Show­down in San Remo

Af­ter months of test­ing, just a hand­ful of trail bikes were left in the run­ning – but which would come out on top?

Cycling Plus (Malaysia) - - BIKE OF THE YEAR 2018 -

ne thing this year’s test­ing made clear is that the term ‘trail bike’ en­com­passes a very wide spec­trum of bikes. Vary­ing from ma­chines that are only a few mil­lime­tres, grams and de­grees away from what you might find on an XC race course, to bikes that, with a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions, wouldn’t look out of place on an en­duro start line, they re­ally can do it all. What sets them apart is that trail bikes should be fun. They should make you want to ride, and then go for an­other lap just as the sun is go­ing down and you re­ally should be get­ting back for din­ner.

The good news is that there are no bad bikes in our top 10. Some may be bet­ter tech­ni­cally, some may be bet­ter priced, but they’re all de­cent bikes that’ll make the right rider happy. Which made it very dif­fi­cult when it came to load­ing up our hire van for the trip to San Remo. There was only room for our top five bikes, so we had to ce­ment our short­list. Four were

Oeasy choices, but the fifth was a tough de­ci­sion. Once out there, it was a race to fi­nalise the top three. Again, bikes pushed their way in and dropped out, as yet more rid­ers slung a leg over their top tubes. In the end, it was the ma­chines that re­ally caught our at­ten­tion and made us want to shred non-stop that made the fi­nal cut.

PEDALLING PROW­ESS

The Trek Fuel EX 8 29 is a bike with a lin­eage go­ing back to cross-coun­try rac­ing. While this DNA shines through, it’s a bona fide trail bike, without the draw­backs of a pure­bred race ma­chine. It’s def­i­nitely the best-pedalling bike of our top three, putting big days in the moun­tains within reach – or even flat-out sprints on the XC race course. There’s lit­tle in the com­po­nent pack­age that would pre­vent that, too – the Bon­trager wheels don’t carry any ex­cess weight and the SRAM GX Ea­gle driv­e­train has all the range you need.

The way that the Fox shock ‘floats’ be­tween the swingarm and link­age, com­bined with the place­ment of the rear pivot con­cen­tric with the wheel axle, gives a smooth, al­most bot­tom­less feel­ing to the sus­pen­sion. That could mean a slug­gish ride, but not here, thanks to the ‘Re:ak­tiv’ plat­form of the rear shock, which keeps power trans­fer ef­fi­cient. Some testers felt there was a slight ‘trap­door’ feel­ing when the pedal plat­form gave way to the shock’s mid stroke. It’s also a lit­tle happy to get through its travel on the rough­est of tracks. But these are small quib­bles. Should you wish to get even more grip out of the bike, you can bolt in 650b+ wheels and tyres, us­ing the ‘Mino Link’ chip on the rocker link to main­tain the cor­rect ge­om­e­try.

While the Trek climbs with con­fi­dence, nei­ther the Norco Sight A2 29 nor the YT Jeffsy 29 CF shirk their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties when the trail heads up­wards. The Norco is one of the heav­i­est trail bikes on test, com­ing in just shy of 15kg, but its four-bar back end helps iso­late the sus­pen­sion

from pedal in­puts enough that the climbs roll by just fine, pro­vided you don’t get too spir­ited. Like­wise, the Jeffsy has draggy tyres, but put it at the bot­tom of a steep tech­ni­cal as­cent and you’ll be thank­ful for the soft com­pound as you winch your way up, util­is­ing the 46t largest sprocket of the (slightly creaky) e*thir­teen cas­sette.

DOWN TIME

While the weight of the Sight is a dis­ad­van­tage on the climbs, it doesn’t mat­ter on the way back down, where its smooth, pro­gres­sive sus­pen­sion keeps it feel­ing com­posed in even the chop­pi­est of con­di­tions. When we headed over to San Ro­molo’s down­hill track, the Trek felt a touch out of its depth and the Jeffsy, though poppy and fun to ride, was a bit slappy on the big­ger hits. In con­trast, the Sight smoothed the way, let­ting us carry far more speed than would have been ad­vis­able on some of the other bikes.

