If English poet William Cowper were alive today and shopping for a new mountain bike, he might just take back that talk about variety being the spice of life. Having options is great, but is it possible we've taken the concept too far? Just when we start to think things are going to calm down, something else splashes onto the scene and throws the whole market into upheaval.
A decade ago, there was only one wheel size to consider. It took some time for mountain bikers to accept 29-inch wheels, but the bikes started getting really good and we wound up with two solid options. Everyone's minds were made up, or so we thought. Then 650b (27.5) came along and disturbed the peace. Things were crazy for a couple years until 650b killed the 26-inch wheel, and we were back to two. Just when the party started to mellow out, friggin' plus-size dropped by to say what's up. Now we're back in the thick of it. Between this and the constantly changing standards, shopping for parts–let alone an entire bike–is more confusing than ever, even if you stay up to speed on the developments.
But, if you're like a lot of riders who only research this stuff when it's time for a new bike every three to five years, it must be downright paralyzing. What is 'Boost' spacing and do you need it? What about rim widths? Should you be looking into 27.5, 29, 27+, 29+ or 26+? How much suspension should you be shopping for? What is metric shock sizing? Should you get an XC bike or a trail bike? What's the difference between all-mountain and enduro?
And while it might seem that bikes are becoming increasingly specialized, all this progress is actually closing the gap between disciplines. No matter the category, bikes are better at climbing, descending, shifting and stopping than they've ever been–and better at blurring traditional category lines. In this year’s Bible of Bike Tests, you'll find a cross-country race bike that is more capable than many trail bikes from five years ago, as well as an entire section of 6-inch-travel models that climb better than the 4-inch bikes we were riding a half-dozen years ago.
We hope this eighth edition of The Bible of Bike Tests helps you wade through some of the murkiness to find your ideal two-wheeled match. And even if you do find yourself tangled in a web of options while shopping for a new bike, just remember that it's harder than ever to make a wrong decision. Perhaps Cowper was onto something after all.