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.
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 4-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.
10 hottest downcountry mountain bikes
Cannondale Scalpel SE
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.
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 deserve muchos kudos for being right at the front of the whole rad short travel bike phenom. This is still one of the very besyt examples of the experienced enduro racer’s downcountry rig.
Guerilla Gravity Trail Pistol
Something of a cult brand even in their native USA, you won’t see many Guerilla Gravity bikes on UK trails. Made in American carbon fibre is GG’s USP and the price tags aren’t as sky high as you might fear. The Trail Pistol is their downcountry offering. 120mm of suspension paired to some striking geometry (65.9° head angle, 78.1° seat angle, 493mm reach on a Large) and a well thought out spec list.
Kona Hei Hei
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.
NS Synonym TR2
Another relatively obscure brand who aren’t afraid to think outside the box and do things a bit differently. Despite a couple of curveball spec choices (long 60mm stem, narrow 760mm handlebars, skimpy tyres) the essential numbers of the NS Synonym are impressively downcountry: 120mm front and rear, 66° head angle, 491mm reach on a Large.
Orange Stage Evo
The old Orange Four is no more it seems. In it splace is a scaled down version of their trail slaying Stage models. Once again the fork travel (130mm) may step over the downcountry lines but seeing as the rear travel we actually only measured as 116mm, we’re calling it quits. Despite clearly being part of 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 a day on one, we’re big fans of this bike.
Santa Cruz Tallboy
Despite their desirability level forever being premium, Santa Cruz are often ever so slightly behind the cutting edge a lot of the time. Not so with the Santa Cruz Tallboy. In fact, the very first version of 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
Now then, this is where downcountry gets really interesting. Much like their pioneering Enduro 29, the Epic Evo appears to be arguably the first truly, properly executed example of where downcountry is going to go. Why do we say this? Because it seems to straddle the widest remit of any downcountry bike thu sfar. You could do a World Cup XC race on it and you could sling it down whatever radness your Sunday sessions take you.
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’.
Honestly, you wait years for downcountry bikes to arrive and then two arrive on the same day. Although we have our reservations about the Yeti SB115 and its downcountry claims, we’ve got to include it in this list because it is bound to be hugely popular. Not only is it one of the best looking Yeits of the modern era, it also will have big appeal to dare-we-say slightly older riders coming in from the XC/marathon end of the spectrum who want to get a little bit radder on their loops.
Bonus ball. Yep, this is the 11th downcountry bike we’re listing in our top 10. More rules being broken. Sorry! 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 T-120. So here it is. 65.6° head angle, 120mm travel at both ends, 480mm reach on a Large, big dropper post, capable kit. It’s got all the downcountry boxes well and truly ticked.
What else will 2021 bring? You can be sure there’ll be a whole load more downcountry mountain bikes appearing in the autumn, that’s for sure.