Jeff and Matt look back at some of the best bikes and mountain bike gear tested in 2023, and talk about some of the most interesting new releases this year. Along the way we’ll also hit on some of the trends we’re following and highlight some of the reviews you might have missed. Listen to our conversation as a podcast, or read on for a tightly edited transcript.
Hey, everybody, welcome to the Singletracks podcast. My name is Jeff and today, Matt Miller, our Managing Editor and I are going to talk about some of our favorite bikes and gear of 2023.
So what do you think about 2023 Matt: Was there a lot of good new gear or was it a slow gear year? What’s kind of your perception looking back?
I think it was a slower gear year. And just because of the nature of the bike industry right now, it’s not doing so hot. And for that reason, I feel like brands are kind of sitting on so much inventory that it’s hard to justify coming out with more product that probably isn’t going to sell a lot this year. So in terms of like notable releases, I think it’s been a much slower year. And then personally, it’s been one of the slower years as far as even bike testing for me.
Yeah. I noticed that we didn’t test nearly as many bikes this year. I was trying to figure out why, because I don’t think I rode any less for sure. I probably traveled more this year than I have in a few years. But yeah I felt like maybe there weren’t as many bikes available for testing, possibly because like you said the industry is in a tough spot here where they’ve got an oversupply of bikes. But for whatever reason, not a lot of those bikes made it to us to test.
It’s definitely a peculiar year. You know, I think opportunities came in and out of our inbox, and we tested some new bikes at launch. But by and large, there were not as many testing opportunities for whatever reason which is funny, because we’re out of this pandemic thing, for the most part.
Right A big thing used to be these big bike launches where brands would bring media out to test new bikes. And, again, like we went to a few of those this year, but it feels like not as many. And again, that could be like a budgetary thing. Or maybe it was brands moving to this model of like sending test bikes out. I think everybody’s all over the place. But we did get to test, in my opinion, some really fun bikes, and ones that that our readers were really interested in. So let’s, let’s go through some of our favorites. So why don’t you start it off, Matt: What was was one of your favorite bikes you tested this year?
Favorite mountain bikes (and a gravel bike)
- Pivot Mach 4 SL
- Canyon Spectral CF 8
- Evil the Following
- Revel Ranger
- Jamis Renegade
- Diamondback Yowie
- Last Coal
Well, I think if I could pick a favorite… So to clarify, I only reviewed four bikes which… I mean, there’s some years in the past where I reviewed like 10 bikes in a year. So it was nice to actually get more of a break from that this year.
My favorite bike that I think I tested this year was the Canyon Spectral with K.I.S., the Keep it Stable Steering stabilizer. So the bike had that contraption on it. And then it was also a mixed wheel build. And then you know, it comes with a Fox coil shock, SRAM AXS drivetrain (not Transmission, but regular GX AXS), and then a new Rockshox Lyric fork with the Charger 3 damper. It’s just a really cool build, it looks like a cool bike. I probably got more compliments, or more interest. from mountain bike friends on the look of that bike than I’ve had on any bike in a while. And then just a combination of like the coil shock, kind of being like a mid-travel 150/60mm build. And the mixed wheel build made a really really fun bike to ride, at least for the trails around here in Colorado.
Yeah, that looks like an awesome bike. I’m jealous that you got to test it. I think we both got the email from Canyon that was like hey, do you want to try this and you beat me to it. I wanted to test it for sure. It’s all about the build really for me because I’ve ridden Spectrals before and Canyon is weird because there are so many Spectral models. I think because it’s a middle of the road trail bike and people want to see different setups with 29er wheels or 27.5 or you know, a little extra travel. It’s a super interesting build that you got to test.
The biggest part of the build for me came down to it being a mixed wheel and then it having a coil shock in the rear. Those are the two things that set it apart.
I think I said in the review, that I would ditch the SRAM and Rockshox stuff even though it worked great. I would trade it out because there is another build for like $1,000 less and you get Fox 36 with Grip 2 and a Fox DHX Factory coil shock, and a Shimano 12-speed drivetrain. And it’s like 800 bucks less than this SRAM-equipped bike.
But the big things that I think made that bike what it was, was that it was fun. It was curvy and slicey. And you could just tear up corners with it. It was fun to get off the ground. And then it was really quiet too. I haven’t had a bike that was just so quiet and let you focus on riding without all these other like clanks and noises and stuff coming from coming from the bike. So yeah, those are the two big things for me — that bike was quite fun with a mixed wheel build and having a coil shock.
I think for me, if I had to pick one of my favorites — and I’ve got like, three favorites out of the half a dozen bikes or so bikes I rode. But my favorite is probably the Evil the Following, which is like a shorter-travel bike. Some might call it downcountry. It feels like this was kind of a downcountry year for us in terms of what we tested and, and actually surprisingly, what readers seem to be most interested in. Because you know, downcountry as a term or as a topic… for a while people kind of turn their noses up at it and made fun of it.
But the more that I’ve ridden these bikes, and maybe others too the more they’ve ridden them, the more we enjoy it. It’s actually a really good fit for the type of riding that I like to do anyway. Still the the Evil bike was a surprise for me, because I guess I just had this perception of their bikes as being like, kind of overbuilt, and you know, like real heavy into the gravity side of things. And that’s just not not the type of riding that I typically do.
I think this bike was a departure for the brand. It’s their shortest travel bike in the lineup, I believe. The bike just handled so well. And it was it was actually the beginning of the year, I think when I tested this one. But it’s one of those that I’m still like, “Ah, I kind of wish I still had that bike.” It was a lot of fun.
Downcountry is still such a big category, especially that like 120mm-travel category right now. There’s something to be said for when you have a bike that is so comfortable, and easy to climb on that it’s fun to go downhill too. Just having something like that is great for all around trail riding.
So you tested a somewhat similar, but longer travel-ish bike, the Pivot Mach 4 SL. Would you call that one a downcountry bike?
Yeah, I guess so. It’s funny because Pivot has that bike and then they have the Trail 429, which would be I think that’s a 120/130mm bike. But the Mach 4 SL went from being 100mm-travel bike with either a 100mm or 120mm fork to now up to 115mm of rear travel. Between the 100mm setting and the longer travel setting, longer was better. It’s a cross country bike, but for people who normally ride trails.
The Pivot Mach 4 SL is light and stiff and it pedals well and has the DW link, so you can pedal on it all day, and it’s sharp and responsive. And then it just kind of floats over chunk and flows and carves and all the things you’d want out of a really light, agile trail bike too.
When I went to the camp down in Cortez, Colorado I rode two days at Phil’s World which is all this fast, flowy kind of high desert riding. It ended up being the perfect bike for the windy, flowy cross-country trails with punchy ups and downs. And it’s just one of those bikes where you can stay on the gas the whole time. And if you’re on a flat section or short climb, you can just pedal and pedal and pedal and then it keeps its speed once you start going downhill too. That was a really, really fun bike.
Yeah, interesting. I think what’s what’s funny about downcountry is that a lot of times, as consumers and as writers and test pilots, we want to look at a bike and just look at the travel and be like, Oh, that’s, that’s got 110mm of rear travel or it’s got 120mm. Like, that’s going to determine if it’s a downcountry bike. But really a lot of it is the sum of all the parts, right? It’s the build. It’s the geometry.
I think, for me, what I really appreciate are the bikes where the geometry is more relaxed and a little more tending toward that longer-travel geometry that you would see, but with less travel and (hopefully) less weight which makes it more toward the cross-country side.
One of the bikes I tested was the Canyon Lux Trail. I don’t want to put words into Canyon’s mouth, but I feel like they probably said downcountry in some of their marketing materials for this bike. But you know, what they did was they took a cross-country bike, the Lux XC race bike, and basically gave it a little more travel didn’t really adjust the geometry much, if at all.
I really enjoyed testing that bike over the spring. But I wouldn’t call it downcountry; it was more like a just a cross-country bike that you don’t have to race on. It’s obviously not designed to be like, super efficient and fast and racy. But it’s more for like a casual rider who likes to put in a lot of miles and doesn’t mind pedaling for most of them. It’s interesting to see the different directions brands are taking these categories.
Did it seem like there’s a big enough distinction between that bike and the medium-travel trail bike Canyon Neuron?
Yeah, I would say it’s really different. But again, like maybe not necessarily the travel. I think the geometry is pretty different, you know, the head angles by a couple degrees. Slacker on the Neuron, but the biggest thing, at least, the Neuron that I ended up with is just a heavy bike, unlike the Lux Trail. I think even the heaviest Lux Trail build is going to be like pounds lighter than than the Neuron that I have.
The thing that threw me off about the Lux Trail build was the lockouts. It has a remote lockout for both the shock in the fork. I haven’t seen one of those outside of a race bike in a long time. It’s touches like that that make you think, okay, this isn’t just for like riding trails and messing around. This is just for people who are a little more serious and want to ride fast and efficient.
The Mach 4 SL had a lever to change suspension modes on the fly. And I wonder if Canyon’s approach this is similar, but I remember hearing Pivot saying that it’s a big demand from the European side of sales to where Europeans are much more likely to want that kind of adjustability on the fly in a bike off the showroom floor.
Yeah. I wonder why? Do they race more, or are they just more serious riders? Maybe they know something we don’t know.
I don’t know. I guess it’s more normal out there.
I’ve heard that too. And that makes a lot of sense especially since Canyon is a German brand. I’m sure they know. They know what they’re doing more than than I do when it comes to that bike. So yeah, I’ll give them that.
When you’re talking about weight, are they sticking with like Fox 32 on that bike versus a Fox 34 on the Neuron?
Yeah, the Neuron is is more in like the middle of the trail spectrum. For a while I considered the Spectral to be sort of their like middle trail bike. But over the years they’ve kind of pushed that one to be more all-mountain. The trail category is getting bigger; like brands used to put maybe one or two models into the trail category. Now they’ve got like three or four. So yeah, they’re trying to distinguish like this one’s downcountry, this one’s trail, this one’s all mountain. There’s even a Spectral 120 which dips the rear travel between the Lux Trail and the Neuron.
Never ending categorization of mountain bikes.
Yep. So what other bikes Did you test this year, and what do you think about them?
The first bike I tested this year, jumping back a little bit. was the second version of the Revel Ranger, which, I’m not even gonna say the word anymore. It’s their 115mm bike with under 120mm forks that blends cross-country attributes and enduro bike attributes.
The second version of this bike is interesting. To their credit they’ve released a lot of great bikes, even right off the bat, from the start of their company. With the second version of the Ranger they beefed up some of the bearings and bearing hardware pivot points, and they’ve tweaked the suspension kinematics slightly. And then there’s new colors and it’s SRAM UDH compatible. It’s very slight changes from the first version, but it was a great cross-country trail bike.
And I reviewed a bike I bought, actually, the Canfield Lithium, which has been out a couple years. I got the inspiration to buy that bike from reviewing a Canfield a couple years ago.
And so was it a Lithium that you reviewed previously?
No it was a Tilt. So it was their trail bike and Lithium is their enduro bike. So those are the four bikes I’ve mostly tested this year.
Yeah it can be nice to ride your own bikes. And I’m sure your Lithium at the beginning of the year looked a lot different than it does right now. Because you’re always like putting different parts on and swapping stuff out trying different things. It’s almost like two different bikes.
Yeah. One of my goals was just to ride my own bikes more this year, which, you know, if you get a new bike that’s what you want to do is spend time on it. So it was nice to be able to do that, because I got a new bike at the end of last year as well. So yeah, I get to spend more time with my own bikes, which is cool.
Yeah, that’s awesome.
One of the bikes I tested this year that I ended up really liking is actually a gravel bike. We don’t test a lot of gravel bikes but if it works out, we’ll take them, especially ones that are going to be more appealing to mountain bikers like us. Like, bikes you can take on singletrack.
The one that I really liked was the Jamis Renegade. Jamis is a brand that tends to offer bikes at the more affordable end of the spectrum. They have some pretty inexpensive bikes up to I would say, like the mid range. And the Renegade has got to be one of their most popular bikes because gravel is popular but also because people are still at the point where they don’t want to spend a lot on a gravel bike.
The model that I chose to review is their most mountain bikey gravel bike, with a Chromoly steel frame. And it had like the biggest tires on it of any of their builds. It was just a blast to test that bike. I rode it a lot from early winter all through the winter when I wasn’t mountain biking. I also used it to train for the Huracan bikepacking race that I did in February.
The Renegade was really impressive. It had a Shimano GRX drivetrain back when GRX was only 11 speed, and was a super reliable drivetrain. That was another one of those bikes that I’m kind of missing and I kinda want to go back to that bike.
I feel like a couple years ago when gravel was becoming a newer thing, or maybe just a more established thing, you were a little bit skeptical about gravel bikes. I feel like you hadn’t warmed up to them completely. Do you have a different perspective after spending time on more gravel bikes?
For sure. With the Renegade I rode a lot of singletrack. A lot of the local trails I ride start to get a little boring because I’ve ridden them so many times. But on a gravel bike it makes things a lot more fun. And you can access more trails. I love being able to just ride to a ride. I hate wasting time driving to a trailhead. So if I can, if I can bike there, I’m going to do that.
It’s funny you ask that question because I just started researching gravel bike geometry for an upcoming article. And what I’ve quickly determined is, you know, people joke like, ‘oh, gravel bikes are just 90s mountain bikes.’ They’re actually like, early 2000s mountain bikes. They’re even more capable than we realize and they’re pretty far away from from road bikes. Like, gravel bikes look very similar to road bikes. But just starting to dive into the geo, these would have been capable mountain bikes not that long ago.
Every time I test one though, I’m like, ‘oh, it’d be nice if this had a little suspension.’ I definitely want a dropper post too. So I would say say my opinions are evolving, but I certainly don’t hate gravel bikes.
Yeah, I think the riding position on singletrack can be really fun and engaging, too. Being over the drop bars and just flicking the levers and getting in the drops on parts of the trail. It can be a really engaging experience compared to being on a flat bar sometimes.
For sure. I won’t shy away from testing more gravel bikes next year.
There are a couple of bikes that I saw this year, but didn’t get to test that that seemed really interesting.
I’m a fan of hardtail mountain bikes and so the Transition TransAm looks like a very cool bike. And then Diamondback finally came out with their Yowie short travel trail bike. Getting back to that downcountry topic, or short-travel trail bike, if you prefer, Diamondback is a brand that reaches a lot of people, newer riders, and also more budget conscious riders. So it’s kind of a big deal for them to have a bike like that. I’m definitely curious to know how it rides and what it’s like.
Yeah it took Diamondback a while to even release it. I remember seeing prototypes, probably two years ago, and then they sort of released the bike in the spring. And I’ve yet to see any reviews on the bike yet. We’ve talked about reviewing the bike whenever it’s ready, but still haven’t heard that it’s ready. [Update: REI and other retailers are now selling the Yowie.] It’s taken a very long time to get to a point where they can even release the bike and I’m not sure if you can actually buy one online.
Right. It is strange that it hasn’t come out. And I’m sure Diamondback is like everybody else with a ton of older models that they need to sell first before they can start putting put newer stuff out. We need to keep bugging them and see if they’ll send us one.
Yeah that’d be fun to check out.
There were a couple of bikes from Last, which is a European brand I’m not super familiar with. But we’ve covered them a few times with various bike releases, but their latest one, the Last Coal is an alloy enduro bike with a really nice build. It looks very clean and simple.
I don’t know what it is but this year I’ve gotten interested in alloy bikes. And maybe that dates me and makes me an old guy now. The Canyon Neuron that I bought this year is alloy. And I don’t know, there’s just something about that. It seems like you can just have more fun with alloy bike and not worry about getting rock dings. I don’t want to stress about my bike. I just want to ride it and have fun. If it gets banged up I’ll just like sand it down or whatever.
Right? Yeah, it’s funny you say that. A little bit more than a week ago I went for a ride before Thanksgiving with a friend at a local trail. And as we finished up, I was on my Canfield, which is an alloy bike and I was putting it on the rack and the guys next to me were essentially saying the same thing. One of them said they bought the last alloy bike that Santa Cruz made. I think it was a Tallboy. One of them was complimenting him on his bike and just saying, you know, there’s something about alloy bikes. Maybe it’s like the hardtail thing where there’s kind of a romance for simpler technology. Carbon fiber is more complex than alloy. Alloy is a simpler material. And full suspension bikes are obviously more complicated and hardtails. But maybe it’s it’s some sort of romance about simplifying mountain bikes where you can.
I’m not a die hard on either side, because I do like lightweight bikes. And like that Canyon Lux Trail I tested this year was a really light bike and it rides a lot differently and is a lot of fun. But at the same time there are tradeoffs both ways. I guess I’m just I’m just in my aluminum phase right now. I’m sure it’s only a phase.
It’s not a trend.
Right, right. Every year, I want to say it’s a trend like, oh, we saw more brands, releasing alloy bikes. But you know, looking back and trying to be objective, we see this every year that like somebody comes out with an alloy, and then they come out with a carbon or they come out with the carbon first and then the alloy like. I don’t think we can read much into any of that. Both frame choices have their pros and cons.
So we have hinted at some of our preferences for components this year. Some of the things we liked about the bikes that we liked were the parts on them. So let’s talk about some of our favorite gear and let’s start with components. Did you test any components this year that really wowed you or that you’re impressed with?
At the very beginning of the year I put a DVO Sapphire D1 fork and then the DVO Topaz rear shock. The Topaz I tested precedes the most current version which they sort of overhauled this summer, but it is still very similar. I got to spend a solid amount of time on both the fork and the shock on my Ibis. And it’s been Complaint Free for me. I really liked the feel. I wouldn’t say it’s outright better feel than either Fox or Rockshox. But it is pretty unique and has great attributes to how it feels.
Favorite MTB components
- DVO Sapphire D1 fork
- DVO Topaz shock
- Fox Taper-Cast gravel fork
- Maxxis Minion DHF tire
- Maxxis Forekaster tire
- Specialized Purgatory tire
- Onza Canis tire
- SRAM Eagle Transmission drivetrain
- Classified Powershift drivetrain
- Reserve 30|SL wheels
- Stans Arch MK4 wheels
It’s good to see these other options when it comes to suspension because like you said most, most of us, if we buy a bike, it’s going to come with Rockshox or Fox. And even a lot of the aftermarket is dominated by those two. But there are a lot of great suspension companies out there like DVO and Cane Creek and MRP.
Is the DVO ride feel closer to a Fox or a Rockshox? In my mind I have kind of a feeling for those two brands in terms of like, what they’re going to be like. Is it closer to one or the other?
It’s hard to say. This is a pretty big generalization but in my experience, at least talking about Rockshox forks, the newer stuff is great but I would say they err more on the supportive side than sensitive, and Fox is on the other end of the spectrum. Their forks feel a little bit overly sensitive, sometimes and not supportive enough. And I’m not saying this makes the DVO Sapphire better than either. I think it’s just the way that the fork is engineered; it uses an internal bladder rather than a floating piston to achieve its damping effects. But it’s just got a really good blend of sensitivity and support to where you get a really customizable, off-the-top support system. And you get a really good feel of sensitivity off the top of the fork.
When you push down into it, it gets supported really, really quickly. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to get to a desired setting. But you can work through it enough to find a really good setting if you know what you like. Or if you know how you like your suspension to perform on trail.
Have you had to do any maintenance on your DVO suspension or have you serviced anything yet?
Yeah, that would be the next frontier, especially going on about a year of use. My understanding is it should be pretty home-friendly to service, unlike say some Olins or Cane Creek suspension like that. Serviceability is definitely a big plus for brands like Rockshox and Fox. Suspension has to be serviced at some point and do you want to spend 300 bucks every year to service your suspension? Fox and Rockshox components tend to be simple and universal to service compared to some of the boutique brands. So I haven’t dug into the process too much. But from a glance, it seems fairly simple.
That’s definitely a big part of it.
It looks like you also have another suspension item on your list. You tested the Fox 32 Taper-Cast. Which bike was that on?
I tested it on my Obed gravel bike. There’s a whopping 50mm of travel on that fork.
Do you use it all?
No, actually. Fox makes the Taper-Cast in a 40mm or 50mm option, and I tested the 50mm option. And it’s basically got a FIT for damper on it, if you took a 120mm or 140mm Fox fork with FIT damper and shrunk it to 50mm. That’s how that the fork damping feels. And I’d have to double check this, but I’m fairly certain you can put volume spacers in the air chamber.
I’m somebody could 3D print the right thing to put in there.
Yeah, the air chamber should work out similarly, but it really felt very close and it ramps up a lot to where I think maybe the last five mils of travel never really like bottomed out, which is a good thing. And that was with a big, loaded down gravel bike.
That’s crazy. Did you have a hard time figuring out the right pressure for that because that is a lot of force, especially if you’ve got a handlebar bag on there.
No it was is pretty simple fork for me to set up. I realized that I probably had the pressure a little bit low compared to the recommendations, at least when I was setting my sag. This is really where it comes down to preference because I had a larger amount of sag than the recommendation set up on this bike, but I’ve never bottomed it out. And with it being a lighter amount of weight resting or even dynamic weight on on the bike, it was never really like getting into too much of the travel. Plus you can change the compression so easily on it. I had a good amount of support and bottom-out resistance on the fork the whole time.
Nice. Are there any drawbacks to having a suspension fork on your gravel bike? Are there certain rides looking back where you’re like that’s gonna make it worse?
I actually swapped it out with my other fork last weekend. The biggest drawback is that is that it changes your geometry because it’s an extra 50mm of travel. And so rather than Fox using your axle to crown standard for measurement, and having that travel compress and just really steepening up your headtube angle uncomfortably, they added 50mm of height. So it actually raises your bottom bracket and slacks your head angle a little bit when you have that fork on there. And you get a little bit more flop in your steering as well because of that. So that’s the biggest drawback. That’s why I ended up putting my rigid fork back on and I’ll hang on to that Fox for the next bikepacking trip or something like that. With a rigid fork you get the sharper steering aspects back and more efficiency which works for most of the riding I’m doing on that gravel bike.
Interesting. I hadn’t really thought about how that would affect your geometry on a gravel bike. It seems so simple; you’re like, I just need some suspension here. But yeah, that’s gonna change other stuff. It’s another tradeoff for sure.
It also probably weighs two or three more pounds more than my rigid carbon fork as well. So it’s a good amount of added weight.
So this year, I tested a lot of tires. I’m always like, ‘oh, wait, we haven’t tested that tire yet.’ You know we mostly just see Maxxis and Continental and Schwable as a probably the big three tire brands out there. And some WTB’s I guess. As soon as you start making this list, you realize it’s a long list of brands. There actually are a lot of choices out there. I didn’t count how many tires I reviewed, but a couple of them stood out to me.
The Maxxis Minion DHF is still probably my favorite tire. It comes on a lot of the test bikes that we review, but I realized this year that none of us had ever written a dedicated review of the tire. And so this year I did just that and I really like that tire because it is it’s so predictable. It comes on a lot of bikes and soon as you get on a bikes, you’re like okay, yes, I know how this is gonna corner. And you can rely on it.
There are so many different configurations that you can get, you know, heavier casings or lighter duty ones and it’s a super versatile tire. I just realized this year that I’d never bought a Minion for my own bike and so I finally picked one up just last month when it was on sale for like $35.
I tested a bunch of different Specialized tires this year, and actually I’ve got one right now that I’m just wrapping up, the Renegade I think. It’s a cross-country tire and like, basically, I’ve made it through all their trail tires. And now this will be the last one and then I’m done.
The Specialized Purgatory is like a lot of tires that I would describe as Minion-esque. And I don’t know if that’s like on purpose where they’re trying to copy it a little bit or get something that performs like the Minion. But the Purgatory, to me, it’s a similar tire with very good control for cornering. I ran it as a front tire for my test and I’m actually running it as a rear now just to see how it does in that position. The Purgatory is probably my favorite of the Specialized tires that I’ve tested. Have you ridden that one or any of the other Specialized tires?
A couple of weeks ago I needed to put new tires on while swapping wheels. And I’d had a Maxxis Aggressor and the Assegai up front, and I swapped them out for a Versus tire in the rear — that’s one I’ve had for a while — and then a Specialized Butcher up front, which I guess you could say is similar to DHF. And I really like it.
I’ve got the Butcher in a 2.6 up front on my Canfield. And 2.6 is as wide as I’d ever want on a tire, especially up front. But it’s such a confident tire for up front. You can really just stick it anywhere and it’s gonna grip and kind of pull you where you want it to go. Yeah, it’s a great fun tire.
Specialized has the T9 sticky rubber version of that tire. And some of the other tires I tested have the sticky rubber and you can hear the pebbles like pinging your frame because everything sticks into it. It’s crazy how grippy that stuff is, but also fast wearing so keep that in mind.
Another tire I tested this year was the new updated Maxxis Forekaster. It’s a tire that’s been around for many years, but Maxxis has revamped it I think in part to kind of set it apart as a downcountry tire. And the changes that they made I think are really great. They really improvedhow well it grips and also how it corners. Cornering is something that I’m not great at and so when I have a tire that helps me corner better, like a tire that I will gravitate toward. The new Forekaster is more poised and confident. Or at least I’m more poised.
Compared to a Minion, the Forekaster is fast rolling and not super heavy. I’m usually willing to make the trade off between weight and tire performance but if I’ve got a lighter weight bike, like a downcountry or even a cross-country bike I think the Forekaster is a really good and capable choice.
I tried the Onza Canis earlier this spring. It’s kind of a novel cross-country tire and I really liked it but it is a faster wearing tire for sure.
We want to get like the stickiest tires we can but what they don’t tell you is they wear out faster.
Yeah. Like after like two months and you’re like, man, my tire’s like almost done. That kind of sucks.
And then we blame the tire a lot of times like, oh, they use some cheap material or whatever. But that’s what we asked for. We want it to stick and it’s stuck to the ground. You left it behind.
We also we tested drivetrain stuff this year. You tested AXS Transmission, SRAM’s new drivetrain system. You tested the XO version on the Revel bike?
What did you think?
Yeah. For what it is. I mean, there was a huge buzz when Transmission was released for good reason. I can think of some drawbacks to the system as a whole but I can’t say I had any complaints about its performance.
I think it’s a very sensible direction for drivetrains to go. I was listening to the podcast you did with John Calendrille, who designed Vivo and has worked with different drivetrain companies over the years. It is funny thinking about how bikes are still one of the only vehicles that use this fully external drive train. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But I don’t see that going away anytime soon. Especially with Transmission. I just see the external drivetrain is getting better.
Right. That comment struck me too. But you know, I thought about it more and the reason that we have this external, fragile drivetrain is because it’s lightweight. There are internally geared hubs, there the Pinion. And they have all these advantages of being like lower maintenance, more durable, and you can shift them easier. Pretty much everything about them is better, except for the weight.
So it’s weird, because we’ve talked about this as a trend for at least five years now: as mountain bikers, we seem to care less about weight every year. We’re seeing overall bike weights creep up as we add dropper posts, more travel, or more durable materials. But the drive train is one area where we haven’t seen that necessarily. I think Transmission does weigh a little more than AXS before it if I’m not mistaken.
One of the biggest first impressions I had was pulling that bike out of the box. The derailleurs for Transmission are absolutely huge compared to other derailleurs; they’re massive. They’re big. And I think SRAM engineered a lot of that weight and over engineered/overbuilt it on purpose, maybe to give consumers peace of mind, in moving away from a hanger, which can be swapped out really quickly on the trail. If you’re buying a bike with Transmission, you need to have that peace of mind that it’s just not going to break if you smack it on a rock or a tree or something.
I was talking with Sam James, one of our contributors, about the Lal Supre drive train, where they basically tuck the derailleur inside the stays and kind of got it out of harm’s way. They had to do a lot of engineering to get the derailleur into this different position and address the same thing, which is like these derailleurs are real fragile. And when we’re mountain biking there’s a good chance they’re gonna get smacked. And they’re gonna get messed up.
Yeah, totally. That is a really cool bike and cool to see. We did a story on Cedric’s crew maybe last year, earlier this year, coming to production on at least one bike by now, Nikolai. But then the drawback of that system is having to engineer the bike around that drivetrain.
Yeah it’s never easy. Because these things have been standardized for so long, we’ve built that into all the bike frames. We’re seeing this shift to the Universal Derailleur Hanger, and this was the big year where everybody finally started paying attention and was like, oh maybe that is something I should look at. But SRAM has been telegraphing this for like four years. 2019 is when the standard came out, and they were starting to nudge bike companies to like use this standard.
I was looking for a bike this summer because I had a GX Transmission group in for test and I was trying to figure out which bike could I put it on since none of the bikes that I own are compatible. I needed to buy a new bike anyway and what I found at that time was, you know, there’s all these bikes that have been on sale for a long time and you could get some great prices. But the ones with UDH compatibility were not on sale. So it seems maybe consumers are telling these brands they really want the one with UDH. There’s really only two drivetrains that use it and they’re both SRAM transmission that actually need UDH. Without it like any other drivetrain is going to work including AXS, including all the Shimano stuff. So it will be interesting to see where we go from there now that this is a standard. Will we see other companies starting to take advantage of that?
Yeah, totally. I talked about it a little bit earlier this year, when we were doing Transmission reviews. I wish there was a cable version of Transmission. So we could still have the robustness of direct mount shifting but without the expensive electronic shifting. And I think some commenters maybe questioned the point then, but it was at least validated by a bike engineer, who said that if SRAM had come out with a cable-operated version, they would have designed their e-bike around it. But it increases the MSRP of a bike so much that it wasn’t a good fit for them. So SRAM has always kind of trickled down their technology into lower price points, and even GX. I mean, it’s still what $900 or $1,000 for a GX transmission groupset?
Yeah I think so.
It’s hard to say what they’re gonna do. And it really seems likely that Shimano is going to have some direct mount answer for drivetrains as well. And maybe they’ll be the ones to come out with a really affordable direct mount drivetrain.
Yeah one of the questions I asked John, in our podcast was about like, how far down can these electronic drive trains go in terms of pricing? Like, are we going to see, you know, like, an SX level? Like, electronic drivetrains at every point? And, you know, his thought was like, probably not. There is a floor at which like you can’t make it for a price any lower. Hopefully it’s less than 900 bucks or a thousand bucks.
But there’s always going to be this need for a mechanical system and the mechanical systems we have are not perfect at all. And we hope to see that they get better over time. I hope we’re not just jumping to electronics and being like, okay, that’s our answer to everything and we stop trying to make the mechanical ones better, because those will always exist, those will always need to be on the $2,000 bikes and even $3,000 bikes, which is a lot of money. Those are not cheap or entry level bikes.
I’m with you.
In other drivetrain news, there was that Classified drivetrain where basically they took a 12-speed cassette and mounted it with their own internally geared hub that has two speeds. So basically you get 24 speeds, but you still don’t have a front derailleur, which is nice. It’s kind of a one-by system. And their internally geared hub is electronic. So, like no wires which seems like a really interesting solution.
Classified did a lot of stuff so that they could keep the weight roughly in line with like a regular Shimano XTR, or I forget what the SRAM level was maybe GX. It weighs a little bit more, but it gives you a lot more gears and smoother transitions between shifts. I’d love to try it. I still don’t think I want to go back, though, to having like a separate controller for my shifting.
I don’t know how much I would use it. In most instances where I am on a really, really steep climb and grinding gears, a 51 or 52 tooth cog, depending on the chain ring, is usually enough to get by. How often do you really use your granny gear anyway? I don’t know.
Right. Part of what they had to do to compromise was they made their own cassette basically to save weight, so it doesn’t have like that huge 52 tooth ring on it. So if you did, and you paired that with the geared hub you would have like crazy gear range. Which to your point, maybe a lot of people don’t need that. But it is an interesting option. Especially as we see there are a lot more drivetrain options now, and electronic ones. This kind of pairs electronic and mechanical. So it’s definitely cool to see people innovating.
Yeah. Might as well try new things.
You also tested some alloy Reserve wheels this year that were pretty sweet.
Yeah they came out this year. The Reserve 30|SL are alloy trail wheels which is new to Reserve. Aside from brands like Industry Nine, which do really, really well as kind of like a boutique wheel brand with alloy wheels, most brands give carbon status over aluminum. When people upgrade wheels it seems like they always go for carbon. At least in a lot of cases. And it’s funny now because the weights between carbon and alloy are almost the same, like on a comparable trail bike wheel or enduro wheel. If you look at a carbon wheel weight and an aluminum wheel weight, the weight difference is pretty negligible. And with alloy, in a good build, with good tension and a good rim design, the trade offs are pretty nice for alloy. And then it’s way more forgiving.
You worry about flat tires less, you worry about like a catastrophic wheel failure less than you would with carbon. And so the Reserve wheels ended up being really great. Very compliant, and then laterally, very stiff.
They came with a DTS Swiss 350 hub, which just for the sake of engagement is not my favorite hub. DT hubs have always had lower engagement for the most part. They’ve always been really reliable. But I think just for the amount of technical climbing that I do, I prefer a faster engaging hub. To me, that was the one drawback about the wheel as a total. But yes, they’re just a respectable weight for an alloy set of wheels, really good performance downhill, really comfortable descending on an enduro bike when you’re smashing over a big rocks and little rocks and stuff like that. And they held up really well over the season.
That’s good to know because I think a lot of people would be willing to, you know, when buying a nice set of wheels would be willing to put more of their money, maybe into the hub than the rims, right? Like when you buy a set a carbon rims or carbon wheels, especially if you’re looking at that $1,500 range, which there are a lot of great wheels in that range, but the way that they keep that price lower is by like not using as nice of a hub. And so yeah if you can get a wheel set that’s got a really nice hub, but alloy rims, I think a lot of people would see that as a really good value. Does Reserve have an option for like a Hydra hub or some kind of upgraded one?
I don’t think this particular one did. And I think people would differentiate, like the DT Swiss 350 is a good hub and DT Swiss is always so reliable. People don’t often have problems with them. But they’ve always lacked engagement. I think you can buy an upgrade to a different ratchet ring to where you can increase the engagement. But then, at best, it’s still only like six or seven degrees, down from the 10 degrees was the engagement on these 350s. Which is not great.
But a good price overall: $700 for the wheel set that’s with 350s and reserve SL rims. Unfortunately, they don’t have another hub choice. You’re gonna get a reliable hub they you don’t have to worry about that much and at the same time, if you want a higher, faster engaging hub then you might want something else.
The Stans Arch alloy wheels that I reviewed this year. And on those they definitely did kind of make that trade off for you. Yes, they’re alloy rims, but they’re gonna give you a really good hub. I was surprised, actually, how nice the hub is. I hadn’t heard much about their hub system but it has tons of engagement and is still priced under a thousand bucks for the set. So you’re definitely saving some money with the alloy rims. I guess I’m on that alloy kick. Maybe that’s why I was into them.
Did they feel more comfortable as a whole to you compared to carbon? Or how would you describe it?
They’re actually quite stiff. With carbon wheels there’s actually quite a range of carbon wheels, because each brand is going to kind of tune them the way that they want. Some want them very stiff, some want them more compliant. I would say these are on the stiffer side.
I just want to be able to ride and not worry about having my tire pressure too low. Or that I’m going to chip the rim or anything like that. If I do get a ding I’ll try to bend it out. Alloy just seems like a better Choice for me in my life right now. Simple is good.
Favorite MTB accessories
I also tried a few accessories this year that I really enjoyed so I’ll go through these briefly. Because, you know, they’re just accessories. We’ve covered the important stuff, bikes and components, but for my Huracan bikepacking trip this year I took a bivy instead of a tend to save weight and space.
The one I chose was the OR Helium Bivy. And it worked out great. I was kind of surprised slash worried at the start, and then I was pleasantly surprised. I thought maybe I would feel a little claustrophobic in it or whatever. But I think I was just so tired that I was like, I will sleep anywhere.
After using it a few friends were like, oh, actually, I might try that next year. So yeah, I think a lot of times we think of bivys as, like emergency shelters. Good to have especially if you’re backpack racing, where you’re hoping to maybe not spend the night out or sleep for eight hours or whatever you normally would do. But I found for just a couple nights out it’s a great choice. The OR bivy is a solid one for sure. Not too heavy. Very good quality construction on it.
I saw some pictures of it. It seems like there’s a lot of advantages compared to a backpacking tent. Does it seem this design holds off rain well?
Maybe. I don’t think I tested it in full-on rain; we probably got misted. I’m actually a terrible person to ask about that. Because I’ve done a lot of camping over the years and I’ve never found a tent that has stayed nice and dry. I feel like every tent I’ve ever owned or used or whatever, in a rainstorm, I’ve gotten wet. So I guess my expectations are low and I don’t assume it’s going to keep me dry anyway. But yeah, I don’t know. What’s your experience? Do you have a tent that is your go-to and that keeps you super dry?
Well one of the backpacking tents I reviewed this year did get stuck in a rainstorm, and we did have some leakage into the tent. I think I’ve been really fortunate most of the times I’ve gone camping over the past couple of summers I didn’t get stuck in the rain. Does it come with a rain fly?
It does not. But it does have like a nice floor system. A lot of these lightweight tents or sleep systems have a separate footprint that doesn’t even come with the tend. And then when you do bring it it doubles the weight of the thing. This does have like a nice floor in it and I was pretty confident it would keep me dry. At least from the bottom.
On top you’ve got fabric and since it’s a bivy you can’t avoid it touching it. That’s the biggest thing in a tent is as soon as you like brush up against the side of a tent, like you’re usually going to start getting wet, right, either from the condensation inside, guess sometimes they call it wetting out. So with the OR bivy you would probably get wet in that situation. But you would stay dry enough and warm enough in a downpour that you’re not going to be at risk of hypothermia.
I guess the good thing about that design, too, is that it’s made for one person. And it’s I mean, it’s coffin-esque so it would it would keep you warm. It would probably hold your body heat in there pretty well, right?
Yeah, but you’re not like sleeping at the Ritz Carlton.
Another thing that I really enjoyed testing was this Hoverair drone. We get a lot of like weird emails from people saying like, hey, do you want to test this thing? These are often brands that we’ve never heard of and we usually — I usually — ignore those. But this one I was like, huh, this drone looks interesting. So I tested this $400 drone. I’ve always wanted a drone but I know that I am not going to take the time to learn how to fly it. And that’s dangerous, because then I’m just going to crash it and it’s gonna be a waste of money.
So what I like about this one is it it basically flies itself. It’s got a lot of intelligent features built into it where it’ll take off from your hand, and then you can just tell it what you want it to do. Like, do you want it to follow you? Do you want it to just go up in the air and shoot video pointing down? And it’s foldable, super portable, and you could fit it in like a hip pack and bring it on rides.
It gets decent amount of flying time per battery charge. You can bring extra batteries if you want to do a lot of video. Overall I was super impressed with it. I didn’t think it would work. I was very skeptical about how it would fly and if it would be super buggy. But it’s awesome. And I would definitely take it over a GoPro or something else if I was really serious about filming a ride.
Yeah some of the other drones, like the DJI Mavic are big. Like they have a big case and you need a full size, hydration pack, maybe even more to actually fit it in if you’re going to bring it on a ride. So it’s nice to have something that you can fit in the hip pack.
It’s about as thick as like two decks of cards. And then like the size of a smartphone. So real small.
I went out to Arkansas with Daniel Palma, one of our contributors, and he had a drone with him. And we had plans to shoot cool drone photos at a number of trail systems. And once we got out to these places, he had a DJI and it would not allow him to take off. The software has all these like no-fly zones built into it for various security reasons. Like one time we were near an interstate, so we think maybe you can’t fly over a highway. I was very frustrated like that we couldn’t take pictures in these places.
But then I went back with this Hover Air drone. And I was able to shoot photos in these places. I wasn’t able to go as high or have as much control as the DJI, and the video quality is probably not as good. But compared to most of the stuff that people are getting with their GoPros it’s more than enough.
Were there any accessories or bike bags or anything like that, that you enjoyed this year?
The Evoc hydration vest that I tested recently really liked. It’s a nice, different style of bag. You have to put up with a little bit more back sweat; you just can’t get around that on the hydration vest. But they’re really light. And they are really balanced. Compared to a full hydration pack, which always seems to bounce a little bit, or can throw off your center of gravity or a hip pack, which I’ve yet to find a hip pack that doesn’t bounce around a little bit, just because of the design.
The other thing I like about that is that you can just drink while you’re pedaling. You take out your tube and suck some water down. And you don’t have to fiddle with a bottle or bring that out or anything like that.
Speaking of bags I’ve been known to not like riding with bags, and even hip packs are not ideal at all, because like you said they bounce around. And they tug on your stomach because that’s right where the belt is and all the weight is there. So yeah, I’ll admit, those are not great either.
What I’ve been trying to use more are frame bags, and mini frame bags. Not like a full-on bikepacking thing. But one of the trends that I’ve noticed that I really appreciate is that many newer bikes have these mounts on the frames where you can attach like little mini frame bags and tool pouches and that kind of thing. So yeah, all of those that I test, I tend to really like them.
Yeah that was one of the things that the Canyon had. It came with a little bag that is the perfect size to put a tube and a tool and maybe a CO2. And then it had a mount which you could bolt inside the frame. So yeah, very specially designed. Which, as I said, my Canfield has none of that and the water bottle mounts are on the bottom of the frame. So it’s like, I don’t know, I kinda have to go to great lengths to put any cargo on the bike. And so the vest is where it’s at for me right now.
That thing looks really cool, really sleek and like it’s not gonna bother you.
Yeah. I don’t know if any other any other accessories come to mind other than some sleeping and bikepacking equipment that that I checked out. That was that was pretty nice.
We tested a ton of stuff this year, for sure. It’s hard to remember all the things that we checked out.
I’m stoked for 2024. Hopefully we’ll have more bikes next year that we can test what do you say?
And more stable industry conditions too. There have been a lot of industry layoffs and stuff, and it’s been a rough year for that. So yeah, hopefully a better year for the industry.
Hopefully we’ll get everything back to normal-ish. It has been kind of like a whipsaw the last few years and it’ll be nice to get back to business testing product and seeing new products released. We’ll be sure to cover all of that and more next year on singletracks.com. And also here on the podcast, we’re gonna keep talking about our favorite gear and also talking to the folks who design our favorite items.
That’s all we’ve got this week, we’ll talk to you again next week.