Photos: JP Van Swae
Juliana Bicycles debuted the Joplin when the brand launched in 2013 and, until now, it hadn’t changed. That’s practically eons given the rapid pace of mountain bike technology this decade. The short-travel 29er was well overdue for an overhaul and Juliana spared no trend in contemporizing the Joplin.
On paper, the new version checks all the boxes, with long, slack and low geometry, Boost front and rear spacing and the ability to support either 29er wheels or a 27.5+ setup (thanks to a geometry flip-chip on the upper link). Most appealing, this carbon-fiber XC rocket has been given a rowdy edge. It has 10 more millimeters of rear travel than the original Joplin–it now sports 110 millimeters delivered via a Fox Float EVOL shock operating on Santa Cruz’s redesigned VPP suspension platform–meatier, 2.3-inch tires and a Fox 34 fork and 68-degree headtube angle, resulting in a more confident front end.
After a look-but-no-pedal introduction to the new Joplin at an atypically low-key product launch this spring in Santa Cruz, I was curious to see if the sleek Joplin would display an on-trail attitude matching that of its bright purple paint job, or if it was more of a shrinking violet. I spent the first half of my test period riding the Joplin as a race-ready 29er (high flip-chip setting with a 120-millimeter fork), and the second half as a 27.5+ brawler (low setting with a 130-mil fork). Built with a SRAM XX1 drivetrain, Level Ultimate brakes, Maxxis Minion 2.3 DHF (front) and Ardent Race EXO tires wrapped around a set of Bontrager Kovee XXX test wheels, the 29er weighs a scant 25.3 pounds (according to Juliana, the XX1 model weighs 26 pounds with Enve M60 wheels, a $2,000 upgrade, and 26.2 pounds with the stock Easton Arc 24 wheelset) and acted like its skinny bad self on the dirt.
Its get-up-and-go is akin to a cheetah chasing an antelope across the Serengeti, quickly bounding up trails like a big cat with its eyes on the next meal. With the rear shock wide open, there’s very little squat. Besides the fact that a 110-millimeter bike should feel pretty efficient, Santa Cruz has made several key changes to its VPP suspension design (all Juliana bikes use Santa Cruz frames; in this case, the Joplin matches the Tallboy). A higher initial leverage, flatter suspension curve and more progressive tune give VPP bikes a more consistent feel throughout the stroke and better small-bump compliance. The Joplin also gets a lighter shock tune than the Tallboy–the suspension is more appropriate for lighter riders, meaning they are more apt to use all the bike’s travel.
Before this test, I had been riding the 135-mil-travel Santa Cruz Hightower–the new version of the Tallboy LTc–and I immediately noticed that the Joplin requires a bit more finesse to hold a line through chunky sections of trail, as could be expected from a bike with just over 4 inches of travel, but it’s also far more capable than I anticipated. Its revamped geometry–including a .6-degree steeper seat tube angle, longer reach and 30-millimeter shorter seat tube, the latter of which improves standover and makes room for a coveted 150-millimeter-travel dropper post (on size medium and large)–gives the Joplin a demeanor that’s more trail than XC. Initially, I approached steep, technical trails with trepidation, feeling like a 110-mil bike would get me into trouble, but the large-diameter wheels confidently rolled through rock gardens and off small ledges. The Joplin didn’t barrel through these sections like a longer-travel bike might, but it also never felt overwhelmed, thanks to that beefed-up front end. The Maxxis Ardent Race tire isn’t the best match for the loose, rocky, rutted inclines common in Southern California and I often spun out on the steepest grades.
This is also precisely where the 27.5+ Joplin shines. When I switched to the wide wheels–Easton Arc 40s wrapped with 2.8-inch Maxxis Rekon+ tires–traction was phenomenal with tire pressure set at 12 PSI. On one fire-road connector with an average grade of 17 percent, and a few pitches over 30 percent, the tires clung to the ground in earnest, allowing me to shift my weight forward and pedal sections I usually push. That PSI sweet spot also meant the tires didn’t feel too soft when cornering. But, I couldn’t shake a sluggish feeling on flat or rolling sections of trail or on gradual fire-road slogs. If the 29er is a fast-on-its-feet cheetah, think of the 27.5+ as more of a housecat waking up from a nap–it’ll chase that mouse, but only after taking its time to stretch.
Most of the time, plus-size felt like a tradeoff–amazing traction and a confidence boost while cornering or plowing over technical terrain, but slow to come alive. On one occasion, however, the 2.8-inch tires were the absolute best tool for the job: a 28-mile desert epic marked by fast, mostly smooth singletrack on which holding your line is imperative to avoiding painful cacti pricks, an energy sapping, soul-sucking 3-mile ascent through a sandy wash and several short, punchy climbs throughout. The extra-wide tires motored through the sand and the bike’s geometry felt just as balanced as the 29er, with a swap to a 130-mil fork keeping the head angle at 67.8 degrees.
The versatility of supporting two wheel sizes is a valuable asset, but the added expense of buying a second wheelset and potentially a second fork (or at least a new air spring kit), means most shoppers will probably pick one option and stick with it. And which version to pick comes down to the type of trails you ride the majority of the time, and what traits you prioritize on a bike.
Other features on the Joplin include internal cable routing, a threaded bottom bracket, downtube bottle-cage mounts and a removable front-derailleur mount. Along with this top-end model, it comes in 10 other complete builds, three of them plus-size, starting at $3,600, or as a frame and shock for $3,000. Juliana’s decision to wait three years to update the Joplin turned out to be wise–there isn’t a modern spec missing and a purchase now is liable to last several years without requiring upgrades.
MSRP (as reviewed with XX1 build): $7,800 (new XX1 Eagle build is $8,000)
JULIANA’S TWO CENTS | You pretty much nailed it with summing up what we were after with the new Joplin. The idea was to introduce that confident trail demeanor without giving up the efficiency and climbing performance Joplin fans were used to. The updates to VPP made that possible, and our unique shock tune sealed the deal during development. Our 11 build kits leave room to adapt the bike in either direction (more XC or trail) to suit the demands of our riders, from road trips to races. We’re known for having many options across our line, and Joplin proudly takes that up a notch, providing even more versatility at a wide range of prices. I’m familiar with dodging cacti (and also failing to do so), so we certainly appreciate you going to such lengths for a proper test. –Andrea Turner, Product Manager, Juliana Bicycles