Outerbike Test Sessions: In search of perfect 29er trail bike

Mtbr rides eight contenders seeking the best big wheeled do-it-all machine

Outerbike Test Sessions

Meet Jordan. He likes sunsets, sushi, and long walks on the beach. He’s looking for a new 29er trail bike to start a lasting relationship with.

Meet Jordan. Jordan is a cross-country dork. He’s got a huge engine, owns a power meter, understands the difference between watts and waffles, and isn’t afraid to show off his inner (and outer) Lycra. For most of the last few years, Jordan has spent his trail time aboard the lightweight (and some would argue, low fun) Cannondale Scalpel pictured above. It doesn’t have a dropper post. It does have a scary steep head angle and minimal suspension.

Recently, though, Jordan has started to see the light. While winning every climb is fun and all, he’s grown tired of getting his kidneys rattled every time the trail turns downward. He’s decided it’s time to buy a proper trail bike, and because he’s a friend, Mtbr decided to help him out. First, we discussed the parameters of what Jordan was looking for. In order of importance, he came up with the following list (with our commentary in parentheses):

  • 29er with 130mm-150mm rear travel (So many good options right now)
  • Suspension pedals well without lockout (Can’t take XC out of the XC dork)
  • Eats up rocky descents (That’s why we all ride, isn’t it?)
  • Sub 28 pounds on high-end model (Get that credit card ready)
  • Dropper post (No shit…)
  • Bottle cage space inside main triangle (See ya Yeti)
  • Can fit 29×2.4-2.6 tires and 27.5×2.8 (Shouldn’t be a problem)
  • Headtube angle between 65.5 and 67 degrees (See above)
  • Seat tube angle around 75 degrees (Steep but possible)
  • Uses latest standards (Long, low, slack, boost, wide bars, wide rims/tires…)
  • Internal frame storage (Hope he likes Specialized)
Outerbike Test Sessions

There’s no shortage of great trail or spectacular scenery at Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Evolution Bike Park. Photo by Dave Kozlowski

With that initial decision framework in place, Jordan and I headed to the inaugural Outerbike consumer demo event at Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Evolution Bike Park in central Colorado. Over the span of two days, we rode every applicable mid-travel 29er trail steed we could get our hands on, which ended up being eight bikes: Evil The Following, Norco Sight, Orbea Occam Trail, Pivot Switchblade, Scott Genius, Specialized Stumpjumper, Spot Mayhem, Yeti SB4.5.

In every case, we each took one lap on the bike, climbing a mix of smooth and moderately techy singletrack on the mountain’s front side, then descending the Upper West Side and West Side expert-rated cross-country trails, which offer a mix of smooth, fast and flowy, along with several sections of teeth-rattling chunk, both high speed and tight-twisty. Without any ultra-steep roll-ins or manual-required drops, it wasn’t the perfect test lap. But given Jordan’s proclivity for wheels-on-the-ground XC-style riding, it served as a reasonable facsimile for what he’d likely be asking of the trail bike he eventually buys.

After each lap, we did a quick download of what we liked and didn’t like about each bike, then did a spec and weight check before returning to the demo area to grab another tester. It was more speed dating than full-on testing, but the entire exercise served its purpose of narrowing the field of contenders.

What follows is a snapshot of each bike, along with some top line findings from our brief encounters. These are in no way intended to be complete bike reviews, and obviously there are lots of other bikes out there that would fit into this category that we did not get a chance to ride. You can only do so much in two days, and not every bike manufacturer attended this particular Outerbike event. Instead (if applicable to your wants and needs) the information here can be used as a starting point for your own search, as well as a real-life illustration of the value of consumer demo events such as Outerbike, which really are the best options for bike buyers intent on doing their own side-by-side testing. Because it is always best to ride before you buy.

Evil The Following
Outerbike Test Sessions: Evil The Following

Evil’s The Following is a beautifully crafted bike that punches above its 120mm of rear travel.

Travel: 120mm rear/130mm front
Headtube Angle: 67.4 (or 66.8 when chip flipped)
Seat Tube Angle: 74.3 (or 73.4 when chip flipped)
Weight as tested: 29.7 pounds (size XL)
More Info: www.evil-bikes.com

Outerbike Test Sessions: Evil The Following

Component highlights included a 130mm RockShox Pike and lots of Race Face cockpit parts.

The Pitch: Evil calls The Following its attempt at creating a monster truck-wheeled bike with a sports car feel, aiming to offer the rider the ability to head out on an all-day backcountry XC adventure one day, then rally a bike park jump line the next. Tire clearance tops out at 2.4 in the rear, and all cable routing is internal. It also can handle a front derailleur if you happen to be living in 2009. Suspension is what Seattle-based Evil calls the Delta System (designed by Dave Weagle), where a progressive spring curve keeps you higher in the travel, maintaining a playful feel throughout the stroke, and Evil says you can expect it to behave like a bike with more than 120mm of travel in the rear.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Evil The Following

The Delta System suspension has a progressive spring curve that keeps you higher in the travel, maintaining a playful feel throughout the stroke.

