I tested 58 MTB and gravel bikes last year, here are the ones I really didn't want to give back

Cervelo ZFS cornering hard
(Image credit: Gruber Images / Cervelo)

Bike Perfect's technical editor, Guy Kesteven, tested 58 different bikes in 2023, and with 27 years of testing under his belt, is arguably the world's most experienced bike reviewer. So which models stood out for him in last year? Following his Gear of the Year 2023 article, Guy reveals the 12 best bikes from across several different off-road categories in no particular order... 

Forbidden Druid V2

Forbidden Druid V2 GX SX in profile

The new Forbidden Druid and it's unique inverted four bar / Trifecta suspension layout cast the biggest spell on me in 2023 (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

The Forbidden Druid V2 is an important part of this list. I had a Druid V1 for several months and loved its sheer ignorance of the high speed slaps that would stop most bikes with more travel dead in their tracks it was always on the weird side. The head angle was a bit steep for the speeds that it could go so easily and the back end was so hyper high pivot, that it felt like it needed a 180mm triple clamp fork – not a 150mm single crown.

The V2 adds an extra pivot in the rear end which makes the suspension a little less stretch and freaky through turns, but still allows long travel speed and insane 35 percent sag grip traction with short travel pedal punch. It’s lighter, neater, slacker and has different proportional geometry and carbon fiber lay-ups for every size to make sure everyone comes under the same ‘high pivot witchcraft’ spell. The colors are sick too, so I’m delighted that it’s the long travel bike I’ll be taking into 2024 as a long term test bike.

Yeti SB120

Yeti SB-120

The clean, lean chassis of the new SB-120 hides the latest version of Yeti's Switch Infinity warp drive engine (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

With XC bikes now moving up to 120mm of travel as the default setting, there’s a lot of pressure on mid-travel trail bikes to justify their extra weight with real palpable performance increases. With 130 or 140mm forks up front and similar geometry to 150mm travel bikes, that generally means it's the rear end that’s feeling the most pressure to keep up with full on attack capability.

I rode several bikes in this category in 2023, and they covered the light and plush (Pivot 429) to stiff and seriously aggressive (Santa Cruz Tallboy), but sat right in the sweet spot is Yeti’s SB120 with its unique Switch Infinity suspension.

By flipping the direction of main pivot movement as the suspension moves through its travel, it manages to deliver sensitive traction and big hit control while still maintaining impressive pedaling efficiency. Add excellent balanced geometry and frame feel, and the result is a bike that just makes everything attached to it – including the rider – feel like they’re working better than normal. The latest Switch Infinity gets a load of updates dedicated to increasing durability, and Yeti have slapped a lifetime warranty on most elements of the bike too, which leaves only the painful pricing to cope with.

Mason Exposure and Bokeh 3

Mason Bokeh 3 with a view behind

The latest alloy Bokeh is the most affordable bike in Mason's 'Fast – Far' gravel arsenal but it's still deliciously detailed (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Artisan South Downs (UK) bike design fanatic, Dom Mason, and his team released two deliciously detailed, Italian built frames and expertly curated complete bike collections this year. Both are in the gravel sphere but both are significantly detailed in their intent and their delivery of the going far and fast behind a drop bar experience.

The Mason Exposure is a long distance adventure specialist with every fixture and fitting you could need to live on two wheels while keeping the visceral vibrancy and flow that can make steel frames feel so alive. The third generation of the legendary, category defining, alloy reviving Mason Bokeh has a more stripped down approach and a more sporting ride vibe while taking bigger tires and adapted geometry so it can open its envelope further into the wild. 

Both are fantastic examples are what happens when fastidious functionality meets an appreciation that a bike can be mobile art and I genuinely don’t know which I like the most. I’d be delighted to ride either on a regular basis though.

Cotic FlareMax and Jeht

Cotic Jeht 2 cornering hard and high

Cotic's latest Jeht is an awesome steel sender for the madness of modern trails (Image credit: Cotic)

Cy Turner of Cotic Cycles is another UK frame designer with a talent for combining both the bigger holistic picture of bike character and making a positive difference with their brand. But he also has an obsession with the tiniest details of custom tube profiles and fractional shifts in geometry and suspension kinematics.

