Vital MTB Test Sessions - Short Travel Bikes 18

Are they trail bikes, aggressive cross-country bikes, or maybe just mountain bikes? Let's find out!

Historically, cross-country bikes have always been lightweight and efficient machines with limited travel and geometry that favors climbing and pedaling performance. On the other hand, trail bikes have always been the swiss army knife of mountain bikes, with anywhere from 120 to 150mm of travel capable of handling most descents, matched with balanced geometry and a manageable overall weight that isn’t a burden to pedal. In recent years, the line between cross country and trail bikes has begun to blur. World Cup cross country racing has steadily moved towards more aggressive and technical courses, while everyday riders are looking for bikes that fly up climbs and provide a comfortable, stable, and fun experience on the way back down.

While they aren’t quite XC race bikes, they also aren’t exactly trail bikes. So what the heck are they? Eager to see what all the hype is about with these short travel, ride-everything mountain bikes, we brought together four pedal-hungry and downhill-capable bikes to see how they perform across various terrain. Our goal was simple - find out where this exciting category of mountain bikes shines, what unique features set them apart, and ultimately help riders discover which bike would best complement their trails and preferences. 

Skimming through almost any brand’s website in 2022 will illustrate the popularity of these short-travel bikes that have received a small dose of longer-lower-slacker geometry combined with a mixture of lightweight and durable components. Head angles, stem lengths, bottom bracket heights, rotor sizes, and tire casings appear to be picked from various disciplines, creating bikes that, on paper, spark one’s imagination about the efficiency, speed, and confidence such a creation would foster.

There is a lot of wiggle room when you combine character traits from multiple bike genres. To keep our test as apples-to-apples as possible, we chose bikes that weighed within a few pounds of each other, had between 100 and 130mm of travel, rolled on 29-inch wheels, and shared similar components. Checking all of these boxes, we ended up with four exciting machines: Alchemy’s Arktos 120, Ibis’ Exie, YT’s IZZO, and Scott’s Spark.


Meet the Testers

With our bikes selected, we tagged in contributors John Palumbo and Greg Montgomery to help Vital Tech Editor Jason Schroeder log saddle time on each bike. With differences in body dimensions, riding styles, and bike preferences, we hope that readers can pull insights from whichever tester they align with to help understand how each bike would perform as their own.

Greg Montgomery

John Palumbo

Jason Schroeder

  • 31 years old
  • 5-foot, 11-inches (180cm)
  • 150-pounds (68kg)
  • 15 years riding
  • Daily driver: Canyon Spectral 125

  • 47 years old
  • 6-foot, 1-inch (185cm)
  • 210-pounds (95kg)
  • 26 years riding
  • Daily driver: Intense Sniper T

  • 27 years old
  • 6-foot (182cm)
  • 175-pounds (77kg)
  • 16 years riding
  • Daily driver: Specialized Enduro

Greg Montgomery - Greg is our forever bike setup theorist whose quest for the next best combination of unsprung and sprung weight or the optimal cockpit geometry makes him perfect at thinking outside the box when it comes to analyzing the performance of a bike. Originally a world-class runner, Greg is the king of maintaining a conversation for the duration of a climb while you breathe through your eyes. With no lack of fitness laying down power at the pedals, Greg is just as capable descending, with a tendency to prefer quick, snappy bikes that roll fast.    

John Palumbo - With over 25 years of spinning circles on two wheels, John is an incredibly well-rounded cyclist and an absolute fitness beast. With experience racing cross country, Xterra Off-Road triathlon, downhill, enduro, and criterium, his depth of knowledge covers every type of bicycle. Heavily involved in his cycling community of Boise, Idaho, John recently became Executive Director of SWIMBA (Southwest Idaho Moutain Bike Association) and has donated hundreds of hours to local trail maintenance and coaching. A working man and father, John has more grit than most and can be found riding before sunrise to kickstart his day.

Jason Schroeder - The Vital editor pulling the strings behind the curtain for this Test Session. Planning, scheduling, and participating in a test brought its fair share of challenges and exhaustion; however, it was incredibly fun to test bikes that fall outside our typical wheelhouse of coverage.  And turns out, you get can pretty rowdy on a bike with not a lot of travel!  

The Setup

Our Short Travel Test Sessions was conducted throughout the foothills of Boise, Idaho. The trails immediately outside downtown Boise feature flowing single track with high average speeds and occasional rock gardens. An aggressive, heavy bike with slack geometry is way too much bike, and instead, mid-weight bikes equipped to attack punchy climbs and carry speed on undulating terrain provide the best trail experience. 

During our two-week testing period, conditions ranged from loose over hardpack to wet and tacky topsoil. Testers began with each brand’s recommended sag and then made adjustments to match their preferences and trail conditions. 

