As the season dwindles, it’s time to start preparing for winter riding hibernation. This, of course, means drooling endlessly over the dream bikes most of us will never be able to afford, and reading the same reviews over and over until we can spout geometry figures and component specs on queue. Unfortunately, our annual Bible of Bike Tests review extravaganza won’t be live for another month and a half, but we have prepared a little something to whet your appetites in the meantime.
Most (if not all) bikes that we usually review in the Bible of Bike Tests are of the Gucci-level build variety. They’re the crème de la crème and have price tags to match. However, most of them are also offered in more moderate builds that bring the price down to a more attainable level for us mere mortals. We gathered up 14 bikes in three categories that will give you the best bang for your buck. We set our price cap at $4,000, which may seem a little high for “affordable” bikes, but all of the bikes in this round-up are of the carbon-fiber variety. These are the so-called daily drivers and work-horse bikes, built to take you wherever you need to go, but not cost an arm and a leg to get there.
We’ve divided the bikes into short-, medium- and long-travel categories and awarded each one of the following titles:
– The “Top Pick,” in our opinion, represents the best value for money under the $4,000 budget
– The “Runner-Up” offers a similar value to the Top Pick
– The “Honorable Mention” is also a solid value, but maybe not quite as good as the first two, or perhaps doesn’t quite fit within the budget
– The “Penny Pincher” is the least expensive bike that we found that still looks like it will perform well on the trail
– The “Splurge” exceeds the $4,000 budget, but is still an exceptional value or offers a unique benefit to offset the higher cost
Short Travel: Best Carbon Mountain Bike Under $4,000
Do-it-all, but mostly uphill, fast.
The Sniper Trail is a so-called down-country bike, which basically means it’s a cross country bike build with burly components. It was a close race between the Sniper Trail and our Runner-Up, the Santa Cruz Blur, but the Sniper Trail came out on top for a couple key reasons. We’ve seen many riders trend away from cross-country thoroughbreds (like the Blur) and more toward bikes that sacrifice some climbing capability in favor of having a louder party on the way down. The Sniper Trail comes with a 120-millimeter Fox Step-cast 34 instead of a 100-millimeter Fox 32 for greater stiffness and forgiveness up front, as well as slightly wider rims (27-millimeter internal instead of 23-millimeter) and burlier tires—Maxxis Forecasters as opposed to Maxxis Aspens. The Sniper Trail also comes with a 125-millimeter dropper post while the more expensive Santa Cruz has a rigid post. The two bikes weigh nearly the same as well (about 27 pounds), so your choice of pedals and whether or not you ate an extra doughnut for breakfast will make a bigger difference. If you’re looking for a fast, snappy bike that has as much of an appetite for the descent as for climbing, the Intense is worth a good, hard look.
For the XC racer.
While the Intense Sniper Trail might offer the best value for riders looking for an all-around short-travel bike, the Blur C R Build is for the XC racers still among us. The Blur is Santa Cruz’s cross-country weapon with 100 millimeters of travel front and rear. The C-level carbon is slightly heavier than the top-tier CC-level carbon, but it’s less expensive to produce and offers the same ride quality and durability. The Blur C with the R build kit comes with budget-minded but still very high-performing components like the Performance-level Fox suspension and Sram NX Eagle drivetrain. They might not be the fanciest, but they’ll certainly get the job done. Weighing in just under 27 pounds in a size medium, the Blur C R is ready for some serious XC-racing action out of the box. The high-quality Santa Cruz frame also offers an excellent starting point for future upgrades down the road.
For those who like to party.
Even though the Smuggler is technically a short-travel bike with its 120-millimeters of travel out back, it almost feels wrong to put it in this category. By no means is the Smuggler a cross-country bike. It’s honestly barely a down-country bike. No, the Smuggler is like an enduro bike in disguise. It pedals just fine, but it’s probably never going to win a race up the mountain. Rather, the Smuggler is a perfect bike for hard-hitting riders who like gravity to provide forward momentum, but still want a bike that likes to be popping side hits instead of blasting through the middle of everything. The new carbon Smuggler uses Transition’s revolutionary (can we still say that?) SBG geometry, along with slick internally-tubed cable routing for hassle-free maintenance and an integrated downtube protector.
The NX-level build doesn’t quite offer the level of components that the Santa Cruz or Intense do, which, along with a higher price, is why it only earns the ‘Honorable Mention’ title. However, if you’re not concerned about weight and want a bike that can smash park laps on one day and ride an all-day epic the next, the Smuggler might just be the ticket.
