Best Trail Mountain Bikes

The six 2017 trail test bikes.
To tackle the enormous question — which trail mountain bike is the very best? — we bought six of the world's top performers and raged them through the most exacting MTB review process ever created. For seven weeks we stress-tested them to their limits on every type of terrain a trail bike is expected to handle, expanding on our 2016 Enduro Bike Review process. Six pro bike testers pedaled hundreds of miles through rough Sierra ranges and rolling backyard berms, and then pushed to the lactic acid brink to bust out 230 laps on three separate time trial courses. Read on to find which bikes rose to the occasion.

Read the full review below >

Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
, Curtis Smith, Joshua Hutchens, Paul Tindal, Sean Cronin, Cat Keenan, Otto Trebotich

Last Updated:
Tuesday
January 31, 2017

Best Aggressive Trail Bike


Yeti SB5.5


Yeti SB5.5 Editors' Choice Award

Price:   $7,099 at Competitive Cyclist


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Fastest trail bike overall
Rolls over everything
Aggressive all-mountain performance
Quiver-of-one appropriate
Slower on smoother climbs
Not the most playful
Winning its second Editors' Choice Award in as many reviews, the über-versatile Yeti SB5.5 keeps convincing us that it's worthy to be our one and only ride. Its 2016 SB5.5c iteration won our Best All-Mountain Enduro Bike award and the 2017 version didn't disappoint, dominating the downhill with nimble stability and unstoppable speed. The SB5.5 is all rollout, ramping up quickly and building momentum like a train. It doesn't get dusted on the climbs either, rolling over everything in its way to second place on the technical uphill time trails and pleasantly pedaling into fourth place on our smooth tract. Though the Yeti launches off the lip, its sharp handling and unshakable confidence are never exactly playful, but who needs silly when you've got speed?

Best Trail Bike


Ibis Ripley LS


Ibis Ripley LS Editors' Choice Award

Price:   $6,599 at Competitive Cyclist


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Super fun and playful
Fast on the descents
Sharp handling
Best cornerer in the test
Slower on the uphill
Pedal strike city on technical climbs
As that slightly-too-bright tang orange will tell you, the Ibis Ripley LS is a horse of a different color. Aside from its velocity building big-wheels, this 29er handles more like a 27.5" ride, whipping around corners faster than any other bike in the test. Mixing a lively trail feel with solid descending performance makes the Ripley LS a hyper-playful bike that's got your back. You'll be hunting down every side-hit in site and then start making up your own. A lowrider bottom bracket keeps the standover height and center of gravity low, but forces tons of pedal strikes on the technical uphills. It's bad enough that we really avoid the rock garden climbs on this one. Between that and those sticky, wide rimmed tires the Ibis rolls a little slower uphill. It's a comfy journey though, and so very worth the ride back down.


The Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie  Santa Cruz Bronson  Ibis Ripley LS  Yeti SB5.5  Pivot Mach 429 Trail  and Intense Recluse are among the best trail bikes in the world. We raced them through the most rigorous MTB testing process ever created to find out which are the best of the best.
The Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie, Santa Cruz Bronson, Ibis Ripley LS, Yeti SB5.5, Pivot Mach 429 Trail, and Intense Recluse are among the best trail bikes in the world. We raced them through the most rigorous MTB testing process ever created to find out which are the best of the best.

Analysis and Test Results


The first question we asked after hitting "live" on our 2016 Enduro Mountain Bike Review… So what's the best trail bike? To find out we bought and brutalized the top six 2017 trail bikes — the Ibis Ripley LS, Yeti SB5.5, Pivot Mach 429 Trail, Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Pro Carbon 6Fattie, Santa Cruz Bronson, and Intense Recluse.

The Eagle — SRAM's X01 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain came on five of our six test bikes, only Intense took a different route. While the Eagle's shifting was remarkably crisp and functionality near flawless, we broke three chains during seven weeks of testing. When we compare this to the zero chains we broke during two months of enduro testing, we get a little worried. Find out more in the Build section below.

How We Test


After our stoked testers bombed across mountain sides in a spastic burst of excitement to break the bikes in, the six elite riders settled in to spend a month and a half meticulously examining the bikes' abilities to climb, descend, corner and show us a darn good time (i.e. fun factor). We also analyzed their build quality. After weighting the scores for each of these metrics according to their relative importance, we arrived at each bike's ranking.

Taking in the shifting evergreen views and sun warmed pine scent isn't an option when you're sending. Our lead tester takes benchmarking seriously.
Taking in the shifting evergreen views and sun warmed pine scent isn't an option when you're sending. Our lead tester takes benchmarking seriously.

Benchmark Testing


Our most unique testing measurement is speed. To get it, we run the bikes through benchmarking time trails, essentially racing the bikes against one another along a given section of trail. We ran 230 timed laps on three courses — a technical downhill, a technical climb and a smoother singletrack climb — to get four solid times for each rider on each course.

    Downhill Trail — The Scorpion is an unforgiving course linking big rollover drops, chunder gardens and a gargantuan granite slab with fast, smooth singletrack and narrow squeezes. While each tester takes the same line every time, he or she can choose whether to roll over or launch the drops according to their comfort level with the bikes' suspension setup and geometry.

    Technical Uphill Trail — The Soul Grinder is a techtastic climbing test to compare the bikes' uphill navigational skills through square step switchbacks.

    Smooth Uphill Trail — The Crank is a smooth, winding singletrack incorporating a few sandy switchbacsk and one short and steep rock slab.

We had four testers on the downhill track, three on the technical uphill and two on the smooth uphill. That gave us 16 downhill, 12 rocky uphill and 8 smooth uphill times to average, resulting in the benchmark speed testing results. Read more about our process in How We Tested.

While we love everything MTB  flying down a mountainside might be our favorite part.
While we love everything MTB, flying down a mountainside might be our favorite part.

