In recent years, conventional wisdom has been that mountain bikes could have either big wheels or big travel—not both.
There’s been some merit to that. On a frame with 150 millimeters (six inches) or more of travel, the extra circumference of a 29-inch wheel often gets in the way, which, without careful engineering, can make for awkward geometry trade-offs such as long chain stays and excessive wheelbases. And big wheels sturdy enough to take long-travel abuse can be heavy as 19th century wagon wheels, making for a ponderous ride.
A few niche companies (think Lenz Sport) figured out how to get around these pitfalls early, but most just swore off the challenge. (I even had one American bike manufacturer tell me, just two years ago, that it was impossible to make a good 29er with more than 120mm of travel.)
But then came the 2013 edition of Interbike, where half a dozen companies rolled out 140mm or bigger 29ers, including the Intense Carbine 29, the Niner WFO, the Diamondback Mason FS, and the two bikes in this review. Impossible had become feasible—fashionable even—overnight, and much to our testers’ surprise, every one of these bikes was pretty darn good. Most reviewers felt that the combination of the confidence and stability afforded by the big wheels and the increased capabilities of the additional travel made for bikes that, on the whole, rode better.
At the end of the test season, we hung onto the two most popular long-travel 29ers from the review—the BMC Trailfox TF01 and the Specialized S-Works Enduro 29. We’re glad we did. Though some critics still grouse that 29ers are too heavy, cumbersome, and awkward to make good long-travel machines, based on our experience with both these bikes, we’re here to tell you that’s simply not true.
BMC TrailFox TF01
At 27.4 pounds for a size large, the TF01 is lighter than many aluminum bikes with one and even two inches less travel. The featherweight comes partly from BMC’s experience with high-end carbon fiber layups, acquired from years making road machines for the likes of Cadel Evans.
Here, two short aluminum links connect the full carbon front and rear triangles, with a Fox Float CTD shock sitting at the center of it all. The slack, 67-degree head tube, stubby 55mm stem, and Rockshox Stealth Reverb dropper post allude to the bike’s all-mountain and enduro aspirations, though the top tube and wheelbase are uncharacteristically long for such uses. The tubes are highly shaped and geometric, immediately identifiable as a BMC, and there’s all manner of fine detailing, including internal cable routings and rubber protectors on the down tube and the drive-side chain stay.
Out front is a Fox 34 Talas fork, which toggles between 120mm for climbing and 150mm for descents. The rest of the bike lives up to BMC’s premium, Swiss reputation, including a full Shimano XTR 2x10 drivetrain and XTR Trail brakes with 180mm rotor in front and 160mm out back, as well as DT Swiss XRC 1350 Spline wheels, complete with carbon rims.
This was the very first 150mm-travel 29er we ever rode, and it blew us away right from the start. Because it was so light, a feeling amplified by the wispy wheel set, the bike became the choice for everyday riding, which is surprising for such a long-travel machine. With the Talas fork dropped, the TF01 proved a perfectly capable climber, motoring up smooth climbs but also doing admirably well on slow-going rocks and tech. We immediately sensed that the bottom bracket was low, as we frequently banged our pedals in the chunky terrain. The extra length in the cockpit and wheelbase wasn’t as big a deal as we expected, though the TF01 did prove slightly cumbersome getting through tight switchbacks.
And while the long, low feel didn’t make for the quickest steering, it proved a boon on descents. The combination of six inches of travel and oversize wheels made for a magic carpet-like ride going downhill. With the seat dropped, the TF01 felt as if it could steamroll any and every obstacle it met. The bike was rooted and stable on high-speed descents thanks to that low BB and the longer top tube, though the extra bike length meant it tended to hang up a little bit in quick turns. We came to think of the TF01 as the bike equivalent of a giant slalom ski (as opposed to a short mogul buster), best for slamming up and down big open terrain but perhaps a bit much to push through the tightest terrain.
Other than the few limitations of the longer geometry, our biggest complaints with the TF01 were with the wheels. The DT rims felt stiff and spun up fast, but we had no end of trouble with the tubeless setup, including difficulty seating the Continental Mountain King tires and frequent flats because of leaking through the valve stems. We changed the setup repeatedly but never got it to hold air especially well. And the Conti tires also proved too delicate for our desert environment, with numerous torn sidewalls and shredded side knobs, even after we switched to the reinforced variety.
That aside, the TF01 changed the way we thought about long-travel 29ers, making us realize that 150mm bikes are indeed viable machines. If the performance was surprising, however, the price tag was even more astonishing. At $12,000, the TF01 was easily the most expensive bike, mountain or road, that we tested last year. We understand the value of a halo bike—pushing the edge of what’s possible, price be damned—but this seemed outrageous even by that standard. BMC looks to have come to the same conclusion, as the 2015 TF01 is selling for a lot less—$9,000 this year for the top-end model. And the entire line sees a similar reduction, with the TF02, which mates a carbon front triangle to an aluminum rear end, starting from $4,500, and the all-aluminum TF03 priced at $3,500.
