The £1,200 price point is where full-suspension bikes outperform rival hardtails – and here’s your guide to the pick of the pack
Full-suspension bikes are amazing. The complex mix of pivots, links, damping and springs all work seamlessly to make mountain biking more comfortable, improve grip, reduce fatigue and give you the confidence to pick lines or hit jumps that you might otherwise avoid.
Purists will argue that you don’t need a full-suspension bike to have a good time on the trail and we wholeheartedly agree. But the thing is, modern life, let alone mountain biking, is so far removed from necessity that why not benefit from all of the advances in technology? After all, you probably don’t hand-wash your kit after a ride, light a fire to heat your home or hunt down some food for your plate.
“technology trickle-down and mass production mean that the latest full-suspension bikes needn’t cost the earth”
And, just like the white goods that fill most modern households, technology trickle-down and mass production mean that the latest full-suspension bikes needn’t cost the earth. To put that statement to the test we’ve got four full-sussers around the £1,200 mark.
The Giant Trance 27.5 4 and Vitus Escarpe 275 VR both sport 140mm of travel, while the Canyon Nerve AL 6.0 and Cube Sting 120 have slightly less – 120mm front and rear. The Cube is the only bike on test with 29in wheels; the others all have the new 650b (27.5in) wheel size that’s rapidly replacing traditional 26in wheels.
Plenty of brands make suspension bikes that cost less than £1,200, but in our experience they tend to be too heavy and lack the sophisticated damping that’s necessary to make the suspension work effectively. So, if the bikes in this test are beyond your budget, avoid the cheaper suspension alternatives and invest in a decent hardtail with a good suspension fork instead. Just don’t forget to check out our Hardtail of the Year test (June 2014 issue) for the most comprehensive guide to buying a mountain bike for under a grand.
Canyon's latest Nerve Al proves that there's much more to the brand than just value-for-money
It won't win any beauty contests, but the Cube Sting proved to be a capable performer
Despite a thorough revamp for Giant's popular Trance, there's still room for improvement
Another cracking bargain from direct-sales brand, Vitus
Once again we’ve been blown away by the standard of the bikes in our entry-level full-sus test. The prices may be low, but the overall level of performance here is simply off the scale.
In fact, when you consider what we’ve put these bikes through in the past month, and that they cost less than your average suspension frameset, they are simply incredible.
The individual reviews are critical because our test procedure is designed to highlight shortcomings, but we also appreciate that compromises must be struck to bring these bikes in at this ultra-competitive price point. The final ratings balance performance against what’s reasonable to expect in the entry-level sector.
Some of those compromises damaged the ride quality of the bikes more than others, though. The shock on the Giant, for example, really upset the balance of an otherwise great package.
On a separate note, we’d also like to see companies equipping bikes with the best possible technology rather than focusing on the highest perceived level of specification. Rear mechs are a case in point. The chain retention of clutch-style mechs, be they Shimano’s Shadow Plus or SRAM’s Type 2, have been one of the single biggest breakthroughs in recent years, yet only Vitus was smart enough to fit one. Don’t be fooled by the XT logo on the Cube and Canyon mechs — it’s the “Plus” part that’s actually important.
There have been universal highs and lows in this test too. All of the Shimano disc brakes have been superb. Good power combined with great modulation and zero problems put them in a league of their own. Also, because all of the bikes have air sprung suspension, you need nothing more than a shock pump to match the ride height of the suspension to your weight.
The tyres fitted to all the bikes were dreadful, though. Not only did they lack grip, all felt sketchy on roots and were darn right dicey in the wet. They all puncture easily too. So the sooner you change them the better, as you won’t be wasting money fixing punctures or replacing inner tubes. You’ll also spend a lot less time picking yourself up off the trail and out of bushes.
“For general trail riding though, the Canyon Nerve AL 6.0 is impossible to beat”
So which bike should you buy? With the Giant out of the picture due to the dodgy rear shock, that just leaves the Canyon, Cube and Vitus to choose from. The Cube isn’t particularly pretty, but it’s a ripper. But, given the extra leverage exerted on the frame and fork by the bigger 29in wheels, it really needs bolt-thru dropouts front and back. Wider rims, and a stronger rear wheel wouldn’t go amiss either. In contrast, the Vitus is a really stout package. The only drawback is that due to its weight it’s a bit of a lump on less challenging trails. Still, if you’re happy plugging away on the climbs to bomb the descents then it’s a really good option — once you change the tyres.
For general trail riding though, the Canyon Nerve AL 6.0 is impossible to beat. It’s over 2kg lighter than the Vitus and it sprints brilliantly thanks to its stiff frame and well-balanced suspension. The size range on the 650b version here is limited with the L being the biggest option available — but that’s why Canyon also makes a 29er version in XL.
Get your size spot on
Getting the right size bike is always a tricky proposition, not least because the sizes — S, M, L or 16, 18, 20in — usually refer to the seat tube length so they don’t give you much to go on. Given that the seatpost has a massive range of adjustment, a better measurement to look at when comparing bike sizing is reach, which denotes the actual cockpit length. It’s much more accurate than top tube measurement as it eliminates any variation created by different seat tube angles, and it’s the measurement we use when selecting the test bikes. Still don’t know where to start? A general rule with sizing is: riders below 5ft 4in should be on a Small, 5ft 5in to 5ft 9in Medium, 5ft 10in to 6ft 1in Large and 6ft 2in and above on XL.