Overall Speed


Our Editors' Choice winner for Best Aggressive Trail Bike, the Yeti SB5.5 wins the race. If all of our test courses lasted exactly one minute, the SB5.5 would come in 8.5 seconds per minute ahead of the last place Intense Recluse, but only 0.1 seconds/minute ahead of the second place Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Pro Carbon 6Fattie. The 6Fattie crushed it on our technical climb The Soul Grinder, but its performance on the smooth climb (The Crank) wasn't outstanding and we wouldn't grab it for a climbing day. The 6Fattie's downhill times didn't shine either. So we consider the third place Pivot Mach 429 Trail to be the other racey bike in the test. A nearly cross country worthy ride, the Mach 429 Trail flew up the climbs, but slowed down on the descent. Its short suspension performed well but the Maxxis Highroller II and Ardent tires mounted on 25mm rims weren't prepared for the hard hitting downhill trail, The Scorpion.

If each of our test trails lasted exactly one minute  the Yeti SB5.5 would win the race  gaining 2.6  2.1 and 3.8 seconds over the Intense Recluse for every minute ridden.
If each of our test trails lasted exactly one minute, the Yeti SB5.5 would win the race, gaining 2.6, 2.1 and 3.8 seconds over the Intense Recluse for every minute ridden.

The Yeti came in 1.2 seconds per minute ahead of our other Editors' Choice Winner for Best Trail Bike, the Ibis Ripley LS. These two bikes are nearly on opposite ends of the speed spectrum. What do our winners the Ibis and the Yeti have in common? They are well-rounded rides that outperformed the rest on the downhill Scorpion trail. Both are pleasant climbing bikes that never feel like an undue burden — though the Yeti's fun front end slows it down in the smooth climbs and the Ibis's low bottom bracket pedal strikes it out of the technical climbing contest — and, once at the top, they crush the downhill in speed and smiles. #Winning.

The Yeti SB5.5 keeps turning up in the lead.
The Yeti SB5.5 keeps turning up in the lead.

Downhill Performance


Meant for all day riding on tracks ranging from glorified deer trails to hard hitting descents, trail bikes are built light to crush mountain climbs and fly along smooth singletrack, but still need enough travel and stiffness to smooth over the occasional rock garden of death on the way back down. To balance each bikes' relative skills, we weighted their downhill and climbing performance scores equally at 25%. While hucking your meat down roller coaster trails without tracks is really, really fun — we'll get into that in Fun Factor. Here we focus on the bikes' relative descending skills.

The Ibis Ripley LS busted out and away from the braaap pack as an early favorite, blowing our testers away with its playful yet confidence inspiring downhill handling and fast AF feeling. It's a rocketship and makes us grin like kids sitting in a cardboard cutout of one. It came in a solid second for downhill-ability with a score 8 out of 10, bested only by the 2017 Yeti SB5.5, an updated version of our 2016 Best Enduro Bike Review Editors' Choice. We expected this bike to slay and it didn't disappoint, casually winning speed and earning the highest downhill score of a 9 for its indomitable stability.

The Specialized was a surprize hit on the descent, with many of our testers embarrassed to admit what a ridiculously good time they had riding it to a third place tie in the downhill scores. (The bursts of manic giggling kind of gave it away.) It matched up with what we often describe as the average descending skills of the Santa Cruz Bronson at a 7. Turns out, "average" performance for a $6,599 trail bike is pretty freaking great. It's a solid performer.

Given our utter adulation of the 2016 Santa Cruz Nomad's descending chops in our last review, we were curious whether the Bronson's pedaling advantage would make up for the wide gap in their descending skills. Two of the three testers who rode in both reviews would go Nomad every time. They're some of our most aggressive riders. The other tends to put in more miles and breaks for the Bronson.

With 116mm of rear suspension and narrow tires meant for mellower trails, the Pivot couldn't hand us the smooth ride on technical terrain that some of the bigger travel bikes offered. While it requires more input to hold the line on rocky rides, it has game on smoother trails. Overall it's a very capable descender, rating a 6. With way more travel, the Intense didn't flinch much, but we wanted too. Its suspension was the harshest in the test, with a fork that took hits we felt right on the chin, knocking it back to a 5.

Speed


A purebreed speed beast, the Yeti SB5.5 busted out of our downhill test track, The Scorpion ahead of the pack yet again, but this time with a narrower margin. In our 2016 Enduro Review the second place Santa Cruz Bronson fell an average of 2.5 seconds behind the 2016 Yeti. This round the Ibis Ripley LS narrowed that gap to just over a second. Those 29" wheels are hard to catch.

This chart shows how many seconds  on average  each bike finished our benchmarking test track  The Scorpion  ahead of the slowest bike in the downhill benchmarking tests. The course took an average of 3:41 min:sec.
This chart shows how many seconds, on average, each bike finished our benchmarking test track, The Scorpion, ahead of the slowest bike in the downhill benchmarking tests. The course took an average of 3:41 min:sec.

Our downhill test course, The Scorpion took an average of 3:41min:sec to complete. The SB5.5 and Ripley LS finished it the fastest. Their descending speed put the Yeti an average of 9.4 seconds and the Ibis 8.5 seconds ahead of the last place Recluse. The next tier was led by the Stumpjumper 6Fattie with a 6.5 second advantage, followed up by the Bronson, which led the Recluse by 5.4 seconds.

While the Ibis and Pivot are the snappiest accelerators in the test, all three 29ers hold speed like champs. Their downhill performance advantages fall into a hierarchy of suspension systems and tire choices. The Yeti's 140mm Switch Infinity suspension, 160mm Fox 36 Factory fork and 2.5" Maxxis Minion DHF make it hard to argue with on descents. The modestly equipped Ibis, with 130mm in the fork and 120mm of travel, took the big hits harder but had awesome small bump compliance and super tacky 2.35"/2.25" Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires. We felt comfortable opening 'er up. Dropping down a notch, the 130mm fork and 116mm of travel on the Pivot flew in the straightaways but required more meticulous line choices in the rock gardens and a slowdown to take the turns (those tires again) lowering confidence levels and slowing speeds. The super cushy Specialized rolls over anything in its way but required pedal pumping to keep up speed in the connecting straightaways. The Bronson's smooth suspension ate up the trail while its 27.5" tires tried to keep up.

