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When I made the swap from cross-country to gravity riding, 27.5″ bikes were slowly climbing toward the popularity pedestal that 26″ whips long sat atop. Having raced 29er hardtails for years, I had a pile of wagon-sized rims and tires, so It made sense to buy a long-travel 29er. The Niner RIP 9 I picked up had less travel than “down-country” bikes do today, but at the time it was considered a legit gravity sled.

Having leapt directly over the midsize wheel whips, with all of their travel and nimble handling promises, I have recently been wanting to ride one of the 27.5″ bikes that my friends were raving about at the height of that first “so enduro” wave. I wanted to know how all of that hype and popularity stacks up against the refined 27.5″ and 29″ party bikes that I regularly get to test today.

A few weeks back I flew to Omis, Croatia to race an enduro, and borrowed a medium 2015 Giant Reign from local racer, Kresimir Vuković. I would have a full day to dial in the suspension, followed by a full day of racing, and a final ride in the backcountry to answer any lingering questions about the bike. While this Reign is several steps into the timeline of 27.5″ enduro bikes, it seemed like a fair point in history to compare with what’s available today.

Vuković’s Reign has received some important component improvements since he purchased the bike nearly five years ago. The most notable upgrade is a set of Shimano Saint brakes he swapped in to give the bike proper stopping power. For my personal riding preferences, there are no better brakes. He’s also swapped tires numerous times. Like most of the riders I met in Croatia, Vuković has a set of Magic Mary tires mounted front and rear. The dirt around Omis is correctly characterized as “anti-grip” and it takes a load of soft rubber to keep the bike on track.

The RockShox fork and shock on this Reign have both been swapped out for aftermarket squish, and this is where my comparison begins in earnest. With one volume spacer in the shock, it was easy enough to tune in a proper amount of support throughout the stroke. This older version of Giant’s Maestro suspension isn’t quite as lively as some newer 27.5″ bikes I have ridden, but overall it stacks up quite well against the latest breed of bikes.

The frame’s shorter reach measurement (444mm) made balancing my weight up over the front tire feel fairly natural, which is necessary on slicker tracks. Finding a comfortable traction balance with the limousine reach on some new bikes, coupled with their oft short chainstays, can feel less instinctive than it does on this 2015 Reign. Unfortunately, the DVO Diamond fork on this bike is a poor match for its overall geometry. I fiddled with the fork multiple times on almost every descent, watched setup videos, and read reviews from folks who had some success with it, all to no avail. No matter how much compression I added the fork swallowed the first half of its travel with little input, preventing a forward stance on the bike.

For my riding style, and Croatia’s loose terrain, this fork felt about as unsupportive as they come. The bike has a 65° headtube angle, and the trails we raced on were rarely steep, so it seems the issue here was the fork itself. I ended up inflating the air chamber far beyond the recommended pressure for my weight to give it as much composure as possible on the rougher sections of track, which resulted in inferior front tire grip, regardless of the compression and rebound settings. Ultimately, I released a little pressure and opted to ride further aft on the bike to make up for the fork’s deep diving tendencies, and that sort of worked.

The 2015 Reign’s geometry is fairly similar to a new 27.5″ enduro bike you might buy today, save one element: the seat tube angle. At 73° the seat tube is 2.3° slacker than the angle of a 2019 Santa Cruz Bronson, with otherwise similar geo and travel. This leaned back posture clearly affects the bike’s climbing prowess, with a large portion of rider weight hanging back over the rear tire, resulting in undesirable pedal-bob and a need to place your nose nearby the stem to keep the front tire tracking. With the saddle slid as far forward as its rails will allow this issue was largely solved, but it does point to the benefits of modern seat tubes growing steeper.

After pedaling the Reign on some wicked fun trails for three days, I learned a few things about these bikes that my friends have been whipping around while I plowed through aboard various 29ers. Most importantly, they are still really good bikes, even when compared to new frames that have seen 5 seasons of rethinking and redrawing. If I had purchased this 2015 alloy Reign today, I would be happy to ride it — after sending the fork in for a retune. It’s playful enough to party, and the shorter reach allowed me to throw it around with less effort than my personal long-travel bike. It wouldn’t be my go-to frame for racing, as it does have a harsher ping-pong effect when you take the rough line at full throttle, but for daily riding it is a solid whip.

Compared to the 2019/2020 bikes with 27.5″ wheels that I have ridden, this particular Reign feels noticeably less composed. Over the past five years, suspension and frame designers have learned how to keep the playful temperament of 27.5″ bikes alive, while improving their overall stability and composure characteristics at race speed.

My final note on this graciously loaned gravity-tool is that the seat tube length and shape limited the amount of dropper travel significantly. The 120mm post in this frame felt problematically shorter than the 150mm post in my daily driver, slapping my glutes awkwardly at several points during the race. Most modern frame designers are working to shorten seat tubes as much as possible while making room for maximum post insertion, so even shorter riders can get as low as we like.

