Best Wallet-Friendly Short-Travel Mountain Bikes of 2017

Mountain biking is an expensive sport. To help you get bang for your buck, we bought five wallet-friendly mountain bikes and hammered them up and down trails for six weeks. While $8,000 bikes outfitted with top of the line components are certainly interesting, these flashy bikes are simply unrealistic for the mountain bike masses. OutdoorGearLab has you covered. Our extensive testing process featured over 100 timed trials and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of good 'ol trail riding. These short-travel trail bikes feature 110-130mm of travel with middle-of-the road geometry that focuses on pedal efficiency. Love simplicity? We tested cost-effective and low maintenance hardtails as well. Both short-travel trail bikes and trail-ready hardtails can handle the bulk of your local trails and won't force you to pick up a second job. Continue reading to find out which approximately $2,500 short-travel mountain bike is right for you.

Read the full review below >

Test Results and Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 ≪ Previous | View All | Next ≫
Rank #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Giant Anthem 2
Giant Anthem 2 2017
Specialized Camber Comp 29
Specialized Camber Comp 29 2017
Trek Fuel EX 7 29
Trek Fuel EX 7 29 2017
Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1
Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1 2017
Awards  Editors' Choice Award         
Price $2,699.00 at Competitive Cyclist$2,575 List$2,600 List$2,600 List$2,600.00 at Competitive Cyclist
Overall Score 
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Pros High fun-factor, super playful, rides like a longer travel bikeSuper playful, great acceleration, responsive handlingExcellent climbing skills, versatile and easy-to ride, sharp handlingVersatile, dropper postGets more confident with speed and straight lines
Cons Weak build kitSome pedal strikes, long stem, narrow barLimited technical downhill abilities, lacks a dropper postUnder-treaded tires, tall feeling bikeSlower handling, not so good in the turns
Ratings by Category Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017 Giant Anthem 2 2017 Specialized Camber Comp 29 2017 Trek Fuel EX 7 29 2017 Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1 2017
Fun Factor - 35%
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Downhill - 25%
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Climbing - 25%
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Specs Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017 Giant Anthem 2 2017 Specialized Camber Comp 29 2017 Trek Fuel EX 7 29 2017 Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1 2017
Wheelsize 29" 27.5" 29" 29" 29"
Measured Weight (w/o pedals, Medium) 31 lbs 15 oz 28 lbs 2 oz 29 lbs 12 oz 31 lbs 12 oz 31 lbs 13 oz
Build D (SRAM NX 1x11) 2 (Shimano SLX 1x11) Comp (SRAM GX 2x10) 7 (Shimano SLX 2x10) 1-STAR (SRAM NX 1x11)

Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens, Kurt Gensheimer, Kate Blake, Clark Tate

Last Updated:
Wednesday
August 16, 2017

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August 2017 Update: For 2018, Giant has brought back the Anthem 29. The 27.5 version we tested is still available. The new, 90mm travel, wagon-wheeled bike features steeper geometry is aimed towards the cross-country race crowd. The other bikes are holding steady as is

Best Short-Travel Trail Bike


Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017


Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 Editors' Choice Award

$2,699.00
at Competitive Cyclist
See It

Super playful and likes to be airborne
Rides like a longer travel bike
Great in the corners
Excellent climber
No dropper post
Less than impressive build specifications
The all-new, third generation, Santa Cruz Tallboy is a playful and zippy short-travel bike. This bright yellow shredder has the geometry and attitude to get far more aggressive than its 110mm of travel suggests. Not only does this bike have a frolicsome and lively personality, this wagon wheeled speed machine, was the fastest climber in this test class. Even lovers of longer travel bikes can appreciate the downhill performance provided by this dialed chassis. The downside? The Tallboy D that we tested had some less than desirable components. Regardless, this is an excellent baseline bicycle to upgrade components on over time.

Read full review: Santa Cruz Tallboy D

Most Nimble Trail Bike


Giant Anthem 2 2017


Giant Anthem 2
$2,575 List
List Price
See It

Great in tight turns
Excellent acceleration
Best fork/rear shock/suspension combo
Dropper post
Long stem + narrow bars = less confidence
Narrower rims and tires aren't ideal
The Giant Anthem is a trail ninja with 27.5-inch wheels. This bike is the most sporty and quick-witted in our test and has the ability to change lines in a hurry. Riders who ride trails with a large number of tight corner or switchbacks will appreciate the easy steering aboard the Giant. The Anthem can't match the rolling speed or trail-smoothing abilities of the 29-inch test bikes. That said, there is something to be said for slicing and dicing your way down a trail with precision and ease.

Read full review: Giant Anthem 2

Best XC-Oriented Trail Bike


Specialized Camber Comp 29 2017


Specialized Camber Comp 29
$2,600 List
List Price
See It

Comfortable
Efficient
Versatile does everything well
No dropper post
Runs out of suspension quickly
Less aggressive, more XC ride
The Specialized Camber is an easy riding trail bike that leans towards the cross-country end of the spectrum. This bike has the steepest and most efficient geometry in this test and puts the rider in a great position to climb effectively with minimal effort. While pedal efficiency and handling are spectacular, the Camber shies away from gnarly or ultra technical terrain. This bike is our choice for long days in the saddle.
Read full review: Specialized Camber Comp 29

Our five wallet-friendly short-travel bikes after a six-week beatdown.
Our five wallet-friendly short-travel bikes after a six-week beatdown.

