What is the ideal trail bike? That is a question that Doug and I often have a stab at while out on the trail or in the office. There is an astounding variety in the market at the moment when it comes to trail bikes. From the short travel “down-country” style bikes through to the long travel enduro and free-ride bikes that continue to impress us with increasingly efficient climbing behaviours.
German bike brand, Canyon, have just updated their new Spectral trail bike. It is a mid-travel (150mm rear paired with either 150 or 160mm up front) trail bike that they have bumped up to 29-inch wheels from the previous 27.5-inch ride. Canyon market it as the “one bike for any trail”. This has once again sparked the question of “what is the ideal trail bike?”
Why trail bike? What is clear is that the global trend is tending towards trail riding and trail bikes. Excitingly, we are seeing that happen here in South Africa as well. More trail parks are springing to life and the bike of choice for the average rider is trending towards more of a trail focus.
Why is this a good thing? Well, trail riding is such a broad and open-ended category that it is naturally more inclusive for anyone keen to just get out and ride their bike. There’s no pressure to be maxing out your heart rate on every climb or tearing up berms like Brendan Fairclough on your way down. At its core, trail riding seems to be just about enjoying a ride out on your bike, and hence, the “trail bike” is designed to maximise that enjoyment. Being efficient climbers and capable descenders so that you are not limited by the bike in choosing to tackle whatever climb, traverse, and descent that your heart desires.
Technically you can ride just about any bike on just about any trail. That doesn’t mean Loic Bruni is pitching up to a World Cup Downhill race on his Specialised Enduro nor is the Cannondale Factory Racing team competing at XCO World Cups on the 130mm Habit. Each bike is built for a purpose. So if a bike is built to be a jack-of-all-trades for any trail, will it then be a master of none? What is the ideal compromise?
As geometry and the components on our bikes evolve, they are getting notably more efficient at both climbing and descending. The 120mm trail bike isn’t necessarily a sketchy ride on the descents anymore and climbing close to 1000m vertical or more on your enduro bike can be fairly normal if you’re in a mountainous area like the Western Cape. These compromises are becoming less distinct but they are still present.
The question of “which bike is for you?” will be answered by where you live, what trails you like to ride, and how you like to ride them. Are you looking for absolute speed and stability on the hardest descents you can find? Would you rather arrive at the top of a climb feeling fresh on your lightweight trail bike and sacrifice a bit of the forgivingness on the descents that a burlier steed would bring? Testing out a variety of styles when it comes to trail bikes is the best way to find what works for you and your preferences.
To the rider who has only ever been rolling on a super-efficient 100mm marathon/XC bike, I would say go and try out a 130 or 140mm trail bike with modern geometry and see how you like it. To the rider who swears by the big-hitting enduro rig, give something with a little less travel a try. You might find you enjoy the lively and snappy feeling associated with the shorter travel bikes. Go and demo a bike that is a bit different from your usual ride and see what you learn and how you like it. You’ll probably be surprised by what you find!
What do we at WILD AIR like to ride? Doug is rolling on a 140/150mm travel Pyga Hyrax, while I do most of my riding on the big brother Slakline 160/170mm. Both 29inch aluminium trail/enduro bikes. A bike like the new Canyon Spectral, which sparked the writing of this post, fits in the middle with its 150/160mm travel, 29inch platform.
I have never found the Slakline to be limiting my climbing ability due to the length of its travel. I have occasionally thought that it might be a bit too much bike for the descents I am riding more often. Because it is so capable, it often takes very fast and aggressive riding to bring it to life. This is understandable because the bike was designed to be raced at high speeds on the toughest enduro stages that you can find.
Doug also has commented on the impressive climbing efficiency of his bike but has also expressed a desire for a bit more travel on the descents, putting him in the 150/160mm range. There does seem to be a tendency from both of us toward this middle ground of 150mm rear travel. We do both live in the same region and enjoy similar trails. It could be that this would be the sweet spot for us. It boils down to preference in the end and, as I said earlier, looking at “where you live, what trails you like to ride, and how you like to ride them”.
It’s great to have such a variety of bikes available to test and, if you’re in the right financial position, to buy. There is a brilliant tool for every job and the majority of modern trail bikes are going to be strong performers on just about anything you can throw at them. While the goal is to just get out and have fun on your bike, which can be done on anything you’ve got, it is good fun to dream and look into all the different options out there. Don’t be afraid to try something new and out of the ordinary from what you normally ride. There is always something to learn from a different style and discipline.
With that, I am going to go and ride my bike. See you on the trails!
I know e-bikes exist and I know that they completely disrupt these categories but I will save that rabbit hole for another day. I really just want to go ride my bike now.