Lightweight full-suspension mountain bikes are now the default weapon of choice of the world’s fastest mountain bike racers. With XC courses getting tougher all the time they’re increasingly taking handling, tyre and component cues from trail/enduro bikes, too.
The great news is that’s creating some really versatile high-velocity, short-travel machines that are as happy raving on your favourite singletrack as they are ripping up the race track. But which are the winning machines and what do you need to know to work out which is the best bike for you?
If you’re prepared to pay the price and push a slightly higher weight up the climbs to kill it on the technical sections these are the top full-suspension mountain bikes to take a look at.
Best full-suspension mountain bikes
When it comes to race full-suspension mountain bike benchmarks, Scott’s Spark family has always been the measuring stick with more World Championship rankings, Olympic gold medals and World Cup overall wins on its mantlepiece than any other machine. Even though it’s a relatively old design it’s still unmatched in terms of several key aspects for racers and high-velocity trail racers everywhere.
At 1790g with shock, the frame is still the lightest mass-production, full-suspension frame available and even the affordable alloy Sparks are lighter than a lot of brands’ carbon bikes. While Scotts Spark has always had a unique multi-mode (open-traction - 70mm of firmer travel - locked) functionality, the current bikes are the first with a really sorted open-mode for flat out technical terrain speed. The neat TwinLoc lever simultaneously stiffens and locks the fork to match so you’re not fighting with twin remotes or mismatched feel from either end.
Scott has always pushed a really progressive agenda with its Spark geometry, too, with even this race-specific RC version getting a 68.5-degree head angle for confident carving. Choose the 120mm travel ‘Trail’ Spark and that angle is 67-degrees but it’s still a lighter chassis than most race frames. Add that excellent suspension control and the Spark can blitz properly technical terrain as emphatically as it can dominate between the course tapes.
With no fewer than eight RC models and nine standard Spark models, there’s a huge range of specifications and prices to choose from, ranging from the £1800 Spark 970 to the superlative £11,000 SL. Scott’s massive experience with racing, but acknowledgement of its sorted trail performance, means they’re all equipped for serious speed without sacrificing control. At 10.5kg with carbon wheels and cable-operated SRAM Eagle, the RC900 World Cup is definitely a high achievers’ high-velocity sweet spot to aspire to.
Trek’s Top Fuel is a brilliant example of how modern ‘race’ bikes are changing, trading minimal weight for significantly more control and tougher componentry for tougher marathon courses or backcountry madness.
The totally new Top Fuel chassis is 400g heavier than the old Top Fuel SL (2.04kg vs 2.46kg) but it’s a far more capable bike as a result. Trek’s ‘Knock Block’ steering limiter allows a massively oversize downtime for serious steering accuracy despite a progressive 475mm reach on the large sized frame. The rear end uses massive chainstays for rock-solid power transfer and all-carbon Top Fuel models are now completely carbon rather than using fully or semi-alloy swingarm set-ups. Travel is increased to 115mm with a 120mm Fox 34SC fork upfront to give a proper appetite for punishment. While the suspension is naturally fluid and supple to maximise grip rather than grunt performance, both the fork and the rear shock can be stiffened up via a twist grip remote.
A flip-chip in the linkage also lets you toggle between a 67.5-degree and 68-degree head angle. A 75 - 75.5-degree seat angle shifts weight forward for aggressive climbing and Bontrager’s new XR3 2.4in tyres sit on wide 30mm carbon rims for low-pressure traction and rough surface flow. You even get a 170mm dropper post as standard.
That adds a fair chunk of weight (1880g in the wheels and 780g apiece in the tyres) that dulls the acceleration and spark compared to a pure race bike. The confidence and grip they give keeps rough corner and rock garden entry and exit speeds much higher than a pure race bike so that becomes less obvious the rougher the ride gets. Reduced fatigue also adds up over time and having raced the TF in 8hr solo events we were definitely glad of the extra travel and smoothness in the closing laps.
