What’s the best trail bike for 2021? Let’s talk about that.
One of the questions we get asked the most at the shop is “Where does the Transition Spur fit in with the Ibis Ripley and the Santa Cruz Tallboy?” We spent a week in the desert doing back-to-back laps so we could help you answer that question. These are three of the best trail bikes on the market currently. All three have similar travel numbers and similar geometry, but wildly different ride characteristics on the trail. So stick around to see which trail bike is best for you, Spur vs Tallboy vs Ripley.
I’ve reviewed each of these bikes independently. If you want a more in-depth review make sure to follow the respective links. For this article, I’ll just briefly describe each bike so we can get to the nitty-gritty.
I used the Transition Spur as my baseline for this showdown. I own it and I’m more familiar with it than the other two. I rode my test loop on the Spur first, then followed up with a handful of laps on the Ripley and Tallboy.
The Transition Spur is the Jack Russel Terrier of trail bikes. It’s small, light, and feisty. It goes head first into every situation with more than enough confidence. In fact, sometimes it could be a little overconfident. When the going gets really rough, the 120mm of front and rear travel, struggles to keep up with the aggressive geometry. That’s not a dig at the bike, either — it’s more of a compliment if anything.
The Spur rolls on 29” wheels and a carbon frame. While the head tube angle isn’t overly slack, the reach and wheelbase are what makes this bike so aggressive. In a size XL, the reach measures 510mm, and the wheelbase 1255mm. That’s the longest wheelbase in the whole test — remarkable, considering the Spur has the shortest fork travel in the group. The seat tube angle is 75.6 degrees on the XL. While it’s not super steep, the actual angle is steep enough to not cause problems for tall folks.
Climbing on the Spur is a lively affair. The bike is fast and efficient. With the Flex Stays instead of a rear pivot, the Spur is lightweight. It goes uphill with the best of them. The climbing position is fairly centered considering how long the front half of the bike is. Where the Spur can struggle a bit is in technical and tight climbing sections. The long wheelbase becomes more difficult to maneuver. The rear wheel tends to bounce off of rocks and ledges a bit more as well. It doesn’t have the smooth and glued feel of both the Ripley and Tallboy.
The Spur really comes alive on the DH. With “Transition” painted on the downtube, you wouldn’t expect anything less. In fact, I heard that Webster’s Dictionary added a second definition for Transition – (n) A mountain bike that rips on the descents while looking extra cool. The Spur offers a stable and planted ride — largely due to the geometry. The suspension platform is firm and supportive. There’s plenty of mid and end stroke support for riding fast and hard. It doesn’t offer as much traction or trail-smoothing goodness as the Tallboy, though.
If we’re going to keep comparing these bikes to dogs, the Ibis Ripley is the Whippet of trail bikes. It’s light, lean, and fast as hell. Although, comparing it to a mountain goat might be more accurate, but that wouldn’t fit in with my analogy. The Ripley goes uphill like its life depends on it. It’s made for crushing miles and tearing off your riding buddies’ legs. It gives you free speed both up and down the mountain.
Again, we are working with 29” wheels here. Like the Spur, the Ripley only comes in carbon. It has 120mm of rear travel paired to a 130mm Fox 34 fork. It has the steepest head tube angle of the bunch at 66.5 degrees. The seat tube is plenty steep at 76 degrees, keeping your weight right over the center of the bike. The reach is long measuring 500m in the XL. The wheelbase is the shortest at 1236mm, likely contributing to the agile yet less stable ride quality.
It’s so fast uphill, the Ripley gets a straight A on the climbs. I’m going to do my best to describe the feeling here. The Ripley doesn’t have the fast, precise, “fighter jet” feel of an XC bike. It’s more subtle. You don’t realize you’re going as fast as you are. It feels more like flying first-class on a passenger plane — except it goes Mach 2. It smooths out bumps incredibly well and provides tons of traction. The DW Link suspension design is remarkable. It does very well in technical sections due to the shorter wheelbase and top-tier suspension design.
