No segment of cycling has been shaped by so many fads and false starts as mountain biking. We’ve seen the rise and fall of fat and plus-size bikes, while wheel sizes continue to move in and out of fashion. Not to mention component and frame standards that have the life expectancy of a mayfly. While these changes can be befuddling and exhausting, there are real innovations taking place that make modern mountain bikes more capable and more fun than ever before.
Many of the rigs at Outside’s 2020 bike test were case studies in the latest geometry and suspension technology. Some of these innovations will stick around; others may line the dustbin of mountain-bike history. Rather than getting lost in the tech, we asked our testers to focus on how these bikes made them feel. Did they inspire confidence? Did they go faster? Did they have fun? How many hoots and hollers did they elicit on the trails we were tackling in northwest Arkansas?
These four bikes stood out from the field.
Pivot Mach 4 SL ($10,399)
The Mach 4 SL is at the forefront of the latest generation of cross-country race bikes designed for World Cup competition. Unlike the fire-road cross-country courses of years gone by, today’s races are as technically challenging as they are aerobically draining.
This offering from Pivot rises to the challenge with a lightweight carbon frame, progressive geometry, and Fox’s Live Valve suspension system. This electronically controlled suspension relies on a series of sensors to adjust performance for maximum pedaling efficiency. Live Valve reacts to rocks and roots 100 times faster than a blink of an eye. On the trail, this system is utterly forgettable—in the best possible way. Our testers were free to sprint up climbs and plunge down descents without thinking about flipping lockout levers.
Beyond the impressive suspension, the Mach 4 SL is different from other cross-country whippets for its geometry, which is more in line with trail bikes than twitchy cross-country race rigs. This makes it a great option for racers who want a bike that’s fun to ride beyond the boundaries of the traditional cross-country scene.
Santa Cruz Tallboy ($10,399)
The venerable Tallboy was one of the first “wagon wheelers” that converted 29er skeptics into acolytes. The first three generations of the bike straddled the line between cross-country and short-travel trail bikes. Now in its fourth incarnation, the Tallboy has left its cross-country roots in the dust. It gives up a bit of pedaling performance and adds a few grams to its frame in exchange for improved traction and durability when ridden to its limit.
On paper, the Tallboy’s geometry looks more like an enduro rig than a trail bike, with just 120 millimeters of suspension and a 130-millimeter fork. The combination makes for an interesting ride. With its slack 65.5-degree headtube angle, it will carry you through the same type of terrain as longer-travel trail bikes, just don’t expect to barrel through rock gardens with the same level of comfort.
The Tallboy appealed to two very different groups of riders in our test. Intermediates found the long wheelbase and slack front end reassuring in terrain they would have thought twice about on other bikes. Expert-level shredders pushed it to the limit and came away grinning at how much they could get away with on such a short-travel bike.
Yeti SB140 ($7,399)
More than three-quarters of the 24 mountain bikes in this year’s test featured 29-inch wheels. The speed and rollover benefits of big wheels are undeniable. But sometimes there’s more to having fun than speeding headlong down the trail. That’s the niche that Yeti’s 27.5-inch SB140 seeks to fill.
The SB140 sports a 160-millimeter fork, with 140 millimeters of rear suspension, and sits between Yeti’s shorter-travel SB130 and the enduro-focused SB150, both of which are shod in 29-inch wheels.
Like all of Yeti’s mountain bikes, the heart of the SB140’s performance is the Switch Infinity suspension system, which allows the main pivot to move as the suspension runs through its travel. In doing so, Yeti is able to balance efficient pedaling performance with ground-hugging traction in a way that few of its competitors can match.
Our riders noted that we’re at a point where 27.5-inch wheels can be a refreshing change. We found ourselves seeking out every opportunity to pump through turns, boost off rocks and roots, and catch air on every alt line the singletrack served up. If you’ve grown tired of big wheels, or if you grew up riding BMX, you’ll probably enjoy every minute on the SB140.
Specialized Enduro Elite ($5,310)
The Enduro Elite was one of the longest-legged bikes in this year’s test. Boasting 170 millimeters of front and rear suspension and a 63.9-degree head angle, it lives up to its moniker as a purpose-built enduro race bike.
Admittedly, much of the terrain in our Arksansas proving grounds was better suited to mountain bikes with suspension numbers in the range of 120 to 150 millimeters. Even so, the Enduro Elite’s well-rounded demeanor and impressive climbing ability shined in contrast to many of the other bikes in the category. While it was a capable climber, this bike really came into its own in skills parks and on the downhill we rode in Eureka Springs. Over jumps, down drops, and through rowdy rock gardens, it outpaced nearly every other long-travel bike in our test.
Numerous testers commented on how incredibly balanced this heavy hitter was. The Enduro Elite has a very neutral feel, making it easy to coax it into action without exaggerating movements and expending excess energy. It’s an excellent choice for aggressive trail riders who spend time outside of the bike park earning their descents.