Simple question. Tough answer.
These days it’s near impossible to go to a bike shop and leave with a bad bike. The research, development and tech in modern mountain bikes is very impressive. They’re way more capable than bikes from even five years ago. It becomes a blessing and a curse. With literally hundreds of solid options, the difficulty becomes deciding which style of bike is best for you. Well, consider this the ultimate, be-all and end-all, no questions asked, 100% scientific, authoritative guide to helping you find your next bike.
Here’s how our test went. We picked three different styles of bikes within the broader “trail bike” category (Trail meaning the bike pedals uphill, rides downhill and isn’t strictly designed for XC or DH racing. You know, the kind 95% of us ride.) Within the “Trail” category we broke it down further into just plain old Trail, All Mountain and Enduro. We chose to keep all of the bikes within the same brand to eliminate differences in suspension design and to minimize differences in geometry. We wanted this test to be all about the amount of suspension rather than geometry or platform. We chose the Santa Cruz Tallboy (Trail), Santa Cruz Hightower (All Mountain) and the Santa Cruz Megatower (Enduro) for our test. All three of our test rigs had the same level of build kit, carbon Reserve wheels and surprisingly very similar geometry. The biggest differentiator was how much travel each bike had. The Tallboy comes with 120mm out back paired to a 130mm fork, the Hightower is 140mm rear and 150mm front, while the Megatower packs a punch at 160mm front and back. Head tube angles across all three bikes only varied by 0.5 degrees.
We loaded all the bikes into the shop van and hit the hills. We rode each bike on three different trails to get a good idea of how they all compare on a wide variety of terrain. Our test climb lasted about 15 minutes and had a little bit of everything. It had fast bits, steep bits, rocky bits, loose bits and paved road bits — that’s a lot of bits. We also rode a flow trail with berms, jumps and rollers. The final trail we rode really pushed some limits. It was steep and rooty with a handful of drops and loose flat corners. The trails we tested gave us a good idea of how each bike feels on an “everyday” ride as well as a ride that might be above your pay grade.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How Much Travel Do You Need?
Conor – This went about as expected. We started the test on the enduro bikes while our legs were fresh. The Megatower climbed well enough. The steep seat tube kept my weight over the pedals and not way off the back of the bike. It had gobs of traction for the looser pitches of the climb. It felt heavy and I spent quite a bit of the climb in the easiest gear just to keep the wheels spinning. Enduro bikes are meant to be able to get you up a hill without too much fuss, but they really put an emphasis on descending. The geometry is designed to be as stable as possible down rough, steep terrain. This same geometry is what makes the bike sit back and wander up steep climbs. I own an enduro bike so I’m very familiar with how they climb. They’re not amazing, but they will do the job. I’m still able to put in big days in the mountains without being completely gassed by the end.
Brock – The enduro bike climbed well enough. Nobody ever buys an enduro bike because they’re wanting to climb a lot. My idea of riding an enduro bike is to get me to the top without hike-a-biking a DH sled. The modern geometry on this bike felt really good on the climbs, both the long, drawn-out climbs, and the short-punchy ones. The seat tube angle kept me right over the top of the bike, and I never felt like I was losing traction or working harder than I needed to be. The only noticeable downside was that I was pushing a bit of extra weight being on the enduro bike. Thanks to the Eagle gearing and the 50 tooth “granny gear,” I never had to walk this bike.
Conor – We then moved on to the all mountain bike. The Santa Cruz Hightower felt apparently lighter and snappier from the get go. It sagged into its travel less and provided a snappier ride. Sitting higher in the travel, my weight was more centered on the bike. The front wheel wandered less and tracked a straighter line when things got steep. I felt faster even though this was our second lap up the hill. All mountain bikes are designed to take you anywhere on the mountain. They need to be able to go uphill, downhill and just about anywhere. Our all mountain test bike was still a tad heavy and a little more focused on downhill performance.
Brock – After jumping onto the all mountain bike, I was really glad that Conor had chosen to ride the enduro bikes first. The difference in weight, even just being a few pounds, felt so much better to climb on. I rarely used the “granny gear” on this bike, even on the long section of pavement after getting off the dirt. It was noticeably easier to get up and over the rough, rooty sections of the climb without getting hung up, or feeling like you were exerting every last bit of energy. Overall, it felt a lot more efficient, and I felt better on this bike at the top of the hill.