Trek knows that won’t suit everyone though, so if your idea of a race bike is something lighter and sharper then look at its new Supercaliber. This combines sub 2kg frame weight (sub 10kg bike weights) with 60mm of rear wheel travel via its unique IsoStrut ‘pump-action-shotgun’ top tube embedded shock set-up.
Few bikes divide opinion during our tests as much as Specialized’s Epic FS, but with a very successful race and sales history stretching back nearly 20 years a lot of people clearly think the BRAIN-equipped Epic is brilliant.
While BRAIN is definitely a clever idea, the basic mechanics are pretty simple. A spring-loaded brass-weighted valve by the back axle closes the compression damping for a fully hardtail feel until it’s knocked upwards by a lump or landing. How easily it opens and how long it stays open (the ‘BRAIN Fade’ level) is then controlled by preloading the spring so you have the shock fully open or totally locked for pedalling until you properly wallop it. This ‘automatic’ activation removes any worries about remote lockout flicking. While the transition between open and shut can be very clunky in stiffer settings it’s remarkably smooth and capable when run fully open. The 12M carbon frame (and the 11M frame on cheaper models) is still very light, too. It’s 350g lighter than the previous Epic and the latest, neatest BRAIN 2.0 set up is only adding a similar amount of weight to a double remote and cable set-up.
That means while BRAIN is obviously a big advantage if you like the binary feel, it’s the twitchy handling of the Epic that’s more of a defining characteristic. Specialized has slackened and stretched things slightly with the latest model though, so while a 69.5-degree head angle is still nervy it’s not as hysterical as the previous Epic. The short offset SID fork, 760mm bar and 456mm reach on a large frame boost confidence noticeably, too, although Specialized’s 24 spoke front wheels tend to be wayward especially with a minimal tread Fast Trak tyre fitted.
The 25mm internal rims are seriously light though and that combines with a race-ready weight watchers spec including a carbon-railed saddle, SRAM’s wireless AXS group and even a Quarq power crank as standard on this money-is-no-object flagship model. You can get on a full carbon Epic from £3700 upwards too and if you fancy something slightly rowdier, then the Evo versions get 120mm forks, chunkier tyres and a dropper post but still come out lighter than many ‘race’ bikes. Snap up the 2019 alloy Evo fast if you want a real super light bargain though as it’s not in the 2020 line up.
The Anthem range tops out with the £8800, full carbon frame, Fox Live Valve suspension loaded, Advanced Pro. But Giant’s full sus racer is superbly smooth and super fast even in its cheapest alloy frame format.
For a start Giant is one of the largest and smartest alloy (and carbon) bike manufactures in the world with decades of tech experience behind the company and the ability to handle every process from raw materials to finished frames. That’s how it keeps the Anthem’s Aluxx SL frame weight to below 2.6kg with shock, despite proper twin-link Maestro suspension instead of a flex stay set-up. This translates into a carbon-competitive, 12.3kg complete bike weight at less than the cost of some composite frames, making Anthem a superb entry-level lightweight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Anthem frame isn’t the most rigid rig you can pump your watts into, and the trunnion-mounted shock is tuned for smoothness not sprinting. Spin rather than stomp though and the super supple, short-stroke suspension flows over roots, rocks, ruts and other speed-choking chatter like it isn’t there. Maxxis Rekon Race tyres fully exploit the consistent ground connection for excellent traction too, with frame compliance also helping preserve grip where stiffer bikes might skip or slip. Giant’s own lightweight wheels keep rotating weight low for excellent acceleration. You even get Fox’s superlight 32 Step-Cast cutaway leg fork to create a properly light race bike at a price where most rivals are several pounds heavier.
Bigger or more belligerent riders should note that the 780mm bars have more than enough leverage to tie it in knots if you get too excited with them though. We’d also suggest getting the saw out before you get tangled up on the start line. The 40mm stem makes for super lively steering feel through the short and steep frame but if you prefer synapse-fast reactions to lazy stability the Anthem will be right up your race course and equally suited to super-smooth all-day blasts that are more XC than extreme.
