Nearly 20 new bikes tested in the mountains surrounding San Luis Obispo, California

"You're going to California for a few weeks to test bikes?! Rough job!"

We hear that all the time. Yes, testing bikes is a lot of fun, but it's also hard work. To do it well a lot of things need to fall into place. You need good, honest, observant test riders with a lot of experience on a lot of different bikes. You need rugged trails that allow you to put the bikes into several taxing situations. You need to ask the right questions. You need time to tinker with settings, time to talk with engineers, time to take notes and compile thoughts, and most of all lots and lots of saddle time.

We're now on our third year of Test Sessions, a winter event when we travel to some (hopefully) warm location with great trails, set the computer aside, and ride dozens of the most exciting trail, all-mountain, and enduro bikes back-to-back with the ultimate goal of providing you, our readers, the most honest, unbiased reviews you'll find anywhere. We choose the bikes. We choose the trails. We choose what to speak about, and we also choose not to beat around the bush. Our process is now refined and polished.

2015 brings several new things to the table. We've got some new blood in our testing pool that bring more experience, varied riding styles, and even a new gender. Yes, ladies, we've got some great reviews for you, too. We were in a new location. We also had bikes so new that we can't even talk about all of them just yet.

Testing Grounds: San Luis Obispo, California

After spending some time riding in San Luis Obispo, also known as SLO, back in the Spring of 2014, we knew the area had good promise as a mountain bike destination. The taste we'd gotten was compelling and we knew there was more to be explored. Jump to Fall 2014 and we were trying to determine where to host Test Sessions. SLO jumped out because it promised great weather during December, and we'd heard good things about trails we hadn't ridden yet. Following a few conversations, dozens of emails, and a handful of messages with local riders, we knew the area had the proper ingredients. While the flowing green hills and beachside scenery may look very inviting, don't be fooled - thanks to dedicated builders and trail advocates, SLO is home to some of the rowdiest trails in California.

Not constrained to riding the same monotonous loop over and over, each day we’d link up several of the best climbs and descents the area has to offer, ensuring each bike saw a wide variety of rowdy terrain under every rider. High speed hucks, blastable berms, OMG rock gardens, slow tech, fast booters, and giggle-because-you’re-still-alive-at-the-bottom chutes were the name of the game. We rode it all in the name of science.

When you're new to an area, one of the best ways to get quickly acquainted is a bike shop. By a stroke of luck we found ourselves partnered up with the gents at Foothill Cyclery, connoisseurs of the finest riding spots in the area. Each bike was assembled or built by Foothill, including a few from scratch. It's clear that Josh, Tyler, Frank, and the entire crew at Foothill take pride in their work and get even the little things right the first time. With their help all the elements for testing mountain bikes that are supposed to "do everything" were in place.

19 Bikes You Want To Ride

So how does one go about choosing which bikes to test? The current hot spot in our industry is centered around all-mountain/trail/enduro bikes in the 150-160mm travel range. Not surprisingly they're almost all equipped with 27.5-inch wheels. What is surprising is what you can get away with on these rigs and how efficient they've become, but more on that later.

Knowing that the super fancy $10,000 bikes are out of reach for most, we chose to focus on the most promising bikes offered at a more attainable price point in the $5,000-$6,000 range. At the far ends of the price spectrum were a value-conscious $3,095 build and one at $10,199, giving us a little taste of what each end had to offer. Keep in mind that this is not a shootout, and bikes were ridden and reviewed individually with their relative merits in mind. We had 11 carbon and 8 aluminum bikes, with weights ranging from 25 to 32.9-pounds. Travel ranged from 130-165mm for men's bikes and 120-140mm for women.

Each year we see a few shifts in the industry. What was apparent this year was a clear focus on finer details. Almost every company already has a bike in this category with all the hottest components thanks to the beloved trickle down effect, so now it's time to try and stand out. Needless to say, some brands are doing a great job and others are kind of faking it - much like the difference between those "designer" handbags you can pick up on the street and the real deal. Out Test Sessions reviews will dive deep into the details of each.

View all 19 bikes in this photo gallery.

Vital MTB’s 2015 Test Sessions, By The Numbers

943 miles ridden 87 goofy riding faces
135,667 vertical feet of elevation gained 24 bow leggers
$110,004 worth of bikes 11 flat tires
1 rear shock blown 3 days of 15 foot waves
15 pounds of bacon devoured 121 espresso shots
3 crashes 2 naked mechanical shark rides
0 bikes that didn't come with a dropper 1 mega storm of the century averted
4,098,612 pieces of gum in SLO's Bubble Gum Alley 15 pounds of steak
6 rear wheels in need of a good truing ∞+3 bar turns
1 brake seized 3,267 photos taken
20 raw eggs consumed 7 Foothill Cyclery bike shop visits
6 times the photographer showed up the riders 38 TPS reports filled out
1 busted photographer ankle Total: 1 kick ass adventure testing bikes

Test Rider Diversity

In order to bring you the most well-rounded reviews possible, we sought out test riders with tons of experience as well as a wide variety of riding styles and backgrounds. There were a few new faces in our group this time around, including two skilled women. Together our crew brings a combined 95 years of mountain biking to the table, and many of those were spent as Pro racers. Some of the testers routinely crush out dozens of miles a week, others test prototype stuff before it hits the market, some ride clips and some ride flats, some destroy stuff on a regular basis, and a handful are engineers or trail-builders by trade. 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 six test riders in this Q&A feature detailing their riding styles and preferences.

Every bike was ridden by multiple riders and saw use on multiple trails. Riding all kinds of bikes on great trails was only part of the job, however. Each night testers had "homework" to do as they filled out questionnaires and discussed the bikes' performances. They'd chat about the day’s ride, compare notes, argue over beers and embrace their inner bike nerd. All told, we think you’ll dig what we came up with.

Starting Wednesday, January 7, Vital MTB will be releasing a handful of fresh bike reviews each week. The reviews can be accessed 24/7 in our Product Guide, at your convenience, as you try to decide which 2015 mountain bike is best for you.


Read The Reviews

Links will be activated as the reviews are posted:

View 30 of the best photos from Test Sessions in this photo gallery.


Photos by Lear Miller

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