Things We Liked: The Following delivered on its promise of playfulness, exhibiting none of the sluggish handling that plagued longer travel 29ers of old. It also descended like a bike with more talent than its 120mm rear travel would suggest. It was pure joy popping from hit to hit, or manualling off small drops. Going up, all the angles felt dialed, meaning tip-of-the-saddle climbing was not necessary to keep the front wheel weighted and tracking straight. They’ve also done a really nice job with the little details, including integrated protection on the downtube and driveside chainstay, a handy built-in sag meter, the inclusion of ISCG05 tabs, and use of a beefy 15mm thru-axle with dual-row angular contact bearings that deliver a stiff and durable main pivot. We also dig the idea of the flip chip, which allows for some customization based on riding style or terrain of the day.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Evil The Following

The Following was a capable climber that could charge through most medium-sized chunder without issue.

Head Scratchers: No knock against this bike, but it just didn’t have quite enough rear travel to differentiate itself from the cross-country steed that Jordan is trying to compliment. It was also a touch less stiff up front than some of the Fox 36-equipped bikes we tested, and this version is non-boost, though Evil did recently launch a boosted version that’s billed as being slightly longer and more capable bike.

Norco Sight C 9.3
Outerbike Test Sessions: Norco Sight

We dug the Norco’s stealthy black aesthetic.

Travel: 130mm rear/140mm front
Headtube Angle: 67 degrees
Seat tube Angle: 73.7 degrees
Weight as tested: 30.1 pounds (size XL)
More Info: www.norco.com

Outerbike Test Sessions: Norco Sight

This mid-tier build had a RockShox Yari fork and WTB rims.

The Pitch: Norco’s take on the trail bike comes in both 27.5 and 29er form, and boasts a short rear end, low BB, and fairly slack front end at 67 degrees. They also alter top tube length and layup stiffness based on frame size (three available) to help nail fit and assure the right ride feel for different sized riders. This same concept applies to chainstay length, meaning the front-center ratio stays the same across all sizes. It’s a really smart design call.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Norco Sight

Norco’s Art Suspension increases rearward axle path for a more controlled ride over gnarly, unpredictable terrain.

Things We Liked: Add Norco to the list of bike makers who have cracked the 29er trail bike code. Despite some spec shortcomings (detailed below) it was evident from the first pedal stroke that the Sight had the potential to tick a lot of the key boxes. It’s not overly playful, but you could still pump it in and out of turns if you pre-loaded at the right time. And this bike had no problems charging through hold-on-and-hope situations. We also appreciated the wide bar, short stem, and toothy Maxxis tires that adorned this build. Norco clearly understands the needs and wants of today’s trail riders. And yes, it has room for a water bottle.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Norco Sight

Even with this bike’s lower end parts, you could tell it was a capable all-around trail tamer.

Head Scratchers: For better or worse, the only size XL Sight on site at Outerbike was this mid-tier build with some lower tier parts (A RockShox Yari fork for instance). That’s not necessarily a bad thing; price of this build is well below $4000. But after riding other demo bikes with sexier (and frankly better) build kits it was hard to overlook the lesser spec. Comparatively speaking, the Yari felt heavy and even a tad flexy, braking was not as good as on other bikes, and the extra heft was noticeable going uphill. In the end, we both used the phrase incomplete when rating this bike, knowing that a higher-end build could really make a significant difference in the overall ride experience. My sense is that we’d like what we find.

Orbea Occam TR M10
Outerbike Test Sessions: Orbea Occam

This version of the Occam Trail is more XC than trail. But the 2018 version has seen significant spec updates that will bring it in line with other bikes in this test.

Travel: 120mm rear/120mm front
Headtube Angle: 67.5 degrees
Seat tube Angle: 74 degrees
Weight as tested: 26.6 pounds (size XL)
More Info: www.orbea.com

Outerbike Test Sessions: Orbea Occam

The Fox 32 fork and narrow’ish tires/rims made it hard to get a true sense of this bike’s abilities.

The Pitch: The Spanish bike maker offers two versions of its Occam platform, the longer travel AM and TR model tested here. But because this was a 2017 model, we’re not going to go too deep, as we were expecting to get to ride a 2018 model, which they’ve made some significant changes to that will greatly improve this bike’s capabilities. As it was, this bike felt a touch dated.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Orbea Occam

Orbea utilizes a pivot-less, flex-stay suspension system that’s more typically seen on XC bikes.

Things We Liked: At 26.6 pounds, the Orbea Occam TR M10 was the lightest bike that we tested during Crested Butte Outerbike. It also was a capable climber thanks to its comparatively steep headtube and seat tube angles, and supportive pedaling platform.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Orbea Occam

The Occam Trail had little trouble chewing up our climbing section, but it feels comparatively overmatched when pointed downhill.

