22 bikes, 14 riders, three days–welcome to Mtbr’s first ever Enduro Compare-O

27.5 29er Enduro Compare-O 2014

This spin up Sulfur Springs Road was the first of dozens for the Mtbr Enduro Compare-O test crew. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

This article is part of the Mtbr’s Enduro Compare-O. See all the stories in this special section here–https://reviews.mtbr.com/category/enduro-compare-o-2014

‏Buzzwords are a funny thing. When amplified and repeated enough, they have a way of moving from stylish jargon to inescapable, played-out slang. And while words such as “enduro” may indeed become tired and clichéd, they usually contain some grain of truth…some reflection of the Zeitgeist they came to represent.

‏So while we debated calling our comparative bike test a good number of things that included “trail bike,” “all-mountain,” “long-travel,” and the like, we ultimately settled on the Enduro Compare-O because “enduro” captured the moment and “compare-o” made us laugh…and we like the whole awesome bikes/let’s laugh/pass me a beer thing.

‏We’ll undoubtedly get comments telling us enduro is a form of racing and not a style of bicycle–and in the strictest sense that’s true. But upon describing enduro to the uninitiated, they usually say something like “I do that, that’s mountain biking.” Which is exactly our point. Whether or not you ever zip-tie a number plate on, you’re already racing an enduro–with your riding buddies, against some anons in the Stravasphere, or with yourself. So embrace the baby blue (Pantone 801, if you’re keeping score at home), clip-in (if that’s how you roll), and join us for the ride. We have much to show you, and you’re not going to want to miss out.

Yeti was enduro blue before enduro blue existed. Actually, that’s desert turquoise…never mind. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

The Method to Our Bicycle Madness

‏So how do you fairly evaluate 22 different bicycles, some with divergent intents and design objectives, in a short amount of time with a smattering of riders each with their own biases?

‏It’s a tall order, but we came up with a set of criteria, had people ride as many bikes as they could and assigned five editors to ultimately compile and make sense of the data. And by data we mean commentary on quantifiable things such as weight, spec, and measurements. But more so on the perceptions of how a bike climbs, corners and descends. How it handles small bumps and big hits and g-outs. The kind of confidence a bike inspires, or not.

I’ll take one of each please. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏As you’ll see the rules of “bench racing”—the practice of looking at specs on a page and estimating performance–doesn’t really apply anymore. We rode bikes with 120mm of travel that felt plush, as well as bigger bikes that cornered like slot cars–the opposite of what one would expect. And wheel sizes–oy vey–that debate is far from over, and nowhere near clear cut.

‏We concentrated on what we believe to be the performance characteristics of a bike’s frame, but as you’ll read, it’s impossible to ignore how parts selection–suspension, tires, drivetrain, etc.–contributes to the overall feel. While we were tempted to come up with a stock spec to put on every frame, ultimately we decided that in the real world, most people buy complete bikes and that’s how we should test them. In a few instances, we swapped parts to see what would happen, but with a couple exceptions this was just exploratory research or because something got broken.

Soquel Demonstration State Forest-Tested

‏When some people hear “demo” they think “demonstration,” others think “demolition.” Both are possibilities at our test track, the Soquel Demonstration State Forest located near Mtbr’s San Francisco Bay Area headquarters.

‏Demo Forest, as it’s known locally, features one of the area’s best and most popular trail systems, and is a real-world test bed for local companies such as Fox, Specialized, Santa Cruz and Ibis, all of whom spend time there logging laps and testing prototypes. It’s also home to the Santa Cruz Super Enduro, a single-day, multi-stage enduro race.

‏‏Lauren Gregg looks cool and controlled putting a bike through its paces on Sawpit Trail at Soquel Demonstration State Forest. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏Its combination of technical terrain, respectable vertical and relative accessibility–with a little help from our friends at the forest office–made for what we think is a fair evaluation venue. We used Demo’s fire road climbs to evaluate long, consistent, in-the-saddle slogs, then pointed the bikes up crunchy trails most people ride in the other direction to evaluate technical climbing. We cruised through rolling terrain too, then pointed the bikes down more techy, gravity-oriented trails. Along the way we hit some drops, booters, skinnies and wallrides.

