2019 has been an absolutely mahoosif year, and in more ways than one. Having relocated back to Australia right at the end of 2018, the first few months of the year for my wife and I were spent settling back into our hometown of Bendigo. It didn’t take long though, and we’ve been absolutely loving it. Those cold, dark and wet winters in the Grim North of the UK seem a little bit like a weird dream now.
As well as changing hemispheres, I also changed jobs. I finished up as the Tech Editor of Singletrack back in June, and shortly afterwards I began my role as Flow’s News & Tech Editor. To say I’m still frothing on the new position would be a gross understatement. I’ve been a big fan of Flow since the start back in 2012, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside the very talented (and very dashing) Mick Ross as the lesser half of the team. It’s been an awesome six months so far, and I am stoked to see what 2020 brings!
My riding has also changed considerably, with the fast, dusty and very rocky trails surrounding Bendigo requiring a different style of bike (and tyres) to what I’d gotten used to from living in the UK. No more Maxxis Shortys and waterproof trousers required thankyouverymuch.
I’ve been getting back into XC racing, at least on a social level, largely thanks to the regular Tuesday night summer races hosted by the Bendigo MTB Club. Consequently, as you’ll see below, I’ve developed a real appetite for lightweight full-suss XC race bikes and short-travel trail rippers.
However, I also see this as being down to a maturing XC market.
Many of the new bikes that have come out over the past year are really quite impressive, and vastly more capable than what we’ve been used to seeing from short-travel bikes in the past. More XC bikes are coming with dropper posts and decent-width handlebars, and stems over 100mm are thankfully becoming a distant memory. Suspension continues to get smoother and more responsive, as riders and bike designers come to the realisation that it is in fact, actually A Good Thing™.
If you’ve found your riding experience has been somewhat ‘sanitised’ by modern trail and enduro bikes, then an XC or short-travel trail bike could be exactly what you need to inject a bit more excitement back into your riding. You might be surprised at how good they’ve gotten.
So without further ado, allow me to get stuck into my Top 10 highlights reel. In no particular order, here are some of the best bikes and gear I’ve ridden this year.
1. Pivot Mach 4 SL
2019 saw Arizona-based brand Pivot Cycles roll out its brand new flagship XC race bike – the Mach 4 SL. Featuring a totally new carbon fibre chassis, the Mach 4 SL saw Pivot return to a less swoopy (and more visually-appealing) frame design, along with a vertically-mounted shock and a compact dw-link suspension design. Rolling exclusively on 29in wheels with clearance for a water bottle in the front triangle (even the XS size), the Mach 4 SL produces 100mm of rear wheel travel and can run a 100-120mm travel fork, depending on your flavour.
During a trip over to the US back in May, I had the pleasure of visiting Fruita and Grand Junction in Colorado for the Pivot Mach 4 SL launch. We had two days of solid riding aboard the new bike, before joining a few hundred other riders in the Grand Junction Off-Road race for the third day of the launch. I entered the 40-mile category, and ended up having one of the most epic days out on a mountain bike I can remember. The event was long and tough physically, but the trails and scenery were insane. An experience I’ll never forget and a big highlight of the year for me.
And the Mach 4 SL is a beaut of a bike. It’s got that dw-link zip and stability to it, but it also manages its 100mm of travel exceptionally well. The geometry with the 120mm Fox 34 Step-Cast fork is absolutely spot on for hair-raising XC action too, and Pivot have complemented the bike well with a nice low-rise handlebar and dropper posts on most models. Along with the irresistibly effective Fox Live Valve suspension system, this is one seriously refined XC bike.
Wanna know more? Take a look at Chris’ review of the Pivot Mach 4 SL after he raced it at the 2019 Port to Port.
2. Merida One-Twenty
Another bike that stood out to me this year was the Merida One-Twenty; the brand’s speedy 130/120mm travel trail bike. Alongside the Yetis’s and Santa Cruz’ of the world, Merida isn’t exactly an attention-seeking name, but it is producing some red-hot mountain bikes at the moment, particularly of the full suspension variety. The One-Twenty is one such bike.
