The honeymoon between the trailbike and its gravity-oriented enduro-racer mate appears to be over, and while some of the sport’s sharper minds argue that the two genres are inseparable, the divorce papers have already been filed. While vanguard designers are pushing “trailbike geometry” towards established downhill standards, leading bike makers are introducing shorter-travel designs that incorporate just enough long, low, and slack to address modern riding styles. Add the resurgence of 29er sales to the unexpected popularity of plus bikes, and there is enough evidence to suggest that “enduro” and “trail” are on divergent and irreconcilable paths.
After more than two years of reviewing progressively longer, lower, slacker bikes with increasing suspension travel, I began to miss the seemingly effortless way that a shorter-travel, slightly steeper chassis feels on a fast-paced singletrack, and the way it gobbles up punchy climbs. I began to look forward to testing lighter weight, livelier feeling bikes – and I wasn't alone with my sentiments.
Recently, riders in my circle of friends – top bike-handlers who can afford to own any bike that they wish for – began selling their Santa Cruz Nomads and Yeti SB6c’s and replacing them with lighter, more brisk handling bikes.
When asked, their stories were the same. They didn’t feel that it was worth downgrading the fun of a two or three-hour ride to enjoy a bike that was specifically designed to enhance only five or ten minutes of fall-line descending along the way.
“Versatile” is the word that best characterizes the modern dual-suspension trailbike, and it could be argued that the balanced compromise it strikes between climbing and descending, light weight and durability (as well as its popularity among enthusiast-level riders) can be attributed to the fact that no competition venue existed for mid-travel trailbikes. Without pressure to hyper-specialize one area of its performance, trailbike designers were free to pick and choose racing-derived innovations from XC or DH, like carbon frames, carbon wheels, sophisticated suspension, and slack geometry, or to ignore racing altogether and develop trail-specific solutions like dropper posts.
Inadvertently, the trailbike also created the perfect launch pad for professional enduro racing. For a fleeting moment, “enduro” and “trailbike” were interchangeable terms, and initially, that marriage supercharged the technical performance of the basic trailbike. But, somewhere along the line, while bike and suspension makers rushed to stretch the trailbike’s performance further towards the downhill realm, we forgot that that the magic of a good trailbike is that it enhances all aspects of the riding experience. An enduro racing bike has a much more singular mission statement.
After two full days on the bike, Yeti’s Richie Rude accumulated only 30 minutes and 32 seconds of actual racing time in seven stages to take the win at the EWS race in Ainsa, Spain. The longest stage was about seven and a half minutes, the shortest was a minute and half. To put that in perspective, that’s about eight hours of climbing to enjoy the same amount of descending that you’d get in three trips down a bike park. The mission of an enduro racing bike, pure and simple, is to maximize that 30 minutes and 32 seconds of downhill. You don't have to race enduro, however, to be a member of the "I only care about the descents club," and there are enough subscribers to encourage designers to push the boundaries of "trailbike" frame geometry into and beyond the realm of DH. Olly Forster's "One Question"
is a recommended read on the subject.
When you mimic DH geometry with exaggerated front centers and slack head angles, your bike may descend like a fallen angel, but you’ll also need to mimic DH techniques to ride it – which means you’ll need to be out of the saddle and decidedly forward in order to properly weight and maneuver the bike. Speaking from experience, I’ll go on record that a 30-pound downhill bike with a steep seat angle and low gears can double as a capable trailbike. “Capable,” however, simply means that it can be done. The word does not promise an enjoyable experience, and to be truthful, lugging a long, low and slack bike around the mountains all day often feels like a lot of unnecessary drama.
Only a year ago, I would have insisted that a 29-pound, 160-millimeter-travel enduro racer was “the one bike” - the perfect do-it-all machine - but today I keep two bikes at the ready: a slacked out 160-millimeter enduro-style bike for playing rough, and a 130-millimeter trailbike for everything else. I couldn’t say which one I like best. There is no substitute for the confidence that a Fox 36 fork, a long wheelbase and a 65-degree head angle brings when the brake levers snap open at the top of a drop. But, it’s the 130 bike that I ride most often, because it can make almost any trail enjoyable and challenging. They sit in my garage like estranged lovers, transformed by their torrid union into two wonderfully different designs, each with uncertain futures.