The Yeti SB5.5  Ibis Ripley LS and Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie all make you feel like your bike's got your back.
The Yeti SB5.5, Ibis Ripley LS and Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie all make you feel like your bike's got your back.

Confidence


Both the Yeti SB5.5 and the Ibis Ripley LS instill quiet, trail commanding confidence, but in different ways. The Yeti is point and shoot. If your line is vaguely plausible for your skill set, its insane rollover will do most of the work for you. The shorter travel Ibis requires more forethought to find a reasonable thoroughfare but is a capable, controllable descender with a Cheshire Cat grin. You never lose that sporty feel, which is fun, but can knock the confidence factor down a notch. It doesn't excuse you from addressing the trail honestly - e.g. when hitting bigger features like rock rollovers, you'll need to get further off the back. Both bikes reward bold riders. The Yeti hands speed junkies an ever smoother ride and the Ibis gets snappier and more commanding with every uptick in RPMs.

Then there's the next level confidence granted by the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie. Throw your leg over and start shredding. According to one tester, "you're riding, and you're, smiling and you're feeling like you can do no wrong." Spending mental energy picking a line on this bike is a waste of calories, which is good because you'll burn plenty pedaling it around. Pack one more Gu and just go. The tires will take you anywhere, or at least that's what they'll tell you.

The Santa Cruz Bronson is solid. The Intense isn't. Its surprisingly stiff Fox performance fork and rear shock kept our guard up. The wide saddle made it hard for three of our downhill testers to get off the back of the size large Pivot Mach 429 Trail in time for the trickier downhill sections, but that's a quick fix. It's a capable descender. It deflects more through the rock gardens than the big-hit bikes but only twitched up on steep corners. A burlier set of tires could help there.

You've got to muscle the Stumpjumper 6Fattie to convince it that your line is worth taking.
You've got to muscle the Stumpjumper 6Fattie to convince it that your line is worth taking.

Handling


The faster the Yeti and Ibis go, the better their handling gets. But the Ibis has a different riding style, more butterfly float and bee sting than the Yeti's straight knockout. There's satisfaction in both. The Ibis get's the job done with sharp steering and killer long, low and fairly slack geometry, while its 120mm of suspension and boosted 130mm Fox Float fork let the trail do some talking. In contrast, the Yeti's front end has an all business attitude, enforced by a boosted 160mm Fox 36 Factory fork and 2.5" Maxxis Minion DHF front tire. Neither of these bikes excel at slow speed handling. While the Ibis Ripley LS handles less like a traditional 29er, it still takes some time to move those big wheels around without momentum.

It's hard to tell which bike is harder to ruffle, the Yeti SB5.5 or the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie. Both make every trail feel dirt road wide. You can go anywhere, take any line. But while the Yeti's direct steering feels all-day energizing, muscling the Fattie's plus-size tires pumped our forearms. It was only a true challenge for our smaller riders (140lbs) on the technical descents. The Pivot Mach 429 Trail also closely aligns with the Ripley LS. Both are precise as surgeons but while the Ibis's light suspension translated to a playful, trail feel, the Mach 429 Trail's reaction to taking a technical downhill stretch at speed was to twitch up.

The Santa Cruz Bronson and Intense Recluse both look like bigger hit bikes on paper and should be able to handle aggressive descents with style. The Bronson does so with sharp handling, great tracking and the best suspension overall, but it required more aggressive handling than the SB5.5 or Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie at high speeds. The, Recluse, not so much. Its stiff suspension had us on guard, and its precise steering was undermined by a poorly tracking rear end.

The Intense Recluse is good in the jump lines but can feel front heavy on natural terrain drops.
The Intense Recluse is good in the jump lines but can feel front heavy on natural terrain drops.

Suspension and Traction


The Yeti SB5.5 wins suspension. This bike is a linebacker to your play calling quarterback. It's not overly plush but keeps the tires on the ground and they hold up their end of the traction bargain. Understandably, the Yeti's burly 160mm Fox 36 Factory fork, 2.5" Maxxis Minion DHF front tire, and 140mm of rear travel smoothed out the ride far more than the Ibis's 130mm Fox Float 34 up front and its 120mm rear suspension operated by a Fox Factory Float DPS.

That rear shock was the Ibis's biggest gravity liability, requiring much higher air pressures than we expected, which began to impact small bump compliance. While the bike excelled at smoothing out small chatter, it took big hits pretty hard. We expected that, but we didn't expect to bottom out quite so consistently, and sometimes harshly. It was underwhelming to say the least. We'd love to try that bike out with a rockshox Monarch Debonair and a Pike Fork with 10mm more travel. (A side benefit would be reducing the number of pedal strikes the low bottom bracket enforced on the climbs. More on that later). After testing we added a large volume spacer the rear shock's performance improved.

Three inch tires dominated the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie's suspension sensation, feeling ridiculously smooth but a bit bouncy. The boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RC Solo Air 29/27.5+ fork is a great one and the more-or-less unadjustable Custom Öhlins STX rear shock works fine for the descents, though it's hard to tell, because, tires. The Santa Cruz also runs a boosted 150mm RockShox Pike, but it's a RCT3 Solo Air. The two vie for the best fork in the test. When combined with the RockShox Monarch Plus RC3 to offer an incredibly (bordering on overly) smooth ride. In contrast, the boosted 150mm Fox Performance Float 36 and the later recalled Fox Performance Float X2 that we rode for downhill testing on the Intense Reclusecombined to create the worst suspension system in the test.

We went googley eyed and goofy grinned for the the boosted forks of the 2016 Yeti SB5.5c and the Ibis Mojo HD3 in our Enduro Review. In 2017 every single one of these bikes is boosted, and we're ruined. Yet another evolutionary upgrade we're already taking for granted. It's worth noting that the Intense Recluse had a boosted fork and rear axle spacing but its wheels and axles were not. Compatibility was created with spacers. Its suspension did not impress.

