Ventana El Rey
"You know, I believe you may have been right all along. You can’t have too many bikes.” This is one of the most beautiful statements my girlfriend has ever made to me. I have always said that, and she finally agreed when I got her single-speed townie fixed up and we hung it lovingly next to her mountain and road bikes. I am lucky enough to have someone who understands. So when I brought home the Ventana El Rey, she didn’t even bat an eye. She might have thought it weird that I could lean it against the wall, take a seat across the room, and stare at it for long periods of time, but she allows me my eccentricities. There is something about bikes that will always be intriguing. It may be the geometry of the frame, the shapes, or the colors, and bikes like the Ventana really catch my eye. The El Rey is simply a very beautiful bike. I own an El Toro single speed so I know what Ventana is about -- Sherwood Gibson and crew build as fine a bike as anyone else on the planet and their attention to detail and tight quality control is clearly evident.
Ventana is a small bike company that is devoted solely to the art of the modern mountain bike. They build hardtails, full suspensions, 29ers, and tandems. They have embraced the 29” wheel concept and offer five big wheeled models: two hardtails and three full suspension bikes. The Ventana El Rey is positioned in their lineup as a full suspension, cross country/trail bike. What you will find in the El Rey is a very complete cross country package. It has the stability, strength, and suspension to handle the majority of your mountain biking needs. Like all Ventana bikes, the El Rey is fabricated completely in house by Gibson or one of his whopping crew of three shop employees. Can you say "personal touch?" It’s true. They order made-in-the-USA custom drawn tubing to Ventana’s specifications, then they do all of the CNC machine work, welding, powder coating, and assembly within their shop in Rancho Cordova, California. Sherwood Gibson is there for every step of the process to keep a watchful eye on the quality of each and every frame.
Visually, the Ventana El Rey is an exercise in perfection. Our size large demo came in Cosmic Orange. Wow, what a rich and awesome color. The cosmic orange powder coat is perfect, proudly exhibiting the trademark Ventana “Electric Sex” welds. It is apparent that Gibson and crew are not only jacks-of-all-trades, but have become masters as well. The jeweled quality of the polishing and the machine work equals the top notch welding and powder coat. In all, the El Rey gets an emphatic two thumbs up for craftsmanship. From a design standpoint, Ventana seems to take an approach with a healthy blend of form and function. Their bikes are not built with a design of the month rear suspension. All are built with a single-pivot swingarm and linkage driven shock. Part of Ventana’s reputation is built around the lateral stability of their frames. This rigidity is inherent in the short rocker design which keeps the links of the rear suspension as short as possible, thereby helping to eliminate flex.
On the trail, the Ventana El Rey begins to tell it’s own story. Again, the El Rey is not designed as a pure racer, nor is it a bike park bomber. It is merely a cross-country mountain bike. The nature of the bike however, transcends its vague product description. With four inches of travel provided by the stock Fox Float R in the rear, the El Rey was a good match for the RockShox Reba 29 SL. The bike was tested on a variety of terrain: single track, dirt roads, and pavement. For me, throwing a leg over a 29er is a bit disconcerting at first. Looking down at the front wheel had me feeling strange, as it naturally appears much larger than the 26 inch front wheels to which I am accustomed. However, a few miles down the trail and that strange sensation became an appreciation for the characteristics associated with the bigger wheels.
On paper, here’s what 29er wheels should do in comparison to 26“ wheels: 1/ be heavier, 2/ accelerate more slowly, 3/ create more gyroscopic stability, 4/ provide more traction because of the larger contact patch, 5/ reduce the probability of pinch flatting, and 6/ roll over trail obstacles better. In reality, some of these characteristics are very obvious and some are not. On the trail, it is easy to feel the smooth rolling nature of a 29er wheel. Granted, they are heavier and take a bit more energy to get moving, but the flywheel effect is something a rider can take advantage of on a rolling technical trail. I noticed that the wheels are inherently very stable. The El Rey was confidence inspiring on the descents when things were happening fast. The big wheels on the Ventana made once bumpy sections of trail far more manageable.
