Or maybe, Englishman Attacked by Cactus. That would be the headline if our tester Johnny Dumpling had his druthers. We're holding our bike test (January) in the mountains of Tucson where the locals are sure to warn poor Johnny of the dangers of jumping cholla, a notoriously short-tempered cactus with a hair trigger. "If you get too close to one," they caution, "it'll shoot needles into your skin. You don't even have to touch them."
I'm dubious. Rudimentary botany and all. But then Johnny shows up at the first intersection with a golf ball-sized cholla pod sticking in his scapula. This happens three times. Maybe there's some Venus flytrap effect going on here. In the name of science, I make a point of watching our human pincushion corner past an eight-foot tall specimen loaded with mace-like weaponry. Here comes Dumpling leaning into the turn, seemingly oblivious to the Sasquatch-sized mass of spikes almost upon him. The beastly cholla remains as still as a mountain lion in ambush mode. It's a fascinating example of Darwinian specialization. And then, thwack, Johnny drives his shoulder directly into an overhanging branch thick with bulbous, spined pods. The cholla, inanimate object that it is, never moves except to absorb the force of his shoulder. Johnny is again rife with barbs.
We came to Tucson to give our test bikes a fair trial on rugged track. Temps are in the low 60s in midwinter, and unlike many desert mountain biking destinations, Tucson actually has mountains. Most of our climbs are short 20-minute grunts, but they're still legit ascents. The trails—we ride out of the Starr Pass area—are cut through loose sand mixed with jagged cobbles. Technical rock gardens abound, and you have to be on your game to navigate most of the switchbacks. Throw in a dozen varieties of trailside cactus and you have the kind of bona fide mountain biking that challenges suspensions, components, frames, and exposed skin.
For five and six hours a day we ride, taking four days off from the ski season that wasn't. Fifty-two flats, one bone chip, and hundreds of cactus spines later, Mountain brings this look at some of this season's most worthy bikes.
Scott Spark 29
The Spark line was completely redesigned for 2012, and the improvements are everywhere. Gone is the twitchy feel of Scott's earlier carbon tuning. The bikes are stiffer laterally. The shocks got smarter. And, best of all, the Spark comes equipped with the most intuitive and user-friendly Twinloc system yet. A simple click of the bar-mounted lever lets you switch from full travel (descending), to traction mode (seated climbing), to lockout mode (standing and sprinting). We've spent many hours on both the 29 (100mm of travel) and 26 inch (120mm) version of the new Spark and we're constantly impressed with how versatile they are. Swami gripe: The only time we'd use the full lockout would be to sprint to the packy for a sixer. Swami like: You could easily employ this comfortable and predictable bike in a rolling marathon course or 24-hour event. Or, especially with the longer travel 26 inch bike, switch over to big tires and a drop post and use it as an everyday trail bike. Tester's take: "The perfect five-hour-epic bike. Fast but handles like a trail bike." Best usage: Monster climbs and backcountry descents. $6,500; scott-sports.com
GT Zaskar 100 9R Carbon Pro
Thanks to a compact cockpit, upright geometry, and the i-Drive suspension design (an eccentric pivot above and forward of the bottom bracket), the Zaskar 9R is one the tightest handling and efficient four inch travel 29ers we’ve ever ridden. GT markets it as a XC race bike, and it’s worthy of racing, but thanks to the crisp and balanced handling it’s just as capable as a trail bike—especially if you swapped out the 2.1 tires for something with more girth. Swami gripe: It’s no big hit bike. You’ll get pinged around on rowdy descents that involve hub-deep drops. Swami like: Full XT group. DT wheels. Fox 32 Float 29 fork. Testers take: “The acceleration is top-notch. It’s like your power is getting multiplied with each revolution.” Best usage: Moderately technical cross-country riding. Big climbs. Long days in the saddle. $5,500; gtbicycles.com
Giant XTC Composite 29ER 0
In our opinion, the best application of 29 inch wheels is still on a hardtail, which maximizes the rolling advantage of bigger wheels—it’s easier to get them powered up, and you get the full benefit of rolling over (not into) roots and rocks. Add today’s evermore compliant and tunable carbon frames and plush tubeless tires, and you get a damp, smooth, and fast hardtail. That’s the XTC 29ER. If you have the right trail system for it (rolling groomers to mildly chunky) then it could be your only bike. Swami gripe: Buyer beware: If you ride rough country all day you’ll feel the hard in hardtail. Swami like: It’s a relatively affordable dirt road and buttery track racer to complement your full suspension machine. Tester’s take: “Goes uphill very well. The front end tracks perfectly.” Best usage: Smooth singletrack. Racing. Dirt roads. Leadville 100.
