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The Cycle Life

How to Find Your Soul-Mate Bike

With so many great options out there, how do you pick the right one? Easy: at a demo event, like the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival.

Can't decide which ride to choose? Demo them all. (JJAG Media)

With so many great options out there, how do you pick the right one? Easy: at a demo event, like the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival.

Which bike should I buy? It’s a dilemma all riders face. With hundreds of models to choose from and thousands of dollars on the line, how do you settle on the bike that’s right for you? Honestly, without doing what I do for a living—which involves testing 100 or so bikes every year—it would be impossible for me to decide.

I’ve long believed that a demo event or bike festival, where you can try out a slew of new bikes, is the best approach. Outside uses a similar system for selecting our top picks and Gear of the Year road and mountain bikes every year, bringing together as many as 80 models and riding them all one after the other. So when my in-laws, Don and Barb, said they were ready to buy something, I suggested we head to Arizona’s Sedona Mountain Bike Festival and try a bunch of bikes.

If you opt for this route, a few pointers:

  1. Do plenty of research in advance. Bikes are in high demand at these events, so you need to be focused.
  2. Come with questions. The folks running the demo booths are some of the most knowledgeable people about their bikes anywhere. Think about nitty-gritty details, and don’t be afraid to ask.
  3. Avoid testing too many bikes. For one, you’ll end up standing in line a lot. More important, even if you manage to ride a dozen or more, you’ll be confounded by the choices you’re left with.
  4. Spend time with each model. We rode two bikes per day, and that seemed about right. It gave us plenty of opportunity for suspension and fit tweaks and to sample a wide variety of terrain.
  5. Ride all the bikes on your list before you decide, even if the first one seems perfect. Trying a range of options can open your eyes to considerations you didn’t realize existed.
  6. If you still can’t decide, narrow your list to the top two performers and follow up with a visit to a bike shop. Sit on them again, test-ride them if possible, and ask more questions.

Ultimately, the bikes I thought would be right for Don and Barb—either a Spot Mayhem 29 or Santa Cruz Tallboy 29 for Don, based on the angles and progressive suspension, and a Yeti SB5 Beti or Juliana Joplin 27.5+ for Barb, because of her five-foot-three frame—weren’t what they decided on. In Sedona, they tried all those bikes and more. Here’s a breakdown of their experiences.   

Spot

I chose the Mayhem 29, with 130 millimeters of travel front and rear, as Don and Barb’s introduction to modern bikes because I thought the firm suspension and moderate geometry would feel familiar and ease the transition. Barb found the big-wheel fit intimidating, because she was sitting so high, but liked how centered the bike felt. Don wasn’t as keen on it, calling the Mayhem “long and unruly,” though he later allowed that his misgivings had more to do with how he had the bike set up than with the bike itself. Both loved riding with a dropper post but wrestled with the extra controls and 1x drivetrain.

Yeti

Barb immediately liked the fit, smaller wheels, and more aggressive stance of the SB5 Beti, which has 127 millimeters of travel in back and 150 millimeters up front. But on the trail she said the wheels “got hung up, sorta like my old bike.” Don absolutely adored the shorter-travel 29-inch SB4.5, as it “climbed better than my Ibis, has really quick steering and handling, and gave me a lot of confidence.” I was pretty this would be the bike he’d end up choosing.

Santa Cruz

The 110-millimeter Tallboy and complementary Joplin were 2017 Gear of the Year bikes, but they weren’t as popular here as I’d predicted. Neither Barb nor Don were keen on the 29er setup; when I swapped them to 27.5+, both praised the added traction and confidence. Again, fit was a big factor for Barb. She felt that the smaller wheels and women-specific shock tune helped. After riding it, the Juliana jumped to the top of Barb’s list, while the Santa Cruz slotted into second place for Don.

Salsa

Don is a big guy, and I really wanted him to try the short-travel Deadwood, as I had a feeling the 29+ wheel size would suit him, but some inconsiderate rider was three hours late in returning the size large. Barb, on the other hand, crushed it on the 120-millimeter 27.5+ Pony Rustler. “The control of the three-inch tires was just awesome,” she raved. “I felt fearless.”

Evil

I wanted the team to have a chance at Outside’2018 Gear of the Year bike, the Following MB, which rides bigger than its 120-millimeter shock and 130-millimeter fork suggest. Both were enamored with it. “It handles so quick, you don’t even know you’re on a 29er,” Don said. “And though it’s not the lightest bike, it doesn’t feel heavy on the trail.” Barb said the open feel of the Delta suspension made the Following feel like it had “a spring in its step.” Don was so in favor of it that he was ready to skip the last test ride. Barb liked it a lot but worried about the larger fit.

Pivot

With 135 millimeters of rear travel and a 150-millimeter fork, the Switchblade was one of the most aggressive bikes Don and Barb rode. Barb tried the 27.5+ version and again enjoyed the confidence it gave her. I watched her roll through some drops and slick-rock faces that would have been impossible on many of the other bikes she rode. On the 29er version, Don praised the climbing ability of the DW-Link suspension and the assertiveness of the Fox 36 fork. Both loved the ample tire clearance, which would give them access to pretty much any wheel setup they might choose.

Conclusion

When the dust settled, Barb loved the look and feel of the Salsa Pony Rustler, but she settled on the Pivot Switchblade—it rode just as well and was available in extra small, which fit her better. Don was torn between the Evil, the Yeti, and the Pivot but also chose the Switchblade, because it had more tire clearance and the widest range of setup options. The lesson in both cases is that, even when several bikes look and feel similar, taking the time to drill down on the details reveals nuances that can help with decision-making. And, of course, while numbers, geo tables, and even my riding background are useful, there’s no substitute for experiencing firsthand and deciding for yourself.

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