I Turned the Ibis Ripley AF Trail Bike from Budget to Baller

What happens when you equip a "budget" bike frame with a top notch parts kit? We found out with the Ibis Ripley AF.

The Ibis Ripley AF was one of our favorite bikes from the Mid-Travel Mashup last year. Of course we were familiar with the long-standing XC/trail bike, the Ripley, a carbon fiber, 120mm travel bike with DW-link suspension, and the 2021 release of the AF version made the bike accessible at a lower price point.

Jeff test rode the latest generation Ripley upon its release in 2019. “Based on my time with the new Ibis Ripley, I would say this is one of the most balanced trail bikes on the market today that truly goes up and down well,” he said. Being a lightweight (~6lb frameset/25.5lb complete) carbon fiber bike with the remarkable DW-link suspension and progressive geometry, and a starting price of almost $6,000, that’s what we’d expect though, right?

But the Ibis Ripley AF ditched the carbon molds for aluminum tubing and added some weight — a total weight of 7.45lb for a frameset — but gained more aggressive geometry and a better price tag of $2,199 for a frame. This is about $1,300 less than the carbon option and complete bikes are priced starting at under $4,000.

But, I’m not going to elaborate on these points, because we already know them from our review last year, where I noted how awesome the Ibis Ripley AF is because it brings a top-shelf trail bike to a more affordable price point. What I’m going to talk about is how I snagged a frameset late this summer, and while it’s been billed as an “affordable” or “budget” bike, I threw a bunch of high-end parts on because it had more potential.

Funny enough, as I was searching for a shorter-travel trail bike this summer, Ibis seriously discounted a lot of their bikes and Ripley AF frames could be found for almost $600 less than their regular retail price. Sometimes brands offload existing stock to make room for a new generation, but this didn’t seem likely. Though the Ibis Ripley could see a major overhaul soon since it’s been three years since the release, the Ripley AF had only been out for a year-and-a-half or so. Bike sales this fall have been abundant. Specialized marked down a bunch of their bikes because they “made too many,” and other brands have been clearing out their warehouses too. Take note: fall might be the best time to save on a bike.

The deal was good enough, so I pulled the trigger. Turns out, Ibis rebranded shortly thereafter and gave the Ripley a minor update. I lucked out and saved a few stacks by buying a bike with a different paint job. Paint me a happy customer. The timing was perfect as previous year RockShox Pike Ultimates could be found at a major discount too, likely because they updated the Charger damper this summer.

Talking frame materials

The major difference between the Ripley AF and other premium trail bikes, as well as the trail bike I rode before this, is the difference in frame materials, and there is so much to talk about here. Aluminum still plays second fiddle to carbon fiber, and occasionally against steel, for reasons that often seem hyperbolic.

Yes, carbon fiber is lighter and it tends to be stiffer than aluminum, meaning that frame can feel more responsive to pedaling and steering input than aluminum. Carbon also has vibration damping properties that can enhance the ride quality over aluminum frames, muting translatable vibrations. But, it comes with a higher price tag and at a higher expense to the environment.

I’ve always liked aluminum frames and have a soft spot for the holdouts like Banshee and Commencal. The aluminum-built Ripley looks less elegant than the carbon, but the lines are more muscular — more Mustang than Jaguar, and building the bike as a custom feels reminiscent of sleeper cars, where car enthusiasts take an unassuming Miata or Honda Accord, stuff a turbocharger under the hood, and don’t advertise its speed.

I know there’s a glaring contrast now that I’ve mentioned Mustangs, Jaguars, and Mazda Miatas in the same paragraph, but my point is that half the fun in building up the Ripley AF is taking an aluminum “budget” frame, something bike snobs wouldn’t normally think about, and making it perform as well if not better than the countless homogenous carbon wonder bikes is a treat.

And I have said it before, but the experience of building your own bike, cutting your bars, steerer tube, and chain, routing the cables and indexing the shifting forces you to get intimate with your new bike. In my case, most of the parts I installed had been used on a previous bike, and I had the opportunity to learn the Ripley AF inside and out before I rode it.

That’s not to say it was an entirely pleasing experience. Routing the cables on the Ripley AF without in-tube routing is a pain in the keister. My advice: Dental picks and headlamps. The frame and chainstay protection could have also been much better on the Ripley AF frame, however Ibis does sell a kit with the pieces on its site and it doesn’t cost $550.

Here’s the parts spec for what ended up on my Ripley AF build:

  • Cockpit: Bike Yoke Revive 185mm dropper, SQ labs 60X Infinergy saddle, ENVE handlebars and stem
  • Fork: RockShox Pike Ultimate 130mm
  • Brakes: Shimano SLX 4-piston, 180mm rotors
  • Wheels: Hunt All Mountain Carbon
  • Drivetrain: SRAM GX 12-speed
  • Tires: Pirelli Scorpion Trail S (F), Michelin Force AM2 (R)
  • Weight: 30.7lb w/o pedals

End product

A few of the parts chosen were what I had lying around. Some were more deliberate. The SLX drivetrain we tested on the top-level build last year worked great, but the SRAM GX is quicker. The 4-piston Shimano SLX is an outstanding trail bike brake and a good way to save money considering there is no power or weight difference in the levers and calipers.

The Hunt All Mountain Carbon Impact wheels are an amazing value for the money and probably more wheel than I need for the bike, but I don’t have any concerns about damaging such a robust wheel on a lighter trail bike. Putting stiffer, lighter wheels on this build was a major factor in its livelier feel. As for tires, last year the Ibis we had came with 2.6-inch-wide Schwalbes. I used a fast-rolling 2.4″ wide Michelin Force AM2 tire for the rear and a meatier 2.4″ Pirelli Scorpion Trail S in the front. It appears Ibis moved away from the 2.6″ tires it equipped before too. I’ll reluctantly categorize my tire combo as good for “downcountry.”

Lastly, I’ll touch on the Pike Ultimate. It offers more adjustability and mid-support than the Fox 34 with a Grip 1 damper we tried on the SLX build last year. The Fox is a great fork, but added adjustability on the RockShox, especially on a shorter-travel bike has been nice to really optimize the suspension feel and bring out more confidence.

The difference between a custom and off-the-shelf build

There is a major difference in weight you can achieve by taking a Ripley AF frame and building it with lighter parts. My build weighs 30.7lbs (size M), which is somewhere between 1.5-2.5lbs lighter than the standard Ripley AF builds. It’s not the lightest 120mm bike, but with the DW-link suspension and carbon wheels, the bike climbs admirably. On rocky descents, I actually appreciate the added weight and the increased stability. Some very light 100-120mm bikes can feel a little unsettling if they’re too light.

Most times when brands send us a bike to test, they send a top-end build, with adjustable suspension, carbon wheels, and lately, electronic suspension.

My first few rides on the custom Ripley AF, I was blown away how it matched the ride feel of any of the premium carbon bikes I’ve tested lately. It shifts quickly, accelerates quickly and climbs efficiently, and it holds lines in corners just as a carbon fiber bike would.

It’s true that the cost is major deterrent in going this route. Not only are the complete builds from Ibis more affordable, it’s more expensive to choose your own parts than to let a product manager who is buying wholesale do it for you.

That said, the Ripley AF is sold as a frame set, and as of this writing, there are some of the older branded versions (with a headtube badge) for hundreds cheaper than the newly branded bikes. If you like the process of speccing your own bike and riding something unique, and also have a place in your heart for aluminum, try it out.