Best Trail Applications


Mountain bike technology has come so far in the past decade that it is hard to go wrong with a new ride. Still, each bike has a unique personality, skill set and set of applications where it really shines.

Santa Cruz Tallboy D — The Tallboy is an excellent baseline bike for someone who wants to attack more aggressive trail and who might be interested in upgrading components over time. The Tallboy is a nimble and exuberant 29er that encourages shenanigans. The most wide-ranging all-around trail bike in the test, the Tallboy provides an excellent balance of downhill speed and confidence and fast, sure-footed climbing ability.

Giant Anthem 2 — This bike is an open-minded rig that sports 27.5 inch wheels and a spritely personality. It's ability to change lines quickly and accelerate out of slow corners is impressive, making it a great choice for a shorter rider or someone who prefers smaller wheels for quickness and doesn't want to muscle a 29er. The Anthem's skillset shines in locations with tight trails with flat and sharp corners. Those looking for pure speed may find some of the wagon-wheeled options more suitable.

Four bikes with 29" wheels and one with 27.5" wheels. Each with its own unique personality and skill set.
Four bikes with 29" wheels and one with 27.5" wheels. Each with its own unique personality and skill set.

Specialized Camber Comp 29 — The Camber is a balanced bike that is fantastic for riders who are leaning towards a more cross-country, climbing-minded style with trail capabilities. It has superior climbing skills with an emphasis on efficiency and an easy riding personality. But it shies away from rowdy and more aggressive descents. This bike is a perfect option for folks who enjoy the ride of a hardtail and want the comfort and safety net of a full suspension bike without sacrificing much in the ways of pedaling.

Trek Fuel EX 7 — The Fuel EX is a fast-rolling bike with true 29er characteristics and a balanced personality. Riders who like to carry their well-earned momentum will like this energy efficient bike. A noble climber and fast-feeling descender, what the Fuel EX lacks in cornering ability, it makes up for with its speedy personality and impressive build kit. Riders who aren't looking to ride the super-gnar and who like a straight lining bike that prefers to keep the rubber on the ground will enjoy the Trek Fuel Ex.

Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX — The Niner Jet 9 is a stable, straight-lining trail-smasher. It lacks quick handling and cornering skills. Riders who spend long days in the saddle on trails with wider or more open characteristics will appreciate this bike. Folks who encounter a lot of tight turns may look towards the Santa Cruz Tallboy or Giant Anthem.

The Fuel Ex features the most suspension travel among our test bikes.
The Fuel Ex features the most suspension travel among our test bikes.

Analysis and Test Results


We've raced high-end enduro rides down mountains and up nasty switchbacks and put top-shelf full-suspension trail rides through the wringer. For this round, we threw down the credit card for five of the best 2017 short-travel trail bikes on the market in relatively affordable complete bike builds — the Santa Cruz Tallboy 29 D, Specialized Camber Comp 29, Trek Fuel Ex 7 29, Niner Jet 9 1-Star NX1, and Giant Anthem 2. Check out a summary of results in the table below. Keep reading to get the full rundown of how these trail shredders compare.

Wondering which type of mountain bike is right for you? A quick primer:
  • Enduro (aka all-mountain, aka long-travel trail) Bikes have around 150-170mm of travel, down to 140mm for 29ers, with aggressive geometry, i.e. slack head tube, long top tube, steep seat tube angle and short chainstays. For charging technical descents and climbing reasonably well.
  • Mid-Travel Trail Bikes have around 120-140mm travel and slightly less aggressive geometry. For balanced up and downhill performance.
  • Short-Travel Trail Bikes are a step above the barebones feel of a cross-country bike with 100-120mm of squish and a more relaxed cockpit than a pure XC ride. For climbing and downhill performance with a climbing bent.
  • Hardtail Trail Bikes have more relaxed geometry than XC hardtails and prioritize fun over speed. Aggressive front ends with around 120mm of travel encourage bolder descents than traditional hardtails but still climb well.
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Score Product Price Our Take
86
$2,599
Editors' Choice Award
An excellent all-around option for a rider who wants to attack a wide range of trail types.
79
$2,575
A nimble ride that's a blast to weave through tricky lines or whip around turns.
73
$2,600
An efficient and precise cross-country minded trail bike.
68
$2,600
A more traditional feeling 29er, the Fuel EX can take on a lot of trails, but it isn't the most fun or confident ride.
57
$2,600
A great bike for straight lining speed, the Jet 9's slow steering makes hard work out of tech and turns.

