Tester: Eric McKeegan
Age: 42, Height: 5’11, Weight: 155, Inseam: 32 inches
Sizes: 15.5, 17.5, 18.5, 19.5 (tested), 21.5
More info: Trek Fuel EX
The previous generation Fuel EX was Trek’s best selling full-suspension bike. With Trek’s move to a more race-focused Top Fuel last year, it came as a surprise to see the new Fuel EX move into the territory staked out for the longer-travel Remedy. This new Fuel EX gets more travel and the long, low, slack treatment. It also dumps the 27.5 option in favor of a chassis that supports 29 or 27plus wheels. How do these massive changes perform when the rubber hits the trail? Let’s find out.
Trek started over, clean state style, with an entirely new carbon frame with 130 mm of travel. The full list of Trek’s suspension technology is utilized: ABP rear pivot, Full Floater floating shock mount, Mino Link for geometry adjustment, and the poorly named but excellent-performing Re:Aktiv valve equipped rear shock.
The frame does without the typical bend in the downtube to allow clearance for the fork controls. Instead Trek uses a new headset that pairs with a replaceable tab built into the frame to prevent the fork from rotating far enough for the top caps to contact the frame. The straighter downtube is stiffer and lighter, and overall frame stiffness is greater than the previous Remedy 29.
The parts kit is an interesting blend of Deore XT brakes and 2×11 drivetrain, Reverb dropper, Sun Duroc 40 rims and DT hubs. Bontrager handles the rest of the bits, including Chupacabra 2.8 tires. Fox provides suspension via a 140 mm 34 GRIP damper fork and Float EVOL rear shock.
The Mino chip can be flipped for high or low settings. I spent the vast majority of my ride time on this bike with the chip in the high setting (on the 27plus tires). The low setting was super stable and shreddy, but pedal strikes were all too common. With 29 inch wheels, both settings are more usable. To be clear, even on the high setting the head angle is 67.2 degrees and the bottom bracket is 13.3 inches, numbers that are pretty low and slack for a 130 mm bike.
The previous EX was obviously closely related to Trek’s cross-country race tool, the Top Fuel. The new EX falls more solidly into the trail category. Trek goes as far as to say the Fuel EX effectively replaces the Remedy 29, as that bike is discontinued for 2017. The 27.5 Remedy gets updated to a more shreddy 150 mm chassis; expect a review of that bike soon.
I was a big fan of the old EX bikes, partially for the efficient yet plush suspension, and partially because it was a very easy bike to get along with on tight and twisty trails. I had some trepidation at first that the geometry changes would take away from my love of this bike. Fortunately, while things have changed, this is still a very lovable bike.
Trek continues to impress me with the Re:Aktiv valve shocks. They deliver incredibly plush, controlled suspension. I have to resist the urge to add more air to the suspension, as it often feels too soft on the road while riding to the trailhead or pushing on the seat, but on the trail, it feels seamless and it’s always doing the right things and never bottoming harshly.
For trails that required a lot of body English and standing climbing, I kept the rear end in trail mode, but even in the firmest platform setting, the Re:Aktiv valve would blow-off and absorb a lot more trail chatter than expected.
It is hard to put into words about how well this suspension system works. Once in the woods, the suspension just does its thing with a minimum of fuss. The increased frame stiffness was noticeable, paying dividends when working the bike over rocks or powering up hills. Descents are handled with much more composure; the increased reach, decreased head angle and resulting longer front center put me farther behind the front wheel, making it easier to roll down steep sections with much less chance of going over the bars.
Because the front wheel is farther out in front, like most modern trail bikes, care needs to be taken to load the front end in flat or off-camber turns. Technical climbs need a firmer hand on the front end as well. But that is about the only place I ever thought the slacker geometry was a detriment, and I suspect most riders will adjust pretty quickly.
While this review is technically of the 27plus version of this bike, I also rode the 29er version in Squamish, and swapped out the wheels on this bike to see what the 29er felt like at home. In similar fashion to the Santa Cruz Hightower I reviewed last issue, the 29 inch wheels feel faster almost everywhere, and felt more secure when cornering hard. The 27plus tires erase trail chatter and provide more confidence over slippery roots and rocks.
A few random things that warrant mention. The Reverb remote still doesn’t play well with Shimano brakes. The Shimano brakes are still exhibiting inconstant engagement points, which has plagued all the redesigned brakes we’ve ridden this year. How about some metal pads for those brakes, Mr. Product Manager?
The GRIP damper in the Fox 34 is excellent for a “second-tier” offering, but the air spring could use some spacers, something that I’d like to see included with the bike. The 2×11 drivetrain is starting to feel like a throwback on bikes like this, but it is easier to swap to a single-ring drivetrain than go the other way.
The internal routing is quiet, but trying to swap dropper posts made me want to punch a box of puppies. Someday everyone will listen to me and we’ll see external routing come back, as nature intended.
Like many other bikes getting updates and redesigns this year, the new Fuel EX bears little resemblance to the previous model (see our review in issue #191). Part of me wants to mourn the loss of one of the few trail bikes left that relied on the “just enough” school of thought, but most of me was having too much fun riding the new bike to worry about it too much. And really, isn’t the idea of buying a new bike to have a new riding experience?
Yes, if you are buying a first new bike in years, the EX will feel foreign at first, but ride it enough to become familiar with the nuances and you’ll find yourself feeling more in control at higher speeds on just about any trail. For those of us with more time on modern bikes, the Fuel EX feels familiar already, a still almost-minimalist trail bike that is more than capable on almost any trail out there without overwhelming the rider with extremely slack geometry or excessive travel.
In other words, the new Fuel EX is a darn good trail bike, in the most modern way possible. If you still really, really want something steeper and snappier, Trek’s Top Fuel might make a better option but really, if you are going to haul around suspension and you aren’t racing, a proper trail bike is a better choice.
While this EX 9 is almost cheap for a carbon bike with full XT, Trek offers a huge range of aluminum- or carbon-framed Fuel EX models starting at $2,200 all the way up to $8,300.
- Reach: 18.3”
- Stack: 24.6”
- Top Tube: 25.8”
- Head Tube: 67.2°
- Seat Tube: 74.2°
- BB Height: 13.3”
- Chainstays: 17”
- Weight: 28.3 lbs. w/o pedals
- Specs based on size tested
Pivot’s full-suspension “race” bike, the Mach 429SL carbon, has been updated for 2017. It’s not plus (but it does have a Boost rear); it’s not even 27.5. This carbon bike has 100 mm of suspension front and rear and—gasp—29-inch wheels.
The Mach 429SL is spec’d with the Fox Float Dual Piston System (DPS) shock custom tuned specifically for cross-country and endurance racing. The Float DPS shock features settings and a design that allows for a plush feel with a wide range of damping control while also offering an extremely positive “firm” position for fast climbs.
The new Mach 429SL carbon is available in more than 12 different complete bike configurations, starting at $4,200.
- Frame weight from 5.2 pounds (2.4Kg) and sub-23 pounds (10.4kg) complete
- 100 mm of dw-link suspension tuned for race and trail handling
- Full-carbon frame featuring Pivot’s proprietary hollow core internal molding technology
- Full length internal cable routing and Shimano Di2 integration via Pivot’s exclusive, Cable Port System
- Internal dropper post compatible
- Cold forged alloy linkages with Enduro Max Cartridge Bearings
- Fox Float Kashima Factory shock
- Highly durable rubberized leather downtube and swingarm protection
- Updated to Boost 12x148mm rear spacing
- Designed to work with forks from 100-120 mm in travel
- Every frame size has room for two water bottles
- Available in sizes S, M, L, XL for riders between 5’3″ and 6’4″
Rocky Mountain has brought back the Slayer, this time as an all-carbon machine with 170 mm front / 165 mm rear suspension and 27.5 wheels designed for enduro racing, bike parks and big mountains. It’s another entry in the almost-a-downhill-bike-but-can-still-climb category.