Even NS Bikes acknowledges that introducing an XC full-suspension mountain bike is a 'WTF' move for the Polish company better known for bombproof gravity and jump bikes. The Synonym is clearly based on its intimate knowledge of chaos control though, with some truly radical geometry numbers. A 66-degree head angle and 76.5-degree seat angle, separated by a 490mm reach (large size) is swaggeringly slack and stretched for a 140-150mm travel trail-tamer. It’s literally far out in front for a 100mm XCO bike though and gives the Synonym outstandingly crazy section stability and control. The rear end uses an inverted, trunnion bearing mounted Fox shock and slim centred flex stays to minimise unsprung weight for a super responsive suspension action. Fox also supply the weight saving, shaved leg Step-Cast fork with its fresh stiffened crown for surprisingly good steering accuracy. That’s helped by 32 spoked NS Enigma Lite wheels, although the minimal tread Maxxis Ikon and Recon Race tyre combo need swapping out to make the most of the Synonym’s outrageously aggressive attitude. We’d definitely switch to a slightly shorter stem and wider bar than the 750 x 60mm combo the Synonym comes with as standard too. However NS is one of the few brands to fit a short-stroke, carbon shafted KS dropper post as standard on its race bikes and you even get a 180mm front brake rotor in recognition of the speeds this bike encourages even on extreme terrain.
Despite the dropper post and a mixed SRAM spec (which is a bit disappointing given the price) the whole bike still comes in at 10.5kg according to NS. Both fork and rear shock get remote lockout for sprint speed too and a 34 tooth chainring means potential for proper race speed. If you want to add more suspension to a similarly radical yet lightweight package then there are two 120mm travel Synonym TR models with suitably beefed up specs to match.
Orbea’s Oiz family has been a popular privateer racer for years. Partly thanks to the excellent pricing and custom configuration options of the Basque firm’s built-to-order delivery model but also because it’s always been a light and lively performer. The 2019 Oiz is a wholly new bike designed for the Orbea KMC World Cup team complete with contemporary race geometry and neatly synced remote suspension built into a very light (sub 2kg) yet versatile frame.
Flexible UFO2 seat stays take the place of a rear pivot and the linkage knuckle is a really neat, long fibre carbon piece that wraps around the kinked seat tube. The Fox shock is semi-embedded in its mount and an internal spacer can be removed to give 120mm rather than 100mm of travel. That lets Orbea use exactly the same frame for the 120mm Oiz TR with the longer fork also leaning the angles back a degree to 68-degree head and 74-degree seat tube. Either way 44mm offset forks give a more stable baseline geometry but faster steering feel, particularly if you use Orbea’s ‘MyO’ program to spec a short stem. There’s a 27.5-inch wheel option on the small size bikes, too.
Inside Line cabling keeps the rear shock remote cable totally hidden within the broad, flat top tube and the combined fork, shock and dropper post (if fitted) Squidlock remote lever is a really neat piece. Other control lines are clamped taut and rattle-free (an issue on the previous bike) and it’s compatible with Fox Live Valve electronic damping. There’s also room for two bottles on L and XL sizes and a small frame-mounted chain guide for extra transmission security.
While the flex stay is engineered for a more sensitive suspension feel, the new shock kinematic keeps it progressive and communicative rather than mushy so you rarely need to use the lockout. Bottom out is more controlled if you push it to the limit and the whole bike is impressively stiff when you’re working the tyres to the limit or stamping down max power on a climb.
By only building up complete bikes once they’re ordered and then supplying direct to you or a local dealer, Orbea can strip costs significantly compared to conventional shop-bought bikes but still give you convenient support. It also offers a range of four different colourways or a complete custom paint option. While it’s excellent value for a SRAM AXS-equipped bike, £7000 is still a vast sum of cash but the same carbon frame (with an alloy linkage) is used down to the £3200 Oiz M30, with triple butted alloy framed Oiz H models starting at just £2100.