Conor – Finally, moving on to the trail bike. The Tallboy made the climb a piece of cake. Again the difference in weight was rather apparent. The trail bike felt much more responsive than the other two. It accelerated quicker, tracked the straightest line no matter how steep the climb and encouraged us to push the pace a little. No Eagle gear moseying here.
Brock – The same feeling going from the enduro bike to the all mountain bike was there again changing from the all mountain to the trail bike. A lighter feel, along with more efficient pedaling urged me to thank Conor, yet again, for picking the enduro bike first, and leaving me on the trail bike to repeat the climb for the third time. Not only was it lighter than the all mountain bike, but the feeling of it being snappier was evident as well. One thing I did notice about the shorter travel in the rough sections of the climb was that it would get hung up a bit more than the longer travel bikes, meaning that momentum would get robbed by roots and rocky sections on the punchy climbs. The fix for this was better line choice, or just putting down a bit more power to push through. Again, even more so than the all mountain bike, I was using less low gears on this bike, which I bring up because this was the third time climbing within about an hour or two, and fatigue was setting in. I felt like I might just keep pedaling all day on this bike.
Our times for the ride confirmed how we felt on each of the bikes. The trail bike was the fastest while the enduro was the slowest with the all mountain bike falling somewhere in the middle.
Let the fun begin. How Much Travel Do You Need?
Conor – First up is the enduro bike — fast, confident, grippy and a heck of a lot of fun. This is where Brock and I started to vary in our opinions about the bikes. Personally, I loved the enduro bike on this trail. I was able to push harder into corners, overshoot jumps and barely even feel it and hit the drops without slowing down. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. I did notice the Megatower felt a little sluggish out of the tighter corners compared to the other two bikes. It wallowed a bit under heavy pedaling efforts too. Overall, the enduro bike felt really fast but at the same time very controlled, two things that don’t always go hand in hand.
Brock – As we began our descent on the enduro bikes, my overall thought was that the enduro bike felt long and that I didn’t need it on the flow trail we had chosen. It felt like it needed to be manhandled through the tighter corners, and I didn’t feel much of a benefit except where there were sections that I carried a bit more speed than I probably should have. In the moments of misjudgment on my part, I was grateful to be on a longer travel bike that soaked it up. One in particular was a blind drop that I picked a bad line, landed further out than desired, putting me off the trail. In this situation, I think that the extra travel made up the difference of getting bounced off the bike, or recovering and riding away. In the rougher sections near the bottom, the enduro bike seemed to gain speed through the rock gardens, but lose speed in the tighter corners.
Conor – The all mountain bike was a good mix of the other two. It instilled more confidence than the trail bike without being sluggish. It had more “pop” than the Megatower but not as much as the Tallboy. The tires felt gripper and more substantial. The Hightower was a little easier to get around a corner than the enduro bike. The shorter wheelbase made the tighter section at the bottom of the trail much easier to navigate. It got back up to speed faster after a corner as well. If your trails are really tight but still difficult and rocky, the all mountain bike might be a better option than a full blown enduro rig. I was slowest on the all mountain bike, however. I felt the Hightower didn’t take enough of the “monster truck” factor from the Megatower to be fast in the rocks, but it didn’t take enough of the fast, zippy nature of the Tallboy in the corners and rollers. Or at least that’s the only way I can justify it.
Brock – I immediately felt better going downhill on the all mountain bike. It was so much easier to maneuver and plant exactly where I wanted on the trail, which I credit to the shorter wheel base, and lighter weight. The bike felt like it was encouraging me to pedal out of the corners and make extra speed in the sections where I didn’t feel comfortable on the enduro bike. Come time for the rough stuff, the bike had plenty of travel to not feel much of an effect, and keep the speeds high. When it got really rough, I could always preload the suspension, and jump over the top of it. Something that wasn’t there on the enduro bike because I felt like it needed to just plow through it. The all mountain bike felt overall more playful than the enduro bike on this trail.
