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29er Trail Bikes — A Guide + Comparisons

Blister 27.5 Trailbike Guide Noah Bodman

Intro

29ers have come a long way since their inception, and the latest crop of big-wheeled rigs are better than ever. But that also means that there’s an even bigger variety of 29ers out there, from purebred XC race bikes to (*gasp*) full-blown DH bikes — plus a ton of compelling options in between. So it can be tough to figure out what’s what, and then narrowing down which bike will suit you best can feel practically impossible.

Furthermore, bikes aren’t cheap, so you definitely don’t want to waste thousands of dollars on the wrong ride.

So we’ve assembled here a comparison of sixteen 29ers to help you sort it all out, and maybe introduce you to some bikes that weren’t on your list, but should be.

And if you’re not sure whether 29ers are your thing, you should also definitely check out our Guide + Comparisons of 27.5” Trail Bikes.

What’s in this Guide

Our 29er Guide covers a pretty wide assortment of bikes that range from short-travel trail bikes that blur the line with XC race rigs, to a few options that could probably mingle with dedicated DH rigs. So why not compartmentalize this a bit more?

Because we’re dealing with a huge middle ground here, and there are a bunch of bikes in the 120 – 140 mm travel range that are worth comparing to both their shorter-travel and longer-travel brethren.

We should also note that some of these bikes bikes can be set up with 27.5+ wheels, but this comparison is based solely on our time on these bikes with 29” wheels. We’re also not including any 29+ bikes, since those are sufficiently different that it’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison.

We will be adding more bikes to this guide as we review more bikes, and there are still a lot of great bikes that aren’t included in here. So this list isn’t exhaustive, but it contains legit information about the bikes we’ve spent time on, and we’ll stand by the info and our comparisons.

How We’ve Ordered the Guide

The bikes here are listed in order from most XC / climbing-oriented, to most downhill-oriented. But this isn’t to say that some of the bikes higher on the list don’t descend pretty well, or that some of the bikes lower on the list aren’t decent climbers.

And it’s worth underscoring that this isn’t a ranking of which bike is “best” or “worst” — there isn’t a terrible bike on this list. What the rankings are designed to do is to help you find a bike that will work best for where and how you ride.

Reminder: Setup Matters

And as with anything bike related, this guide comes with a significant caveat: setup matters.

With suspension tweaks and some componentry swaps, almost any bike can be made to climb a bit better or handle rowdy descents more competently. So the rankings we’re presenting here are based on a mid-level, stock-build kit, and we’re basing it off of what we think the bike is best at, not necessarily what it could do with a bunch of changes.

Other Info We’ve Included

We’ve included the model year of the bike we rode, as well as some measurements. Some bikes have seen changes to the build kits since we rode them, and one or two bikes have seen mild revisions to the geometry. But we feel these comparisons generally hold true for the current versions of the bikes as well.

We’ve also included a few basic stats on the bikes we rode, which are abbreviated as follows:

  • RT (Rear Travel)
  • FT (Front Travel)
  • R (Reach for a size Medium)
  • HA (Head Angle)
  • CS (Chainstay Length)

For a more in-depth discussion of these bikes (including more thoughts on geometry, fit, and how they ride), check out our full reviews.

THE BIKES

(Most Climbing-Oriented to Most Downhill-Oriented)

2015 Salsa Horsethief Carbon

RT: 120 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 428 mm | HA: 68.1° | CS: 437 mm

The Horsethief us the most capable uphill steed on this list, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for an XC bike. The Horsethief still handles rough descents well, but a slightly steeper geometry and suspension that’s a bit less supple means that it’s less inclined to just smash through rough terrain. The flip side is that it feels more efficient than most of the other trail bikes on this list. If you’re looking for a comfortable bike that really irons out every little bump in the trail, the Django 29 or Transition Smuggler might be a better bet. But if you’re more inclined to sprint out of corners and pump every little transition, the Horsethief carries speed impressively well when ridden actively.

2016 Banshee Phantom

RT: 105 mm | FT: 120 mm | R: 420 mm | HA: 68° (mid setting) | CS: 442 mm

With 105 mm travel, the Banshee Phantom is the shortest-travel bike on this list, and it gains some efficiency simply by virtue of not having much squish in the back. That said, the Phantom is a fairly heavy, overbuilt bike, and it still has a bit of pedal bob. This makes the Phantom a bit of a tough one to place on this list: it’s too heavy and overbuilt to really hang with something like the Horsethief on climbs, but it’s not supple or stable enough to be a strong contender on descents. Given Banshee’s reputation for building burly bikes, the target audience for the Phantom might just be riders who tend to break stuff but still want a 29er.