On the surface, the changes to the shorter travel Cotic FlareMax and mid travel Jeht this year are relatively trivial. Both models get stronger single gauge downtube, bottom bracket brace pipes, more consistent spacing between sizes and fractional changes in geometry. The bikes now feel faster, more focused and more capable without gaining any weight though and they’ll feel that way for more people. But most importantly, that unmistakeable muscularly sprung character that premium steel can create when properly understood still provides Cotic’s signature forgivingly grippy and flow boosting ride. The front ends of both bikes are now made in Scotland by Five Land too, guaranteeing phenomenal quality and finishing to sit alongside Cotic’s legendary customer support and vibrant rider community. 

Canyon Neuron

Canyon Neuron 6 side view

The alloy Canyon Neuron rides as well as it looks but costs a lot less than it feels like it should (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Looking at this list, it’s clear to see I've had something of a charmed life in terms of testing some of the most expensive and exclusive bikes this year. It’s often the more affordable bikes that are the most enjoyable to test through, not least because you know that people buying them will have a brilliant time without having to rob a bank, or film their feet for Only Fans to buy them.

At $2,599 / £2,249 at time of testing, the Canyon Neuron 6 certainly isn’t cheap, but it delivers a performance that’ll shame a lot of bikes double the price and match many of treble the price.

The alloy frame is impressively light but still tight. Geometry and suspension are expertly judged for a welcoming but still confident ride that feels balanced right through the speed range.

Fox suspension, Shimano SLX gears and fast Schwalbe tires are sweet spot cost effective component choices and DT Swiss wheels are a byword for durability.

A good job too as the Neuron was a bike I repeatedly rode far longer and far more than I needed to for testing purposes, because its budget brilliance was obvious straight away. 

Cervelo ZFS-5

Cervelo ZFS custom built bike on a muddy trail

They might be better known as a road / triathlon brand, but Cervelo's ZFS-5 is a brilliant example of how fast and fun XC mountain bikes are now (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

While the Cervelo ZFS-5 launched at the opening World Cup race of ’23, I’d been sat on this super-light XC bike (metaphorically and literally as I got a pre production sample two summers ago) since first riding it in early 2022. Cervelo's MTB plans changed after Olympic hopeful, Milan Vader, had a serious crash before the 2022 season and the official launch was put back a year. 

With Lotto Jumbo cyclo-cross crusher, Fem Van Empel, failing to dominate MTB like she does dirty grass track racing and Pinarello launching – and winning on – their bike at the same time, it’s not had much attention besides the weird use of a solid ‘fake shock’ for it’s first World Cup short course race. It’s also been wrongly tagged as a rebadged Santa Cruz Blur by anyone ignorant of the build and geometry details – beyond the suspension hardware it does share with the bike from Cervelo's Californian sibling brand.

The ZFS-5's combination of road bike inspired tube lay-ups and trail bike inspired geometry is lighter, longer and slightly slacker than the Blur though and it’s a killer in 100mm mode and a thriller in 120mm mode. 

Specialized Turbo Levo SL II

A woman riding an e-MTB through the woods

New Levo SL is light and nearly silent but with plenty of power for extra runs that the tech ready spec and suspension will make the absolute most of (Image credit: Specialized)

Lightweight e-MTB is the hot category right now and I’d already ridden the TQ motor powered Rotwild R.X275, Trek Fuel EXe, and Nox Epium bikes before heading to the iconic and original UK trail centre, Coed-Y-Brenin, to meet the evolved version of Specialized’s original Turbo Levo SL. The Turbo Levo SL II is very much a rider driven development of the original bike. Power of the SL motor has been significantly increased and more anti-squat added to the suspension for a much more positive pedaling experience than the other TQ powered bikes.

Rather than going full lightweight like the Scott Lumen, Specialized saw what most OG SL owners were doing with their bikes and added serious forks, a piggy back shock and a mullet rear wheel with sticky T9 rubber. That obviously cuts into potential speed and efficiency, but leaves it totally uncompromised for attacking technical enduro trails flat out.

Discreet but very programmable data display on the bike, low noise levels and an excellent Mission Control app give the whole Levo/Kenevo family a rider connectivity edge. Specialized also have an unparalleled reputation for customer service too, which is massively important when you’re looking at e-MTBs with their extra complexities and potential for problems.

