A solid value from the Swiss manufacturer that presages good things to come
The European market has been slow to adopt the 29er trend. Just last summer, on a mountain bike press launch in Austria, after all 30 journalists (85 percent of whom were Europeans) took part in the two rides on new 26-inch platforms, the only riders to turn up for the 29er demo were the handful of Americans on the trip. Interest in big wheels has been slow on the Continent, which is why we were so happy to see lots of European manufacturers rolling out 29ers at Interbike last fall. Among them was the Speedfox SF29 from Swiss company BMC.
Even from a distance, the Speedfox's angular frame design and gusseted top-tube junction let you know this is a BMC. The aluminum tubing is significantly hydroformed, though with the exception of the curve at the bottom of the down tube, the tubes are largely straight. BMC's APS rear suspension (Advanced Pivot System) is a dual-pivot design that yields 100mm of travel, and the swingarms and pivots are both stout looking and beautifully machined. Our model came with a Fox RP2 rear shock and a Rock Shox Recon Gold 29 TK fork. There are modern touches, like the tapered head tube, as well as distinctly regressive features like the 9mm quick releases both front and rear. All together, the bike has a clean, classic, almost retro look that we found quite appealing.
On the trail, the Speedfox got mixed reviews. Position is decidedly upright and comfortable, and most agreed it felt like a stable, mild-mannered bike you could ride all day long. In spite of the easy positioning and the somewhat steep 70-degree head tube angle, steering was still quick and precise. We couldn't detect any flex in the bike either, which was a good thing for power transfer and railing fast descents. That robustness cut both ways, though, as the Speedfox had a decidedly stolid personality that a few testers found listless. Whether going up or down, the bike—all 28.5 pounds of it—can feel like a bit of a bulldozer.
Our biggest complaint was with the rear suspension, which worked well enough but lacked nuance. With the RP2's Pro Pedal turned on, the Speedfox is an extremely efficient pedaler, and we were able to clear everything but the biggest steps and obstacles. (Even those failures weren't a limitation of the suspension but of the bike's considerable heft.) In fact, the SF29 was almost too efficient in this mode as we felt jangled by even the smallest bumps. When we turned off Pro Pedal, the bike was plenty plush and we got all four inches of travel, but pedaling was decidedly bobby. Of course, that's how the shock is supposed to work, but we'd prefer it if the two modes were less linear feeling and there was more of a middle ground on both. A more adjustable shock like the RP23 might help, but that's something you'd have to try on your own as even the higher-end Speedfox 29 comes with the RP2.
Our bike came equipped with a full Shimano SLX drivetrain, Avid Elixir 3 brakes, some non-descript aluminum cockpit parts, and, wisely, an Easton carbon seatpost that helped take some of the edge off the bumps. The standout here is the Shimano drivetrain, which sees some real trickle-down benefits from the company's dialed XT and XTR groups. Shifting is fast and precise, and it required no tweaking or repair the entire time we rode the bike. And even though the trend is toward two rings up front, we appreciated the triple configuration given the bike's weight. We've said it before but want to underline the point: Shimano SLX packs the best performance for the price out of anything on the market.
The Elixir 3 brakes proved more reliable than many of the higher-end components we've used (nary a rubbing rotor nor brake bleed in six months of testing). And we appreciated the 180mm rotor up front—though after riding so many XC bikes with smaller discs, a couple of testers nearly shot themselves over the bars before getting used to the extra grab. We were unfamiliar with the Scor saddle, but for stock, it was surprisingly innocuous and comfy.
Our only real niggle on parts was with the wheels, Alex XD-Comp rims laced to Shimano 529 hubs. Other than the hassle of setting these up tubeless, it's not that we had any real problems with them. But they definitely felt lethargic and heavy, which probably accounts for some of the Speedfox's sluggishness. The wheels are the first thing we'd sub out if this was our bike. And though the tire combo worked just fine (Schwalbe Rocket Ron up front and Racing Ralph in the rear), we'd have preferred something a bit wider and burlier to match the bike's overall feel.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Speedfox may not have wowed us with any new whiz-bang technologies or standout features, but its value sets it apart. It rides well enough on almost all terrain, and, just like every BMC, it's well-built and should stand up to heaps of abuse. The easy position and neutral trail manners make it a great starter bike for anyone looking to try out a 29er. It's inexpensive enough to be one in your quiver if that's your thing, and with a few upgrades (shock, wheels) it would serve as a fine short-travel trail bike for most experienced riders. The Speedfox 29 also comes in a nicer spec (with an XO drivetrain and Easton EA70 wheels) for $4,500, but cost-wise you'd come out ahead buying the SLX model and upgrading to parts of your choice.
We have no problem recommending the Speedfox SF29, and we're just as excited about what the bike represents: namely, a shift in Europe toward quality 29ers. That's great news for consumers as it means lots of new bikes, parts, innovation, and competition in the big-wheel market. Last month BMC announced a new 29er race platform, the Teamelite TE01 29, which underscores the point and could also foreshadow a lighter, sweeter carbon version of the Speedfox 29. For now, though, we're pretty content with the company's first salvo.