FRO bikes have been specifically designed for racing and as a consequence, these frames have a reduced ‘factor of safety’ in terms of the amount of structural abuse they can take. These bikes are not guaranteed to stand up to repeated hucking and flat landing from 30 ft drops – because they aren’t designed to do that. For a bike company to make this step is quite bold, as they are essentially sacrificing durability and absolute strength for weight. Intense have put their reputation on the line here, but the benefits in performance could set a new benchmark. Haven’t Intense already set a few mountain bike benchmarks in the past - M1, VPP anybody?
The logical comparison for this bike is its predecessor, the legendary M3. However, the King is not yet dead, as the monocoque M3 is interestingly still in the Intense range. It is considered stronger and more durable than the Socom, and thus still has a place for riders who aren’t race obsessed! That’s not to say it’s a freeride rig though! Although the two bikes share the same geometry (to the letter) and the M3 has more travel (+1.5”) it would be wrong to label the old boy a 'huck bike', as it is still a thoroughbred race machine. However in terms of absolute racing performance, the Socom may have just raised the bar.
6.6 meets Uzzi in a lightweight package
Whereas the M3 frame weighs 10.5 lbs, the Socom weighs a staggering 8.5 lbs (20% lighter). For those that know, the Socom is a cut and shut frame! It’s got the front end of the 6.6 and the back end of a Mini Metro, err, sorry I mean Uzzi VPX! Directly comparing the frames of the Socom to the Uzzi, the difference in weight in the hand is noticeable. Comparing the Socom frame to a 6.6, visually, only the keen I eye can spot the differences.
The other interesting technical innovation on the Socom is the shock technology. It has a long shock stroke giving a smoother suspension ratio. The shock is mounted high up in the frame however, unlike the M3 which was tucked away low-down next to the BB. In theory, the shock should be as low as possible (for centre of gravity), but rumour has it that Intense wanted the M3 to have a longer shock, but couldn’t fit it in the monocoque frame, and hence the Socom was born?! With such a long spring slung high up in the frame, a titanium upgrade makes sense – although you’d also have to consider buying an ship anchor to stop this bike from flying away in a breeze!
Reassuringly though, as you’d expect from Intense, the craftsmanship is first class. Rightly so, Intense pride themselves by designing and manufacturing their frames in-house from start to finish, much like Orange. The welds are as good as you’ll find on any handmade bike. The hydro formed sections are pleasing on the eye, but also increase the weld areas at junctions and transfer stress paths in critical areas. The one drawback to the frame, and this is something common to all Intense’s is the bloody cable routing! When will they sort this out?! Do they make a cost saving here by letting the YTS lad have a go in the factory? Grrr!
So, the ride. Being so light, and having less travel than the M3, the Socom is not a 'point and shoot' bike. This is a noticeable trait. Where as the smooth ride of the M3 could blat through a root section like is was made out of Nerf foam, the Socom will skit across roots - but in a controlled manner. I guess part of this is because the Socom has less unsprung weight and suspension travel? However, this deficiency in suspension absorption is more than compensated by the bike's agility and shock action – the bike encourages you to hop over roots rather than hitting them, which of course is usually the quicker line.
This thing is unbelievably nimble, and the back end flicks around at will, more so in fact that the Uzzi I have raced for the past two years. Reassuringly, the suspension seems to have enough travel to help you out of those situations when things get a little out of shape – but not so much that you rely on the travel to compensate for bad riding. The geometry is spot on, as you’d expect. Through tight, technical sections, the chassis' agility is noticeable, as it can be easily manipulated by the rider around trees, over stumps and through tight berms.
Arguably the best two DH race chassis' of recent times have been the Orange 224 and the Iron Horse Sunday. These bikes are very similar to the Socom. The weight of the Orange is similar to the Socom and the Sunday has 8 inches of virtual pivot suspension (well, it seems to be enough for that Aussie bloke!). The question is, has the Socom combined the best features of these bikes and made the best pure race bike around?
Mid-test in UK conditions, Cwmcarn DH track.
Quite possibly they have! Nigel Page took ownership of his new Socom hot off the production line, and promptly thrashed the Elite field in the first NORBA of the season by 2 seconds. Not bad for a bloke who hasn’t been racing full time for a while and is now old enough to be in Masters category! When asked, Nigel said: "Yeah it was cool to win a race on my new bike. The Socom is a great bike (but) it rides different to the M3, it is lighter but rides lighter than it actually is. My bike isn't that light just over 40lbs but feels lighter when I’m on it. I think it suits my style better than the M3 as I ride light and skip and jump over stuff rather than just plowing through so it doesn't waste energy as much as the M3. The M3 definitely tracks better and makes things easier but the Socom is faster if you’re not on a big course!"
This got me thinking, would Nige have had the same result on an M3? Surely a bike doesn’t make that much difference? I’m convinced Steve Peat could beat most of us on a shopping trolley – however the Socom is making me change my opinion...
Maybe this bike has set a new benchmark? Race specific bikes, with incredible agility and low weight seem to be where things have been heading gradually for a while. Downhill used to be all about having chunky tubing, motorcross suspension travel and durability, but that theory has been gradually changing as designs have been progressively refined over the years. The Socom could be a quantum leap in this theory.
Another interesting facet of this bike is the manufacturing control Intense has over their production line. With tolerances obviously being so tight on this frame, will the brands who use Taiwanese factories be able to match? Quite possibly this is a blow for the independent manufacturer over big business?
So, what is my conclusion? When I built the bike up, my first impression was that it was too light. Not enough re-assuring gussets and chunky CNC sections. A downhill bike usually has an innate mass and stability to it that makes it feel sturdy, and could ride over boulders at will and the suspension would help you land the most badly executed jump. This bike doesn’t have that chunky downhill feel. It doesn’t even look like a real downhill bike either – too slim perhaps?
By introducing a bike that is purely for racing Intense have possibly gambled with their reputation by possibly compromising strength and durability. Lets not forget that despite Lotus’ impressive results on the race track, Lotus also stands for: ‘Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious’. However, lets get this in perspective: Intense usually get it right! Intense’s founder and owner Jeff Steber may have found an interesting gap in the bike market. First impressions are that this bike will be quick, but only time will tell with regards to its strength and durability.
My overriding feeling about this bike is that it will reward the skilled bike handler and quite possibly hand them a distinct technical advantage at the races. The proof of the pudding will be at the races in 2007...
The Rapidracers team will be riding Intense Socom’s throughout the 2007 season thanks to their partnership with Extra UK (extrauk.co.uk) who are the UK importers of Intense Cycles.
Socom - so secret, initial tests were at night
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