How We Test


Four of our professional bike testers rallied these bikes for six weeks and raced them in our benchmark time trial testing. Then, we ranked the bikes' on their relative fun factor (worth a whopping 35% of the final score), downhill performance (25%), uphill performance (25%) and build (15%). That's where the scores in the table above come from. Read on to find out about their relative speeds.

When OutdoorGearLab tests mountain bikes it is serious business.
When OutdoorGearLab tests mountain bikes it is serious business.

Benchmark Testing


Timing the bikes provides hard numbers to compare against testers' impressions of how each ride performs when pushed. Three benchmarking testers ran 124 laps to get four uphill and downhill times per bike at a rapid but repeatable pace. Our short travel test track was a contour sandwich with a big bite taken out of the right side. We divided it into a rolling warm up, a timed climb and a timed descent.

The climbing test yielded solid results. The downhill course did not. Each of our three testers had their fastest times on a different bike, with no obvious trend emerging. We don't think this is because the bikes descend at about the same speed. We think the issue was unpredictable spring weather, mostly wind. Due to its aspect, the uphill portion was less affected. Here's a description of the climb:

Climbing Section — The Bite is a stack of hairpin switchbacks, two of which are technical. The first has a short slab just after the turn and the second a craggy rock step up. There is a rocky stretch in the middle that is more rumbly than disruptive.

Find the timed climbing results in the Climbing Performance section. If you're dying to know all the nerdy details, read our How We Test article.

The most difficult part about riding the Tallboy is deciding between wheelies and manuals.
The most difficult part about riding the Tallboy is deciding between wheelies and manuals.

Fun Factor


With the advancements in bike technology these days, it is easy to get distracted by shiny new components and forget why we ride mountain bikes, because it's fun. OutdoorGearLab understands this and places great emphasis on the ever-important fun factor. We weighted this scoring metric at 35% of the final rating.

The Tallboy likes to party, and it will not be denied. Riding the Santa Cruz Tallboy is a hootin' and hollerin' good time. This bike has the ability to alter the opinion of the 29er naysayers whose criticisms get quieter every month. Fine-tuned geometry encourages playfulness on the trail in the form of boosts and manuals. Stumps and flat-faced rocks become springboards for this bike. This desire to frolic about doesn't come with performance limitations or tradeoffs. The Tallboy is an impressive descender and will comfortably attack aggressive trails that may seem to be above its pay grade. A bonus for those of us who don't live for the climb, the Tallboy climbs comfortably and painlessly. Less pain = more fun.

The Giant Anthem rolls in behind the Tallboy in the fun-loving category. While the Santa Cruz is a fast charger with playful characteristics, the Giant is slower but responsive and easy to flick and toss around. It is interesting that the 27.5 inch wheeled bike in our test is now referred the bike with "little wheels". This nimble and sprightly bike is sharp as a tack. The Anthem slices and dices its way down the trail with minimal rider input. This bike encourages line exploration while reserving the ability to bail out if necessary. Nimble and quick trail manners in a lightweight package is a recipe for smiles, and the Giant Anthem does not disappoint.


The Santa Cruz Tallboy scores a 9 out of 10 for its fun-loving attitude and speed while the Giant Anthem scores an 8 out of 10 for its quick-witted personality. The Specialized Camber rates a 7 out of 10 for its cross-country focused, yet well-rounded ride that offers respectable performance in every category. The Trek Fuel Ex posts a 6 out of 10 for offering predictable and planted downhill performance. The Niner Jet 9 scored a 5 out of 10 for its business-minded personality. While the Niner is a perfectly capable climber and descender, it is stuck to the ground and requires lots of body language and muscle to engage in play.

The surefooted Trek chasing the frisky and frolicsome Santa Cruz down the trail.
The surefooted Trek chasing the frisky and frolicsome Santa Cruz down the trail.

Downhill Performance


Trail bikes are interesting beasts. They are designed to be quick and comfortable climbers while maintaining the ability to provide an awesome downhill experience. Balancing these two traits is a tricky line to walk for bike manufacturers. Since most of the mountain bike world lives for the thrill of flying down singletrack, it is easy to place well-deserved focus on downhill performance. But we resisted, placing equal weight on climbing and descending at 25%.

Downhill Confidence


The Santa Cruz Tallboy emerged early on as the most confident descender in our test. Despite having a rigid seatpost, this bike provides next level performance. The Tallboy is not disturbed by high speeds and retains its composure, reassuring riders that all is well. This confidence is only reinforced by the presence of the soil-chomping Maxxis Minion DHF front tire. The Minion DHF enables riders to dip the bars and lean around obstacles without worrying about losing the front end. The Tallboy's geometry and suspension also have your back when diving into radical rock gardens or steeper chutes.

The Maxxis Minion DHF front tire inspires loads of confidence on the descent and in corners.
The Maxxis Minion DHF front tire inspires loads of confidence on the descent and in corners.

