29er Trailbike Roundup

29er trail and all-mountain bikes are an interesting category because they range from decidedly XC oriented, to bikes that are clearly built with downhill as a priority. Bikes in this category range from as little as 105 mm travel to as much as 155 mm travel. Why are we including such a wide spread? Because there’s a lot of great bikes that fall somewhere in the middle that are worth comparing to both the shorter travel and the longer travel options.

There are, of course, many worthy contenders that aren’t included in here. We’ll add additional comparisons as we get time on those bikes.

We’ve ranked these bikes in order, from most xc / climbing oriented, to the most downhill oriented. Like with any bike, this ranking comes with a significant caveat: set up matters. With suspension tweaks and some componentry swaps, almost any bike can be made to climb a bit better or handle rowdy descents more competently. The rankings we’re laying out here are based on a mid-level, stock build kit, and we’re basing it off of what we think the bike is best at, not necessarily what it could do with a bunch of changes.

We’ve noted the model year of the bike we rode, as well as some measurements. Some bikes have seen changes to the build kits since we rode them, and one or two bikes have seen mild revisions to the geometry, but we feel these comparisons generally hold true for the current versions of the bikes as well.

We’ve also included a few basic stats on the bikes we rode, which are abbreviated as follows: RT (Rear Travel), FT (Front Travel), R (Reach for a size Medium), HA (Head Angle), and CS (Chainstay Length). For a more in depth discussion of geometry, fit, numbers, etc., click into the full reviews.

2015 Salsa Horsethief Carbon

RT: 120 mm  FT: 130 mm  R: 428 mm  HA: 68.1°  CS: 437 mm

The Horsethief comes in as the most uphill worthy steed on this list, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for an XC bike. The Horsethief still handles rough descents well, but a slightly steeper geometry and a suspension that’s a bit less supple means that it’s less inclined to just smash through rough terrain. The flip side is that it feels more efficient than most of the other trail bikes. If you’re looking for a comfortable bike that really irons out every little bump in the trail, the Django 29 or Transition Smuggler might be a better bet, but if you’re more inclined to sprint out of corners and pump every little transition, the Horsethief carries speed impressively well when ridden actively.

2016 Banshee Phantom

RT: 105 mm FT: 120 mm R: 420 mm HA: 68° (mid setting) CS: 442 mm

The Banshee Phantom, with 105mm travel, is the shortest travel bike on this list, and it gains some efficiency simply by virtue of not having much squish in the back. That said, the Phantom is a fairly heavy, overbuilt bike, and it still has a bit of pedal bob. This makes the Phantom a bit of a tough one to place on this list – it’s too heavy and overbuilt to really hang with something like the Horsethief on climbs, but it’s not supple or stable enough to be a strong contender on descents. Given Banshee’s reputation for building burly bikes, the target audience for the Phantom might just be people that tend to break stuff, but still want a 29er.

2016 Rocky Mountain Instinct BC Edition

RT: 130 mm FT: 140 mm R: 400 mm (mid setting) HA: 67.5° (mid setting) CS: 452 mm

The Rocky Mountain Instinct has a bit more travel (130mm) than some bikes that are placed further down this list, but its suspension design isn’t particularly active. The Instinct’s taut suspension, combined with a respectable weight and great geometry, make it a fantastic climber. Despite having more travel, it rivals the Horsethief on the ups.

Noah Bodman reviews the 2016 Rocky Mountain Instinct 990 MSL BC Edition for Blister Gear Review.
Noah Bodman on the 2016 Rocky Mountain Instinct 990 MSL BC Edition, Whistler BC.

It’s not, however, quite as strong on the descents – the suspension gets kicked around by small and mid-sized obstacles far more than the Django 29, the Smuggler, or the Following. The Instinct’s neutral geometry and fantastic adjustability via the Ride-9 system help out a bit, but in terms of ironing out the trail and maintaining steady traction on the rear wheel, it still falls short of the best options in this class.

2017 Devinci Django 29

RT: 120 mm FT: 130 mm R: 440 mm HA: 68° (low setting) CS: 434 mm

The Django 29, along with the Transition Smuggler, is probably the bike I recommend to the broadest range of people. It’s fun on rowdy descents (although not as stable as the Following), it’s plush and comfortable on long alpine rides (although not as light as the Instinct or Horsethief), and it climbs respectably well (although not as well as the Instinct). In other words, it hits a nice middle ground that makes it work well on a wide range of trails, and in turn, appeal to a wide range of people. The downsides? It’s a little heavy, but upgrading to the carbon version is worthwhile, and it comes with a lifetime warranty, which is relatively rare these days. It’s a more well rounded bike than the more DH focused Evil Following, but it’s pretty similar to the Transition Smuggler. I give the Django 29 the slight edge for climbing, and the Smuggler is a slightly better descender, but they’re pretty close.