Save your money for an epic road trip with your new bike.
Fezzari is a fairly unknown brand in the world of higher-end mountain bikes. It’s been around for quite a while though, and offers great value. Fezzari is a consumer-direct brand that offers some unique options for buyers. You can opt for things like an out-of-the-box tubeless setup or frame protection pre-installed, and on higher models, you have multiple options for suspension. On the comp level, however, you’re stuck with the Rockshox Reba RL fork and Monarch RT3 shock, but you still have the ability to input quite a few body metrics so that Fezzari can customize the bike fit for you. There are additional options for a 27.5-plus wheelset instead of the stock 29er (at no additional cost), a dropper post install (with an upgrade cost), and if you happen to be planning a trip with all the cash you’ve saved, Fezzari will pack your new rig in a Thule travel case (which you’ll still have to pay for).
Get everything you need in one purchase.
The Trance 29 Advanced Pro 2 is both a mouthful to say and exceeds our price limit of $4,000. However, it also exceeded our expectations of what is usually spec’d on bikes of this price point. The Trance 29 Advanced Pro 2 comes with the excellent and usually underrated Fox 34 Rhythm fork with a GRIP damper as well as a Fox DPS Performance rear shock. Unlike most of Giant’s carbon frames, the Trance 29 has a carbon front and rear triangle instead of the usual carbon front, aluminum rear. A 35-millimeter stem and 780-millimeter bars round out the cockpit, and everything is powered by an NX Eagle drivetrain. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “So? the Intense Sniper Trail had pretty much the same build but it’s a grand less.” That may be true, but did that Intense come with carbon wheels? That’s right, carbon wheels. And good ones, at that. A 30-millimeter inner width mated with a Maxxis Minion DHF/DHR II tire combo tell the true tale of what the Trance 29 is meant for, despite its short 115 millimeters of travel out back. Of course it also comes with a dropper post as well—the only thing we think you might want to upgrade eventually would be the Guide T brakes to a set of stronger stoppers because the Trance certainly has the capability to get you into places where you’d want something a little extra to keep gravity in check.
Stop by your local Giant dealer or their website to learn more. We also had the chance to try out the Trance 29 earlier this year, and also go to include it in our 2019 Bible of Bike Tests. Look for that in newsstands in December.
Mid Travel: Best Carbon Mountain Bikes Under $4,000
Big wheels, big speed, big fun, big value.
The Trek Fuel EX 9.7 29 came as a big surprise for us—both in how well it was equipped but also how low the price was for what you got. Normally, when you think of in-demand brands, like Trek, higher prices usually accompany the drool-worthy bikes, especially on the higher-end builds around carbon frames. However, that’s not always the case, with the Fuel EX 9.7 29 being an excellent example.
The 130-millimeter travel Fuel EX 29 is Trek’s beefed up (beef-cake?) cross-country bike, made to—you guessed it—crush the climbs as much as the descents. The Fuel accomplishes this to the letter—it’s not made to blast rock gardens, rather it excels on trails with a variety of terrain both aided and unaided by gravity. This 9.7 build of the Fuel uses a carbon/aluminum frame to lower costs a bit. Most of the Fuel is laced up with Trek’s in-house Bontrager components—wheels, tires, cockpit. Bontrager might not be the most boutique brand out there, but what it makes is solid and well thought-out. The suspension is handled by Fox with the excellent 34 Rhythm GRIP up front and a Float EVOL with the RE:aktiv modification. You can learn more about RE:aktiv here, but in a nutshell, it’s a way for the compression damping to open up almost instantly on impact, giving you support and suppleness. A SRAM GX/NX Eagle drivetrain keeps everything moving forward, and a set of Shimano M6000 brakes keep the speed in check when needed. The M6000’s are some of the most-underrated brakes on the market—throw a set of metallic pads in them and high-quality rotors and you have brakes that punch much above their weight class, and can handle anything short of full-on downhill tracks.
Rip up, down and everything in between.