Rocky Mountain’s four-bar Smoothlink suspension has been tuned to eat up rough terrain and square-edged hits. It increased the anti-squat values to make sure the bike pedals efficiently. The Slayer also features shock-mount bearings for small-bump suppleness. Its rate curve provides good support at sag and a moderate ramp towards the end-stroke.
- Ride-4™ adjustability chip for geometry adjustments
- All sizes fit one water bottle inside the front triangle
- Can run Di2 and a dropper post concurrently
- Max type Enduro cartridge bearing pivots with simplified hardware, Pipelock rocker link pivot
- Shock-eyelet bearings for small-bump sensitivity
- Single-sided chainstay and seatstay pivots for a narrower rear triangle—eliminates heel rub, even with Boost spacing
- Metric shock, 230 x 65
- 1x specific
- Clearance for up to 27.5 x 2.5 inch tires, and compatible with 26+ tires (26 x 3.0)
- Full-length internal dropper post and lockout routing. Internal brake routing in the front triangle, internal tube-intube shift routing
- Oversized downtube ports for ease of cable routing
- New derailleur hanger design reduces hardware complexity
- Lightweight bolt-on axle saves 35 grams compared to a traditional Boost axle
- PressFit BB92 bottom bracket, ZS44 | ZS56 headset
- Post-mount 180mm rear brake
- Max chainring size is 36t
- Sizing: S/M/L/XL
The Slayer is available in four carbon models:
Slayer 790 MSL — $7,000
Slayer 770 MSL — $5,800
Slayer 750 MSL — $5,000
Slayer 730 MSL — $4,200
Commencal has released an updated Meta, a downhill-oriented all-mountain/enduro bike designed around 160/170 mm forks and Boost spacing. The top tube length, seat tube angle and reach are the same as version 4, but the head angle is half a degree slacker (65.5 degrees) and the wheelbase a tad longer. A new, two-piece top tube is compatible with all rear shocks—the design promises more progressive suspension. There’s also now more clearance for large rear brake calipers.
The new Meta gets improved internal dropper post routing, a new downtube protector and more space inside the triangle for a water bottle (yep, there are mounts tucked in there). Finally, all Metas will come stock with nice-n-wide rims (25-30 mm inner width) to give you more tire contact on the trail.
Available in sizes small through XL, the bike is now available for pre-order. Six models are available (all with 170 mm front and 160 mm rear travel). Prices start at $2,200 for a SRAM NX1 1×11 build, SRAM Level brakes, RockShox Deluxe RT shock and a RockShox Yari RC up front (yellow bike pictured above). At the top of the line, you’ll get a shiny silver aluminum frame, RockShox Lyric fork, Reverb dropper post and SRAM XO1 Eagle 12-speed build for $4,600 ($100 less for a black frame).
Tester: Justin Steiner
Age: 33, Height: 5’7″, Weight: 165 lbs., Inseam: 31”
Bike price: $5,000
Sizes: M, (tested) L, XL
Kona first launched the Process lineup in 2013 for the 2014 model year. Since then, we’ve reviewed and revered both the 29 inch Process 111 (issue #178) and the 27.5 inch Process 134 (issue #184). Based on those positive experiences, I was stoked to see what the Process 153 has to offer.
Where the Process 111 and 134 target the trail category, the 153 presents a burlier option for riders on the enduro and all-mountain end of the spectrum. Suspension travel is 153 mm at the rear wheel, damped by a Monarch Plus RC3. A 160 mm RockShox Pike holds down the fort up front.
When the Process bikes were announced, they were on the bleeding edge of the longer, lower and slacker new-school geometry movement we’ve seen gain traction in the years since. As geometry trends progress, the once-extreme geometry of the Process bikes now largely represents the new normal. In no way is that a bad thing though, the market has largely just caught up to the Process bikes in the three years since their introduction. That said, Kona will be subtly revising the Process’ geometry for the 2017 model year.
In this day and age of making everything out of carbon fiber, the Process bikes represent a bit of an outlier in terms of their aluminum construction. Though this move doesn’t necessarily make for a terribly light bike, I’m always impressed by how well aluminum bikes, particularly those with aluminum rims, communicate what’s happening at the tires’ contact patches. I’m not 100 percent certain why that is, but here’s my theory: Without the inherent vibration damping qualities of carbon, the sensory connection simply feels more direct.
As you might expect, this DL model checks the proper boxes with solid parts spec all around. The SRAM X1/X01 drivetrain provides reliable locomotion and ample gearing range for most situations. In mountain country, I’d likely drop down from the 32-tooth chainring to a 30-tooth ‘ring to provide a slightly easier gearing range.
For years, Shimano brakes represented the gold standard in terms of reliable braking, but the latest generation XT and XTR brakes have been a little bit of a hiccup for the company. We have word that Shimano has recently fixed the issues once and for all, but the brakes on this bike exhibit the migrating engagement point that we’ve noted on a handful of brake sets. This, however, should not be an issue on future Process models.
The KS Lev Integra dropper post operated flawlessly through the test period, and I really dig the ergonomics of the company’s Southpaw remote. The other notable parts spec is WTB’s new Asym i35 rims front and rear. These wide (35 mm internal width) rims provided an awesomely stable platform for the 2.3 inch Minion DHF tires. The rim’s asymmetrical design also goes a long way toward equalizing spoke tension.
Speaking of wheels, it’s worth noting that the Process line was launched before 148 mm hub spacing was anything more than a twinkle in an engineer’s eye. So no 148 mm spacing or plus tire compatibility here.
The 153’s head tube angle clocks in at 66.5 degrees, the bottom bracket sits 13.4 inches off the deck and the wheelbase measures a rangy 45.7 inches, despite short 16.7 inch chainstays. The resulting 29 inch front center measurement provides a lot of stability at speed and in steep terrain. The steep-ish 74 degree seat tube angle and long top tube yield a 17.1 inch reach on my medium test bike, which provides a weight forward climbing position that helps to keep the front wheel down and tracking up hill.
Even though my maiden voyage aboard the Process occurred on unfamiliar trails, I was immediately comfortable on the bike, and it quickly encouraged exploring the limits. Like most bikes in this category, the Process is a very capable machine. The long front center provides stability that belies the 66.5 degree headtube angle, making it feel as though it were slacker, but without the slow-speed wheel fl op that comes along with slacker angles. The front end stability is nicely balanced by the responsiveness of the short chainstays, which whip nicely around corners and greatly ease lofting the front wheel.
The Process’ suspension performance was impressive. The rear suspension is stable and well-damped under pedaling forces, but remains responsive to small bumps while pedaling. Pointed down hill that same sense of chassis stability remains, but small and large bumps are dispatched with equal aptitude.
As you’d expect from the folks at Kona, the Process also handles big hits without breaking a sweat. The spring rate ramps up nicely to fend off bottom out without the rider even noticing. The travel o-ring indicated that I had used full travel, but I never felt a noticeable bottom out.
Regardless of the type of trails I was riding, the Process felt balanced and composed in all situations, from fast and rowdy descents in Pisgah National Forest to smooth and flowing trails in central Michigan. It never felt like overkill on the trail or left me wanting more capability. Sure, it may be overkill for tame trails, but even in those settings, the Process encourages you to hit the optional lines. When the going gets rowdy, the Process 153 really shines.
All in all, the Process 153 offers an impressive balance of capability and versatility. Whether it is your only bike, or the enduro bike of your quiver, it makes a compelling case for itself.
