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?
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.
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.
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