Having ridden and owned a lot of bikes, not to mention the constant tech talk and smack talking I partake in with various industry friends it isn’t surprising to me when friends ask my opinion on what their next ride should be. The good news is that there are a lot of great bikes made today, and that at this juncture, it tends to be more about matching the style and preferences of the rider to the bike with the compatible personality. I’m always happy to offer my two cents-
Our friend Jaime recently dropped me a line:
hi jason- i know you’ve ridden a ton of bikes and am looking for your opinion or any info you can offer. i’m 5’6 about 190lbs and am looking for a 6in trail/am/lt freeride bike. i currently own rocky’s (element, switch SL, RMX pro) i’ve narrowed it down to a few but would like to see what you have to say. i rode the Blur LT and liked it but am afraid it might be more of a trail bike (could i run a fox 36 on it?), the giant reign xo, or the intense tracer (i think you have one). i was just at fat tire farm in portland and Tim said he thought the BlurLT was better than the tracer, and had a stiffer rear end, what do you think? i’m also interested in the trek remedy and scratch? have u ridden the scratch? i dont really like the build kit on the remedy, can you buy frame only? any info you have to offer would be great. or are there any bikes i should be looking at that i’m not?
The funny thing is that I have recently gone through this process myself recently, and honestly, for an enthusiast like myself, this is actually a difficult question to answer. For me, it came down to trying to determine exactly what I wanted out of my ride, how I wanted to ride it, and where I was going to ride it. The first question to ask one’s self would be, “Do you want a long travel trail bike, or an all mountain bike?”
Long Travel Trail
The differences between the two are considerably more than half an inch of travel. Manufacturers design long travel trail bikes to go up hill and down with the intention of being a good all around performer. When someone wants to buy a bike to go mountain biking, this is the type of bike the shops will point you to. It’s the category that covers the bases for most riders- if you want a bike to ride some trails, and want to be able to able to rock anywhere you ride, this is the bike for you. Especially if you do a lot of climbing. Trail bikes are more capable than ever these days, and are quite shreddable in most of your average trail conditions. If you are able to keep a number of bikes in the quiver, it is sweet to have a long travel trail bike in the quiver for long days in the saddle- this is the bike for epic rides with a duration over the 3hour mark. You, know the kind of ride where you climb up and down mountains, where everyone on the ride bonks. Long travel trail bikes typically weigh in at several pounds lighter than the typical all mountain steed. Average weights are come in at 26-29lbs or so, with 68-69 degree head angles.
The all mountain category is aimed more at the guy that wants to buy one bike that can handle a little of anything- trail riding, jumps, drops, visits to the bike park, etc. If you are only going to own one bike, this is the category for you. All mountain bikes will climb just fine, but you won’t be beating the guys on the lighter XC or trail bikes unless you are a climbing machine that will destroy all regardless of what you are on.
Head angles are relaxed another degree or so which improve downhill handling, but make steep climbs a challenge- of course this is also dependent on your build. I differentiate my trail bike from my all mountain bike by running a slightly longer stem (75 vs 50mm), slightly narrower bars (28″ vs 29″), bigger, knobbier tires (2.35 front and rear- I still run a bigger, but fast rolling tire on the rear of the trail bike). I also run lighter wheels and components on my trail bike than my all mountain bike.
If you like riding super tech and gnar trails though, and boost every kicker on the trail you’re probably an all mountain guy. Especially if you’re running a 50mm stem, platform pedals, and 5.10 shoes- this is definitely you, and you know it. If you are a trail rider in an area with a lot of really gnar descents, or love banging through rock gardens at speed, you might look at stepping to this category as well. All mountain bikes/ riders often run a dual ring with a bash guard for playing on trail side features. Average weights range from 29-35lbs or so, with a 67 degree head angle.
Taking a look at the bikes Jaime was looking at, I’m guessing that he’s on the market for an all mountain bike- the fact he wants to run a 36 on it is the dead give away. While we’ve seen a lot of guys running 6″ forks on trail bikes, it isn’t the fork the bikes are designed for. The Blur LT is a solid contender for the long travel trail bike catagory, and is definitely a capable steed, but the Nomad is designed for use with the 6″ Fox 36 line of forks.
Between the two Santa Cruz models, I would say the Nomad would be a better match for Jaime. The current and new Nomad is refined from the older model, and loses some of the characteristics that made the old one so capable on burlier downhills, but lets it skirt closer to the Trail Category. To the chagrin of many riders fond of the older model, it also takes it a bit away from the All Mountain/ Freeride lite category. Yes, it does get more complicated.
