We’re just as guilty as others, testing expensive bikes is no doubt an enjoyable part of the job. However for many, these bikes are just unrealistic, and for those giving the sport a try, an entry-level bike is the perfect way to test the water. The Trek Mamba ($999) and Giant Talon 29er 0 ($1099) are two popular entry level 29er cross country hardtails and in a price point that starts to see proper off-road worthy components attached. So just how trail worthy are these budget steeds? Read on.
Looking over the bikes, they both feature neatly welded aluminum frames with the Giant featuring a far more shapely and angular design. Up front, both feature Rock Shox XC series coil and oil dampened forks, each with lockout but the Giant receives an upgraded handlebar mounted version. Trek makes use of a larger (and heavier) 32mm stanchion diameter to ensure greater stiffness. While we believe most won’t detect the difference, the 32mm fork keeps the front wheel tracking just that little straighter when the trail turns nasty. On the trail, these forks offered smooth control and bump absorption for our 70kg rider weight, however lacked the lower weight, quieter operation and greater rider weight flexibility of air sprung forks that’s seen in the next price range.
On the trail, The Talon’s short stem and top tube combination provided a playful and flickable feel in technical terrain, while the less playful Mamba felt more centered, stable and planted to the trail floor. It’s this characteristic that showed the Mamba’s true strength; it rides like a far more expensive 29er and there are few better handling than the Gary Fisher designed Trek’s. The Mamba’s roomier top tube had us feeling more comfortable on extended climbs, however it was its sheer weight that saw the Talon claw ahead when the trail pointed toward the clouds.
At this price, components are often the only thing consumers have to go by when in the store. The Giant no doubt has the better component spec, featuring a much loved brake system and more gears. On the trail, the Giant’s SRAM gears ran quieter with less chain slap against the frame while the Shimano brakes offered better braking performance when pulling the big wheels to a stop. Sadly, a common trait on Shimano brake equipped bikes under $2000 is the use of a cheaper resin pad only brake rotor, which limits the brakes upgrade potential when used in pad destroying wet conditions.
While the Shimano 9 speed gears on the Trek performed perfectly, they lacked the immediate shift quality and broader gear range of higher end bikes (and the Giant).
The Giant features faster rolling and lighter weight rubber which helped make it the faster bike, whereas the larger volume Bontrager tires on the Trek offered a marginally smoother ride with well rounded traction.
Both feature comparable cockpit components, however we preferred the Trek’s perfectly shaped wide flat bar as it allowed a lower bar height compared to the riser bar on the Giant. Out of the box, both feature extremely tall and upright handlebar positions. While this may feel great to a newer rider in the store, we’d strongly recommend having the handlebars lowered in order to get the most from either bikes climbing and cornering abilities. We lowered each bikes handlebar approximately 7cm from the stock heights in order to have the bikes feel right for us.
Nicely padded and comfortable saddles feature on both, though the Trek’s grips were too firm for our liking and we’d suggest making this low cost swap early on.
On paper, the Giant Talon seems the better choice; it’s a kilo lighter, holds a higher end spec and looks flashier. However, with over a decade of experience in perfecting the use of the 29er wheel, the Trek Mamba sure has a lot to offer in the handling department. In the end, there just isn’t a clear-cut winner and as we now know for a fact; either one would provide the desired smile.