Santa Cruz Stigmata

Stig being aspirational by a raging river

The latest Santa Cruz Stigmata can handle XC MTB terrain like a boss, but has also cleaned up at most of the major US gravel races this  (Image credit: Santa Cruz Bicycles)

I’ve ridden several new Santa Cruz bikes this year and both the Tallboy and 5010 are ferociously high performance and viscerally rewarding machines for very specific, but quite narrow sectors of the riding population. My pick from their 2023 roster is remarkable for the breadth of its bandwidth though, as the Santa Cruz Stigmata drop bar bike is radically different from it’s previous ‘CX race weapon, with occasional recreation’ focus.

Slack as an XC bike from not long ago and with tire clearance for 50mm (therefore in reality most ‘2.2in’ MTB tires), the new Stig is an insolent invitation to do things you probably shouldn’t even think about on drop bars. It’s certainly the first gravel bike I’ve enjoyed – and become addicted to – drifting round corners at every opportunity. While it’s not covered in enough bikepacking nipples to have it drowned as a medieval witch, it’s got a huge amount of internal storage and a lifetime warranty on frame and carbon Reserve wheels. While the version I’ve got with RockShox Rudy forks and Reverb XPLR dropper on is definitely on the chunky side, Keegan Swanson has been putting carbon time trial rings on his and winning almost every big gravel race in the US. So whether you’re into dusty almost road racing or borderline MTB adventures, the new Stig is a proper all-rounder. Something being proved by the fact I’m enjoying and appreciating more every time I ride it, whether that's epic gravel events in the Yorkshire Dales, or carrying trail tools up to the woods for some trail maintenance work.

Merida One-Sixty 8000

Merida One-Sixty 8000 mountain bike

Merida's One-Sixty and One-Forty frames are the same apart from shock stroke so you're potentially getting two bikes in one (Image credit: Rich Owen)

Merida are understandably sick of nearly every review of their bikes starting with something like “As one of the biggest and best bicycle manufacturers in the world they make bikes for lots of people as well as their own stuff”. It seems their most recent One-Forty trail and One-Sixty enduro bikes have been deliberately designed to prove how radical they can be. They’ve not only nailed that, but delivered an impressive dual personality platform in the process. The fact they’ve stretched the single pivot flex-stay design normally reserved for 120mm travel bikes up to 171mm on the mullet version of One-Sixty is a neat piece of engineering. The same frame can be used to build a 143/151mm travel bike if you shorten the shock stroke too, so you’ve got a really versatile chassis in either carbon or alloy formats. 

Despite the rad design and deliberate ‘being different’ spec like Marzocchi forks and custom infinite adjust dropper posts as standard, what really makes the Merida pairing stand out is how easy yet very enjoyable they are to ride. Even the triathlon style 80-degree seat angle doesn’t even feel as weird as you might expect on the flat and comes into it’s own on super steep technical climbs. 

Neat practical detailing includes Fidlock bottles, tube straps and a short rear mud fender and prices are very keen. Overall weights are high though and the external plastic dropper stroke adjuster is a reliability and aspirational aesthetic low point (though droppers are covered by a one year warranty).

Whyte E-Lyte 140 Works

Whyte E-Lyte 140 Works

Whyte's E-Lyte 140 Works in a woodland setting

The lightest version of Whyte's E-Lyte is designed to empower XC and Epic marathon riders rather than support the self uplift shredders (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

I’ve not left the Whyte E-Lyte 140 Works until last for any other reason than the fact I’ve not actually finished reviewing it yet. It’s already one of those bikes that I’m deliberately dragging out the process of testing on though, because it’s an absolute blast to ride. It’s also an interesting attempt by Whyte to capture a market that a lot of brands have completely forgotten about. However, Whyte (and Marin – when they designed those bikes 25 years ago too) have always had a huge following among riders who go for proper days out. Ones with maps and massive mileages across moors where speed and efficiency win over sticky tires, snaking pirate tracks and pushing back up because you only use Boost mode and spin out on climbs.

So while most ‘trail riders’ will prefer the 150mm travel E-Lyte with it’s bigger fork and grippier tires the rapid rubber, Fox 34 fork, carbon dropper seat post and carbon railed saddle, the 140 Works is right up my street. Because not only is the new high watt, low weight Bosch SX motor powerful enough to match most full fat bikes (if you add some base fitness), the E-Lyte still climbs and grips like a proper bike. The geometry is enhanced by the super low centre of gravity, even with the ‘PowerMore’ range extender in place, and when you finally find something it can’t get up or over at sub 17kg, it’s actually only a kilo or so heavier than a lot of trail bikes are now anyway.

Guy Kesteven

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