Let’s admit it: very few of us will willingly walk into a compromise. And why would we? Isn’t life about having the ultimate of everything? But what if the ultimate bike is actually one big compromise? Take trail bikes: they’re capable of riding everything, but doesn’t that elusive state of perfection across all terrain somehow evade them? Yet that’s exactly what makes them the ultimate bike for us. We’ve been out testing nine of the new season’s sickest steeds and wondering where compromise cuts in.

Every single day we’ll get an email here at ENDURO asking the same question: what bike should I buy? Our answer usually looks pretty similar: “Well, it depends on what you like riding, and where you’ll be riding.” If you’re the kind of rider who relishes efficiency on an uphill grind but demands the same all-round superiority on descents, then these are exactly the sort of bikes to have on your radar.

This group test is proof of just how vast the assortment of trail bikes on the market is right now. Not limited to a specific wheel size or frame material, we welcomed 29ers, 27.5″ models, and even bikes with plus-size tires. The nine bikes came with suspension from 120 to 150 mm, and in both aluminium and carbon frames. Prices varied wildly, with the YT JEFFSY CF PRO and its € 3,999 price tag cashing in at less than half the cost of the Yeti SB5 TURQ at € 8,939.

Flanked by a spring-like chorus of birdsong and mild temperatures, we headed to Tuscany’s Massa Vecchia for this group test. Our aim was to exhaustively test the all-round capabilities of these nine bikes, making the most of the carved and sculpted Tuscan trail network – at times super-steep and technical, with long, lung-busting climbs and wildly varied descents that swept us along from flow to gnar.

Forget the front mech!

United on one front, none of the bikes came with a front mech. Now, for many of us, this isn’t a big surprise, but we know there are still some skeptics out there. But surely SRAM’s ginormous Eagle drivetrain has well and truly hushed the murmurs of “There’s not a big enough gear range.” Lower weight, higher performance: 1x drivetrains rock!

Keep the balance

A few years back, it seemed like the evolution of geometry was fixated on one issue: how to make the shortest possible chainstays. Fortunately, this trend seems to have taken a backseat, and this test fleet had some 27.5″ers with longer chainstays than their 29er peers (take the Yeti vs. Trek). Ultimately, both bikes were incredibly balanced. Clearly, what counts is the overall state of the geometry affair – isolated numbers are pretty redundant. All of the brands have nailed the geometry on these test bikes, but that isn’t to say that they all handle the same. The FOCUS JAM rode with the most agility, and the ROSE ROOT MILLER 3 asked for the most muscle to maneuver. Yet both bikes work. Quite simply, we’d ride them both happily – we’d just reserve them for different purposes, or recommend them for different rider preferences.

29ers are anything but boring!

Move on: 29ers can’t really be considered boring and lumbering any longer. This is surely a misconception born out of riding rubbish bikes. The Trek Fuel EX and the YT JEFFSY 29 definitely refute this idea, as they’re easily able to rival 27.5″ models in terms of agility and fun. Plus, they’re just better at rolling along the trails. The Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert Carbon on test isn’t the brand’s top-of-the-line model, but its price tag of € 4,999 aligns this heavy hitter with premium models from other brands in the test field. Out-of-the-saddle efforts reminded us that the Stumpjumper was the heaviest bike on test, but it proved comfortable for long hours in the saddle, which is certainly thanks to its big hoops.

Is plus-size still the future?

During the past twelve months the mountain bike scene has literally been rolled into submission by plus-size tires, and these chunkier bits of rubber have fuelled many a tech talk. But while 2.8″ tires have become the benchmark for E-MTBs, conventional mountain bikes haven’t been as eager to roll out the plus-size format on all bikes. The SCOTT Spark Plus is actually the only bike on this test with plus-size tires, but its performance is able to dispute one major misconception: plus-size tires aren’t genetic wallowers. The lightest bike on test at 11.71 kg, the Spark Plus is super-direct and has Maglev-like acceleration.

Bike Price Weight Travel Wheels
FOCUS JAM C Factory € 4,999 13.40 kg 150/140 mm 27.5″
Giant Trance Advanced 0 € 6,799 12.34 kg 150/140 mm 27.5″
Lapierre Zesty AM 927 Ultimate € 4,999 12.67 kg 150/150 mm 27.5″
ROSE ROOT MILLER 3 € 4,199 12.79 kg 140/140 mm 29″
SCOTT Spark Plus 700 Tuned € 7,599 11.71 kg 130/120 mm 27,5 +
Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Carbon 29 € 4,999 13.61 kg 150/135 mm 29″
Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29 € 7,999 11.90 kg 130/130 mm 29″
Yeti SB5 TURQ X01 Eagle € 8,939 11.97 kg 150/127 mm 27.5″
YT JEFFSY 29 CF Pro € 3,999 12.95 kg 140/140 mm 29″
FOCUS JAM C Factory | € 4,499 | 13.40 kg
Giant Trance Advanced 0 | € 6,799 | 12.34 kg
Lapierre Zesty AM 927 Ultimate | € 4,999 | 12.67 kg
ROSE ROOT MILLER 3 | € 4,199 | 12.79 kg
SCOTT Spark Plus 700 Tuned | € 7,599 | 11.71 kg
Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Carbon 29 | € 4,999 | 13.61 kg
Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29 | € 7,999 | 11.90 kg
Yeti SB5 TURQ X01 Eagle | € 8,939 | 11.97 kg
YT JEFFSY 29 CF Pro | € 3,999 | 12.95 kg

