Opinion: Thoughts on the Latest Modern Aggressive XC Bikes

Norco Revolver FS120

A flurry of exciting new short-travel bikes have been dropping lately. Due to many questions I’ve been receiving, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the latest modern aggressive XC bikes. These thoughts are from my competitive background and forever love of this category (no actual ride time yet).  Over the past few years I’ve ridden nearly every interesting bike in the 120mm travel range. This is my jam. I’m not an enduro guy trying to go XC, I’m an XC guy that loves a versatile bike that can be an endurance race bike, but mostly a backcountry fun bike.  Some might call this “All-Country.”

Short travel bikes may not be for everyone and every riding environment but under a precise rider, they can go just about anywhere and be a blast. The latest crop of bikes may be short on travel but can reward a light and agile rider especially. With World Cup XC courses getting more demanding even the pros are excepting modern geometry, dropper posts and 120mm of travel.

The Ibis Ripley has been a favorite of mine for quite a while – especially the current V4 edition (see full review here).  Even though the Ripley is at the upper end of this group travel-wise, it’s my benchmark to compare since its the lightest and most efficient pedaling bike in its 120/130mm travel category.

The Thoughts on the Latest Modern Aggressive XC Bikes 


Transition Spur |120mm front and rear

Transition Spur

  • Excellent geometry with good reach, steep 76.2-degree seattube and 66-degree headtube
  • Geometry remains solid even if you wanted to overfork to 130mm fork
  • Very good claimed 5.4lb frame
  • This could be a match for my current favorite Ripley
  • Might not be quite as agile as others here with a fairly long wheelbase
  • 2.4 max tire size is good for most, but I still can’t believe this is the max for a bike coming out of the northwest (northwet)

Revel Ranger | 120 front/115 rear

Revel Ranger

  • Slightly conservative geometry by 2020 standards – Fine if 120mm is all you need up front.
  • Not a great choice if you want to overfork to 130mm – it makes the geometry more like a 2017 bike (dated)
  • Great looking bike
  • Allows for two bottles inside the front triangle.
  • OK frame weight at claimed 6.1lbs – Update: Medium frames are being conformed with shock to be closer to 6.3lbs

2021 Specialized Epic Evo |120 front/110 rear

2021 Specialized Epic EVO

  • As aggressive as that 66.5-degree HT may lead you to believe that this could be a trail bike, It definitely has more of an XC soul than others listed here.
  • Short wheelbase should keep it agile but not as stable at speed
  • Two bottles inside the triangle, very clean looking design.
  • Superlight claimed sub 4.3lb frame weight
  • Long seattube may raise potential issues for short-legged folks wanting to ride 125mm+ droppers

2020 Kona Hei Hei | 120 front and rear

2020 Kona Hei Hei

  • Pretty good looking geo – similar to Revel Ranger
  • Not a great choice if you want to overfork to 130mm
  • Allows for two bottles inside the triangle
  • Frame weight?  Kona’s tend to be a little burly if you know what I mean.
  • Only 3-year warranty

Yeti SB115 | 130 front/115 rear

  • Ho-hum geometry unless you’re still living in 2017
  • Reasonable, but not too exciting claimed 5.9lb frame weight
  • High $ if you’re looking at frame only
  • I would look at the Ibis Ripley or Transition Spur first

I believe the Transition Spur is the most interesting of these bikes on paper.  With great geometry and reasonable weight, it seems to tick all the right boxes. The Revel Ranger is also interesting but I wished it was lighter and the geometry was more modern to allow for a 130mm fork. I’d really like to ride the Ranger since I do think it might be another good option. The Kona Hei Hei might be a contender too, but with limited details, it has some question marks. As for the Yeti, I think there are better choices.  I’d wait for the next-gen SB115 rather than a modified SB100 with 3-year-old geometry.

It’s worth mentioning that there are other current bikes out there in this category that compare favorably to these. These bikes discussed are simply the latest hot ones that everyone is wondering about at the moment. I’ve been on the 2020 Norco Revolver FS120 for a few months now and am confident that it can compete with the best in this group.

Trail or XC?

The biggest difference I notice with a lot of the 120mm rear travel bikes is with the fork and frame weight. Even as a smaller guy I notice a pretty good gain in stiffness when going from an XC fork to a trail fork. With many of these models coming with the 2021 Rock Shox Sid the big unknown is how well that fork will perform. With 35mm stanchions, it should be stiff but due to decreased oil volume, maintenance intervals and performance on long descents are the initial concerns.

There are some excellent choices in the trail category but many of these are approaching 7+lb frame weights.  If you’re a bigger guy or riding the bike really aggressively maybe you want this? But why not just go full enduro since the frames basically weigh the same.  Again, this is where the Ibis Ripley stands out as a 5.6lb frame with very similar geometry to the new Transition Spur.