Kona Process 153 Details
- Reach: 17.1”
- Stack: 23.5”
- Top Tube: 23.7”
- Head Tube: 66.5°
- Seat Tube: 74°
- BB Height: 13.4”
- Chainstays: 16.7”
- Wheelbase: 45.7”
- Weight: 30.0 lbs. (with 29” wheels) w/o pedals
- Specs based on size tested
- More info: Kona Process lineup
The new Pivot Firebird features some of the longest reach measurements on a bike in this category, combined with super-short 16.95-inch chainstays, 65-degree head angle, 170 mm of suspension, Boost spacing, and clearance for 27.5 wheels with tires up to 2.5 inches wide.
The carbon frame can reportedly be built up with a weight of less than 28 pounds. Also new is the availability of a size XL in this model. There is no extra small, and the shortest suggested rider height for a small Firebird is 5’4″.
For comparisons on how the geometry changed, the old Firebird 27.5 had a 66-degree headtube angle, 160 mm of suspension and a chainstay length of 17.25 inches. Top tube length on a size large went from 24 inches to 25.12 inches.
The Firebird is being billed, without apologies, as a no-compromise enduro race machine. To aid that, Pivot utilizes DW-Link suspension. Dave Weagle, the brains behind DW‐Link and Chris Cocalis, Pivot’s president and founder, collaborate on every Pivot suspension design. Pivot used DW-Link to offer square-edged bump absorption that is claimed to rival the company’s DH bike while also pedaling more efficiently than the bike’s travel and geometry would suggest.
With the new Firebird, you also get internal cable routing, front-derailleur capability, 180 mm disc brake rotors and electronic shifting integration. There are eight available build kits on Pivot’s site, ranging from a Shimano XT 1×11 build ($5,000) up to a Shimano XTR Di2 build with carbon wheels, if money is no object ($9,900). The Firebird should be available now at your local bike shop.
Intense added a new all-mountain bike to its fold, the Recluse. It has everything you would expect of a modern trail ripper: 150 mm front / 140 mm rear travel; 27.5 wheels with Boost dropouts; internal cable routing on a high-modulus carbon frame; fancy titanium hardware. It has the ability to run a front derailleur and still sneaks in one bottle cage mount.
The Recluse is available in five build kits from very nice to sell-your-extra-kidney nice. The base level “Foundation Build” still sports a carbon frame, a RockShox Pike fork, a dropper post and comes in the super-rad orange/pink frame color (as well as stealth black); not bad. If you want one, hope you have some extra coin. High-zoot Factory Build: $9,500; Foundation Build: $4,600. Everything else is in between. Sizes are small-XL with recommended rider heights ranging from 5’0” to 6’6”. Geometry charts below:
Tester: Zach White
Sizes Small, Medium, Large, XL(tested)
MSRP: $9499 Factory build, $6999 Pro build, $5899 Expert build
Weight 25.9lbs, as tested
Intense’s all new Primer will be quite familiar to Spider 29 fans, as it’s essentially a nicely updated version of the already well-sorted Intense Spider of last year. Sticking with a VPP chassis featuring travel adjustable between 115 mm and 130 mm (without geometry variation), the Primer’s biggest difference from last year’s Spider is a refinement in the linkage. The recent expiration of VPP’s patent has allowed Intense, along with other manufacturers, to put their own spin on the design. This first restriction-free version, however, looks quite similar to the improvements made by Santa Cruz’s models where the lower linkage has been tucked up and out of harm’s way, while decreasing chain stay length at the same time.
The Primer comes in both standard and SL carbon options, both of which have a higher modulus from last year’s frames, allowing for larger mandrels inside the tubes for improved consistency in the carbon walls, ultimately equating to stronger and lighter frames. Also improving upon the strength and stiffness are larger-diameter bearings on both versions of the Primer, and the SL loses a few grams by way of a carbon upper link and titanium hardware.
Other improvements to the new Primer include Boost spacing front and rear, a 1-degree slacker 67.5-degree head tube angle, a quarter-inch shorter 17.25-inch chain stays, and a noticeably steeper 75-degree(effective) seat tube angle. Standover height drops about an inch on average throughout the sizes to allow more room for 125 mm drop dropper posts(all models will come stock with Reverb Stealth 125’s), and reach is stretched to varying lengths throughout the sizes to allow for shorter stems.
Over a few week test period, our size XL Primer loaner was ridden and raced in a handful of different regions and disciplines including the 6-day Singletrack 6 and Sun Valley Enduro Cup, and overall it was a pleasure to throw a leg over during its short stay. Just like the Spider 29 of last year, it’s initial impression is that of an XC oriented suspension tune and build, but with a few pieces added to the spec to keep it from getting pigeonholed with some of the less playful options out there. However, it didn’t take long to realize that its 130 mm of travel couldn’t be used as an excuse to not occasionally drop into steep, techy and chunky chutes, or huck off a BC feature or three. Granted, it’d be the wrong tool of choice for an audience focused on said trails and features, but it showed a surprisingly versatile personality while traveling through new-to-me trail systems and wanting to get a taste of every flavor offered.
Both front and rear triangles felt stiff and efficient enough for a bike of this genre, but did show a bit of flex under harsher riding with a 200-lbs. pilot. Smaller riders on frames smaller than XL, as well as less aggressive trail riders on any size Primer will probably be perfectly happy on it, but don’t expect it to ride like an Intense M16, either.
Though Primer’s JS Tune(named after Jeff Steber, founder of Intense) suspension is unabashedly XC, it was a bit of a surprise to keep wanting to switch the rear shock up to the middle damping setting for conditions that warranted regular pedaling or were smooth enough to want to pump everything. It wasn’t a pig by any means in the open damping position, but did seem to squat down a little bit, and squished more than what’s expected of a VPP design when pedaling was more than a spin or from off the saddle. Once in that middle damping setting, the bike pedaled quite nicely and efficiently, and still absorbed rough trail pretty well, too. And only on long road approaches and ascents did the damping get flipped up to position 3, along with adjusting the 3-position fork damper accordingly as well.
On the rougher trail end of the spectrum, it wouldn’t have been my first guess that the Primer was set to its full 130 mm of travel, as the somewhat progressive stroke felt a bit shy of that. The bike did very well in small to medium hits, and never seemed to harshly bottom out on bigger hits, but would get a little overwhelmed in places like long rock garden sections taken at higher speed, even with the rebound damping wide open. Swapping the shock bolt’s position to the 115 mm travel mode added to this feeling of being both more progressive and more suggestive of a chassis with a hair less suspension than claimed, so the review bike was quickly reset to 130 mm mode. This isn’t to say the Primer is under-gunned in its class by any means, as it continued to surprise and impress in how well it handled itself in conditions outside of expectations for a 5-inch travel 29er, but it was by no means gobbling up anything and everything thrown at it like a bike with more travel would, either.
It was a pleasure to go from another brand’s 130mm travel 29er that had a relatively low bottom bracket to the Primer with its 13.25-inch height. Not only did it lighten up the front end a little bit and allow the front end to get up and over trail features more easily, but striking pedals on rocks and roots wasn’t nearly as big of an issue, either.
That same slightly higher bottom bracket also may have made the 67.5-degree head tube feel slightly less slack than it sounded like it’d handle on paper. It wasn’t a bad thing, but again, without looking at geometry numbers until first impressions were made, the guess on Primer’s front angle would’ve been about a degree steeper. Regardless, the Primer handled itself very nicely in tight switchback climbs and through technical sections that were biased to shorter wheelbases, even though this XL Primer was as big of a wheelbase as it’s available in. The only time the geometry felt a little less than ideal was through steep and deep sections of trail, and in looser, faster turns where the safety net of a slacker head tube angle wasn’t available to rely on. Overall, though, it was a nice compromise of handling better in the lump sum of what this bike is designed to shine at, and still managed reasonably well just outside its comfort zone.
