With all the rage about 27.5-size wheels last year, we decided to hang onto a couple of the more popular mid-size trail bikes for a long-term look.
In case you've been living under a rock, blissfully oblivious to all the marketing, the hype on 27.5 is that this size provides the quick handling of a 26-inch wheel and the momentum and rollover of a 29er.
After riding dozens of them over the last year, and pitting all three sized wheels in back-to-back-to-back comparisons, we'd say the 27.5 bears more similarities to the 26 than to the 29. Bikes with these wheels are quick and nimble, and we found them to be easier to push around than 29ers. But they also get hung up on junky, chunder-filled trails that 29ers skip through. The semblances to smaller-wheeled bikes will probably please many, however, especially as the industry is but phasing out the 26-inch wheel.
For this particular test, we pitted the ubiquitous Santa Cruz Bronson against the Devinci Troy Carbon SL, which was something of a dark horse to us. The Bronson, with 150mm of travel front and rear, is one of the undisputed kings of the all-mountain category. It received resounding praise from everyone who rode it during our test, ending up with our Editor's Pick award in the July mountain bike roundup.
In the other corner you have Devinci, a company with Canadian roots that's had a toehold in the U.S. downhill market for years and is just starting to gain traction with its trail-oriented bikes. At 140mm, the Troy is a bit smaller bike than the Bronson, and it's the first model from the company we've ever ridden.
Santa Cruz Bronson
Testers couldn't keep their hands off the Bronson with its flash frame, color-matched Enve wheels, and high-end spec. This is 100 percent carbon construction, and the bike is notably stiff and light (26.6 pounds for our size medium). Its geometry numbers are middle-of-the-road for a trail bike, with a 67-degree head tube angle that's slack enough for confident descending but not so slack as to hinder climbing performance and a low-but-not-ridiculous 13.6-inch bottom bracket height, which makes for rooted cornering while almost eliminating pedal-strike issues.
Every part on our top-spec model was pretty much perfect, but the carbon Enve AM wheels inspired the most tester envy (sorry). Stiff as iron but light as helium, these wheels made the Bronson feel frisky and much more nimble than its six-inch design suggests. The wheels also came through a ridiculous amount of abusive drops and rubble fields unscathed. Testers loved the clearance and simplicity of the SRAM XX1 drivetrain, though most found the 34-tooth front ring too stout, and we quickly swapped it with a 30-tooth. The Shimano XTR Trail brakes proved to still be some of the most consistent out there, and though we had durability issues with countless Rockshox Stealth Reverb dropper posts this year, this one held up fine. Santa Cruz made the bike's all-mountain aspirations clear with wide 780mm bars and beefy Maxxis High Roller tires.
It all added up to a ridiculously capable bike. We were amazed at just how well the Bronson climbed, even with the Fox Float CTD shock left nearly full-time in trail mode. We cleared big step-ups and cranked out steep, techy climbs—all with surprising ease. But if the bike's ascending skills were excellent, it's descending manners were even better. On a 10-day tour of Scotland, where the trails were clogged with big, loose rocks and peppered with constant step-downs and ledges, we didn't find a single obstacle that phased the Bronson (nor did Danny Macaskill on his recent Scotland foray on the Bronson C). And though the Fox Float 34 front end stood up fine, we wondered repeatedly just how much more confident the bike would have ridden with a thicker fork, such as the Rockshox Pike or the new Fox 36.
In short, the Bronson is a balanced and adept bike on almost any trail, and though it's light enough to hang with smaller, trail-oriented bikes, it leans farther into all-mountain territory. This would be an excellent one-bike quiver for the aggressive rider with access to burly trails. At $10,300 (a price that reflects those sexy Enve wheels), it had better ride perfectly—and it does. But thankfully, Santa Cruz has carbon options of the Bronson all the way down to $3,600 and aluminum builds that start at $3,100. They won't be as light or spritely as our tester, but they will offer the same trail feel and capabilities.
