This is the year of the plus-size mountain bike. Case and point: fully half of our bikes for the 2017 summer Buyer’s Guide test are coming equipped with mid-fat wheels. Over a recent long weekend in Sedona, Arizona, I sampled five of the latest, and the Pivot Switchblade is the finest of the bunch.
I’ve been a plus-tire proponent since Surly unveiled the original Krampus, and I’ve been on 27+ since Rocky launched the Sherpa and Specialized shipped pre-production hoops and tires to try on their Enduro. By 2016, we had 10 plus-size models in our annual test. Which is to say, I have some experience on this wheel size.
The traction of the bigger tires is exceptional—like a true fat bike without all the weight. I love how hard I can lean into turns. Even if the tire cuts free, which is rare, I know it will catch long before I crash. And the cushy tires, combined with super-refined modern suspensions, makes for an extremely plush ride.
On the downside, proper tire pressure is imperative, with the margin between 14 and 15.5 psi being the difference between rolling and sloshing and having to brake, or cornering harder and faster than you probably ever have before. Also, many plus-size designs are simply appropriated 29er geometries, and the slightly smaller wheels make for a lower bottom bracket and almost constant pedal strikes.
Not so the Switchblade. I rode this full-carbon bike up the rock-cloaked gully and ridge traverse of Hi Line on the south side of Sedona, and I never once punched my pedal into the hard stuff. The chain stays are tighter than most trail bikes on the market (428mm) for quick reactions, and the DW Link meant that I blasted forward without hesitation or bob, even with suspension wide open.
Previous Pivots I’ve tried have either been good climbers, as in the Mach 429 SL, or beasts on the descents, like the Mach 6, but the Switchblade proved adept, and was maybe even slightly better, at both. The 135mm of rear suspension felt far bigger, and the firm shock tune meant I could push hard on turns and berms for feedback and speed rather than simply bracing for impact. Meanwhile, the 150mm Fox 36 fork made big steps and steep drops all but disappear.
That burly fork spec had me worried at first. Sure it would be cushy, especially combined with the laid-out 66.5-degree head angle, but I imagined it would also be overwrought for climbing. Indeed, I appreciated the cushion on big rock rolls ending in flats, but contrary to my expectations, I never felt the excess on sharp, slick rock inclines. Simply put, this feels like the consummate plus-size trail bike: able climber, good bottom bracket clearance, and just as shreddy and playful as bigger, slacker, lighter bikes.
A few smart design callouts: For one, there are ports and internal routing for pretty much any drivetrain out there, and they’re clean and make lots of practical sense (no headaches for running a new cable). The 1x11 XT Di2 group set worked every bit as flawlessly as the XTR version, and the Reynolds carbon wheels managed to be both stiff and light. (Pivot’s choice of an even wider rear spacing than Boost, which helps with chain line and stiffness, would have absolutely infuriated me except that the size is already supported on the downhill market, so it’s more of a “standard” than many systems out there.) Finally, where past Pivots have been aesthetically ho-hum, the Switchblade, in its contrast baby blue and blaze rose, is downright sexy. The bike I tested ran north of $8,000, but Pivot offers the same frame with different builds down to $5,000.
In a place like Sedona, where there’s lots of bedded rock and big drops, I actually prefer the 29er wheel size, which the Switchblade fits fine, but which I didn’t have time to sample on this short trip. The 27+ Switchblade already addressed my issues with the mid-fat wheels, so I have the feeling that the 29er will prove an absolute trail-killer in a few months at our annual test in Sedona. In the meantime, I’ll hold the Switchblade on the pedestal as the plus bike—well, any trail bike, really—to beat.