Review: Scream if you wanna go faster! We test and review 3 carbon fibre full suspension XC race bikes

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In Issue #116 of Singletrack Magazine, Wil and the crew tested three new generation full suspension XC race bikes. Read on for a short summary of each bike, along with the links to each individual review. Images by James Vincent.

Progression. It’s a pretty hot word around the mountain bike scene these days. When you think of the word progression in terms of the bikes we ride, things like Mondraker’s Forward Geometry, uber-plush long-travel suspension and the proliferation of plus tyres are the first that spring to mind. But what about cross-country race bikes? What’s been progressing at the sharper end of the stick?

Representing the closest ties to our road-dwelling brethren, World Cup cross-country bikes are all about lockouts, inverted stems, shaved legs, and power meters, right? Oh, and pain. Lots of pain. That may all be true, but a more detailed look reveals that modern day cross-country bikes have progressed as much – if not more – than the latest EWS enduro rigs.

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Forget twitchy. Modern XC full sussers can be ridden surprisingly hard and fast.

World Cup cross-country courses are getting more technical, as race organisers and media partners look to make the action more exciting for spectators. Just look at Medusa’s Drop at Dalby Forest, or Jacob’s Ladder in Cairns. These courses are placing greater demands on riders and the equipment they ride with. No longer will 72° head angles, skinny bars and 120mm long stems cut it, and many racers are even resorting to *gasp!* dropper posts.

I think one reason the cross-country bikes have evolved is because the trail bike category has grown so much, and the bikes are so capable that the cross-country bikes are now improving based on what has been learned from the trail bike category,” explains Ned Overend of Specialized.

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Everyone likes to go fast right?

Adam Craig from Giant agrees. “As with all mountain bikes, we’re seeing geometry get further and further from the road bikes that initially influenced MTBs. An influence that lasted decades, for some reason. Cross-country bikes have recently acknowledged that longer reach, slacker steering angles and decent suspension tunes conspire to let the rider do a better job with less effort. Change is always hard, but cross-country racers are begrudgingly accepting that modern design can make them faster.

Because full suspension has progressed so much, the tide is turning in the pro ranks, with more racers (including one of the last hardtail holdouts – Nino Schurter), choosing the comfort and control of full squish over the lighter weight of a hardtail.

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Progressive geometry and better suspension designs are reigniting the capabilities of short-travel XC bikes.

Nick Craig of Scott Sports explains. “If you go back and watch footage of when Nino was racing a Scale hardtail, his riding style was much more explosive. As soon as you put full suspension into the mix, it’s a different racing style. It’s more diesel like, so you can pedal in places that you couldn’t pedal before. You can ride those technical rock gardens faster than you can on a hardtail.

To see just how far these full suspension cross-country bikes have progressed, we grouped together three of the biggest hitters on the market from Giant, Scott and Specialized. We outfitted each bike with a pair of Hutchinson Taipan ‘control’ tyres for the sludgier conditions in the Grim North™, and got testing on everything from natural rocky trails, through to smooth, buffed-out trail centre singletrack to see which was fastest.

2018 Giant Anthem Advanced Pro 29er 1

giant anthem advanced pro 29er 1
The 2018 Anthem 29er is the best full suspension XC race bike that Giant has built to date.

The Giant Anthem was first introduced in 2006 as the successor to the classic NRS. Following the Trance and Reign before it, the Anthem was one of the original models to feature the (then) new Maestro dual link suspension design. That Anthem was a thoroughbred race bike – it had just 80mm of travel front and rear, a vicious 72° head angle, and 26in wheels wrapped with 2.0in tyres. It was originally only available in alloy, but even then weighed less than 11kg in its top trim.

There have been several revisions to the Anthem platform over the last 12 years, with carbon frames and bigger wheels having since been thrown into the mix. I tested the latest Anthem 27.5 last year, and came away impressed with its sprightly ride and the suppleness of the updated Maestro suspension design. However, with the Anthem 27.5 featuring wider tyres, a dropper post and a bump in travel to 110mm on the back and 120mm up front, it was clear that Giant was pushing the Anthem 27.5 into trail bike territory. This left a gap in the line-up for a thoroughbred full suspension cross-country bike, and that’s where the new Anthem 29 comes in.

Brand new for 2018, the Anthem 29 sees the platform return to its racing roots, with travel reduced at both ends (90mm out back and 100mm up front), and sharpened geometry over the 27.5in model. There are four models available in the UK – two alloy and two carbon – and they start at £2,449 for the Anthem 29er 2, and go up to £4,249 for the Anthem Advanced Pro 29er 1 we’ve got here. All models share the same suspension design and geometry, and are available in four sizes from Small through to X-Large.

Read the full review here.

2018 Scott Spark RC 900 Team

scott spark rc 900 team
With its clever dual-chamber rear shock, the Scott Spark offers two different personalities at the flick of a lever.

It was 2007 when the first Spark blew minds and broke records with its stunningly low weight and high-tech carbon construction. That original 26in Spark weighed in at just 1820g for the frame and shock – a weight that many brands still struggle to reach now.

Its TRAC-LOC handlebar remote and custom piggyback DT Swiss rear shock were particularly popular with racer types, as the Spark could be changed between 110mm, 70mm and fully locked out modes at the flick of a lever. Sure the top-end model may have had a 3×9 XTR drivetrain, skinny tyres and a 1 1/8in steerer tube, but with its 69.8° head angle and 110mm of rear travel, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the Spark was ahead of its time.