This resurgence in more capable XC bikes is music to my ears. I’m definitely eagerly awaiting more awesome 2021 bikes as the word on the street is there will be a few more exciting ones coming. Let me know if you have any additional questions.  I’ll be trying to get some ride time on these bikes ASAP to solidify my thoughts on the latest modern aggressive XC bikes. In the meantime here’s Transition Spur’s promo video for your viewing pleasure. Make sure you don’t skip the last couple of minutes!

 

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This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. David Diprose

    I’ve got an Ibis Ripley & love it. I’m an XC rider & that bike is as “enduro” as I need. But I also want a super light XC bike with no more than 100mm travel but more modern trail geometry. My Scalpel Si is getting a bit dated. I like the new Epic (non-evo) but what other options do you recommend?

    1. Chad Davis

      Hi David, I agree with your thoughts on the Ripley for sure. As for a shorter travel XC bike, I’m hearing rumors of a few new ones coming in the next couple months – right now I would take a hard look a the 2021 Specialized Epic EVO since it doesn’t have the problematic Brain the regular “non evo” does. With a superlight claimed frame weight and great looking geometry its the XC bike to beat at the moment.

  2. nicholas hulme

    Great article! Other similar bikes that you could take a look at too are the new Trek Top Fuel, Intense Sniper and Norco Revolver FS 120. The new Kona Hei Hei (as you pictured) is 25.4 lbs fwiw. I’m currently riding a Trek Stache 9.7 and have been pondering going back to full squish – timing of your article was fantastic!

    1. Chad Davis

      Thanks Nicholas. The Top Fuel looks pretty solid for sure – a good match for the new Epic EVO except the frame is over a pound more. The Sniper looks good too – wished that 73-degree ST was a bit steeper and shorter for those with short legs and want to run 125mm+ droppers. Of course, this is nitpicking and these small issues likely aren’t that big a deal to many. I’m just picky ?

    2. Chad Davis

      I’m reviewing the Norco Revolver FS120 right now and really like it a lot. Its for sure one of my top picks right now. I admit being pretty intrigued with the Transition Spur though. I’ll try to get my hands on one soon, but the early chatter about the bike sounds pretty good.

  3. Justin

    your kinda missing the point with the whole steep seat angle issue. Steep seat angles are great
    When its STEEP terrain. XC Terrain isn’t steep and having a steep seat angle on an XC bike puts alot of weight on your wrists and causes real issues to your ulnar nerve on extended rides on flatter terrain. Steep seat angles have no place on XC bikes.

    1. Chad Davis

      I can almost understand your opinion if you only ride where the terrain is flat that you might not want a steeper seat tube. The idea behind these new bikes is to enable their capabilities on more challenging and steeper terrain though.

  4. Mocha Vaughan

    Curious about why you think the geo of the Hei Hei and Ranger don’t lend themselves to overforking with a 130mm fork while you say the Spur does? To me the Hei Hei seems like a perfect contender for a 130mm fork. It has a real low stack height already, a pretty low BB and would slack out to 67deg head angle. Whereas the Spur is already longer and slacker and seems like it wouldn’t necessarily benefit from overforking as it would be even longer and slacker. Just curious what your thinking in that is? Also the frame weight of a Large Hei Hei with shock, hardware and thru axle is 2500g, which is not Epic light but pretty respectable IMO. Cheers!

    1. Chad Davis

      It really depends on how you’re using the bike. Sometimes I forget there are those that don’t live in the mountains and who don’t mesh with modern seattube angles. The change in seatube angle with the Hei Hei and the Ranger is my main reason, but also the change to BB height. With 120mm forks they both already have about a degree slacker ST angle and 5mm higher BB’s than the Spur, Ripley (w/130mm fork) and Tallboy (w/130mm fork). Not a huge deal for some, but I find the modern steep seattubes angles really help on my local climbs by keeping my weight more centered on the bike.

      I actually do really like the Hei Hei as it is with 120mm fork. It’s almost identical to the Norco Revolver FS120 I spent half of this year on and really enjoyed. I just think the Hei Hei leans just a little more XC than other 120mm travel bikes and if I knew I wanted 130mm up front I would look at other options.

      If the frame weight is truly 5.5 lbs, that is very respectful, especially for a Kona. Their pre-2020 frames that were more XC were over 6 lbs.

  5. KGR

    Any experience with the Mayhem 130?

    1. Chad Davis

      Sorry, I don’t have any ride time on that particular model. The geometry looks great — very modern and claimed frame weight is solid too at 6.4lbs. It looks like a very interesting bike!

