WELCOME TO THE 2021
FALL FIELD TEST
12 Trail and Downcountry Bikes Ridden and Rated
Words by Mike Levy, photography by Tom Richards
While the numbers show that a new enduro or downhill bike garners the most interest, and especially so if it happens to be still a prototype or has a gearbox bolted to it, the truth is that the majority of us spend our time on bikes with much less suspension. Don't worry, it's still too soon to put you (or us) through another cross-country spandex series, but it is time to have twelve of the latest trail and downcountry bikes face off against each other in the fall Field Test.
We like to see some disparity in our fleet, and it's no different this time around. Rear-wheel-travel starts at just 110mm for the downcountry bikes and goes up to 150mm for the trail rigs, geometry is nearly as wide-ranging, and weights begin at 23lbs and balloon out to 36lb with more coils and less carbon. Speaking of that, there's plenty of fancy stuff, of course, but aluminum and even steel bikes are also included, as are brands from Germany, America, Canada, Switzerland, and the UK.
Depending on what you're looking for, today's trail bikes can blur the lines at both ends of the performance spectrum. If your main focus is pushing hard on the pedals and gaining elevation, but you want more surefootedness than a cross-country bike can provide, there's a trail bike for you. And if your rides always include steeps, jumps, and knee pads, or even the odd guilt-free shuttle run, there's also a trail bike for you.
What about if you're somewhere in the middle? Same here, but with these bikes able to do so many things at such a high level, it's a pretty good place to find yourself.
Well, this is awkward... The whole downcountry thing was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek name for overburdened cross-country bikes
with real tires, and a cockpit and dropper post that's not trying to throw you out the front door every time you want to have a bit of fun. Regardless, it's been co-opted by the industry and media to describe things that we used to call trail bikes which, I have to admit, is a bit confusing.
Silly names aside, here we are with six short-travel bikes that could be used for everything from some not-so-serious cross-country racing to riding some surprisingly serious terrain. Even more impressive, some of the contenders are capable of doing both with little to no alterations. It's a good time to like downcoun... er, short-travel bikes, isn't it?
How Do We Choose the Bikes?
I'll be honest with you: We pretty much got what we could get. If you've been sniffing around for a new bike lately, or even just the parts for one, you already know they've been hard to come by. Even so, I'd argue that we managed to include some interesting rigs this time around, which always makes testing and comparing them more engaging for us as well. Why only twelve bikes and not twenty or thirty? There were five of us doing the testing over two weeks, split between the two categories, and we'd far prefer to put more time on fewer bikes than vice versa.
And by the way, we do feel terrible that the bike you want to see isn't here, but definitely let us know in the comments regardless. And maybe send Kazimer a direct message and tell him as well.
When it comes to testing and comparing, there's no substitute for countless back-to-back laps, and it doesn't hurt if the trails are amazing and the weather is dry and warm. Well, two out of three ain't bad. We may have nearly drowned and/or frozen a number of times during this Field Test, but we'd all argue that it was worth it.
With our house only a few hundred feet from the test loops, anyone watching would have been confused by the constant stream of five different riders coming and going every thirty minutes on a different bike. Thankfully, the rocky terrain and well-made trails drain incredibly well, and Pemberton in the fall has to be one of the most beautiful places in British Columbia. But if the locals ask, it wasn't me who said that.
The bikes need challenging terrain, of course, but making sure they weren't being tossed down chutes far beyond their intentions was also a very real consideration. After all, Pemberton has more than a few trails that would put our short-travel test fleet to shame; so while the bikes definitely saw some things they probably weren't expecting to see in their life, it wouldn't be fair to judge them in that light. Even so, the downcountry test lap was full of rocks, roots, a few steep bits, a few speedy bits, and all the corners.
As for the trail bikes, their lap was a bit higher up the mountain and a bit higher consequence. The descent was longer, steeper, rougher, and faster in sections, but nothing that a solid trail bike shouldn't be able to brush aside.