Our particular review bike was a mix of the most expensive Factory build kit and slightly lower Pro build – mostly by way of not having SRAM Eagle available, and being the blue and grey color way specific to the Pro build. A couple of minor gripes were that the new Race Face Next cranks didn’t offer much shoe/ankle clearance, and that Intense spec’d an XC style bike with a rear axle that requires two steps and two different sized allen keys to remove the rear wheel.
A collet-style rear axle is designed to keep things clean, light and stiff, but also made me miss a QR style version when working on the bike – especially out on the trail. A 5 mm allen key is used to remove a tapered bolt that screws into the axle, and then a 6 mm allen key is needed to remove the axle. It’s not brain surgery, but just seems like an overly complicated and awkward system.
A couple of personal adjustments to the Primer’s spec were swapping out the stock 30-tooth front ring with a 28-tooth ring for a 6-day XC stage race, and switching to a saddle more specific to my, um, curves. Otherwise, everything else was ridden stock and seemed a good fit for Intense’s intentions of the Primer.
Time on the Primer left a great impression, and it’ll be hard to box it up and send it home to Intense. Coming from a rider with more of an enduro/gravity bias, it’d be a great bike to have in the quiver for less technical rides, and for those random assignments where I find myself pretending to be an XC racer. The Primer is efficient and light, but there’s no denying that it’s an Intense, either, which makes it a pleasantly playful trail bike option, too. As a one-bike quiver, it’d be an excellent choice that handles an impressive scale of terrain, though its spec and general svelte carbon frame would probably suggest a stouter option if trail appetite leaned more towards relentless pounding.
Tester: Jon Pratt
Age: 45; Height: 5’10”; Weight: 190 pounds; Inseam: 31”
Salsa Cycles is not one to shy away from big tires, so it is only natural to see another one of its bikes with a bit of extra rubber show up at our door for review. This time around it’s the Pony Rustler, Salsa’s 27plus rig sired from the esteemed line of the Horsethief. In fact the two bikes are so similar, they might be better classified as twins. I think the Pony Rustler just decided to wear different shoes and jacket to make sure we didn’t mistake one for the other.
And where did that name come from? Jokingly, Pete Koski, the product design engineer for the Pony Rustler, told me “It rhymes with Horsethief.” I’m kind of glad Pete designs bikes and doesn’t write poetry (that I know of).
As for that design, Joe Meiser, product manager at Salsa, explains that the Pony Rustler was crafted to add to the growing trend of short travel bikes that can climb and descend, while providing increased traction through the use of plus-sized tires. Joe sees it as not just a good bike for trail riding, but one well-suited to bikepacking as well.
The Pony Rustler uses the wide 45 mm WTB Scraper tubeless rim and 3 inch WTB Bridger tire to create a large contact patch between the tire and trail surface, increasing the amount of grip you will experience. This was quite apparent to me in several different scenarios: craggily climbs, rocks and roots, and fast downhill berms.
I commonly ride up hills strewn with rough rocks and slippery roots where getting up and over something not only depends on strength and timing but on the amount of rubber you can keep on the ground. With the Pony Rustler, I always felt the gains in traction overcame the weight penalty. Unlike narrow, higher-pressure tires that rely more on suspension to smooth out the ride, the Pony Rustler’s lower pressure tires more easily deform around objects and limit the amount of shock transmitted to the rider.
When you are motoring through a rock garden the bike’s suspension doesn’t get distracted by the smaller noise, leaving more in reserve to handle bigger hits. This makes the Pony Rustler feel more in control than a narrow-tired bike with similar travel. It feels more in control and leads to more confidence and faster sprints through the trail chatter. Finally, the Pony Rustler is really fun on those fast, flowy trails we all know and love. The increased grip of the larger tire allowed me to take my favorite berms just that much faster. It’s a noticeable difference.
All that grip comes at a price though. Not only does the wheel weigh more, the larger contact patch creates more resistance with the ground. You have to work harder to get going, and keep going. That’s where the trade-off between the 29 inch Horsethief and the 27.5+ Pony Rustler really lies.
But don’t fret too much about the wheel size choice, because the Horsethief and Pony Rustler share a frame and fork. You can purchase either bike and build up the alternate-sized wheelset and swap to your heart’s content. To make this swap as seamless as possible, Salsa used 3 inch WTB tires to maintain very similar geometry between the two bikes. This tire size choice is important to maintain the overall wheel diameter and keep bottom bracket height within 5 mm of each other without making changes to the frames.
According to Salsa engineer Pete Koski, standard 29 inch tires average 735-745 mm in diameter while 27.5×3 inch tires average a very close 730-740 mm. The smaller 2.8 inch tires average 715-725 mm. Those smaller tires would result in the bottom bracket up to 20 mm lower on the Ponty Rustler. So in this case, 3 inch tires are a no-brainer.
Since the 2014 model year, Salsa Cycles has used Dave Weagle’s Split Pivot suspension on their bikes, and that’s a really good thing. At its heart Split Pivot rear suspension is designed to separate braking, pedalling and bump absorption from each other. The Pony Rustler’s mechanical linkage is used to provide pedaling efficiency instead of relying on the low-speed compression damping of the suspension.
Where on some bikes I’m forced to switch between the various modes of the shock, the Pony Rustler allowed me to leave the shock wide open for most of my testing. It’s great knowing that if an unexpected hill appears I just have to mash up it, or slam the RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper and take off for a fun ride down. There’s virtually no need to worry about flipping the shock from trail to descend and back again.
Split Pivot design isolates the shock from braking forces. Because the Pony Rustler’s seat stays rotate around the rear axle, when you engage the SRAM Guide RS brakes the braking forces are not transmitted to the RockShox Monarch RT3 and therefore don’t affect its ability to absorb bumps.
Weagle’s design is an incredibly simple, but effective, single pivot suspension. It allows the Pony Rustler to be predictable during braking and adds to the already good small bump compliance afforded by the large, low-pressure tires.
Besides just taking the Pony Rustler out for a few laps around the local park, Salsa designed it to be a great bikepacking tool. Since the bike does not have very much space for a frame pack in the front triangle and no easy way to attach gear to the fork, most of your load is going to either be near the top of the bike or on your back, which raises your center of gravity. The wider tires do a good job offsetting this issue and keep the bike stable under large loads. Increased grip from the tires will also limit the bumblings that can topple a top-heavy biker at the most inopportune times.
I took the Pony Rustler out for a few loaded excursions on both singletrack and slush covered gravel trails, and it performed as expected. I didn’t notice any errant movements from the bike as my bags naturally shifted due to pedaling or experience any puckering situations when traversing some more challenging trails. Overall the bike felt well-planted, stable and comfortable on long treks.
As with most full-suspension bikes, if you feel the need to take everything and the kitchen sink with you, the lack of on-bike storage options might be of concern. I’m OK with paring down and using a backpack when needed.
With the Pony Rustler, Salsa has done a great job building off the Horsethief’s successes and creating an incredibly good bike with arguably more going for it. It’s becoming apparent that plus bikes have a real purpose in the marketplace and that the Pony Rustler is a good example of a well-executed bike that can handle various trail-related tasks with poise.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that you head over to your local bike shop and try one on if you are in the market for a bike that could breathe some excitement back into your local trails, or give you the confidence to venture out and explore a bit more.
Stats (with a 130 mm fork)
- Reach: 17.4”
- Stack: 24.4”
- Top Tube: 24.9”
- Head Tube: 67.5°
- Seat Tube: 73°
- BB Height: 12.6”
- Chainstays: 17.2”
- Weight: 30.1 lbs. w/o pedals
- Specs based on size tested
Price: $2,500 frame. Complete starting at $3,500. Tested: $5,500.
