TESTED: 2019 Trek Procaliber 9.6 — Faster than lightning and smarter than your average hardtail

What is it?

The Trek Procaliber 9.6 is a mid-priced carbon hardtail race bike. The build includes a SRAM Eagle NX 1×12 drivetrain, RockShox Recon Gold RL fork, Bontrager bar, stem, seat and seat post. Kovee Wheels with Bontrager XR2 tyres and Shimano MT 400 brakes. The seat tube offers 11mm of vertical compliance to provide improved comfort over conventional hardtails.

Are hardtails still relevant?

They cannot be beaten when it comes to pure pedaling efficiency. That ‘instant drive’ snappy sensation when laying down the power certainly does appeal to the racing snakes. The lighter frame offers better acceleration, better climbing, and the package can be an excellent race bike. Naturally, when the terrain becomes more technical and choppy, the rigid rear end of the hardtail will start to work against the rider and this is the downside of hardtails. On a long ride, the lack of rear damping will take its toll on athletes, especially on back to back hard days. It is the fastest way — there ain’t no doubting that.

What about the Procaliber’s flexy seat tube?

Borrowing technology from their road bikes, Trek improved the traditional hardtail ride by installing an IsoSpeed decoupler onto the Procaliber. The decoupler provides compliance to smooth out the trail by enabling a maximum of 11mm of vertical flex in the seat tube, without any sacrifice on pedal efficiency. The top of the seat tube literally decouples from the top tube and chain stay. Rear wheel roll-over is not impacted, it’s merely the seat tube which flexes to improve rider comfort.

The ride

Out of the saddle, there is naturally no impact on the hardtails ride from the decoupler. The bike is super fast, accelerates like a rocket and is efficient under power. The usual hardtail trail feedback is evident when descending too. The point of difference with the Procaliber is when seated over small bumps, rocks, roots and the like, you can pedal with just a little more compliance than what other hardtails offer. Yes, it’s only 11mm of flex or compliance, but the difference is tangible.

Some insights from the World Cup XCO circuit

The Canadian Champ and XC specialist, Emily Batty, opted to ride the Procaliber for 5 out of the 7 rounds of the 2018 UCI XCO World Cup season. For the number crunchers, that’s more than 70% of the season done on a ‘hardtail’. In fact, every single podium placing that Emily had in 2018 was on the Procaliber which helped her end the season in 3rd overall.

What does this tell us about the Procaliber? If you are incredibly skilled, like Batty, and can be precise on the trails and know your lines, then on the right kind of trail, the Procaliber is an incredibly quick bike.

Who should buy this bike?

If you live and ride in regions of South Africa where the trails are smoother then this is a bike you will love. If you are in good shape with skills to match and are keen to smash some good results out at a 3-day stage race where the trails are smooth then this is a good option for sure. If you are looking at a bike for a stage race in the Western Cape where the trails are rocky, rutted and janky then you would be better off on a minimum of 100mm rear travel.

Impressions

I can’t wait for the days when 68-degree head angles are as steep as things get – it just makes so much sense to go that route. On purchase, I would fit an aftermarket dropper post which would improve the technical prowess of the bike. The SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain is a better performer than most believe. It’s reliable and solid in action, of course, it’s not as crisp on shift as the XX1 or XO1 version but I have to say years ago when I raced XC we only dreamt about shifting as good as this NX. The same has to be said for the Shimano MT 400 brakes, just as good if not better than the top of the range options from years gone by.

Summary

The Procaliber is a smart hardtail which rides lighter and smoother than others due to the IsoSpeed decoupler. This technology is not new, but it is nothing short of genius. This is a bike of choice for skilled racers who are looking for every bit of climbing performance they can find.

Emily Batty, the Canadian Pinner, spent more than 70% of her 2018 World Cup campaign on the Procaliber ‘smart hardtail’ platform and ended the season 3rd overall.

World Cup images: Courtesy Red Bull


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