Short on travel but big on geometry, we review the best down-country mountain bike rigs that blend the speed of an XC bike with the capability of trail bike and are at the forefront of the latest wave of all-round mountain bikes.
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.
- Best mountain bikes: hardtail, XC, trail and enduro to suit all budgets
- Best cross-country XC mountain bikes
Blends big bike geometry with small bike travel
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Turq carbon, 120mm | Weight: 13.3kg (29.3lb) | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: All round overachiever with superlative suspension
Reasons to avoid: Agile rather than ultra aggressive
Rather than push a specific agenda down your throat, Yeti sells the SB120 with the slogan “definition ready”. It’s a very apt undersell for a bike that’s quite happy to take a back seat in terms of obvious character traits while simultaneously being efficiently fast, comfortably forgiving, hyper grippy and effortlessly controlled. Playing with the compression settings proves it’s got the muscle and support to be rallied properly hard too, while a lighter wheelset unlocks its full speed and distance potential. So as long as you don’t insist on internal storage or geometry adjustment, Yeti ticks all of the boxes in terms of ride quality and all round versatility.
Blends big bike geometry with small bike travel
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon CC, 120mm | Weight: 13.08kg (28.84lb) | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: Outstandingly fast and focused full-send aggression
Reasons to avoid: Needs a pretty skilled rider to avoid prat-falls. Uncomfortably uncooperative on technical off piste trails.
With the Tallboy, Santa Cruz has created a deliberately divisive bike. The bristling in your face aggression of the brutally stiff frame, ‘fast or F-off’ suspension and progressive geometry creates a whole new level of ‘short-travel bike syndrome’ that hard charging hooligans will love. But it’s not as soft and easy going as the Yeti SB120.
Exceptional lightweight trail bike
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon, 120mm travel | Weight: 11.25kg (24.8lb) | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: Perfect blend of speed and control
Reasons to avoid: Not the most robust build if you’re carrying some timber.
Hubba-hubba. Whit-woo. And so forth. Gosh darn it, the new Transition Spur may well take the crown for the best looking down-country mountain bike on sale today. Just look 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 that can’. The best-realised ‘down-country’ bike we’ve ever tested and the one we all covet if we were spending our own cash.
Generates more cornering G-forces and sheer boost-and-pop than any other bike we’ve ridden
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon, 120mm travel | Weight: 12.9kg | Rating: 10/10
Reasons to buy: That complicated-looking linkage array is worth it
Reasons to avoid: Boost 157 back end limits wheel and hub choice
Okay, we’re only into the second bike on the list and we’re breaking the down-country ‘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.
Ruthless in its efficiency
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: RC Carbon HMX, 0/80/120mm | Weight: 11.12kg (24.52lb) | Rating: 9/10
Reasons to buy: Super clean lines reflect the bike’s rapidity. Cut-throat dynamism.
Reasons to avoid: Suspension could be a touch more supple in Descend mode.
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. Even so, this is a scorchingly fast XC bike with a helluva pedigree that can still hold its own in the right hands against most modern trail bikes on gnarlier terrain.
Explosive trail weapon
Wheel size: 29in | 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.
At 14.89kg (32.83lb), the Trek Top Fuel 8 isn’t that much lighter than a 150mm bike. So if you want one bike to conquer all trails, it wouldn’t be our first choice. It’s still a great 29er trail bike though, and if bike park laps and enduro racing don’t fall under your trail bike remit, the Trek Top Fuel 8 offers a fast, fun and engaging ride. Its poppy playful nature, combined with generous sizing means you never feel limited by the travel for regular trail riding. Yet, it still feels more energetic and efficient under pedalling than than most 150mm bikes. It’s a heady combination that manages to keep both the tempo and fun factor high, without any apparent lows.
Speed freak that also enjoys a party
Wheel size: 27.5in or 29in | Travel: 130mm | Frame sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL | Frame: Aluminium | 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.
There are four carbon models and four alloy 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 M 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.
Rapier-sharp speed and agility
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: Carbon, 120mm travel | 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. Traction/grip is not the best. Doesn’t really need the remote lockout. Front tyre could be more aggressive.
A bike that’s trying to cover a multitude of bases means it will have made compromises along the way, and if you’re a racing whippet that wants to go fast and shred hard, the Izzo might not be the perfect foil alongside bikes like the softer Spur and lighter Blur. But if you’re not 65kg wringing wet, enjoy a bit of self-flagellation and fancy something seriously rapid, then the Izzo might just be your new dominatrix. Bring out the gimp.
Packs big bike geometry into a nimble 120mm package
Wheel size: 29in | Frame: 6061-T6 Aluminium, 120mm travel | 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
The Stage Evo 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.
Dialled option from the Big ‘S’
Frame: FACT 11m Carbon | Weight: 10.70g (23.59lb) | Rating: 8/10
Reasons to buy: Ditching the chainstay pivot has only improved its speed. No more Brain makes suspension set-up easier.
Reasons to avoid: Seat tube lengths are still more in tune with road bikes than modern trail bikes
The Epic Evo takes the quintessential XC bike and puts it through boot camp to emerge faster and more capable than ever. There’s an extra 20mm travel up front compared to the Epic, which helps slacken the razor-sharp steering to make it less twitchy at high speeds. At the back there’s 10mm more travel, which helps with comfort and traction. The carbon frame is sleek with a classic shape and an excellent choice of sizes, so you can be sure to get the right fit. You’ll need tighter reins compared to a true down-country bike, but the Epic Evo is more than capable of winning on Sunday, shredding on Monday.
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.
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.
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.
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.