Devinci Troy Carbon SL
Compared with the Bronson's brash looks, the Troy is understated, classy, and, according to a few testers, a bit generic. Its numbers matched up closely to the Bronson, with a 67-degree head tube angle and a slightly lower bottom bracket height of 13.2 inches. The Troy has a chip in the rear suspension that lets riders adjust the angles (to 67.5 degrees HT and 13.5-inch BB height), but every tester who fiddled with it preferred the slacker fit. With the exception of the aluminum swing arm and chain stays, the frame is carbon, using Dave Weagle's Split Pivot design mated to a Fox Float CTD shock (the same one spec'd on our Bronson) to get 140mm of travel.
One important note: The Troy SL is extremely small for its size. The effective top tube length on our size medium was over a full inch shorter than that of the Bronson (also size medium), making for a tight fit for many testers.
For parts, the Troy SL was decked in very good bits and pieces, though not the premium build of the Bronson, a difference that could partly account for the bike's somewhat heavier 28.2-pound weight. Easton Haven wheels were burly and stiff, but not nearly as light as the Enves, and we did have some issues with the rear hub loosening up. The XO1 2x10 drivetrain got solid reviews, with about half the testers preferring the extra gear range (Devinci wisely spec'd a 22-tooth granny gear for low end, as well as a bash guard on the 38-tooth big ring), and half wishing for a 1x11 setup to drop a bit more weight and clean up clutter on the handlebars. The Rockshox Stealth Reverb dropper was praised by all and extended the confidence of riders on more technical terrain, though in this instance it had repeated durability issues and required constant bleeds to keep it working.
The two biggest misses on the Troy SL: the handlebars, a solid Easton EC70 spec, were too narrow (720mm) for manhandling rugged conditions; and the low-profile Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires were underpowered for this big of a bike. We imagine the latter decision was made to keep the overall bike weight down on the showroom floor, but we'd welcome a pound penalty in rubber for the added traction and confidence it would buy.
Despite all the similarities between the Troy SL and the Bronson, including the Fox 34 fork, the two bikes couldn't ride more differently. The Split Pivot design makes the Troy a super-capable pedaler, with near cross-country efficiency. Despite the lightweight tires' tendency to spin out in the loose, the bike made quick work of technical uphill passages and felt perfectly comfortable churning up fire roads, a feat for a 140mm ride like this one. The Troy was solid on downhills, too, but whereas the Bronson felt bottomless and eager for ever-bigger terrain, the Troy gave the sense of being at its limit. It has a firm, efficient feel even when descending, and on big stuff, though the bike dealt with it, sometimes it could feel slightly outgunned.
At $6,500, the Troy SL is significantly cheaper than the Bronson, and it won over many of our testers, especially the smaller riders and women. Still, it's a bit heavy for a carbon super bike, yet also not cheap enough to cut it some slack. So while numerous riders said they'd be inclined to purchase the Troy, they also noted they'd probably look for it on discount rather than pay for retail. In fairness to the Troy, however, nobody in the test said they could ever conceive of purchasing the Bronson C as built given its stratospheric price tag. Also, like Santa Cruz, Devinci offers the Troy in multiple configurations, with carbon bikes down to $3,800 and a sole aluminum build for $3,000.
It's fascinating to find two bikes that look so similar on paper and yet ride so differently, and preferences between the two split quite predictably. The Bronson suited more aggressive riders looking to push their abilities onto difficult terrain. It's a great all-around bike, but one with an all-mountain orientation. And it would get even nervier and more capable with the optional 36mm-stanchion fork and the Cane Creek Double Barrel shock.
The Troy SL is also an excellent all-arounder, but it suited the more conservative and lighter riders in the test. Women absolutely loved it, in part because of the low stand-over height and short reach. Its 140mm of travel feels like its limit, meaning it leans toward tamer trails more than the Bronson. It would be the ideal ride for someone with an cross-country background looking to step it up a notch or two, whereas the Bronson is probably more likely to please a rider with a bigger-hit sensibility in search of a lighter, quicker bike. (Interestingly, we'd say our 2014 Gear of the Year winner, the Norco Sight Carbon, splits the difference between the two in personality and capability.)
As for 27.5 wheels in general, the consensus in our tests also seemed to split fairly evenly based on size. Shorter riders tended to prefer the smaller wheel size, whereas bigger riders still came back to the 29ers, even in the big travel setups. The multiple wheel size options might seem like annoying overkill to consumers, but at the end of the day, the options mean more and better choices for a wider spectrum of riders. And it's hard to argue with that.