Despite having only 4mm less travel than the Ibis, the Pivot couldn't hang with the top bikes on the rough downhills. Its rear suspension actually performed better than the Ibis's. Running a Fox Factory Float DPS rear shock without an EVOL sleeve, it never bottomed out. The problem was its poor early stroke sensitivity and tendency to get bounced around in the chatter. When the trail matched up with the Pivot's tires, the bike rips. We'd love to ride this with wider rims and more aggressive tread.

The Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Bronson are both bosses on the climbs  the Yeti smashing technical climbs and the Santa Cruz busting up the smooth ones.
The Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Bronson are both bosses on the climbs, the Yeti smashing technical climbs and the Santa Cruz busting up the smooth ones.

Climbing Performance


There are bikes that climb well enough to let you zone out on smooth uphill singletrack — take in the sun-glinting glory of those mountains you're climbing, banter with your battle buddies or just meditate on the state of compassion in the world. Then there are bikes that make you oh so aware of every. grinding. pedal. stroke. The Pivot is the first, the Intense the second.

The Pivot was our favorite overall climber. Winning with a 9 of 10, it spun up smooth singletrack so well we almost accused ourselves of mechanical doping. It didn't win our technical uphill test course, The Soul Grinder, but it didn't lag far behind, hanging in there with the rock-busting Yeti. Both were a big step behind the Stumpjumper, a surprise uphill rock crawling phenom. The rest fall somewhere in between, allowing for moments of mental respite before the lactic acid buildup brings you back to your body's fight with gravity.

The Santa Cruz feels slightly less zippy than the Pivot and Ibis when you're cranking away, but its combination automatic uphill steering and efficiency (not to mention its win on the pedally uphill course, The Crank) earn it a spot between the Pivot and Ibis/Yeti. It gets second place in suffering with an 8.

The Ibis is just a hair behind the Pivot in pure pedal-ability, but it doesn't climb as well due to a pedal striking problem on the rockier trails. It comes in for third in climbing with a 7. The Yeti is a great pedaler and holds momentum better than any bike in the test, but, compared to the bantamweight trail bikes, its burlier fork and 2.5" front tire exact a toll on the uphill. It feels like a lot of bike to drive uphill. This handicap ties it with the Ibis for third.

Then there's the Stumpjumper. In technical terrain, where inattention on flighty rides can end in injury, the forgiving tires of the Specialized and the unflinching suspension of the Yeti gain favor. These bikes finished first and second on our rocky climbing time trial The Soul Grinder. But while the Yeti combined that strong showing with a reasonable result on the far more mellow Crank to tie for a third place finish in the climbing rankings at a 7, the Specialized's poor showing on the smooth uphill slog, when combined with our reticience to ride it uphill in general earned it only a 5 of 10 in climbing.

The Pivot Mach 429 Trail wins the uphill race.
The Pivot Mach 429 Trail wins the uphill race.

Speed


Climbing performance for each bike varied between our two timed courses, with the burlier steeds with bigger wheels or bigger tires (the Specialized and Yeti) leading the rocky climb and the best-all-around Bronson and best climbing Mach 429 leading the way on the mellow rolling climb, The Crank.

Technical Uphill Benchmarking Performance on The Soul Grinder - The freakishly good technical climbing skills of the Stumpjumper 6 Fattie rolled to a first place finish, 11 seconds ahead of the Recluse on average. Those tires take out the technical aspects of the trail, making it easier to pilot through, which is the same reason the SB5.5 came in a distant second place, 2.1 seconds behind the Stumpjumper. The Mach 429 kept up with excellent acceleration and nimble steering in the stairs, just 0.1 seconds behind the Yeti. The Bronson suffered from slower acceleration and somewhat vague handling over the stairs where the Ripley LS took a hit because it's too-low bottom bracket forced so many.

The Stumpjumper 6Fattie was the fastest bike on technical climbing course  The Soul Grinder**  which took an average of 2:07 seconds per minute.
The Stumpjumper 6Fattie was the fastest bike on technical climbing course, The Soul Grinder**, which took an average of 2:07 seconds per minute.

Smooth Uphill Benchmarking Performance on the Crank - The balanced Bronson is the surprise winner of the smooth climb, The Crank, at 10.9 seconds ahead of the Recluse. The Santa Cruz can't match the acceleration or roll out of the Ibis or Pivot but seems to set riders up perfectly for a sit and spin sprint. Hot on its heals, the Mach 429 Trail comes in just 0.3 seconds behind. No surprise here, the Pivot is fast to accelerate and loves holding speed. The Ibis and Yeti are both pleasant enough to climb up a smooth tract, but both seem to suffer in uphill performance for their downhill preference. The Ripley's wide seated Schwalbes likely slow it down as does the SB5.5's Maxxis Minion 2.5" up front and that descent loving boosted 160mm Fox 36 Factory fork. Speaking of suffering for tires, the Specialized falls way back to fifth place when there's not a rock in site.

The Bronson and Mach 429 Trail took top honors on the non-techy climb  The Crank. This was a 3:24 minutes:seconds spin on average.
The Bronson and Mach 429 Trail took top honors on the non-techy climb, The Crank. This was a 3:24 minutes:seconds spin on average.

When you translate those scores into seconds gained per minute ridden, you can see how balanced the bikes' technical and smooth climbing abilities are. The Mach 429 Trail, Bronson and Ripley LS balance these somewhat conflicting climbing skills most effectively, finishing the two courses within 0.5 seconds per minute of one another. The Mach 429 Trail and Ripley LS doing slightly better on the rocky course and the Bronson favoring the smoother trail. This surprised us too.

When combining the uphill course results in seconds per minute the Pivot Mach 429 Trail wins the day.
When combining the uphill course results in seconds per minute the Pivot Mach 429 Trail wins the day.

Of course, being balanced doesn't equal being fast. The Mach 429 Trail leads the way in overall uphill speed but is followed by the very unbalanced Stumpjumper 6Fattie, who's result in the rough stuff gives it a big leg up in the overall speed scores.