Cannondale’s superlight, single-legged XC racer has been honed for high-velocity smoothness over nearly two decades of arse-kicking competitions. That means even this relatively affordable ‘BallisTec Carbon’ framed version will likely sneak under 11kg if you turn the tyres tubeless. It also gets the distinctive single strut, Left Ocho Carbon 100mm fork and Cannondale’s HollowGram carbon rims. If you really want to go all out though the Scalpel SI Hi-MOD World Cup comes with SRAM XX1 Eagle wireless transmission and Enve wheels and finishing kit for a 9kg weight and £9.5K price tag.
Whatever the model, both fork and Fox rear shock use a linked remote control switch on the bars to lock them simultaneously for sprinting. That’s particularly useful on the Scalpel as the flex-stay suspension is surprisingly mobile under power in open mode. That’s great for speed and reducing fatigue over rough ground but you’ll definitely want to hit that remote button if you’re charging hard on smoother surfaces. While it’s weird looking down at just one leg at first, the Lefty fork is much stiffer tracking than most lightweight peers. The suspension performance is okay on the latest versions, too, although finding the sensitive V-control sweet-spot over bigger hits can take a while. Also while the front end holds a line really well, the rear end is noticeably more twangy and flexible, straying offline and twisting tangibly if you put serious horsepower through it.
The long offset fork and 69.5-degree head angle also set up a steering dynamic that tends to lunge rather than lean in progressively, so that takes some getting used to. The short reach also makes it nervy rather than stable on more challenging trails. The cantilever stub axle specific front hub and asymmetric Si rear potentially complicate upgrading later, but the Stans No Tubes designed rims build into a fitness-flattering wheelset anyway. The Schwalbe Racing Ray and Racing Ralph tyre combo are well chosen for serious speed and they’re tubeless-ready to save more weight and increase traction and ride flow if you go low on pressures. There’s an obligatory ‘trail’ version in the shape of the 120mm fork, 115mm rear travel Scalpel SI Carbon SE, but slack seat tube and tall ride height make that less convincing than it could be as a trail-tamer. Standing out on any start line and then charging head down round the race track is definitely where the Scalpel family are still most at home though.
The original hard-kicking Blur was a breakthrough bike for Santa Cruz, delivering its direct driving VPP twin link suspension tech in a short-travel but trail-tough format for blisteringly quick and punchy performance. Nearly 20 years on the latest Blur shares the same high-velocity vibe as using an evolved - but still power optimised - version of VPP suspension. The full carbon frame uses a single-piece, double-strut rear end and stout, short linkages to tie front and rear tightly together. It’s tough enough to be covered by a no-questions-asked lifetime warranty and there’s no rider weight limit on the Blur either. The way the VPP setup stiffens when you stamp down the power, but opens up to swallow serious trail slaps when you’re off the gas, makes it an intuitive and interactive predator on the trail. Practical touches like a screw-in bottom bracket, grease ported pivot bearings, frame armour and fully sleeved internal control lines make it happy to hunt down Strava KOMs day after day and keep servicing easy, too. That leaves it slightly heavier than pure racers at 2.5kg for a medium frame, but every time we’ve ridden a Blur we’ve had an absolute riot that would leave most race bikes trembling.
Reach is reasonably roomy at 460mm on a large but the 69-degree head angle is still fast and furious for hustling tight singletrack and pilot prioritising on flat-out descents. The impressive accuracy of the frame definitely helps tough out the most treacherous sections though and rearward axle path means impact appetite is impressive for a 100mm frame. If you want a bit more speed stability then the TR versions come with a 110mm fork to tip the angles back half a degree and grippier Maxxis Rekon rather than Aspen tyres. Santa Cruz’s own bombproof Reserve Carbon 25 wheels are standard on top models and optional on cheaper bikes, with the heavier ‘Carbon C’ frame used to offer three cheaper complete bike options.
Pivot didn’t mess around when it set out to speed up its well-proven Mach 429 race bike, with the all-new Mach 4 SL carving 340g of carbon off its predecessor to come in at 1840g for a medium frame and shock. It has not sacrificed control either as you still get a custom-tuned DW Link suspension system from go-fast guru Dave Weagle. While the twin linkage system holds a superb skill and fitness boosting line between pedal efficiency, tenacious traction and drop control, the Mach 4 SL is also one of the few Fox Live Valve-ready frames. This system uses an array of sensors, a central battery and brain to monitor trail inputs and automatically adjust fork and rear shock damping to respond perfectly to every load, from peak pedal torque to the ugliest impacts or rock garden charges. Shimano electric fans should note it’s not Di2 ready, but there are SRAM AXS Live Valve versions on the complete bike menu if you can pony up €14,400.