Head Scratchers: Honestly, the best thing we can say here is that this really is not a trail bike and didn’t belong in this test in the first place. It’s more along the lines of the current Scott Spark, a fellow 120mm/120mm bike that can be used to race XC and also handle light duty trail rides. Point being, on our test lap, the bike felt overmatched. This version of the Occam Trail was spec’d with a pinner Fox 32 fork, XC’ish Maxxis Ardent/Forekaster tires, narrow rimmed wheels, and a 125mm Fox Transfer dropper. Curiously it had a short 35mm stem, but narrow 740mm bars. But before passing final judgement, we’d like to ride one of the 2018 versions because it’s possible that with the right spec, this could be a great trail bike. For now, though, it also gets an incomplete grade.

Pivot Switchblade
Outerbike Test Sessions: Pivot Switchblade

As its name implies, the Switchblade toggles between 29er and 27.5+ form.

Travel: 135mm rear/150mm front
Headtube Angle: 67.25 degrees
Seat tube Angle: 74.25 degrees
Weight as tested: 29.2 pounds (size Large premium build); 30.4 pounds (size XL mid-tier build)
More Info: www.pivotcycles.com

Outerbike Test Sessions: Pivot Switchblade

With a Fox 36 and Reynolds carbon wheels, this was one of the most precise and stiff bikes tested. Of course all that bling comes with a cost: about $8400 in this case.

The Pitch: Billed as a purpose built enduro/aggressive trail bike, the Switchblade comfortably toggles between 29er and 27.5+ form with the switch of a headset cup. It also boasts 135mm of well-sorted dw-link suspension, and can handle tires up to 29×2.5 (or 27.5×3.25). Frame geo is long and low, and chainstays are a playfully stubby 428mm. It’s designed to be run with a 150mm fork (the bike we tested had a burly Fox 36 on it), but can jump up to 160mm if you want to slack things out and do some enduro racing.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Pivot Switchblade

By focusing design around the dw-link suspension’s anti-squat and variable wheel path, the Switchblade pedals well. And because the frame doesn’t squat under pedaling force, Pivot was able to lower BB height and slacken head angle.

Things We Liked: We’ll reveal our final takeaways at the end of this post, but suffice to say the Pivot Switchblade was a strong contender for the top of the Jordan’s-next-bike podium. It was an above average climber for a bike of this caliber, its suspension staying just active enough to hold traction, but not so much as to lessen uphill efficiency. Angles are dialed, keeping the front wheel behaving properly in all but the steepest, techy’est situations. But it’s the downhills where this bike impressed the most. The front end tracked with laser precision and never came off line, even when its pilot took the sloppy line. It also cornered exceptionally well, those short chainstays helping the rear end snap though turns. Of course it didn’t hurt that we tested a high-end version spec’d with Reynolds carbon wheels and a Fox Factory 36 fork, but we’re willing to bet a small stepdown in spec won’t change how we felt about this bike. Bottom line, it was awesome. And yes, there is room for a water bottle inside the main triangle.

Outerbike Test Sessions: Pivot Switchblade

The use of Super Boost 157 could limit parts choices, but it does add more wheel stiffness.

Head Scratchers: In a vacuum, the fact that the Switchblade uses a hub spacing (Super Boost Plus 157) that’s not regular boost is no big deal. If you never switch wheels, you’ll only gain the benefit of a wider spacing and the accompanying increase in wheel and frame stiffness. But if you have a bunch of old wheels sitting around that you’re hoping to use on your new Switchblade you’ll be out of luck. There are similar considerations with cranks, but again this is only an issue if you start switching parts. Most people who buy a Switchblade will buy a complete bike, making all this moot.

Continue to page 2 for more of Mtbr’s Outerbike Test Sessions

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • Alexdi says:

    Nice, good notes. I have Jordan’s bike. A dropper and big tires make it really fun for most terrain. The ride gets a whole lot smoother and confidence goes way up on the downhills.

  • Mark says:

    Seems like a Trek Fuel Ex 29er should have been in this line up. I just test rode a Eagle GX $3400 2018 model and I thought it was pretty bomb given the price.

  • Craig says:

    Having moved from XC hardtail riding a couple years ago I did the same when looking for a new ride. Liked the Tall Boy but in the end bought a Fuel, liked the suspension better. Now have moved to a new V3 Ripley and feel it’s even better then the Fuel.

  • Warren says:

    Excellent review. I love these types of shootout articles. However, I question the criteria of such a slack head tube angle. I know it has to be great for riders going down black runs but for me I think this “modern geometry” makes the bike sluggish and boring on more normal terrain. Granted though, I only go down what I can ride up.

  • onehill2climb2 says:

    Pivot Switchblade all the way. Pedals really well, geo is dialed, playful chainstay length makes the bike feel like a 27.5, AMAZING on the downhills. And when you see it in person….sheer beauty. Best bike I’ve ever owned. And I do a new bike every year (sometimes two) and have tried every format known to man (and other species as well) since I’ve been riding since the early ’90’s.

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