Yes, the link­age and frame de­sign may look a lit­tle less svelte, with big welds and ob­vi­ous brac­ing, but there’s a sure­foot­ed­ness to the Norco that makes it the most con­fi­dent bike here when the go­ing gets tough. There’s no doubt that the sus­pen­sion per­for­mance is helped by the kit plugged into the frame. Al­though it’s the sec­ond­cheap­est bike on test, you still get a Rock­shox Pike con­trol­ling the front end, a drop­per post (al­beit a bud­get Tranzx model) and dual-com­pound 2.3in Maxxis Min­ion tyres mounted on wide WTB rims.

The Sight may have ex­celled on the down­hill track, but it’s not the only bike here that wants to go fast. If you like your trails twisty and fast-rolling, the race-bred Fuel EX is the per­fect match. There’s no wal­low through the frame, like you get on the Norco when ac­cel­er­at­ing on the flat af­ter a turn. It’s a tight, taut com­plete pack­age that feels like it just wants to ac­cel­er­ate all the time.

With the plat­form of the shock help­ing you to drive for­ward, the Fox Rhythm fork up front has to keep pace. While we’d stick in a cou­ple of vol­ume spac­ers to add

a lit­tle end-stroke pro­gres­sion, the base-model Fox fork ac­tu­ally feels su­per-sup­ple. On all but the most chal­leng­ing ter­rain, the smooth, con­trolled ride keeps the front end go­ing where you want it to. On big­ger stuff, its lin­ear stroke leads to more bot­tom-outs than with other forks here and its 34mm stan­chions don’t give it the same con­fi­dence-in­spir­ing stiff­ness as the Rock­shox Pikes on the Norco and Jeffsy, but it’s still a good match for the Fuel EX’S flat-out na­ture.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Even though the Norco in­spired con­fi­dence on the steep, rough trails of San Remo and the Trek felt great on the fast-rolling trails here in the UK, the YT was still the bike

that got pulled out of the garage most of­ten,at home and in Italy. Its head an­gle isn’t su­per-slack, at 67 de­grees, and its reach is pos­i­tively short – 445mm on the large size – but that never seemed to mat­ter when we slung a leg over it. The com­bi­na­tion of sus­pen­sion that re­ally lets you load the bike into corners and pop over roots, a su­per-grippy e*thir­teen front tyre and a low-slung BB makes up for the Jeffsy’s lack of length.

Yes, a longer and slacker bike would have felt more ca­pa­ble on the gnarled-up Ital­ian trails where the Norco ex­celled, but that sort of rid­ing re­quires a balls-out at­ti­tude that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily suit the YT’S char­ac­ter. While the Sight’s sus­pen­sion seems to flat­ten ev­ery­thing by 10 per cent, the Jeffsy’s tells it how it is. That means it re­quires a lit­tle more fi­nesse and fore­thought to get it down the trail as fast as the Norco. But we weren’t look­ing for the best de­scen­der, we were look­ing for the best all-rounder – and the YT is the real em­bod­i­ment of a do-it-all trail bike.

It’s OK at climb­ing, doesn’t feel slow on the flat and through the turns, and can han­dle big de­scents. Sit­ting in the mid­dle ground be­tween the Trek and Norco, it’s pretty much ideal for the ma­jor­ity of UK rid­ing. It’s also hi­lar­i­ous to ride, en­cour­ag­ing you to pop off that root, try to gap the rocks in the way and Scandi flick around the up­com­ing cor­ner. With a com­po­nent pack­age that can just about cope when things in­evitably get out of shape, you’re sure to have a blast each and ev­ery time you ride it. But has it done enough to take our Trail Bike of the Year ti­tle…

Far left Trek’s ‘Full Floater’ de­sign sees the rear shock ‘float’ be­tween the swingarm and rocker link, in­stead of be­ing at­tached to the main­frame at one end

Near left The ‘Knock Block’ head­set and frame insert are de­signed to stop the fork dam­ag­ing the straight (and there­fore stiffer) down tube in the event of a crash

Above The cas­sette may be 11-speed Shi­mano rather than 12-speed SRAM Ea­gle but the 46t largest sprocket still helps to give a good gear range

Right Brac­ing the rocker link im­proves stiff­ness, but it’s not aes­thet­i­cally sub­tle

Near right YT’S di­rect-sales model means top branded kit from the likes of SRAM and Race Face

Right Neat de­tail­ing on the Jeffsy frame com­pletes the pack­age

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