Mountain Bike of the Year Nominees
The 2021 Mountain Bike of the Year Nominees create an interesting quartet. The Norco Range sits on one side, holding down the fort for the gravity-oriented, high-pivot crowd. On the other end of the spectrum is the svelte Rocky Mountain Element, which recently shed its staid cross-country geometry for much more exciting numbers.
The Trek Top Fuel makes an appearance, another bike that's moved away from being a purebred XC-race bike into something more well-rounded, and for many riders, more fun. The final contender is the Transition Spire, which has geometry numbers that look like they were lifted from a DH bike and yet somehow manages to be relatively lively out on the trail.
Last year it was Specialized's ultra-adaptable Stumpjumper EVO that took home the win. Which bike will emerge victorious this time around?
Why it's nominated
It's not a stretch to say that the Norco Range exemplifies the zeitgeist of the enduro and downhill worlds for 2021. High pivot suspension designs were everywhere this year, with everyone from Cannondale to Kavenz bringing new models to the table. It was the Range that stood out above the rest with its 170mm of travel and 29” wheels, a long travel beast that prioritizes downhill performance above everything else.
The Range is billed as an enduro race bike, and while it can certainly hold its own on gnarlier tracks, it's really more of a downhill bike that can be pedaled back to the top than anything else. Of course, that 37-pound weight does mean those climbs might take a little longer than they would on a lightweight trail bike.
As fun as the latest crop of versatile all-rounders can be, there's something special about hopping aboard a bike that has such a laser focus on delivering a good time when gravity takes over. Any concerns about weight fly out the window as soon as the trail points downward – the Range is a seriously addictive bike to ride, thanks to its well balanced geometry, low center of gravity, and coil-sprung suspension that absolutely erases bumps.
The Range's unapologetic nature helped it earn it a nomination for Pinkbke's Mountain Bike of the Year. It's meant to go downhill as fast as possible, and out on the trail it does an outstanding job of doing exactly that.From the review:
Why it's nominated
Trek Trek's Top Fuel used to be an XC-race oriented whippet, with the expected handling traits for a bike in that category - it was light, fast, and a little twitchy at times on the descents. The new Top Fuel is a decidedly different machine, one that we included in the Downcountry category of our most recent Field Test, although the argument could also be made that this is a short travel trail bike.
It's the Top Fuel's versatility that earned it a nomination this year – it can hold its own in the occasional cross-country or marathon race, all while still being an excellent option for a daily driver, a bike that can handle pretty much anything short of the absolute roughest and steepest trails. The suspension is well supported when standing up out of the saddle and putting the power down, and it retains that support on the descents, which helps ensure that 120mm of travel isn't used up too quickly.
The Top Fuel is also available in a whopping 7 different sizes to accommodate a wide range of rider heights, and there are 9 different complete bikes to fit different budgets. Plus, it's got snack storage in the downtube, so that stash of gummy bears will never be more than a few seconds away. From the Field Test:
Why it's nominated
The Bike of the Year awards are more than just a beauty contest, but the Rocky Mountain Element's striking good looks sure don't hurt its case. The new frame also underwent a massive geometry update (the head angle is now a whopping 4-degrees slacker than the previous version), which puts the Element at the cutting edge when it comes to downcountry / short travel trail bike geometry.
The idea of a 65-degree head angle on a 120mm bike would have seemed outlandish a few years ago – that number used to be reserved for longer travel enduro bikes. In fact, it's identical to what's found on Rocky's own 160mm Altitude in the neutral setting, and that bike is only a year old. As it turns out, Rocky's decision to shed some of their more conservative ways when it comes to geometry was a very, very good one.
The Element's progressive numbers made it a popular pick during our recent Field Test up in Pemberton, BC. Pemberton has no shortage of long, steep climbs followed by even steeper descents, and on those trails the Element was an absolute blast, where it exhibited an excellent blend of traction and efficiency.
For riders with slightly tamer terrain it's possible to steepen the head angle by 1-degree via Rocky's ever-present flip chip adjustment, but in this case the Ride-4 adjustments makes sense, and allow riders to fine-tune the Element to suit their needs. From the review:
Why it's nominated
On paper, the 170mm Transition Spire looks like it should be a handful. After all, it has a 63-degree head angle (62.5-degrees in the slack setting), 446mm chainstays, and 29” wheels. And yet, somehow the carbon Spire manages to have a lighter, livelier ride than anyone expected. The fairly light weight of the carbon frame undoubtedly helps here – the aluminum version is still tons of fun to ride, but it doesn't feel nearly as zippy.
Transition also exercised just enough restraint when it came to pick the reach numbers for the Spire, and that decision to hold back just a little bit was a good one. Instead of feeling big and unwieldy, the Spire falls into the 'just right' category, a bike that's easy to get along with, especially in the steep terrain it was designed for.
'Versatile' isn't an adjective that typically accompanies a description of a 170mm bike, but in this case it's appropriate. The Spire is a prime example that numbers on a screen don't tell the whole store – one ride on this machine is all it takes to realize that it's no one trick pony. From the review:
Honorable Electric MentionsThere's currently no eMTB of the Year award, and the internet would obviously explode if there was a motor on the Mountain Bike of the Year, so for now we're doling out two honorable mentions for e-bikes that stood out from the crowd.
I called the Specialized's Turbo Levo the “new benchmark” when I reviewed
it earlier this year, and that same sentiment still holds true, although the competition is heating up as more bikes are released with bigger batteries and better integration.
The Levo's smooth power delivery, integrated display, 700 Wh battery and adjustable geometry make it one of the best options currently on the market for riders looking for a full-power e-bike that can make short work of the gnarliest climbs and descents.
The price is really the only downside – this certainly isn't a budget friendly option. However, an alloy version was recently released with all of the same features as its carbon counterpart, including the wide range of geometry adjustment options.
Rather than modify their existing suspension platform to accept a motor, Yeti designed the 160E from the ground up, complete with a new 6-bar suspension system called Sixfinity. Slightly silly name aside, the new design works very well, delivering anti-squat values that only deviate by 9% across the entire range of the cassette. That's a desirable trait for an e-bike, since the motor makes it possible to climb in harder gears than you would on a non-motorized bike. The consistent anti-squat amount creates a well-supported, and very predictable suspension feel while climbing and descending, traits that left test riders impressed during the eMTB Field Test
at Sun Peaks.
It'll be interesting to see where Yeti takes the Sixfinity design in the future – the 160E is a well-executed first step into the electric arena, but there's plenty of room for the Colorado company to add longer and shorter travel options into their lineup.