2013 was a hell of a year for mountain bike technology, and that thought applies to the entire gamut of bikes and gear being used in our sport. New downhill bikes were taken to incredible heights, while proven designs showed that there is a good reason why those companies chose to make refinements rather than pursue entirely new platforms. And if you think that long-travel machines are pretty damn dialled these days, you only have to look at the latest crop of mid-travel bikes to see that the development curve hasn't just been steadily improving, it's been going straight up at a rate that is essentially creating bikes so capable that they render true cross-country or downhill bikes useless for a lot of riders. Kudos have to be given to suspension manufacturers as well, with them being a major factor in just how capable today's bikes are. After all, if the fork or shock can't keep up with the bike's design or the rider's intentions, it's all a bit moot, isn't it? Looking at the components that make up a bike reveals that, somewhat surprisingly, it's the smaller ticket items that have had the biggest impact when talking about improved performance in 2013 - any guesses as to what those could be before you scroll down?
The gear categories for our 2013 Pinkbike Awards include Downhill Bike of the year, Mountain Bike of the Year, Suspension Product of the Year, and Component of the Year, with three nominations for each category that represent the most important bikes and equipment for 2013. There's bound to be some controversy when we announce the winners later this month, but that's to be expected given that all of the nominees are worthy in their own right. Who do you think is going to take home the PB Awards trophy in each category?
Downhill Bike of the YearThere really are only three choices here, aren't there? One of them had what has to be the most successful debut season in the history of downhill bike design, with multiple World Cup wins, a World Cup overall title, and even a win at the Red Bull Rampage. Another is a proven contender that gives consumers access to what would otherwise be pro-only suspension. The final challenger is a legend in its own right, with more victories to its name than any other bike in the history of the sport, including the last two male World Championships. All three are worthy of being crowned Downhill Bike of the Year, but which one do you think is most deserving?
• GT Fury • Trek Session 9.9
The Fury might bear the same name as its predecessor, as well as an evolved version of the same suspension layout, but the new bike is a revelation in terms of geometry and performance. Add in the fact that GT has managed to create a machine that not only won a good number of World Cup downhill races under both Gee and Rachel, as well as the Red Bull Rampage title in the hands of American Kyle Strait, but also a bike that any competent downhiller could throw a leg over and feel at home on instantly. This is especially true on a proper track with either high speeds or enough steepness to make one think twice about rolling in on anything other than a true downhill rig. And all that from an aluminum bike with a single pivot suspension layout, two points that go against the current when talking about what is optimum these days.
It might not have taken any racers to the top step of a World Cup podium in 2013, but there is no denying that the Session is one of the most formidable downhill platforms available. It's a bike that simply doesn't punish mistakes as much as other machines, and it might just be the ultimate all-around performer in terms of where it excels. Geometry is obviously one of the reasons for this, but the effect of the bike's special FOX 40 FIT RC2 fork with titanium and air spring combo, as well as the custom tuned DHX RC4 shock, can't be overstated. In a way, the 9.9 is the mountain bike equivalent of an AMA Supercross or MotoGP team offering a works-level bike to a privateer racer.• Santa Cruz V10
Has there ever been a downhill bike as successful as the proven V10? The numbers would say no, with the 216 - 250mm travel bike taking major wins in all of its variations over the years, including the Syndicate's Greg Minnaar's two consecutive World Champs wins in Leogang and Pietermartizburg. While none of today's top downhill bikes are exactly duds, most have their own respective strengths and weaknesses, yet the V10's many World Cup and World Champs wins on varying terrain prove that it can be adapted to excel on all sorts of tracks. We also have to take into account just how popular the bike is with privateer racers and casual riders alike, something that shows exactly how much those riders trust the bike.
Mountain Bike of the YearOur nominees couldn't be any different from one another, but all three of them share one common trait: they are the best of the best when it comes to bikes that allow a rider to push the limits on a machine that can be ridden up, across, and down the mountain at speeds that would boggle the mind only a few short years ago. One manages to take a good rider and make him feel like a god, and that's both up and down the mountain, mind you. And then there is a bike that simply refuses to be stuffed into any existing categories, and may also be the best handling bike we've ever spent time on - a weighty claim but one that we'll stand behind. The final challenger is a machine that has quickly become the go-to rig for riders who want a do-it-all steed that can be raced at their local enduro on Saturday and taken out for a 50 mile loop on Sunday. Which of these three great bikes is most deserving of being called the Mountain Bike of the Year?
• Kona Process 111
With handling that defies all logic, we have to say that this is the bike that 29er doubters need to spend a few days aboard. Kona went and put geometry above all else on the priority list when they penned the 111, and the result is a big-wheeler that most every 26" wheeled bike could take a lesson from when talking about carving corners and liveliness. Think we're joking? We challenge even the most mature and dyed in the wool cross-country bandit to ride the 111 without letting their inner twelve year old out to play. The open minded folk at Kona might have inadvertently created an entirely new sub-category of bike, because this short travel rig has geometry that allows it to be ridden in places where other bikes with similar amounts of suspension travel would stutter and stall.
• Specialized Enduro 29
What do you call a bike that can turn an average rider into a beast? And we're not just talking about only on the downs, because the 155mm travel Enduro 29 climbs better than it has any right to, especially when it comes to pokey, technical pitches that would usually make a rig like it feel like a drunk heavyweight boxer in a match against a Muay Thai fighter - not a pretty sight. But no, the Enduro 29 spurts up twisty and stepped climbs with ease, turning from its front end with a precise feel that you wouldn't be surprised to get from a bike with two thirds of its travel. And with our 2014 test bike's RockShox Pike fork and Cane Creek Double Barrel Air CS shock, it's basically a pint sized downhill bike when things get chunky on the way back down.