Pedaling


The Pivot Mach 429 Trail and Ibis Ripley LS have the fastest acceleration and most pleasant pedaling feel in the test. They also hold speed extremely well, but the Pivot edges the Ibis out here, enjoying the extra rotations its lightweight 2.3" Maxxis High Roller II tires afford while the Ibis's Schwalbe Nobby Nics dig in to cause more drag. The pedal strikes on the Ripley LS also verge on laughable. The Santa Cruz Bronson is the third fastest accelerator, but its 27.5" wheels don't have the ramp up and speed holding abilities of the 29ers. As with all other things Bronson, its drivetrain performed perfectly adequately and demanded little fanfare.

The Yeti's slow start has us doubting our devotion to it for about 2.5 pedal strokes, then the momentum kicks in and so does our undying love. Once moving the pedaling feels efficient and the ramp-up endless. In contrast, the Specialized starts out feeling okay, but those fat tires are fighting you the whole way. The Intense pedaling is its score killing weak point. It gaslights us out on the trail: "I swear I'm pedalling harder but the bike isn't going any faster. Am I going crazy?!"

It's not as sharp as the Ibis Ripley LS or Pivot Mach 429 Trail or as steady as the Yeti SB5.5 but the Santa Cruz Bronson will get you where you need to go.
It's not as sharp as the Ibis Ripley LS or Pivot Mach 429 Trail or as steady as the Yeti SB5.5 but the Santa Cruz Bronson will get you where you need to go.

Handling


The snappy handling of the Pivot Mach 429 Trail and Ibis Ripley LS works your arms, while the slightly slower steering roll-over-everything-anyway skills of the Yeti SB5.5 and Specialized tends to work your legs. The balanced Santa Cruz Bronson divides the work between the two, making climbing quite comfortable. The Intense Recluse is just work all the way around.

The Pivot has the most automatic steering in the test. That means we love pedaling it up the smooth uphills but get a little tired of having to use every ounce of precision to put it right on the line through technical climbs. It repays your efforts though, getting you to the top with plenty of energy to spare.

Given our ecstatic experience descending on the Ibis, we expected the bigger contact patch under the wider rims to smooth out the uphills as well. They didn't on our square staircase climb. Also easy to control, the Ibis complains if we don't get it right on line. The impacts are a bit softer than the Pivot's but the front wheel can flop over when wheelied up over a step or even deflect when hitting a rock with anything other than a direct line.

The Ibis's smaller, 27.5 feel is partially due to its relatively low standover height (we measured 797mm at seven inches in front of the bottom bracket). The trade-off is a low bottom bracket (measured at 321mm). It should be the Ripley LLS — long, low and slack. We didn't notice much on the smooth climbs but it set us up for a multitude of pedal strikes on the technical climbs.

The Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie has light handling but feels more like a 29er than the three bikes we actually ran with big wheels in the test. Its response time is very much like your favorite stoner friend. A little sluggish and giggling like crazy. Its tires just grab on and transmodulate around rocks in the way — tracking like a tank up the hill. It's not flawless though, it drains your tank and if you miss your tire placement you can get a kickback, or bounce back as it were. We also don't like that the Öhlins rear shock doesn't offer a firm pedal platform feel. As we noted in our last test, none of the compression dampening knobs on the shock seem to do anything. You're pumping energy into the tires and rear shock. Somehow it still works, and maybe we'll get used to this someday, but we aren't there yet.

You've got options on the Bronson, you can pick it up and over everything in your way or pick up speed and bust the suspension through. Its balanced uphill manners shine through on our smooth uphill test but weren't gritty enough to tackle our technical uphill climb. The Recluse has precise handling but not the rear wheel tracking or suspension follow through to keep it on track.

The Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie erases the rocks on the climb.
The Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie erases the rocks on the climb.

Suspension and Traction


For the burly climbs, the Yeti's suspension works with its 29er wheels to create an athletic petaling platform. It transfers plenty of power to the tires while remaining active enough to do the rough, rock cushioning work. Its 2.5" Maxxis Minion DHF front tire works with the stout fork to smooth out any sharp transitions while the narrower Maxxis Aggressor trailing behind holds traction, but not too much. That boosted 160mm Fox 36 Factory fork strikes the right balance between firm lockout and responsiveness. On smoother climbs the tires and extra weight from the suspension bullies the pedal power into submission. Slowing down the speed train.

The Pivot is the opposite with its solid lockout, fast tires and excellent pedaling efficiency swinging light and free on the smoother uphills but getting knocked about in the rougher stuff. Similarly, the Ibis suspension locks out nicely for the smoother climbs but it bucks around on the rough ones.

The Bronson's suspension is near perfection, in or out of the saddle, you can just crank. Expect solid pedaling efficiency paired with subtle response to rocks. The Recluse is the opposite.

The cushiest ride in the test is undoubtedly offered by the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie's tires, but the rear shock's lack of lock out is frustrating. Between that and the dampener-free tires nothing about this bike felt efficient on the climb. Miraculously, it still is. Fairly. If you're climbing it often though — expect some very swoll calves.

Four of Five trail dogs agree - the Yeti lays it down in the berms.
Four of Five trail dogs agree - the Yeti lays it down in the berms.

Cornering


That low bottom bracket helps the Ibis Ripley LS dive in and out of turns and the Schwalbe Nobby Nics rail the whole way around, no brakes needed. It's pretty awesome, without a hint of the typical 29er gyroscopic complaint. Thus, the Ripley LS takes top cornering honors in the test, we rank it at an 8 of 10. Tying in second place are the Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Bronson with a score of 7. Both have a long bike feel that requires aggressive handling to corner but neither ever threaten to twitch up or betray your trust by sliding out.

The Intense Recluse rates a 6 of 10s. The mechanics of the turn are similar to that of the Bronson but its slightly more agile handling gets it around the tight corners quickly. It loses speed in the berms though, drifting down the face, and bucks in the rough stuff.

Tying for last place at a 5 of 10 are the Stumpjumper 6Fattie and Mach 429 Trail. The 6Fattie's vague feel didn't work for our pro testers. While the traction is endless if you're weighting both tires equally. But it's not impossible to get the tires to slide, and when they do there's no warning, their lack of edges mean you can never be sure where you are on the tire. The bike rewrites the rules of turns, dumbing down a precise skill. This can be fun for beginners or intermediate riders but took away a lot of what our riders love about biking.

