Trail bikes are jack’s of all trades, and are designed to be a one bike quiver. No, you probably won't set a record time down an EWS course, nor will you be stealing any KOMs or QOMs from XC whippets up a techy climb, but you'll be able to navigate both without being pushed to the ragged edge.
It's because of this versatility that trail bikes are so popular, so we've put together a list of our favourites.
BEST TRAIL BIKES: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Mountain bikes have been getting longer and lower as time has progressed. With wheel and suspension technology continually improving and brands embracing new fork offsets; trail bikes are becoming ever more capable.
Expect to see head angles between 65- and 68-degrees and seat angles between 74- and 75-degrees.
Only a few years ago, travel was a bike defining characteristic, but that's no longer the case. We're seeing XC bikes with over 100mm of travel, trail bikes pushing up against 160mm of squish and enduro bikes that bottom out at 150mm.
Trail bikes can range from 120mm of travel all the way up to about 160mm, and quite often we see forks that are about 10mm longer than rear shocks. Added travel at the front gives a bike a bit composure on the downhill without making it feel like you're steering a boat, while a shorter stroke at the rear makes it easier for designers to keep the chainstays compact.
While hardtail trail bikes are becoming less common, there are still a few hold outs. The simplicity of the frame keeps the price down, and expect to find a ~130-150mm fork and 29-inch or 27.5+ wheels and tyres.
3. Wheel size
Over the years the wheel size debate has become as hotly contested as whether you heard Yanny or Laurel (it’s totally Laurel by the way). Trail bikes take advantage of both wheel sizes, and historically if you wanted an agile and manoeuvrable ride, 27.5 was your ticket, while if you were looking for rollover and speed, you'd want a 29er. However, as things have progressed, brands seem to be embracing the larger of the wheel sizes.
Because a 27.5-inch wheel with a 2.8in tyre is roughly the same diameter as a 29er with 2.3in rubber, quite a lot of frames designed for bigger wheels will be compatible with both.
4. Frame material
Alloy frames are cheaper to produce, so it's no surprise to find them at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, while carbon dominates the upper end. There are great bikes in both materials, and ultimately your budget will determine what your new bike is made from. Some brands offer an alloy version of a frame specced with top-end components for a fraction of the cost of the carbon frame with the same build.
THE BEST TRAIL BIKES YOU YOU CAN BUY
Trek Fuel EX 5
Entry level charger
Wheel size: 29- or 27.5-inch depending on size | Rear travel: 130mm
Trek has just given the Fuel EX a makeover for 2020, with a longer reach in each size, a slacker 66-degree head angle and steeper 75-degree seat angle. The rear shock still clocks in at 130mm but Trek has bumped the fork up to 140mm. This translates into a bike that is stable over burly terrain but can still scamper up steep and techy climbs.
Gone is the women-specific version of the Fuel EX, with Trek consolidating its bikes into a single range, however, the XS and S size frames will roll on 27.5-inch wheels and feature a curved top tube to maximise standover height. Also nixed for 2020 is the Full Floater suspension system that has been a hallmark of the Fuel EX, with the rear shock mount going from the seat tube to a fixed point on the downtube — the brand says this makes for a stiffer frame and better tyre clearance.
The Fuel EX 5 is the entry-level model and comes with an alloy frame 1x10 drivetrain, RockShox Recon Fork and Delux Select + shock, and a 130mm dropper.
Specialized Stumpjumper Carbon Comp
A trail bike that will put a smile on any rider's face
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 140mm
Specialized offers the Stumpjumper in a huge range of spec, travel options, and in both wheel sizes, however, the Carbon Comp version finds a happy medium between cost and components.
The Carbon Comp model is made from the brand's Fact 11 carbon the Stumpjumer uses Specialized's four-bar Horst Link rear suspensions that offer fantastic small-bump sensitivity and performs well under braking. However, when the trail points up expect to use the climb switch.
With 140mm of rear travel matched to 150mm at the front, the new Stumpjumper does everything well. Don't get us wrong, there are bikes out there the climb or descend better but there aren't many that do both quite so well with this much travel. If you live in the US, the Carbon Comp version of the Stumpy comes with a SRAM NX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain, while Australia and UK riders get Shimano SLX.
Yeti SB 130
The most fun you can have on two wheels, but comes at a cost
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 130mm
Hailing from Golden, Colorado, Yeti's SB130 is a bike that rewards aggressive riding but can be a handful if you hesitate. With 130mm of rear travel, the SB 130 feels like it has considerably more squish thanks to the Switch Infinity suspension.
The SB 130 loves speed, and the geometry it takes a bit of getting used to; you need to be pretty far forward to get the front wheel to grip — at first it feels like you're going to fly over the bars should you hit a bump, and when you sit up the bike will understeer.
With a head angle of 65.5 degrees, a 77-degree seat angle and stack and reach figures of 614.5mm and 460.2mm in a size medium, the SB130 is on the progressive end of the geometry chart.
Giant Trance 29 Advanced Pro 1
Versatile short travel 29er
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 115mm
After standing on a soapbox and proclaiming that 27.5-inch was the wheel size, Giant has backtracked and given a second look to larger hoops.