The Intense Tracer VPP
As mentioned, I currently own an Intense Tracer, and while it is a sweet ride, it definitely falls into the long travel trail bike- as the manufacturer intended. Like the Nomad, it skirts the boundaries set on it. Is it all mountain? Not quite. I have been disappointed in it as a replacement for the Nomad- it doesn’t quite measure up. It it’s stock configuration, it is much more comparable to next model in the Santa Cruz line, the Blur LT. Once I stopped trying to ride it like an all mountain bike, put clip-in pedals, a longer 70mm stem, and a light weight parts build on it, I’ve been really happy with the bike’s performance. Especially in the soft loamy soil of the coast of the Pacific Northwest, where there aren’t as many rocky trails. Riding an efficient pedaling lightweight bike makes a long day more enjoyable, and leaves me with a bit of energy at the end of the day. Could it work as an all mountain bike? Possibly, depending on what you want out of your riding experience. A coil rear shock with the more progressive rate and an external lower headset bearing (the additional height of the lower cup would relax the head angle, taking it closer to the 67 degree head angle found on most all mountain rides) would even put it in close to the Nomad category, but won’t be able to match the stiffness in the rear.
The VPP2 adjustable travel (from 5.5″ to 6″) rear end makes this frame a good option for the trail rider that wants a nice high end boutique frame that can be built up fairly light, but with a change of front fork can transform his ride’s personality. With a 1.5″ headtube, the Tracer is built to go both ways.
One thing to consider with VPP bikes is that they pedal really well. In comparing a 6″ travel VPP bike with an FSR or ABP equiped bike like the Specialized Enduro, or the Trek Remedy, the VPP bike is going to leave you with legs that feel a bit more fresh at the end of a long ride. Where the FSR and ABP excel is in burlier terrain- these bikes takes harder hits and square edged bumps considerable better. ABP and FSR are also considerably more forgiving when it comes to shock set up as well. The air pressure in the Fox Float rear shock has to be close to spot on when riding with the Tracer, or put bluntly, the suspension feels like crap. This means if you have a small hydration pack and you switch to a large fully loaded one, you’ll need to adjust the pressure in the rear spring, as the additional weight will likely take you out of the sweet spot in the suspension and overwhelm it. The Tracer also comes stock with a XV or high volume air can that gives a very linear compression ratio that feels great on trail rides in the loam, but if you are barreling down the Porcupine Rim Trail at speed, you’ll be bottoming out quite a bit. (although I definitely ripped down the trail regardless, braaaap, braaap.)
My personal solution to Jaime’s question has been to have both a trail bike and an all mountain bike. It allows me to have two completely different builds and cockpit set ups for different trail experiences. I have a Trek Remedy for my all mountain machine- this is the bike I would bring on a road trip if I can only bring one bike, and I want to be able to handle as many different types of riding and terrain possible. It feels like a mini version of the Session 88, and while it isn’t a rocket up the hill, it gets it done. It’s the bike I ride when I have to pedal to the top of the DH runs, and I don’t want to have to get off and push. More importantly, I feel like I can open it up on the downhill sections and shred, especially compared to the Tracer. Since I also currently have the Tracer in my stable for the XC rides, I would ideally prefer the new Scratch from Trek. Similar to the Remedy, it basically is beefed up and a bit more DH- since I have lightweight dual ply tires on my Remedy, it would be a better and more suitable frame for me. Fortunately, Trek has one of the best warranties in the business, so it is comforting to know they have my back. However warranties don’t do much for dings, which is something to be careful of with the Remedy. The highly optimized thin wall tubes are much more prone to dings than the Scratch would be. My Session already has a small ding in the down tube.
As for the Giant Reign, I haven’t spent much time on them, (the last Giant I’ve extensively ridden is an 2001 AC-1, which I still own) but everyone I know that has one is very happy on them, and like the big players, they have the right numbers and the warranty to back them up. The basic Reign is a long travel trail model, so I would look at the Reign X model with the 36 spec’d.
At this point, without talking to Jaime more I would suggest checking out the Nomad, the Remedy/or Scratch, or the Reign X. All great choices, and well matched to the 36 fork he plans to run. Other notable contenders would be Pivot’s Firebird or the new 6″ travel Turner that has yet to be released. Evil’s new 6″ model will probably be another one to add to the list as well. He’ll just need to decided if he wants a better climber, or descender. Unfortunately, no “one” bike does it all quite yet.
I would avoid any Specialized bikes unless they have Fox or Rock Shox suspension- their house brand suspension is a dog- I learned that the hard way when I tried an Enduro SL last year. The new Enduros look to be a big improvement though- they might be on to something in another season or so of refinement. With a completely new model being released every model year, I would hold off from investing in a bike from the big S until they get it figured out.
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