The Trek Fuel Ex and the Niner Jet 9 inspire downhill confidence in a slightly different way. The two bikes offer substantial straight line, downhill confidence. The Jet 9, with its stiff and burly RockShox Yari fork, feels very comfortable crushing rock gardens or chunkier sections of trail. It is not the least bit disturbed when the going gets rowdy. The Niner inspires confidence that a rider might be able to fracture a granite boulder with the proper momentum. The higher front end of the Niner and the measured 66.8-degree head angle, provides confidence that riders won't get ejected barring a poor line choice.

The Trek Fuel EX has a little more of a finesse personality but is most comfortable on straighter downhill trails. The 130mm of rear wheel travel is the most out of our test bikes. It inspires downhill confidence and provides a safety net, but isn't as smooth a ride as we'd like for that much squish. Neither the Niner nor the Trek offers much in the way of confidence when it comes to dipping into corners. The Jet 9 suffers from its straight line personality and bulky feel, while the Fuel Ex is limited by its high rider position and wimpy rubber.

The Specialized Camber is a well-rounded vessel with many cross-country attributes. The 68.5-degree head tube angle informs riders, in a loud manner, that charging downhill is not a priority. When the going gets steep, the Camber instructs riders to dial it back a hair. The Giant Anthem suffers from a poor, confidence-killing, rider position on the descent. An old-school pairing of a 70mm stem and 750mm handlebars are a particular liability when carrying speed, giving the rider a stretched out, unstable feel. The solution is relatively inexpensive and bolting some 780mm bars to a 40 or 50mm stem would do wonders for the confidence level aboard the Anthem.

One consistent theme throughout testing was how well-rounded and user-friendly the Camber is.
One consistent theme throughout testing was how well-rounded and user-friendly the Camber is.

Downhill Handling and Cornering


The Santa Cruz Tallboy possesses grin-inducing handling thanks to dialed in modern geometry. Downhill handling is often closely related to a bike's fun-factor and the Tallboy reinforces this. While the rigid seatpost does detract from the bike's handling skills, it didn't harsh our feelings substantially. The rear end of the Tallboy is stiff and can be swung around corners with ease. Corner anticipation and a clean entry is important as it is with all 29ers. Jack-knifing a corner can be extremely difficult to recover from and regaining momentum can require substantial effort. The 35mm bars provide stiff and crisp steering of the aforementioned Maxxis Minion DHF. The Minion DHF has an ultra-aggressive shoulder knob, which provides terrific corner bite. The Maxxis Crossmark rear tire is slidey and washy, but the burly front tire kept it in check during our test period. We suggest mounting a Maxxis Aggressor or High Roller to the rear wheel. If you frequently encounter wet conditions, a Maxxis Minion DHR II would be an excellent choice.

The Tallboy left every rider smiling ear to ear after the six-week test period.
The Tallboy left every rider smiling ear to ear after the six-week test period.

The Giant Anthem offers a sharp handling ride that requires less rider input than the big-wheeled test bikes. Changing lines or coming into corners sloppy is not a death sentence for your speed. Yes, 29ers are in right now. Yes, 29ers are more nimble than ever. However, 27.5" wheels still, and likely always will, possess superior cornering skills. The Giant Contact SL Switch dropper post allows riders to get low on the bike and have plenty of backside clearance when hopping over objects. The old-school cockpit on the Anthem is not very responsive and not conducive to blasting corners. Acceleration when exiting corners is quick and doesn't require a ton of energy. The Schwalbe Nobby Nic is our second most aggressive tire in the test and it allows for steering confidence and a respectable bite in the corner. The Schwalbe Racing Ralph rear tire is serviceable but we recommend a matching Nobby Nic for the rear.

The Specialized Camber, while possessing a cross-country mindset, features impressive handling skills. Testers find it to be light and flickable, feeling nothing like a 29er. The Camber responds well to rider input but turns that require a lot of leaning prove difficult without a dropper post. In addition, the combination of the Specialized Purgatory front tire and Ground Control rear doesn't inspire much in the way of corner confidence.

Proper body position  turn entry  and sheer effort are requirements aboard the Jet 9.
Proper body position, turn entry, and sheer effort are requirements aboard the Jet 9.

The trail-smashing Niner Jet 9 and momentum-hauling Trek Fuel EX possess more classic 29er handling skills when compared to the Tallboy and Camber. The Fuel Ex is equipped with a KS Lev Integra dropper post, which should open the door to improved handling, but the Bontrager XR3 tires do not like quick and aggressive movements. These tires dissuade riders from leaning into corners although their straight-line handling is respectable. The Jet 9 has slightly more confident rubber with Maxxis Ardent tires. Testers found the Jet 9 simply requires a perfect entry and too much effort to corner well. Straight-line handling skills are solid although it takes serious body language to get the front end up and over obstacles.


Outdoor Gear Lab testers rated the Santa Cruz Tallboy a 9 out of 10 for its confident, speedy and frolicsome downhill properties. The Giant Anthem rolls in as our second favorite bike for downhill performance with an 8 out of 10. The Anthem, while not as fast or confident inducing as the Tallboy, offers surgeon-like precision and snappy quickness. The Trek Fuel Ex is a predictable and speedy downhill performer, scoring a 7 out of 10. The Specialized Camber recorded a 7 out of 10 for its cross-country personality that doesn't lend itself to downhill supremacy. The monster trucking Niner Jet 9 posted a 6 out of 10 for its one-dimensional personality. Our timed downhill testing provided results that were too inconsistent for us to feel comfortable publishing the data. To find out more, read about How We Test.