The rear suspension on the Ventana El Rey is a simple, low-pivot swingarm. Did it work? Absolutely -- it provided an active ride, either seated or standing. When I rode the El Rey to and from work, I noticed that there was very little suspension movement when seated, even when climbing. The action of the suspension on smooth terrain is subjective to pedaling efficiency. When I spun nice circles, the result was no noticeable bob. When I fatigued and my pedal stroke became a bit more ragged, there was more movement in the suspension. The same result was evident when climbing out of the saddle with a more dramatic effect. If you ride uphill like the proverbial monkey on the football, it would be a good idea to upgrade to the Fox RP23 rear shock. The ProPedal feature would firm the suspension nicely. Once on the trail, the El Rey felt more at home. Actually, the more technical the trail, the more I liked the bike.
The highlight of the suspension action for me was the ability of the El Rey to completely absorb 2”-3” square edged obstacles on the trail. Roots, rock ledges, and holes seemingly vanished. I found that I could remain in the saddle and pedal efficiently while flying through that kind of terrain. It could be a function Ventana’s rocker leverage ratio, or the high-speed compression valving in the rear shock, or perhaps both. Either way it was great! I felt like it was a little firm on low speed compression over whoops, as it bounced me out of the saddle a bit. Slowing the rebound damping seemed to mitigate much of that. Another nice thing about Ventana’s rear suspension design is that it can be active when pedaling without any noticeable chain torque. I was able to ascend some wickedly rocky climbs in the saddle and felt like the tire was glued down. When I tried to stand and pedal though, it didn’t feel like the 29er tire was giving me any more traction advantage. I still had to manage my weight balance to gain the needed traction. It could be that the longer chain stays move the wheel farther back than I'm accustomed to on a 26 inch bike. It took some time to find the proper balance position to get the appropriate amount of weight on the rear tire. Once I did, all was well.
The Ventana El Rey is easy to get comfortable with due to the neutral handling. The 71.4 degree head tube angle on the 19” frame felt perfect with the Reba fork. On the trail, the El Rey carved into turns and held a steady line. I rode many of the same trails I normally ride on my Flux and the El Rey didn’t seem to give away any steering precision or quickness at high or low speeds to the 26 inch bike. There may be a limit out there for the steering of the Ventana, but I didn’t find it. When riding up steep, granny-gear climbs, I noticed that the El Rey got pretty light on the front end. This caught me off-guard given that our demo was set up with a zero setback post and I felt like I was riding well into the front of the bike. What really surprised me, was the fact that despite the sensation of the light front tire on these climbs, I could steer it with ease and the bike responded with a positive change in direction. On those steep climbs where the steering on a 26 inch bike would have been twitchy at best, the Ventana was merely delicate.
The Ventana El Rey was a bit heavier than what I was used to -- our demo weighed in around 27.5 pounds -- this could be lightened up another one or two pounds fairly easily with a few key component upgrades. On long climbs I always thought I could feel it, but then again it could very well have been mental. The main drawback to the 29er concept is the added weight of the larger diameter wheel. It will accelerate slower than a 26 inch bike. But certainly, the 29 inch wheels on the Ventana El Rey make it a comfortable machine. I felt like I could easily ride the El Rey over harsh terrain for hours. The suspension is that good. The quad bearings in the rear end support the pivots and keep everything firm. There was no discernable lateral flex in the frame or the rear suspension out on the trail. The rear suspension does a very good job keeping the wheel firmly on the ground whether standing or sitting, pedaling or not. The standout performance was in the medium sized, square edged bump absorption. It was just great. I felt like I might have preferred to have had the Fox RP23 rear shock, simply for the Propedal function. It was not necessary on the technical trails, as I appreciated the movements of the rear wheel in aiding climbing traction. It was on the long, non-technical ascents where I thought I needed it in order to transmit all of my energy into forward and upward motion.
The Ventana El Rey is a 4 inch travel trail bike that is more than capable of supporting your epic adventure. Sherwood Gibson is noted for building beautiful and functional bikes with a penchant for longevity, and the El Rey is no exception. It is a bike that can take you places in comfort and style -- and one that begs to be taken on the path less traveled. It’s a bike I would not hesitate to ride in a twelve hour race or go for a hard ride on an aggressive, technical trail.