Sizes: S, M, L (tested), XL
More info: Salsa Pony Rustler
Tester: Eric McKeegan
Age: 42 Height: 5’11”, Weight: 160 lbs., Inseam: 32”
Price: $2,899 frame; complete bikes from $4,599; $6,499 (tested)
Sizes: M, L (tested), XL
More info: Santa Cruz Bicycles
Photos: Gary Perkin
Santa Cruz was very late to the 29er ballgame, but came out swinging with the Tallboy. That was soon followed by the Tallboy LT, a longer travel 29er aimed at the growing big wheel trail bike market. The LT was well-liked but quickly became dated as 29er trail bike geometry evolved and was quietly discontinued by Santa Cruz.
The Hightower is the entirely new replacement for the retired LT, and as such, deserved a new name. Hightower refers not to the guy from the “Police Academy” movies, but to the Santa Cruz demo guy Eric Highlander. Honestly, either one would have worked for me.
Other than sharing the same rear travel, 135 mm, the Hightower is entirely new. Taking a page from the Nomad, Bronson and 5010, the Hightower is a thoroughly modern trail bike. There are huge changes from the LT with geometry, starting with a head angle almost 3 degrees slacker, a seat tube angle 1.5 degrees steeper, reach growing 1.5 inches, and chainstays three-quarters of an inch shorter. Even the bottom bracket drops a quarter inch.
What makes it even more modern is a frame design that allows enough clearance for 29 or 27plus wheels. To keep geometry mostly consistent (two-tenths of a degree) between the wheel sizes, Santa Cruz provides a small flip-chip and a 10 mm longer travel fork to change the geometry when swapping in the slightly shorter 27plus wheels.
Unfortunately, one of the stock Rock-Shox Pike’s few shortcomings is the need to swap air spring shafts to adjust travel, so the only easy way to make the swap are a pair of forks in 140 mm for 29 and 150 mm for 27plus. Easy for a spoiled magazine guy, but a serious expense when added to the cost of a second set of wheels/tires/rotors/cassette.
Much like the Nomad, there are no plans for a aluminum frame, but there are two levels of carbon frame, the CC which is about 230 grams lighter than the cheaper C version. Stiffness is equal between the two, but only the CC is available as a frame only.
Also like the Nomad, you can forget the front derailleur. With the recent release of even wider range single-ring drivetrains this is less of a problem. I spent my time on a 1×11 with a 30 tooth ring and 10-42 cassette and just once in a while dreamed of those new 50 tooth cogs.
My first rides on this bike were in Chile for a dry run of the Rally of Aysen Patagonia. Santa Cruz invited a group of international bike media-types to see what was up with the Rally and to launch the Hightower.
We covered a lot of varied riding, in fact, probably the most diverse terrain and conditions I’ve ever experienced during a media event. From steep and loose natural trails to long grinds on the dirt roads so prevalent in southern Chile, the Hightower showed itself to be immensely capable. The third generation VPP mini-link suspension is nothing short of refined. Seated pedalling is without a hint of bob, and it was only on the smoothest of trails or under the most spazmatic of pedaling efforts that I wanted to dial in any platform on the rear shock.
On the other end of things, the 135 mm of travel has the magical combination of bottomless travel and wallow-free feel. Compared to some of its direct competitors like the Trek Remedy 29 or Specialized Stumpy 29, the Hightower isn’t quite as plush feeling, but that is a trade-off I’m more than willing to make for suspension that rarely needs a platform and communicates the trail so well to the rider without feeling harsh.
The up-to-date geometry only felt out of place in the slowest and tightest of terrain, where the front wheel could take some effort to keep it pointed where I wanted. Anything above walking speed isn’t an issue.
I experimented with the 29er wheels with the bike in the 27plus setting, and found the higher BB and slightly steeper angles to be very usable on local trails, and maybe even more fun. It also reduced pedal strikes, which happen with some regularity with the bottom bracket at standard height. In fact, in every single other situation, the Hightower felt very much in control and on top of things. Think James Bond with wheels and a carbon frame, and you might be getting close the personality of this bike.
While I think wheel size choice is going to come down to a combination of rider skill/style and local terrain, I preferred this bike as a 29er. It was awesome as a plus bike, but I was very much into the way this bike ate up miles as a 29er, rolling along like a cross-country race bike (with 850 gram aggressive tires), but attacking descents like a Nomad’s older and more mature brother. Interestingly enough, the 27plus configuration is slightly lighter than the 29er with similar parts, and there is no price difference between the 29er and 27plus options.
This bike is going to make a lot of riders happy. As is often the case with high performance bikes, that performance doesn’t come cheap. I have to give a lot of credit to Santa Cruz for parts spec; even on the “entry-level” bike, all the parts are shreddable right out of the box. Really, the build kits on all the Hightowers are stellar, from the 150 mm Reverb to the single chainring SRAM drivetrains and tubeless tires, this stuff just works with little fanfare and no complaint. There is an ENVE wheel upgrade for $2,000. Personally, I’d save that cash, buy the 27plus bike with the 150 mm fork and a set of 29er wheels.
I wouldn’t be afraid of taking this bike anywhere. B.C. Bike Race with some extra days afterwards to ride more trails in Squamish and Whistler? Yes! Fart around on the local trails with your crew? YES!
A day at the bike park? YES!
Pisgah? All day, every day, YES!
To put it simply, this is one of the best mountain bikes I’ve ever ridden. It just does it all, does it well, and keeps doing it with a minimum of fuss. Santa Cruz has a whole stable of very good trail bikes, but the Hightower might be the one horse for almost any course.
- Reach: 17.6/17.7”
- Stack: 24.2/24.1”
- Top Tube: 24.2/24.1”
- Head Tube: 66.8/67°
- Seat Tube: 74.1/74.3°
- BB Height: 13.2/13.3”
- Chainstays: 17.1/17.1”
- Weight: 27.3 lbs. (with 29” wheels) w/o pedals (specs based on size tested)
This is our third annual roundup of trail bikes that aren’t priced to the stratosphere. We could call them affordable, budget, real-world, blue-collar or college-fund-friendly, but someone would take offense at our assumption of disposable income level. It doesn’t really matter though. These are great bikes for the price, and we’ll leave it up to you about what to spend. Each bike was hand picked, not just for its price, but its components, geometry and modern features. From Issue #189.
Get an overview of all of the bikes in this test, here, and keep an eye out for full reviews of each.
Tester: Stephen Haynes
Age: 38, Height: 5’11”, Weight: 200 lbs., Inseam: 30”
Sizes: S, M (tested), L, XL
From our neighbors to the north comes the Devinci Hendrix, an aluminum trail bike that’s been specifically designed around the 27plus platform. The good folks at Devinci wanted to make an all-around trail bike for the budding enthusiast that would offer a good amount of travel, well-appointed components and lots of traction in a reasonably priced package. Did they succeed? Let’s find out.
The long and low geometry of the Hendrix makes for fun descending, and the Split Pivot suspension system is what makes it pedal and brake so consistently. Honestly. I don’t really understand much of the suspension linkage stuff and am happy to continue thinking it’s endowed with some sort of magic.
There is also an Axis & FRG (I’m pretty sure that stands for Fucking Really Great) adjustable linkage, which allows for both HI and LO settings so you can rake out the front end even more. Canadians are brilliant. Probably because they don’t spend all their time obsessing about guns.
The plus-sized tires allow for a more forgiving ride and give the rider more confidence when moving through dicey terrain. The Maxxis Chronicles mated to V2 Comp’s Wide DB rims (both of which are tubeless ready) make for a seriously generous footprint, and while I’d like to say this combination performed flawlessly across the board, I can’t.