The Mach 429 mostly suffers from a tall-bike feel and tire choice. This bike just wants to stand up tall and hold a straight line, so laying it over to the side knobs and railing it around is a struggle. Those cornering knobs don't give you enough confidence to toss it down too hard.

The Stumpjumper 6Fattie's landing is so cushy you might not even notice it.
The Stumpjumper 6Fattie's landing is so cushy you might not even notice it.

Fun Factor


The first rule of bike testing is: you do not talk about bike testing. We keep our opinions about the bikes to ourselves until the bitter end, but it was hard to keep our poker faces on this one. The lead tester wasn't exactly keeping his opinions to himself while gleefully cackling down the trail astride the Specialized. The joyful Stumpjumper 6Fattie tied the Ibis Ripley LS at a 9 of 10 for first place in fun.

The two bikes really shine in different situations. The 6Fattie is fun because you can plow through anything with impunity, even on the technical uphill it had us grinning with incredulity. The Ripley LS, however, lets you feel every feature on the trail, taking off just enough edge to keep you confident and smiling. Both are playful but the Stumpjumper frolics more at slow speeds while the Ripley LS ramps up a higher speed. That means the fun factor decreases for the 6Fattie on smooth trails and the Ripley LS gets a little too rollicking on the most technical trails.

The Yeti combines the plow-ability of the 6Fattie with the more precise skills of the Ripley LS. It just doesn't have quite the sense of humor these two bikes have. It comes in third at a 8 for pure confidence inspired full-speed smashing and increased odds that you'll reach the top or bottom of the trail ahead of your pals. The Bronson came in fourth with a 7 of 10. It's fun everywhere but, compared to the bikes above, it has a dry sense of humor. You don't get the joke till you're back at the bar with a beer. You get a slow burning, quiet joy from this one. We're not knocking that feeling.

The Pivot's goal is performance, which it nearly overachieves, be we're hardpressed to call it a fun bike. We gave it a 6 of 10. The Recluse would be fun if it was the only bike of the bunch you rode, but in comparison it just doesn't give you the grins. We gave it a 5.

The 800mm bars feel a little wide for the Bronson's cockpit but handed over solid handling.
The 800mm bars feel a little wide for the Bronson's cockpit but handed over solid handling.

Build


We're looking at a wide range of bikes here, built with varying intent, which is why we covered the wide range of terrain types they were meant for during testing. One component with an outsized impact in our test is tires. They have a huge effect on confidence and speed and are one of the easier components to trade out. Now that the range of wheel sizes and rims and tire widths are increasing, and mixing and matching to create an endless array of options, it's difficult to know which ones work the best where. So we stick with the manufacturers' decision about what combination best compliments the frame they built and the component spec they put together.

Thus we chose the 29er version of the Mach 429 and the plus sized Stumpjumper 6Fattie based on Pivot's online explanation that it build a 29er bike that is "27.5+ capable" and a call to Specialized to see which version of the Stumpjumper its staff prefers. They recommended the versatility of the 29/27.5+ 6Fattie. Shifting between the Mach 429 and the Stumpjumper 6Fattie is pretty, shall we say, extreme. We're planning to switch out wheel sets and try out their alternate iterations when weather permits.

The Fox Factory Float DPS EVOL on the Ibis Ripley LS is sporty.
The Fox Factory Float DPS EVOL on the Ibis Ripley LS is sporty.

The Santa Cruz Bronson has the best build in the test with our favorite fork and shock — a boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RCT3 Solo Air and RockShox Monarch Plus RC3 — working nicely in the context of the VPP suspension. We ranked it at a 9 of 10. The Maxxis Minion DHF and DHR2 tires are great but they feel a little dated in their 2.3" iteration. We're into wider sets these days. The WTB Silverado saddle is as uncomfortable as they come, but the 800mm carbon handlebar is great, if flirting with the too-wide line. The RockShox Reverb Stealth dropper is one of the best in the test, but several testers have had problems with them wearing out over time. We also appreciate the adjustable nature of the SRAM Guide RSC brake levers combined with the power of 180mm centerline rotors.

Coming in second with a score of 8 on the build metric, the Yeti SB5.5 is no slouch in the build department. We took it down a notch from the Bronson for its SRAM Guide RS brakes. We like that "C" adjustability. The Maxxis Minion DHF/Aggressor tire combo took the Editors' Choice Awards in The Best Mountain Bike Tires Review. We can see why. Love 'em. We're also fond of the DT Swiss W/XM418 wheelset and the 800mm Cane Creek 40 carbon handlebar, the wider bars fitting the Yeti's big-bike handling. The Race Face Turbine earned one devotee and a lot of meh. It works just fine, with a super fast / sometimes scary return. That 160mm boosted Fox 36 Factory fork and Fox Float X Factory rear shock don't joke around, they just get the job done.

The SRAM shifter and Shimano brake lever vie for space on the bars.
The SRAM shifter and Shimano brake lever vie for space on the bars.

The only bike to dive into Shimano territory, the Pivot Mach 429 Trail has a strong build, but we only loved the brakes. So we ranked it a 7 of 10. Requiring far less finger strength than all the SRAM Guides we were running, those Shimano Deore XT's were hard to hop on and off, but they work flawlessly. Having them mounted on a separate bracket than the SRAM shifter does make them hard to place however. The saddle's wide wings got in our way when we headed off the back. Annoying, but an easy fix if you experience the same issue.

The 130mm Fox Float 34 fork works fine but a bit more travel would raise bottom bracket up a bit. We'd like to ride it with a stiffer Fox Float 36 or a Pike.
The 130mm Fox Float 34 fork works fine but a bit more travel would raise bottom bracket up a bit. We'd like to ride it with a stiffer Fox Float 36 or a Pike.

