The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Biking

Trail Blazers

From the Toyota Tacoma of the mountain-bike world to the punked-out younger brother of the Surly Krampus, these six trusty steeds will get you off-road—and keep you there all day long. 

Santa Cruz Bronson C XO-1 AM 27.5 ($6,305)

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Editors’ Choice
The Bronson, with its tweener 650B wheels, was that rare bike that didn’t just win over both 29er devotees and 26er zealots, but also made us forget about wheel size entirely. That’s because it’s laugh-out-loud fun to ride, especially on moto-style descents that beg for you to get those WTB Frequency wheels off the ground. It’s the prototypical enduro bike, with a short cockpit, de rigueur dropper seatpost, and slack geometry (67-degree head-tube angle). And yet the svelte, 27.5-pound build weight didn’t cramp our legs on climbs. As one tester summed it up: “I’d ride this bike anywhere, on any terrain—as long as there’s downhill.” 27.5 lbs.

Ellsworth Absolute Truth ($8,385, or $3,500 frame only)

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Best for: Upgrading
Once known for painstakingly crafted aluminum bikes, Ellsworth has expanded into carbon in the past few years. In refashioning its Truth as a five-inch carbon-fiber trail ride with 27.5-inch wheels, the company held to its boutique heritage by using aerospace-grade materials. What hasn’t changed is Ellsworth’s ICT suspension—a four-bar linkage that provides some of the most efficient climbing performance of any design on the market, yet still feels plush in the rough. And while it pilots like a cross-country machine, especially with the flawless Shimano XTR group set and lightweight Kenda Slant 6 tires, it’s a bit heavy for racing. 25.3 lbs.

Surly Instigator 2.0 ($2,650)

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Best for: Noncomformists
The Instigator is the punked-out younger brother of Surly’s 2013 hit, the Krampus. Like its sibling, this bike advances the idea of mid-fat tires, with house-made 2.75-inch Dirt Wizard rubber running on massive 50-millimeter rims for exceptional grip and the same effective rolling circumference as a 650B wheel. Coupled with the 5.5-inch Fox Float 32 fork, it behaves like a dirt jumper, bounding up scree-covered trails. “It’s more fun than jumping into a mosh pit,” one tester raved. It isn’t light, nor is it cheap for what you get, but you can’t put a price on fun. 32.1 lbs. 

Salsa Spearfish XX1 ($5,500)

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Best for: Racers on a Budget
Long known for producing low-key, hard-riding, affordable bikes, Salsa jumped into the big leagues by licensing the Dave Weagle–designed Split Pivot rear suspension for the latest version of its Spearfish. So while this four-inch aluminum 29er shares its name with the original, it’s more supple and feels stiffer in the back end. It’s a catlike ride, sluicing through tight singletrack and pouncing around corners. The 11-gear XX1 drivetrain is optimal for racing speeds, and the ZTR Crest wheels are the ultimate workingman’s lightweight hoops. The Spearfish is pricey by Salsa standards, but it’s high value compared with its peers. 23.7 lbs.

Trek Fuel EX 9.7 29 ($4,200)

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Best for: Virtually Everyone

The Fuel EX 29 is the Toyota Tacoma of the mountain-bike world: tough, reliable, and reasonably sexy. This five-inch carbon steed (with an aluminum rear triangle) is every bit as lively as the 26-inch Fuel, the company's bestseller for years. And thanks to the relaxed positioning and terrain-crushing wheels, it's an even easier ride. “It’s not the lightest climber, and it's no burly shredder,” said one tester, “yet it keeps up with both.” The Fuel also packs a ton of value, including Fox suspension in front and back and a mix of Shimano XT and SLX components throughout. Pity about the clunky Bontrager Duster wheels. 27.2 lbs. 

