Bespoken Word – how to pick the perfect bike

rider riding through red flags at the Ard Rock Enduro
(Image credit: Jerry Tatton)

When it comes to choosing a new bike what goes through your mind? That’s something I've been grinding away in my head recently so what are the influences and elements that matter to me, what are the red flags I'm avoiding and are my thoughts relevant to real world riders?

Spoiled brat

I often get asked if I actually own any bikes and apart from two custom tandems, the answer is a flat no. I’ve certainly been tempted to put my hand into my pocket for a few bikes over the past two and a half decades of testing. But when I only just get enough time to ride the constant stream of test bikes I’m working on, there’s just no point.

The closest I get are bikes that I arrange on a long term test loan and then use as the chassis to hang a constantly changing parade of test components. And in the process the frame/bike brand gets a lot of cameo coverage as the backdrop for kit shots and regular appearances on social media.

And for the past three years my main trail bike has been a Pace RC295. Or to be exact, it’s been two as I swapped to a fresh colorway a year ago. And before you wonder why I’m swapping it’s absolutely not because of any issues with the bike. I’ve just been testing the new Fox Float shock and Forekaster tires on it this week and it still feels great. It’s light, stiff, the geometry is spot on and I can run a mullet back wheel if I want to be fashionable. After three years of riding it I just fancy something fresh though and it’s also time to shine a bit of light on something else. But what? 

Close up of a man's legs pedaling a mountain bike

My Pace RC295 long termer has ticked a lot of testing boxes and been a ton of fun in the process (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Narrowing it down

There are some things that narrow it down straight away. I already have a superlight XC/distance bike that I’ve been skunk testing on ahead of an official launch in August, so there’s no point doubling up in the 120mm or less category. And to be honest while a lot of the 120-130mm trail bikes are awesome to ride, they’re as heavy as the 140-150mm travel bikes from the same brand. And for test purposes I need to have a bike that can push a big fork, big tires and tough wheels hard enough to find their limits and issues rather than being restricted by the bike they’re fitted on.

Straight away there’s a list of obvious contenders from the big brands – Santa Cruz Hightower, Specialized Stumpjumper Evo, Trek Fuel Ex, Canyon Spectral, Merida One-Sixty, Yeti SB-140, Scott Genius, GT Sensor, YT Capra, Evil Offering etc. The way I look at it though is that those folks are already pretty sorted for coverage so if I have got some influence, the old punk in me says I should use it to highlight a smaller independent brand. One where a positive Instagram post might mean a sale or two that makes a real difference to a bunch of people who are really passionate, but also deeply dependent on what they do. Ideally, it’ll be a brand where there’s some great ethics going on in terms of where they source from, how sustainable they are in terms of materials, packaging, production methods etc, and what riders, advocacy, events they support etc as well. 

Hightower Hero

Santa Cruz's Hightower is right up there in the parade of brilliant bikes from bigger brands that I could pick as a long term test partner (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Drilling down

Given that this is as close as I get to having my own ride, I want a bike that I really look forward to hitting the trails on at every opportunity, and that’s where things get really complicated. As much as I want something that’ll maybe make people think ‘why’s he chosen that?’ when they see it, it needs to still be a seriously quick bike. Not just because I’m pathetically competitive and ride with similarly combative ‘friends’, but because I’m not getting any younger and any artificial accelerants I can add to my at best average skills I’ll seize with both hands. But some of the fastest bikes I’ve ridden recently – such as Hope’s HB 916 – were so capable and terrain crushing that it was like getting the big gun upgrade in a shooter game. Fun for the first few times you just destroyed everything you’d normally stress about, but ultimately dull and unrewarding if you’re not actually racing.

I want something that makes riding every bit as exciting and brilliant as it can be, and ideally does it in a way that’s different enough to most bikes to make riding it special. Straight away that puts the new Forbidden Druid 2 front and center as the most amusing, crazy fast bike I’ve ridden in a long time that still wiped my arse when I got carried away. That potentially puts the new high pivot Highlander 2 from Deviate in the picture too, so I’m excited to have one of those coming for testing ASAP. Trouble is with high pivot bikes is that they ride so differently it’d potentially twist my baseline opinions on the other bikes I test. I’ve had that issue previously when I got particularly used to the orthotics in Specialized shoes and realized that I bitched about other shoes as a result and that’s why I have to regularly swap around between brakes and shift systems too.

But even without taking a big swing (literally) in suspension style, there are definitely things I like from a bike. Quite a lot of anti-squat for aggressive pedaling, adjustment potential in terms of different shocks, wheels and maybe geometry. Simple control routing so swaps are easy – you might have noticed my brake test shots are nearly always a front set because I can’t be arsed to re-plumb rear brakes every time. I like internal storage too but it’s not a deal breaker, though a bottle spot is an essential. While I’m happy I can get a decent front end feel with the geometry on most bikes in the category now, after riding the Merida One-Sixty recently and being very impressed what it could crawl up, I’m keen to spend more time on something with a super steep seat angle to see if it throws up any issues long term.

Forbidden Druid V2 side shot

Forbidden's Druid definitely cast a spell on me when I rode it but is it so radical it'll bend my baseline references  (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Cost and cosmetics

Then there’s the whole question of price. This is obviously different for me because I’m not actually paying for the bike, but is it relevant for most people if I only flounce around on factory spec suspension and electric gears or wouldn’t dream of hitting the trails on metal wheels and handlebars. I don’t really think so – especially when most brands will always try and send me the fanciest, lightest, highest performing test model they can anyway. Unfortunately, simple economics means that does restrict the amount of new and interesting ideas available at affordable prices, so if I do end up on something exotic, please don’t hate me too much.

Finally, I’m never going to deny that aesthetics are a big part of the attraction to any bike and while my tastes are my own – see my red and blue Cotic Flaremax custom build for details – I know I’m only going to be really into a bike if I’m into it’s color and it’s lines.

So while I might tell people who ask that it’s almost impossible to buy a bike that isn’t really good these days, when it comes down to it, picking the one that’s exactly right for you is still seriously complicated!

Cotic FlareMax mountain bike near a river

Aesthetics are as personal as performance preferences but 'my' Cotic FlareMax downcountry build is one of my favorite all time bikes (Image credit: GuyKesTV)
Guy Kesteven
Technical-Editor-at-Large

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg