I Tested 5 Enduro Bikes in 24 Hours to Determine Which One Was Best

Jeff tested five top enduro mountain bikes in 24 hours in a back-to-back comparison test. Find out which one was the best.
5 enduro mountain bikes put to the test

There are so many great enduro mountain bikes on the market right now. Singletracks recently shared a list of our readers’ favorite enduro bikes, so I took it upon myself to do some field verification testing to see if you, our readers, truly know what the crap you’re talking about. We published the list of top enduro bikes on Monday, and by that Thursday I was on the ground at Fall Cyclofest, testing five enduro bikes in just 24 hours.

The Set-up

The US Whitewater Center trail system in Charlotte is expansive, boasting more than 30 miles of singletrack, rated from beginner-friendly to expert-level. Sliced by tributaries feeding down into the Catawba river, the terrain is steep in places, though none of the climbs or descents are very long. Still, there are plenty of “bursts of enduro” to be found, and I managed to average about 100 feet of elevation gain (and loss) per mile. To put that number into context, a ride at Jake Mountain in North Georgia averages about the same amount of climbing per mile, while a truly big mountain ride like Mountaintown yields 135 feet of climbing per mile.

For four out of five of my test rides I rode roughly the same 3-mile loop, which included two “black diamond” trails: the Carpet Trail and Tower 93. Truthfully, neither of these trails offer much in the way of session-worthy technical challenges. At the same time, all the trees, berms, rollers, kickers, rocks, and roots demand skill and finesse to ride at speed. As the rider’s speed increases, so does the challenge, just like in enduro racing.

For me, the other interesting thing about testing enduro bikes at the US National Whitewater Center is that these trails are pretty similar to the trails I ride on a regular basis. These are after-work trails, the type of trails where many a mile is ridden between trips to more epic, big-mountain destinations. Sure, enduro bikes are ideal for places like Colorado and Pisgah, but they’re overkill for most riders’ local trails, right? The answer I found surprised me.

I’ve ranked these bikes based on my back-to-back tests, starting with my least favorite. However, let me preface this by saying even my least favorite is a great bike, and I truly enjoyed riding every one of these enduro bikes. Read on to find out what I thought about each of these 5 excellent bikes!

#5: Intense Tracer

The Intense Tracer made our list of the best enduro bikes of 2016 thanks to its shape-shifting ability to go from 140mm of rear travel to 160mm with a simple bolt position change. Earlier this year, Intense rolled out the second generation Tracer, dropping the adjustable geometry and bumping the travel up to 165mm in the rear. Not only that, the new Tracer features a longer reach and a refined linkage setup for improved suspension performance. Based on this update, Singletracks readers chose the latest Tracer as one of the most innovative bikes of 2017.

As far as geometry numbers go, the Tracer sits at the middle of the test bike pack, generally offering measurements and angles that are neither the highest nor the lowest of the bunch. The one exception is the seat tube angle, which is the steepest at 75° effective (71° actual.) In theory this should make the Tracer one of the better bikes for pedaling and climbing, and in practice I did find this to be the case.

I tested the Pro build, which features Intense’s SL full carbon frame constructed from lightweight, high modulus carbon fiber. This build sits right in the middle of the Tracer line, with the less-expensive Expert and Foundation models utilizing lower-grade, heavier carbon fiber. Up front, Intense includes a Fox 36 Performance fork offering 160mm of travel. Rear squish is handled by a Fox X2 Performance shock.

Intense specs the Pro build with a GX/X01 SRAM Eagle drivetrain, E13 TRS+ 27.5 wheels with 28mm aluminum rims, SRAM Guide RS brakes, and a Fox Transfer dropper post with 150mm of travel. The bike also comes with E13 TRS tires and a Fabric Scoop Elite saddle, neither of which I had ever tested before.

On the trail

The Intense Tracer was the second enduro bike I tested, right after the Santa Cruz Nomad. Immediately I was struck with how nimble the Tracer felt and how confidently the bike cornered. While the Nomad rode like a brutish muscle car, the Tracer proved itself to be a sporty import, capable of weaving in and out of trees and gliding over the trail at high speeds.

During my test I noted that the Tracer was louder than many bikes I’ve ridden. This was mostly due to the buzzy E13 freehub, but there was also a mysterious rattle. However, without additional time on the bike it’s difficult to diagnose the exact source of the noise.

Climbing steep grades was a joy on the Intense Tracer thanks in part to the bike’s generous seat tube angle. The suspension platform felt firm as well, though the flip side to this is it didn’t feel quite as supple on the descents as some of the other bikes in this test. In a longer-term test I would have tweaked the suspension settings front and rear to optimize the tuning a bit more.

One issue I encountered while riding the Intense Tracer was heel rub on the drive-side chainstay. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem with a bike, but it was the only bike in this test where it was an issue for me.