‏Did our test route lack anything? Well yeah, moisture for one thing. California is in the midst of an historic drought and it’s rained only a handful of times in the last year. Some might say this places an unfair burden on a tire’s dry condition performance, though we would argue a decent, properly spec’d, all-around OEM tire should be able to find some traction in the dust.

‏‏While much of the country suffered through polar vortices, northern California enjoyed too warm and too dry weather for January. (And if you cry us a river, we’ll collect the runoff and water the trails with it.) Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏Tight turns are also in short supply at Demo. While there’s a few snaky sections, there are no tight switchbacks. Instead we found ourselves creating tight cornering events to help get a feel for the bikes’ handling. Not ideal, but sufficient for our purposes.

The Tester Riders: Pros vs. Joes

‏‏BMC-sponsored pro enduro-lete Aaron Bradford added some steeze to the proceedings. Though he didn’t test bikes for us, his assistance with setup was invaluable. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏We felt the most useful feedback on these bikes would come not only from well-practiced bike reviewers, but a cross-section of riders that represented–not unlike our readership–the full spectrum of mountain bike preferences, talents and abilities.

‏In the end, our ragtag gang included a current pro enduro racer, a former X Games gold medalist, and a self-confessed “recovering XC pro,” who, incidentally was not just our only female test rider, but a regular at the area dirt jump trails.

We wouldn’t feel right about “Pros and Joes” without a real Joe—in this case Joe Carpenter. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏In the extra-mediocre midrange were enthusiastic weekend warrior types, a smattering of industry wonks, and our own esteemed staff. We also had one very Angry Singlespeeder, an into-thin-air Coloradan, and a token guy named Joe, just to make Pros vs. Joes subhead fully legit. Some of us race, some don’t, all know how to have a pretty good time on the bike.

The Speed Dating of Bike Tests

‏OK, maybe “speed dating” sells us a little short, but our rides were by no means long-term evaluations. Though we spent three days flogging the bikes as best we could, you can’t find out in a test ride what a few weeks, months or a year on the trail will tell you. No, we did a round-robin evaluation with three or four riders trying each bike for laps that lasted between 1-2 hours. Most bikes also got an additional test stint from the editor writing it up. In the end, our tests might not tell you which one to marry, but I’d bet we’ll do a better job than eHarmony finding you a bike to date if not go steady with.

‏The truth is, there’s not a dog in the bunch. Finding the one for you is more a matter of matching your preferences with our discoveries. Even if you picked one that’s “not your type,” you’d still be going home with a hottie. Which brings us to our next point…

Mountain Bikes are More Versatile Than Ever

‏Take almost any one of these bikes back in time to the 1990’s Grundig World Cup-era and put the same bike under a top-five XC racer and a top-five DH racer and they’d be in it to win it–they’re that good. With as specialized (small “s”) as the disciplines and equipment was back then, nobody would have believed one bike could do it all. But the performance capability gap is now smaller than ever, particularly for those mere mortals among us who, like these bikes, fall within the meat of the bell curve talent-wise.

‏Though today’s downhill courses are generally more treacherous, and the cross country tracks place more of a premium on climbing (ergo weight) than they once did, we’re starting to see exactly these bikes appearing on start lines when the former is more of a “pedaler’s course” and when the latter ends up being an “aggressive XC” track. We are closer to the elusive “One Bike” to-do-it-all-and-do-it-pretty-damn-well machine than ever. Never before have bikes been so dramatically tunable with a change of tires, and, at most, a fork swap. These are truly amazing, capable, versatile machines.

Trickle-Down Bikenomics

‏We already know the number one complaint from you will be about price. No two ways about it, all of these bikes cost a serious chunk of change, with a couple pushing into five figures.