I’d say the Ripley is best suited for general purpose trail riding. It’s not as aggressive as a descender as the Tallboy and Spur. It has a less planted quality. On the flip side, it’s the most maneuverable and nimble bike in the test. If you ride “East Coast” style trails that are tight, twisty, and technical, the Ripley would be an excellent choice. It’s easy to navigate and steer the bike. The suspension does a great job of smoothing out small bumps, but when the bumps get bigger, the Ripley starts to bounce around just a bit more. It’s easier to use all of the travel as well. It doesn’t handle bigger features as well as the other two bikes.
Santa Cruz Tallboy
Here comes the Bulldog. Or is it a Boxer? No, it’s a Pug. Frenchie? It’s one of the squishy face dogs for sure, though. The Santa Cruz Tallboy is stout and strong. It’s a bit portly for its size, but more than makes up for it in strength and character. It’s the stiffest and burliest bike in the group.
Like the others, the Tallboy uses 29” wheels. Unlike the others, it comes in both carbon and aluminum versions. It has 120mm of rear travel and 130mm up front. It uses the RockShox pike instead of the lighter, Fox 34, or Rockshox Sid. If you didn’t see the trend here, everything about the Tallboy is just one level stiffer, burlier and heavier. It has the slackest head tube angle at 65.5 degrees. The effective seat tube angle is steep at 76 degrees, but be warned, the actual angle is slacker than the other bikes. If you’re a tall person, you’ll likely notice your weight is further rearward on this bike — not a deal-breaker, but it’s worth noting. The reach is the shortest at 488mm in the low mode on a size XL. The wheelbase falls between the Spur and Ripley at 1239mm.
The Tallboy doesn’t have that fast, lively, and responsive feel like the other two bikes in the group. It feels more like the rest of Santa Cruz’s bikes with the Lower Link VPP. They all have a similar “sit down, relax and we will get to the top eventually” attitude. Of course, the Tallboy climbs faster than say the Megatower. It’s lighter and has less travel so It’s naturally going to go uphill faster. Just don’t expect it to feel like an XC bike on the climbs, and you’ll get along with it just fine. It makes up for its lack of zest uphill when things get technical. There is so much traction generated by the VPP design that the bike can get up just about any obstacle. You can stand up, put power through the pedals and the back wheel isn’t going to break loose.
While the Tallboy doesn’t have the aggressive reach and wheelbase numbers like the Spur, it has an incredible suspension design for riding a short-travel bike in terrain made for long-travel bikes. The VPP design keeps the Tallboy glued to the ground. The bike sits a little deeper into the suspension giving you a plush, planted, and confident feel. The stiff frame helps it track a straight line through the rough and bumpy sections. The bike doesn’t bounce around in the rocks or get hung up on ledges. It keeps chugging forward at pace. My favorite thing about the Tallboy is how easy it gets off the ground. Whether you like to jump or you’re just trying to unweight over some rocks, the Tallboy tells gravity to stick it. Sir Issac Newton would have never discovered gravity if Tallboys fell out of trees instead of apples.
Spur vs Tallboy vs Ripley Awards
This is the part you’re probably here for. Let’s get right to it.
Best Climber: Ibis Ripley
The Ripley takes the cake in the climbing department. I usually have bones to pick with most bikes. I couldn’t think of a single one while climbing on the Ripley. I tried really hard, too. The Spur takes a close second with the Tallboy bringing up the rear.
Best Descender: Santa Cruz Tallboy
While the Spur has the geometry for riding hard, the Tallboy brings the heat in the suspension design category. Combine that with the slackest head tube in the bunch and you’ve got yourself a ripper. If you like riding a short-travel bike too hard, the Tallboy will let you get away with it. The Spur comes in second place just a hair behind the Santa Cruz. The Ripley is a level or two below.
Most Versatile: Transition Spur
Don’t think I left out the Spur. It averages out the extremes of the other two bikes making for the most well-rounded bike in the test. It takes second place in both categories, but just barely. It’s always a contender.
Well folks, that’s going to wrap it up for us. If you want to demo any of these bikes to see for yourself, stop by the shop and say hello!