2016 Pivot Mach 429 Trail

RT: 116 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 409 mm | HA: 67.5° | CS: 443.2 mm

The Mach 429 Trail is Pivot’s beefed-up take on their Mach 429 SL XC race bike, and it rides like it. Although it comes with a bit more travel and a more trail-oriented parts spec, the Mach 429 Trail retains most of the snappy feel you’d expect to get out of a true XC race bike. It really stiffens up when you get on the pedals, it favors sprinting, and it offers a very damped ride. A skilled rider should be able to squeeze plenty of speed out of the Mach 429 Trail on technical descents, but this will take some finesse, since the bike leans toward the harsh and twitchy end of the spectrum. For a bike that you could take to a race one day and take on an epic endurance ride the next day, the Mach 429 Trail might just fit the bill. If you’re looking for playfulness or stability, many of the bikes below are going to suit you better.

2017 Yeti SB 4.5

RT: 114 mm | FT: 140 mm | R: 421 mm | HA: 67.4° | CS: 437 mm

Yeti has a particular way of designing their bikes that is fairly consistent throughout their lineup, and the SB4.5 is no different. It is substantially overforked, with quite a bit more travel in the front than in the rear. And it’s slacker than many of the other bikes that are immediately above and below it on this list. Like many of the Yeti bikes, the rear suspension feels fairly taught – it snaps out of turns and it feels pretty zippy while on the pedals, but it’s not a cushy, ultra forgiving ride. The bike feels pretty racy, and the progressive geometry and longer travel fork go a long way towards making the bike manageable when speeds pick up or when the trail gets rough. But compared to bikes like the Devinci Django or the Transition Smuggler, the SB4.5 feels less forgiving. It does, however, feel like a bike that could competently pull double duty as a beer league XC race bike and a short travel trail bike that can be pushed pretty hard.

2016 Rocky Mountain Instinct (BC Edition)

RT: 130 mm | FT: 140 mm | R: 400 mm (mid setting) | HA: 67.5° (mid setting) | CS: 452 mm

The Rocky Mountain Instinct has a bit more travel (130 mm) than some bikes that are placed further down this list, but its suspension design isn’t particularly active. The Instinct’s taut suspension, combined with a respectable weight and great geometry, make it a fantastic climber. Despite having more travel, it rivals the Horsethief on the ups. It’s not, however, quite as strong on the descents – the suspension gets kicked around by small and mid-sized obstacles far more than the Django 29, the Smuggler, or the Following. The Instinct’s neutral geometry and fantastic adjustability via the Ride-9 system help out a bit, but in terms of ironing out the trail and maintaining steady traction on the rear wheel, it still falls short of the best options in this class.

2017 Devinci Django 29

RT: 120 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 440 mm | HA: 68° (low setting) | CS: 434 mm

The Django 29, along with the Transition Smuggler, is probably the bike on this list that I recommend to the broadest range of people. It’s fun on rowdy descents (although not as stable as the Following), it’s plush and comfortable on long alpine rides (although not as light as the Instinct or Horsethief), and it climbs respectably well (although not as well as the Instinct). In other words, it hits a nice middle ground that makes it work well on a wide range of trails, and in turn, appeal to a wide range of people. The downsides? It’s a little heavy, but upgrading to the carbon version is worthwhile, and it comes with a lifetime warranty, which is relatively rare these days. It’s a more well rounded bike than the more DH focused Evil Following, but it’s pretty similar to the Transition Smuggler. I give the Django 29 the slight edge for climbing, and the Smuggler is a slightly better descender, but they’re pretty close.

2016 Transition Smuggler

RT: 115 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 432 mm | HA: 67.5° | CS: 436 mm

The Transition Smuggler, like the Django 29, is a competent bike in a wide variety of situations, and it should appeal to a lot of people. Compared to the Django 29, the Smuggler gets a slight edge on rowdy descents, but it gives up a little ground in terms of climbing and pedaling efficiency. Also like the Django 29, the Smuggler isn’t the lightest in its class, partly due to the fact that it’s (as of this writing) still only available in aluminum. It doesn’t haul quite as much ass on descents as the Following (or some of the longer travel 29ers), but it’s much more manageable on slower speed “normal” trails.

