Winner: Scott Spark
Mtbr’s 2016 cross-country bike of the year is really two bikes. Or three if you count the plus version. Or five if you account for 27.5 and 29er offerings. But for the purposes of this award, focus is on the new 120mm Scott Spark with 29er wheels. That’s because for a modern cross-country bike, we see it as the near perfect combination of uphill efficiency and downhill capability.
Granted if your name is Nino Schurter or Jenny Rissveds, you’re going to opt for the racier RC model (as in “racing concept”). That bike has 20mm less suspension, a slightly steeper headtube angle, and two Olympic gold medals to its name. But most of us aren’t training for Tokyo 2020, and instead are looking for a bike with well-balanced talent. And that is just what the latest iteration of Scott’s XC platform is.
Take it into moderate chunder, and its 67.2-degree headtube angle and revised suspension design conspire to maintain traction and control, soaking up hits and whipping in and out of turns with tight precision. Point it uphill and the new suspension layout means more sensitivity at the top of the stroke and more support past the sag point.
The new Spark’s change in suspension linkage set-up if the primary driver of success. Following a 24-month development process, Scott ditched the top-tube mounted shock design on the previous Spark for one that’s mounted vertically, pivoting on what’s called a trunnion mount near the bottom bracket. Gone is the slender swing link, replaced with a seat tube-mounted rocker that on the higher end bikes is made of carbon fiber.
This revision better separate the frame’s stiffness zone (lower half) from the comfort zone (upper half). Now instead of beefing up the top tube area to accommodate the shock linkage, the extra girth is relocated near the bottom bracket, an area that already requires stiffness to maximize power output. At the same time the kinked top tube has a sleeker and more compliant shape. It all adds up to more efficiency.
Indeed, this new single-pivot rocker link design increases the leverage ratio early in the stroke, making it easier to compress the shock, which in turn means more small bump sensitivity. But thanks to a more consistent overall leverage ratio, the bike has more support from the sag point onwards, so you get good mid-stoke support and better bottom out resistance.
The trunnion mount is also an interesting change. Because the shock body extends lower to a pair of mounting bolts (instead of the usual single bolt) Fox had more design space for the Spark-specific NUDE shock. That means for the same eye-to-eye length but up to 7mm more shock stroke. Standover height was also lowered, and there is plenty of room for a water bottle cage.
Weight savings abound on the new bike. While the old Spark rear triangle (with its pair of pivots) was made up of 18 individual parts. The new rear (now with no pivots) is just three pieces, saving a claimed 130 grams. The rocker linkage also cuts grams, especially on the upper end Sparks with a carbon rocker, which is 37 grams lighter than the alloy equivalent.
Finally, Scott has jumped on the integration train. There’s a 25T torx wrench integrated into the rear thru-axle lever, and the Syncros stem accepts an integrated Garmin mount that places the head unit overtop of the stem, not vulnerably hanging over the bars like other head unit brackets.
Add it all up, and this bike is a true Swiss Army Knife, able to line up (and compete at the front) of just about any cross-country race. But also head out on long backcountry epics on trails that are decidedly not XC. Check out the Mtbr First Look to learn more.
Runner Up: Cannondale Scalpel
Following a similar path as Scott, Cannondale tweaked its best selling Scalpel by making the head angle 2 degree slacker (69.5), lengthening the top tube by 10mm, and shortening the chainstays to 435mm. The end result is a light and stiff bike that climbs with ruthless efficiency — and can handle rocky, rooty descents with confidence. This style of bike is a superb option for a vast majority of the riders out there. Check out the Mtbr First Look to learn more.
Honorable Mention: Kona Hei Hei
Last but certainly not least on this list is the revised Hei Hei from Kona. Like Scott, Kona offers the bike with 100mm (Race DL) or 120mm (standard DL) of front suspension, allowing the rider to tailor the bike to their needs. Strava types will appreciate the steeper 69-degree headtube angle of the race version, while the more downhill oriented crowd can opt for the slightly slacker DL kit. Either way you’ll get the playful feel that comes with 430mm chainstays on stiff and light 29er frame. Check out the Mtbr First Look to learn more.
This post is part of the Mtbr Best of 2016 awards series. You can see all this year’s announced winners here.