The Ibis Ripley LS rates a 6 for a less uninspiring fork and shock combo. The boosted 130mm Fox Float 34 fork is fine, but we think we'd prefer the Pike or the stiffer Fox Float 36. That Fox Factory Float DPS EVOL bottomed out harshly on the downhills out of the box. We added a large volume spacer after testing, letting us run lower pressures, which improves small bump compliance and kept us from topping out the shock. The Lo-Fi 760mm bars that we tested are uncomfortably low for the climbs, but we like the Hi-Fi ones that we switched to. The saddle is uncomfortable but not horrible.

We gave the Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie a 5 of 10 for a uninspiring boosted 150mm RockShox Pike RC fork (for the price point a RCT3 would be better) and our lack of Öhlins love. All we want is a little pedal platform here. We were also bummed at the value on the SRAM Guide RS brakes and the aluminum cranks and handlebars. The tires dampened any vibrations that might have made it to the bars but this is a $6,500 bike. The Command Post IRcc seatpost works, but we've got no love for it. Pretty stoked on that SWAT though.

SWAT - your answer to the spare tube carrying conundrum  also great for snack attacks.
SWAT - your answer to the spare tube carrying conundrum, also great for snack attacks.

A Note About Brakes — In the evolution of mountain bikes, the power of disk brakes have definitely outpaced the tire traction it takes to enforce their stopping abilities. But, with plus-size induced traction, tires are catching up.

Those flashy golden rings are spacers bridging the gap between the 110mm boosted fork and the 100mm hub.
Those flashy golden rings are spacers bridging the gap between the 110mm boosted fork and the 100mm hub.

Taking a big build hit for its later recalled Fox Performance Float X2 rear shock and our dislike of the Cane Creek DB Air CS replacement they offered — the Intense Recluse got a score of 4. It also had and boost spacing but non-boosted axles. The aluminum 760 mm Renthal Fatbar handlebars also exacerbated the hard hitting suspension, led by a lower tier 150mm boosted Fox Performance Float 36 fork, which doesn't offer low speed compression damping adjustments.

The 150mm boosted Fox Performance Float 36 fork on the Intense offered only high speed compression damping.
The 150mm boosted Fox Performance Float 36 fork on the Intense offered only high speed compression damping.

Hubs — The DT Swiss 350 hubs on the Bronson, SB5.5, Mach 429 Trail and Ripley LS are the gold standard for cost to performance ratio. We didn't appreciate the hubs on the Roval Traverse 650 and the Mavic XA Elite Ultimate wheelsets on theStumpjumper 6Fattie and Recluse, respectively. Both are a little slow to engage, slowing acceleration.

Insert eagle sound here.
Insert eagle sound here.

The Eagle Has Landed


The SRAM X01 Eagle 12-speed drivetrain showed up on five of our six test bikes, with only the Intense Recluse going with the 11-speed E13. While we rarely need that 50t cog in the back, it was nice to have when taking on the odd half-day long and stupid steep climb. We were more impressed with the crisp and stealthy shifting. None of the Eagle drivetrains has a trace of the clunky feel that SRAM's drivetrains can sometimes translate.

The Chain Though — The problem is that we are nervous about loading extreme gears due to the extreme angles the chain was forced to while taking on heavy loads. Early on in testing our lead tester kept saying it: "I don't trust the chain," "I'm nervous about the chain," "there's just so much cross loading." His instincts weren't off. Three different riders broke three different chains on three different bikes during seven weeks of testing. We didn't break one chain during two months enduro mountain biking. We don't take this lightly.

That Vigo saddle is nice and comfy for most of our testers but isn't the easiest to get behind.
That Vigo saddle is nice and comfy for most of our testers but isn't the easiest to get behind.

Cockpit and Fit


Generally, our 5'7 to almost 5'10" testers fit within the manufacturers' height suggestions for a medium frame and all prefer medium frames from most brands. The fit worked perfectly for all six testers on the SB5.5, Bronson and, more or less, the Recluse, which set us up a little too far forward. The Stumpjumper 6Fattie also has a very comfortable cockpit for all, but the two smallest (5'7" and 140lbs) have to work much harder to handle it, affecting their ride experience. They might have benefited from sizing down. On the other end of the spectrum is the Ibis Ripley. Ibis frames run small, as you may surmise from the fact that they cut their medium size recommendations at 5'9". We have three testers that are 5'9.something" - two of them think the Ibis is borderline cramped. It never gets uncomfortable and we don't believe it affects performance. We've also tried out large Ibis frames and found them a bit tall and long for our testers. So we stuck with the medium Ripley LS.

Here are the manufacturer's sizing recommendations:
  • Yeti SB5.5 — M (5'7" — 5'11"), L (5'11" — 6'3"), XL (6'1" — 6'6")
  • Ibis Ripley LS — M (5'4" — 5'9"), L (5'9" — 6'2"), XL (6' — 6'6")
  • Santa Cruz Bronson — S (5'0" — 5'5"), M (5'5" — 5'10"), L (5'10" — 6'1"), XL (6'1" — 6'6")
  • Pivot Mach 429 Trail — S (5'4 — 5'8"), M (5'7" — 5'10"), L (5'10" — 6'2"), XL (6'2"+)
  • Intense Recluse — S (5'0" — 5'5"), M (5'5" — 5'10), L (5'10 — 6'1"), XL (5'9" — 6'6")
  • Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie — None Available

Sizing - All of these bikes is a size medium except for the Pivot Mach 429 Trail. We discussed the sizing with Pivot CEO Chris Cocalis who felt our testers are more aggressive riders and should size up. We took trial runs on both the medium and large frames and decided the large would be a better fit. While we liked it for climbing, it didn't descend aggressively and we had a harder time dropping behind the saddle than on the other bikes. Find out more in the Pivot Mach 429 Trail review.

The Stumpjumper 6Fattie belongs anywhere your riding could use a little more confidence.
The Stumpjumper 6Fattie belongs anywhere your riding could use a little more confidence.

Applications


While the testers agree on their favorites, this was a really great batch of bikes - save for the surprisingly problematic Intense. As a result, if any of the top five bikes' particular strengths match your preferences, we say go for it.

