Field Test: 6 Trail Bikes & 6 Downcountry Bikes vs. The Impossible Climb

Dec 22, 2021
by Matt Beer  


PINKBIKE FIELD TEST

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. 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.

Impossible Climb






90 Comments

  • 43 0
 so impossible for levy is just every day stuff for beer
  • 26 0
 you don't need to clean up the banana peels. just leave them - if someone hits them they will just spin out and lose all their money.
  • 8 0
 @VPS13: Perfect. Pinkbike, can you play this in the background of the next Impossible Climb video please?
  • 6 0
 @p1ne: Also permitted: Yakety Sax by Benny Hill.
  • 27 0
 They should test the same XC bikes with Enduro tires and then see what happens.
  • 5 0
 Totally, no way to compare anything with different tires.
  • 5 0
 In all fairness, it wasn't a comparison between trail and XC bikes, so it makes sense to test the XC bikes with their "regular purpose" tires. But it did confirm my gut feeling that I would rather spec a proper trail tire on a short travel bike to get the most fun out of it, outside of racing of course.
  • 19 0
 Am I the only weirdo who finds these technical climbing videos really entertaining? Like I'm on the edge of my seat wondering if they're going to make it past the next move.
  • 12 1
 I am not sure how I feel about this round. Love the thought of it. It is hard to quantify the human element in this. Watching the tires, some went over more loose rocks than others. Does fatigue play into it? When I climb something steep and slippery, small shifts in body position play a huge roll. Couldn't tell if that was occuring. Even though it is minimal, there is small amount of line choice as well. Overall, it was done about as good as it can be. Hats off to you guys. Thanks for the video.

Glad to see trail bikes as good as they are now. When they start performing better than something that is more XC focused, it is a game changer.
  • 1 0
 While the loose rocks and banana peels were funny, I actually think they detracted a little bit from the video because they move around and make the course different for every bike. There's no way to remove the "human element," which is why this is bro-science instead of real science, but I at least think they could make the course more consistent from bike-to-bike.
  • 9 0
 When I was younger and stronger, if I could get my front wheel on it, I could climb it. On an old YetiSB95c with old geo. I struggle now on those same climbs with a modern geo bike. These newer bikes certainly make climbing easier but I still view skill and physical conditioning as the ultimate factors to clean an impossible climb
  • 1 0
 Your bike may be too long for you? A lot of peeps end up with too big a bike when moving to modern geo.
  • 12 1
 PB: That climb in impossible!....

Beer: Here hold my Matt....
  • 1 0
 Ahaha
  • 6 0
 Like it wasn't already impossible to get a RM Element... after this NOTHING! Smile

It would be super interesting to swap tires and see how the DC bikes do. On the one hand it's a no brainer that traction would be better on the burlier tires, but you would think tire weight/rotational mass would make climbing easier with the DC spec tires and help them reclaim a bit. BUT obviously that was NOT the case...

EXCELLENT content here... THANK YOU!!
  • 9 0
 I'd really like to try the Hugene. Seems like a very capable bike.
  • 4 0
 I would like to see it compared to the Orbea Occam.
  • 5 0
 I'm not sure it's that big of a surprise. I recall riding my 8 inch Big Hit up a short pinch that no one else got close to getting up. Double chain ring and 2.5 Super Tackys. But yeah, I wasn't going to ride it uphill for two hours!
  • 3 0
 Dude riding my BigHit uphill for 2 hours unlocked my most coveted life achievement award. Miss the shit outta that bike.
  • 4 0
 Pinkbike, can you please consider doing replicates of 3 trials for each bike for these types of tests? If we compare bikes using the averages from the 3 replicates/bike, the results will be far less affected by failure due to chance.