Conor – Lastly the trail bike — or should we call it the skateboard with two wheels. The trail bike liked to play and pop. It felt very quick in and out of the corners. The Tallboy gives you the feeling that you’re not wasting any energy pushing through the travel. In other words, when you pump to gain speed, all of your energy is translated into making the bike go faster. Same goes for pedaling back up to speed out of a corner. Nothing is wasted. The trail bike accelerated very quickly. While the top speeds were slower, on a twisty trail like the one we rode, the maneuverable nature of the bike can bring up your average speeds resulting in a faster run. I really enjoyed the ride quality of the trail bike. Instead of my usual style (death-gripping the bars, closing my eyes and hoping I don’t run into something) I was forced to slow down a bit. Going slower I was really able to focus more on having fun, rather than being fast. It’s a style of riding I’m really starting to enjoy.
Brock – Since I used the word “playful” for the all mountain bike on this trail, I think I’d use some sort of descriptive word to emphasize the playfulness on the trail bike — super playful, extra playful, extremely playful — something like that. Or maybe I say, “grinningly playful” to put it into perspective for those who ride and get it — it was so good. Pushing it into corners, jumping over things, pulling into a manual through rough stuff, or flat stuff, or just any stuff, this bike was rad. I’m pretty sure after riding this I started running through some financial possibilities to purchase this bike and bring it home. It was at home on a fast flow trail, and made me want to ride laps over and over on it. This bike got pushed hard, and responded well. I did find the limit of it a time or two, and just kept riding. It was really surprising at how capable a short travel bike can be, and how much fun it amounts to.
Watch the full flow trail runs –
Things are getting serious now. How much travel do you need?
Conor – We saved the hardest trail of the day for last. This descent had enough roots to last a lifetime, steep skidder sections and plenty of trees to narrowly dodge… or hit. The enduro bike obviously ate it up. It really came into its element on the tough descent. The Megatower didn’t get hung up in the roots, in fact it seemed to just pick up speed. The rear end moved up and out of the way with ease. The steeps didn’t make the bike feel outgunned and the chunky ledges and drops didn’t get the bike bouncing and bucking around. I had the most fun during the entire day on this trail on this bike. Pushing into root littered corners at high speed is my kind of fun. I liked the way the bike stayed composed in sections where I started losing control of the other bikes. The bumps don’t disappear (that wouldn’t be any fun) rather they just feel inconsequential. I knew the trail was bumpy, I could feel it, but it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t feel the need to grab the brakes. The bike almost dared me to see if I could go faster, push harder into a corner or pull up for a big double. My time reflected the amount of fun I was having.
Brock – The enduro bike felt like this tech trail was made for it. Or the trail felt like it was made for the enduro bike. Either way, you get the point. It ate up the steep rooty section at the top as if they weren’t there, and helped me feel confident maintaining and gaining speed through drops and steep sections. Although my time is not on track with how I felt, this was the bike I’d choose for this type of trail. The problem was, before riding this, I pushed one of the other bikes a bit harder than I should have, and got the scare of my life. This caused some hesitation on the enduro bike so I wouldn’t have a repeat of the previous run, or get bucked off the bike. My complaints of the bike being too much, or overkill on the flow trail, were nowhere to be found on this trail.
Conor – The all mountain bike handled the tough descent as you would hope. It didn’t feel quite as good as the enduro bike, but it gave me enough confidence to let loose. Compared to the Megatower, the back end felt a little more chattery and less composed in the high speed roots. The bike bounced around a little more and I found myself grabbing brakes where I didn’t need to on the enduro bike. All the drops and steep sections felt great though — there was plenty of travel to remain in control. There was enough grip for the dusty conditions and cornering felt fast.
Brock – The all mountain bike handled everything I threw at it on the tech trail, until I went too big on a drop and scared myself into grabbing the brakes before the next drop and sliding out, as mentioned above. I guess we could say I felt over confident, and pushed it too hard. Since I didn’t technically go down, I’d say pushing it too hard and finding the limits is a good thing, especially on a trail like this. The bike felt nimble, and never felt under-gunned through the roughest parts, partly due to the aggressive geometry, but also because it had just enough travel to get the job done.
Conor – The trail bike was a bit of a surprise. It handled the roots fairly well and really only felt out of its element when things got steep. The bike bucked around quite a bit more than the other two. I was on the brakes more while aboard the Tallboy. I didn’t have the same confidence as with the other bikes. The ragged edge felt quite a bit closer and at one point I lost control of the bike and hit a tree. In order to enjoy this trail on the trail bike, I had to slow down and ride a little differently. Instead of no-braking a section and plowing into everything in my way, I’d focus more on staying on a good line and hitting my braking points.