Who would want a mid-travel, nearly cross country bike from Kona, because Kona’s are heavy and don’t pedal well, right? Wrong. The days of the tank-like Stinky and Coiler are long gone. Heck, Konas even climb well too and have for a while, as demonstrated by pro-XC-racer Spencer Paxton’s mega-day during last years solstice. While the Hei Hei Trail shares part of its name with Kona’s XC weapon, the Hei Hei, the trail version is a different beast entirely. It maintains some of its XC roots, but adds in more suspension (140 millimeters front and rear), smaller wheels (27.5 inch) and geometry suited to tackle fast and rough terrain with confidence. For $4,000 you get a Rockshox Pike RC DebonAir fork and Deluxe RL rear shock, a Rockshox Reverb seatpost, tubeless WTB wheels, Maxxis tires and SRAM Guide R brakes and NX Eagle drivetrain. If you’re looking for a rock-solid frame from a company with a pedigree for bomb-proof bikes, but also want something snappy and responsive on the climbs for flats (or for boosting side-hits), the Hei Hei Trail offers a heck of a value for the money.
A carbon bike for how much? And I can buy it at a bike shop?
We were a bit surprised when we stumbled upon the GT Sensor Carbon Elite in our searches—it’s a carbon bike with all the current “standards” and a lot of very solid parts specs for only a touch over $3,000. So what’s the catch? For one, only the front triangle is carbon—the rear is still aluminum to keep cost down. The other hang-up is the fork—a Rock Shox Sektor RL. Despite being updated with the new DebonAir damper, the Sektor isn’t the stiffest fork out there, and it doesn’t have the more refined dampers that are found on higher-end forks. However, you still get a solid frame from a reliable brand (that has been seriously stepping up its game in the last year), an NX Eagle 12-speed drivetrain, X-Fusion dropper post, tubeless wheels and SRAM Level TL brakes. And for $3,150 you still have plenty of cash if you want to upgrade the fork later.
Get everything you need in one purc….wait, wasn’t this in here already?
This is the Trance Advanced 2, the big (little?) brother of the Trance 29 Advanced Pro 2. The regular Trance Advanced 2 has smaller 27.5 wheels but more travel at 140-millimeters in the back and 150-millimeters up front. The Trance Advanced 2 also has an aluminum rear triangle as opposed to the carbon one found on the 29er version (although $200 is knocked off the price tag to compensate). The Trance Advanced 2 is focused more on descending and comes stock with a Fox 36 and DPX2 shock—even still, the Trance has excellent climbing abilities. Instead of Maxxis Minion rubber, the Trance Advanced 2 comes with Maxxis High Rollers set up tubeless out of the box. The Guide T brakes and NX Eagle drivetrain are a given, and in classic Giant fashion, a pair of carbon wheels come stock. For only $300 more than the Cannondale or Kona you get a pair of carbon wheels! If that’s not worth going a bit over budget for, we don’t know what is.
Long (er) Travel: Best Carbon Mountain Bikes Under $4,000
An underdog not to be discounted.
We’ll put it this way—full carbon frame, Rockshox Lyrik RCT3, Super Deluxe RC3, NX Eagle drivetrain, X-Fusion Manic dropper and the option for tubeless tires set up out of the box. All of this for $3,600—do we need to say any more?
We will say more, because there’s a heck of a lot of value packed into the La Sal Peak Comp. It’s the lowest build Fezzari offers, but that doesn’t mean you get a budget build. Far from it actually, as the La Sal Peak Comp comes with a parts spec we’d expect on a bike much more expensive than this. The suspension alone is worth it, let alone all the extra goodies you get. The carbon frame from Fezzari has internal cable routing to make life easier, as well as the option for frame protection installed from the factory and the ability to run 29×2.6 tires. As the cherry on top, Fezzari also uses a reduced offset fork (42 millimeters) in combination with slack geometry for improved handling. Slack, except for the 78-degree seat angle which we hope will become a new benchmark on bikes like this. This is a winning combo we’ve seen from certain other brands.
The best part? You can fit two water bottles in the front triangle.
Gear editor Travis Engel had a chance to ride the La Sal Peak this summer—see his impressions of the bike, and Fezzari as a company, here. And we included a slightly higher-end version in the 2019 Bible of Bike Tests. For more info, head to Fezzari’s website.
A downhill bike in disguise.
You’ve probably heard of the Transition Sentinel. The bike, and Transition as a company, made a small tsunami last year when the new SBG geometry was announced, which mates reduced-offset forks with super-slack headtubes and steeper-than-average seat tubes. While you can spend $200 more and get a much nicer build kit around an aluminum frame, it might be worth saving a little and buying carbon instead. First and foremost, you get a carbon frame with all the advantages carbon offers, as well as internal cable routing tubes to make maintenance trouble (and rattle) free. The components are all solid and built to take abuse, they just might not be the lightest or have all the bells and whistles. If you’re someone that regularly rips off derailleurs, explodes shocks and burns out brakes, this might actually be a better build as you’d save a bit up front on parts you might just end up having to replace regardless. Plus, you’ll have the top-tier frame to work off of for future upgrades. The NX build is also only about a pound heavier than the X01 build, so weight savings barely factors in.
