After spending close to two weeks testing 35 mountain bikes in Sedona, Arizona, in early December, the biggest consensus among our test crew is that the market is currently flooded with excellent mountain bikes. Other takeaways: 29ers are still king among the majority of riders. (The few who favored 27.5 were smaller riders and women.) Plus-size designs are improving with the expanding range of tire choices and geometries that are finally compensating for the pedal strike issues so common with the lowered bottom brackets. And, importantly, one bike can do it all—trail bikes have gotten so refined and capable that they negate the need for a quiver of steeds. Here were a few of the favorites so far from the test.
Marin Rift Zone Pro ($6,200)
Though Marin doesn’t always have the same cachet as some of the boutique brands, the Rift Zone Pro was on everyone’s short list to ride this year thanks to its sexy good looks. And the abilities of this short-travel carbon 29er proved up to, and perhaps even exceeded, its curb appeal. Though it has only 110mm of travel out back and a 120mm Pike fork, as well as fairly conservative geometry including a 69.6-degree head angle and 440mm chain stays, testers felt that it rode much bigger and more confidently than those numbers suggested. Climbing was confident and rooted, with no hesitation or wandering in the front end, and a few testers mentioned making easier work of steep, steppy descents than they expected. This isn’t a revolutionary bike, but, with SRAM X01 Eagle parts and killer Stan’s Flow MK3 wheels, it’s a nicely spec’d, well-accomplished, all-around trail machine that can handle just about anything.
Pivot Switchblade (from $5,200)
The Switchblade is one of a handful of new bikes that are built to run either 29- or 27.5+ wheels. (Other new models that go both ways include the Niner Jet 9 RDO and the Santa Cruz Tallboy and Hightower.) To accommodate the slightly different wheel diameters (27.5+ with Maxxis Rekon+ tires are about ¾-quarters of an inch smaller than 29 wheels with Maxxis High Rollers), Pivot has designed a 17mm-tall lower headset cup for use with the plus-size wheels, which raises the bottom bracket height and helps avoid some of the pedal-strike issues that some mid-fat bikes are having. We rode the bike with both wheel sizes, and though both were perfectly capable and the plus-size tires made quick work of loose, rubbly trails, the overall preference was for the 29er setup. This was one of the best climbers in the entire test courtesy of the DW Link suspension, and everyone loved the confidence and surety of the Fox 36 fork. The ultimate scenario would be to own a Switchblade with both sets of wheels (including rotors and cassettes) that you could simply swap in and out depending on your day’s ride, though most testers agreed that the cost and hassle would likely make them lean one way or the other.
Cannondale Bad Habit Carbon 1 ($5,500)
It’s amazing how many testers expressed apprehension and contempt for the Bad Habit based on the single-stanchion fork, only to ride the bike and be won over. The truth is: the 120mm Lefty feels just as good as the benchmark RockShox Pike, even in terms of stiffness and flex, you just have to take a bit more time to get it set up properly. Overall, the Bad Habit was one of the cushier bikes we rode this year, courtesy of those three-inch Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires as well as the plush, not terribly progressive shock tune. That had more aggressive riders wishing for a bit more feedback, while many folks said they appreciated the comfort and felt the bike was softer than its 120mm of rear travel suggested. For such a meaty machine, it’s quite light at 28 pounds, which makes this a perfect all-around trail bike for those who live in places with lots of loose terrain or anyone after a forgiving ride.
YT Industries Jeffsy CF Pro ($6,000)
This direct-to-consumer German brand leapt into the American consciousness last year when they signed away world champion downhiller Aaron Gwin from Specialized. (Gwin won two World Cup races and the National Championship and secured his fourth World Cup overall title aboard YT.) The 140mm Jeffsy 29er is a far cry from the downhill model that Gwin rides, but testers unanimously agreed that the bike made them feel faster and more confident. It’s playful and poppy, two words not generally associated with big wheels, and it blasted up hills with ease (perhaps, in part, because it weighs only 26.5 pounds) and wanted to hit every drop and kicker coming down. Anyone who says that big wheels can’t be lively and quick should try the Jeffsy. And thanks to the online sales-model, it’s a great value: DTSwiss XMC1200 carbon wheels are unheard of at this price. Finally, this was our first time riding Onza tires, and the meaty 2.4-inch Ibex rubber is now one of our favorites for desert loose-over-hard. This extremely capable trail machine is a top contender for Gear of the Year.
Spot Rollik 557 (from $5,700)
We’ve long appreciated Spot for its put-together single-speeds and belt-drive ethos, but we never expected them to show up with a highly refined, full-squish, all-mountain ripper built around a brand new suspension design. But that’s exactly what they’ve done with the Rollik. The rear end of this bike is a modified four-bar linkage with a carbon leaf spring standing in for the lower rocker. The result: the back end feels firm and efficient and pedals like a race bike, but it also ramps up cleanly and effortlessly into its 150mm of travel. The best way we can describe it is like a long-travel XC race bike—both fast and light (just 27.3 pounds), but also incredibly confident and frisky on even the most rugged terrain we threw at it. Our top-spec build came with the blinged-out SRAM Eagle XX1 drivetrain and matching Kashima-coated Fox 34 Float and Float DPS Evol suspension bits. And once again, Stan’s revised MK3 Arch wheels impressed for their lightweight and stiffness.
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