2016 Transition Smuggler

RT: 115 mm  FT: 130 mm  R: 432 mm  HA: 67.5°  CS: 436 mm

The Transition Smuggler, like the Django 29, is a competent bike in a wide variety of situations, and it should appeal to a lot of people. Compared to the Django 29, the Smuggler gets a slight edge on rowdy descents, but it gives up a little ground in terms of climbing and pedaling efficiency. Also like the Django 29, the Smuggler isn’t the lightest in its class, partly due to the fact that it’s (as of this writing) still only available in aluminum. It doesn’t haul quite as much ass on descents as the Following (or some of the longer travel 29ers), but it’s much more manageable on slower speed “normal” trails.

2016 Ibis Ripley LS

RT: 120 mm  FT:  130 mm  R: 411 mm  HA: 67.5°  CS: 442 mm

The Ripley LS is one of the shorter bikes in this comparison, and that helps to make it nimble. It is a also a very efficient pedalling bike, putting it at the top of my list when it comes time to log serious miles. The rear end offers enough smooth, efficient travel to make the Ripley capable in rough terrain and to keep things fun. The Ripley LS doesn’t hold your hand when the going gets tough, but a skilled pilot can have fun on it in most terrain. The only time I find fault with it is at high speeds where the short wheelbase prevents it from being as stable as it might be.

Evil Following

RT: 120 mm  FT: 130 mm  R: 419 mm  HA: 66.8° (low setting)  CS: 432 mm

Of the shorter travel 29ers, the Following is the most appropriate for going as fast as possible downhill. It’s slack and stable, and the progressive suspension design handles big hits better than most.

Noah Bodman reviews the Evil The Following for Blister Gear Review.
Noah Bodman on the Evil The Following, Whitefish, MT.

That slack geometry becomes a bit of a liability on the climbs though, as the front end gets pretty wandery on steep climbs. The rear end is also one of the flexiest in the class, which is less than awesome in hard corners. The Following is a better descender than any other 29er we’ve ridden that has a comparable amount of travel (120 mm), and it even beats out some longer travel bikes like the Rocky Mountain Instinct.

2015 Intense Carbine 29

RT: 125-140 mm  FT: 160 mm  R: 416 mm  HA: 67°  CS: 451 mm

Of the longer travel 29ers, the Carbine is one of the most efficient pedalers, and it’s also somewhat unique in that the travel can be reduced from 140mm to 125mm (making it even more efficient). It’s not as supple as the Niner WFO or the Specialized Enduro 29, but a decent amount of travel combined with big wheels make up for that in a lot of situations. It has more stability and capable than its numbers suggest, but that does mean that it isn’t a particularly playful bike.

2017 Pivot Switchblade

RT: 135 mm  FT: 150 mm  R: 439 mm  HA: 67.25°  CS: 428 mm

With 135 mm of travel, the Pivot Switchblade isn’t the longest travel bike on this list, but it’s slacker and lower than most, and the frame is decidedly stout. The Switchblade’s suspension is a bit less active and is more inclined to pump through terrain than smash through it, and I also had difficulty getting the rear end to feel like it matched the fork well – a similar problem that I’d had on the Pivot Mach 6. Suspension issues aside, the Switchblade has some of the shortest chainstays on the market, which combined with the stiff frame make for a more playful bike. If the Yeti SB5.5 is race bred and wants to take the racing line, the Switchblade is the bike that wants to mess around, hit jumps, and maybe session certain parts of the trail. The less supple suspension combined with average pedaling efficiency and a bit of extra weight mean it’s not the bike I’d pick for epic backcountry adventures (the Django 29 or Smuggler would win out there), but for hitting jumps and getting rad, the Switchblade has lots of potential. I’d call it a longer travel, burlier version of the Evil Following.  

2015 Niner WFO 9

RT: 150 mm  FT: 160 mm  R: 418 mm  HA: 67°  CS: 443 mm

The Niner WFO’s suspension is more supple than many of the bikes in this class, which can make it feel a bit wallowy at times. The WFO’s geometry is also a bit on the short side, which helps the bike retain some maneuverability, but also means it’s less stable than the best options when smashing through rough terrain at speed. That slight instability was also accentuated by the not-stiffest-in-class frame, which exhibited a bit of flex when pushed hard. While the WFO pedals decently, it’s not as strong on the climbs as the Carbine or any of the shorter travel options on this list. The WFO would be a great option for someone who wants the big wheels and longer travel cush to cruise over rough trails, but is less concerned about pushing the bike as hard as possible on the descents.

2016 Yeti SB5.5c

RT: 140 mm  FT: 160 mm  R: 421 mm  HA: 66.5°  CS: 437 mm

Yeti’s SB5.5c is perhaps the best bike on this list when truly pushed hard. It’s not as cushy as the WFO, or even some of the shorter travel bikes like the Smuggler, but at race pace the suspension does what it needs to do and nothing more – it absorbs bumps and maintains traction, but isn’t so active that it feels sluggish. The geometry follows this trend; it’s less playful than the WFO or the Following, and it doesn’t devour truly rough terrain quite as well as the Enduro 29. But even though it’s slightly slacker and longer than the Enduro 29, it still feels a bit more maneuverable in tight situations, likely due to it’s shorter travel, and less active suspension.