Moving through serious rocks and roots at speed is where the 27plus x 3 inch Chronicles are most at home. Hell, pedaling up, over and through anything in dry to semi-moist conditions is pretty well received. The one problem is in mud and wet in general. I went down a few times after packing the treads up with mud. It seems counterintuitive to have a largish tire go out from underneath you on something relatively benign, but I think the large surface area starts to fl oat, rather than bite, in those instances, causing the slip ’n slide to happen with greater effect. Swapping for a more aggressively treaded tire will manage the problem and not diminish the returns from the rest of the bike.
The Hendrix employs a 1×11 drivetrain comprised of a 30 tooth ring on a Race Face Aeffect SL crankset and a 10-42 SRAM cassette, making most everything manageable, even for me. Oh, and the 780 mm V2 Pro Riserbar lends a hand in the leverage department, just make sure you’re on the clock when negotiating chutes or forests with tightly packed trees. Or wear gauntlets.
Once you crest the hill, or mountain, or street or whatever and decide you are, in fact, NOT going to vomit, you can bask in the gloriously unchained glow that is pointing the Hendrix downhill. Like other plus-size rides I’ve had the pleasure of throwing a leg over, the Hendrix loves this part. Like a brisket hound at a BBQ, the bike shrugs off roots, rocks and other trail detritus like so much cornbread and coleslaw, intent only on the shortest line between two points.
The bike’s long and low stance, wide bars, 110 mm Rock Shox Monarch R rear shock and 120 mm RockShox Reba, in collaboration with the aforementioned fast rolling wheels, feel like an unfair advantage in the “eating up terrain” department. The Devinci Hendrix is a great bike and a worthy investment, hands down. It’s fun as hell and would be a terrific first “real” bike for the novice looking to take the next step toward full-on aficionado.
- Frame and fork are compatible with 29 inch wheels
- Well-appointed components
- Wide rims support the wide tires
- No dropper post (Would kick it up over $3k, and is an easy addition)
- Only one color choice (I’m an art dork)
- Maxxis Chronicles aren’t a great all-around tire
- Wheelbase: 46.2/46.1”
- Top Tube: 23.7/23.6”
- Head Angle: 67.3/67.7°
- Seat-Tube Angle: 74.8/75.2°
- Bottom Bracket: 12.8/13.1”
- Rear Center: 17.1/17”
- Weight: 32.0lbs. w/o pedals (specs based on size tested)
Rocky Mountain is jumping in the full-suspension, plus-tire game with its new carbon Pipeline: a bike with 150 mm front suspension, 130 mm rear and room for 27plus tires (up to 3.25 inches). The bike is 1x-specific, features internal cable routing, stealth-dropper routing, a PressFit BB92 bottom bracket, Boost spacing and is offered in sizes from small to extra large.
Rocky Mountain’s “Ride-9” system allows riders to adjust the frame geometry and suspension rates for riding styles, terrain and rider weight. Nine configurations are possible thanks to two interlocking chip inserts that move on two separate axis.
The top-end Pipeline, the 770 MSL, comes equipped with a Fox 34 Float Factory 150 fork, Fox Float DPS Factory 130 rear shock, full Shimano XT components, Race Face Turbine crankset, Maxxis Rekon EXO 27.5×2.8 tires and a RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper post. MSRP: $4800 USD.
The 750 MSL utilizes a RockShox Yari RC 150 fork, RockShox Monarch RT Debonair 130 rear shock, a mix of Shimano components, and the same tires and dropper as its big brother. MSRP: $4000 USD.
Find the Pipeline at your local bike shop starting in May.
Tester: Justin Steiner | Height: 5’7” | Weight: 165 pounds | Inseam: 31”
The Megatrail is the second bike released by Colorado-based manufacturer Guerrilla Gravity. The company’s first bike was a full-bore downhill bike dubbed the GG/DH. Where the GG/DH was designed to punish downhill courses, the Megatrail strives to blend downhill prowess and pedaling performance in a versatile package targeting the all-mountain market.
This formula begins with an aluminum frame that’s constructed in Guerrilla Gravity’s Denver shop. Providing local jobs through domestic manufacturing is one of the key tenets of Guerrilla Gravity’s mission. All of the company’s other tenets revolve around making versatile and badass bikes.
In today’s age of swoopy carbon and hydroformed aluminum construction, the Megatrail’s minimally manipulated, custom-butted round and square tubes may look a bit industrial. Don’t let that fool you. Guerrilla Gravity engineer Matt Giaraffa utilized his experience designing race car suspension to balance anti-squat, mid-stroke support and bottom-out resistance in a linkage-driven, single-pivot package.
As the company’s name suggests, geometry trends toward the gravity end of the spectrum in all of the Megatrail’s settings. Two main modes are offered: Trail and Gravity. The Trail setting offers a 66.5 degree head tube angle, 74 degree seat tube angle and 13.2 inch bottom bracket height, while Gravity mode slackens things out to a 65.5 degree head tube angle, 73 degree seat tube angle and 12.7 inch bottom bracket height. Both modes share 17.3 inch chainstays.
The Trail mode’s 150 mm of suspension travel is tuned with more midstroke support to provide increased pedaling performance and a livelier ride feel with more pop. Gravity mode’s 160 mm of travel is tuned to be slightly softer to provide more compliance. No air pressure adjustment is required when switching between modes, which is performed by moving the rearward shock mount from one position to the other.
Within Gravity mode lies a third option: Super Gravity. Super Gravity combines the geometry of Gravity mode with the suspension kinematics of Trail mode. Read: low and slack, but with more mid-stroke support and pop, resulting in a livelier ride feel.
One idiosyncrasy revolves around sizing. The Megatrail’s designated sizes run roughly one size larger than we’re used to, so be sure to buy based on top tube length and reach measurement. I normally ride medium frames, which translates to Guerrilla Gravity’s small with a 24 inch top tube. That said, Guerrilla Gravity offers a generous size range said to fit riders from 4 feet 10 inches to 6 feet 8 inches.
The standard Trail build is a curated blend of parts that balance performance and affordability, largely in line with parts I’d choose: SRAM GX 1×11 drivetrain and Guide brakes, RockShox Reverb post and Race Face Aeffect handlebar and stem. Upgrades on our test bike included DT Swiss 370 hubs hand laced in Colorado to EX 471 rims and the MRP Stage fork. Maxxis provided ample traction with DHF (front) and High Roller II (rear) tires.
I hadn’t previously sampled the MRP Stage fork, which impressed me with its adjustability and compliance. Not only does this fork offer external compression and rebound adjustment, it also offers Ramp Control. Ramp Control adjusts the spring preload on a valve in the air spring chamber. During compression, air flows through this valve. As Ramp Control is increased, the flow of air through this valve is restricted, providing an increasingly progressive spring rate as shaft speed increases, thus improving bottom out resistance within the air spring itself.
Thanks to Ramp Control, the Stage pairs very well with the Megatrail. In Trail mode I increased Ramp Control and added a couple clicks of compression to provide a bit more support to match the firmer rear suspension. In Gravity mode, I decreased ramp support slightly and backed off compression damping to better match the suppleness of the rear suspension.
On the Trail
Bikes like the Megatrail make a reviewer’s job both easy and difficult. Easy in that a bike this well executed is easy to warm up to. Difficult in that it works so seamlessly it’s sometimes hard to describe exactly what’s happening. Regardless, I was immediately smitten by the Megatrail because it offers a potent combination of attributes that speak to gravity-oriented riders.
First, you have two settings of long, low and slack to choose from. Second, it offers extremely well sorted suspension kinematics, in terms of pedaling efficiency, mid-stroke support and botttom-out resistance. Third, the Megatrail’s aluminum frame clearly communicates what’s happening at the contact patches—better than any carbon bike I’ve ridden—which instills a great deal of confidence. And, finally, it offers a nice up-and-over-the-pedals riding position.
