Trail steeds get lighter but punch above their weight.
Evil The Following MB ($6,900 as tested)
Pretty much every mountain bike we tested this year was tight and close to the ground for better descending, had wide bars and a short stem for improved handling, and came with big, tough rubber for added traction. The plus-size craze spurred many of these improvements, but performance has improved without weight gain for a ride that’s more versatile and forgiving than ever. That’s certainly the case with Evil’s The Following MB, though this 120-millimeter 29er managed to get “more betterer” (in the company’s parlance) without increasing travel. Instead, Evil added boost spacing and room for a piggyback shock—the RockShox Super Deluxe RCT DebonAir—while trimming carbon from the rear triangle, changes that allow the proprietary suspension to deliver an open, supported feel in a lighter, stiffer bike. The shortish-travel rear end and 130-millimeter Pike fork suggest a middle-of-the-road trail machine, but the bike shreds like a baby downhiller, minus the weight. (It comes in at just 29 pounds.) Part of the trick is in the awesome eThirteen wheels—the wide carbon rims spread chunky, soft rubber for plenty of grip. There’s a gorgeous sculpted chain guide, so the 1x12 XO1 Eagle drivetrain never fails, and integrated rubber on the down tube and chainstays protect the carbon build over nasty terrain. In a market flooded with specialization, the Following MB does it all.
Juliana Strega ($8,400)
Best for women
Every woman who tried it raved about the Strega, with 170 millimeters of travel front and rear. This carbon 27.5er is a slack (65 degrees), burly (28.5 pounds) enduro ride built to subdue sketchy, high-speed descents and monster drops. It’s the cousin of sibling company Santa Cruz’s Nomad, though Juliana substituted narrower bars and a wider saddle. More important, the Strega’s shocks are tuned specifically for female riders, which isn’t just empty marketing—the male testers who rode the bike definitely felt like they wanted more travel in the suspension. The model we tried included Santa Cruz’s Reserve carbon wheels, which shrugged off nasty rock hits but delivered a soft ride. A few women said the Strega was a little sluggish on climbs, but point it downhill and guys and gals alike were panting to keep pace.
Scott Genius 900 Tuned ($7,500)
Best for all-mountain riding
With 2.6-inch tires, the Genius 900 bridges the gap between standard and plus size, providing the stability and trail-taming traction of oversize rubber in a shockingly light, 26.9-pound all-mountain package. This version is a complete overhaul, with the single-pivot design giving way to a four-bar linkage for a much more pliable, forgiving feel. The big hoops combined with 150 millimeters of travel, courtesy of a Kashima-coated Fox Nude Evol shock and 36 Float Factory fork, made for a machine with zero limitations on the steeps and rocks around Tucson, Arizona. A few testers were ambivalent about the integrated carbon bar and stem, because of fit limitations, as well as the remote lockout on the bars, which could be confused with the dropper-post control. But the confident handling and aggressive stance won them over.
Diamondback Release 5C Carbon ($4,800)
Best for those on a budget
Thanks to the Release, you no longer have to drain your retirement fund to get a great all-mountain bike. This mid-travel carbon 27.5er has all the most important trimmings, including a SRAM XO1 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain and top-shelf Fox Float DPX2 piggyback shock and 36 Factory fork, but it saves on cost with Race Face Aeffect alloy bars and Arc 30 alloy wheels. With a slack 66-degree head-tube angle, wide 780-millimeter bars, and 150 millimeters of travel up front, this bike took on some of the rowdiest trails, and we felt laugh-out-loud stable even on big drops and in ugly scree fields. One niggle: we experienced some lifting while climbing technical trails. But really, it’s tough to find fault with a bike this good that costs half as much as the competition.
Specialized S-Works Epic ($9,500)
Best for cross-country racers
With cross-country whips headed for obsolescence, Specialized made its venerable race bike relevant again with features like a wider head angle (69.5 degrees), a tighter rear end (435 millimeters), and a shorter stem (75 millimeters for a size medium). Thanks to its new location at the rear hub, the Brain—which automatically turns the suspension on and off, depending on the terrain you’re riding—feels quicker and more supple than before. Likewise, the revamped Roval Control SL wheels are lighter and stiffer even than many road hoops. The Epic is crazy light at 21.4 pounds, so pedaling and climbing felt like a revelation. Yet it still felt surprisingly composed when we threw the bike down brutal, steep trails. Now even the fitness crowd can get in on the fun of real riding, and there are women’s fit options to boot.