As I mentioned, this was my first time riding on E13 TRS+ tires. Mounted to 28mm rims, these 2.35″ tires look massive, with beefy lugs and textured sidewalls. I thought the tires performed better than most among the enduro bikes I tested, hooking up well in corners and practically sticking to rocks. I was told some riders complain the sidewalls can be a little floppy and/or prone to tears, but for my test they were well inflated so this was not an issue for me.

I was stoked to finally sit my butt on a Fabric saddle as well. If you haven’t seen these saddles, they look really sleek and simple, with smooth lines and a nice shape. Although I got very little saddle time in, I got the sense that this might not be a very comfortable choice for me on longer rides. Of course every butt is different, but it is important to note that the Elite model is in fact at the bottom of the Fabric Scoop line.

MSRP: $6,999 USD.

#4: Marin Wolf Ridge

Singletracks readers overwhelmingly voted the Marin Wolf Ridge as the most innovative mountain bike of 2017, thanks to its unique suspension design. Essentially the R3ACT – 2 Play suspension platform is designed to give the bike excellent pedaling efficiency while maintaining enough sensitivity to react to small bumps. Yep, that’s pretty much what every mountain bike suspension design tries to accomplish, but the R3ACT – 2 Play does employ a unique approach.

That uniqueness is on full display as soon as one sets eyes on the Marin Wolf Ridge. The elevated swingarm gives the bike a unique profile, while a sliding stanchion hides in the bottom bracket area. There’s even an integrated fender that should keep your butt clean while protecting the bike’s slider from dirt and grit.

The Wolf Ridge is further differentiated from the other bikes in my test thanks to its 29er wheels. Bike companies don’t talk much about wheel size anymore, but some consumers do have a preference, and clearly wheel choice does dictate performance and handling to some degree. The Wolf Ridge also has the distinction of featuring the lowest bottom bracket height (336mm), the longest chainstays (435mm), the slackest seat tube angle (73.5° effective), and nearly the shortest reach (476mm, size XL.)

With 160mm of travel front and rear, and 29er wheels, on paper the Wolf Ridge sits firmly in enduro bike territory. But not so fast! The folks at Marin are quick to point out that suspension travel alone shouldn’t limit the Wolf Ridge to a single category. Instead, Marin says the Wolf Ridge is a great choice for XC, enduro, and all-mountain riding.

I tested the Wolf Ridge 9, which sits at the middle of the pack as far as builds go. Up front, Marin specs the RockShox Lyrik RCT3 fork with a Monarch R (DebonAir) in the rear. The drivetrain is SRAM Eagle X01, with Guide RS brakes, a KS Lev dropper post, Deity bars and stem, and a Stan’s Flow wheelset with 29mm rims.

On the trail

Knowing that the Marin Wolf Ridge was voted one of the most innovative bikes of 2017, I had mixed expectations. On the one hand, if the bike was as great as it was made out to be, the ride would be amazing. But I’ve been in the mountain bike industry long enough to know that the past is littered with the ruins of breakthrough, innovative suspension designs that simply didn’t deliver.

As with most of my test rides, I started with a smooth descent and found the Wolf Ridge to track the trail extremely well while providing plenty of cushion for landing. Through rooty, pedally sections, the bike felt a little firmer compared to other bikes I tested, though not to the level of feeling harsh. It’s certainly possible this firmness could be tuned out through long term testing.

That firmness came in handy on the climbs, where the bike was responsive and quick, even with the larger 29er wheels. On paper the slack seat tube angle should have made pedaling less comfortable, but in practice I found myself able to rocket up short, steep climbs that seemed to sneak up at the last moment. The Wolf Ridge cornered as well as any of the others in my test, despite the slightly longer chainstays and big wheels.

Given the risk of introducing a unique suspension design, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the Wolf Ridge is to say it rides just as well as I would expect any enduro bike to ride. Of course that means I wasn’t blown away by its superior performance either. Fortunately, as a first-generation model, there is plenty of room to tweak and improve the design so that one day it could rival some of the top bikes in its category.

I ended up placing the Wolf Ridge slightly ahead of the Intense Tracer due to its marginally lower price point and the fact that it runs 29er wheels (a personal preference.) Truthfully these bikes are very close in terms of performance, and either one can be a solid choice.

#3: Mondraker Dune

European riders are no doubt familiar with the Mondraker brand, which since 2001 has been dedicated to building cutting edge mountain bikes. The company’s most recent claim to fame is its early adoption of “Forward Geometry” for trail bikes, which features longer front centers and shorter stems. In the DH world, Mondraker riders have racked up World Cup and World Championship trophies aboard the Summum carbon race bike. Mondraker entered the US market just this year.

The Mondraker line includes enduro/all-mountain and “super enduro” categories, and the Dune falls into the latter. In case you’re wondering, super enduro is just one step below downhill. As a large company, Mondraker is able to offer the Dune in both carbon and aluminum frames.