Thanks for letting me test out your Reign, Kresimir!

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# Comments

  • rmap01

    Brian, I was really intrigued by the title of your article. While it’s clear that “newer” bikes are superior to those from 10+ years ago it’s an interesting question about whether 2019/20 models are really (much) better than bikes from 3-5 years ago. Are we just falling for the marketing or are we really buying better? Unfortunately, trying to draw any conclusions using a single bike with an untuned fork obviously is insufficient. Would be great if doing this were actually practical.

  • Bike Nerd

    I think that expecting Mountainbikes to get massively better in a few years is unrealistic. Are they maybe 30% better than they were 5 years ago? I think so. Look at what’s happened in the last five years. Wider tires and rims. Thru-axle Boosted hubs. 29er Enduro bikes. Wide range 1×12 drivetrains. Longer travel suspensions that bob less and pedal more efficientely. Progressive geometry. More powerful brakes. 5 years ago, nobody thought that a bike with 170mm of travel could be reasonably pedaled uphill. Each one of these improvements made only a small change but when all added together the improvement was significant. These improvements have been subtle and evolutionary not all at once.

    In my experience, on the newer bikes, I’m now easily riding over stuff that I used to have to walk 5 years ago. I wish I could say that my riding skill has improved but no, it’s the bikes.

    Unfairly, your 2015 Reign has been updated and modernized so much that mostly all you’re comparing are the differences in geometry. You should be comparing a stock 2015 Reign to bikes like the 2020 Specialized Enduro, Santa Cruz Megatower, or Scott Ransom. I don’t think you would want to trade any of these 2020 Enduro bikes for a stock 2015 Reign. Not even close!

  • Jarrod Breuer

    I would love to see more articles like this! I’m especially interested in how slacker hardtails compare to old school hardtails.

  • kkentttt

    I’m not rich so most of the time I am about 5 years behind. This year I purchased a 2018 bike and WOW I have so much control now when riding. After experiencing the difference it made in my riding fun, I would buy a new bike every year if I had the money.

  • mgringle

    I went from a 2015 Kona Process 134 to a spanking new Ibis Ripley and WOW what a difference. The process had a Pike fork and DPX2 shock, but the Ripley was a huge difference in that it climbed and descending. Just my experience

  • Petar Benjamin

    Funny that you chose a 2015. I’ve bought a 2016 from my son, as I want a park bike & he needs a racer. He bought a 2020 reign with coil rear & 29 for the uphill bits that gravity enduros always have. I’ve changed wheels & tyres & the next change I make will be to dump the gimmicky Pike up front for a Lyric 170. 10 mill more. that gives a modern slack front end with a much better fork. The seat tube? At least in Australia it’s considered de riguer to walk up stupid uphill bits in bike parks, & being almost 65 I agree. So I don’t care about the slack seat tube. As far as I’m concerned the next fork will make this bike perfect, but of course if I was racing (seriously) , I’d probably go 29 with coil on a modern bike. I’m riding my favourite downhill jump/berm trail 9th in my strava age group, with the Pike.

  • skypig

    I have an excuse for owning 2 nice MTB’s. I keep one on each side of the country. One at work, one at home.

    I had a 2012 Giant Trance Advanced 1, 26”. I was compleatly happy with the bike.
    After some research, I purchased a 2017 version, 27.5”. Noting that the 2017 “Anthem” was closest to the 2012 Trance geometry. That is; in 5 years, the geometry had moved “one category”. “All Mountain” to “XC”

    I happily rode the 2012 at work, and the 2017 at home. Never quite getting the Fox Factory 34’s as good as the 32’s on the old bike. Despite sending them (3 time’s) to the same pro’s that set up the smaller fork. (They are back a 4th time, maybe the “stiction issue” has finally been resolved. Maybe.)

    When I couldn’t resist a newer, “rowdier” bike I ordered a 2020 Reign Pro 0.
    Took my 2017 to “work” and brought the “old bike” home.

    Riding the newer 2017/27.5” bike on the trails* I was used to riding on the old bike was a revelation. I felt it was a noticable improvement all around. Really seemed “better” to ride in many ways, potentially a lot to do with the bigger wheels.

    * the trails on the West Coast are hard and rocky, quite different to home.

    Unfortunately, I had a bad crash, requiring surgery and some months of recovery.
    I’m just getting back on the bikes now. With injuries still healing, clip in pedals banned by the surgeon for another month, a fresh “face plant” (2 days ago) and confidence at an all time low, I can’t ride the new bike to the level required for a review yet.

    Initial impressions are the bike feels “big” (my first 29er) and 35mm carbon bars are “harsh”.
    So far very underwhelmed by the SRAM brakes, 203mm discs. I’m hoping they are just taking a while to bed in….

    Summing up.
    Cynical as I am to many “industry” changes: Wheel size, 1x gears, etc – 5 years made a respectable improvement on exactly the same make/model.

    Keep riding
    Keep smiling (Even if your nose looks like you’ve been in a losing fight!!)

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