Lenz Sport Mammoth ($4,900, or $2,350 frame only)

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Best for: Rock Crawling
By the numbers, the Mammoth looks a lot like the Trek, with big wheels and five inches of travel. But this small-batch aluminum bike is a specialist. In spite of the comfortably slack 69-degree head-tube angle, it clambered monkey-like up the trickiest rock features on Tucson’s La Milagrosa Canyon and was pool-cue accurate on hardscrabble descents. However, the Mammoth wasn’t as comfy on fast, cruising terrain, where its high bottom bracket had some testers feeling tenuous. Our test bike was built with a mishmash of SRAM parts and an older Fox RP23 shock; owner Devin Lenz prefers to sell the Mammoth as a frame and shock alone, letting buyers customize to their needs. If it were us, we’d equip it with some burly parts to build the ultimate tech-sessioning machine. 28.6 lbs.

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Look Ma, No Training Wheels! The Best Balance Bikes

Learning to ride a bicycle can be brutal for both kids and parents alike. But those endless sessions of running alongside your tike and bandaging up bloody knees can be avoided altogether by incorporating a balance bike into your kid’s training.

Balance bikes—pedal-less cuisers that are low enough to the ground so kids can put their feet down—are not only fun, but easily teach kids how to balance and steer without the terror of falling over. “They are designed so the kid has a little stand-over height and a place to put their feet when they are coasting,” says Lester Binegar, general manager of University Bicycles in Boulder, Colorado.

“Training wheels train kids how to not balance a bike,” Binegar continues. Balance bikes teach—surprise!—balance, a main component of cycling that makes everything else related to riding a bike easier. “Once the kid has the balancing down for a month or so, the parent should move them to a bike with pedals.”

Binegar recommends waiting until your kid is at least two-and-a-half to three years old to get him or her on a balance bike. At that age, children are able to balance and steer at the same time and will fit properly on the bike. Most balance bikes don’t come with brakes, so Binegar recommends starting off on a flat surface. For more of a challenge, head for a little downhill.

There are plenty of balance bikes on the market, with frames made from both wood and metal. And some of those rigs are really more toy than bike. The more expensive balance bikes are made like adult bicycles, minus the drivetrain and other components. “There's even a few models that allow for easily removing the drivetrain until the kid gets the balance,” Binegar says. “Then you put the crank and pedals back on and off they go.”

Here are our top picks to get your little rider off and cruising.

1. Ridgeback Scoot

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According to Ivan Altinbasak, the owner of Wee Bike Shop in Warwick, Rhode Island, the Scoot by Ridgeback ($135) is the rock star of balance bikes. From the frame to the handgrips, it is completely customizable. And adjustable—the seat height can be increased by six inches, which means kids up to 6 years old can hop on comfortably. Maintaining control is easier, too, thanks to a longer wheelbase and handlebars than other balances bikes. Bonus: because this is an actual bike (and not a toy) any maintenance or repairs can easily be done at a regular bike shop.

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2. TooToo by Yedoo

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The TooToo by Czech-company Yedoo ($130) is on the lighter end of balance bikes but still has top stability and high-end features, such as brakes, an upholstered seat, wide-end grips, and backstops to prevent the handlebars from doing a 180. The aluminum version weighs in at just more than eight pounds. Using an Allen wrench, the seat is adjustable up to five-inches, so it can grow as the kids grow, or the bike can fit multiples siblings, so long as sharing isn’t a problem.Full-Column Inline Image with Caption:

3. FirstBIKE Limited Orange

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Although FirstBIKE’s cruisers are technically toys, the Limited Orange balance bike ($200) is designed by German cycling professionals and doesn’t skimp on safety. The bike accommodates ages two to five thanks to a four-inch adjustability in the seat, has a Safety Stop Brake System, a no-slip saddle, and a steering limiter so sharp turns won’t lead to bloody knees. The bike is made from durable nylon, which won’t rust or leave paint chips everywhere.

4. Early Rider Classic

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Thanks to the flame detailing, customizable seat and grips, and the wheel set up (14 inches in the front, 12 inches in the rear) you’ll have a badass biker in no time. Although more expensive ($180) then some models, this seven-pound wooden bike is made from marine-grade Birch, which is essentially weather-poof. A removable turning limiter along with recessed bolts keep your little ones safe. The Classic is recommended for ages two to four-and-a-half years, but Easy Riders makes models for older kids, too.