2016 Ibis Ripley LS

RT: 120 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 411 mm | HA: 67.5° | CS: 442 mm

The Ripley LS is one of the shorter bikes in this comparison, and that helps to make it nimble. It is a also a very efficient pedalling bike, putting it at the top of my list when it comes time to log serious miles. The rear end offers enough smooth, efficient travel to make the Ripley capable in rough terrain and to keep things fun. The Ripley LS doesn’t hold your hand when the going gets tough, but a skilled pilot can have fun on it in most terrain. The only time I find fault with it is at high speeds where the short wheelbase prevents it from being as stable as it might be.

2015 Evil Following

RT: 120 mm | FT: 130 mm | R: 419 mm | HA: 66.8° (low setting) | CS: 432 mm

Of the shorter travel 29ers, the Following is the most appropriate for going as fast as possible downhill. It’s slack and stable, and the progressive suspension design handles big hits better than most. That slack geometry becomes a bit of a liability on the climbs though, as the front end gets pretty wandery on steep climbs. The rear end is also one of the flexiest in the class, which is less than awesome in hard corners. The Following is a better descender than any other 29er we’ve ridden that has a comparable amount of travel (120 mm), and it even beats out some longer travel bikes like the Rocky Mountain Instinct.

2017 Santa Cruz Hightower

RT: 135 mm | FT: 140 mm | R: 430 mm | HA: 67° | CS: 435 mm

The Hightower is an extraordinarily efficient bike, with very little pedal bob or wasted effort. It’s also a fairly playful bike that’s better at popping and pumping through rolls in the trail than simply smashing through everything. The rear suspension feels pretty taught and unforgiving in the early part of its travel, but it does a good job of taking care of bigger impacts and rarely feels overwhelmed. That less-than-supple initial stroke in the suspension does, however, at times make it a little trickier to maintain traction in chunky corners. The Hightower bears some similarities to the Intense Carbine (which makes sense, since they both run on the VPP suspension design), but the Hightower feels more playful, and is considerably more willing to be ridden actively. Purely in terms of absorbing bumps and overall playfulness, the Hightower is actually pretty similar to the YT Jeffsy 29, but the Hightower sits a bit higher up on the list just because it’s so efficient when pedaling.

2015 Intense Carbine 29

RT: 125-140 mm | FT: 160 mm | R: 416 mm | HA: 67° | CS: 451 mm

Of the longer travel 29ers, the Carbine is one of the most efficient pedalers, and it’s also somewhat unique in that the travel can be reduced from 140 mm to 125 mm (making it even more efficient). It’s not as supple as the Niner WFO or the Specialized Enduro 29, but a decent amount of travel combined with big wheels make up for that in a lot of situations. It has more stability and capable than its numbers suggest, but that does mean that it isn’t a particularly playful bike.

2017 YT Jeffsy 29

RT: 140 mm | FT: 140 mm | R: 425 mm | HA: 67° | (low setting) CS: 435 mm

The Jeffsy gets mentioned a fair amount mostly because YT offers some pretty competitive pricing, but putting budgetary considerations aside for a moment, the Jeffsy is an entirely competent bike. It falls a bit more on the playful side of things, and it doesn’t do quite as good a job at ironing out the trail as something like the Niner WFO. But once it’s up to speed, the Jeffsy feels pretty nimble for a longer-travel 29er. Other than the suspension, the Jeffsy is a well rounded bike that isn’t pushing the boundaries of what is considered normal, which probably means it’ll work well for a wider variety of people. It doesn’t pedal quite as well as the Intense Carbine, the frame isn’t quite as burly and stiff as the Pivot Switchblade, and it doesn’t truck through chunky terrain with the composure of the Yeti SB5.5, but it’s entirely adequate at all of those things.