‏Setting aside the value you place upon mountain biking in the economic scale of your life, there is a point at which returns diminish. Spending $5,000 gets you an awesome bike, but spending $10,000 does not get you one that’s twice as awesome. Which is why you’ll see us showing you a frame-only price for each bike, as well as directing you to any trickle-down versions that may be in a manufacturer’s line.

‏Almost all the bikes in our test are carbon, but many of the manufacturers make less expensive alloy versions of the same bike. Good geometry and a good suspension design make for a good ride, regardless of materials. For most people the extra grams and perceived lack of stiffness is irrelevant. Our advice: Buy the best bike you can afford and love the shit out of it.

How This Thing Rolls Out

‏Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting daily “First Looks” at each of the bikes in our test. This will give you a sense of what the bikes are like fresh off the shop floor. We’ll observe and offer our un-ridden opinions, as well as give you liner notes on the manufacturer, the spec and the bike itself.

Ritchey dropped off a box of stems in dozens of lengths and configurations to help dial in our bike fit. It made a huge difference—thanks guys. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

‏The series will also include a number of sidebars on trends we’re seeing, likes and dislikes, how to approach buying one of these bikes, and even a write-up on the Demo Forest trail system–a worthy trek if you live nearby, or visit the Bay Area at some point.

‏Once we’ve made it through all the “looks” we’ll start to publish our evaluations of each bike–what we call the “Bottom Line.”

Mtbr Site Manager Gregg Kato did it all–riding, wrenching and shuttling. He puts the all in all-mountain. Photo by Tyler Frasca.

The Mtbr Enduro Compare-O Golden Pliny Awards

‏Finally, we’ll conclude by awarding the prestigious “Mtbr Golden Pliny” to the best bikes in each category (listed below). If you’re unfamiliar, Pliny is a particularly savored IPA made by the Russian River Brewing Company an hour or so north of Mtbr HQ. As we’ve identified bikes and beer to be the two main components of our collective DNA, we thought it fitting to honor one with the other, thus the hoppy homage.

2014 Enduro Compare-O Bike List

Check out the bike articles here.

About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry that landed him at his current gig with Santa Cruz bicycles. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.

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  • Lucas H says:

    I can remember when I lived in San Jose in 96-99 and the DSF was pretty much in rideable condition through all of winter because of how much rain that area got and the mud slides that would ensue and block access to the trailhead access.

    • Mtbr says:

      Highland Way–the road to Demo–still has its problems with slides and has some precarious slopes that look ready to come down any time now. They replaced about a hundred yard section of road that had washed away a couple years ago only to have another slide come down on top of the new pavement.
      Just goes with the territory!

  • scott says:

    I wish I could design a bike test, like many before me have said tires make the biggest difference in bike handling, but so does the fork and wheelset along with every other component!

    If i could design a bike test each bike would have identical componentry so that the review was solely based on the design of the frame and the shock that the company deems suitable for that bike (even that may need to be uniform!). The only thing that would be switched between riders/bikes would be handlebars, stem and saddle due to personal preferences for fit and body types. . .

    If a company throws on a set of enve wheels onto their bike it automatically throws off any comparison with every other bike due to stiffness, weight and PRICE!

    • frank says:

      I cannot begin to express how much I agree with scott on this. TIRES and fork/shock set-up. and yes, ENVE wheels, but i guarantee you, put crappy tires on those 2500 dollar wheels and you’ll go no where fast. this would be MHO…

    • Mtbr says:

      The Enve wheels are indeed sweet, but we rode plenty of good alloy wheels in the test that were on par stiffness-wise, just not as light…and as you allude, MUCH less expensive. The tires did, however, make a significant difference. We did a few tire swaps and it was remarkable how much it can change a bike. Clearly some of the manufacturers spec’d certain tires for weight savings and others for cost savings. In the end we’d take a heavier tire that grips over a lightweight one that let’s loose any time!

