- Bike Checks
18 of the hottest new mountain bikes put to the test in the wildly varied terrain of Tucson, Arizona
Five years, over one hundred mountain bikes, and 4,581 miles of incredible singletrack. That's how long we've been at this Test Sessions business. Every fall, we take note of all the sickest new trail and enduro bikes being released for next year, pick up to two dozen of our favorites, then put each and every one of them through a torture test on some truly demanding trails. Sometimes bikes break and sometimes we fall in love, but every time we report our findings to you in well-informed and brutally honest reviews.
So what changed in those five years? How have trail bikes progressed? During our first go at this, 29ers were struggling to find their identity, the 27.5-inch wheel size was just emerging, and it wasn't uncommon to see a 90mm stem and 700mm wide bars on a trail bike. In the years since we've seen geometries change considerably with longer front ends, shorter rear ends, and slacker head angles across the board. Simplicity has also been a driver behind many changes, with 1X drivetrains taking hold and companies focusing on the things that really matter. Bikes were a bit hit-or-miss back then, but today most are pretty incredible. It truly is a great time to be a mountain biker.
While it's pretty wild to look back on just how far bikes have come, it's also awesome to look at how far we've come here at Vital. We've always strived to present you with unbiased observations about how bikes ride, why they ride the way they do, how to squeeze the most performance out of each package, and ultimately which type of rider each bike is best for. In addition to adding women's reviews to the mix, we've continually refined the testing process over the years. For 2017 we implemented a few more changes that helped every one of our testers further solidify their opinions about the bikes. An extra tester, more ride time, and a new back-to-back test day made things click even better. Plus, this year's location boasted the widest variety of terrain we've ever used for Test Sessions.
"Have you ridden Mount Lemmon yet?!" We must have heard that question from nearly a dozen respected riders. When it came time to choose a location for this event, the recommendations for the monstrous mountain just outside of Tucson, Arizona helped it rise to the top.
We're always looking for the next best test trail, and while our previous locations of Saint George, Sedona, San Luis Obispo, and Phoenix provided solid networks to put bikes through their paces, Tucson offered a very unique advantage. In addition to hundreds of miles of singletrack in the Sonoran Desert, most of which can be ridden year-round, not far from the city streets rests a mountain so big it's possible to rack up around 10,000 feet of descending on a single trip down. With temperatures an average of 30 degrees cooler up top, Tucson locals use Mount Lemmon as an escape from the summer heat in the desert below. Much like Moab's famous Whole Enchilada, Tucson's "Lemmon Drop" makes its way through several distinct climates. From pine and aspen trees to saguaro cacti, wet dirt to dry desert, root gaps to mandatory rock hucks, meandering climbs to lung busters, bear country to tarantulas, the mountain seemed to have it all.
Not far from the city streets rests a mountain so big it's possible to rack up around 10,000 feet of descending on a single trip down.
Despite the one million or so people just miles away, there's never a gridlock on the trails and every ride feels like an well-earned adventure. While the entire journey is a tech lover's delight, as you near the bottom you'd better put on your game face. The final descent down La Milagrosa is one of the rowdiest trails we've ridden, especially at speed, and the large number of discarded tires, broken wheels, and blown suspension components the test bikes suffered attest to that. A large portion of this trail involves dodging bristle bush, prickly pears, cholla and saguaro cactus as you navigate a relentless onslaught of technical rock sections. Thanks to a good line of sight it's possible to really open it up.
The final descent down La Milagrosa is one of the rowdiest trails we've ridden, especially at speed, and the large number of discarded tires, broken wheels, and blown suspension components the test bikes suffered attest to that.
All that descending doesn't come as easily as you'd think, because the best bits of downhill are linked together with very challenging climbs. We harnessed our trials skills time and time again, leaping up and over boulders while mashing on the pedals and evaluating each bike's climbing capabilities.
Riding repeat days on the same trails provided the opportunity to test with as many constants as possible. The weather remained the same, trail conditions stayed similar, and those giant boulders never moved, which really exposed the pros and cons of each suspension design, component, and bike as a whole.
Such great test trails wouldn't be possible without the local scene, and we have to give credit where it's due. As you might imagine, trail building and maintenance near Tucson is no easy feat. A dedicated local trail advocacy organization called Tucson Off-Road Cyclists and Advocates (TORCA) helps maintain the awesome Mount Lemmon trails and spread stoke within the community and abroad.
The talented techs at Arizona Cyclist added to the mix by assembling and building all of the test bikes. It's the little details that count, and thanks to Ryan and his crew we knew that every time we threw a leg over a bike we could do so confidently. Every recommendation provided by the shop proved to be a good one, showing once again that local knowledge can't be beat. With their help all the ingredients for testing mountain bikes that are supposed to "do everything" were once again in place.
For 2017, we pulled in several bikes that are sure to catch your eye. This year's batch featured five 29ers and thirteen 27.5 steeds, three made from aluminum and 15 from carbon, with bikes ranging from an affordable build at $3,200 to a taste of luxury at $8,050. The rides weighed anywhere from 26.5 to 32.3 pounds while boasting 110 to 170mm of travel for the men and 125 to 160mm for the ladies.
Our Test Sessions reviews will dive deep into the details of each new trend and component. Keep in mind that this is not a shootout, and bikes were ridden and reviewed individually with their relative merits in mind. With a wide range of bikes to read about, we felt our sampling should give you plenty to study as you decide which features, builds and geometries will work best for your budget, riding style and local terrain.
As we mentioned, bikes these days are pretty phenomenal and it's rare that we come across a truly poor performer. That makes our job harder, but, as you've come to learn, nuance and detail are a key component of every Test Sessions.
The crew brings knowledge from past and present careers as engineers, trail builders, skills coaches, downhillers, cross-country racers, and more. Some are big and some are small. Some finesse and some plough. Each of them has a unique perspective, and the articles you'll read combine their thoughts into one cohesive take on every ride. The common theme is that they all ride hard, ride often, and know how to articulate what they’re feeling on the trail.
911 miles ridden
|15 pounds of enchiladas||7 bullseyes with the bb gun|
|82,743 vertical feet of elevation gained||46 jaws on the floor when we entered Skate Country||1 wallowed out bottom bracket|
|247,230 vertical feet of elevation lost||8 sliced tires swapped for Maxxis Double Downs||3 boxes of tagaderm|
|$101,157 worth of bikes||7 tires saved by tire plugs||4,431 photos taken|
|$5,620 average price tag||3 inches of snow at the top of Mt Lemmon||112 post ride CL smooths|
|71 degree average daily temperature||26 times we harnessed our inner Danny Mac||1 tarantula sighting|
|7 carbon rim cracks||1 time Steve nearly lost the ability to have children||6 severely hammered alloy rims|
|1 tire exploded right off the wheel||2 forks leaking air where they shouldn't||4 Arizona Cyclist bike shop visits|
|8 crashes||1 crucial cooler of refreshments (thanks, Randy!)||∞ rocks smashed|
|15 javelinas chased out of the yard||3 karaoke songs we absolutely destroyed||∞+2 skids|
|1 stop at the Tequila Tree||2 temporarily paralyzing cactus stabs||Total: 1 kick ass adventure testing bikes|
Come along for the ride. Visit Vital MTB starting February 23 to learn all the nitty gritty details about some incredible (and not so incredible) 2017 mountain bikes, drool over some gorgeous bike photos, and get inspired to visit the amazing sunsets and wild trails of Tucson. We freaking love all things two-wheeled and want to bring you guys the honest truth!
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