The Tallboy makes climbing decisively less painful to allow for a more enjoyable charge down the mountain.
The Tallboy makes climbing decisively less painful to allow for a more enjoyable charge down the mountain.

Climbing Performance


Climbing is the less glorious and underappreciated sibling of downhill riding. While most would agree that grinding up a hill for miles is significantly less fun than bombing downhill, it is an equally important trait in a trail bike. While these bikes are all capable climbers, some bikes stand out as being a cut above. We weighted this metric at 25% of the final score.

Climbing Pedaling


The Santa Cruz Tallboy is an excellent climber, despite the fact that it weighed in as the heaviest bike in our test class at 31 pounds and 15 ounces. This bike's heft is completely masked by its superior climbing ability. The pedal platform is excellent and the semi-slick Maxxis Crossmark rear tire doesn't kill the performance on our dry trails, though it could be a crippling problem in wet conditions. The Tallboy has a comfortable rider position and enables riders to relax as much as possible.

The Camber is a pleasure to pedal uphill thanks to its efficiency  maneuverability  and gear range.
The Camber is a pleasure to pedal uphill thanks to its efficiency, maneuverability, and gear range.

The Specialized Camber is an excellent climber, with its cross-country oriented geometry really paying dividends. The steep 68.5 degree head angle and 76.5 degree seat tube angle puts riders right on top of the cranks. The 2x10 drivetrain, while a source of contention, does provide an ultra-relaxing 26x36 "granny gear". In addition, the Camber is the lightest 29 inch wheeled bike in this test, at 29 pounds and 12 ounces. This weight, or lack thereof, only contributes to its climbing efficiency. One tester explains that given the excellent climbing performance, the Camber could benefit from some knobbier, more aggressive, tires without sacrificing much in the way of performance.

The Trek Fuel EX has the same luxurious granny gear found on the Specialized Camber, but testers reported experiencing significant pedal feedback. This pedal feedback, or pedal bob, is a momentum suck that can be counteracted by using the "Medium" or "Firm" position of the rear shock. The Niner Jet 9 is a reasonably efficient climber but has a bulky feel. This hefty aluminum monster truck has a high front end and one of the slacker seat tubes in the test, measured at 66.8 degrees. Longer legged testers who extended the seatpost towards its max are placed in a position too far behind the bottom bracket and pedals. This creates some inefficient power transfer and overall poor uphill performance. The Giant Anthem simply does not carry momentum like its big-wheeled competition. The Anthem accelerates well thanks to its small wheels and light construction. It weighed 28 pounds 1 ounce. This bike also got sucked into holes and ruts in the trail that the 29ers simply rolled over. Testers reported significant amounts of pedal strikes aboard the Giant.

Riders are placed in a fantastic position to put the power down while climbing aboard the Camber.
Riders are placed in a fantastic position to put the power down while climbing aboard the Camber.

Climbing, Handling, and Cornering


Making your way up a long climb relies heavily on pedal efficiency, however, uphill handling and cornering can make or break your climb. Stalling out on a technical feature or switchback will cost you valuable momentum and energy.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy is efficient but also quite maneuverable. It's playful downhill manners translate to its uphill skills, and testers found this bike easy to navigate up and over obstacles and logs. The Tallboy does not require excessive body language or energy to successfully pilot through technical sections of trail. Despite having a decent-sized wheelbase (measured 1150mm), this bike ascends switchback turns with ease.

The Specialized Camber continually reinforces a rider-friendly theme. It's a solid all-around bike. The Camber has the shortest wheelbase amongst the 29ers (measured at 1138 mm), and effortlessly negotiates switchback turns. While a steep head angle may not be desirable in terms of downhill or high-speed performance, it is a valuable asset when climbing. A bike with a steep head angle offers sharp steering and provides a planted front wheel that doesn't lift up or wander on climbs.

While the Giant Anthem may not be the single fastest or easiest bike to pilot uphill, it offers undeniable benefits in terms of handling. Switchbacks require far less attention aboard the Anthem when compared to the 29 inch offerings, aside from the easy-handling Camber. The Trek Fuel Ex suffers from a "high-riding" feel. This leads to a top-heavy sensation when climbing slowly over technical features or tricky switchbacks. The Niner Jet 9 charges uphill in a straight line in a satisfactory manner, but it requires strength. Getting up and over obstacles requires momentum and a fair amount of muscle to properly place the front wheel. This difficulty is likely related to a heavy front form and high handlebars.

Santa Cruz' Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension offers a superb pedal platform whether standing or seated.
Santa Cruz' Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) suspension offers a superb pedal platform whether standing or seated.