The sum total of those attributes made this bike an absolute ripper for me. Light and efficient enough to use for all-around trail rides, even if it might not be the optimal choice for a 50 mile backcountry mission.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find I did not once wish for compression damping adjustment on the RockShox Monarch rear shock. Climbing traction was excellent and pedal-induced suspension movement was kept to a minimum. On the other hand, switch the shock into Gravity mode and you have a mini-shredder on your hands.
It’s no downhill race bike, but it’ll bash park laps all day long. As you might expect from the geometry chart, the Megatrail’s cornering habits are more akin to a downhill bike than a cross-country racer. Definitely need to crank this one over in the turns. The lively suspension tuning provides great support under cornering loads and ample pop out of turns.
The Megatrail’s 17.3 inch chainstays aren’t terribly short by today’s standards but they do offer a lot of stability when paired with the long front center, resulting a 46.3 inch wheelbase. As a result, the Megatrail isn’t as snappy as some other bikes in this category, but it sure does carry momentum.
The Santa Cruz Nomad has become my benchmark for bikes of this ilk. How does the Megatrail compare? Very favorably, in many ways. The Nomad with a similar build kit rings in at $5,199 and is only marginally lighter. As much as I love the Nomad, I’d be very tempted to save the $800. The Megatrail makes for a damn fine all-around trail bike for gravity-oriented riders or a great long-travel option for those working their way up the travel scale.
In fact, I liked the Megatrail so much I couldn’t help but select if for my 2015 Editor’s Choice award—it’s the best bike I rode in 2015. Beyond this being one fine steed, you can also feel good about helping three young entrepreneurs provide jobs within their community. That might just be the best of both worlds.
- Price: $1,925 (frame), $4,375 (as tested)
- Sizes: XS, S (tested), M, L, XL
- Wheelbase: 46.3″
- Top Tube: 24″
- Head Angle: 65.5º/ 66.5º
- Seat-Tube Angle: 73º/ 74º
- Bottom Bracket: 12.7”/ 13.2”
- Rear Center: 17.3″
- Weight: 31.0 lbs. w/o pedals
- More info: Guerrilla Gravity
Tester: Mike Cushionbury | Height: 5’10” | Weight: 155 lbs. | Inseam: 32”
Bike sizes: S, M (tested), L, XL | Price: $7,460
Before Cannondale’s new 27.5 Habit had even been released, it gained considerable momentum and interest when WTB/Cannondale rider Jason Moeschler won the coveted “All-Mountain World Championships” in Downieville, California, thanks to a third place in the cross-country and winning the downhill—with a faster time than last year, when he was riding his longer-travel Jekyll.
In Cannondale’s line hierarchy, the 120 mm travel Habit sits between the cross-county-specific Scalpel and the “OverMountain” Trigger, putting it neatly inside the growing trail-bike market, which is often best described as long-travel cross-country. With its linkage suspension and flex seatstays, the Habit looks more Scalpel than Trigger.
Our tester, the Carbon 1, is second highest in the line, below the $12,250 Habit Black Inc. Unless you really want a Shimano Di2 drivetrain and special all-black frame and parts, it represents a much better value and is by all means a top-of-the-food-chain machine.
The 1’s carbon frame comes decked out with a SRAM XX1 rear derailleur mated to an X01 shifter, SRAM Guide RSC brakes and a RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper seatpost. Cannondale, following a growing trend, has gone to in-house branded components and includes some nicely crafted carbon handlebars and a carbon wheelset. The high-end Cannondale HollowGram Si crank even has a Cannondale-branded narrow/wide chainring bolted on. All these bits did their designated jobs just fine. The wheels aren’t super light, coming in at a more trail-bike construction and weight with a 23 mm inner diameter, which is good for the bike’s intended usage.
The entire frame is built from Cannondale’s own BallisTec carbon with an injection-molded carbon shock link. The zero-pivot flex seatstays reduce weight compared to pivots and are claimed to provide greater lateral stiffness. Additionally, the swingarm rotates on oversized thru-axles. This combination results in a rear triangle that doesn’t twist or flex under the most extreme lateral loads.
True to its Downieville debut, the Habit is a speedy trail bike when it’s time to put the power to the pedals, helped of course by its low weight, RockShox XLoc Full Sprint lever—which simultaneously opens or locks out the Lefty 2.0 Carbon fork and RockShox Monarch DebonAir XX shock. While there is the suspension-lockout option, the tuning of the fork and the rear suspension’s leverage curve are designed to work well under pedaling power while in open mode.
The Lefty 2.0 has a new 50 mm offset, wider rebound-damping range from the XLR Isolated Damper, and a Trail+ tune, which has increased compression damping at the top of the stroke. Where previous Leftys sunk into their travel and felt immediately squishy, the 2.0 sits higher, resists brake dive and offers a small degree of firmness off the top while pedaling. It also has a sensitive blow-off valve that opens initial compression when a bump is hit.
It took me a little more time to find an air pressure I was happy with compared to previous generations, but once I did, the new tune felt noticeably better than its most recent predecessor, a fork that was already one of my favorites.
And forget any preconceived notions about flex—Lefty is about the stiffest fork on the market, with its dual clamps, massive stanchion overlap and a 15 mm to 25 mm tapered axle. It’s also one of the lightest forks made.
The rear-suspension leverage ratio is designed to be comfy off the top for small impact sensitivity, especially while climbing, to keep the rear wheel glued to the ground. It then becomes more progressive at the sag point to reduce pedal bobbing. All this is important for a trail bike, whose rider is likely to want to ride it mostly in the unlocked position for the best possible traction in all conditions. But, if need be, with the push of a hydraulic button, both can be locked out for maximum efficiency on smoother surfaces.
Shoot the Habit downhill and it immediately feels quick and springy. The low bottom bracket, short chainstays, 68-degree head angle and stiff frame and fork allow you to push the Habit harder than you’d expect from a bike with just 120 mm of travel. A long top tube matched to a 60 mm stem feels just right for long saddle days that require some pedal finesse as well as competent gravity chops.
While it’s not necessarily a dedicated enduro bike or all-mountain crusher, it can be ridden very aggressively, especially at high speeds where your wheels are a little closer to the ground rather than when monster hucking. The Habit isn’t full cross-country race like the Scalpel but it can do the job with comparably plusher suspension, nor is it a full Enduro World Series race machine like the Trigger but on smoother, more pedaling courses it can deliver a win.
This profile plants it firmly between the two—capable and broad in scope for riders who identify with both disciplines. When it comes to the new breed of highly efficient trail bikes that can climb as well as descend without trading ability at one for the other, the Habit’s geometry, aided by incredible stiffness and solid suspension performance, puts it on the shortlist of bikes you should check out.
- Wheelbase: 47.7″
- Top Tube: 23.4″
- Head Angle: 68°
- Seat-Tube Angle: 74º
- Bottom Bracket: 13.1″
- Rear Center: 17″
- Weight: 24.5 lbs. w/o pedals (specs based on size tested)
REEB Cycles is the American-made bicycle brand offspring of Oskar Blues Brewing. The company’s first foray into suspension bikes, aluminum frames and curved tubes has resulted in the SqWEEB, a full-suspension trail bike built on the Boost platform with 135 mm of travel. Using a mix of 6000 series aluminum tubing, the first prototype will be the basis for evaluating design and future development for a production model. The SqWEEB will be on display at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in California.
