We're knee-deep in a pile of new bikes right now–working, as we are, on our annual gear guide, the Bible of Bike Tests (due out in January). No surprise, there are a whole lot of blinged out, high-zoot, lightweight and thoroughly badass machines in the mix. Those adjectives, however, don't always share real estate in the same sentence with words like "affordable" or "value.” So, what the hell, here's a list of some bikes that I think present a good value. But first, before people start rushing to post a comment about what an elitist a-hole I am, here are a few caveats: I'm not calling these the most "affordable" mountain bikes or even bikes that make sense for every budget.
The bikes on this list are models that I'd actually consider buying, which means that the big-ticket items that matter: frame, fork, brakes and wheels–are solid picks that won't give up the ghost in the first season or two of riding. Yes, there are less expensive models out there, but they are usually saddled with outright shitty components that curl up and die, quickly pillaging your bank account of all the money you thought you were saving. Need to replace a fork within the first year of ownership? That'll add another $800 to $1,000 to the price tag. New disc brakes? Expect on coughing up $300 to $600 for complete set. Well, screw that.
In short, these are the best value bikes of 2016: the ones that roll out of the box with no need for grossly expensive upgrades. Bikes that will take a beating and kick arse the whole time through. Since this is an entirely personal list, you'll notice I didn't throw any hardtails or rigid bikes in the mix. There's a reason for that. I grew up riding those things and can appreciate the simple beauty of a good hardtail, but, honestly, it's been a decade since I really enjoyed riding one. So there. I like squishy bikes and my list skews that way.
If you have a better list of 2016 models that offer outstanding bang for your buck, feel free to chime in here. This is by no means the most comprehensive compendium of bikes out there, but it is, I think, as good a place as any to start.
The Patrol is Transition's offering in the enduro/all-mountain/whatever-the-hell-we-are-calling-capable-six-inch-bikes-today category. Sure, Transition is now offering a carbon version of the Patrol, but for three grand–a thousand bucks more than what you'd pay for the aluminum frame–you can get the Patrol 4, which sports a Marzocchi 350 R fork, Shimano Deore brakes, a KS dropper post, and a hybrid SRAM/Hive single-ring drivetrain. That, is a hell of a lot of bike right there. This isn't some lower-tier version of the Patrol frame either–it's the same frame as the top-end aluminum model. In a word, damn.
Trek sells an insane number of Fuel EX bikes. Why? Because it's always been a ridiculously capable little trail bike that punches way above it's weight class. It sports 4.7-inches (120 millimeters) of rear travel, but feels like it's bouncing along on more than that. The Fuel EX gained 29er wheels a few years back, yet retained its snappy and sporty handling.
Most people are going to wonder why I didn't pick the $2,900 EX8 model. Here's why: that bike comes with a Fox 32. For an additional grand, however, you get Fox's excellent 34 fork–a much stouter front-suspension package that makes a huge difference in steering precision on technical descents. The EX9 also gets the excellent Fox Float EVOL RE:aktiv rear shock, which is a Trek exclusive. Why does it matter? Because the proprietary shock offers an impressively smooth transition from firm pedaling platform to bump-eating, trail slayer. Other highlights include a SRAM X1, single-ring drivetrain, RockShox Reverb dropper post and reliable Shimano XT brakes. No, you don't get a carbon frame on this one, but the parts spec is outstanding and the frame is light and plenty stiff, so I don't really give a damn.
Again, I didn't go carbon on this one. The M5 aluminum frame, however, is no slouch–and offers the same aggressive and sporty geometry that makes the 2016 Stumpy 29er a ridiculously fun bike in tight terrain. This new wagon-wheeled Stumpy is a huge step up in performance from previous versions. You get a bit more than five inches of very supple Horst Link suspension, mated to shorter chainstays, a low bottom bracket and a pretty damn good component kit. Sure, I'd prefer a RockShox Pike over the supplied RockShox Revelation fork, but Pikes rarely show up at this price point. So it goes. The fundamental structure of the bike is sound as a pound. In fact, it's nearly as capable as its big brother, the Enduro. Bonus? Specialized's new Command Post IRcc seatpost is a huge upgrade over their older cable-actualted Command Post models. This one offers 12 positions and up to 125 millimeters of height adjustment. Nice.
For a bit more than the cost of a typical carbon frame, you get Giant's top-level carbon trail bike frame built up with SRAM GX 10-speed drivetrain and a set of SRAM Guide R hydraulic disc brakes. In a word, damn. That's five and a half inches of plush suspension. As with the Specialized, I'd love to see a more refined suspension fork than the RockShox Sektor Gold RL, but the Sektor is up to the task, the rest of the components are stellar and the half carbon-half aluminum frame is capable as all hell in rocky, twisty trails. Oh, and on an admittedly trivial note, I'm a huge fan of the black on black package. Nice.
How can a bike that's nearly five thousand bucks be called a good value? Fair question. I am absolutely pushing the limits here. Or, crap, I guess I exceeded them, but consider the facts: you are looking at the completely revised carbon Santa Cruz Bronson–an already impressive all-mountain model that receives all the right tweaks for 2016–longer top tube (it grew about an inch), shorter chainstays, a slacker head angle, a more supple rear suspension stroke (new kinematics)….oh, and there's nothing here to upgrade at all when it comes to components.
