Intense initially ascribed the "FRO" (For Racing Only) designation exclusively to its team-issue cross-country and downhill racing designs. Later, Intense expanded production to offer the lighter-weight models to its customers. The 5.5 FRO is the first non-competition chassis to be offered with the FRO designation. It's a lightweight, beautiful, expensive, and very capable trail-riding machine.
Basically, the FRO version of the 5.5 uses the same taper-butted tube set of the cross-country racing Spider with a beefed up rear triangle, different linkages and some extra gussets here and there. Extra care was given to the head tube area, where the use of a longer fork concentrates much more stress. The head tube is machined smaller in its midsection and then flared out to accept internal headset bearings. This treatment lengthens and strengthens the head tube junctions without adding height to an already long-legged chassis. Elsewhere, the FRO's Easton pipes are flared, ovalized, triangulated and curved to squeeze out the most strength and rigidity that can be had without adding an ounce more aluminum to the frame. The 5.5 FRO looks finely finished and purposefully engineered, right down to its sealed ball bearing linkage pivots. Intense pegs the weight of the frame and shock at 5.75 pounds, which pencils out right, with our medium-sized test model coming in at 27 pounds, ready to rock.
TIME TO HIT THE DIRT
Refined and ready: Finishing touches, like domed caps for its ball-bearing suspension pivots, add elegance to a chassis that can take a lot of punishment. Intense machines most of its frame hardware in-house.
Two or three pedal strokes are all that it takes to realize that the lightweight version of the 5.5 is a premium ride. The Intense thrusts smoothly forward with each turn of the crankset with the grace and efficiency of an Olympic rowing shell. Within a mile, the 5.5 vanishes beneath its rider as the two become one. The first singletrack event aboard the Intense is so effortless that one begins to wonder if all 5.5s perform like this, or did we just get a lucky one?
Trail riding: On paved surfaces, the wide-track Intense System-4 tires feel a tad slow, but when asphalt turns to dust and gravel, the 2.25-inch knobbies move right along. There is enough grip available to burn every turn as if the 5.5 was on rails, and the bike's lively, controllable feel at the handlebar encourages this practice from singletrack speed to wide-open dirt road sections. Stay over the center of the bike and you will find abundant traction available for acceleration and braking as well.
The Intense holds a line with great precision, so cross-country racer types who are used to indiscriminately wagging the handlebar while they ride will be chasing the 5.5 around the trail at first. Point it where you want to go and it will take you there within a half inch. Learn this, and you can relax through almost any technical situation that one would find on a forest singletrack.
Climbing and pedaling: The 5.5's easy handling and ample suspension smooth out most rider errors. This allows for uninterrupted pedaling over a wide range of surfaces. When the grade becomes steep, just pick a gear and get down to business. Count on the 5.5 to find traction where there is loose soil and let its supple suspension find footing where ruts and rocks litter the path ahead.
Few, if any, long-travel cross-country models can be repeatedly powered uphill in the middle chainring. Intense chose a low-geared, 11x34-tooth cassette, which helps get the 5.5 uphill without tears. Without being conscious of the fact, we used the middle ring for climbing far more often than the granny. The 5.5's pedaling platform doesn't feel rock solid, but it won't bob while you are seated, even when you are laying down a 100-percent effort. Stand up, and you will be pleasantly surprised that a 5.5-inch travel rear suspension can feel so fresh under power. Although a small amount of suspension movement can be sensed, the Intense VPP suspension, bolstered by the Fox RP23 damper and Manitou SPV fork, effectively channels leg power into smooth, rhythmic acceleration.
Ready-for-anything trailbike: Intense was one of a few visionary bike makers who forecast the lightweight. long-tavel cross-country bike. The FRO 5.5 is a revelation to ride.
Suspension performance: Three cheers for Manitou. Their 5.5-inch-stroke Minute Super has finally found a home. Its Curnutt-type pneumatic compression valve is strong enough to keep unwanted fork movement at bay, so the rider can stretch out over the front of the bike and pedal, but its damping remains sensitive enough to take the edge off of relatively small surface irregularities. Where the Minute really shines, however, is when the trail turns ugly and speeds exceed the middle chainring. Here, in the 5.5's most-favored realm, the lightweight, long-stroke fork feels bottomless and delivers a secure sense of control to the handlebar.
Intense tuned the 5.5's dual-link suspension to mechanically firm up under high-pressure pedaling. Because of this, there was no need to use more platform than the middle ProPedal setting of the Fox RP23 shock. The RP23's platform can be switched off with a flick of its blue lever, but we rarely used the feature. With the ProPedal set in the number two spot, the Intense was a set-and-forget missile that could power over rollers out of the saddle, bang through rock gardens without a bounce, and land serious jumps like a big cat.
There were some concerns that cropped up during our 5.5 FRO test. One was the cable routing where the rear-brake hose and shift-cable housings pass the upper swing link. The housings rubbed our legs at inopportune moments until we tied them to the frame. Another was the lack of tire clearance near the frame's lower swingarm yoke. True, smaller tires would eliminate most of our concern, but an unexpected rain could turn an epic ride into a death march if mud was a factor.
What the 5.5 FRO is about: Add an inch and a half of suspension and roll back the frame geometry of an already great performing cross-country chassis and you get a trailbike that seduces its pilot into riding harder and longer.
On the plus side, anyone who can get a chance to ride Shimano's latest XTR tubeless wheels should do so. They are light enough to add a noticeable degree of liveliness to the 5.5's acceleration and climbing performance. We still would like Shimano to tighten up the engagement point of its latest XTR brake levers, but we loved the stopping power and modulation of the new brake system when paired with a seven-inch front rotor and six-inch-diameter rear.
If you have read everything up to this point, then you already understand that we loved riding the 5.5 FRO. This is the mountain bike that answers the question: "Would you abandon your short-travel cross-country ride if you could have a long-travel trailbike that pedaled just as well?" with a resounding, "Yes!" The 5.5 FRO redefines cross-country trailbike performance. Spend a day in the woods aboard the 5.5 and you won't settle for anything less.
"07 INTENSE 5.5 FRO SPECS
Price: $5800 (as tested) $2225 (frame & shock)
Country of origin: USA
Weight: 27 pounds
Hotline: (951) 296-9596
Frame tested: 19" (medium)
Bottom bracket height: 13.25"
Chainstay length: 16.9"
Top tube length: 23"
Head angle: 70°
Seat tube angle: 72°
Standover height: 30"
Suspension travel (front): 5.5"
Suspension travel (rear): 5.5"
Frame material: Aluminum
Fork: Manitou Minute Super 140
Shock: Fox RP23
Rim: Shmano XTR
Tire: Intense System-4 (2.25")
Hub: Shimano XTR
Brake: Shimano XTR
Brake lever: Shimano XTR (Dual Control)
Crankset: Shimano XTR
Shifter: XTR (Dual Control)
Front derailleur: Shimano XTR
Rear derailleur: Shimano XTR
Chainring: Shimano XTR (44/32/22)
Cassette: Shimano XTR 9-speed (11-34)
Pedal: None (tested with Shimano PD-959)