  6. Tristans

    Have you spent any time on the norco optic? It’s a bit of an outlier to the ‘xc’ genre but roughly fits travel wise…

    1. Chad Davis

      Yes, I owned the 1st gen Optic in 2018/19 and had quite a bit of ride time on the 2nd gen 2020 – https://crankjoy.com/review-2020-norco-optic/ . It’s a fantastic bike! Like you said, the Optic is a bit of an outlier in that it has a little more travel and its geometry is a good bit more progressive. If you have a preference for going down faster and rougher terrain the Optic is definitely in a different class than any of these mentioned. The only thing negative I could say is that the Optic frame is in the low to mid-7-pound range. It’s not light, but it does not ride like a heavy enduro bike does either. The Optic is fun and easy to throw around on the trail.

  7. Greg Hoover

    At 73, I’m looking past to an over 30 year riding career with several seasons as a team XC racer. I’m still looking for the next big mountain trail system. I have a Canyon Spectral 9.0 for light enduro and a Factory hardtail, BUT want the do-everything full suspension trail bike. Specialized S-Works Epic EVO or Ibis Ripley V4? My kids are gifting me this dream bike. I do have companions who have gone to the E-bike world, but I’d prefer not at this time. Everything is on back order. I hope to wait. Thoughts? Kingdom Trail in Vermont and everything worth riding all the way down to NC near Asheville.

    1. Chad Davis

      Hi Greg, The S-Works EVO looks like a great bike for the smoother trails, but its really still on the XC end of things compared to other bikes in the 120mm travel category. I would look at the Transition Spur over the EVO due to it being a little more forgiving with the ability to run up to a 130mm fork. Personally the Ripley is my favorite do-everthing bike in this category and its going to be very similar to the Spur and Santa Cruz Tallboy. All three are fairly well rounded and similar in geometry.

      With bikes in such high demand and predictions that this year we’ll see bikes FAR more scarce, grab what you can ASAP. Most companies have already sold through 2021 bikes and we haven’t even hit the busy season yet. You’re best bet to assure that you get the bike you want is to find a dealer that has one in stock and GRAB IT. Last I checked there were several online retailers like Jenson and Competitive Cyclist that had some Ripley’s in stock.

      1. Gregory Hoover

        Thanks for sharing!

        1. Chad Davis

          You’re welcome Greg! Another one to add to the list is the 2021 Pivot Mach 429 Trail that is just launching today. This means that if you’re quick on the trigger there’s a good chance of getting one of soon.

      2. Battles

        Hi Chad, great article. Really nice of you to share your unbiased insirghts that have not been influenced by advertisers. Most of my riding is on intermediate trails and fire roads in the Big Sky area. At close to 50, none of my riding peers are interested in racing down the mountain or black diamond trail descents unless it’s flowy (vs rocky). That said, we are hyper competitive about who can ride up the hill the fastest…in some cases this boils down to seconds. I currently ride a 2016 SWorks Camber with 120 of travel in the front and back. However, I’m thinking about leaving that bike in Dallas and purchasing a second bike I can leave in Montana. Given my priorities (climbing fast up sustained climbs and punchy switchbacks) coupled with a bike that is fun/comfortable and doesn’t rattle me to death on bumpy trails, what MTB would you recommend? For what it worth, I’ve never felt that I’ve needed more than 120 of travel on the trails I ride. Of course, I wouldn’t complain about having more travel if it didn’t increase weight and hinder climbing speed and efficiency (but I realize it’s difficult to have both). I’ve been looking at the new SWorks Epic EVO as a contender given its weight and climbing attributes but I’m certainly open to other options/recommendations. Would greatly appreciate your advice!

        Thanks,
        Battles

        1. Chad Davis

          Hi Battles,
          Thank you for your message. It’s been a big goal of mine to be as unbiased as possible and partially the reason why I started the site. The Sworks Epic EVO is a pretty interesting bike. It would be hard to beat going up in this category, but there are a couple that are pretty close depending on how you set up the suspension and build the bike. Both the Transition Spur and the Ibis Ripley are the bikes I think of first. Both are about the next lightest to the Epic, but offer a good bit more capablity as the terrain gets rougher and more challenging while still being great climbing bikes. Even though the Epic EVO is 120mm front and 110mm rear its geometry and supspension are still farily conservative compared to these trail bikes.

  8. Vince

    Do you have experience running the Spur with a 130 fork? I am interested in building one like this, but I know the website recommends not to overfork it.

    1. Chad Davis

      I don’t have experience running the bike with a 130mm fork. The changes would be subtle though — .5 degree slacker HT and ST, slightly higher BB, longer wheelbase and shorter reach. It could be a very fun bike, but you’re talking about making this thing more DH oriented. I think the beauty of the Spur is it’s versatility is all terrain. If I owned the Spur, I would probably run it with 130 due to where I live and the terrain being pretty fast and rough. If I mostly rode mostly slower and tighter terrain I would leave it at 120.