5. Wishbone 3-in-1

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The natural birch Wishbone 3-in-1 ($230) is one of the most versatile balances bikes on the market. It transforms from a three-wheel trike to a two-wheeled balance bike to full-blown glider with a flip of the frame and a raise of the seat. With a seven-inch adjustable seat, it can accommodate kids from one to seven years old.

6. KinderBike Laufrad

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The rugged and sporty Laufrad by KinderBike ($119) doesn’t disappoint, though it works best for kids two to four years old. The durable bike boasts air tires and an aluminum frame, along with a five-inch adjustable seat that not only moves up and down, but also front to back.

7. LIKEaBIKE Mountain

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Another wooden model, the 7.7-pound LIKEaBIKE Mountain ($315) uses laminated birch to create a sleek frame perfect for kids aged two years to five. Customize your ride with five different colored saddles, and adjust the seat up for four inches. Rubber handle grips and pneumatic tires make for comfortable riding both indoors and out.

8. Strider Sport

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Perhaps the most recognizable brand for balance bikes, South Dakota-based Strider was founded in 2007 and now sells more than 700,000 bikes around the world. The popular Sport model ($119) checks in at 6.7 pounds and, with a five-inch adjustable seat post, is ideal for kids 18 months to five years old. The Sport comes with a brake mount, foot rests, and protective ends on the handlebars. Unlike some balance bikes, the Strider uses foam tires, which means no flats. It also means once your kid gets into tricks at the bike park, you might want to upgrade to something with more traction.

9. Specialized Hotwalk Boys

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We love Specialized bikes for adults, so it’s no surprise that the company’s kids’ line impresses, too. Perfect for your future mountain biker, the Specialized Hotwalk ($175) comes with Specialized Rhythm Lite Sport tires, soft grips, and feet platforms for endless riding. Children will be keeping up with parents in no time.

10. Kundo EVO

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At only 7.1 pounds, the Kundo EVO ($150) is a good choice if you’re going to be hauling your ride from the house to the park and back. The lightweight, one-piece aluminum frame boasts modern, European styling with tri-spoke wheels. No protruding and a padded saddle aid comfort for kids, and an integrated carry handle is useful for mom and dad.

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Rocky Top Road Trip

Bomb down epic singletrack, play in Class IV whitewater, and take in Colorado’s famous 14,000-foot vistas on this 500-mile multisport tour of a lifetime.

Packing List: Your entire gear closet, a big roof box, a GoPro

Highlights: Start this odyssey by playing in the four brand-new features in downtown Durango’s Animas River Whitewater Park. Then head east to soak away shoulder burn in Pagosa Springs’ 22 pools (from $25) and cool off with a Skallywag pale ale at Riff Raff Brewing Company.

Near 10,857-foot Wolf Creek Pass, take a mile-long hike to the Pass Creek Yurt, which sleeps six, comes stocked with firewood, and is the ideal base camp for hiking and mountain-biking the Continental Divide 
Trail ($139 per night). At Great Sand Dunes National Park ($3 entry), rent a sandboard to descend 750-foot Star Dune ($18), then go north to Salida to raft 20 miles of Class III-plus through Browns Canyon ($86; noahsark.com). Crash at the three-bedroom cabin at Creekside Hot Springs in nearby Nathrop, which has a private pool next to Chalk Creek (from $295).

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In bike-crazy Gunnison, try some of the 44 miles of singletrack trails in the Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, then stay at Three Rivers Resort, where you can rent a cabin or lodge room and step outside the door to cast a fly in the world-class Taylor River for trophy brown, rainbow, or cutthroat trout (from $65).

Wrap up the trip by heading south from Montrose 
on Highway 550 for a jolt of Rocky Mountain highs at 11,099-foot Red Mountain Pass before coasting back through the San Juans to hit all five craft breweries 
in Durango. Bed down at the Strater Hotel, a four-story Victorian built in 1887 (from $192).

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