Compact suspension architecture and chassis layout keep the Mach 4 SL surprisingly tight in terms of tracking and the ultra-consistent suspension control lets you push the limits with significantly less panic than normal.
Geometry is still spicy from a trail bike point of view, but the 69-degree head and 460mm reach (size large) are reasonably confident and roomy for a race bike. There are 120mm fork options to tip the head back to 68-degrees and there’s space for aggressive 2.35in tyres if you want to fit tougher rubber.
Pivot’s bikes are always beautifully put together and relatively rare too, making them a genuine premium head-turner as well as a fantastic podium-hunting machine.
Mondraker was the first major brand to use extreme DH bred slack and super-long geometry on its trail bikes and now it has gone super-progressive on the new XC FS bike. A 68-degree head tube is slack but not crazy for a 100mm bike, but the short offset fork increases stability further. It’s the 480mm reach (size large) and 76.5-degree seat angle that pushes the Podium’s Forward Geometry into the flat-out freak category. If you’ve not ridden it before - and we appreciate a lot of XC riders won’t have tried numbers anywhere close to these - the most obvious gain from a longer, slacker bike is the sense of time to deal with trouble.
The extra front-end stability and centred, lowered weight makes the front end far more planted and capable of ploughing through the rowdiest terrain rather than getting tripped up or throwing you over the bars. The short 50-60mm stems keep steering feather-light for tweaking traction and flicking the Podium into and out of corners. Fox’s latest Step Cast 32 fork is significantly stiffer and more able to cope with aggressive lines while the FIT4 damping is the benchmark for big control from short travel. An efficiency optimised ‘XCO’ version of Mondraker’s highly evolved Zero Suspension uses a trunnion top mount for maximum sensitivity and a low shock rate for impressive impact appetite. Add the excellent all-conditions trustworthy, but still rapid-rolling, Maxxis Rekon tyres on our favourite 1450g DT Swiss XRC1200 wheels and you’ve got a superbly controlled set-up for flat-out technical charging. It’ll even take 2.4in tyres if you need more float.
The drop-dead gorgeous Podium frame with muscular, power-proof down tube, straddle seatpost and chainstays contrasting with super thin seat stays and top tube comes in under 2kg. Carbon wheels and a cutaway leg fork keep the weight of the RR version just over 10kg for blistering acceleration and agility. While dual lockout is standard on all bikes the Zero suspension delivers excellent pedalling and traction even fully open. The super-short head tube and steep seat angle create a fantastic position for attacking the steepest climbs and you even get a Rotor power meter as standard to track your torque in training and pace your race to perfection. Radical riders will find the fixed - rather than dropper - seat post frustrating on more technical sections but the frame has routing for a stealth dropper as well as Fox’s Live Valve auto suspension if you’re feeling really flash. Even as it stands this is a truly radical race bike that looks as stunning as it rides and has already repaid five years of development by the Spanish company with some impressive World Cup results in 2019.
The bike closing fastest on the ‘winningest’ crown of Scott’s Spark is the new Lux from German cost-effective champions Canyon. Obviously pilots like Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Mathieu Van Der Poel are a big part of that rapidly growing trophy collection, but having blasted the Lux round a World Cup track ourselves we know it’s certainly not slowing them down.
Despite a lightweight 2.1kg, flex stay frame the power kick from the Lux is seriously solid. The angular mainframe also lets you muscle maximum upper body power through to the cranks and back wheel for an MVP-style explosive attack. Despite only weighing 1680g the broad, carbon rimmed Reynolds TR309 wheelset is very stiff and precise under power. Add super quick Maxxis Aspen tyres and you’ve got a proper performance wheel pack.
