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Tech-Redux: Moots VaMoots RSL

From issue 6 (October 2011)

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To say titanium has a special ride quality is nothing new. It seems to take the best aspects of steel, insulates you from the road and still let’s you know exactly what is happening under your wheels, while limiting two of steel’s downfalls: high weight and low stiffness.

In the world of titanium there are a few manufacturers who have always stood above the rest, a few that have coaxed something truly special out of the material. Moots, from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is unquestionably one of those brands. There has always been a certain something about a Moots, something that goes beyond any inherent qualities of titanium. Maybe it’s the fact that they are made right here in the U.S., maybe it’s the riding culture that permeates the company, maybe it’s engineering or their legendary craftsmanship, but a Moots is instantly recognizable. Nimble and smooth, they seem to flow down the road like water, always finding the path of least resistance.

Enter the Moots RSL. When we heard Moots had taken a ground-up approach with the new bike, aiming for weight and performance that had previously only been attainable with carbon, we were intrigued—and worried. After all, carbon is about stiffness-to-weight ratio first and ride quality second. Our concern was Moots was not playing to the strengths of titanium, and in the process would make a bike that came up short when compared to carbon, but lacked the magic feeling of titanium on the road.

The intrigue came from the name Moots. If anyone could do it, we felt the guys in Steamboat Springs had the best shot.

English Butting, Tube Interfaces and Ride Quality
What does ground up mean when working with Ti? Moots knew they wanted to use their go-to 3/2.5 titanium recipe, which is the most popular tubing choice in Ti frame design, 3% aluminum, 2.5% vanadium and the rest is all titanium. It is this alloy that is most responsible for the Ti ride quality we all know. In fact, the tubing is the same straight gauge U.S. material they use for all their bikes. The difference is in the butting. Each tube set is shipped to Reynolds in England to undergo an exacting butting process. The tubes are elongated slightly, thinning the walls in the center and thickening them at the ends where they will be heated for welding. The result is a lighter tube that retains all its stiffness and can be reliably welded. This alone results in much of the RSL’s weight savings over its stablemates.

And what is that weight? 1,133 grams for a size 55cm. While that isn’t going to go head to head with a sub-800-gram carbon frame, it will offer a ride quality untouchable by carbon. And the reality is, as a complete bike, going well under 15 pounds with a SRAM Red build and some high-end wheels is easily achieved. In fact, Moots could get the bike under the 1,000-gram mark, but was unwilling to sacrifice any power transfer.

Speaking of power transfer, with weight shaved, Moots looked at improving the ability of titanium to deliver horsepower. They started with a BB30, which increased stiffness at the crank by 38% and also allowed them a larger interface for the oversized down tube and chain stays, which amplified that stiffness. Up top they rethought the seat cluster as well. The RSL uses a 30.9 seat post as opposed to the 27.2 used on the rest of their road line up for in-the-saddle stiffness. The seat stays are the only place on the frame, and the only time in the entire Moots line up, where 6/4 Ti is used. Incredibly hard to work with but offering a little extra stiffness, Moots felt it was necessary to give the bike the power transfer they were after without betraying ride quality.

We’ve felt a lack of front-end stiffness on some Moots bikes before; to be fair, those were big bikes and not aiming for the same performance target as the RSL. The RSL gets its own stand-alone fork, specifically designed to handle the stiffness equation in perfect harmony with the Ti tubes and the bike’s high performance expectations. Finished to complement the raw Ti, it has beefy blades and an almost inverted look at the crown.

Just as the bike was not made as light as possible in deference to Ti road feel, the bike was not made as stiff as possible either. Moots could deliver a frame with numbers like an ultra-stiff aluminum bike, but again Moots refused to betray the ride quality of titanium in pursuit of performance better suited to another material.

The message appears to be if you want ultra light, get carbon. Want ultra stiff? Get aluminum. Want the lightest, stiffest bike with the beautiful ride quality of titanium? Get a Moots.

Short, Steep and Human Hands
The RSL’s geometry screams performance. The chain stays are short and the bike’s front center is so short that on a 58cm frame any size 11 shoe, with the cleat run back in the slots, will overlap the front wheel. This is not an issue unless you make a lot of U-turns on the bike path, but it is a good indication of just how short the bike’s wheelbase is. Across all sizes the geometry has been tweaked to hone in on the handling Moots feels befits this race-bred machine. In fact, over the nine sizes, the head tube angle is progressively steepened a quarter degree for each size, from 72.5 on the 48cm to 74.25 on the 62cm. Only the 55 and 56cm share the same angle. And Moots has another trick up their sleeve: if the geometry doesn’t agree with you, just get a custom.

Of course, all of this is wrapped up in what has made Moots famous since they first turned away from steel and to titanium 20 years ago: craftsmanship. The welds are simply superb. They are so accurate and uniform that they appear to be machine made, but they have artistry and aesthetic that can only come from human hands. It is this fact, combined with the incredible longevity of titanium, that makes a Moots truly a lifetime bike. Some day you may decide you want new angles, you may let it get dusty, you may want a new aesthetic, but you will never wear it out. That cannot be said of any other material.

Typically when testing Ti bikes we use a different set of expectations. We know it’s not going to be super stiff or very light. Those are the prices of admission for the road feel we get from Ti. This test was different. Moots designed this bike to be, quite simply, the highest performance bike ever made with Ti—so we took the blinders off. We compared this bike, apples-to-apples against ProTour carbon. What we found out was quite surprising.

The Carbon Match Up and a Titanium Soul
First off, stiffness. No, it is not on par with a truly stiff carbon race bike. There were moments where we felt like we needed spurs to keep the bike accelerating during big out-of-the-saddle efforts, but it’s in the ballpark. There were bikes ridden in the Tour this July that offer no more power transfer than the RSL. But the level of stiffness it does possess makes it a fantastic in-the-saddle climber. The big diameter seat post, with its positive clamping, works wonders with the slender 6/4 Ti seat stays. Upping the power and pushing back into the seat is greeted with pure acceleration. Acceleration out of the saddle is, again, muted compared to some high-end carbon, but again, there are carbon race bikes that have the same shortcomings.

The front of the bike is essentially perfect. The big forks keep you on line and aggressive on even the most demanding descents, while the Ti up front keeps the bike flowing when the road surface is challenging. This front end lets you make the most out of the incredibly nimble geometry, from tight crit corners to dashing through gaps in a bunch sprint. Thanks to the short overall package, it does feel as though you are sitting above the bike, not between the wheels—and some riders may describe this as twitchy.

So, matched up against a super light, super stiff carbon bike, the RSL has less get up and go, while handling and descending among the best. Matched up against average carbon power transfer, the bike delivers the goods. So, Moots proved they could make a Ti bike that was in the ballpark of race-ready carbon. But what good is that if the bike lost its Ti soul? The truly astonishing thing about the RSL is that it hasn’t lost an ounce of that soul. The bike flows over the road, providing the right feedback to let you attack, but never punishing you for a long day or turn down a broken country lane. No carbon bike on the planet rides like good Ti, and the RSL, for all its light weight and stiff platform, is the best Ti we have ridden. By proving Ti can do battle with carbon, Moots, almost by default, has produced the highest performance Ti bike ever made.

The Bottom Line
Price: $7,999
Size tested: 58cm
Wheelset: Mavic Ksyrium SL
Details: Moots RSL stem and cinch post
Weight: 15.5lbs.