Short on travel but big on geometry, we review the best down country mountain bike rigs that are at the forefront of the next wave of mountain bike.
Short on travel, light on weight, but big on geometry, the best down country mountain bike rippers give you everything you want and nothing you don’t. Fast and fun in a lightweight, efficient package that can cover ground with minimal fuss.
What is a down-country bike? And what isn’t? Pumped up XC bikes? XXXC bikes? Down country? XC/DC? Whatever. They’re lightweight, sub-130mm travel bikes with progressive geometry.
Unlike the best mountain bike classifications, down-country is not just signified by how much travel it has. Down-country bikes are all about the combination of short travel, minimal mass and progressive geometry.
But how much travel is ‘short’ travel? And what does ‘progressive’ geometry really mean? What makes the best down country bikes more suitable for modern day use than one of the best crosscountry mountain bikes?
Seeing as it’s our job to help clarify the mixed-up world of mountain biking to as many folk as possible, we’re going to list our criteria for what makes a down-country bike – and then ignore it anyway, because if recent history has taught us one thing, the rules rarely apply to the ones making them.
Best down country mountain bike
- Transition Spur review – Winner
- Evil Following V3 review – Runner-up
- Scott Spark RC WC AXS
- Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29 review
- Kona Hei Hei review
- Orange Stage Evo review
- Santa Cruz Tallboy review
- Specialized Epic Evo review
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Price: £5,999 | Frame: Carbon 120mm | Weight: 11.25kg (24.8lb)
Pros: Perfect blend of speed and control
Cons: Not one for air-bandits
Hubba-hubba. Whit-woo. And so forth. Gosh darn it, the new Transition Spur may well take the crown for the best looking downcountry mountain bike. Just at it. But beyond the sharp but friendly aesthetics there lies a very good example of a modern short travel mountain bike. Transition is very much ‘the little brand than can’. The best-realised ‘down-country’ bike we’ve ever tested.
Evil Following V3
Price: £5,500 | Frame: ?? | Weight: ??
Pros: That complicated-looking linkage array is worth it
Cons: Boost 157 not well-liked by some
Okay, we’re only into the second bike on the list and we’re breaking the downcountry ‘rules’ already. This bike comes with a 130mm travel fork (shock horror) but we’re including it here because we feel Evil deserves muchos kudos for being right at the front of the whole rad short travel bike phenom. This is still one of the very best examples of the experienced enduro racer’s down-country rig. Agility overload, combined with float-then-pop suspension.
Scott Spark RC WC AXS
Race course weapon that eats up training rides
Price: £7,299.99 | Frame: Carbon HMX 120mm | Weight: 11.12kg (24.52lb)
Pros: Cutthroat dynamism
Cons: Much more XC than Trail
Fast, efficient and responsive, the new Scott Spark RC is an outstanding XC race bike. With 120mm of travel, it has the suspension to tackle the toughest courses, but reserves a sharpness to its pedaling response that won’t leave you languishing in the finish-line sprint. It’s stiff too, so if you’re not under 65kg dripping wet, you’ll still have the confidence to charge hard. Scott has missed a trick with it’s TwinLoc remote though, as we think the Spark RC would be even faster if the suspension was a touch more active in the 120mm Descend mode. But if you’re much more Lycra than flat-pedals, the Scott Spark a great choice.
Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29
Packs a mighty punch
Price: £3,999 | Frame: Advanced Carbon 115mm | Weight: 13.33kg (29.39lb)
Pros: Great value trail ripper
Cons: Doesn’t come in a Small size
Giant has nailed the suspension and the specification perfectly for a do-it-all short-travel shredder. It is arguably limited by sizing, or rather the lack of it. In the UK, Giant only offers the Trance Advanced Pro in three frame sizes – medium, large and XL. And given that the size large is relatively short, there’s not much head room for taller riders. Still, if you’re 5ft 10in and you’re upgrading from a bike that’s three or four years old, then the size large Trance will feel like a whole new world, and one that you’re going to love exploring.
Kona Hei Hei
Unlike any other bike
Price: £4,299 | Frame: Race Lite Carbon 100mm | Weight: 12.797kg (28.19lb)
Pros: One of the original XC thrillers still… well, thrills!
Cons: A bit expensive and a bit heavy
On the face of it the Hei Hei might not look like a down-country mountain bike. Its 67.5° head angle breaks the ‘rules’ for a kick-off. But, much like the Evil Following above, we’re including it in this list because it was an impressive early-adopter of down-country that paved the way for the whole movement. The Hei Hei is a classic example of not being able to judge a book by its cover, or a bike by its geometry.