Why is it so good? It seems to do a lot of things really well. It’s got a stiff, responsive frameset that features tidy internal cable routing and well-finished pivot hardware. The Float Link suspension design really does float over the chatter, though it has that addictive single-pivot-sling out of the corners when you step on the gas. Geometry is spot-on too, contemporary without being outrageously long. ‘Balanced’ is how I’d describe the overall ride quality.
On the carbon fibre One-Twenty 8000 model shown here, Merida has paid attention to the needs of modern trail riders by spec’ing a stout 130mm travel Pike, a burly Maxxis Minion DHR II front tyre, SRAM Code RSC brakes and a 150mm stroke dropper post. It’s got just the right amount of muscle without being over-equipped. As a result, it’s still speedy and perky, while also being a load of fun to let rip on the descents.
Check out the full review here.
3. Specialized Epic S-Works Hardtail
The hardtail XC market doesn’t dominate these days like it once did, but there are some cracker bikes coming out lately that are showing just how advanced carbon fibre production has gotten of late. Improvements to geometry and compatibility with dropper posts are also bolstering their descending ability, with less life-fearing implications for the pilot.
The S-Works Epic is one superb example of the new-school race hardtail. For a start, it is bonkers light. With renowned carbon wizard Peter Denk at the helm of the engineering team, the new Epic HT blew minds when it was released to the public with its jaw-dropping frame weight of just 775g. Hooly-dooly! It isn’t all about the weight though. It moves to a dropper-ready 30.9mm diameter seat tube, a welcome move for a hardtail. Specialized has also modernised the Epic’s geometry, with the new frame growing considerably longer and slacker than the bike before it, which makes the weight reduction all the more impressive.
Earlier this year I was invited out to Lake Tahoe in the US for a Specialized press launch, where we were introduced to the new 2020 Kenevo, Enduro and Epic models.
I spent a day riding around on the flagship S-Works Epic HT, which at just 8.94kg (confirmed) is of course insanely lightweight and also insanely fast up the hills. What I was most impressed with though, was just how un-skitterish it was on the descents. Specialized has moved to a reduced offset fork and a 68.5° head angle, and that’s made the front of the Epic a gazillion times more stable. With the slender seatstays and curved seat tube, plus the 2.3in tyres front and rear, it proved to be a surprisingly comfortable and composed experience.
If I was chasing the absolute lightest race bike possible without giving up too much in the comfort and capability stakes, a new Epic with a dropper post fitted would be at the top of the list. Check out the full story on the 2020 Specialized Epic HT here.
4. Canyon Lux
Back to home turf, and I’ve been loving the Canyon Lux we received a couple of months ago for testing. The bike I’ve been razzing about on is the Goldilocks model, the Lux CF SL 8.0, which features a full carbon fibre frameset, a RockShox SID fork, SRAM X01 drivetrain and carbon Reynolds wheels. It’s a belter of a package for the money.
Being the ‘SL’ model, its frame is about 200g heavier than the flagship SLX frame, and it also comes with a 110mm travel fork, which kicks back the angles a touch. Not much though, this is still pretty classical when it comes to geometry.
Much like the Merida One-Twenty, the Canyon Lux impressed with its ability to do a lot of things really well. At 11.37kg, it’s quite light for a dropper post-equipped bike at this price point. It’s got a firm, efficient feel to its pedalling performance, and the handling is sharp and direct. The frame will take two water bottles inside the front triangle, and there’s a distinct lack of proprietary bits, which will please privateer riders who need a low-fuss XC race rig for high-mileage riding.
It isn’t the plushest bike though, and there were also a couple of gripes I had with the spec. Check out the full review of the 2020 Canyon Lux here.
5. Santa Cruz Blur CC
With test bikes flowing in and out over the past year, the one loyal companion who has stuck with me throughout has been this Santa Cruz Blur. Originally sent out by Santa Cruz as a standalone frameset, the Blur has been built up as a platform for testing numerous components. I also used it to conduct a huge fork offset feature that I wrote earlier this year for Singletrack, which ended up being quite an enlightening (if very nerdy) experience.
To begin with, I had it setup as a lightweight trail pocket rocket with a 120mm travel Fox 34 Step-Cast fork, 2.3in tyres, wide bars, a short stem and a 150mm stroke dropper post. It was an absolute riot to ride, and I was consistently blown away as to how much I could get away with given it only has 100mm of rear travel. That tiny 38mm stroke shock has worked mighty hard!