Tops & Flops

Often small details can make a huge difference: seamless integration, first-class ergonomics and carefully selected parts. Easier said than done – here are some of the tops and flops from this grouptest.

Tops

Ultra-practical
Anyone who prefers to ride without a backpack will rejoice at the Specialized Stumpjumper’s downtube-located SWAT box, which has room for a tube, pump, and windproof jacket. Ideal for quick post-work blasts!
On point
The spec list of the YT JEFFSY ticks all the boxes, and the bike is nicely rounded off with a 50 mm stem and 800 mm wide bars (which can easily be shortened), making the cockpit just as on point as the rest of the bike.
Hushed
Few things are as annoying as a noisy chain. While you’ll never fully silence the chain, it’s still crucial to protect the bike from it, so Lapierre have wisely gone for thick plastic protective inserts.
In for the long game
The DT Swiss XM1501 SPLINE ONE wheels on the FOCUS JAM don’t just perform impeccably; they’re also in it for the long game and bring some serious longevity to the ride. Our editorial office are diehard fans. Issues? Zero.

Flops

Get with the times
The cockpit on the Giant Trance Advanced sadly puts the brakes on this bike’s potential, as narrow bars and long stems are a thing of the past.
Gripless
Trail bikes are often able to outride their tires in terms of potency, so it’s usually better to accept a few extra grams or slightly more rolling resistance in favour of better descending performance.

It’s all in the details

It’s 2017. We should not still be finding fault in build specs, but it’s clearly an area that still needs work. Looking at geometry, it’s easy to surmise that brands are delivering a solid performance across the board, but certain brands have glaring flaws in their component choices. Often the bikes are let down by one small detail that makes a major impact on the ride. Just take the Giant Trance Advanced 0, which has impeccable geometry and an efficient rear end, but comes undone on the trail thanks to its cockpit (the oh-so-long 70 mm stem and narrow 740 mm bars) as well as the less-than-ideal Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires. Tires are hit-and-miss across the test fleet though, with the Yeti SB5 TURQ and the ROSE ROOT MILLER flailing due to a similar tire-related demise. Lapierre, Trek, and YT are the forerunners here, with each bike delivering a solid, faultless performance on the trails.

More bike for your buck

This group test didn’t just have one winner – it had thousands of them (namely you guys)! Right now, it’s evident that we’re living in a fortunate time (or, at least, we are when it comes to value for money). Haters can hate on new standards, throw dirt on plus-size tires, and curse all the latest developments, but 2017’s crop represents the most well-rounded and highest-performing bikes that we’ve ever ridden. Admittedly they’re all pretty expensive, but we’re confident that the benefits of these top-end bikes are already trickling down to the more affordably models from each brand. There’s also a huge gulf in price between direct-order bikes and brands that follow the regular retail model, so if you’re nifty with a spanner and wrench, then direct-order bikes are another step towards extra value for money.

Bike Uphill Downhill Handling Stable / Agile Value for money
FOCUS
GIANT
LAPIERRE
ROSE
SCOTT
SPECIALIZED
TREK
YETI
YT

The best trail bike of 2017

This test was dominated by the Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29, which displayed super-balanced and versatile handling, ultra-efficient climbing, a generously well-chosen spec, and an achingly cool look. If you’re looking for a comfortable whip for all-day rides, rocking the jumpline, and doing the odd enduro race, then this is the ultimate bike! Its top-spec model with carbon wheels costs € 7,999 – basically double the amount of the YT JEFFYSY 29 CF PRO, which shares many of the same great riding genes and an equally well-considered spec. (No surprise then that this one is our Best Value tip!) If we were buying a new bike, the JEFFSY would be our first choice based on budget – but if we’re talking performance, the Trek Fuel EX has the edge.

All bikes in test: FOCUS JAM C Factory | Giant Trance Advanced 0 | Lapierre Zesty AM 927 Ultimate | ROSE ROOT MILLER 3 | SCOTT Spark Plus 700 Tuned | Specialized Stumpjumper Expert Carbon 29 | Trek Fuel EX 9.9 29 | Yeti SB5 TURQ X01 Eagle | YT JEFFSY 29 CF Pro

Words & Photos: Christoph Bayer