Reeb SFP Belt-drive Singlespeed
Reeb is "Beer" spelled backwards. We like beer. Therefore we like Reeb. (Homer Simpson logic is all we have left.) It doesn't hurt that Reeb is owned by our Colorado neighbor, the brewery Oskar Blues. And we drink a lot of their hoppy Kool-aid. Regardless, it's a nice bike. We're big fans of hardtail 29ers anyway, but this a hardtail singlespeed 29er with the Gates Carbon belt-drive. So slick. So quiet. If you have the right terrain for this bike (buffed) you may never ride gears again. It's also pretty, in an unfinished beer can sort of way. Swami gripe: Spendy for a bike with no gears. Can Swami get a growler with his purchase? Swami like: Our test bike was loaded with a Fox 29 32RLC fork and WTB saddle. Tester's take: "I'm not even a singlespeed rider, but I was blown away by the smooth feel of this bike. You can just get in a zone and crank." Best usage: Dirt roads. Loamy singletrack. It's a stealthy marathon bike and a sufficient trail bike for a skilled rider. $3,700–$4,300; reebcycles.com
Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert Carbon 29
Looking for a longer travel 29er? The FSR Expert 29 sports 130mm of travel, which, only a few years ago, would have been a major liability. Typically, pairing a mushy suspension with slow-to-start 29 inch wheels ended up with a bike that took forever to get off the line. Not the case here: The Brain technology (smart blowoff valves and chambers in the rear shock), keeps the bike from bogging down under those first dozen heavy pedal strokes. And once it’s up to speed you can roll over just about anything you’d find on an average trail ride. Swami gripe: It’s not a rapid climber on steeps. Swami like: The big wheels turn rocks into pebbles, and you get a deceptive range of travel out of the rear suspension—deceptive because it never feels squishy. Tester’s take: “The Brain/rear shock is absolutely brilliant. Handles small bumps and big hits well.” Best usage: No need to race it, but the FSR Expert excels for long rides on rough (but not hairball rough) trails. $5,800; specialized.com
Diamondback Sortie Black 29
We’re old fans of the 26 inch version of the Sortie line: They’re trail-proven, affordable, and durable bikes with great handling characteristics. That’s the case with the new Sortie 29 line as well. We tested the tricked out Black 29 version (full Shimano XTR kit; Fox’s “adaptive logic” three-position Propedal rear shock; Easton rims with WTB Wolverine tires). As expected, the componentry was flawless, but that’s not just lipstick on a pig. The single pivot, four-bar linkage suspension sits up nicely while climbing thanks to the smart Fox shock. Swami gripe: The rear suspension can feel a tad loose at high speeds. Swami like: Because all the suspension hardware sits low on the bike, the center of gravity feels more like a 26er than your standard 29er. Tester’s take: “Impressive climbing ability. Held up well on drops.” Best usage: Trail riders looking for a damp and durable ride. $6,500; diamondback.com
Cannondale Scalpel 29’ER Carbon 1
Looking to knock 20 minutes off your Leadville time? The new carbon Scalpel might be the ticket. It’s plush on rough track, accelerates like a hardtail, and the weight savings will save your legs and lungs. We’re big fans of the Lefty fork for fast trail riding because it performs so well on small, cobble-sized bumps, roots, and rubble. We’d also wager that laterally it’s as stiff or stiffer than any suspension fork on the market. Swami gripe: You want to keep this bike away from the big hits and technical descents of your most rugged all-mountain terrain. Swami like: It thrives in fast but bumpy singletrack. Tester’s take: “Inspires confidence. Great rear wheel traction. Comfortable suspension. Immediate power transfer.” Best usage: Another blisteringly fast, 100mm travel, carbon 29er perfect for race courses everywhere. $7,600 (Scalpel line starts at $2,550); cannondale.com
Niner Jet 9 RDO
The new carbon Jet 9 only offers four inches of suspension, but it’s the dampest and most comfortable 29er we tested. That’s a big improvement over Niner’s aluminum Jet 9 which felt rigid to a fault. But beyond the vibration-eating ride quality, the handling has improved as well. Maybe because the lighter weight carbon frame means the mass of the shocks, pivots, and bottom bracket do more to lower the bike’s center of gravity. Or perhaps the carbon tuning helps keep the bike from getting ricocheted around. Regardless, the result is a top performing, fast-trail bike and occasional racer for the 29er set. Swami gripe: It’s not a pure race bike. Swami like: It’s not twitchy like a pure race bike. Tester’s take: “Forgiving and quick to navigate technical sections for a 29er.” Best usage: Fast trail riding. Riders looking for speed with all-day comfort. $6,200 (XTR build) $2,100 (frame only); ninerbikes.com
Trek Remedy 9
Quiet. Balanced. Predictable. Those are some of the terms our testers threw out to describe the Remedy 9. A classic trail bike (26 inch wheels; aluminum frame; 5 inches of travel) this quasi-affordable Trek prefers technical trails and favors forgiveness over responsiveness. Meaning it’s great for picking your way through rock gardens and then opening it up on fire road descents, but you’re not going to chase down a carbon hardtail on the climb. Swami gripe: Sluggish on steep uphills. Swami like: The triple crank drivetrain is perfect on this bike. Not just because of the crisp shifting, but because the target rider likes to drop the chain to the granny gear to clear techy uphills. Tester’s take: “Great handling uphill, but fantastic on the down.” Best usage: Trail rides that involve gnarly sidehill roots, off camber switchbacks, and fields of babyheads. $4,400; trekbikes.com