Brock – The trail bike again was grinningly fun. Before riding this bike down this particular trail, it would have never crossed my mind to take a 120mm bike down such a rowdy trail. Instead I would have opted for a longer travel bike, or a different trail. However, I would gladly ride this bike any day of the week back down this trail. It felt confident and playful throughout the whole ride. Obviously in the real rough and steep stuff, things got a bit dicey, but never too much to scare or intimidate me. If anything, I’d say that on this bike, you just feel the trail a bit more than on the longer bikes.
Watch the full tech trail runs –
Brock – The enduro bike was great on the tech trail, and not my favorite on the flow trail. It’s a lot of bike. Its job is to get you to the top eventually, and have a rad time coming back down. It’s happiest finding the roughest bits of trail to pilot it down, and encourages that type of riding. It’s also good at making up the differences and shortcomings of the rider. If you like to smash and bash, and perhaps need some help when things get a little out of control, this bike may be for you.
My pick out of the three bikes would be the all mountain bike. It’s a bike that’s great at pedaling mellow trails and still having a good time, or taking a shuttle to the top and riding down the gnarliest trail you can find. It’s well rounded in everything that you could do with it. The all mountain bike made me think of long days on Park City trails where I just start pedaling without an end goal in mind and end up getting lost and finding my way back to the parking lot with 30-40 miles on the odometer for the day. The long days up, across, and back down is what this bike is ideal for in my eyes. This bike is going to make a great bike for the rider that does all of the above, and needs just one bike to do it all.
The trail bike might have the most fun factor of the three. If we timed average time smiling or giggling on the bike, this would win. If you’re not the rider to go regularly push yourself on really steep trails all the time, this could be the one. If you’re out for a good time, no matter the terrain or the people you’re with, and occasionally like to get outside of your comfort zone, this could also be the bike to handle it all. It’s been dubbed the downhiller’s XC bike, and since we all love to go downhill at some point, I don’t think I could agree more.
Conor – Which bike would I pick? Short answer, I’d take the enduro bike all day. What can I say? I’m a long travel kind of guy. I like that it has your back no matter how rowdy things get. You can always rely on the bike to get you out of a spicy situation. I’m happy enough to take a penalty on the climbs to get that extra downhill performance. I don’t feel like there is such a thing as “too much travel.” Feel like your bike is too big? Ride it faster, brake less, hit jumps bigger and smash every rock in sight. I can see the advantages to shorter travel bikes, but they don’t align with my priorities very well. If you want to hit hard trails, or hate the feeling of being outgunned, an enduro bike is going to be a good choice for you. It’s got your back in every situation.
The all mountain bike felt too much like a fence sitter to me. I want a bike that can go mach burrito down a nasty trail, or I want a bike that is just down to take it easy, hit all the jumps and have a good time. For me the all mountain bike doesn’t take enough of the strengths from the enduro or trail categories to really shine. My times on the day reflect that pretty well. We didn’t have a way to measure “good times” but the hootin’ and hollerin’ was more subdued aboard the all mountain bike. And, don’t take this as me hating on the Santa Cruz Hightower. I think it makes an excellent all mountain bike. The category just isn’t for me. I think someone who doesn’t just ride buffed out singletrack, but isn’t willing to give up that extra edge of climbing performance would really enjoy an all mountain bike. I can also see people who like to ride hard trails at slower speeds really liking this category too.
The trail bike gave me a run for the money. I had a heck of a good time looking for features to hit, jumps to jump and corners to smash. It’s a riding style I’m not as used to but it’s really starting to grow on me. I could see myself buying a short travel trail bike in the future. Who knows, maybe it will even replace my long-travel squishy bike one day. I like the way these shorter travel bikes handle and the benefits can’t be ignored. For the time being though, they just don’t line up as well with the terrain I like to ride. If you like riding cruiser singletrack and the occasional rugged trail, a trail bike would be an excellent option.
Hopefully this article and series of videos helps you decide which style of bike is best for you. If you’re interested in any of the bikes we rode in our test, we have all of them in our demo fleet. If you want to try something other than a Santa Cruz demo, we have a ton of other bikes. Check out the whole list of demo bikes here.
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