Also love this content. Thanks!
  • 2 0
 Yeah, it really seemed like he could have made it, or failed, on most any of those bikes. You wonder if the first 3-4 fails were just practice and he finally got the technique by the RM.
  • 9 1
 Gripping entertainment.
  • 4 0
 Something has to be wrong with linkagedesign.blogspot's analysis of the Ghost Riot's kinematics. I can't believe a bike with that much antisquat would bob that much even with a coil.
  • 16 0
 High levels of anti-squat can cause a bike to bob too - the shock extends, and shifts the rider's center of gravity. Dan Roberts' Enginerding article does a good job of describing exactly what's happening: www.pinkbike.com/news/definitions-what-is-anti-squat.html.
  • 4 1
 With such a garbage design it is highly likely that you'll have excessively low anti squat (especially running a bit less sag with coil shock just being between coils or something) or excessively high anti squat which can also cause pedal bob. For anyone who hasn't, take a look at the analysis:

linkagedesign.blogspot.com/2050/04/ghost-slamr-29-2019.html

There's a reason that no one else is using a suspension layout like this.
  • 4 1
 It bobs a little in the 51T cog but once you leave that cog you don't notice much bobbing. I just bought the Ghost Riot All Mountain with 160/150 and 64 degree head angle. This is coming from a rider who rides a Scott Spark on mostly rocky and loose in San Diego.
  • 5 0
 Matt grew up riding in Newfoundland where wet slabs and roots are an everyday thing. He made it look to easy.
  • 1 0
 Too easy indeed.
  • 1 0
 There are definitely a few places on the older parts of subnet that gave Matt years of preparation for this.
  • 4 1
 How to torpedo your own bike review. You put less-grippy tire on some of the bikes and then complain that the bikes with the less grippy tires don't climb as well as the bikes with the grippier tires.

Huh?
  • 1 1
 Don't hold your breath for the "130mm travel trail bike takes on the Swiss Epic and does really badly" field test.

Showcasing bikes that are awesome in an environment they were built for is no bad thing.

Totally agree with you though
  • 4 0
 I don't think they were complaining. Just saying. The tires were all fit for purpose of the bikes they were on.
  • 5 0
 Two things. Matt can handle a hill. And trail bikes are superior.
  • 4 0
 test is designed purely to see who likes the nose of the saddle on their taint
  • 1 0
 That's something the road side got right, stub nose saddles are a very worthwile investment.
  • 1 0
 @m47h13u: chromag trailmaster is great, way nicer than my pointy wtb.
  • 1 0
 My personal experience with 'impossible' climbs is that power can save your ass more than geometry will. On a short ride I can conquer stuff that I will not even try at the end of a 2500m day, because there is no explosiveness left. This is why the XC bikes have faster (=slippier) tires. So you have something left in the tank when you get to a climb that's hard.
That being said, grip is super important too of course on a steep and slippery slope. Fortunately, you can switch tires for a lot less money than it takes to switch bikes.

PS: it's only an impossible climb if Chris Akrigg can't make it up
  • 1 0
 The trail bikes holding their own on the climbs. Traction is really good on the trail bikes. I like the climbing challenge tests. The debris field is hit or miss and too inconsistent on how you are riding through it. I don't think a lot of bikes got a fair shake because of the debris field. They should take the debris field out.
  • 1 0
 This test is the rebuttal to all the “it’s just a Horst link” comments made when describing the suspension designs. Can’t climb without traction and you need active suspension to get maximum traction. Oh that and you need good tires.
  • 1 0
 1 try each bike by 1 rider does not seem scientific enough to use the results to calculate why exactly the winners did well or even if another run would have had the same results.
  • 2 2
 First we had the moo off, now bananas and random debris (random, means non repeatable) on the not impossible climb as well as a turn around a stick!
Add a whole segment of bikes where it showed tyre choice skewed the entire field test.