    • r1Gel says:

      It’s a “bike” test, not a “frame” test. If I’m not mistaken, these “shoot-outs” aim to compare bikes as they are sold to the public and measure them as they are. Sure, a lot of times the spendy, blinged out ones will tend to perform in some areas better than the less expensive ones, but that’s where the quality of the frame/suspension will come out (or be hidden; see below).
      I do agree on that bit about a manufacturer throwing on some carbon hoops (as is done on “outerbike/demo” days) thereby skewing the test riders’ view on the bike’s performance. It can sometimes mask the frame’s shortcomings when kitted out with more economically realistic parts.
      But the bikes featured here (most if not all) are spec’d stock and sold as such (not custom). So take that into consideration.
      I like how Bike mag qualifies in their latest Bible of Bike Tests that less spendy versions of the bikes they tested are available as well.

  • roger says:

    ENDURO is a RACE, we keep using this term that does not belong to Mt. Biking. All the Marketing about Enduro, 10K rigs, and Pliny…are Mt. Bikers are becoming elitist? If we keep this up, Mt. Biking is going to become like IPA, only good for a short period of time.

    • Mtbr says:

      We elected to use the term “enduro” with our tongue firmly in cheek. We’d like to think our bikes, our beer and our attitude is pretty democratic. And in our experience competing in actual enduros, we’ve found everyone to be welcoming, helpful and fun…way more so than any other form of racing we’ve done. We also had a pretty good time on our $3K bike and fully believe Stephen Stills’ words in the old song applies to bikes–“If you can’t be with the one you love, Love the one you’re with.”

  • r1Gel says:

    Great idea on doing a “shootout,” jumping on the “enduro” bandwagon notwithstanding.

  • Kevin Woodward says:

    Thought I saw you all up at Demo the other day. So here’s my $.02 … been riding a Tallboy LTa for two years and thanking my lucky stars every day because this is the ride I’ve been waiting for all my life. Then I go and test-ride a new LTc with Enve’s (up at UCSC tho) and fall in love all over again. Gotta have it. Sigh. You absolutely can buy speed and you can buy skill, but it will cost you. Anyone who says otherwise is flat-out wrong. Ah, but it is money well spent. Sometimes you just have to pull the trigger on that second mortgage. Life is short.

    • Mtbr says:

      next time don’t be afraid to say hello! The Tallboy LT is one of our favorites and I suspect both the alloy and carbon versions would do well in our Compare-O. Santa Cruz elected, understandably, to send us their newer 27.5 bikes, the Bronson C and 5010 C.

  • Liberty555 says:

    Roger, the whole reason for IPA was to create a beer which would survive the journey to the colonies and hence be around for a long time. Your comment makes no sense.

    Also call it enduro, xc, trail – it is all mountain biking. Yes it’s a buzz word but it still generally defines a category. Like when road bikes were all called racers. Have a beer and chill out about it. Then watch how to be a mountain biker and laugh.

  • Dingus says:

    No Kona Process??? Given the hype and press seems wrong to leave this bike out of this group

  • Roger says:

    Some ride a single speed hardtail at Demo Forest, what’s the difference? Is that Enduroing?

  • David says:

    Can you tell us how you selected the bikes that are under test?
    Is it a case of which manufacturers were willing to give you a bike to test?
    As I see a number of boutique brands, niner, yeti, ibis etc, but a brand like Transition who are a seemingly willing bunch, have a couple of bikes both 29 & 26 that fit this category yet are nowhere to be seen.
    Their Bandit29 for example is an awesome ride and the Covert is more agressive again.
    Any thoughts?

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      We asked about 20 manufacturers and a few contacted us. Most were willing to send us a bike but quite a few did not have a demo bike that worked with our schedule. Once we got a 20+ bikes, we put a cap on it. It’s possible we’ll do a follow-on shootout since there’s a few more bikes available now.

  • Kevin Woodward says:

    Big fan of the Compare-O and kudos for the massive effort. Also nice to see you testing all these great rides on my local trails. Are the bikes you’ve written about and those under Coming Soon the complete list? Realize you can’t ride them all … but hard to believe you’re not including the Tallboy LTc. Just sayin is all. MTBR FTW.

  • Enrique says:

    Please compare-o the 2014 SC Heckler!!!

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