Bespoken Word – is 120 still plenty? Or is downcountry the dubstep of MTB?

Trek Top Fuel in a loamy berm
(Image credit: GuyKesTV)

A short history of short travel

Whether it was chopping travel and weight on a trail bike or adding travel and bigger tire grip to an XC bike, this category has been the home-brew ‘hot hatch’ of the MTB world for a while. While we mostly talk about it in full-suspension terms now, the vibe started when Kona put Marzocchi forks, riser bars and big Tioga rubber on their Easton XC frame to create the Kula in the late 1990s. Confirming what a lot of people had already proved with their own lash ups – lairy and light can be an intoxicating combination. 

In full-suspension terms, bikes like the Santa Cruz Blur 4X, Orange ST4 and Santa Cruz Solo/5010 did more seditious work, while Scott’s Spark bikes found incredible success on the XC race circuit by using geometry that was almost identical to the Solo/5010 but in a super light package.

When 29ers came around, I remember fitting a 120mm fork to my original Santa Cruz Tallboy XC bike and racing it at an enduro faster than I’d* have ever gone on a 26in bike with any amount of travel. After years of people shoe-horning 29er wheels into ever big travel formats, Evil flipped everything on their head when they introduced the short travel/big attitude Following. Laughing in the face of accepted thinking and delivering an addictively laugh out loud cult following on the trails that suddenly every brand wanted a piece of.

Santa Cruz Tallboy side shot

Santa Cruz have a long history of building short travel hooligans and the latest Tallboy is no exception (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

When does it work?

If you’re happy to remove the comfort and safety of extra mid stroke, short travel suspension can deliver a really peppy, power efficient bike feel that’s also easier to set up without wallow or mushiness. If you amplify this by fitting properly lightweight componentry where you can and/or paring down the frame weight to a minimum then you’ve potentially got something truly special. An instantly reactive trail missile that’s still accurate enough to hit the crucial targets as long as the pilot is good enough to dodge the stuff it can’t cope with. And the way short travel suspension and lightweight kit is advancing, even race bikes can now do a lot more straight up slamming and less dodging than ever before. 

Canyon Lux Trail on a tricky, rocky descent

Slacker, long travel 'trail' versions of XC race bikes like Canyon's Lux are the lighter, faster end of the short travel trail bike spectrum (Image credit: Roo Fowler / Bike Connection Agency)

When doesn't it work?

However, just like hot hatch cars, it’s a really hard balance to hit correctly and what works for one rider, might be too much or too little for others. 

Purists will rip out door linings and spare seats in favor of a roll cage and a boom box and harden the suspension to the point where it’ll crush their spine over every speed hump. Wheels will be sucked up into the bodywork so far it’s almost impossible to drive daily but makes it mint for deserted industrial estate roundabouts or midnight donuts in a supermarket car park.

Just like cars, such as the MK3 Golf GTI, adding too many creature comforts to your short travel bike can soon create a fatty lump that misses the point.

However, just like boy and girl racers becoming mums and dads and getting serious jobs, feral biking tastes get softened. Extra tire grip, bigger bars, tougher/wider wheels, longer travel seatposts all add capability and security, but they also add weight and drag. That sort of kit worries product managers into making tougher frames to cope to avoid ‘Orange ST4’ syndrome. Now it looks and weighs the same as a trail bike so it might as well have chainguide mounts, rubber armor and door in the downtube that you generally can’t quite get anything useful into. Before you know it that snarling, subversive, 'single finger up to everyone' character is doing the school run in joggers wearing a Son’s of Anarchy hoody to hide their growing gut. Your bean tin exhaust Nova SRI is now a hybrid with a body kit.

And just like that hybrid, it’s probably faster, safer and more versatile, but you may as well get a full size SUV with more room and the same performance. Or in bike terms a mid/long travel trail/super trail bike. Because they’ll only weigh slightly more (generally due to a longer fork and maybe a bigger shock), the drag from tires etc is the same and now almost everyone has sorted out their suspension, they pedal just as well. In fact, the extra mid stroke often means they climb technical stuff better because they don’t get hung up over lumps and steps like some overtly aggressive short travel tunes can.

Canyon Spectral 125 and Carbon Wasp by a river

Short travel bikes come in all styles and from all sizes of company as this Canyon Spectral 125 and Carbon Wasp Truffle show (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

So is the category dead?

But if you’re thinking I’m saying Downcountry is the bike equivalent of dubstep, then hold your heavy horses and dig in your Transition Spurs. There are still some bikes treading the lightweight but lairy vibe brilliantly, but you need to pick the right balance to suit your riding. And I’m not going to try and distill that into head angles, travel or componentry choices, I’m going to ask you to think properly hard about what matters to you and choose accordingly. Because these bikes only become brilliant when they deliver a ride that reaches its limits at exactly the same point as you do. It’s that shared sense of riding on the ragged edge, pushing the envelope, surfing the risk, and maximizing the potential. Whatever you want to call it these bikes become addictive when you and your pedaled partner get away with stuff you shouldn’t.

Acing the sketchy line on techy singletrack, nearly drowning you in adrenaline on a flat out descent, kicking gaps into mates out of every corner or hunting down e-bikes on climbs. And depending on how you ride/feel the trail or even what trails you love that means a different bike could work for you than me. Send big and skim the rest? You’ll love the new Tallboy (yes a review is imminent). Happy to hold your breath and over trust tires for some of the descent to gain minutes on the climb? Then you’re better off on a Santa Cruz Blur TR and a Scott Spark RC will work better for you than a Scott Spark 910. Want German direct sell discount with around 120mm of travel then you can choose between the Canyon Lux Trail or Canyon Spectral 125 which sit about as far apart on the short travel spectrum as possible. Want a steel slinky that’ll wrap its way round trouble like a hungry cat wraps legs but still charge the climbs in a way that totally denies its weight? Well, there’s a reason why Cotic’s utterly counterintuitive SID Ultimate spec FlareMax has become a top selling cult classic after I created the first one as a lunatic lockdown experiment that I wasn’t sure even I’d enjoy. If you’re lucky you might even hunt down the mythical Transition Spur I badly punned about earlier and which those lucky enough to have ridden still describe in spiritually superlative terms or maybe get your name down for the first drop of Yeti’s new SB120 which I fell in love with while testing this winter.

Cotic FlareMax 16:9

Lightweight bikes don't even have to be carbon fibre or silly expensive as my steel framed Cotic FlareMax Lockdown build proved (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Downcountry on the up

And from what I’m seeing of upcoming launches, not only are we likely to see more contenders for this category – including an increasingly number of ultra light e-bikes – as well as increasing amounts of hard pedal happy, but technically tough kit from shoes to helmets.

And if this entire category and my words about it just leave you confused and wondering why you wouldn’t just get the extra ‘just in case’ capability and control of a longer travel bike that scares you less and looks after you more then that’s totally cool too. Because there’s definitely no shortage of them and the best bit of mountain biking is that there are loads of ways to do it how you want it and no one should judge you for that.

Yeti SB120 in the wild

Yeti's new SB120 is one of the latest short travel trail bikes to launch and it's currently my benchmark short travel rally bike  (Image credit: GuyKesTV)
Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect's since we launched in 2019. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting 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, Forbidden Druid V2, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg