6 Trail and 6 Downcountry Bikes
On the Impossible Climb
Bananas Are In Fact Incredibly Slippery
In case you’re just tuning in, the Impossible Climb segment of our Field Tests is not a highly non-scientific, but a witty challenge to showcase where and why the featured bikes falter.
Although we weren’t comparing the trail versus downcountry categories directly, since they had different controls tires, the findings might not be what you would expect. Efficiency is a valuable trait for climbing on either type of bike and doesn’t necessarily have to do with the overall mass, as our highly analytical Set Stott laid out in his Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Weight Much article. That said, the Impossible Climb puts all the components and the geometry of each bike on stage, not in a race, but an effort to gain the high mark on our course laid out by expert track designer, Mike Levy.
Across the two disciplines, trail and downcountry, we had unique and polarizing bicycles, like the steel single pivot Starling Murmur, and the XC-inspired Canyon Lux Trail. The trail bikes weighed up to 16.3 kg and the lightest downcountry bike snuck in under 12 kg. The most noticeable comparison was not the weight difference, but the sheer grip provided by the softer compound tires on the longer travel steeds. I was able to slow down the corners and gain a moment to think between obstacles followed by a short blast on the pedals up to the next root, ledge, or banana peel.
This is where I struggle to accept a compromise of fast rolling tires for grip. Only one of the downcountry bikes made it up the tricky course. You need to dress according to the weather, and if it’s wet outside I’d rather have traction on my peppy downcountry bike when things get slippery because these bikes are meant to pedalled everywhere and walking up a climb seems as ridiculous as walking down a descent.
Oddly enough, the most aggressive DC bike, the Rocky Mountain Element, with its 65º head angle and ultra low dynamic BB height, was the only one in this category to make it up the slippery slope. How is that possible you ask – slack head angles make for terrible climbers, or do they? We’re not talking sub-60º Grim Donut head angles that feel floppy even on flat ground. The Element enabled me to make those tight turns without the front wheel understeering as it was necessary to keep a high cadence and forward momentum. Stopping or slowing the rhythm with those harder compound tires on the bare rock sheen would quickly overcome the possible friction. The rear end of the bike also delivered gobs of traction, even while under load. Although this would be tougher to manage though sections of trail where you’d find an abundance of rocks and roots without the odd pedal strike, keeping in mind, the Ride 4 geometry adjustment is there to steepen the angles and raise the BB. Another worthy talking point, is that this is the only DC bike in our test to come spec’d with 170 mm cranks; a component that seems to align with my preference to provide more deliverable power compared to longer 175 mm arms. Seb also dove down that rabbit hole recently in, “Why Shorter Cranks Are Better According to Science”.
An updated version of Fox’s Live Valve on the Giant Trance worked incredibly well to read bumps and open the compression on the shock, despite having the shortest travel of the bunch at 115 mm. A similarly slack head angle to the Element and 55 mm stem were a nice balance of a forward weight bias while in the saddle without feeling too far over the front axle. Like the extremely neutral Trek Top Fuel, both the geometry and the suspension action were sensible and moderate to control – they didn’t do anything to wild and you know what to expect. All three bikes are calm to ride and strike a great balance in modern downcountry geometry. With grippier tires, I would expect the Giant and the Trek to be the next ones up the Impossible Climb.
Given those positive notes and jumping down the board to the very dainty Santa Cruz Blur TR and Canyon Lux Trail, those steep head angles and long stems didn’t aid them getting up the course any farther. In fact, both bikes also have incredible slack seat tube angles, which put me in a strange place. My hips were so far behind the bottom bracket, yet my hands were well ahead of the front axle that I felt like I was trying to pedal and steer from a seated rowing position. The whole posture felt the least efficient on the lightest and most XC-race oriented bikes. There was no way I could send the same output to the pedals without compromising something at the front end. Pulling back on the bars to try and eek out more pedal power didn’t help one ounce.
That leaves us with just the Niner Jet RDO, which wants to be in two categories at once with its short stem/high handlebar – trail and downcountry. Plus, under sag the tall, slack head tube and seat tube angle south of 75.5º rested a lot of weight on the short 432 mm chainstays. Suffering a similar fate as the two XC whippets. I found my hips too far behind the BB to power the bike forward and keep the front wheel on the ground at the same time on steep pitches. The suspension did offer a lot of traction however.
Moving on to the trail bikes, there was a great deal of navigating to be done on these heavier and slacker machines. Their long wheelbases required more patience and a slower pace to stay inside the tape, but the tacky tires allowed for some pondering along each step of the way. With the Element making up the climb, I knew the trail bikes stood a 50/50 chance of cleaning the course. More spice was stirred in as Levy added further rocks onto the granite slab that slide like a stack of dinner plates when the tire touched them.
Surprisingly, a few of the DC bikes have similar head angles to the Raw Jibb. With its 65.5º head tube and 77.5º seat tube, the Jibb made it up first without a hitch. The poise that this bike had was felt by all of us and simply muted any bumps, up or downhill, while the relatively short reach of 470 mm for a size large was easy to manage weight shifts and reclaim traction where needed. Not too far away in terms of fit and feel was the Propain Hugene which also managed to top out on the Impossible Climb. The team all talked highly of all attributes on this true and well rounded trail bike. The anti-squat has an interesting curve, starting at 100%, rising to 110 at the sag and further to 120 deeper in the travel before dropping off rapidly. This does keep the bike tracking well and doesn’t disrupt the geometry further from the 76.1º seat tube angle. The Stumpy Evo Alloy also cleaned the Impossible Climb, another bike with heaps of traction, but not quite the same anti-squat. Similarly to the Rocky Mountain Element, the bike runs deeper into the stroke and extremely technical climbs will quickly remind you to pay attention to where you place your pedal strokes.
Onto the back half of the fleet, there were three that didn’t reach the same heights: the Ghost, Starling and Scor, all for different reasons. Have we used the phrase, “giving up the ghost” in a Field Test yet? The geometry is all over the place on this bike. Starting with a steep 77-degrees seat tube angle and 467 mm reach, the 100 mm long head tube sat nervously at 66-degrees, which made the seated position short and high, placing a lot of weight on your hands. Normally, this sizing wouldn’t be too far from most brands mediums, but when you pile on a long 450 mm chainstay, it didn’t really matter where I positioned myself, either the weight on the rear wheel or the steering input felt off. Nearing 16.5 kg, the aluminum rig tipped further on the scale than the steel Starling, which had some qualms with the uphill battle too. The 11-speed drivetrain wasn’t an issue for this challenge, but at 485 mm in reach, it added some complexity to steer the long and low chassis, however well balance it may be with a 445 mm chainstay. Sitting at the same reach number, but paired with a snappy 433 mm chainstay and steeper seat angle, the Scor did grip more than the Starling with its dual link design, however the short back end did require a bit more effort for me control on the steepest pitches.
What did we learn from all of this? Well, heavy bikes aren’t necessarily the worst technical climbers, nor are the slackest ones, but they do need to be sized accordingly to the rider; long wheelbases can make finding traction elusive at the rear tire while trying to direct the front wheel. And they have to be balanced; too much of one thing and not enough of the other will make for a jerky ride. Steep seat angles are also favorable, but should be used in conjunction with moderate reach numbers and not stem length. Slack head angles can also offer a longer grasp when attempting to boost up a ledge using the front wheel hook and hump method. It’s all a game of give and take – a juggling act. Starting with a reasonably sized reach and suitable chainstay length, modern head and seat tube angles will get you on the way to your happy place.