Looking at the geometry, the Dune (size XL) has the highest bottom bracket (350mm) and longest reach (508mm) by far of all the enduro bikes I tested. It also has the longest wheelbase and is tied for the longest chainstays, making it (on paper) a big bike that likes to go fast. The 66° head tube angle and 74.7° (effective) seat tube angle are right in line with the other bikes I rode.

I tested the carbon Dune RR build, which retails for $7,800, the highest in my group of test bikes. That price tag is understandable when you check out the components on the Dune RR. Mondraker specs a Fox 36 Factory fork up front with 170mm of travel and a Fox X2 Factory shock in the rear. The Dune RR comes with a SRAM Eagle X01 drivetrain, a Fox Transfer dropper post (150mm for the size XL frame I tested), SRAM Guide R brakes, carbon bars, and Mavic XA Elite (25mm) wheels. All told, Mondraker says the complete bike weighs just under 29 pounds without pedals.

On the trail

If I have one strength as a mountain biker, it’s my ability to climb hills quickly. This will sound weird to a lot of readers, but I kinda enjoy climbing on the bike. For that reason, I tend to gravitate toward and prefer bikes that climb well. The Mondraker Dune did not let me down in the climbing department, offering a solid and efficient pedaling platform that wasn’t bouncy at all. Not only that, the front wheel tracked surprisingly well on the climbs, never feeling wander-y or out of control.

On the flip side, I am still a human being, so I enjoy the thrill of a fast descent and the adrenaline that’s associated with launching a bike into the air. Thanks to its long chainstays and wheelbase, the Dune was super stable on high speed descents. The flip side to this is that the Dune ended up toward the back of the pack in terms of cornering capabilities, which wasn’t helped by it’s tallish bottom bracket.

In the end, the Mondraker Dune’s descending performance really impressed me, edging out the Tracer and Wolf Ridge in that department, which was enough to land the bike at #3 overall. While I would give the Wolf Ridge a slight edge over the Dune in the climbing department, the Dune climbed just as well as the Tracer and better than both Santa Cruz bikes. I also dig some of the small stuff about the Dune RR, like the remote on the Fox Transfer dropper post and the SDG saddle.

My rankings don’t really take pricing into account, and at $7,800 the Dune RR is the most expensive bike in my test by more than $600. Fortunately Mondraker offers a number of less expensive builds that should offer fairly similar performance.

#2: Santa Cruz Bronson

The Santa Cruz Bronson and Nomad easily tied for the ugliest bikes of the test group, but come out on top in terms of performance.

According to our reader survey, the Santa Cruz Bronson is the second most popular enduro bike on the market today. Honestly, I was pretty sure I would hate this bike for several reasons:

  1. I really didn’t like the Santa Cruz Tallboy I tested at Cyclofest last year, despite the fact that I own an older version of this bike already.
  2. Greg’s review of the current generation Bronson in 2015 was less than positive.
  3. There’s just too much hype. It’s like the movie that everyone says is so awesome, but ends up being meh because it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations.

In any event, I threw a leg over the Bronson to get a sense of how a “top” enduro bike compares to some of the others on the market. Turns out, this bike is pretty freakin’ awesome.

At this point, the Bronson really needs no introduction, but I’ll humor the reader nonetheless. This bike has just 150mm of travel front and rear (the least amount of travel found in any of these test bikes) and utilizes a Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension design. Technically, Santa Cruz calls the Bronson a trail bike, but plenty of pro riders are choosing this bike for enduro races. Heck, Santa Cruz doesn’t even use the word “enduro” in their marketing materials for the burlier Nomad either, so maybe they just don’t care for the term.

In addition to having the least amount of travel front and rear among my test bikes, the XL Santa Cruz Bronson also has the shortest chainstays (430mm), reach (475mm), and wheelbase (1223mm.) With a 66° head tube angle, the Bronson isn’t the steepest or the slackest in the test, placing it in a comfortable middle ground.

I tested the X01 build, which not surprisingly features a SRAM Eagle X01 drivetrain. The frame utilizes the company’s CC-grade carbon fiber, which is a step up from the slightly more economical, and heavier, C-grade carbon. Both the fork and shock are Fox Performance Elite level, and the brakes are SRAM Guide RSC. Other standout components include a RockShox Reverb dropper post and 2.3″ Maxxis Minion tires front and rear.

On the trail

This was the last bike I tested, which typically doesn’t bode well for test bikes. By the end of a whirlwind like this, I’m tired and all the bikes start blurring together (luckily, I recorded voice memos between bikes.)  And yet, I loved riding the Bronson and just wanted to keep going!

Because all of the bikes in this test are so similar in terms of pricing, geometry, and even drivetrain choice (all were running SRAM Eagle,) it’s the little things that start to make a difference. For the Bronson, the tire selection was one of those things.