Meet the Bikes

Ibis Exie



  • Exceptional power transfer, efficiency pedaling, and acceleration
  • High-average speed on moderate terrain
  • Lightweight, stiff frame gives the bike a lively and responsive personality 
  • Tall cockpit and long dropper enhance confidence descending 
  •  Still feels like a 100mm travel bike in rough sections 
  • Maxxis Rekon Race tires 
  • 160mm rear rotor 
  • Expensive 


  • 29-inch wheels 
  • 100mm (3.9-inches) rear travel // 120mm (4.7-inches) fork travel
  • Full carbon frame hand-made in Santa Cruz, CA
  • DW-link suspension design
  • 67.2-degree head tube angle
  • Size-specific seat angles
  • FOX 34 SC Factory fork, Kashima, FIT 4 damper, remote lockout
  • FOX Float DPS Factory shock, Kashima, remote lockout
  • Bike Yoke Revive dropper post, 185mm (size large)
  • Shimano XT 12-speed drivetrain
  • Shimano XT 2-piston brakes
  • Shimano 180mm front rotor and 160mm rear rotor
  • 29x2.4-inch Maxxis Rekon Race, EXO casing tire front and rear
  • Measured weight (size large, no pedals): 25.7-pounds (11.6kg)
  • MSRP: $7,999 USD (XT Build)

Read the full Vital Test Sessions review of the Ibis Exie

Scott Spark 910



  • Integrated shock design is unique, simple, and protects the shock
  • Lightweight, agile, and responsive on descents 
  • Generates and maintains speed well
  • 3-position TwinLoc system provides distinct suspension packages to suit a variety of trail conditions 
  • Integrated GPS mount 
  • Two water mounts and two cages included
  • Active pedaling platform relies on the TwinLoc system to maintain efficiency 
  • TwinLoc lever is congested and feels vague
  • Integrated headset and stem limit cockpit adjustments to meet rider preference 
  • Narrow handlebars 
  • Short dropper post limits body positioning during descents 


  • 29-inch wheelsScott HMF carbon frame 
  • 120mm (4.7-inches) rear travel // 130mm (5.1-inches) fork travel
  • Scott HMF carbon frame 
  • Integrated single-pivot suspension system 
  • Three-position, TwinLoc lever-actuated suspension lockout (fork and shock)
  • Syncros cable integration system
  • 65.8-degree head tube angle (adjustable via modular headset cups)
  • 76.4-degree seat tube angle 
  • 437mm chainstay
  • FOX 34 Performance Elite fork, FIT 4 damper
  • Proprietary FOX Nude 5T EVOL shock
  • FOX Transfer Performance Elite dropper post, 150mm (size large)
  • Shimano XT 12-speed drivetrain
  • Shimano XT 2-piston brakes with 180mm rotors front and rear
  • Syncros Silverton 2.0 wheels
  • 29x2.4-inch Schwalbe Wicked Will, Super Race casing, Addix soft front tire
  • 29x2.4-inch Schwalbe Wicked Will, Super Race casing, Addix speed rear tire 
  • Measured weight (size large, no pedals): 27.4-pounds (13.7kg)
  • MSRP: $6,299 USD (910 Build Kit)

Read the full Vital Test Sessions review of the Scott Spark 910

Alchemy Arktos 120



  • Snappy and agile without feeling twitchy or unpredictable on descents
  • Carries exceptional speed on flat, rolling terrain thanks to its supportive suspension design
  • Motionless pedaling platform is fast and efficient
  • Value-packed build kit that compliments the abilities of the bike
  • Stiff frame and firm suspension design limit composure in rough sections
  • Uncomfortable saddle
  • Low-rise handlebars 


  • 29-inch wheels 
  • 120mm (4.7-inches) rear travel // 130mm (5.1-inches) fork travel
  • Alchemy premium full carbon frame  
  • Sine Suspension System
  • Flip-chip adjusts head angle, seat angle and allows mixed wheel setup
  • 65.75 / 66.50-degree head angle
  • 77.75 / 78.50-degree seat tube angle
  • 437mm chainstay across all sizes
  • 29x2.3-inch Maxxis Minion DHF, EXO casing front tire
  • 29x2.3-inch Maxxis Minion DHR, EXO casing rear tire
  • Super Boost+ 157 rear spacing with 12mm through axle
  • Fully internal cable routing
  • Two water bottle mounts
  • Measured weight (size medium, no pedals): 30.4-pounds (13.7kg)
  • MSRP: $5,999 USD (as tested)

