Vital MTB Test Sessions: Five Slack, Short-Travel 29er Mountain Bikes Reviewed 58

Want a bike that can pedal like crazy and maximize fun on smoother terrain? In true Vital MTB style, here's an in-depth look at a handful of 2020 bikes helping lead the charge - the Banshee Phantom, Norco Optic, Ibis Ripley, Marin Rift Zone, and Santa Cruz Tallboy.

Vital MTB Test Sessions: Five Slack, Short-Travel 29er Mountain Bikes Reviewed

Is the "downhiller's XC bike" upon us? And is this a good thing for your average rider? It very well could be. It's 2020, and there are a growing number of short-travel bikes with super slack head angles and steep seat angles that make climbing more of a joy.

We corralled five examples of this new-school ride to be ridden and scrutinized in Phoenix, Arizona. In this video we break down their strengths and weaknesses, what we think of this type of bike, and pick our personal favorites. Welcome to Vital MTB Test Sessions for short-travel 29ers. Click play and DIG IN!


These are all a little more party than cross-country. They're made to have more fun on the descents and take some influence from the enduro world.

Key Timestamps

  • 0:56 - Selection Criteria
  • 1:56 - Effective Versus Actual Seat Angle
  • 4:52 - Banshee Phantom Review
  • 8:08 - Norco Optic Review
  • 10:39 - Ibis Ripley Review
  • 13:51 - Marin Rift Zone Review
  • 16:00 - Santa Cruz Tallboy Review
  • 18:32 - Slack Short-Travel 29er Thoughts
  • 19:39 - Our Favorite Bikes

The bikes in this test had to have 115 to 125mm rear travel. Up front we were looking for 130 to 140mm to soak up some hits. They needed to be nice and slack, in that sub 66-degree headtube angle realm. We gave them a bonus for a short offset fork. They also had to have a lengthy reach, 29-inch wheels, and a nice steep seat angle.

We tried to keep the builds close to $5,000, and to level the playing field we swapped the tires to a tried-and-true combination of Maxxis front and rear. You can learn more about the bikes and how they compare below.

Banshee Phantom V3

  • Travel: 115mm (4.5-inches) rear // 130mm (5.1-inches) front
  • Suspension Design: KS2
  • Frame Material: Aluminum
  • Measured Weight: 31.9-pounds (14.5kg, Maxxis tires, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Model Tested: Phantom Race
  • Warranty: 4 years
  • MSRP: $5,099 USD 
  • More Info:

The Phantom did just about everything well. Climbing was efficient and descending was fun. Cornering was intuitive as well. For many this bike will embody everything this genre should be. It shows some tough love when you do something wrong and gives you ALL the reward when you do it right. There's still a healthy dose of cross-county in the third-generation Phantom that would make it great for pedaling miles and miles, but it's been positively influenced by Banshee's burlier, bigger rides.

Norco Optic

  • Travel: 125mm (4.9-inches) rear // 140mm (5.5-inches) front
  • Suspension Design: A.R.T. with Horst link
  • Frame Material: Carbon front // Aluminum rear
  • Measured Weight: 31.5-pounds (14.3kg, Maxxis tires, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Model Tested: Optic C2
  • Warranty: 5 years
  • MSRP: $4,499 USD 
  • More Info:

Overall, we thought the ride of the Optic was awesome. It truly benefits from having good suspension. It offers a lively ride that can pop off everything and a bit more travel for a controlled feel on rougher trails. We'd recommend saving up for the higher-end model with better components.

Ibis Ripley V4

  • Travel: 120mm (4.7-inches) rear // 130mm (5.1-inches) front
  • Suspension Design: dw-link
  • Frame Material: Carbon
  • Measured Weight: 29.7-pounds (13.5kg, Maxxis tires, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Large
  • Model Tested: Ripley V4 GX
  • Warranty: 7 years
  • MSRP: $5,499 USD 
  • More Info:

The Ripley is balanced, light, and nimble with accurate steering, good rolling efficiency and power transfer. Those traits make it feel fast and capable, and it would be good for people that value climbing as much if not more than descending. Going faster or putting a lot of input into the bike can feel like its fighting what you're doing more than being one with you though. It is truly a bike you get on, as opposed to one you're a part of.

Marin Rift Zone

  • Travel: 125mm (4.9-inches) rear // 130mm (5.1-inches) front
  • Suspension Design: Multi-Trac single-pivot
  • Frame Material: Carbon front // Aluminum rear
  • Measured Weight: 32.4-pounds (14.7kg, Maxxis tires, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Model Tested: Rift Zone Carbon 2
  • Warranty: 5 years
  • MSRP: $4,400 USD 
  • More Info:

Aside from the cranks, it is hard to find a true weaknesses with the Rift Zone. This is a bike many riders could enjoy for a long time. It offers the ability and confidence to point-and-shoot, aim the bike and go. It’s a capable climber and descender that feels controlled in both roles. For those who enjoy popping and pumping the trail however, it can feel a little ho-hum.

