Bigger wheels and smarter frames mean much better bikes. Watch: How we found the winners at our 2014 bike test.
Norco Sight Carbon 7.1
At first we thought the 27.5-inch wheel was just another fad, but Norco won us over. Last year’s 6.3-inch Range was the deftest enduro machine we tested. And the new 5.5-inch Sight ($5,252) is so balanced that it softened the staunchest 29er devotees. It’s quick and snappy, as expected with midsize wheels, but feels even more playful than most. The compact frame begs to clamber over rocks and launch off kickers. It ascends like a cable car—in spite of the 1x11 XO1 drivetrain, it never felt undergeared—and pounced down technical descents like a panther. At a svelte 26 pounds, it’s the complete package, right down to the stock dropper seatpost and the durable Maxxis Ardent tires. Every single tester review sheet concluded the same way: “I’d buy this bike.” 26.8 lbs
Giant Trance Advanced 27.5 1
BEST FOR: XC racers with enduro dreams.
THE TEST: Though the Trance Advanced 27.5 ($5,350) looks a lot like the Norco Sight Carbon on paper, the two bikes couldn’t be more different. The Trance has the explosiveness of an XC rig, thanks to Giant’s 5.5-inch Maestro suspension, which feels nearly as firm as a hardtail with the Fox Float shock in climbing mode. And though it kept up on blocky trail descents, the roughest terrain overpowered the suspension. Still, it’s equipped with full Shimano XT, the best value-to-performance components on the market. And extras like the Talas fork, which shortens by 20 millimeters for better climbing, and Giant’s proprietary dropper post mean you don’t have to spend more on upgrades.
THE VERDICT: Fast, light, and quick, but perhaps a bit dainty for full-face action. 27.1 lbs
Ibis Ripley 29
BEST FOR: Easy riding but not riding easy.
THE TEST: We’ve been anticipating this suspension design ($5,965 as tested) for years, and it was worth the wait. It packs all the firm efficiency of the DW-Link into two neat, eccentric pivots, which not only produces a handsome frame but also stiffens the rear end and allows for shorter stays (and thus faster acceleration). The bike is a veritable rock crawler, and the frame’s 4.7 inches of rear travel combined with Stan’s ZTR Arch 29 wheels made for sprightly descending. And of all the dropper posts in the test, the KS Lev was the smoothest and most durable.
THE VERDICT: Said one tester, “The right balance of plush and fast—a bike you can ride anywhere all day.” 25.3 lbs
Specialized S-Works Epic 29
BEST FOR: Winning.
THE TEST: We thought it would be as difficult for Specialized to revamp its perennial XC champ as it would for Ducati to make its Superbike 899 any faster. Yet the 2014 Epic ($10,500) really is better than ever. By shrinking the shocks and bumping up the whole assembly, Specialized made room for two full-size water bottles in the main triangle—something no other full-suspension bike can claim. There’s even leftover space for the new SWAT box, which houses a tube, inflator, and tire lever, as well as a slot built into the frame for a multitool. The Control SL 29 carbon wheels are so light, they spin up like road hoops, yet the rim design is broader and taller, which should counteract the cracking issues of past iterations.
THE VERDICT: Almost as fast (and expensive) as a Superbike. 23.1 lbs
Intense Carbine 29
BEST FOR: Riding lines as big as your wheels.
THE TEST: The Carbine 29 ($6,600 as tested) packs 5.5 inches of squish out back and 6.3 up front into a 27-pound package, less than good five-inch 26ers weighed a few years ago. Naturally, with all that suspension—plus a slack 67-degree headtube angle for stability and a stock Reverb dropper post—it descends like a sled. And the RockShox Pike fork is so smooth and plush that several testers threatened to ride off with it. A few felt the Carbine 29 had a big-truck feel, though the trade-off for slightly slower steering was Velcro-like traction in the corners, thanks to the extra rubber on the dirt. “This much suspension used to be a penalty,” said one rider. “Not anymore.”
THE VERDICT: You no longer have to choose between long travel and light weight. 27.6 lbs
Jamis Nemesis 650 Pro
BEST FOR: Fast and flowy singletrack.
THE TEST: Jamis has been doing 650B wheels (the original name for 27.5) longer than any other mainstream brand, so it’s no surprise that the Nemesis ($2,900) is a fast-turning, hard-riding racer. The highly shaped carbon frame negated much of the jarring that comes with a hardtail. And though a lot of the spec is high-value, long-lasting Jamis stuff—including a mixed SRAM X7/X9 drivetrain—the smooth Fox Float fork is loaded with every bell and whistle. It’s a bike made for blasting around buff singletrack and slamming out hot laps, though some testers thought it should be lighter than 25 pounds.
THE VERDICT: “Great bike,” wrote one tester. “But wouldn’t a hardtail be better in 29?” 25 lbs
Borealis Yampa XX1
BEST FOR: Snow, sand, mud—and even singletrack.
THE TEST: A carbon fat bike might seem like overkill, until you hit a sandy trail on the Yampa ($5,550) and realize just how much easier pedaling a featherweight on loose surfaces really is. Hung with a 1x11 SRAM XO1 drivetrain, ours weighed a paltry 27.2 pounds. (We’ve seen Yampas as light as 22 pounds with carbon wheels.) The 4.8-inch Bud and Lou tires made for laugh-out-loud float and fun in everything from six inches of winter fluff to sandy arroyos, but with a pair of standard-size wheels the bike is as fast as any hardtail. Our only niggle: with so much mass in the rear wheel, we’d rather see a through-axle than the spec’d quick-release.
THE VERDICT: The best of both worlds. 27.2 lbs