Read the full Vital Test Sessions review of the Alchemy Arktos 120




  • Maximizes travel to provide a capable yet forgiving ride quality on descents
  • Maintains speed through rough sections without getting hung up
  • Compliant frame dampens trail chatter
  • Killer price point
  • Relaxed pedaling position promotes all-day adventure
  • Struggles to maintain and generate speed on low-angle, undulating terrain
  • Active design under pedaling forces minimizes efficiency
  • Shock lockout switch is hard to reach due to the upside-down shock orientation
  • Shorter dropper post makes it hard to shift weight rearward in steep sections


  • 29-inch wheels
  • 130mm (5.1-inches) rear travel // 130mm (5.1-inches) fork travel
  • Full carbon frame 
  • Flip-chip geometry adjustment
  • 66/66.5-degree head tube angle 
  • 77/77.5-degree effective seat tube angle 
  • FOX 34 Float Performance Elite fork, GRIP2 damper
  • FOX Float DPS Performance Elite shock, 3-position lever 
  • YT Postman dropper post, 150mm 
  • SRAM GX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain
  • SRAM G2 R brakes
  • 200mm front rotor, 180mm rear rotor 
  • DT Swiss M 1900 wheels
  • 29x2.35-inch Maxxis Forecaster, dual compound, EXO casing tire front and rear
  • Measured weight (size large, no pedals): 29.4-pounds (13.3kg)
  • MSRP: $4,299 USD (Core 3 Build)

Read the full Vital Test Sessions review of the YT Izzo Core 3

What's The Bottom Line?

After jumping between all four bikes and ascending more feet than is probably safe in just two weeks, we could not believe how fun and capable each bike was in various situations. They all carried great speed, provided a surprising amount of control and confidence descending, and motored up climbs with impressive efficiency. Of course, each bike excelled in its own way and offered a specific ride experience that set each apart from the other.

Ibis Exie - Cross Country Bike on Steroids 

With 100mm of rear-wheel travel and a 120mm fork, the Exie had the least amount of travel matched with the steepest geometry. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that you can’t always judge a bike solely by its head angle and shock size. With geometry that was a hair slacker than a typical cross-country bike, the Exie performed well across varying terrain, highlighted by its ability to maintain speed with little rider input thanks to its minimalistic tires, moderately stiff frame, and firm suspension. 

Sure, the bottom bracket did feel a tad high, and the steeper head tube angle limited confidence in steep or technical sections. But overall, the Exie was lightning fast and incredibly fun. When trails became rougher, the Exie attacked descents harder than most 100mm travel bikes, but the margin for air was smaller than the other bikes. When we did execute our lines and held on through the rubble, the Exie rewarded us with an exciting and fast ride. 

Unsurprisingly, the Exie pedaled phenomenally. Just tossing a leg over the bike screamed climbing dominance. The low weight and minimal rolling resistance paid dividends going uphill, requiring substantially less effort to punch up climbs. If we had to pick a bike out of the group to tackle massive climbs, we would pick the Exie every time. The bike makes climbs you usually dread feel like a breeze and will leave extra gas in your tank, allowing you to ride further, faster. 

The Exie was the lightest bike by over a pound and a half-pound at 25.7-pounds, but also carried the most expensive price tag at $7,999 USD for the entry-level XT build kit. Designing and manufacturing a hand-built, premium carbon frame stateside is not cheap. While the craftsmanship and ride quality of the Exie is exceptional, riders will have to decide if it’s worth shopping boutique or going with a different bike, receiving many of the same components, and saving some cash for component upgrades down the road.

Alchemy Arktos 120 - The Unexpected Race Bike

The Arktos 120 took the top spot as the fastest in the group, thanks to its downhill-focused build kit, impressively stiff frame, and super-efficient suspension design. Ideal for riders wanting a short travel weapon that will carry speed in every situation, the Arktos won’t shy away from blasting downhill.

Combining 120mm of rear-wheel travel with a 130mm fork, the rear suspension was incredibly supportive, making it easy to maintain speed and generate momentum from the smallest trail features. Despite being the heaviest at 30.4-pounds, we found the Arktos carried the most speed on rolling trails. Getting on the pedals took a tad more energy, but power transfer was immediate, and we never felt bogged down sprinting. Diving into more demanding sections, the Arktos still reacted like a 120mm travel bike. The rear suspension did not have a bottomless feel, and the stiff frame provided a firm ride quality. The Arktos wasn’t as much of a handful to keep settled through rocks and compressions as the Scott Spark but was stiffer than the IZZO and Exie. Luckily, the Arktos build kit and geometry improved its ability to manage demanding sections. 

While the Arktos might appear just to be a slimmed-down trail bike, don’t be fooled, it was impressively efficient and was a competitive climber against the other bikes. The firm rear suspension again played a significant role, providing an almost motionless pedaling platform that was highly efficient.

