The Transition Smuggler is an XC rider's trail bike, it rips up the climbs and makes descending easy... but great value it aint.
Transition has a new version of the Smuggler out, a bike that really should have been called the Spur LT. Or perhaps the Spur Lunch Ride. Transition reckons it’s made a bike to sit neatly underneath the hard charging Sentinel enduro bike in its range, but really it’s much closer in ride feel and pace to the brilliant Spur, the best down-country mountain bike to date.
Transition Smuggler need to know
- 130mm trail bike, with an option to boost it to 140 via a shock spacer
- 140mm fork, 29er wheels and carbon and alloy frame options
- Internal routing, headtube cable entry, chainstay protector, proportional chainstays
- New aggressive geometry, and increased progression through the shock
- Alloy build is £4,499 with SRAM NX, up to £8,999 for XO SRAM AXS
Perhaps it’s not such a stretch from the Smuggler’s roots then, a bike that really launched the downcountry revolution for us. When I first tried it back in 2014 it was a game changer for me, with short 115mm suspension AND slack geometry, a combination that had never been tried before. “I love that bike Muldoon,” I remember telling bike test taoiseach Muldoon. It was a glimpse into the future, before the Smuggler quietly dropped out of the range. The world wasn’t ready.
Later the wonderful Transition Spur appeared and repeated the experiment, only better. Transition kept the travel short (120mm travel but we measured it at 116mm, just like the old Smuggler), the geometry relaxed even further, and we saw a lightweight chassis and flex stay suspension that wouldn’t have felt out of place on an XC race bike.
The latest version of the Smuggler is like a beefed up Spur then, it gets 130mm travel and a bigger 140mm fork with 34mm stanchions so it can handle the descents with more aplomb. But the frame looks remarkably similar. You can also step up the travel on the Smuggler to 140mm and further differentiate it. There’s a 5mm reducer built into the Fox Float X shock to adjust the stroke length, keep the eye-to-eye length the same and thus keep the bike’s geometry unchanged.
Smuggler frame and suspension
The SRAM GX AXS-equipped bike I tested uses a carbon fibre frame, but there are alloy options that add around 1,500g to the weight and lop plenty off the price. The Smuggler still uses the same four-bar GiddyUp suspension design it always has, and there’s still a Horst-link pivot on the chainstay meaning it hasn’t nabbed the flex stay design from the Spur.
I’m actually quite surprised about that, given how well the Spur’s suspension worked, and how reliable flexstay suspension as a whole now is. Just look at Merida’s One-Sixty enduro bike if you want proof of that.
There’s internal cable routing, which slides in right at the front on the head tube, and it snakes its way through the bike via tube-in-tube routing. Unfortunately it doesn’t work very well, at least on my demo bike, which produced a deafening rattle. I do love the little cable guides running from the stem though, which grab the cables and keep them separated from each other and frame and prevent any rub.
I’m also sad not to see any kind of internal frame storage, which surely is a must-have now on a bike costing this much money. Afterall, Canyon and YT have just added it to the latest Lux Trail and Jeffsy respectively, while the bigger brands have offered shelter for your sandwiches for years now.
On the plus side there are now drop-in headset bearings that are way easier to service, and there’s a gear mount under the top tube to make up for the lack of internal storage too.
Most importantly though, the bike uses two different chainstays, to keep the fore and aft balance more consistent across all five sizes (and two colours, orchid or espresso). The small and medium frames get 435mm long chainstay, while the large XL and XXL get the 440mm option. It’s not quite proportional chainstays, but it’ll deliver much of the same balance with far less costs, although we’d be hard pushed to see that represented in the bike’s price.
The GX AXS model represents a really smart way to spend your money, if you’re on the lookout for a Gucci build. It uses SRAM’s GX AXS drivetrain, giving you wireless electronic shifting without the need for pricey XO, and the Fox Performance Elite suspension build is everything you want and nothing you don’t want.
I love the feel of the Performance Elite Float 34 up front, it shares its guts with the Factory-level fork meaning you get the GRIP2 damper and a fluid, easy going support with great control. Best of all, it’s imperceptible when it moves through its travel without any harsh transitions, something that’s really important on a bike with a modest amount of travel. It’s well matched to the Float X shock too, which lends itself to a bike with plenty of progression like the Smuggler.
On paper the rest of the build is smart and in keeping with the bike’s purpose, there are Maxxis Assegai and Dissector tyres with the latest EXO+ casing, and a Race Face Aeffect R wheelset with alloy rims. The SRAM Code brakes are good but need 200mm rotors front and rear rather than the dinky 180mm at the back. That change wouldn’t add much weight but it would deliver a whole load more stopping power. Meanwhile the Transition own brand ANVL bar and stem is spot on, the ODI grips comfy and OneUp dropper post with 210mm drop performed effortlessly.