Climbing Suspension


Our test class consists of five bikes with stellar climbing properties. Certain bikes are a cut above their competition when riding in the open shock position. The open position of a shock has the most trail damping properties and offers the plushest ride. Running a shock in the open position is a great way to test climbing ability as it isolates a bike's suspension design and properties from shock performance.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy is an impressive performer that reacts well to standing or seated climbing in the open shock setting. Testers say the bike doesn't ride too far down in its travel, minimizing pedal strikes. The Specialized Camber receives similar praise. Its rear shock has an Autosag feature, that takes the guesswork out of setting up suspension sag and, ultimately, attaining efficient climbing. Just pump the shock to 300psi, sit on the bike and release the all the air from the Autosag valve and you're good to go.

The Santa Cruz has short chainstays and a slack head tube angle which lead to this bikes frolicsome personality.
The Santa Cruz has short chainstays and a slack head tube angle which lead to this bikes frolicsome personality.

The Trek Fuel Ex relies on its medium or firm shock settings more than the other bikes. Testers experience pedal bob on this bike when climbing in the seated or standing position. This sensation of having your energy sucked into a bouncing shock is disheartening. We recommend climbing this bike in the medium position as it balances efficiency with trail-smoothing properties. The firm position creates a decisively harsh ride over roots or rocks. The Niner possesses a rather forgettable pedal platform, which is actually a compliment. Two testers reported the Jet 9 to be a harsh and jarring climber even with the shock in the open position.

Testes experience more pedal strikes aboard the Giant Anthem than they do on the other test bikes. While the bottom bracket is low at 325mm, it isn't egregiously so. We think the issue is the suspension design itself. The Anthem's suspension is fairly linear, which is the opposite of a progressive suspension design. With a linear design, the suspension reacts in a relatively consistent manner all the way through the stroke rather than ramping up for larger hits like a progressive design. As a result, bumps in the trail cause the Anthem to dive deeper into its travel, lowering the bottom bracket, cranks and pedals closer to the ground and into rocks or stumps.


Outdoor Gear Lab found the Santa Cruz Tallboy to be the best climber in our test scoring a 9 out of 10 for its comfort and efficiency. The Specialized Camber posted a 8 out of 10 for its ultra climbing-friendly geometry and easy handling skills. The Trek Fuel EX scored a 7 out of 10 for its pedal bob and its sluggish, top-heavy handling characteristics. The Giant Anthem tied the Fuel EX and scored a 7 out of 10. What bonus points the Giant gains from its handling characteristics and maneuverability, it loses in its lack of rollover and a high number of pedal strikes. The Niner Jet 9 scores a 6 out of 10 for its bulky handling skills and the strength it requires.

Climbing Speed


Results from the benchmarking time trial tests are in the chart below. It shows each bikes' gains over the slowest climber on our three-minute test course, the Trek Fuel Ex. For example, the Tallboy is three seconds faster than the Trek on average. The larger the orange zone, the faster the bike climbed.

This chart shows the climbing test results as how many seconds each bike had on the slowest bike on the course  the Trek Fuel EX. The Santa Cruz Tallboy was a standout  finishing three seconds faster than the Fuel EX on average and nearly two seconds faster than the second place Giant Anthem.
This chart shows the climbing test results as how many seconds each bike had on the slowest bike on the course, the Trek Fuel EX. The Santa Cruz Tallboy was a standout, finishing three seconds faster than the Fuel EX on average and nearly two seconds faster than the second place Giant Anthem.

We're not surprised that the Santa Cruz Tallboy crushed the climb given its excellent roll over skills, sharp handling and efficiency. But it is a little surprising to see the Anthem, the only 27.5 bike in the test, snag second place. We attribute this to the Anthem'squick steering through switchbacks and its excellent acceleration coming back out of them.

The Anthem features fantastic build specifications and nimble ride characteristics.
The Anthem features fantastic build specifications and nimble ride characteristics.

Build


Components have a great impact on performance, and our five similarly priced test bikes are outfitted with builds of widely varying quality. Manufacturers select these components to compliment the intended ride characteristics of their frame, balancing performance with set budget constraints. Compromises between cost and performance quality are interesting and are often the source of consumer complaints. Here we analyze how well the build balance is struck on our test bikes.


Tire choice has a critical impact on bike performance. Testers experienced some tragic, fun-limiting, tire specifications on our test bikes. Luckily, in the world of bike components, tires are one of the least expensive upgrades while offering some of the largest performance gains. We will be sure to discuss which tires work and what recommendations we have without beating a dead horse.


750mm handlebars are just plain narrow.
750mm handlebars are just plain narrow.

The Giant Anthem 2 is our favorite build kit in the test. This bike is outfitted with a plush Fox 34 Rhythm with the easy-to-use GRIP damper. The Fox Float Performance DPS EVOL rear shock is predictable and easy to set up. The Shimano SLX 1x11 drivetrain is our favorite in the test with a more defined shifting feel than the SRAM NX1 found on the Niner or Santa Cruz. Shimano Deore brakes offer solid stopping power even if they lack modulation. The Giant Contact SL Switch dropper post is reliable and proves to be a serious ride enhancing feature. The Schwalbe Nobby Nic is a solid front tire that offers a reasonable amount of corner confidence. The same cannot be said for the slidey Schwalbe Racing Ralph wrapped around the rear wheel. We'd switch it out for another Nobby Nic. The only big disappointment is the cockpit feel of a 70mm long stem paired with narrow bars, at 750mm.

