PINKBIKE FIELD TEST
Five bikes doing down-country differently
Words by Mike Levy, Photography by Margus Riga
With many brands now offering some sort of short-travel machine that aims to combine cross-country and having fun, it seems like down-country might have some legs under it. And if you think that's an unlikely pairing, you really should throw a leg over one of these bikes - they're all a blast to ride and much more capable than you might expect. But with all five of my test rigs tackling the challenge from different angles, down-country is the haziest, most ambiguous of made-up bike categories.
Sure, all five have around the same amount of travel, but their intentions, geometry, spec, and as you might expect, personalities on the trail are vastly dissimilar. And while there's no right and wrong way to do it, weeks of back-to-back testing on the same terrain revealed each bike's strengths and weaknesses. You can hear all the details and comparisons in the above video, or watch the five individual reviews below. And if you want to know how we tested, you can learn about our control tires, timing, and the loop
that all the bikes faced.
The back-to-back nature of the Field Test series means that it's much easier to not sit on the fence with my opinion about these five bikes, and there was a clear winner in my mind: Transition's Spur surely won the hearts and wallets of many PB readers, but... I'd rather reach for the wildly versatile Specialized Epic EVO. I'll explain my thinking in a sec, but first, let's hand out some awards.
The 'Confused-Country' award goes to Yeti's SB115 for its impressive suspension action but handling that can't match less-forgiving bikes that offer more capability. If the SB115 was released in 2018, it'd likely impress. It's not a bad bike, but as an SB100 with a bit more travel that isn't more capable, I have a hard time getting excited about it.
Who wins the 'We Can Make Two Bikes Out of One' trophy? The Scalpel SE 1, of course, that's assembled around the same frame as the ultra-light race bike. That sounds like nothing but trouble, but it really isn't. The SE 1 is more of a long-legged cross-country rig than anything intended to compete with the Spur, and it works because that's precisely what Cannondale was aiming to create.
Next, Transition's new Spur earned the 'Maybe I don't Need 150mm of Travel' prize for being a wildly competent machine on the descents. I suspect that's all some of us need to know, even if the cost is some climbing potential. For a place like Squamish that isn't short of steep, rocky, rough trails, the Spur makes a ton of sense to me.
The Revel Ranger and the Specialized Epic EVO offer the kind of versatility the can replace both a pure cross-country whip and a more capable trail bike, but it's the Ranger that I had the most fun aboard. Its mix of energy and ability means that not only is it quick, but it also loves a long manual, a nose bonk on that old stump, and any inside line you've got on your mind. For those reasons, it gets the 'Cross-Country Really is Fun
' nod that still might not exist for some people. Get on the Ranger and you'll see, I promise.
And if I had to choose one of the five to be my down-country bike, the winner is going to be the Epic EVO
. Sure, it being an S-Works bike means that it's mega-light and mega-pricey, but it's the handling that won me over, not the amount of carbon fiber. Specialized has put together an oh-so-right combination of climbing and descending balance, and the result is a bike that can be ridden incredibly quick almost everywhere. Yes, the Spur is better on rough and fast downhills; yes, the Scalpel is better on tight singletrack climbs; and yes, I probably laughed more when I on the Ranger. It's not perfect, but the Epic EVO does a damn good job of combinng the best traits of all five bikes into one tremendously versatile package.
The 2020 Pinkbike Field Test was made possible with clothing, protection, and support from Giro. Control tires provided by Schwalbe, and power meters provided by SRM. Filming took place at The Backyard pub in Squamish.