Orange Stage Evo
Packs big bike geometry into a nimble 120mm package
Price: £5,300 | Frame: 6061-T6 Aluminium 120mm | Weight: 13.83kg (30.49lb)
Pros: Incredibly well-poised handling belies its modest weight
Cons: It’s arguably a trail bike
The old Orange Four is no more it seems. In its place is a scaled-down version of its trail-slaying Stage models. Once again the fork travel (130mm) may step over the down-country lines, but seeing as we only measured the rear travel at 116mm, we’re calling it quits. Despite clearly being on the down-country bandwagon, the Stage Evo is unashamedly its own thing. Like all Oranges, it will either appeal a lot, or you won’t see the appeal at all. After day on one, we were definitely in the former camp.
Santa Cruz Tallboy
Blends big bike geometry with small bike travel
Price: £7,299 | Frame: Carbon CC 120mm | Weight: 12.53kg (27.62lb)
Pros: Still one of the longest-feeling 120mm travel bikes
Cons: Needs a pretty skilled rider to avoid pratfalls
Despite its desirability level forever being premium, Santa Cruz is often ever so slightly behind the cutting edge. Not so with the Santa Cruz Tallboy. In fact, the very first version of the Tallboy way-back-when in 2009 was probably the bike that tipped a lot of bike media journos into a love affair with 29in wheels that has held sway ever since. More than any other bike name, the Tallboy is to blame for down-country. The new version continues to lead the way.
Specialized Epic Expert Evo
Responsive, fast direct ride
Price: £6,750 | Frame: FACT 11m Carbon 110mm | Weight: 11.71kg (25.82lb)
Pros: Very light and very fast
Cons: Very expensive for the spec given
Now then, this is where down-country gets really interesting. Much like its pioneering Enduro 29, Specialized’s Epic Evo appears to be arguably the first truly, properly executed example of where down-country is heading. Why do we say this? Because it seems to straddle the widest remit of any down-country bike thus far. You could do a World Cup XC race on it and you could sling it down whatever radness your Sunday sessions present you with.
How to spot the best down country mountain bike
What else will 2021 bring? You can be sure there’ll be a whole load more downcountry mountain bikes appearing in bike shops throughout next year, that’s for sure.
Nothing over 120mm
No more than 120mm of suspension travel at either end. The archetypal downcountry bike should have closer to 100mm of rear travel. And if there’s a 130mm travel fork up front, it’s ruled out. Usually. There are some outliers than we allow into the downcountry fold. Otherwise the whole thing just gets far too close to a regular trail bike. So, no Norco Optic, Nukeproof Reactor 290c ST or YT Izzo here we’re afraid. Too trail-bikey.
Having said that, neither rear travel nor fork travel should have less than 100mm. Save that for XC race bikes.
Nothing steeper than 67°
We’re talking head angles here. Non-XC geometry is the key thing that must be included if a bike is to be classed as down-country. And though we say ‘geometry’ we really mean head angle. There’s currently not much consensus about the other angles and measurements on down-country mountain bikes; they don’t all have longer reach numbers, nor steeper seat angles, nor super low BBs.
But the head angle on all down-country bikes cannot be steeper than 67°. 66° is arguably the most commonly seen number.
Big wheels only
You’ll not find any 27.5 wheels here. Nope, not even just on the rear as a modern mullet setup. 29in wheels rule the down-country roost.
Spec sheets can be misleading
Some down-country forks have all-out XC race forks. Some have middling 34-35mm stanchions. Some have four-pot brakes and huge rotors. Others just have 180/160 twin-pot combos. Some have dinky stems. Some still sport stems over 50mm long.
It’s the finishing kit that is perhaps key to the down-country experience. And expectation. Some down-country bikes appear to be aimed at ex-XC lycra-heads looking for more fun and less sketch in their rides. Other down-country bikes are aimed at the all-out aggro brigade who have tired of their super-capable enduro bikes and wish to inject a level of limit to their Sunday shredding.
In our opinion, it’s the latter type of down-country bike that is most interesting and exciting. An XC race bike pretending to be a trail bike is not as rewarding a proposition as an enduro bike pared down to its adrenaline essentials.
Slacker, longer, lower… shorter. Bring it on.