  9. Pedro G

    Chad

    Greatly enjoy your articles/insight. I’m a deer in headlights and in need of some help. 50 yr old riding for +25yrs, 5’9 175lbs. Current bike is a 2009 Giant Trance X1 26 wheel. I’ve only ridden two bikes in these last 25yrs so I don’t upgrade/change bikes often. I’m looking for my next ride and deeply overwhelmed by all these “expensive” options. I’m budgeting $7k for my next bike and I’m thinking Spur, Ripley, and 429. Love the Spur X01 25lb config but I’ve been a huge admirer of DW link designs. If push come to shove, would you opt for DW link Ripley/429 with lower drivetrain for the same money vs light Spur w/ X01?

    Thanks

    1. Chad Davis

      Hi Pedro,

      Those are 3 great bikes. I can see how you would be having some difficulty choosing. One of the big differences between these three like you said is suspension design. I do really like the DW link too, but I’ve enjoyed all the 4 bar linkage bikes I’ve ridden over the past few years as well. With tweaks in suspension kinematics and improvements to shocks the 4 bar can ride as good and in some areas better than the DW.

      Of these three bikes, the Spur has the longest wheelbase and If you live and enjoy riding where trails are still very tight, this could be an issue with the Spur. I do feel the Spur is the most XC of these three with the lightest frame weight (by a hair over the Ripley) and 120mm spec fork. This could be changed by running a 130 up front though.

      The Ripley (my personal bike) is what I feel like is still a class leader even after 2 years from when the bike was released. Its, light, rides super well and comes with Ibis’s well touted first class customer support if you should ever need it.

      The 429 is probably a great bike as well, but being the newest updated of the three I haven’t had a chance to ride the latest edition. I haven’t liked the previous versions as much as the Ripley though. They haven’t felt as fun to me with firmer suspension (like early generation Ripley’s) and have been a little on the heavy side. If I remember correctly the new frame did lose some weight, but is still is a half pound heavier than the other two.

      One thing to remember when you start riding these new bikes is that they are going to feel way different your current ride and WILL take some time to adjust to how much longer and slacker they are. I can assure you that in time though they will feel as natural as your 2009 26er does.

  10. Shaun

    Hi Chad.
    I hope you get this, I’ve managed to track down a 2021 Revolver 2021 FS1 in lieu of there being au Ripley’s or Transition Spurs available in Australia until next year.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Revolver versus the ripley and the Spur. It stacks up on paper but its almost impossible to find reviews.

    Thank youn in advance.

    1. Chad Davis

      Hi Shaun, I think the 2021 Revolver with the new Sid (my test bike had the older version) is likely close to the Ripley, but leans a little more towards the XC side of things with firmer rear suspension and more conservative geometry.

      I still haven’t had a chance to throw a leg over the Spur but I’m betting it’s somewhere between the Revolver and Ripley.

      If you don’t think you need 130mm of travel up front the Revolver might be the ticket. It’s is a great bike and I really loved its quick handling and efficiency over bikes with a little more travel like the Ripley until I got into the really rough terrain.

      1. Shaun

        Thank yoy for the reply Chad, Its a quandry, I have a 2020 Kona Process 134 CR/DL that is great fun but a snail around my local trails here in Australia. I loved my mates Ripley and anothers Transition Spur on a local test loop but there are zero of these around until next year.

        My style is more 40-60k loops with the occasional rowdy thrown in, so I think the Revolver may be a good option for 90% of my riding.

        1. Chad Davis

          Another option if it’s available could be a Stumpjumper if you have any local availability? Here in the US we can see Specialized inventory of shops within a range that have stock. I’ve been on a 2022 Stumpjumper for a few months now. It rides very similar to my Ripley that I ran with a 140mm 34, but is even lighter.I love the Ripley and the Revolver but the Stumpjumper has some interesting things going for it also.

          1. Shaun

            Hi Chad, I took delivery on a 2021 revolver 12 Fs1 this week and after 3 rides, I’m impressed – mix of XC and some pretty fast downhill(ish) chunk and the bike was impeccable – climbs well, decends extremely well for what it is and it is stable, very neutral, but playful, not quite the same as my mates Ripley (Selva fork and formula cura brakes are sublime on the Ripley) but its not far off.

            My only gripe are the brakes which are underwhelming and the front tire / tyre which was swapped on after the 1st ride for an Dissector.

            Thank you again for the tips, much appreciated.

          2. Chad Davis

            Great news Shaun, glad you’re enjoying the new ride!!

  11. Kat

    The Yeti SB 115 seems like a slug peddler compared to the Evo that was peddling itself.

  12. Ryan Russell

    Perhaps you need to actually try a Revel Ranger with a 130 fork.. pretty stellar ride!

    1. Chad Davis

      Ryan, I’ve been hearing good things about that setup from a friend. The Revel looks super interesting. Hopefully I”ll be able to try one here soon. It sounds kinda like it could be a sweet Ripley alternative!

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