Short on travel but big on geometry, we review the best down-country mountain bike rigs – fleet-footed steeds that blend the speed of an XC bike with the capability of trail 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, these bikes can cover ground with minimal fuss and still be thrashed to within an inch of their lives on proper trails.

Yeti SB120 T-Series T1 MY 23 mountain bike pack shot

The Yeti SB120 is a down-country bike you can buy with your head as well as your heart

1. Yeti SB120

The best down-country bike if money is no object

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Turq carbon, 120mm | Sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL | Weight: 13.3kg (29.3lb) | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy:

  • All round overachiever with superlative suspension
  • Wide size range

Reasons to avoid:

  • Agile rather than ultra aggressive
  • Not actually that light
  • No internal storage

From one of the most aspirational brands in the business comes the impeccable SB120. Yeti shrinks and shoehorns its unique Switch Infinity suspension design into the SB120 chassis. Where the swingarm moves up and down on dual Fox shafts just above the bottom bracket. And the new design has improved seals, bearings, hardware, and pivots, so it should stay in tip-top condition for longer.

And this clever suspension design really works. As we explained in our review, “the supple suspension is stable under power gives a really positive pedalling feel”. Then, when you really hit a something hard and the rear wheel sticks to the ground, giving superb traction and control. It needs a lighter set of wheels to do the flickable geometry and sublime suspension justice, but even out of the box the Yeti SB120 had us smitten.

Read our full review of the Yeti SB120

Santa Cruz Tallboy X01 AXS RSV 2023

Santa Cruz’s Tallboy is a terrier that thinks it’s a rottweiler

2. Santa Cruz Tallboy

Best down-country bike for sending it

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon CC, 120mm | Sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL | Weight: 13.08kg (28.84lb) | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy:

  • Outstandingly fast and focused full-send aggression
  • Does things normally reserved for burlier bikes
  • Superb size range
  • Internal storage compartment

Reasons to avoid:

  • Needs a pretty skilled rider to avoid pratfalls
  • Uncomfortably uncooperative on technical off-piste trails
  • Can be tiring to ride

Although often overlooked in the comprehensive, verging on confusing, Santa Cruz range, we think the Tallboy is an undiscovered gem. You’ve heard of small man syndrome, or small dog syndrome, well the Tallboy has small bike syndrome, where it steadfastly believes it’s actually an enduro bike, and deserves to be ridden as such. The stiff frame and aggressive angles beg to be wrung out on every descent, yet the efficient suspension and lightweight mean it’s always the first bike back up to the top of the hill.

For some riders, all that straining at the leash might be too much. But if you love wringing the neck of a short travel whip, and seeing your buddies slack-jawed in amazement as you undermine and overtake their big-travel enduro bikes, the Tallboy is the ultimate sleeper bike.

Read our full review of the Santa Cruz Tallboy

Transition Spur MBR Editors Choice

Transition’s Spur is still one of the finest down-country bikes we’ve ever tested

3. Transition Spur

Best lightweight down-country bike

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon, 120mm travel | Sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 11.25kg (24.8lb) | Rating: 10/10

Reasons to buy:

  • Perfect blend of speed and control
  • Lightweight

Reasons to avoid:

  • Not the most robust build if you’re carrying some timber
  • Narrow size range

The Transition Spur is arguably the bike that spawned the down-country category, and also the bike that perhaps best defines it. At under 11.5kg, the Spur flies out of the gate, haring up climbs and tearing along high-speed singletrack. That lack of inertia encouraged us to sprint every rise, pop every jump, and schralp every turn, helped by the stable geometry and supple suspension.

With lightweight RockShox Sid forks up front, the temptation is to add travel and girth, but to do so is to dilute the Spur’s potency and add unnecessary grams. So while there’s a bit of flex when pushed hard, we’d treat that as part of the charm, and lap up the whirlwind of action that accompanies every descent. As we said in our review, the Transition Spur is “the best-realised ‘down-country’ bike we’ve ever tested and the one we all covet if we were spending our own cash”.

Read our full test review of the Transition Spur

Trek Top Fuel 8

Trek’s Top Fuel 8 offers a high-octane ride

6. Trek Top Fuel

Explosive trail weapon

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon or alloy, 120mm travel | Frame sizes: S, M, M/L, L, XL, XXL | Weight: 14.89kg | Suspension travel: 130mm f/120mm r | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy:

  • Poppy, playful and efficient
  • Available in six frame sizes
  • Internal down tube storage
  • Mino Link flip chip allows geometry tweaks

Reasons to avoid:

  • Needs a 180mm rear rotor
  • Accurate rear shock set up is crucial
  • A solid build, so not the lightest in its class

While the Trek Top Fuel used to be a lean, mean, cross-country fighting machine, the middle-aged spread has left it sagging a little on the scales. But don’t let that fact put you off, because the ride quality is worth its weight in gold, even if it won’t be competing for gold medals on the race track.

In our test we praised the Top Fuel as offering a “fast, fun and engaging ride”. Where “Its poppy playful nature, combined with generous sizing, means you never feel limited by the travel for regular trail riding”. Combined, this means the Trek Top Fuel provides a high-octane ride that keeps the pace high without compromising on fun. If you can stretch to one of the carbon options, that will help shed some weight, and really light the blue touch paper.

Read our full test review of the Trek Top Fuel 8

Canyon Neuron 6

The Canyon Neuron 6 is fast and frugal

7. Canyon Neuron 5

Speed freak that also enjoys a party

Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Travel: 130mm | Frame sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL | Frame: Aluminium or carbon | Weight: 14.63kg (32.25lb) | Rating: N/A

Reasons to buy:

  • Hyper-fast
  • Friendly yet rewarding geometry
  • Excellent value

Reasons to avoid:

  • Seat tube could be a bit shorter
  • Saddle is a bit too racy
  • Not that light for a down-country bike

The Neuron is Canyon’s back-to-basics trail bike, newly updated for 2023, There are four carbon and four alloy models to choose from, with prices starting from £1,849 for the Neuron 5 and going up to £5,749 for the Neuron CF LTD. There’s also a kids’ Young Hero model with an XS frame and 27.5in wheels for £1,499, and women’s versions of the Neuron 6, Neuron 7 and Neuron CF8 available at no extra cost.

As with the previous bike, all XS and S frames come with 27.5in wheels, while the Medium upwards come with 29in wheels. As with most Canyons, you’ll need to factor in a bike box at £18.99 and delivery at £37.99 to all of the headline prices. Whichever you choose, the latest Neuron is versatile, affordable and a total blast to ride, as happy hitting enduro tracks and sending jumps as racking up the miles on a multi-day ride. The alloy frame has a comfortable, compliant ride that’s never jarring, and the choice of fast-rolling Schwalbe tyres means it rolls along almost effortlessly.

Read our full test review of the Canyon Neuron 6

YT Izzo Uncaged 7

Looks so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at it: The YT Izzo Uncaged 7

8. YT Izzo

Rapier-sharp speed and agility

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon, 120mm travel | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL | Weight: 11.4kg | Rating: N/A

Reasons to buy:

  • Acutely responsive and ruthlessly efficient
  • Agile and accurate
  • Good spec for the price

Reasons to avoid:

  • Nowhere to hide in the rough
  • Traction/grip is not the best
  • Doesn’t really need the remote lockout
  • Front tyre could be more aggressive

YT’s razor-sharp Izzo feels a million miles away from the brand’s signature Capra and popular Jeffsy trail bike. It’s blisteringly fast but ruthlessly unforgiving, so you need to be on top of your game and fighting fit to keep it under control and take the punches. It’s much stiffer than the Transition Spur, and not as capable as the Santa Cruz Tallboy or Yeti SB120, so in some ways it’s a bit of an anomaly. But it’s also a great-looking bike, feels amazing in certain situations, and the fact that it’s a challenge to get the most out of will definitely appeal to a certain type of rider.

Read our full test review of the YT Izzo Uncaged 7

orange stage evo

Orange knows how to build a great handling bike, and the Stage Evo is no exception

9. Orange Stage Evo

Packs big bike geometry into a nimble 120mm package

Wheel size: 29in | Frame: 6061-T6 Aluminium, 120mm travel | Frame sizes: S, M, L, XL | Weight: 13.83kg (30.49lb) | Rating: N/A

Reasons to buy:

  • Incredibly well-poised handling belies its modest weight

Reasons to avoid:

  • It’s arguably a trail bike

Orange may have ploughed its own furrow over the years, towed by a horse rather than a GPS-guided John Deere, but despite the UK-brand’s traditional frame materials and construction methods, it continues to bang out bikes that ride every bit as well as more cutting-edge rivals. Often even better. The Stage Evo is one such bike, and effectively a shrunken Stage trail bike. And from the very first corner we were reminded why Orange still commands a loyal customer base – the Stage Evo simply shreds. When we tested it, we noted “yes, it’s easy to ride beyond the physical limits of the travel, but that’s what makes the Stage Evo such an engaging bike on regular terrain”.

Read our first ride review of Orange Stage Evo

Transition Spur

As soon as you release the reins, the Spur starts to gallop

What is a down-country mountain bike?

A few rules to help categorise a down-country bike. The first rule is that these rules are made to be broken!

Nothing over 120mm

No more than 120mm of suspension travel at either end. The archetypal down-country 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 down-country fold. Otherwise the whole thing just gets far too close to a regular trail bike. So, no Norco Optic or Nukeproof Reactor 290c ST. Too trail-bikey.

Having said that, neither rear travel nor fork travel should have less than 100mm. Save that for XC race bikes.

YT Izzo Uncaged 7

With less mass to manhandle, down-country bikes like the YT Izzo goad you into throwing shapes at every opportunity. 

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 27.5in wheels here. Nope, not even just on the rear as a modern mullet setup. 29in wheels rule the down-country roost.

Although it doesn’t have the poppiest suspension feel, the Tallboy is great fun on jump trails

What’s the difference between an XC bike and a down-country bike?

That’s a contentious one, and mostly a matter of opinion. But in our view, a down-country bike is a trail bike with the weight and travel of an XC bike, whereas an XC bike generally has steeper geometry, a lower front end and a stronger bias towards efficiency. Using, for instance, remote lockouts to maximise power transfer on smooth surfaces. The lines are blurred, however, and some XC bikes are closer to down-country bikes than others. And the components used also make defining bikes more difficult. 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.

Specialized S-Works Epic WC

True XC bikes, like the Specialized S-Works Epic WC, are lighter, pricier, and more focussed machines. 

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. But more capable XC bikes also provide unique thrills, and that injection of effortless pace never gets boring.

Slacker, longer, lower… shorter. Bring it on.