A long  70mm stem doesn't lend itself to sharp handling and stretches riders out over the front of the bike.
A long, 70mm stem doesn't lend itself to sharp handling and stretches riders out over the front of the bike.

The Trek Fuel EX 7 has our second favorite build kit among the test bikes. The RockShox Revelation RL fork with its 15 x 110mm Boost spacing is a stellar performer. The thinner, 32mm stanchions, don't hinder performance and work well enough with the intended trail bike application, but it's not a great feeling fork. The Fox Float EVOL 3-position is a reliable shock with a pleasant feel. This Fox shock pairs nicely with Trek's Active Braking Pivot (ABP) suspension to create a controlled ride. The KS Lev Integra internal dropper post is the nicest post in our test class and one of only two droppers. It keeps the Fuel EX fun. The Shimano SLX 2x10 drivetrain shifts in a crisp and accurate manner. Having a true "granny gear" is a nice feature on a bike that is meant to climb often. However, the gearing on a 2x10 setup is closer together than that of a 1x11 drivetrain. This means riders have to do a lot of double shifting to get the desired jump in gears. Bontrager XR3 tires severely limit cornering ability and loudly discourage aggressive behavior.

The Bontrager XR3 tires found on the Trek Fuel EX seriously limit the bike's performance.
The Bontrager XR3 tires found on the Trek Fuel EX seriously limit the bike's performance.

The Niner Jet wears a mediocre build kit. This bike sports the burliest fork in our test with the RockShox Yari RC's 35mm stanchions. The 130mm of travel on the stiff Yari fork allows for proper trail bulldozing and the high speeds that the Jet 9 seems to love. The SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain is serviceable even if it doesn't provide an especially crisp and most defined shifter feel. SRAM level brakes keep the ride in control and offer respectable stopping power regardless of the cheap appearance. The fast rolling Maxxis Ardent tires mounted front and rear on the Niner went relatively unnoticed.

The RockShox Yari is stiff and burly which contributes to the Niner's bulldozer-like attitude.
The RockShox Yari is stiff and burly which contributes to the Niner's bulldozer-like attitude.

The Specialized Camber Comp 29 rolls in at fourth place for its build specifications. Specialized outfits this bike with a lot of in-house components such as hubs, rims, and handlebars. The Camber has a RockShox Revelation front fork with rebound and low-speed compression adjustment and lockout. The Fox Float Performance rear shock has an interesting "Autosag" feature found only on shocks Fox builds for Specialized bikes. It works well for our testers. The Camber features a SRAM GX 2x10 drivetrain. We don't want to keep rehashing the debate regarding the presence of a front derailleur, but it is a polarizing issue. Shimano M506 is a respectable brakeset choice and the combination of the Specialized Purgatory front tire with the Ground Control rear tire offered a passable amount of grip.

The Fox Float DPS Performance shock has an Autosag feature which takes the guesswork out attaining proper suspensin setup.
The Fox Float DPS Performance shock has an Autosag feature which takes the guesswork out attaining proper suspensin setup.

The Santa Cruz Tallboy D is our favorite bike of the test, but it has our least favorite build kit. The RockShox Recon SL fork lacks enough adjustability to match the excellent performance of the bike. Still, the Recon is an average performer and is not the ride-killing clunker we feared. The Fox Float Performance rear shock is pleasantly forgettable. The Tallboy D rocks SRAM Level brakes with decent braking power and feel. A SRAM NX 1x11 drivetrain powers this rocket ship but is only a mediocre performer. The Maxxis Minion DHF front tire is a unanimous favorite among testers. The Minion DHF provides a super aggressive tread and defined shoulder knobs and really allowed testers to lean into this bike. The Maxxis Crossmark rear tire does not offer much in the way of traction, especially in wet conditions. Both tires did come set up tubeless, which we very much appreciate. The supreme performance of the Minion DHF largely masked the lack of grip in the rear. The Tallboy also lacks a dropper post.

The Maxxis Minion DHF has an aggressive tread pattern with extremely well-designed shoulder knobs.
The Maxxis Minion DHF has an aggressive tread pattern with extremely well-designed shoulder knobs.

Cockpit and Fit


The Tallboy feels true to size, though it has the longest top tube in the test at 607 mm. The long top tube is counteracted by a short stem for optimal handling and stability. The Anthem and Fuel EX also feel like a medium should feel. However, the 70mm stem on the Anthem stretches out the body position and the Fuel EX has a top-heavy feeling about it, possibly due to a lofty 334mm bottom bracket height. The Jet 9 is on the large side for a medium frame with a super high bottom bracket (345mm) and a tall front end. Riders on the low end of medium should be careful about sizing choice on this bike. In contrast, the Camber's cockpit is a little tight. Folks who straddle the line between medium and large sizes should consider sizing up.