The Minions hooked up great in corners and at high speeds. Truly, the confidence I gained from the Minions was absolutely incredible. In fact, I wonder if my rankings would have changed if all the bikes had been running the same tires? Maybe this wasn’t actually a bike test but it was a tire test, and the Minions came out on top… Almost, but not quite.

The RockShox Reverb is a fairly standard choice, but again, Santa Cruz got the details right by including the new shifter-style remote instead of the old push-button control.

The next thing I noticed is that the Bronson cornered great, and was among the easiest bikes to handle. The short chainstays really help here, as does the low, 341mm bottom bracket height (only the Marin Wolf Ridge has a lower BB height among the test bikes). One of the complaints some riders lodge against Santa Cruz bikes in general is that their bottom brackets are just too low, leading to increased pedal strikes. I’ve certainly experienced this on my own Tallboy, but during my short test ride on the Bronson I didn’t ding a single pedal.

Santa Cruz seems to wring a lot of performance out of only 150mm of travel, and I’m not just talking about soaking up the big hits. Small bump compliance felt great, and I found the overall suspension to feel more responsive and plush than most of the other bikes in this test.

Finally, climbing on the Bronson was a breeze, with a surprisingly efficient platform even on the steepest out-of-the-saddle grunts. The front wheel never wandered far, unlike my experience with the Tallboy just last year on the very same trails.

Overall, I get why Singletracks readers (and mountain bikers in general) are flocking to the Santa Cruz Bronson. In my opinion, this bike really is one that other enduro bikes will be measured against for some time to come. I could easily see owning this bike as my daily rider or as the only bike in my quiver.

#1: Santa Cruz Nomad

No one is as surprised as me that the Nomad came out on top. Singletracks readers may have given the Bronson the edge over the Nomad in our survey, but it still ranked #3 overall which says a lot about the quality of this bike. As the more aggressive sibling to the Bronson, the Nomad is potentially seen as too much bike for a lot of riders (even among those who enduro), but I found it to be very rideable and fun as hell.

Unlike the Bronson, the Nomad’s shock is mounted to the downtube like their V10 downhill bike, giving it a shock rate that is “almost completely linear.” This was the burliest bike in my test, offering 170mm of travel front and rear.

Not only that, the Nomad features the slackest head tube angle in the test (65°), and the shortest chainstays (430mm), shorter than even the Bronson. Among the bikes I tested, the Nomad had the second-longest reach (490mm) which made it feel super stable on fast descents.

I tested the X01 build of the Nomad, which aside from the suspension components and wheels, is nearly identical to the Bronson I tested. The Nomad features a RockShox Lyrik RCT3 fork and a RockShox Super Deluxe RTC shock. Officially the X01 build is specced with E13 TRS+ wheels, but the wheels on my test bike were the optional Santa Cruz Reserve Carbon wheels. Opting for them adds $1,200 to the price. Of course the Minion DHF and DHR tires are there, as is the RockShox Reverb dropper post with the trigger-style remote.

On the trail

This should go without saying, but the Nomad was a blast on the descents, every one of which left me wanting more! The Nomad is a true hot rod on the trail, stable at speed, in the air, and through the corners. As I pushed my limits further and further, I had an interesting thought that honestly never occurred to me in 25 years of riding mountain bikes: this is a bike that almost doesn’t need brakes.

Sure, everyone will tell you that you need good brakes to go fast, and that is absolutely true. But aboard the Nomad I found myself heading into corners at speeds I normally wouldn’t even consider, only to find the bike (and tires) held firmly to the ground, carrying me safely through to the other side. Ditto for steep slopes, techy sections, and small kickers. I was able to allow gravity to push me as fast as she wanted, and the Nomad just sorted out of the details.

The 170mm of rear suspension absolutely soaked up every small bump, lending the entire ride a cloud-like feeling. The long reach, paired with short chainstays, made the Nomad a pro at both cornering AND high speed drives through wide-open sections of trail.

To me, enduro is all about riding fast on the descents and pedaling (often by any means necessary) up to earn the downs. For that reason, I weighted descending capabilities more heavily than climbing in my scoring for these tests. The Nomad was hands down the best bike I found for descending, but would it choke on the climbs?

In short, no. I never felt like the suspension platform was working against me on any of the climbs, though as the specs clearly show, the Nomad is not designed to climb as well as some of the other bikes on this list. The good news is I felt like the front wheel tracked well even through the steep ups, and the light weight of the X01 build didn’t weigh me down.

Perhaps the craziest thought I had after my test ride was that I could see myself riding the Nomad on my local trails–trails very similar to those at the US National Whitewater Center–without feeling like I was pushing around too much bike. This is an aggressive bike for sure, but it’s only as aggressive as the rider wants it to be.