Specialized S-Works Enduro 29
After several months on the BMC, we received the Enduro 29 and were immediately struck by how different a bike it was from the TF01. This is also Specialized’s halo long-travel 29er, with a full-carbon frame and carbon wheels, Roval Traverse SL 29s in this case. The similarities between the two bikes stop there.
The E29 is much more compact than the BMC, including a top tube that’s two centimeters shorter, as well as tighter chain stays and overall wheelbase. It makes for a much more upright feeling ride, though the longer 75mm stem ensures that it’s not uncomfortable. The head tube is very slightly steeper than the TF01, at 67.5-degrees, though the complete geometry of the E29 gives it a more relaxed feel.
The parts on the E29 were also a far cry from those on the BMC, including a meaty Cane Creek DB Air CS shock for 155mm of rear travel, a 160mm Rockshox Pike fork, with 36mm stanchions, and a SRAM XX1 1x11 drivetrain. All said, it’s a bike that’s bigger and brawnier feeling than the TF01 and presents itself as much more all mountain- and downhill-oriented. And yet, despite the beefier suspension and additional travel, our size medium tester weighed just 27.1 pounds, nominally less than the TF01.
As expected, the E29 made short work of the most technical trails we could find, including step-downs, water bars, and big drops. The added rigidity of the Pike fork relative to the 34mm Fox made for incredible tracking and security, and even on loose, chunder-filled gullies we were comfortable just pointing the bike and letting it flow. The DBAir shock, too, provided a plush, bottomless feel, and though we didn’t love that you need tools to adjust it, once it was set up, we left it alone and savored the bombproof ride. The Roval wheels felt stiffer and more robust than the BMC’s DT Swiss variety—as they should at almost 200 grams heavier—though we would argue that a bike this capable should be spec’d with reinforced-sidewall Grid tires, as these standard ones ripped apart in just a few weeks. And the Command Post remains the only dropper we’ve ever used that hasn’t needed constant bleeding and service.
What surprised us, though, was that for such a big, strapping bike, the E29 ascends like it has helium in the tires. With the very short chain stays and slung-back seat position, Specialized has somehow managed to make a bike that connects even on the steepest climbs—and they’ve done it without needing a function like the Talas to keep the front end down. In six months of testing, we never found an obstacle that we couldn’t climb on this bike.
The E29 proved itself a worthy all-around ride, so deft and versatile that we took it to Scotland for a week of riding that included four-hour days with up to 7,000 feet of climbing. Sure, there might be bikes better equipped to deal with that sort of vertical, but at the top, when the terrain got rowdy, the slight weight penalty on the uphill receded and the bikes slamming downhill qualities shined.
Like the TF01, the S-Works Enduro is costly at $9,250. But there are also lower spec options to accommodate budgets, including a carbon and alloy Expert model at $6,600 and an all-alloy version at $3,500.
Had we only ever ridden the Trailfox TF01, we’d have called it the best long-travel 29er we’d ever ridden. It is quick and lively, two words not generally associated with six-inch trail bikes, and it really does make a lot of terrain easier to handle. It would be an excellent upgrade for cross-country style riders looking for a bike that can improve their technical prowess. Still, those coming from a bigger-hit background may find the stretched-out feel and slower handling cumbersome.
The Enduro 29, on the other hand, is a bike with very few drawbacks. Smaller riders, including women, complained about its truck-like feel, and the tight geometry means there’s not even a size small option. Then again, this is not a bike for riders with a dainty style. It is a burly machine that provides excellent confidence on rugged terrain and answers the question once-and-for-all whether it’s possible to make a 29er that likes it big and rough.
In fact, both of these bikes pretty much eliminate the argument that big-travel 29ers are not practicable. That’s in large part due to materials development, especially the ability to make carbon fiber lighter and stronger. As a point of reference, both the E29 and TF01, with 160mm and 150mm of travel respectively, weigh less than the 135mm Stumpjumper FSR 29 that we named Gear of the Year just three years ago. That’s impressive evolution, and it presages the arrival of even more—and even better—all-mountain 29ers.
Having said that, the one thing holding back long-travel 29ers—and almost certainly cut into the success of both of these bikes—is the industry’s push into the 650B wheel size. Moving forward, politics, marketing, media coverage, and consumer interest will all determine whether R&D money continues to flow to the 29er or whether it’s redirected to the ‘tweener size. From our perspective, including a bit of time on the new Specialized Enduro 650B, these big-wheeled bikes are so good that it would be a shame if more people didn’t get a chance to try them.