The Rock Shox Pike RC 150 fork is outstanding, the SRAM GX single-ring drivetrain offers a hell of a lot of bang for the buck, Shimano SLX disc brakes, admittedly, aren't brimming with adjusters, but they are reliable as hell and–the real story here is that this is a full Santa Cruz carbon frame. Admittedly it's their second-tier carbon frame offering ("Carbon C" rather than "Carbon CC"), but really all that this means is that the frame weighs a whopping (and I'm being facetious here) half-pound more than the more expensive "CC" version. Strength, stiffness, ride quality–it's largely the same. In all likelihood, you'd never even notice that extra half pound out on the trail. This isn't, after all, rotational weight.
So, yeah, this Bronson isn't cheap or inexpensive or even "affordable." I agree. It is, however, a hell of a nice bike that's decidedly more capable in the rough than its predecessor. In fact, the re-designed Bronson could wind up eating some of the Nomad's lunch now. Moreover, people are spending upwards of $10,000 on Bronsons that aren't a whole hell of a lot swanker than this one. So, you know, it kind of fits.
I've written so much about this bike that it's almost embarrassing. Simply put, the Process 153 is a downhill weapon that can be pedaled capably up the hills for hours on end. The suspension is good, though not as smooth and refined as what you'd find on the Specialized Stumpjumper or Trek Fuel EX. What makes the Process so damn good is its absolutely dialed geometry. This bike is the poster child for low, long and slack frame layouts. The end result? The bike puts you in a position to ride aggressively and makes you feel like a better rider. Note that I didn't say it actually makes you a better rider–no bike can do that for you–that's always a matter of putting in more dirt time, but the centered cockpit position truly does inspire confidence.
Nope, it's not carbon and, yes, it could stand to lose a pound or two, but it's also tough as nails. The parts pick is damn near perfect: Rock Shox Pike RC, SRAM GX drivetrain, WTB STp i29 wheelset. I'd really like to see Kona come out with a lighter, carbon version of this bike, but in the meantime, this thing should be on your list if you're looking for a good all-rounder that can hold its own against any long-travel bike on technical descents.
Norco's Range won a lot of testers over at last year's Bible with its confident but playful demeanor on tough descents. The 2016 version gains a 170-millimeter (6.7-inch) Fox 36 fork and Fox's new (and impressive) Float LV EVOL rear shock. Shimano Deore brakes aren't going to blow you away with their power (Norco wisely chose to spec 180 rotors, so that helps add some oomph to the stoppers) and on-the-fly adjusters aren't leaping off the Deore, but the brakes are consistent. The SRAM GX drivetrain offers a ton of bang for the buck and the bike comes with the excellent RockShox Reverb dropper post. That's a lot of bike for the buck.
When GT re-designed the Sanction for 2015, they based a lot of the new frame on tweaks they'd made to their Downhill model, the Fury, which tells you a lot about this bike's forte. It's an absolute ripper on the rowdiest downhills. In fact, this could be a decent shorter-travel option at bike parks for capable riders. Tough as nails, dialed geometry, stiff in all the right ways. It's a hell of a chassis. This base-level version rolls in on Marzocchi suspension which, admittedly, is a bit of a dark horse, given the company's limbo status, the 170-millimeter travel 350 CR fork looks promising. The drivetrain is a primarily Shimano SLX system–though GT has tweaked it into a 1X set up, using a Sunrace cassette. For brakes, you get the excellent SRAM Guide R brakes. For gravity types on a budget, it's an impressive package.
We reviewed the Capra CF Pro in September’s print issue, and came away impressed. This $2995 build features, among other stellar bits, a Rockshox Pike fork and Monarch rear shock, SRAM Guide R brakes, a Reverb dropper and a Race Face Atlas 35 cockpit. What you don’t get is the support of a local shop: The AL 2 package is an impressive value, but it’s only possible because of YT’s consumer-direct sales model. Also, as of writing this, the AL 2 model is currently sold out, so you’d better get in line if you want one.
Again, someone will probably bellow at the skies at the prospect of a nearly $4,000 bike, but bear in mind, this is the same full carbon version of Ibis' new, longer and slacker Ripley 29er trail bike. The frame alone is nearly three grand, which means you get everything else (wheels, brakes, drivetrains…the whole enchilada) for what you'd expect to pay for a new fork. Damn. Ibis' Special Blend build kit is the gateway drug for people who want to own an Ibis, but don't have five grand (or a lot more) to spend on their bike. The parts in question are a mix of Shimano SLX and X-Fusion (Trace) and Fox (Float CTD) suspension bits. The Special Blend bike gets shod with Stan's ZTR Rapid 29er wheels and, damn, if you're committed to getting a top-notch carbon frame, this is a lot of bike for the buck.
The Spearfish is Salsa's ultra-endurance race bike. At first glance it appears so specialized, so very niche, that it might not seem terribly appealing. I can't remember the last time I rode a bike with a mere 80-millimeters of rear suspension. But looks can be deceiving. The Dave Weagle-designed Split Pivot suspension feels like it's offering considerably more travel than what the spec sheet suggests and while this is a race bike, it has none of the skittish handling traits that some people refer to as "razor sharp." This is a race bike for long, long days on the trail when exhaustion creeps in and completely screws with your ability to thread the needle at Mach Chicken speeds. So, yes, it's a rocket ship, but the Spearfish is a forgiving little rocket ship. And it's carbon. And it's loaded with Shimano SLX and, damn, that's a good price.