​2017 Vital MTB Trail Bike Test Sessions Introduction 30

18 of the hottest new mountain bikes put to the test in the wildly varied terrain of Tucson, Arizona

​2017 Vital MTB Trail Bike Test Sessions Introduction

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.

Tucson, Arizona - A Highly Underrated MTB Destination

"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.


18 Rad New Rides

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 (linked below) 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.

See the bikes! Check out all 18 rides.


Test Rider Backgrounds

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.

Our seven testers have a total of 105 years of riding experience, many of them as professional racers and product testers.

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.

You can learn all about our seven test riders in this Q&A feature detailing their riding styles and preferences.


2017 Test Sessions, By The Numbers

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

Read The Reviews

Come along for the ride. Click the links below 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!

Reviews can be accessed 24/7 in our Product Guide, at your convenience, as you try to decide which 2017 mountain bike is best for you.



Want more? View 20 of the best photos from Test Sessions and learn about Tucson's trails in this photo gallery.


Test Sessions was made possible with the help of Arizona Cyclist. Tester gear provided by Troy Lee Designs, Specialized, Five Ten, ZOIC, Sombrio, Race Face, and EVOC. All photos by Lear Miller.

30 comments
  • ButtersNZ

    3/23/2017 1:54 PM

    Would it be possible to have reviewers ride the bikes without knowing what they are? Cover them up to obscure colours and details, have them ride some short loop of diverse terrain and rate the bikes on a few of the usual aspects. I wonder if there would be any difference to the results

  • BuckNkd313

    2/27/2017 6:36 AM

    You had me at Krista Rust. And Tucson. And Bikes.

  • dtimms33

    2/26/2017 2:21 PM

    Do you all have a schedule for publishing reviews?

  • TEAMROBOT

    2/22/2017 4:47 PM

    But you didn't include my weird personal favorite obscure bike brand that no one else rides. This review sucks!

  • miniator

    2/20/2017 11:13 PM

    Disappointed not to see a Radon in the line up!

  • LookinForIt

    2/20/2017 6:42 PM

    I'm stoked on this. Whatever the bikes, whatever the price, I just like reading about how they ride and don't forget (don't forget) the pretty pictures!

  • gazelle11

    2/20/2017 5:58 PM

    i think it's enough for popular bikes..there are many good underrated bikes need to be tested! cmon vital, test them..cube, mongoose, dartmoor, da bomb, etc etc..
    popular bikes are mainstream..just opinion..

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 8:53 PM

    You're right, there are a lot of other good bikes out there. No doubt about it! I think we snuck in a few smaller brands this year with bikes from Evil, Guerrilla Gravity, and Ellsworth. Cheers for the feedback. We'll consider it for the future.

  • Gnarnia420

    2/20/2017 3:30 PM

    SMDH...Icant belive you guys didnt include a lahar in this reivew.

  • Salespunk

    2/20/2017 1:06 PM

    Super stoked to read the tests. The only thing I would like to see is fair comparisons either corrected for build kit or price. Testing a $3500 Specialized Enduro vs a $7K Pivot Firebird doesn't give a real idea of a direct comparison. Corrected for price, say all bikes in the $6-7K range, or all XO1 build kits would help us really understand how the bikes really stand up to one another.

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 1:13 PM

    "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."

    We certainly do take price into account, and you'll see that reflected in the reviews and ratings. That $3,500 Specialized held its own quite well.

    I hear you though, a Face Off style feature would be rad. You never know!
  • Salespunk

    2/20/2017 8:03 PM

    Thanks for the clarification! Would love to see more Face Off stuff.

  • mp

    2/20/2017 12:24 PM

    Dig the new large format! Photos really shine this way.

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 12:31 PM

    Cheers, mp. It sure does compliment Lear's awesome photos well. More to come!

  • bstens

    2/20/2017 2:03 PM

    Lear's photos absolutely killed it.

    Vital > all. You guys are the best

  • Triber66

    2/20/2017 9:52 AM

    Love your list of bikes this year guys!

  • NoahColorado

    2/20/2017 9:23 AM

    How many dropped chains or bent chainrings? I know how Dylan rides....

    6 hammered rims, but 7 cracked carbon rims?

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 10:26 AM

    Pretty sure Dylan doesn't want to recount the number of dropped chains he had while riding one bike in particular, but you'll surely read about it in the review.

    I think all the rings survived without issue. There's no rolling many of the rock bits in Tucson, at least at speed, which likely helped. A chain or two may have gotten a bit dinged up though.

    Five of the bikes came with guides this year and only one bike was missing ISCG tabs. Sounds like progress!

    Clarified. Six hammered 'alloy' rims. Thanks amigo.

  • JDendy

    2/20/2017 2:42 PM

    The Norco dropped chains.

  • TEAMROBOT

    2/22/2017 4:46 PM

    But I thought you don't need a guide with a narrow wide ring?

  • JDendy

    2/20/2017 9:05 AM

    7 cracked carbon rims out of how many bikes with carbon rims?

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 10:17 AM

    "7 carbon rim cracks" - It's how you read it. Could be two rims with multiple cracks, could be seven rims with one crack. You'll have to read those reviews to find out.

  • iceman2058

    2/20/2017 7:39 AM

    GO crew GO! #bestindabiz

  • dirtworks911

    2/20/2017 7:37 AM

    This pleases me!!

  • adrennan

    2/20/2017 6:31 AM

    You guys have to throw a canfield in the mix one of these times!

  • bturman

    2/20/2017 7:54 AM

    We did back in 2015 but are definitely due to ride another one of those beauties. You'll be pleased to hear that we've got a Canfield Riot under our Squamish, BC tester right now.
  • adrennan

    2/20/2017 1:39 PM

    good to hear. i just never feel like they get the love and they are so deserving especially with a unique suspension layout instead of all the same horst links. and as always, we really appreciate the honesty in the reviews.

  • rideonjon

    2/20/2017 3:36 PM

    From what i understand there warranty is less than spectacular and you will need to use it.

  • adrennan

    2/20/2017 3:38 PM

    my balance has been holding up great. in all the canfield forum threads i have never seen a warranty complaint. would be interested to see where you got that from.

  • rideonjon

    2/20/2017 5:15 PM

    Well it is really only 2 people i know who had experiences with them,one was a sponsored rider.The other was a guy who raced enduro on one.Both had terrible things to say about the reliability of the product.The sponsored rider,BOUGHT a different frame to ride.He is no longer riding for Canfeild.Both said the bikes were amazing to ride.