The 9 Best Mountain Bikes of Spring 2012

Salsa Horsethief (Courtesy of Salsa Cycles)
Salsa Horsethief

Salsa Horsethief

Best For: Trail riders looking to push it.

The Test: A lot of companies are debuting longer-travel 29ers this year, and, dollar for dollar, the 4.7-inch aluminum Salsa was our favorite. “I didn’t think I needed big travel with big wheels,” said one tester, “until I rode the Horsethief. It skipped down stairsteps like a 26er but delivered that stable feel of a 29er.” The secret? The combination of burly Stan’s ZTR Flow rims and the thicker stanchions on Fox’s new 29er-specific 34 Float fork virtually eliminated the flex that can sometimes hold back big wheels in the rough. Salsa’s proven single-pivot rear suspension also made for surprisingly nimble handling uphill, but this is definitely more monster truck than mountain goat. 

The Verdict: A bargain for such a well-equipped bike. 29.5 lbs

Jackal K9 29er

Jackal K9 29er
Jackal K9 29er (Courtesy of Jackal Cycling)

Best For: Racers without sponsors. 

The Test: The hardtail K9 delivers the same speed and agility of big-brand cross-country race bikes for decidedly less cash. Jackal, a tiny company out of Santa Fe, does it by sourcing its carbon frames straight from Asia and keeping overhead low with Web-only sales and made-to-spec bikes. Even with the value build, which included an all-business SRAM X9 drivetrain, a hardworking Fox Float 29 fork, and Stan’s feathery but robust new Arch EX wheelset, our K9 weighed a svelte 22.5 pounds. That made for explosive climbing and giant slalom-like carving power on buffed-out trail, though the build quality (loose bottom bracket, badly adjusted shifting) tripped us up a bit.

The Verdict: A true speed machine. 22.5 lbs

Felt Virtue Elite

Felt Virtue Elite
Felt Virtue Elite (Courtesy of Felt Bicycles)

Best For: Looking as fast as you feel. 

The Test: Though it’s a trail bike, with 5.1 inches of travel to swallow up the obstacles and a slack headtube for confidence blasting down rubbly chutes, the carbon Virtue feels faster than that label suggests. It’s partly the spicy styling—“It just looks fast,” one tester noted. It rode fast, too, especially on crisp singletrack and out-of-the-saddle efforts, where the firm rear suspension hooked up to punch the bike forward with every pedal stroke. That stiff feel wasn’t as welcome on more technical trails, though, with several testers complaining that the Virtue lacked plushness. Everyone, however, loved the meaty WTB Wolverine tires, which tore into loose desert sand and loamy mountain trails alike. 

The Verdict: Cross-country guys looking for a bit more will love the solid feel and quick steering. 28.5 lbs

Rocky Mountain Element 970

Element 970
Rocky Mountain Element 970 (Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Bicycles)

Best For: Anyone searching for the proverbial one-bike quiver. 

The Test: The Element 970 is how a bike is supposed to ride: sprightly on the climbs, quick and playful on scary descents, yet relaxed enough to ride all day. That such a balanced bike is a four-inch, full-suspension aluminum 29er is a testament to how far big-wheel designs have come, as well as to the ever expanding range of quality parts for them. Case in point: the new Rockshox SID RL 29 fork melds lightness and rigidity not seen previously in this category. We would have liked a bit more for the money (a full XO drivetrain, perhaps), though performance-wise the parts pick ranged from perfectly fine to downright impressive (Maxxis Ikon and Aspen tires!). 

The Verdict: “Just plain fun,” raved one tester. 26.8 lbs

Reeb SFP

Reeb SFP
Reeb SFP (Eddie Clark Media)

Best For: Hard-riding (and hard-living) single-speeders. 

The Test: If you have to ask why Oskar Blues, the Longmont, Colorado, brewery, is producing a high-end steel single-speed, this is probably not the bike for you. With OX Platinum tubing (the good stuff) and a savvy mix of parts (Thompson post and stem, Formula’s grabby The One brakes, mega-wide Truvativ carbon bars), the Reeb (yep, that’s “beer” backward) is for real. The wisest bit of all is the Gates CenterTrack carbon drive belt that powers the bike, which is ice smooth, totally efficient, and dead silent. “Amazing!” one tester enthused. “For single-speeding, chains are dead.” 

The Verdict: Like the tattoos they award at the Single Speed World Championship, you have to be fast and dedicated to deserve one. 22.7 lbs

Turner Sultan

Turner Sultan
Turner Sultan (Michael Darter)

Best For: True 29er believers. 

The Test: While other brands have just recently jumped on the big-travel 29er trend, this Murrieta, California, boutique shop has been making the aluminum 4.7-inch Sultan for years. The bike is better than ever for 2012, with an oversize headtube for razor-sharp steering, slacker angles and standard through-axles front and rear for stabler descending, and the burly but plush Fox 34 Float fork. Built around the ultra-efficient DW-Link rear suspension, the bike flew up techy rock gardens—surprising for a ride with this much travel (and heft). Even so, testers liked the substantial feel when scampering over loose ledge drops and down rubble-filled gullies. 

