Pumped up XC bikes? XXXC bikes? Downcountry? Whatever. They're sub-130mm travel bikes with progressive geometry.
Short on travel but big on geometry, these downcountry mountain bikes are at the forefront of the next wave of mountain bike. Here’s our current faves.
What is a downcountry bike? And what isn’t?
Unlike most mountain bike classifications, downcountry is not just signified by how much travel it has. Downcountry bikes are all about the combination of short travel and progressive geometry. But how much travel is ‘short’ travel? And what does ‘progressive’ geometry really mean?
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 downcountry 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 downcountry mountain bikes
- Transition Spur – MBR Editor’s Choice
- Evil Following V3 – MBR Editor’s Choice
- Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29
- Cannondale Scalpel SE
- Kona Hei Hei
- Orange Stage Evo
- Santa Cruz Tallboy
- Specialized Epic Evo
- Whyte S-120
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The best-realised ‘down-country’ bike we’ve ever tested
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 exmaple of a modern short travel mountain bike. Transition are very much ‘the little brand than can’.
Evil Following V3
Agility overload, combined with float-then-pop suspension
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 downcountry rig.
Giant Trance Advanced Pro 29
Packs a mighty punch
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.
Cannondale Scalpel SE
Cannondale push the limits of carbon with a Horst Link without a pivot
This is a good example of the pumped-up XC race bike incarnation of downcountry. Cannondale have taken their Scalpel XC race bike and added 20mm of extra travel at both ends. It’s a little bit slacker too; 67° head angle instead of 68°. The finishing kit is perhaps the most significant difference though really. Dropper seatpost, shorter stem, wider handlebars and bigger volume tyres.
Kona Hei Hei
Unlike any other bike
On the face of it the Hei Hei might not look like a downcountry 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 downcountry 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
The old Orange Four is no more it seems. In it splace is a scaled-down version of its trail-slaying Stage models. Once again the fork travel (130mm) may step over the downcountry lines, but seeing as we only measured the rear travel at 116mm, we’re calling it quits. Despite clearly being on the downcountry 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
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 downcountry. The new version continues to lead the way.
Specialized Epic Evo
Responsive, fast direct ride
Now then, this is where downcountry 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 downcountry is heading. Why do we say this? Because it seems to straddle the widest remit of any downcountry 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.
Has all the downcountry boxes well and truly ticked
Bonus ball. As is often the case with listicles like these, we publish them into the big wide world and then loads of people pipe up with “but what about bike x?”. Most of the time the suggestion isn’t very good. But this time we really should have included this particular bike x. The Whyte S-120. So here it is. 65.6° head angle, 120mm travel at both ends, 480mm reach on a Large, big dropper post, capable kit.
Know your downcountry 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 downcountry. And though we say ‘geometry’ we really mean head angle. There’s currently not much concensus about the other angles and measurements on downcountry mountain bikes; they don’t all have longer reach numbers, nor steeper seat angles, nor super low BBs.
But the head angle on all downcountry 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 downcountry roost.
Spec sheets can be misleading
Some downcountry 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 downcountry experience. And expectation. Some downcountry bikes appear to be aimed at ex-XC lycra-heads looking for more fun and less sketch in their rides. Other downcountry 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 downcountry 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.