I’ve steadily moved the Blur back towards its XC racing roots, with a reduction in fork travel and a lighter weight build kit that’s seen it drop down to just 10.41kg. Build highlights include the ultra-trick Syncros Fraser iC SL cockpit (that I just finished testing here), the beautifully machined BikeYoke Divine SL dropper post, and a Specialized S-Works Power saddle. I’ve also been testing a Pirelli Scorpion tyre combo on the Blur (see the detail-rich first look story on these here), and so far I’ve been really impressed with their versatility and well-damped ride quality.
As racy as it may now look, it’s still a barrel-load of laughs to ride, with the smooth VPP2 suspension design scrubbing away chatter very effectively. It’s decently efficient, certainly enough for me to have ditched the remote lockout on the shock, which means I can run a dropper post remote more easily under the bar. Along with the one-piece bar & stem, the cockpit is also a lot cleaner without the extra lockout cables. The geometry is killer too, with the reduced-offset fork and the roomy front centre giving it good stability on the descents. Indeed upon reflection, I don’t reckon I’ve ridden an XC bike that’s been as much of a hoot as this.
6. 2020 Fox 32 Step-Cast Fork
Weighing in at just 1406g (cut steerer tube, starnut installed), the 32 Step-Cast fork is Fox’ premium lightweight XC fork. Unlike the regular 32 Float, the chassis on the 32 SC fork is optimised around 100mm of travel, and everything from the magnesium Step-Cast lowers, to the Kashima-coated 32mm alloy stanchions, to the EVOL air spring and FIT4 damper has been trimmed of every excess gram possible.
Interestingly, it is actually heavier than last year’s version by about 40 grams. This weight difference is entirely located within the crown, which has been beefed up considerably to help reduce the flex and twang that the 32 SC fork can exhibit when being pushed hard.
I’ll have a detailed long term review coming soon on the 32 SC, but I can confirm that it is indeed stiffer than the pre-2020 version. It’s also supremely supple, which was particularly noticeable when I fitted it to the front of the Canyon Lux test bike in place of the stock RockShox SID fork.
The model I’ve been testing is the top-banger Factory Series version, which comes fitted with the FIT4 damper and Kashima-coated stanchions. Fox also offers this fork in an all-black Performance Series version, which is a good few hundred dollars cheaper thanks to its more basic GRIP damper, and there are also remote lockout options available too.
7. Hunt Race XC Wide Wheels
Carbon wheelsets seem to get all the attention these days, but I’m not convinced that they’re always the best solution for every rider. While carbon rims are often lighter and stiffer than their alloy counterparts, I’ve ridden plenty of carbon wheels that have been too stiff, which results in more fatigue and a less forgiving ride quality when things get rough.
A few months ago, I got my hands on a lightweight alloy wheelset from UK brand Hunt Bike Wheels. Using high quality 6069-T6 alloy rims, straight-pull hubs and triple-butted Pillar PSR spokes, the Race XC Wide wheelset tips the scales at a lick over 1500g, which is mighty impressive given the all-metal construction.
Combined with a taut build, the low rotational weight makes them a fast-accelerating wheelset that is very easy to get up to speed. They aren’t as razor-sharp in their handling as a comparable carbon wheelset, which I discovered during back-to-back testing. However, they are noticeably smoother and more comfortable to ride, which was particularly appreciated on a firm XC bike.
The fact that these wheels come in at under a grand makes them terrific value for money, and almost without equal relative to the other big-name brands like Stan’s NoTubes, DT Swiss and Mavic. Check out the full review of the Hunt Race XC Wide wheels here.
8. Shimano SLX M7100
Easily one of the biggest news stories of 2019 was the announcement of Shimano’s new second-tier mountain bike groupset; Deore XT M8100. Heralding the arrival of 12-speed technology to the XT level, this new groupset has packed in almost all of the same performance and functionality as XTR M9100, albeit for a lot less money.
At the same time as the launch of XT M8100, Shimano also introduced SLX M7100. It didn’t get nearly as much attention in the media though, which we think is a real shame. Because at 1/3rd of the price of XTR, the new SLX groupset is outstandingly good value for money, particularly given its super slick performance.
