Five bikes, five different ways of approaching the ultra-capable short-travel bike, which we have categorized as "downcountry". We look for the mythical bike that is XC fast on the climbs, as well as being frighteningly fun on the descents.
Sure, it's easy to argue that some of these bikes are up-forked XC bikes, and others are really just trail bikes with less travel, but if you're just looking at numbers and pictures, it's easy to argue a lot of things isn't it? For the downcountry category in this year's Field Test, we had five bikes with 100mm to 120mm of rear-wheel-travel, and head angles sitting between 65.7° and 67.5° degrees. All of these bikes competing for riders with similar intentions. Our timed loop was in Pemberton, on a part of trail that was raced on during the Nimby 50 XC earlier this year. All five bikes were on the same Maxxis 'control tires' to make it as fair as possible.
Downcountry bikes from the 2020 Pinkbike Field Test. What's your pick?
The two borders of the category are likely the Pivot Mach 4 SL, with its World Cup pedigree and 100mm of rear travel paired with a 120mm fork to give it "trail bike versatility," and the Guerrilla Gravity Trail Pistol, which many eagle-eyed readers noticed says "trail" in its name... We had to draw the line somewhere, and so it was at this bike's 120mm of rear travel and 130mm fork.
Right in the middle, and perhaps the bike that was designed most specifically for the downcountry category, is the Trek Top Fuel, with 115mm of rear travel and a 120mm fork. It's light, 26.1 lb (11.8 kg) even with a set of Minion DHR II and DHF II control tires.
Another bike with XC pedigree, but with modern geometry and a 120mm fork, is the Mondraker F-Podium DC. The frame is the same as the one that Rebecca McConnell raced to third place at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Championships, but with a few key spec changes and a "downcountry" decal on the frame, we put it to the test in Pemberton.
Finally, you've got the Juliana Joplin or Santa Cruz Tallboy. It has the same travel as the Trail Pistol and a similarly slack head tube angle, but it's lighter. Could it be that mythical climbs-and-descends-faster-than-any-other-bike?
By now you've watched the videos, read the reviews, and weighed the pros and cons. It's time to decide: Which bike do you want in your corner?
Sarah Moore - 2020 Guerrilla Gravity Trail Pistol
2020 Field Test - Editors' Choice
Honestly, the Guerrilla Gravity was the least appealing bike to me when we showed up in Pemberton at the beginning of the test. It wasn't a brand that resonated particularly strongly with me, with its too-cool-for-school cult following. Plus, the crude TrAiL PiSTOL graphic with its alternating case letters is reminiscent of a ransom note in a murder novel. To each their own, but it wasn't my particular flavour of Kool-Aid.
Pivot, Mondraker, and Trek have World Cup pedigree, and I'd enjoyed my time on the Juliana Joplin when I did a First Look on it earlier that month. The Guerrilla Gravity was the heaviest bike and ugly to boot. And I ended up having way too much fun on it. A true dark horse.
155 lb (70.3kg)
Would it be my first choice for the BC Bike Race or a cross-country race? Probably not. Does it truly epitomize the downcountry category? Perhaps not. Does that mean it can't be my favourite? Absolutely not. As many of you have stated, we made the category up anyways.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most was the verboten feeling of riding such a short travel bike on double black trails. But it was more than that, I was just so comfortable on the bike it put a smile on my face every time I headed out on it. It's hard to swap back to rattle-your-bones 100mm travel bikes after you've tried something with a touch more travel, but there's something special about the liveliness of a shorter travel bike that you don't get on an enduro sled. The Guerrilla Gravity hit the fun-but-not-scary nail right on the head.
Sure, I wish it was as light as the Trek Top Fuel and Pivot on the climbs and as gorgeous as the Mondraker and the Juliana, but it's cool that the brand is trying to do something different: building carbon bikes in the United States, making a versatile frame so you can modify it rather than upgrade entirely if you decide you want more or less travel. Oh shoot, maybe I am finding a taste for this particular flavour of Kool-Aid after all.
James Huang's Pick: 2020 Trek Top Fuel
Much can be said about whether “downcountry” is even really a category of bike (I blame Levy, as we all, and always, should), and the somewhat debatable definition of what constitutes a downcountry rig makes it even more challenging to pick my favorite. To me, though, a downcountry bike is one that blends the efficiency and weight of a short-travel machine (say, 100-120mm of rear wheel travel) with the progressive geometry of bikes that are more usually found in the enduro and trail categories.
In other words, a downcountry bike should be something I can ride in a cross-country or marathon race without feeling like I’m needlessly hamstringing myself, but also something I can ride with my buddies on weekends on the wealth of technical trails we have hidden throughout the Front Range of Colorado without feeling like I’m going to kill myself.
When viewed through that lens, I honestly didn’t completely fall in love with any of the bikes here — at least not exactly as they were.
The Guerilla Gravity Trail Pistol? It was stupidly fun to ride, and something I’d consider for a personal trail bike, but it’s simply too heavy and just too much of a brute.
The Juliana Joplin/Santa Cruz Tallboy? I loved the handling, but my new dad bod doesn’t have the fitness to spend on a rear suspension that moves around as much as this one does when pedaling.
The Pivot Mach 4 SL? No question, this was the closest thing to a pure cross-country race bike of the group, but outside of that arena, no amount of spec massaging could turn it into something it isn’t.
The Mondraker? It’s light and efficient to pedal, and its geometry was truly progressive. Its heart is in the right place, but the total package was frustrating. It’s too expensive for what you get, there are too many critical spec issues, and the rear suspension tune is really heavy handed.
But the Trek Top Fuel? Now we’re talking.
It admittedly took me a while to warm up to this one. I was turned off at first by its short reach and somewhat harsh rear suspension tuning. The efficient rear end and low overall weight made it a super-fast climber, but on the downhills… something felt off. However, the more I rode it — and, more importantly, the faster I rode it — the more I began to appreciate its hooligan personality.
Yes, the rear end feels a little harsh at lower speeds, and the bike’s compact dimensions don’t naturally instil confidence. But if you throw caution to the wind, the Top Fuel is a beast of a descender provided your skills are up to the task, and you’re willing to trade some high-speed nervousness for low-speed agility. All things considered, it’s outfitted pretty well too.
By no means is the Top Fuel perfect. But of this lot, it’s still the bike that best embodies the downcountry philosophy, and is the most complete package here.