Geometry and sizing
There’s no geometry adjustment on the Smuggler, which is a rarity on a high end bike in 2023, where the latest Specialized Stumpjumper EVO sports six different geometry settings and mullet or full 29er wheelsize options. Perhaps Transition has decided its target audience just doesn’t care about such things, provided the geometry is done right – a 2019 Pinkbike poll seemed to suggest this.
The important point about that last sentence is that it’s done right though, and here Transition certainly gets an upvote. The bike is decently aggressive on paper, with a 64.6° head angle and reasonably low 336mm bottom bracket height. Compare that to the 130mm travel Santa Cruz 5010, which we measured at 64.3º on the head angle and 333mm on the BB, and you’ll see where I’m coming from.
There are five sizes to pick from, and they offer a huge spread of reach measurements, from a dinky 430mm in small to 535mm in XXL. Perhaps that’s why I found myself between sizes, the Large too small at 485mm, while the XL would probably have been a gate, at 510mm.
The Smuggler range
This bike is intended to be run carbon, it makes sense for the low weight ride feel, and the clean lines the Smuggler’s frame generates. As such there’s just one alloy build with SRAM NX drivetrain, Fox Float X Performance shock and Marzocchi Z2 fork that costs £4,499.
Then you’re into the carbon, you can buy the Smuggler frame only with a Fox Float X shock shock for £3,799, while the entry-level bike uses a SRAM GX mechanical drivetrain, Fox Performance-level suspension through a Float 34 fork and Float X shock, and costs £6,499.
The GX AXS bike reviewed here comes next, and the range tops out with a SRAM XO AXS drivetrain build that uses Fox Factory suspension, yours for £8,999.
How it rides
It’s not often I say this about a bike, but the Smuggler is really fun on the climbs. I think that says just as much about me as it does the bike, because I’m not interested in beating friends, Strava or e-bikes to the top of any hill.
What makes it so fun climbing is the bike’s precision, it’s nimble on technical climbs and that gives you a chance to wheelie over roots or deftly swerve round them. I found myself picking crappy lines deliberately, something I do usually on an e-bike but never dream of when it’s my own energy I’m wasting.
It’s like this because the suspension stays very active going uphill, something that pays off if you want to maintain traction and keep the rear wheel planted when the mud wants you to spin out. It’s an easy bike to manual and wheelie too, while the front end is light and the wheels feel eager to surge forward when you pick out a line. The effect is to make you feel like an XC racer on their day off, out for a fun ride between training blocks. There are definitely times when a firmer platform is called for, but it’s a simple case of flicking the lockout lever on the shock, and then you’re good for a fireroad schleck.
Press on the pedals going downhill and the Smuggler’s taught chassis picks up speed well, helped by the quick pickup on the freehub. It’s not quite the instant acceleration of the Spur, but then it’s never going to be, with around 4kg extra heft and more active suspension. The payoff is the Smuggler manages to deal with chunky terrain well, the progressive suspension and stable geometry mean it’ll handle far nastier lines than you think possible. Only on a few sections of trail did high speeds and chunkier rocks and roots get too much for the bike, and I came close to being ejected on a couple of occasions when the Smuggler just ran out of travel.
Taking on too much is probably the Smuggler’s achilles heel then. Or more accurately, mine. Attack a section of singletrack and you can flick it onto the edges of the Assegai with precision. There’s no hint of flex, it’s taught and totally economical with your speed. Take things a little further though, down something steep, very fast or rough and you can easily land yourself at the limits of suspension travel or the geometry. You tend to run out of travel on the Smuggler, and the lightweight nature of the bike takes away some of the planted feel of a gravity bike.
A couple of things stand in the way of greatness for the Smuggler. First it’s not as competent a downcountry bike as the Spur, nor as accomplished a descender as the Sentinel. Transition says it’s more versatile because it does a bit of both quite well, but for me it falls between the cracks and I’d probably rather ride the whippet. It’s also noisy thanks to the cables rattling, and it needs a better chainstay protector too. And at nearly £8,000 it’s a ton of cash for a bike without some of the modern staples like internal frame storage or geometry adjustments.
Earlier I compared the Smuggler to the Santa Cruz 5010, a bike I tested earlier this year. The two share pretty similar geometry figures, the same travel, both have carbon frames and come from desirable US brands. The obvious question then, which would I buy?
The 5010 is probably the better descender, it has more composure to it and the tyres are grippier. But the Smuggler climbs better and would carry you further on a ride. The latter is more expensive though, you can get a 5010 for the same money with better-specced components, and that makes the choice much easier.
The Smuggler is great as a trail bike. It’s one of the fastest and best climbers outside the XC category, while descending it’s sharp and accurate with good geometry. The frame looks incredible, and the parts list is packed with great performing items. It’s missing both geo adjust and internal frame storage though, which is a problem for me as I’d like to drop the BB a little and find a home for my car keys. And the price is sky high.