We tested the mid-range XT build that retails for $5,999 USD, highlighted by Shimano’s XT 4-piston brakes and Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR II tire combo that elevated the Arktos’ descending performance above the rest. The Arktos 120 was the only bike that we couldn’t find modifications we’d make to better match the intended use of the bike. Alchemy did an impressive job speccing all Arktos 120 models with components that complement the downhill abilities of the bike. Compared to the other bikes, the Arktos includes nicer components at a lower price. Even though the IZZO Core 3 is less expensive, we’d argue riders are getting a better bang for their buck with the Arktos. We know $5,999 USD is not cheap, but if you have the funds, you will be jumping on a hand-crafted bike with premium components for much less than most brands can offer. 

Scott Spark 910 - Best All-Around Performer

Easily one of the most head-turning bikes of recent times, the Spark 910 achieved the best balance of climbing and descending performance. While it’s not our first choice to convert into a cross-country race bike (although you could if desired), we would reach for the Spark to knock out big adventures and long days in the saddle. A point of discussion at every trailhead, the integrated suspension design was aesthetically striking and fostered the most prominent character trait of the Spark: responsiveness. Agile, light, and nimble, the Spark demanded precise riding. Despite weighing 27.4-pounds, it accelerated with ease and provided a firm platform to press against and squeeze speed out of trails.

The downside to such a responsive frame was the energy required to keep the Spark settled through repetitive compressions. We ended up running a tad more sag to help keep our weight sat into the bike and adjusted our mentality going into demanding sections, knowing it would take more focus to hold onto the reigns. Despite lacking some composure, the Spark made up for lost time in rowdy sections by carrying great speed on smooth, flat terrain.

When climbing, putting down power was effortless; however, the Spark had a more upright pedaling position that promoted a less aggressive approach. The rear suspension design remained active when open and relied heavily on Scott’s TwinLoc system to maintain speed and climbing efficiency. When we locked out the suspension, the Spark’s climbing abilities were transformed, and hammering up trails was enjoyable. And once we became accustomed to the strong suits of each TwinLoc mode, we grew to enjoy the ability to quickly toggle between modes to find the best suspension package for a given trail. 

Retailing for $6,299 USD, the 910 build used components that performed great climbing and descending. The build also offers riders the most flexibility to easily alter the Sparks intended use with minimal component adjustments.  

YT IZZO - The Short Travel Trail Bike

With the most travel in the group, it should come as no surprise that the IZZO was the most forgiving and capable on descents, performing similar to a trail bike. Employing 130mm of travel front and rear, we felt at ease pushing our limits, knowing the IZZO could handle plenty of abuse without punishing us for taking less precise lines. We had no problem maintaining speed through repetitive compressions and found it easier to float over bumps where the other bikes tended to get hung up or deflect. The IZZO was also a joy to take down mellow flow trails and had the most natural feel when hitting jumps and bowled out berms. 

Featuring a full-carbon frame with a Horst Link suspension design, the IZZO’s frame was noticeably compliant and made for a smooth ride through trail chatter. The downside was a lack of responsiveness when pumping to generate speed. Even though we found the rear suspension comfortably supportive and progressive, we consistently had trouble maintaining as much speed as the other bikes on low-angle descents.

Once turned uphill, climbing the IZZO proved to be a comfortable yet slow-moving endeavor. With a more upright and rearward seated position, the IZZO mentally made us less eager to attack climbs. The suspension was also quite active under pedaling forces and relied heavily on the rear shock’s lockout to maintain speed and efficiency. 

Weighing in at 29.4-pounds, the IZZO Core 3 build tested was the second heaviest bike in the group. It was also the cheapest at $4,299 USD, highlighted by FOX’s Performance Elite suspension and Maxxis Forecaster tires. Unlike the Spark 910 that offered options to adjust components to compliment rider intent, the Core 3 model shined most as a hard-charging, mini trail bike and would require too many adjustments to achieve enhanced climbing performance. For riders who are eager to fly up hills, save your money, and reach for the more expensive IZZO builds with components that prioritize efficiency, weight, and pedaling performance.

If there is one takeaway from this Test Session, it’s how components can heavily dictate the ability of a bike with limited travel. Whether you prioritize climbing, descending, or a combination of the two, component spec can often make the difference between a bike that meets your needs or doesn’t. And in some cases, bikes offer the ability to make subtitle changes that drastically change how they perform. Everything comes down to what on-trail experience you are seeking, and starting with a bike that blends frame characteristics with a build kit that complements your riding style will save you time and money in the long haul. 

And with that, that’s a wrap on our Short-Travel Test Session! For a more in-depth analysis of each bike, make sure to follow the links to the full reviews. 


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