Way back at the very first Field Test, I remember Kazimer and I arguing with Brian about how neither of us wanted to include a timing section in these review videos. We said it'd only complicate an already hectic few weeks of testing, and that there are too many variables for it to matter all that much. Oh, and that we already knew which bikes were quick and which weren't by feel
, dammit, and didn't need no stinkin' computers to tell us anything...
Now I couldn't imagine doing a Field Test without some element of timing, even if we'll always lean towards on-trail feel for most of our impressions. And because all these bikes need to be somewhat decent at doing the down and up parts of mountain biking, we laid out timed sections on the test loops for both.
Field Testing also means matching control tires. Why do we change them all? Tires have a massive effect on how a bike performs, but they also wear out fast, get torn, thrown in the trash, and finally replaced with something else that costs too much. So why not just get rid of that variable altogether? The shorter-travel short-travel bikes got Schwalbe's Wicked Will on both ends, while the longer-travel short-travel bikes got a much more aggressive Assegai and DHRII combo, all with appropriate casings and the stickiest rubber we could find.
Impossible Climb, Efficiency Test, & Huck to Flat
It's not a Field Test without some pseudo-science, which is where the Impossible Climb, Efficiency Test, and Huck to Flat come into the picture. Matt Beer did such a good job the last time in Sun Peaks, we couldn't not bring him back for another round of "How the fu*k did he get up that?" We also returned to the scene of the very first Impossible Climb, a steep granite slab made even more heinous with some carefully placed "natural obstacles" to hopefully make Matt fall over a few times.
Henry Quinney was voluntold to do the Efficiency Test this time around as I had an important matter to attend to - one of my dogs needed to be walked at that exact time and she's very particular about it - but I'm sure he did an amazing job without me. There's no way I'm going to watch a boring video about climbing, so let me know how it went.
Speaking of how things went, prepare your eyeballs for yet another slow-motion bottom-out bonanza courtesy of Jason Lucas' can-do attitude and surprisingly sturdy ankles. Was there more carnage? The Huck to Flat video is always how we wrap the series up, so you'll have to wait until the end to find out how it went.
There were five editors at this Field Test, with Mike Kazimer and Alicia Leggett doing trail bike duties, and Matt Beer riding a bit of everything before tackling the Impossible Climb. Henry Quinney and I traded downcountry bikes, and Henry was also in charge of the Efficiency Test and getting lost in the woods at 3 am.
Shoutouts also to the outdoor hot water spigot, the mobile car wizard who fixed Alicia's Astro van, Meeshka the dog, fungi, friendly strangers, cereal, and shoe driers. Stay tuned for an upcoming two-part podcast that'll explain everything.
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
160 lb / 73 kgNotes:
Tech editor, quick on a bike but never on time
5'11" / 180cmWeight:
160 lbs / 72.6 kgNotes:
Managing tech editor, noted alien skeptic
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
148 lb / 67 kgNotes:
News editor moonlighting as a tech editor
5'10" / 178 cmWeight:
155 lb / 70 kgNotes:
Tech editor, knows the aliens are already here
6' / 183 cmWeight:
183lb / 83 kgNotes:
Tech editor, full-time Branston pickle enthusiast
While it's the five of us you'll see on the videos, the truth is that we don't even know how to turn the cameras on. This circus wouldn't happen without the video and photo team who have to do way more work than us, most of it with either bag that weighs as much as an eight-year-old on their backs or with an awkward gimbal in their hands. And all of it in the cold, wet fall weather while doing their best to make us look somewhat acceptable on camera. Shoutout to Jason Lucas, Tom Richards, Max Baron, and Devin Francis for not just knowing how to turn the cameras on, but for doing pretty much everything else as well.
Stay tuned for the first Field Test video review that, if everything's gone to plan, should go live tomorrow. You can expect to see the six downcountry reviews and roundtable arguments first, followed by all the trail bike videos, and then we'll wrap it up with the climbing and hucking that we're all here for.
Which review are you most looking forward to watching?