Noah Bodman reviews the Yeti SB 5.5c for Blister Gear Review.
Noah Bodman on the Yeti SB 5.5c, Whitefish, MT.

On the uphills, the SB5.5c does surprisingly well – you’re not going to win the race to the top, but good geometry, decent pedaling efficiency, and a relatively light weight mean that it actually climbs better than some shorter travel options like the Evil Following. The SB5.5c may well be the fastest bike I’ve ever ridden when it comes to descending – the Enduro 29 wins in a straight line down truly rough stuff, but the SB5.5c corners better and feels more efficient on everything that isn’t pointed down the fall line. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most fun, nor is it the ideal bike for every conceivable situation, but if I’m looking for a 29er enduro race bike, this one probably tops the list.

2014 Specialized Enduro 29

RT: 155 mm  FT: 160 mm  R: 425 mm  HA: 67.5°  CS: 430 mm

The Specialized Enduro 29 has the most travel (155 mm) of any bike on this list, and perhaps unsurprisingly, comes out as the winner when it comes to pure descending prowess. While a few bikes on here are longer and/or slacker, the Enduro 29’s extra travel combined with its big wheels mean that it hauls ass down rough descents better than anything else in this class. That said, the Enduro 29 can be a handful in tight situations, and moreso than most 29ers, I notice that it takes some work to force it through corners. The suspension on the Enduro 29 is more supple and better at ironing out the trail than the SB5.5, but it also makes the bike a little slower to react. In terms of climbing, the Enduro 29 isn’t the most efficient pedaler and shorter chainstays hurt it a bit on steeper climbs, but a reasonable weight means it isn’t a terrible chore to get it to the top.

Bottom Line

There’s a lot of great 29ers on the market right now, and companies seem to finally be figuring out geometries that work well with the big wheels. There should be something to suit almost any rider in this list, but if 29ers aren’t your thing, check out our comparisons of 27.5” wheeled bikes coming soon.

11 comments on “29er Trailbike Roundup”

  1. Interested in why you mentioned the Spec Enduro and Sb5.5c vs the Stumpjumper and the Yeti 4.5c? Seems like those would respectively fit in a bit more with the other bikes in the test?

    • We mentioned the bikes we’ve ridden, and didn’t mention the ones we haven’t. There’s a *lot* of great bikes that aren’t on this list simply because we haven’t had any meaningful time on them. We’ll add more bikes as we ride them.

    • I’ll second that. I’m running a 2016 Trek Fuel EX 9.9, and I would rank it at the top of 120 x 120 mm 29er trailbikes (though I’ve only thrown a leg over about half those listed in the review).

      Light, plush, stiff, fast, just exactly nimble enough without being twitchy.

      For a “one bike quiver” I suspect the 2017 version at 130 x 130 will be an even better ride.

  2. Noah,

    This is a helpful way to rank bikes. Its too easy to look at just travel and certain geometry and make assumptions about the downhill/uphill capability. Plus you just answered a 100 bike X vs bike Y questions.

    Looking forward to your adding bikes to this list.

  3. Incidentally, I demoed the Yeti 5.5c this spring. Even though the XL fit me quite well, I didn’t find it a *fun* bike to ride. Quite competent, and climbed very well for the travel, but just not a playful bike for trail riding.

    However, the whole time I rode it, I thought in the back of my mind it would make a great endure race bike. A bike for going gonzo fast on demanding terrain.

    That’s why it pays to actually ride before you buy. Had I bought this bike off some rave reviews, I would end up selling it for the lack of fun factor on my trails. Similar to the Spic Enduro, its more bike than I need 90% of the time.

  4. Curious to here more about the Ripley LS. Specifically, its placed lower down the list than the Django & Smuggler, yet the description seems to infer it should be placed above both (order of course being more XC to more Enduro’ish).


    • Hi Bill,

      Those three bikes (the Ripley LS, Smuggler, and Django) are tricky ones to order on this list because they’re pretty close. So the short answer is that I think if we asked ten different people to ride and rank those three bikes, we’d probably get a variety of answers.

      There’s no question that the Ripley LS pedals well, so in that regard, it probably beats the Smuggler (and maybe even the Django, but that’s a tougher call). But the Ripley LS has the longest chainstays of the three, a relatively slack headtube angle, and a smidge more travel than the Smuggler, all of which improve its descending prowess. And while it’s a short bike, I think a lot of people will size up on the Ripley LS, which somewhat negates the stability issue.

      So you’re 100% correct that there’s room for debate on those three bikes. And we rode those three bikes at different times and different places, so there’s a decent chance that if we had all three together for extended testing, the order might get shuffled around a bit.

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