2017 Pivot Switchblade

RT: 135 mm | FT: 150 mm | R: 439 mm | HA: 67.25° | CS: 428 mm

With 135 mm of travel, the Pivot Switchblade isn’t the longest-travel bike on this list, but it’s slacker and lower than most, and the frame is decidedly stout. The Switchblade’s suspension is a bit less active and is more inclined to pump through terrain than smash through it, and I also had difficulty getting the rear end to feel like it matched the fork well (which is a similar problem I’d had on the Pivot Mach 6). Suspension issues aside, the Switchblade has some of the shortest chainstays on the market, which, combined with its stiff frame, make for a more playful bike. If the Yeti SB5.5 is race bred and wants to take the racing line, the Switchblade is the bike that wants to mess around, hit jumps, and maybe session certain parts of the trail. The less-supple suspension combined with average pedaling efficiency and a bit of extra weight mean that it’s not the bike I’d pick for epic backcountry adventures (the Django 29 or Smuggler would win out there), but for hitting jumps and getting rad, the Switchblade has lots of potential. I’d call it a longer-travel, burlier version of the Evil Following.

2015 Niner WFO

RT: 150 mm | FT: 160 mm | R: 418 mm | HA: 67° | CS: 443 mm

The Niner WFO’s suspension is more supple than many of the bikes in this class, which can make it feel a bit wallowy at times. The WFO’s geometry is also a bit on the short side, which helps the bike retain some maneuverability, but also means it’s less stable than the best options when smashing through rough terrain at speed. That slight instability was also accentuated by the not-stiffest-in-class frame, which exhibited a bit of flex when pushed hard. While the WFO pedals decently, it’s not as strong on the climbs as the Carbine or any of the shorter travel options on this list. The WFO would be a great option for someone who wants the big wheels and longer travel cush to cruise over rough trails, but is less concerned about pushing the bike as hard as possible on the descents.

2016 Yeti SB5.5c

RT: 140 mm | FT: 160 mm | R: 421 mm | HA: 66.5° | CS: 437 mm

Yeti’s SB5.5c is perhaps the best bike on this list when truly pushed hard. It’s not as cushy as the WFO, or even some of the shorter-travel bikes like the Smuggler. But at race pace, its suspension does what it needs to do and nothing more — it absorbs bumps and maintains traction, but isn’t so active that it feels sluggish. And the bike’s geometry follows this trend; it’s less playful than the WFO or the Following, and it doesn’t devour truly rough terrain quite as well as the Enduro 29. But even though it’s slightly slacker and longer than the Enduro 29, it still feels a bit more maneuverable in tight situations, likely due to it’s shorter travel, and less active suspension. Going uphill, the SB5.5c does surprisingly well — you’re not going to win the race to the top, but good geometry, decent pedaling efficiency, and a relatively light weight mean that it actually climbs better than some shorter-travel bikes like the Evil Following. And the SB5.5c may well be the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden when it comes to descending — the Enduro 29 wins in a straight line down truly rough stuff, but the SB5.5c corners better and feels more efficient on everything that isn’t pointed down the fall line. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most fun, nor is it the ideal bike for every conceivable situation. But if I’m looking for a 29er enduro race bike, this one probably tops the list.

2014 Specialized Enduro 29

RT: 155 mm | FT: 160 mm | R: 425 mm | HA: 67.5° | CS: 430 mm

The Specialized Enduro 29 has the most travel (155 mm) of any bike on this list, and perhaps unsurprisingly, comes out as the winner when it comes to pure descending prowess. While a few bikes on here are longer and/or slacker, the Enduro 29’s extra travel combined with its big wheels mean that it hauls ass down rough descents better than anything else in this class. That said, the Enduro 29 can be a handful in tight situations, and more than most 29ers, I notice that it takes some work to force it through corners. The suspension on the Enduro 29 is more supple and better at ironing out the trail than the SB5.5, but it also makes the bike a little slower to react. In terms of climbing, the Enduro 29 isn’t the most efficient pedaler and shorter chainstays hurt it a bit on steeper climbs, but a reasonable weight means it isn’t a terrible chore to get it to the top.

Bottom Line

There are a lot of great 29ers on the market right now, and companies seem to finally be figuring out geometries that work well with big wheels. There should be something to suit almost any rider in this list, but if 29ers aren’t your thing, check out our comparisons of 27.5” wheeled bikes.

 

2 Comments

  1. Blister Member
    Lukas July 12, 2017 Reply

    Great list, well done!

    I find these comparisons most useful. If you just have individual reviews (thinking about other websites), it’s hard to make up your mind as the descriptions are always so similar (“climbs reasonably well for an Enduro …” you know what I mean) The true value lies in the comparison.

    Tremendous job!

  2. Jonathan July 14, 2017 Reply

    No Process 111?

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