The Verdict: There was no terrain the Sultan didn’t rule. 28.7 lbs

Yeti SB-66 Pro xtr

Yeti SB-66 Pro xtr
Yeti SB-66 Pro xtr (Craig Grant)

EDITOR'S PICK

Best For: Those who see jumps, not obstacles; Moab devotees. 

The Test: We thrashed this do-it-all six-inch trail bike, from hucking off five-foot sandstone steps to slogging through mountain mud in a snowstorm, and nothing fazed it. Chalk that versatility up to the new Switch rear linkage, so named because the pivot reverses direction partway through the travel for an unyielding and responsive pedal stroke and pillow-soft cushion on big hits. We think the dead-accurate shifting and powerful braking of Shimano XTR components are well worth the price, but we also love that you can get the same frame with less expensive parts for half the cost. 

The Verdict: Not just best-in-class aluminum, but nearly the best mountain bike money can buy (at least until the carbon and 29er versions are released in August). 26.8 lbs

Want to Know More?
Read the full review of the Yeti SB-66 Pro xtr before our editors got their hands on it.
The SB-66, our Editor’s Pick mountain bike in the May edition, is the bike that reawakened our love for 26-inch wheels. We’ve become 29er devotees because the trails in Santa Fe, where Outside is based, are mostly buffed out and rarely technical, but even here we’ve come to love riding Yeti’s new six-inch offering. It’s light and nimble enough for long-distance riding yet still big and burly for the few tech trails we have and for when we go away. In short, it’s the proverbial one-bike quiver.

At the heart of the SB-66 is the new Switch rear linkage, so named because the pivot reverses direction partway through the travel. This gives the suspension a totally linear feel: With the ProPedal on the Fox RP23 rear shock turned on, there was almost zero pedal bob when we were climbing and small bumps virtually disappeared. Yet with the shock fully engaged, the bike felt totally bottomless—we never maxed it out, even on five-foot ledge drops—and as plush as a blow-up pool lounger. The Kashima coating on both fork and shock add to the luxurious feel, with a smooth, fluid action not found in other suspensions. Given the slack 67-degree head tube angle, we were surprised just how well the SB-66 pedaled, never floating in the front—even on the steepest pitches. Of course the easy angles made for even easier descending, and thanks to Yeti’s characteristic burly build quality, we could slam down rock gardens and push as hard into corners as we pleased without the SB-66 so much as stuttering. “There are bikes that are just as efficient at pedaling, and bikes that are just as confident descending,” said one tester, “but I’ve never been a bike that’s so good at both.”

Our tester was hung in full Shimano XTR parts, reminding us once again just how well this stuff works. The shifting was precise and solid without being clunky or noisy, and the trigger shift option is something we always miss with SRAM. Braking was as confidence inspiring as always, and we are quite certain that, between the one-finger ergonomics and the sturdy, clean snap of the return, there’s no better feeling lever out there. Another thing we love about Yeti: Whether you splurge on the high-end Pro version we rode or economize with the Enduro ($3,300), you’ll get a similar top-shelf ride quality because the frame and rear shock are identical.

The real testament to the SB-66 is that it made us feel like better riders, tempting us to crank up taller steps, fire off big ledges, and hang it out on ever steeper, more hectic terrain. The only thing missing was a dropper seat post, which is a simple after-market addition, though we’d love to see cable-routings to accommodate it. It is one of the few bikes that we’re genuinely sad to ship back, though it’s hopefully just short-lived melancholy as Yeti already has a lighter carbon version as well as a five-inch 29er model in the works. 26.7 lbs.; yeticycles.com

Cannondale Scalpel 29er carbon 1

Scalpel 29er
Cannondale Scalpel 29er carbon 1 (Courtesy of Cannondale Bicycles)

Best For: Endurance racers. 

The Test: As the name suggests, this four-inch cross-country carbon racer is a highly tuned instrument for dissecting the competition. It was nearly the lightest mountain bike we tested, which left everyone gushing about “explosive” starts and “effortless” acceleration. But for a race bike, the Scalpel was surprisingly supple. The Lefty 29er Carbon XLR fork quieted trail chatter, and we loved the convenient bar-mount lockout lever and unflinching stiffness it delivered. The rear suspension got a little squirrelly on anything beyond choppy trails, but not unusually so for such a lightweight ride. 

The Verdict: Do the Breck Epic, sign up for a 12-hour race, or simply take it out and demoralize your buddies by dropping them repeatedly. 23.3 lbs

Niner Jet 9 RDO

Jet 9 RDO
Niner Jet 9 RDO (Michael Darter)

Best For: Speedsters with class. 

The Test: Curvaceous as an Italian supermodel, with all the Tang-orange sauciness to match, the Jet 9 RDO is a looker. But this four-inch carbon beauty rides nearly as fast as it looks. The steering was quick, but everything else, from accelerations to rock drops to jumps, had a dampened sensation—which we liked. It made the bike feel substantial and comfortable, and we loved roaring down fields of babyheads and not getting pinged around. The XTR spec was flawless as usual (though the triple chainring up front seemed an odd choice), and the crazy-rigid Reynolds carbon wheels cut lines like Charlie Sheen (but why no through-axle out back?). 

The Verdict: In spite of all that lightweight bling, the Jet 9 RDO still felt more trail bike than flat-out racer. 24.1 lbs

Filed To: Men's / Snow Sports
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