Mountain bike review: Ventana El Comandante

Editor’s note: We’re pleased to announce the addition of Marie to our staff. Her enthusiasm and writing style seem to be a perfect fit.

Ask any mountain biker what the best type of bike is and you‘ll never get a simple answer. And Rightfully so. There‘s no one bike that rocks every trail. There are trail bikes, all-mountain beasts, downhill bikes, cross-country bikes, full-suspension, hard-tail, rigid. Carbon fiber, aluminum, steel. 29ers, 26ers, 69ers, 650b‘s, single speeds and geared. It never ends and it will always cause sleeplessness when you‘re trying to decide what your next bike should be.

For me, it was a belabored decision. Months of research and a trip to Interbike narrowed it down to something very cool and unique: The Ventana El Comandante.

It‘s a 29er.

It’s a single speed.

It‘s a geared bike.

It‘s a hardtail.

And it‘s all rolled together in one neat (and sexy) bike.

An attitude adjustment was required though. I‘ve always shunned single speeders as nothing more than a cult of bizarre, purist riders with noses pointed at an odd upward angle and self-proclaimed masochists who subject their knees to abuse and torture and possible orthopedic surgeon intervention. Gears were invented for a reason. And don‘t get me started on the 29er revolution and the people that won‘t shut up about them.

In the end, I wanted to at least give single speeds and 29ers a fair shot so that the next time I dissed one on the trail, I could at least answer “Yes, that‘s why I hate them,” to the question I had been asked countless times: “Have you ever ridden one?”

I chose the Ventana El Comandante 29er hardtail for my ingress to a world of old-school tradition and esotericism  because it’s essentially one bike with a lot of opportunity:

  • It has a removable rear drop-out that can accommodate either a Gates Carbon Drive or a standard chain.
  • You can slap on a derailleur and gear it like a normal bike (I figured that if I decided single speeding was for the birds, I would still have a 29er with proper gears).
  • If you add a fork  with a hydraulic pop-lock mounted on the handlebar, (e.g. Rock Shox Reba) you can go from a fully-rigid single speed when commuting or ascending hills, to a bouncy hard-tail with a push of the thumb.
  • The frame is made in the U.S.A. to add that extra touch of sweetness (and patriotism).

But before I conceived of the El Comandante and its flexibility, I took a spin on a Niner EMD to get a feel for how a 29er would ride. Not to minimize the Niner, it‘s a beautiful bike. It met my 29er expectations: fast and fearless over rocks and logs but sluggish on the tight twisty turns through trees. It didn’t get me fired up for the 29er experience, but I had opened my mouth one too many times and certain people haven’t forgotten.

The El Comandante both enforced and dispelled the 29er myth. It’s fast and fearless in the obstacle-cleaning department, but then I encountered something very odd and unexpected. It handles sharp turns with the lively, quick agility of a 26-inch bike. Specifically, it has a responsiveness around trees, over log piles, through rock gardens and on sharp turns that mirrors my Cove Stiffee.

Turns out, it’s all in the head angle. Ventana designed the El Comandante with an extra steep head angle, which is the key to its sleek and responsive handling. This makes transitioning between my Ibis Mojo and Cove Stiffee seamless.

Componentry oftentimes makes or breaks the riding experience, so here’s my lineup:

  • Drive train: Gates Carbon Drive
  • Handlebars: FSA SLK carbon fiber
  • Stem: FSA SLK (90cm)
  • Headset: Chris King, baby!
  • Brakes: Avid Elixer CR with seven-inch rotor in front, six inch rotor in the rear
  • Cranks: FSA carbon
  • Seat post: FSA SLK carbon fiber
  • Wheels: Crank Brothers Cobalt
  • Tires: Kenda Small Bock Eight (2.1)
  • Fork: Rock Shox Reba 140 mm with pop lock hydraulic lockout

Total weight? 21 pounds.

There’s no such thing as the perfect bike for all trails, but the El Comandante comes pretty close. It’s my hipster commuter bike and my cross-country animal. My single-speed and hardtail. It can be fully rigid with the flick of my thumb, and it can be fully geared (after adding a few additional parts). That‘s the true beauty of this bike.

Size-wise, I’m 5′ 6″, 118 lbs with a 31-inch inseam. Ventana’s commander in chief, Sherwood, personally recommended the 18-inch frame as the right size for my measurements. But when the build was complete, and I stood over it, I was worried. There was barely any clearance between the top tube and my hoo-ha.

Since I didn’t test ride this bike before deciding it’s the one I wanted (I never do), I thought I had gone and done something stupid. But Ventana‘s sizing choices are 16″, 18″, 20″, 22″, 24″. After talking again with Sherwood, he said I could fit on a 16” frame but he didn‘t recommend it. He assured me I would be happier with the 18”. Essentially, Ventana’s small frame is the 18″ frame.

I originally had Kenda Navigal 2.1’s on the bike. Sherwood suggested swapping them for Small Block Eights to help bring the stand-over height down a tad. It worked, but after riding it all summer, I honestly don’t think I’m going to notice the increased stand-over height if I swap the Small Block Eights with the Navigals.

So, crisis averted and purchase decision reaffirmed. The bike fits as is and I‘m loving it. I‘ve also yet to scratch the surface of its capabilities. More to come on that when I add a derailleur.

Note: If buying an El Comandante (or any Ventana, actually) directly from Ventana, don’t be afraid to ask for Sherwood directly. He might reign supreme over Ventana, but he’s more than happy to answer technical questions.

– Marie

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Thanks for the review. I am considering this bike but before I spend the money I have been trying to talk to those that have them. I have never ridden a 29er and am worried about the tight in the trees single track and Burms. I also read that the frame is set up for a 100mm fork. Was this frame a custom to fit the 140. I’d love a 120 up front with the lock.


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