The suspension is set up perfectly for the Lux’s predatory character, too. A deliberately low shock ratio keeps the feel taut off the top but gives the Canyon an impressively controlled response to serious slams, so you can go full gas through any situation. Dual front and rear hard lockout means you can flick to fully rigid for the furious first or final 100m of a race.
The lightweight RockShox SID fork, steep 70-degree head angle and short wheelbase mean the emphasis is on you to keep it straight and safe in tougher technical sections though. Traditional geometry fans will love that immediate responsiveness though and the Lux SL range gets a 110mm fork for stability plus a dropper post on the top three models.
If you want more travel and technical ability for marathon racing then Canyon’s brand new Neuron CF SLX 9.0 could be perfect, with 1130/120mm of suspension, slacker angles and a frame weight of only 2.28kg bringing the whole bike in under 11.8kg.
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Full-suspension mountain bikes: everything you need to know
1. Why full suspension?
On a smooth surface such as a fire-road climb or flat-out sprint down the start/finish straight nothing is faster than a super-light hardtail like the ones in our sub 10kg XCO bikes buyers guide here. If you’ve got the skills you can skip and skim them through some pretty technical terrain, too.
When the surface gets relentlessly rough or there are big drops and rocks involved, full-suspension sucks up bike-stopping impacts to help you sustain speed. It also keeps the rear wheel more consistently connected for better technical climbing traction and cornering speed. In most cases, full-suspension mountain bikes for racing will have a remote lockout so you can turn them into pseudo-hardtails at the flick of a switch for sprinting. That’s why you’ll rarely see multiple World and Olympic champion Nino Schurter off his Scott Spark or his nemesis Mathieu Van Der Poel not riding his Canyon Lux.
2. How much travel?
100mm (4in) is definitely the default amount of real-wheel movement for race bikes. It’s enough to make a noticeable difference in control off drops and through rock gardens but not so much that it disturbs pedalling or geometry even at full travel. There’s no saggy middle stroke section for suspension fettlers to worry about and it syncs well with the lightest suspension forks. You can get that much travel from flexible stays rather than pivots and linkages, chainstays and rear shock lengths can all be kept to a minimum which saves weight.
There are some 120mm bikes that are still light and tight enough for racing though, as well as shorter travel bikes like BMC’s TeamElite softail or Trek’s recently unveiled 60mm travel Supercaliber, with it’s unique ‘pump-action-shotgun-style' shock arrangement.
Because they can go faster on more challenging courses, the latest full-suspension race bikes tend to have slightly more ‘trail-style’ geometry with 67-69-degree head angles for more stable steering. Top tube reach figures are growing slightly on some bikes to compensate for shorter stems. We’re still talking about race-focused bikes built for close-combat responsiveness, not short-travel trail bikes for flat-out mountain descents here though. So while there are some 120mm (5in) travel bikes with identical geometry to 150mm (6in) travel enduro bikes, they’re in a different listing.
4. Capable components
The more progressive riders on the circuit are also fitting trail-style components to their race bikes and we’re seeing that reflected in some off the shelf bikes, too. In terms of specifics, that can be as simple as wider handlebars (that you can trim down to taste) or enough space in the frame to run wider tyres. Trek is the only brand brave enough to fit 2.4in rubber as standard on its new Top Fuel though. Most of the latest short-travel suspension frames can take an internally routed dropper seatpost too, although it’s still rare for bikes to come with them fitted.
5. Worth the weight?
While recreational riders have been enjoying the full suspension benefits of better control, reduced fatigue and increased speed sustain over rough terrain, the true test of what’s fastest will always be pro racers. From that perspective, the fact that most top male racers choose FS for the majority of their races (just using hardtails for the smoother, high altitude courses) is very telling. However, it’s worth noting that take-up tends to be lower among female racers where the effect of an extra kg of frame weight is proportionally a lot more significant for lighter, less powerful riders.
Full suspension isn’t just a cost in weight either, as more complicated frames equipped with several hundred bucks of shock absorber and pivot bearing, along with increased construction costs will always hit your wallet harder than an equivalent hardtail.