What is going on at pinkbike HQ these days!
  • 2 0
 So the traditional XC positions were poor perfromers in the DC category. That little nugget may blow a few minds
  • 11 1
 This sort of climbing is not what you would typically see in an XC race though... Efficiency test would be more telling for that category
  • 4 1
 @sb666: Agreed - no surprise that bikes designed for winch-and-plummet riding (by companies headquartered in areas with this type of terrain) did better than all-round XC race geo bikes. As said above, very little of this type of climbing in XC races.
  • 1 0
 @sb666: umm, I've came across some pretty steep, short technical climbs in my XC races out East, and the UCI circuit sure has some tough technical climbs too -- Nove Mesto comes to mind.
  • 1 0
 @mrkkbb: yeah, my local xc series has loads of climbs like this. Probably not as hard, and not as tightly taped because it’s supposed to be doable by everyone. But one mistake and you’ve stalled out and you’ve got to run.
  • 2 0
 Seems Matt can make it possible climb with every bike from the field test, but not from the first attempt
  • 2 0
 Surprisingly, a revealing and useful test. Nice!

Maybe multiple runs and a chart next go around?
  • 3 0
 Am I missing something? What was the mystery bike?
  • 3 0
 Should really give each bike 3 attempts ! Just for it to be fair
  • 1 1
 That would have been interesting. But I still felt it was fair.
  • 1 0
 @mikekazimer I was actually thinking of the Starling getting a second run, as it was 11speed and possibly different gear ratios?
  • 2 0
 @minesatusker: Yup, it had a 32/46T on a 29", so tricky to get up tricky climbs even with with strong legs. But no 12speed drivetrains available at time of sending bike!! Bike works great on technical climbs!!
  • 1 0
 I hope you all are prepping a RM Element vs. Stumpjumper Alloy video. I'd love to see comparison times for all of the tests. Put them on equal tires though Wink
  • 3 0
 I only tune in for the Impossible Climbs.
  • 2 0
 Same. Let's try these
  • 3 0
 Pretty neat
  • 2 0
 If I count correctly that is two for London Fogs. Thoughts @henryquinney?
  • 1 0
 That end shot of the view was impressive. Makes me really want to get out there!
  • 2 0
 Great work Matt! That climb looked slick!
  • 1 0
 Where the tires the same on all? Why not do at least 2 tries per bike to reduce operator error?
  • 2 0
 because making him try that 24 times is just cruel and not science and the same tire for each of the classes of bike, but not the same between the 2 classes.
  • 1 0
 @mikelevy, we need a downhill country shoot out with 8 carbon -120 mm bikes
  • 1 0
 ghost did better on the climb than the santa cruz did... take that as you will
  • 1 0
 Exactly why I say my stumpy climbs better than an epic evo. And lockouts are dumb
  • 2 0
 This only matters with all bikes sporting the same rubber.
  • 1 0
 "Jibbility Test" for the next Field Test maybe? So we can have a quantifiable data based on geometry, wheel size and weight.
  • 1 0
 no nicolais in test?
then why im email harassed for some made in china garbage??
  • 1 0
 Plenty of actual “ impossible “ climbs in Pemberton but yeah go for the blue downhill backwards Wink
  • 1 0
 Why the Blue TR over the Tallboy?
  • 1 0
 Blur TR*
  • 5 1
 TB has been out a few years - and I think was in last years test. Also would definitely be in the trail category. Blur is new, and on paper is the definition of downcountry. Interesting to see how it stacks up against other brands interpretation.
  • 2 1
 @AyJayDoubleyou: TB is 120mm of rear travel, would definitely be in the downcountry category, especially since it was advertised as a DC bike when released by SC.
  • 1 0
 What? No beer cans to navigate around?
  • 1 0
 The new Trance is 120mm rear not 115mm.
  • 1 0
 Matt made Mike look foolish after the previous impossible climb.
  • 1 0
 Impossible climb needs to be a contest!
  • 1 0
 It's called trials
  • 3 3
 Some of those "oh I couldn't make its" looked pretty suspect- it looks more like a representation of sponsorship.
  • 1 0
 Why camera on narrator not on the trail, PB cmon?
  • 1 0
 ...sorry. i'm tanked.
  • 1 1
 biggest takeaway... levy sucks at this
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