Santa Cruz Tallboy 4

  • Travel: 120mm (4.7-inches) rear // 130mm (5.1-inches) front
  • Suspension Design: Lower-link VPP
  • Frame Material: Carbon
  • Measured Weight: 31.7-pounds (14.4kg, Maxxis tires, without pedals)
  • Size Tested: Medium
  • Model Tested: Tallboy S Carbon C
  • Warranty: Lifetime
  • MSRP: $4,999 USD 
  • More Info:

If traction is what you're always hunting for and you want to clean every big climb as much as the descents, the Tallboy might be the bike for you. The progressive suspension provides a trustworthy connection to the ground while descending, and heading into corners there’s an earned confidence that the bike will stick. It's also among the best values with dialed frame details and a solid build kit. 

Comparative Suspension Analysis

Using the bike industry's leading linkage analysis software, André Santos was able to determine a close approximation of each bike's kinematics for the purpose of this comparison. Though they don't always tell the full story, these charts provide great insight into several key factors that impact how the bikes ride. 

André's Observations:

  • Interestingly, but without a surprise, the average anti-squat of the all five bikes together is 100%, which confirms that these bikes are optimized to be efficient while pedaling. The Norco Optic has the lowest anti-squat value in the group at 80% and the Ibis Ripley has the highest value at 125%. As a consequence, the Optic has the lowest chain extension and pedal kickback in the group while the Ripley has the highest chain extension of the bikes tested.
  • Regarding braking, the Norco Optic has the lowest anti-rise at 50%, meaning the rear suspension is relatively independent from the braking forces but the bike has a slight tendency to pitch forward under rear braking. The Ibis Ripley and Marin Rift Zone have higher anti-rises near 100%, meaning that the rear braking forces fully counteract the extension of the rear suspension and won’t cause any forward pitching.
  • Looking at progressivity we can find significant differences in the group. The Ibis Ripley is quite linear with only 4% of progression, suiting less aggressive riders better since it allows use of the travel quite easily. On the other hand, the Santa Cruz Tallboy has very progressive suspension for a short-travel bike. In this case, the Tallboy will fit an aggressive riding style better since it provides a great amount of bottom-out resistance on bigger impacts. The Marin Rift Zone and Norco Optic are also quite progressive for short-travel bikes.

For those who primarily ride fast, flowy, and pumpy trails with a sprinkling of tech, these could be the ones to rule it all.

Relative Performance Ratings

With a wide variety of trail features and pitches under our tires, the areas where the bikes excelled or struggled really came to light. Considering how things felt on the trail, we rated them on various performance metrics relevant to the category.

Banshee Phantom - Average Rating: 4.2 out of 5
Norco Optic - Average Rating: 4.1 out of 5
Ibis Ripley - Average Rating: 4.1 out of 5
Marin Rift Zone - Average Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Santa Cruz Tallboy - Average Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Side-by-Side Spec Comparison

About The Testers

Brandon Turman - Age: 33 // Years Riding: 18 // Height: 5'10" (1.78m) // Weight: 170-pounds (77.1kg)

"I like to have fun, pop off the bonus lines on the sides of the trail, get aggressive when I feel in tune with a bike, and really mash on the pedals and open it up when pointed downhill." Formerly a mechanical engineer and Pro downhill racer, Brandon brings a unique perspective to the testing game as Vital MTB's resident product guy. He has on-trail familiarity with nearly every innovation in our sport from the past several years and a really good feel for what’s what.

Steve Wentz - Age: 35 // Years Riding: 23 // Height: 5'8" (1.73m) // Weight: 174-pounds (78.9kg)

"Despite what it looks like, I'm really precise and calculated, which I'm trying to get away from. I'm trying to drop my heels more and just let it go." Steve is able to set up a bike close to perfectly within minutes, ride at close to 100% on new trails and replicate what he did that first time over and over. He's been racing Pro DH for 15+ years including World Cups, routinely tests out prototype products, and can squish a bike harder than anyone else we know. Today he builds some of the best trails in the world.

Courtney Steen - Age: 32 // Years Riding: 12 // Height: 5'7" (1.70m) // Weight: 150-pounds (68.0kg)

"Going downhill puts a smile on my face and I climb for beer." Courtney routinely shocks the boys with her speed and has experience in various disciplines. A silent force behind the scenes for Vital MTB, she's posted up in Durango, Colorado and has ridden dozens of women's bikes. Her technical background helps her think critically about products and how they can be improved.

Which type of bike should we test next? Are there any models that really interest you? What test location would be best? Leave your suggestions in the comments. We look forward to your feedback.

Video by Shawn Spomer, Brandon Turman, and John Reynolds