• Santa Cruz Bronson
As one of the more popular bikes on most riders' wish lists this past spring, the 650B wheeled Bronson is undoubtedly part of the new breed of ultra-capable trail bikes. From pinning it down bike park chunder to slogging through all day epics, the 150mm travel Bronson packs it all in and does so with style. And although 150mm is more travel than needed for a lot of terrain, the bike is an efficient pedalling and comfortable package that defines all around usability. There's no doubt that the Bronson is a singletrack slaying machine, but one look around any popular trailhead and it's apparent just how well rounded this bike is for the everyday trail rider.
Suspension Product of the YearOne might say that 2013 was a banner year for the suspension world, with new models from all the major brands that make the previous year's offerings look a touch unrefined. It's not often that things get shaken up that much, but it all began with the debut of a mid-travel fork, a new design from the ground up, that has received almost universal acclaim from consumers and media alike. It isn't just front suspension that figures in, though, with two new shocks that look to add performance in different realms. The first is a new design from a well known brand that is intended to allow riders to get the most from their all-mountain and enduro bikes, while the other takes a novel approach to the concept of a pedalling aid. Which of the three stand out as making a bigger impact?
• FOX Float X
The Float X has been designed for those mid-travel bikes that are going to be ridden like a downhill bike, especially in an enduro race setting, and it feels every bit up to the task. FOX has employed a larger reservoir that allows for more oil volume to combat heat buildup during extended, hard use, as well as a higher flow bridge between the body and reservoir that FOX says greatly helps in terms of preventing high-speed spiking. As its name suggests, it utilizes FOX's CTD damping principle that allows for three different levels of compression damping at the flick of a switch, as well as three different levels when set to the middle 'Trail' setting.
• Cane Creek Double Barrel Air CS
What do you get when you combine the Double Barrel's four-way adjustable twin tube damper with a novel lever, dubbed the 'Climb Switch', that firms up both the shock's low-speed compression and rebound damping? The answer is efficient pedalling and traction for days, which is exactly what a full-suspension bike should offer. What the CS lever isn't, and what Cane Creek really wants to stress, is that the small aluminum lever does not act as a lockout by any stretch of the imagination. This is in contrast to most of Cane Creek's competitors who offer a long-stroke shock with some type of pedal-assist feature, usually a lever that either adds more low-speed compression damping or functions as a true on/off lockout. Cane Creek's out of the box thinking puts the DB Air CS in a class of its own.
• RockShox Pike
While we're not sure if RockShox's new fork is named after a freshwater fish or a medieval spear, we're positive that they've managed to create one of the best mid-travel forks on the market. Its tuneable air spring is well suited to aggressive riding, and the fork's Charger damper offers a level of control and consistency that many proper downhill forks can only dream about. In fact, it's one of the only forks that we can spend just a few minutes setting up and be 95% happy with its performance straight away, a far cry from much of the competition that sees us twiddling dials and pulling out the shock pump while we search for the tune of the day. It's far from being considered inexpensive, but the Pike is at the front of the field right now.
Component of the YearOne of our three nominees for Component of the Year retails for well under $100 USD, one is product that changed drivetrains forever yet is available for other brands to use without infringement issues, and the other is a less expensive alternative to a proven winner. Those three facts expound the point that it doesn't have to be an untouchably expensive product to make a difference, it just has to make complete sense.
• SRAM XD driver
SRAM's XX1 drivetrain changed how the industry and riders thought of gearing when it was released last year, but the entire setup was only possible because of their clever XD driver that allowed the fitting of a wide range 10 - 42 cassette. The XD driver might be the heart of the system, but it's what SRAM did with the design that really made the difference: they made it available for other brands through an open licensing agreement that allows them to use the design so long as they adhere to its technical attributes. That smart move gave the industry the opportunity to re-think the concept of a drivetrain from front to back, with the ripple effect even reaching engineers who can now design bikes based around a single ring drivetrain without worrying about making concessions for a front derailleur.
• Shimano Zee brakes
With their consistent feel and trouble-free performance, Shimano's brakes have proven themselves time and time again. It's their Zee stoppers that really stand out in our minds, though, with them using the same four piston caliper and internals as the more expensive Saint setup, but forgoing both the tool free lever reach dial and the stroke adjust screw that doesn't seem to affect anything anyways. That means that they feel as if they could be used to slow down a runaway train if required to do so, and that they also sport the same great ergonomics that we've come to love from Shimano's brakes. Many of today's components feel as if they require near constant tinkering to keep working to their full potential, something that makes us really appreciate the trustworthy performance of the Zees. Isn't that how brakes should be?
• Bontrager G5 tireThe winner of each category will be announced later this month
Ask any downhiller to list his favourite tire and you'll most likely end up hearing all about Schwalbe or Maxxis, the two most prominent brands that have all but dominated the World Cup circuit for many years now. There is one tire, however, that we believe not only equals anything from those two brands, but actually outperforms them when it comes to consistency in varying conditions: Bontrager's new G5 downhill tire. The new rubber, which was designed by renowned tire designer Frank Stacy, might fly a bit under the radar compared to more familiar options, but it already has some major victories to its name. Factor in that it is less expensive than the competition and it's hard to ignore the G5. Unfortunately, many riders are a bit too set in their ways to consider something new from Bontrager, which is a shame because the G5 is the best downhill tire currently available.