Below are the manufacturer's size recommendations:

Santa Cruz Tallboy - S (5'0" - 5'4"), M (5'4" - 5'9"), L (5'9" - 6'0"), XL (6'0" - 6'3"), XXL (6'3" - 6'7")
Giant Anthem- XS (4'11" - 5'5"), S (5'4" - 5'8"), M (5'7" - 6'1"), L (6'0" - 6'4"), XL (6'3" - 6'9")
Niner Jet 9 -XS (5'0" - 5'5"), S (5'3" - 5'9"), M (5'8" - 6'0"), L (5'11" - 6'3"), XL (6'3" - 6'7")
Specialized Camber- Sizing not available on manufacturer website.
Trek Fuel Ex - 13.5" (4'10" - 5'.5"), 15.5" (5'.5" - 5'4.5"), 17.5" (5'4" - 5'8.5"), 18.5" (5'7.5" - 5'11"), 19.5 (5'10" - 6'2.5"), 21.5 (6'1.5" - 6'5.5"), 23" (6'6" +)

Much like a good mullet  the Camber is all business in the front with a touch of party in the rear.
Much like a good mullet, the Camber is all business in the front with a touch of party in the rear.

Conclusion


Making a purchase decision for a full-suspension mountain bike is no easy task. Any bike you select will have a defined list of pros and cons. We found the Santa Cruz Tallboy to be a wallet-friendly option that provides a spectacular high-end frame design and peppy performance at an excellent price point. While the components on this yellow party-wagon may be less than stellar, the ride doesn't suffer substantially. Climbing abilities are efficient while descending skills are fun and aggressive. The Tallboy is an excellent frame design to upgrade components over time. The Giant Anthem is a fast-handling sports car while the Trek Fuel EX and Specialized Camber provide a well-rounded ride with traditional 29er ride characteristics. The Niner Jet 9 is a straight line charger that is suitable for riders who ride wide open and fast trails.

Riding mountain bikes is fun. This is particularly true when you are piloting the Tallboy.
Riding mountain bikes is fun. This is particularly true when you are piloting the Tallboy.

The Testers


Our testers are lifelong racing, wrenching, bike shop owning, MTB article writing, lovers of all things bi-wheeled. Their racing backgrounds help them moderate their pace for time trials and ensure that they know how to analyze a bike's performance under pressure. Yes, riding is fun, but this team of riders worked hard to figure out these bikes for you. We heartily thank them for it.

Joshua Hutchens, Lead Tester

The stoke is strong with this one.
The stoke is strong with this one.

Joshua prefers by pedal to bi-pedal. Rolling on two wheels long before his first memory of life, he grew up on a BMX bike and took his first bike shop job at the age of 12. He's held most every position in the bike industry trying to impart his love of two wheels to others. Bikes have taken him around the world as a guide, to the podium as a racer, to countless mountain tops and a few emergency rooms. Now living in South Lake Tahoe with his wife Hillary and daughter Penny, Joshua can often be found on the amazing trails and beaches around the lake. Rarely seen on the same bike, he rarely sheds that silly grin.

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

Kate Blake, Collaborating Tester

One of those rare moments when the camera kept up with Kate.
One of those rare moments when the camera kept up with Kate.

Kate's been riding mountain bikes since jumping from the University of Nevada at Reno's triathlon team to their MTB crew. (She always liked the tri bike sections best anyway.) Kate's been bouncing between XC, Enduro, and stage races ever since, loving the new challenges and riding perspectives that each type of race brings. She recently completed the TransAndes Challenge in Chile and finished the Austin Rattle 100 as a Leadville qualifier. Kate's most gratifying MTB credential? Coaching the local NICA junior team. She thinks getting kids on trails for the first time is rad. Kate rides 14 miles to work three times a week and rolls around for two to three hours on her days off, always with Cash (her dog) in tow.

Height and Weight: 5'10 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame for most brands

Kurt Gensheimer, Collaborating Tester

The not-so-angry singlespeeder: Kurt also saves baby ducks from highway traffic
The not-so-angry singlespeeder: Kurt also saves baby ducks from highway traffic

Kurt got his first mountain bike when he was 13 years old. Since then his life has revolved around getting lost in the woods on mountain bikes and working as a professional copywriter/journalist both in and out of the bike industry. Also known as The Angry Singlespeeder, Kurt's actually quite pleasant so long as he's on a bike with gears. Kurt lives in Verdi, NV with his lady Elisabeth, aka Swan John, and they both can be found most summer weekends at Yuba Expeditions in Downieville. He rides an Ibis Tranny 29 singlespeed, an Ibis Ripley LS and a Trek Stache with 29+ wheels.

Height and Weight: 6' and 185lbs, prefers large frame

Pat Donahue, Joshua Hutchens, Kurt Gensheimer, Kate Blake, Clark Tate

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