During last year’s Bible of Bike Tests, we had a chance to ride the X01 build of the Sentinel. Head here to see the full review and Round Table video. For more information visit Transition’s website here, or head to your local dealer.
Do your own thing.
The Salsa Redpoint isn’t one that usually pops up on the radar, probably because Salsa is known more for its adventure-style bikes rather than shred-sleds. However, the Repoint is one that deserves a close, hard look. The Redpoint, especially in the SLX 1×11 build, offers a solidly spec’d bike perfect for the abuse dished out from bikepacking and long backcountry rides. You don’t get anything fancy on this version of the Repoint—in fact, it’s all pretty lackluster, but maybe that’s the point. None of the parts is difficult or expensive to replace and all are easily serviceable. This means that if you’re in the middle of a long trip and snap a derailleur or need a set of brakes pads, any self-respecting bike shop should have what you need to get back on the trail. In addition, the Redpoint uses external cable routing, which may seem like a bother, but this again offers some advantages for reducing maintenance time.
The Redpoint has been a favorite here at Bike in the past, and to read more about it see our 2016 Bible of Bike Tests review here or learn senior writer Ryan Palmer’s reasons for using the Redpoint as his Dream Build. For further information visit Salsa’s website here or stop by your local dealer.
Big quality in a big bike.
This is the longest travel bike in this round-up with 160 millimeter of travel in front and 165 millimeters out back. The Tracer has been a staple bike for Intense for a long time, and the California company has had ample opportunity to fine-tune the Tracer into an enduro racing machine. Intense also adopted a pseudo-consumer-direct model last year, significantly dropping its prices at the same time. What’s left is a heck of a bike for the money—and you can still get the perks from buying from your local shop (ex: advice, maintenance, helping that local shop remain in existence, etc.). For the $3,400 you dish out for the Foundation build, you’ll get a full carbon frame (front and rear triangles), a Rock Shox Yari RC and Monarch RL, Race Face AR 30 rims on Intense hubs, a SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain and a set of Shimano MT500 brakes with 180-millimeter rotors front and rear. If you want it tuned and delivered to your door, Intense can make that happen. Or, as we said, you still pick one up from your local shop.
Two bikes in one?
The new Instinct is a 140-millimeter (front and rear) 29er that is meant to simply be a mountain bike. It goes up well, and it goes down well too. If you’re someone that likes to go down faster, Rocky Mountain has its ‘BC Edition’ bikes with more travel and burlier parts.
What’s not readily apparent though is that the BC Edition bikes and the regular models share the same frame—it’s a different shock length and fork that give the bike longer legs. On the Instinct, the regular model uses a 210×55-millimeter shock and the 155-millimeter travel BC uses a 8.5×2.5-inch shock. You can swap between the two shock lengths by changing the position of the RIDE-9 link from the slackest (BC-mode), to whatever you want (regular-mode).
As for the fork, the stock Fox 34 only goes up to 140-millimeters of travel. An after-the-fact upgrade to a Fox 36 or other longer travel fork would be needed for the BC-mode. But, with two forks and two shocks, it would be a simple matter to switch between the BC-mode and regular-mode for the occasional bike park day or shuttle laps.
If you want something in between the BC and the regular, it’s fine to run a 150-millimeter travel fork and the stock 210X55-millimeter shock. There’s still a noticeable affect on how the bike handles. The Instinct frame is also the same as the plus-sized Pipeline, which opens up even more Franken-bike possibilities.
For $4,500 the Instinct C50 offers a good value anyway. You get solid Fox Performance suspension, a GX/NX Eagle combo drivetrain, tubeless wheels set-up out of the box and a solid set of Shimano SLX brakes. If you’re willing to front a bit more cash for an extra fork and shock down the road, you’ll effectively have two bikes for a little over the price of one. Even if you dropped an extra $1000 on the fork and shock, that’s still significantly less than buying another complete bike.
See our review of the Instinct C70 here, or senior writer Ryan Palmer’s Dream Build of the Instinct here where he converts the BC-edition frame to be a regular Instinct. To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Instinct, head to your local Rocky Mountain dealer, or visit the website here.