I went in-depth into the new SLX M7100 groupset a couple of months ago, and in that article you’ll find full pricing and confirmed weights for the 1×12 drivetrain and 4-piston enduro disc brake system. I’ve been riding the crap out of it since then, and quite frankly, have been blown away with just how little difference in shift quality there is between SLX and XTR. The 4-piston brakes are also very good, with noticeably more modulation and power than the 2-piston versions.
I recently published a feature evaluating the performance differences between Shimano SLX M7100 and SRAM GX Eagle. To see who won our reasonably-priced 1×12 drivetrain battle, check out the full feature here.
9. Ergon SM Pro Saddle
Mountain bike saddles are honestly pretty boring, but, whether we like or not, they’re a pretty vital component. It’s also a component that can make-or-break the whole riding experience for even the most tolerant and experience of riders. For that reason, it’s worth spending the time to get the right saddle for you. Because if it’s comfortable, you’ll spend less time thinking about your sore arse and more time focussing on braaping down the trail instead.
Out of all the saddles I’ve ridden this year, the Ergon SM Pro has by far been the most comfortable. The first model from the German brand to feature a cutout, the SM Pro is a mountain bike specific saddle (the SR Pro is the road version). The cutout and central channel are designed to provide pressure relief on your sensitive bits, but the cutout isn’t so big as to cause excessive flex and distortion through the shell when loaded up.
The SM Pro has a fairly flat profile overall, which I really like in a bike saddle, and it has a gentle scoop at the tail that helps to support your sit bones during hard pedalling efforts. Comfort and stability are provided by Ergon’s own AirCell padding, which is complemented with specific OrthoCell inlays around the central seating area. As a lighter and more durable alternative to gel pads, OrthoCell gives good squish without deforming over time.
There are two widths available too: S/M (9-12cm sit bone width), and M/L (12-16cm sit bone width). To work out your sit bone width, plonk your behind on a piece of cardboard and then measure the distance between the two circular impressions left behind by your…behind. And et voila – your sit bone width!
I’ve been running the SM size all year, and it’s a saddle that has quickly replaced the overly narrow and slopey-shaped stock saddles that have come on various test bikes I’ve ridden throughout 2019. Highly recommended if you’re on the lookout for a comfy perch.
10. Bontrager XR4 Team Issue Tyres
Bontrager’s mountain bike tyres tend to be a bit of a sleeper product alongside more popular brands such as Maxxis, Schwalbe and Continental. That’s a bummer, because the brand offers some really good rubber that has impressed us over a number of years now. The XR3 and XR4 tyres are particular favourites of ours, and relative to those aforementioned brands, they’re also priced favourably.
It wasn’t until this year that I’d had a go on the huge 2.6in wide version of the XR4 Team Issue tyre though. Using the same blocky tread pattern as the narrower XR4 and SE4 tyres that I’ve used previously, the 29×2.6in version blows things up a notch to produce a seriously beefy looking tyre that comes stock on the 2020 Trek Fuel EX we’ve currently got on test.
With all that extra meat, they aren’t the lightest tyres out there. Our test tyres weighed in at 916g and 924g, which to be fair, is actually pretty good given their voluminous size and aggressive tread design. The increased surface area does slow them down a bit, which is noticeable compared to the 2.4in wide versions. Get them rolling into the rough stuff though, and holy cow do these things grip!
The XR4 tread pattern is already well proven, and we’ve grown fond of its versatility across a wide range of riding conditions. Dry, loose, rocky, loamy, wet, muddy – the XR4 is well up for it all, save for the gloopiest of conditions. The extra width of these 2.6in versions takes that traction to the next level, and cornering bite is some of the best I’ve experienced. I’d still look at going to an XR5 on the front for really rough and loose enduro-type trails, but for everything else, the XR4 is a do-it-all specialist.
I’ve since fitted these tyres to our Curve Downrock test bike – a titanium trail hardtail that has benefitted well from these plump 2.6in wide tyres. Assuming your bike will take them, and you can live with the increased rolling resistance, then I can highly recommend the XR4s.
Mo’ Flow Please!
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