As components and frame technologies have evolved, so too has the Spark, and it’s become quite the darling of the cross-country and marathon race scenes. 2017 ushered in the third generation of the Spark platform, with a wholesale redesign of the frame that represents the biggest shake-up in its ten-year existence…” Read the full review here.

For the racy Spark RC models, travel is now balanced out at 100mm front and rear. There are two other versions of the Spark for the less race-obsessed: the Spark 9 Series (120mm, 29in wheels), and the Spark 7 series (120/130mm travel, 27.5+ wheels). All of the Spark models are built around a similar frame, though changes to the shock size, fork travel and wheels creates three distinct platforms.

The Spark RC 900 Team we’ve been testing is the Spark’s entry point into Carbonville. There is an alloy model below it that kicks things off at £2,999, though if bling is your thing, the price goes all the way up to £9,499 for the Spark RC 900 SL. 

Read the full review here.

2018 Specialized Epic Expert

specialized epic expert
Specialized’s 2018 Epic took a serious departure from the previous version – and the gamble has paid off big time.

As one of the most decorated full suspension race bikes on the market, the Epic has been a mainstay of the cross-country racing scene since it blew things wide-open in 2003 with the Brain. That original bike featured 90mm of travel and utilised a custom shock that was the result of a four-year development project between Fox and Specialized dubbed the ‘Holy Grail’. The concept behind the Brain’s patented inertia valve was to keep the shock locked out by way of a weighted brass mass that closed off oil flow. When you encountered a bump, the mass would dislodge, allowing oil to flow through the damper, so the shock could absorb the impact. Or at least in theory anyway.

With the shock tucked in under the seatstay, it was a radical looking – and performing – bike of its time. Fifteen whole years separates that first Epic and this one, and as you can appreciate, a whole lot has changed. Thankfully the V-brakes, 80mm travel fork and 71° head angle are long gone.

The Epic features a brand new frame for 2018, with 29in wheels and 100mm of travel. New-school geometry sees a custom fork offset and 1.25° lopped off the head angle over the 2017 model. The frame is 525g lighter, which is partially achieved by the use of a one-piece carbon swingarm that – for the first time in the Epic’s history – ditches the classic FSR pivot in favour of a flex-stay arrangement like the Spark.

Unlike the other two, the Epic is only available in the UK with a carbon frame, starting at £3,500 for the Comp Carbon, and going up to a cool £8,500 for the S-Works model. The Epic Expert slots in between, and comes in four sizes from Small through to X-Large.

Read the full review here.

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On shoot at Dalby Forest – a perfect location for going flat-out on these full suspension XC bikes.

The Verdict

If one thing was clear at the end of the test period, it’s that if you love riding fast and carving up swoopy hardpack trails, there is no better tool for the job than a full suspension cross-country bike. A hardtail may still be lighter, but as the weight gap continues to close, modern full suspension bikes have become so efficient that they’re beginning to dominate the very highest levels of the sport. Compared with their ancestors, contemporary cross-country race bikes are far, far more capable too. They’ve gotten smoother, more responsive, and they’re light years ahead at descending. Add in the additional comfort and the propensity to shoot up technical climbs like a rat up a drainpipe, and the old full suspension vs hardtail debate may be swinging in favour of full suspension.

The bikes we’ve tested here are just three examples from the enormous field of short-travel full suspension race bikes on the market. There’s plenty of choice out there, and, in all honesty, most of it is pretty damn good. Coming into this group test though, I did wonder how different a 100mm travel 29er could really be from all the others. The answer to that question is ‘very’. Although all three of these bikes are suited to going very fast, each one has its own personality, its own unique bag of tricks, and its own strengths.

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The Anthem is an exceptionally well-rounded XC bike, and it’s top value too.

Out of our three test bikes, the svelte Giant Anthem is the least radically evolved over its predecessor. However, careful massaging of the Anthem platform has seen a few subtle tweaks to the geometry to improve handling and control, especially on the descents. Combined with the supple, yet efficient Maestro suspension, it’s steady, comfortable, and delivers terrific traction. Overall it’s a sensible and value-packed performer that does many things well, and all without any proprietary frame or shock bits.

scott spark giant anthem specialized epic wil rachel dalby forest
It was the Epic’s handling that caught our attention – this bike carves.

Thanks to its refreshed geometry and custom fork offset, the Epic was hands down the best handling bike here. But despite the new Brain 2.0 design offering a significant improvement in suspension feel and reactivity, it still remains as polarising on this Epic as it did on the first model – some riders will love it, and others won’t. If you can get your head around the slightly clunky inertia valve system, you’ll be rewarded with a hard and fast race bike that is born to slice up hardpack singletrack at your maximum heart rate.

scott spark giant anthem specialized epic wil rachel dalby forest
There’s a reason why the Spark RC is one of the most successful race bikes in the marathon and XCO race scenes.

The Scott Spark is a well-loved bike on the marathon and cross-country race scene, and it was well-loved by our test riders. The new iteration of the Spark comes with a massive confidence boost for riding technical terrain, with its modern geometry providing welcome stability on the descents. The rear suspension is surprisingly supple and effective for a 100mm travel bike too, and while I assumed the TwinLoc system would be a bit of a gimmick, it turns out to be a highly effective and efficient tool that gives you two bikes in one. It’s race-ready while offering trail-worthy handling, and that’s why it’s my pick of the bunch.

Want to check out more reviews, interviews and features from Issue #116 of Singletrack Magazine? Then head on through to the Singletrack Shop to browse through our library of magazines and to see what other limited edition goodies we have on offer.

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