More info: reebcycles.com
Salsa Cycles’ Pony Rustler is the rotund sibling of the brand’s well-admired Horsethief. Both bikes feature the same basic platform and very similar components, with the obvious difference being the wider wheelset of the Pony Rustler. I’ve been riding the Carbon X01 build for a few weeks and have been impressed on how well it tackles the ever-changing winter weather we’ve been experiencing on the East Coast this year. There has been everything from summer-like 70 degree days to Arctic cold temperatures mixed with slush, ice and deep powder. Throw in a couple of blistering windstorms and you get the idea.
I really have come to appreciate Salsa’s decision to use 45 mm WTB Scraper rims matched up 3-inch WTB Bridger tires. While not the best in the deep snow, the Bridgers have been a great all-around choice. The wide rims also do a great job of creating a nice full tire profile, allowing for more of the knobs to maintain contact with the trail surface.
Two of the three Pony Rustler build kits come with a 1x drivetrain; the lower-priced model ships with a 2x option. So far I’ve had no issues with the SRAM X01 that shipped with ours. Yea, it’s sometimes a pain to try and dump a bunch of gears when faced with an uphill you weren’t expecting, but I’m willing to deal with the inconvenience for a cleaner handlebar setup.
The Carbon X01 build features a nice upgrade to the 130 mm Pike RCT3 which uses the awesome Charger Damper that RockShox fans have grown to love. You’ll find a Fox Float 34 with the two other kits.
And, of course, what would a high-end trail bike be without a dropper post? Here Salsa opted for the internal cable routed Reverb Stealth.
I’ve had the Pony Rustler out on a few regular singletrack outings and a snowy/rainy/slushy overnight bikepacking excursion. It’s been a ton of fun on all of it. I’m really looking forward to putting some more miles on it and seeing if it could be the one bike my stable has been itching for. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Check out salsacycles.com for more information on the Pony Rustler and all their other bikes.
We’ll be running a long term review of the Pony Rustler in a future issue of Dirt Rag so stay tuned and make sure you have an active subscription so you don’t miss it, and all the great stuff we’ve got planned for the year.
Tester: Mike Cushionbury | Age: 45 | Height: 5’10″ | Weight: 155 lbs. | Inseam: 32”
Trek discontinued its 26-inch-wheeled Top Fuel cross-country line a few years back in favor of the successful Gary Fisher 29er Superfly FS. Now, as the Superfly grows long in the tooth, the Top Fuel is reborn for 2016. And it’s as modern and high-tech as a cross-country bike can be.
The frame is entirely carbon and, like the longer-travel Fuel EX, the 100 mm travel Top Fuel uses an EVO rocker link and Full Floater suspension design, which attaches the shock to two moving points. It also has Active Braking Pivot and the geometry-adjusting Mino Link. This changes head-tube angle by half a degree and raises or lowers the bottom bracket by 8 mm, going from a 70-degree head angle and 12.9- inch bottom bracket in low to 70.9 degrees and 13.4 inches in high. This brings the short-stravel bike in line with the technology Trek has been using for its long-travel bikes, raising the expectations of what a cross country bike is capable of.
The Top Fuel has Boost 148/110 hub spacing, Smart Wheel Size and Control Freak cable management. Boost, which was developed in part by Trek last year for its trail and all-mountain bikes, creates a stronger 29er wheel and frame. Boost also provides more tire clearance and gives Trek the opportunity to shorten the chainstays by 17 mm compared to the Superfly. With 148—which is as wide as you can go without affecting Q factor—width and bottom-bracket junction stiffness is maximized without making the bike wider at the cranks. By going 110 on the fork, the front end is equal to the rear in terms of strength, stability and the ability to run a bigger tire.
Trek believes that for cross-country applications a 29er wheel is absolutely the fastest, so you won’t be seeing multiple options; it’s 29 only, save for the 15.5-inch frame. Smart Wheel Sizing dictates that for this small of a frame, 27.5 is the answer to keep the bike fitting correctly, lower the front end and achieve no wheel/toe overlap. Frame sizes 17.5 inches and larger utilize 29-inch wheels.
Believe it or not, with all the various drivetrain, suspension and dropper-post options, there are 54 different ways to route cables, according to Trek. To make sure any and all work, Trek developed a very flexible system called Control Freak cable management that works with any combination of cables and electronic wires, including internally routed dropper posts. There are also small guides along the down tube and top tube to cleanly run your rear brake or dropper post externally if you choose.
Interestingly, Trek didn’t include a specific bottom-bracket or seat-tube internal option for a Shimano Di2 electronic battery; it’s meant to run sidesaddle to the water-bottle cage or for you to use a cable cinch in the down tube, meaning you’d have to take the fork out of the head tube and then lower the battery into the down tube from there. Also, the bottom bracket access port for internal cable installation is on the small side compared to other brands, making access a bit more challenging.
At a price of nine grand, the line-leading Top Fuel 9.9 SL has a complete package of top-shelf parts, albeit some surprising yet sound choices that stray from what you might expect. Shifting is handled by
the flawless Shimano XTR cable system, yet rather than a traditional Shimano double ring, the 9.9 SL goes 1×11 with Race Face’s ultralight Next carbon crank and direct-mount 32T chainring. And while accessories like the handlebar, seatpost, stem and saddle are all feathery Bontrager XXX carbon fiber, Trek felt that stiff, yet light, DT Swiss XMC 1200 carbon wheels were the best choice to match up with its Boost spacing. Suspension is controlled by a RockShox RS-1 Solo Air fork and Monarch XX shock with an XLoc Full Sprint hydraulic remote lockout that controls both the shock and fork.
All this adds up to a 29er full-suspension race bike that weighs less than 22 pounds. Trek claims a 17.5 inch frame with shock and all hardware weighs only 4.3 pounds.
I kept the bike at the lower geometry setting to get the slackest head angle possible, in line with what most modern-day cross-country bikes are using. This, along with the added efficiency and stability
from the wider Boost spacing, makes the Top Fuel an extremely capable cross-country racer as well as an exceptional do-it-all endurance machine within the realm of 100 mm travel. It’s fast, it’s light and it handles like a dream.
Besides handling and climbing prowess, the wider stance, along with the EVO rocker link and Full Floater suspension, makes you forget, more often than not, that it has only 100 mm of travel. Oddly, within the first week of riding, the RockShox Full Sprint hydraulic remote button fell off, nullifying the ability to lock out the rear shock (the fork lockout remained operational), and I never missed it. Trek’s suspension design produced efficient pedaling even on the smoothest of climbs. If given an option, I’d easily choose a manual lockout for the shock rather than the hydraulic combination controlling both the shock and fork, since I didn’t necessarily need one for the shock.
Another surprise? While the stock Bontrager XR1 Team Issue tires looked questionable for rough, rocky conditions, set up tubeless they performed exceptionally well, providing great traction in all conditions (I could successfully run less than 20 psi when it was wet and slick). They have also proven to be very durable.
With Boost spacing, a PF92 bottom bracket and hydraulic linked suspension, there’s very little part swapping to be had with the Trek Top Fuel 9.9 SL. When you consider the quality of all those parts, there’s nothing I’d change besides having the option for a manual-lockout shock.
The Top Fuel is one of the most high-tech, potent and fun short travel 29ers I’ve ever ridden; it’s also one of the lightest. It’s a full-on racer as well as a full-on fun-to-ride bike. There is one other thing I’d change, though: adding my own dropper seatpost. This little addition would help make the Top Fuel an even more aggressively awesome bike on the descents.
- Wheelbase: 43.7″, 53.6
- Top Tube: 23.8″
- Head Angle: 70°, 70.9°
- Seat-Tube Angle: 74º, 74.9
- Bottom Bracket: 12.9″, 13.4″
- Rear Center: 17″
- Weight: 21.3 lbs. w/o pedals
- Price: $9,000
- Sizes: 15.5″, 17.5″ (tested), 18.5″, 19.5″, 21.5″ (specs based on size tested)
- Online: trekbikes.com