Intense Carbine SL
Nearly as versatile as the Yeti, the Carbine SL is a fast and pure carbon race bike on the climbs, but with 4.75 to 5.25 inches of suspension (it’s adjustable) and a cushy front fork you can really open it up on the downhills. Our test bike was kitted out with a dropper post with a remote lever and thick and knobby tires—which is exactly how we’d ride this bike on trails. Swap out the post and tires though, and it’s as light and fast as a XC bike. The frame weighs a scant 5 pounds Swami gripe: Our test bike was built with a triple crank. We’d go 2x10 for the weight savings. Swami like: Because it’s a 26 inch bike, it’s easier to navigate tight and technical terrain. And the 160mm fork just gobbled up the rough track. Tester’s take: “Even with the shock opened up, the bike sits up and accelerates on climbs.” Best usage: We’d classify this with bikes like the Yeti ASR 5 Carbon and Trek EX 9.9. Meaning you can race them, but they aren’t out of place on come-what-may trail rides. $4,750 (with XT/Fox build); intensecycles.com
The SB stands for Super Bike, and that’s an apt descriptor for this do-anything Yeti. It’s the most versatile bike we’ve ever ridden. Most of that credit goes to Yeti’s patent pending “Switch” technology. Without getting bogged down in the physics, an eccentric pivot behind the bottom bracket shifts the suspension from climbing mode (small bump absorption; almost zero sag) to rollicking big hit mode (the full 6 in. of travel at play) with no need to flip a lever or even think. The handling is racy (both uphill and down) meaning if you like to crawl over techy terrain, you might still be a Yeti 575 customer. But if you prefer going fast all the time, this is your ride. Build it with lightweight wheels for marathon riding. Throw thicker hoops and meatier treads on it for a bomber all-mountain setup. Lots of build kits available. Swami gripe: The still newer and lighter weight SB-66 carbon has Swami uncertain of his next purchase. Swami like: It climbed as well as the race bikes in the mix, but hands down it won the DH category. Tester’s take: “For a 6 inch travel bike, it’s off the charts quick.” Best usage: One bike quiver for occasional racer, everyday trail rider, fast descender on rough track types. $6,150; yeticycles.com
Santa Cruz Blur TR Carbon
Carbon bikes have come of age in the trail category. Here’s one with a 5 pound carbon frame that’s stiffer laterally than any aluminum trail bike we road five years ago. The pedaling response is nearly as quick as an XC bike. And the seat tube angles are upright for efficient climbing. Turn it around though, and you’re getting all of the 5 inches of travel (thanks to Fox’s Kashima coated shocks). Swami gripe: You might get dropped on a climb if you’re chasing a full race bike, but you’ll dust a 4 inch travel bike on the descent. Swami like: Our test bike was built up with XT parts—an amazing value and the components we’d buy if we were spending our own money. Tester’s take: “Fast, balanced, tracks great. Just point and shoot.” Best usage: Trail rider looking for XC speeds on the climbs. $5,200 (XT build kit; frames start at $2,850); santacruzmtb.com
Felt Virtue LTD
Much as you would expect from a $10,000 carbon race bike, the Virtue LTD was exceedingly fast. It feels like it jumps forward when you crank. The hookup was relentless. And there’s no wasted energy in sloppy lateral pivots. Naturally, the bike is equipped with the full XTR group, including the brakes, which were the best in the test (incredible stopping power and modulation). But even given all that, the Virtue is more than a pure race bike. The bike offers nimble handling (it’s so light you can lift it over obstacles) and 4.5 to 5 inches of travel (also adjustable) so it can handle rougher trails too—even if it occasionally feels twitchy because of the weight. Swami gripe: The obscene price. Forget the XTR bike and look down the line. Swami like: Our test unit featured thick, 2.4 inch knobbies. Tester’s take: “Super responsive. You can feel the power output.” Best usage: Racing. Epic climbs. Riders who like the handling of 26ers. $10,000; feltbicycles.com
Salsa Mukluk 2
Yeah, this class of uber-fat tire bikes is suddenly the rage in mountain towns, but there’s a reason for the surge. They’re flat out stupid fun to ride. They float exceedingly well in snow, sand, and mud—the tires are nearly 4 inches wide. That float is why they’re loved by Alaskans and anyone looking to extend their bike season. But that wouldn’t amount to much if that was the entire fatty story. All that tire volume absorbs small trail debris, making for a surprisingly quiet ride for a fully rigid bike. It’s not fast by any reckoning, but the handling is far more intuitive and, well, good, than our testers expected. Swami gripe: Avoid fast technical downhills—once it starts bouncing it’s hard to reel it back in. Swami like: It floats in quicksand. Tester’s take: “It’s a slug, but it’s a fun slug.” Best usage: Snowmobile trails. Long romantic rides on the beach. $2,500; salsacycles.com