Yeti SB5.5 — This bike is perfect for mountain or desert MTB destinations. Vying with the Bronson for the most versatile bike in the test, the Yeti is a one-and-done, go everywhere, do anything and love every minute of it ride — and it does downhill much better than the Bronson. The Yeti is perfect for long days in the saddle, linking as many epic descents as you can.

Ibis Ripley LS — The Ripley LS is meant to play its way down a hill and will respond at any speed you're comfortable going. But the bike eschews technical uphills. As such, it doesn't belong in a mecca for rocky climbs. If you stick to the less gnarly climbs, you'll have a blast bringing it back down all but the most challenging downhill.

Santa Cruz Bronson — The Santa Cruz can do it all, but induces a smaller grin on the descents than the Yeti or Ibis. It lacks the confidence of the big wheel bikes but is incredibly capable, a great choice for a rider that tackles a diversity of terrain at just shy of break neck speed.

Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie — The Stumpjumper 6Fattie is a great training wheel bike to push skills to the next level, whether those are beginner turns or expert level downhills. It's also a great mood elevator, making its riders laugh with a strange mix of joy and incredulity. It's novel, a fun training bike and allows you to ride outside of your normal comfort zone but efficient it's not. None of our testers would want it for their only ride.

Pivot Mach 429 — The Mach 429 is great for pretty much any kind of climb. It's solid on descents but it doesn't defy its suspension size. Steer it into the rough and you're quickly reminded that 116mm of travel and 25mm rims have their limitations. A burlier wheel/tire setup could expand its range.

Intense Recluse — The Intense Recluse is a pretty sweet collection of parts, they don't however come together with any type of synergy. Its lackluster suspension and the buzzy front end make this our sixth choice bike on most rides. Fun on the descents this bike is a pig to pedal. It's good as long as you don't try any of these other bikes.

The 2017 Test Trail Bikes.
The 2017 Test Trail Bikes.

Conclusion


The superior all-mountain skills of the Yeti SB5.5 are undeniable, and none of the bikes could match the lively downhill and lithe cornering the Ibis Ripley LS achieved. Our motley crew of very different riders agreed, these two are the best bikes of the bunch. But the Santa Cruz Bronson, Pivot Mach 429 and Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie aren't blown out of the water. These are all exceptional bikes we'd be happy to have around. The Bronson does everything well but is out-descended by all of these bikes aside from the Recluse and Mach 429 Trail, which is by far the best climber of the test. Meanwhile the 6Fattie's silly descending skills and forgiving nature (worthy of a saint) are great for pushing your comfort level. The Intense Recluse can't keep up, its poor pedaling performance and harsh suspension detracting from what would be a fun ride.

Two of our testers packing up after a long day of testing.
Two of our testers packing up after a long day of testing.

The Testers


Six testers, one woman and five men rode these trail bikes ragged, attending to how they pedaled, climbed, cornered and descended. We kept track of how hard we had to work to keep the bike at speed and our bodies balanced, comparing and contrasting every aspect of every bike. Then we raced them.

Racers, mechanics, life long riders — these testers are dedicated to the craft of mountain biking and are passionate about the form and function of their bikes. Three love downhill enduro-style racing, two are true-blue trail bikers and one edges into the cross-country zone. Corroborating opinions between such diverse riders gives us a high degree of confidence in points where our thoughts converge.

Paul Tindal, Lead Tester


Put Paul Tindal on a bike and he's happy. As a youngster, Paul rose through the Australian junior and senior rankings as a triathlon and road bike racer. He moved on to mountain bikes when he came to South Lake Tahoe shortly thereafter and started racing in the National Off Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) series. He kept road biking on the side. Paul started racing in the pro category of the California Enduro Series several years ago and now races in the open class. An aggressive rider Paul averages 100 miles of riding a week on his Specialized Crave 29er rigid, S-works Crux or S-works Enduro.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame

Sean Cronin, Collaborating Tester


A BMX racer at age six, Sean Cronin was riding mountain bikes by high school. What's more fun before classes start than a little sunrise training? He keeps those antics up these days by taking the long way round to work, 35-miles of mountain biking. Sean rides between two to seven times a week, varying quick out-and-backs with 60-mile loops to link every world-class downhill in striking range. A longtime devotee to his hardtail 29er, Sean is now on a 2015 Santa Cruz Nomad C.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame

Joshua Hutchens, Collaborating Tester


Joshua found his two wheeled ticket to freedom early in life. From the bmx track to the bike shop, he's had most every position you could imagine in the bike industry. Bikes have taken him around the world as a guide, to the podium as a racer and to the beach as a dad. Now living in South Lake Tahoe with his wife Hillary and daughter Penny, Joshua can usually be found on the trails around his home. He typically throws his leg over a Santa Cruz Bronson, a Retrotec 29'r, or a Metrofiets cargo bike.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 165lbs, prefers large frame

Cat Keenan, Collaborating Tester


An enduro racer Cat Keenan likes a good techy, lung crunching climb, but she's in it for the downhill. She's willing to pull a little more bike up the hill to feel more confident in the rock gardens that she likes best at high speed. Cat is passionate about pushing her skills and is willing to invest in getting the bike that can help her achieve this goal. Cat rides around 13 hours each week on her Giant Reign Advanced.

Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame

Curtis Smith, Collaborating Tester


A southern California shop kid, "Cardio" Curtis Smith had no hope of escaping a bike life. A winner of the Sierra Cup Series and podium finisher of the National XC MTB, Curtis also won the Sacramento Cyclocross Series in the Pro Open class. He races road Cat 2. Now living in South Lake Tahoe with his wife and daughter, Curtis rips up the steep and challenging local singletrack. A second nickname could be "Strava". He's got an impressive list of KOMs, putting in 10 to 30 hours a week on his Santa Cruz Bronson, Trek Emonda SLR or Boone 9. He just bought the 2017 Ibis Ripley LS from this test.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame

Otto Trebotich, Collaborating Tester


Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame
Clark Tate, Curtis Smith, Joshua Hutchens, Paul Tindal, Sean Cronin, Cat Keenan, Otto Trebotich
Unbiased.