The latest iteration of the Trance 29er is precisely what you'd hope for from a short-travel trail bike. From burly downhill runs to extended techy climbs designed to test you, the Trance glides through it all.
With only 115mm of rear travel, Giant has employed its newfound 'quality not quantity' suspension ethos. The Maestro suspension setup doesn't leave you missing the extra squish, while making mincemeat of small bumps and big drops alike, with enough left over to help you stay out of trouble. The Advance Pro 1 29er spec is also feathery light tipping our scales at 12.6kg (size M), and comes out of the box with carbon wheels.
Ibis Ripmo GX
Long-travel mountain goat
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 145mm
With a 160mm fork and 145mm of travel at the rear, the Ripmo is a bike that allows for point and pray descending while maintaining agile and playful handling characteristics. When the trail points up, the 76-degree effective seat angle and the DW-link rear suspension combine for velcro-like traction.
While one could argue the Ripmo falls more into the category of an enduro bike (heck the Ibis EWS team chooses this bike), we still class it as a long-travel trail bike because the suspension doesn't quite offer the pillowy bottomless feel, it's a bit tighter and firmer.
The Ripmo GX is anything but cheap, Ibis has never been shy about its boutique status, and we think it’s well worth the cash.
YT Jeffsy CF Comp
Award-winning trail bike rebuilt from the ground up
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 140mm
Revamped earlier this year, nearly every angle of the new YT Jeffsy has been adjusted, with the bike getting slacker and longer. With a flip-chip adjustable geometry, the head angle is now 65.5/67-degrees, the seat angle 74.5/75-degrees, the chainstays are 435mm, the reach is longer at 454mm in a size medium, and YT has even added a size XXL to its range.
One of only a few bikes with matching travel figures, the Jeffsy CF Comp sees 140mm front and rear. YT has lopped the top of the seat tube off, not only allowing for a longer dropper but also enabling riders to choose frames based on length, not saddle height. In a shrewd move, YT designed the frame to cover the pivots on the seat stays to keep the elements out.
Also new is the Thirstmaster 4000, which uses magnets to hold your water bottle instead of a traditional cage. For the price of admission, you get a Shimano Deore XT drivetrain, Fox Float Performance elite suspension, SRAM Guide R brakes, E*Thirteen cranks, wheels and tyres, and a Renthal Cockpit.
Santa Cruz Hightower X01
Stiff and supple
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 140mm
Billed as the bike which 'resembles your favourite mixtape compilation', the Santa Cruz Hightower features a new lower-link-mounted shock design and flip-chip-adjustable geometry that accommodates both 29-inch and 27.5+ wheels and tyres.
The new VPP lower link suspension mount is said to create a near-linear leverage curve, meaning it gobbles chunder and Santa Cruz goes as far as saying it still maintains the progressiveness normally reserved for its V10 DH bike.
With 140mm of rear travel and a 150mm fork, the new Hightower sees a 65.5-degree head angle, 77-degree seat angle, 433mm chainstays, and stack and reach figures of 610mm and 452mm in a size medium.
One for the speed demons
Wheel size: 29-inch | Rear travel: 120mm
The fourth generation of the Ripley borrows quite a few geometry cues from its burlier sibling, the Ripmo. With a 65.5-degree seat angle, the reach has increased by 45mm across every size, the seat angle now comes in at 76-degrees and the chainstays are 12mm shorter, now measuring 432mm.
At the back the Ripley gets Dave Weagle’s DW-link suspension; however, the linkage has been updated to reduce weight and allow for more seat post insertion.
You could be forgiven for thinking the Ripley is just a mini-Ripmo because they look eerily similar. When you swing a leg over the Ripley V4 however, it's light, lively and extremely efficient under pedalling. It's a bike to be ridden over the top of the trail, not in it but the geometry will help you get out of trouble when things go pear-shaped.
Kona Big Hanzo
Light on the wallet, heavy on the fun
Wheel size: 29-inch or 27.5+ | Rear travel: N/A
Hardy hardtails aren't for everyone but if you're looking to ditch the rear suspension, the Kona Big Hanzo is the bike for you. Credit where credit is due, Kona is the brand that shifted hardtails from just being for beginners and XC whippets, to do-everything-trail-munching machines.
The Hanzo has come a long way since the original and now there are nearly a dozen version between the Hanzo and Big Hanzo. The Big Hanzo is based around an alloy frame, a relatively slack geometry and is compatible with both 29-inch or 27.5+ wheels and tyres — we prefer the latter for the added damping and grip.
There's a 130mm RockShox Recon RL Solo Air fork out front, a SRAM NX/SX Eagle drivetrain and a Tranz-X Dropper post.
Canyon Neuron 9.0 SL
Best for those whose vocab doesn't include rowdy
Wheel size: 27.5-inch and 29-inch | Rear travel: 130mm
Falling squarely between the Canyon's cross-country and enduro models is the Neuron. Rolling on 27.5-inch wheels in the XS and S sizes the Neuron gets 29er hoops for the rest of the range.
Riding like over suspended XC bike with a short wheelbase and reach, the geometry is on the conservative side - combining with a firm suspension tune to keep handling and pedalling inputs crisp.
Not everyone is after a rowdy bike and if your home trails aren't rough and tumble, it's easy to overbike. It's here where the Neuron will shine.